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On eating one’s enemy

Saturday, May 18th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — not good branding, not Islamic, dumbstruck? — not a whole lot else to say ]

Commander Abu Sakkar / the Farouq Brigades logo

Let’s take the bald facts first:

Commander Abu Sakkar of the Farouq Brigades, Free Syrian Army, had himself videotaped this month cutting open and seeming to eat the flesh of a just-killed Syrian soldier loyal to President Assad — to send a message. According to a New York Times “Lede” blog-post, he preceded this act with the words:

I swear to God, soldiers of Bashar, you dogs — we will eat your heart and livers! … God is great! Oh, my heroes of Baba Amr, you slaughter the Alawites and take their hearts out to eat them!

His rhetoric as reported speaks of eating the heart: in the event, it is a portion of lungs that he eats, or mimics eating.


This has to be seen in many contexts — one of them, the branding of the Syrian rebels in general and the Farouq Brigades in particular.

This is taken from an article a couple of weeks ago on a WSJ blog titled For Some Syrian Rebels, It’s a Battle of the Brands:

Twelve activists in an office in Reyhanli, Turkey near the border run Farouk’s Facebook page, web site, and Twitter account. They’re working on the TV channel, which Mr. Awad says they’ve envisioned as a tool to resocialize fighters off the battlefield.

“The regime will fall one day,” he says. “We have 20,000 fighters–they all won’t stay fighters. They will put down their weapons, and need to integrate into the world. TV, radio, these things will help.”

The media office’s latest brand offering? A three-dimensional version of the Farouk logo, which will be used in videos and other online material.

“The guys complained the logo wasn’t nice enough,” Mr. Awad said, laughing. “They wanted a 3D one.”


Moralizing about someone eating the flesh of a deceased enemy is pretty easy to pull off — unless one still thinks it’s a potent way to acquire one’s enemy’s courage, which is now something of a curiosity in the anthropologist’s cabinet of concepts. Here, dug up from the section on Homeopathic Magic of a Flesh Diet in Sir JG Frazer‘s 1922 edition of The Golden Bough, now long out-dated, is the picture as it used to be seen:

When Basutos of the mountains have killed a very brave foe, they immediately cut out his heart and eat it, because this is supposed to give them his courage and strength in battle. When Sir Charles M’Carthy was killed by the Ashantees in 1824, it is said that his heart was devoured by the chiefs of the Ashantee army, who hoped by this means to imbibe his courage. His flesh was dried and parcelled out among the lower officers for the same purpose, and his bones were long kept at Coomassie as national fetishes. The Nauras Indians of New Granada ate the hearts of Spaniards when they had the opportunity, hoping thereby to make themselves as dauntless as the dreaded Castilian chivalry.

Even as a cannibal delicacy, the white man’s heart seemed to have special virtue! As I say, though — that’s all a little out of date.


Eating one’s enemy, however, is a distinctly un-Islamic behavior, whatever century we’re in. One early Islamic narrative concerns Hind bint ‘Utbah avenging deaths in her own family by eating the heart of a great Muslim warrior, dear to the Prophet — far from being an example of what is permitted in Islam, she’s an example of what Muhammad was up against by way of enemies in the early days of his preaching:

Hind Bint `Utbah, the wife of Abu Sufyaan, ordered Wahshiy to bring her Hamzah’s liver, and he responded to her savage desire. When he returned to her, he delivered the liver to her with his right hand, while taking the necklaces with the left as a reward for the accomplished task. Hind, whose father had been killed in the Battle of Badr and whose husband was the leader of the polytheist army, chewed Hamzah’s liver hoping to relieve her heart, but the liver was too tough for her teeth so she spat it out and stood up shouting her poem:

                    For Badr we’ve paid you better
                    In a war more flaring than the other.
                    I was not patient to revenge the murder of
                    `Utbah, my son, and my brother.
                    My vow’s fulfilled, my heart’s relieved forever.

Hind did eventually become a Muslim — but on account of this very event, was never fully included among “the Companions of the Prophet”.


I don’t want to moralize over Commander Abu Sakkar‘s act, not having been in his shoes — but it is vile under pretty much any moral standard you might choose. A problem arises, though, when one attempts to use it to justify one side or another, in a conflict in which brutality of one kind or another seems to be present on both sides. As Sakkar himself told a Time correspondent:

You are not seeing what we are seeing, and you are not living what we are living. Where are my brothers, my friends, the girls of my neighborhood who were raped?


Peter Bouckaert of Human Rights Watch is quoted giving another kind of context to the affair:

Abu Sakkar is just one man, and there are many other armed fighters in Syria who reject such sectarian actions and would be horrified by the mutilation and desecration of a corpse — let alone an act of cannibalism. But he is a commander in a decisive battle in Syria — hardly a marginal figure.


Not without reason did Kurtz whisper at the end of Joseph Conrad‘s Heart of Darkness, as in Francis Ford Coppola‘s Apocalypse Now:

The horror! The horror!

Hysteria about Afghan schoolgirl hysteria

Sunday, April 28th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — Reuters publishes scary stuff, should have checked their facts with WHO epidemiologists first ]

Last time, it was the Jerusalem syndrome — this time it’s mass hysteria, not poison.

The Reuters article, Afghan girls’ school feared hit by poison gas by Folad Hamdard (upper frame, above) was posted on April 21, 2013, just one week ago.

Its key paragraphs in terms of etiology and blame are these:

As many as 74 schoolgirls in Afghanistan’s far north fell sick after smelling gas and were being examined for possible poisoning, local officials said on Sunday.

While instances of poisoning are sometimes later found to be false alarms, there have been numerous substantiated cases of mass poisonings of schoolgirls by elements of Afghanistan’s ultra-conservative society that are opposed to female education.


Between May and June last year there were four poisoning attacks on a girls’ school in Takhar, prompting local officials to order principals to stay in school until late and staff to search the grounds for suspicious objects and to test the water for contaminants.

Takhar has been a hotbed of militancy and criminal activity since 2009, with groups such as the Taliban and the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan active.

One wonders: Does Reuters employ fact checkers?


One wonders because…

An Editorial Note on the 2012 article Mass Psychogenic illness in Afghanistan (lower frame, above) in the WHO’s Weekly Epidemiological Monitor (Vol 5 # 22, 27 May) reads in part:

This is the fourth year where episodes of suspected mass poisoning of school girls is reported from Afghanistan. Like in the previous years the events are triggered off with one girl developing symptoms of headache, weakness, dizziness, nausea and fainting. Often these outbreaks were believed to be the work of political elements in the country who oppose girls education. Reports of stench smells preceding the appearance of symptoms have given credit to the theory of mass poisoning (chemical/bioterrorism). However, investigations into the causes of these outbreaks have yielded no such evidence so far. In the last four years over 1634 cases from 22 schools have been treated for Mass Psychogenic Illness (MPI) in Afghanistan. There are no related deaths reported.

Reuters is read by a whole lot more people than some WHO epidemiological weekly, eh?


Luckily, the NY Times at least posted a blog post by Matthieu Aikins writing from Kabul, The ‘Poisoned’ Girls of Afghanistan, by way of alerting us to the WHO report:

I’m willing to bet that there was no poison.

Over the past few years, thousands of girls have fallen victim to waves of alleged poisonings in Afghan schools. The government, media and education activists have blamed the Taliban, and the police in a number of provinces have produced the “guilty” parties, with some of them confessing on national television.

But last July when I investigated the subject for Newsweek, I discovered never-released reports showing that the United Nations, the World Health Organization and NATO’s International Security Assistance Force had investigated the incidents for years and had never found, despite extensive laboratory tests, any evidence of toxins or poisoning — a fact that may explain ISAF’s conspicuous silence on the issue.

I’m glad that’s been cleared up.


Here’s another DoubleQuote for you:

Of course, the Taliban spokesman was addressing a 2012 outbreak of the same hysteria story, and the “no claim of responsibility” report is from one of this year’s versions.

But why would anyone claim responsibility in any case, if the actual cause is mass hysteria rather than poisoning? There’s history to these things — they didn’t begin in Afghanistan:

The cases the Afghanistan incidents most resemble are the Tanganyika laughter epidemic of 1962, in which hundreds of people, mostly schoolgirls, were overcome by fits of mirthless, extended laughter, in what is now known as Tanzania, and the West Bank fainting epidemic of 1983.

The similarities between the heavily studied epidemic in the occupied West Bank and Afghanistan are particularly striking. Both places are in a state of conflict, where political violence is a fact of life, and both have powerful local rumor mills. The incidents follow a similar pattern: First a single report of a bad smell, then a small number of girls come down with symptoms, then it spreads. Local media fueled the rumors and the incidents spread in Afghanistan, just as they did in Israel and Palestine.

Albert Hefez, Israel’s lead psychiatric investigator of the incident, wrote in his 1985 study “The Role of the Press and the Medical Community in the epidemic of ‘Mysterious Gas Poisoning’ in the Jordan West Bank” that Israeli newspaper reports of “poisoning” at the start of the epidemic added fuel to the flames. A front page article in Haaretz on March 28, 1983 even claimed that Israeli military investigators had found traces of nerve gas and quoted “army sources” as saying they suspected Palestinian militants were poisoning their own people in order to blame Israel and provoke an uprising. Palestinian leaders followed up with accusations that Israel had poisoned them in an attempt to drive them from the West Bank.

And such things don’t only happen “abroad” — as detailed in that same NYT blog post I quoted above:

The phenomenon of groups of people falling ill for psychological, rather than physical, reasons is not unknown, nor is it limited to Afghanistan. Moreover, the typical victims are school-age girls. In late 2011, when a group of girls in Le Roy, New York, fell victim to a mysterious twitching illness, medical authorities eventually concluded it was psychogenic.

Reforming Intelligence vs.Intelligent Reforms

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012

The intense behind the scenes lobbying on behalf of prospective candidates to replace General David Petraeus as Director of the CIA and the ongoing furor over Ambassador Rice’s “talking points” on Benghazi, have spilled over into op-eds quietly urging that the vacancy be used as an opportunity for reforms of the IC and CIA. This is not unexpected – the churn of ” IC reform” tends to be cyclical, free of institutional or historical memory and useful for distracting the media from genuine problems – but it is also true that the situation could bear improvement.

One of the smarter observations was by former star analyst Nada Bakos in Foreign Policy:

…..In light of this, what should the DNI’s role be in the intelligence community, if not disseminating a coordinated intelligence product? The CEO of a company is typically the one planning strategy, interfacing with board members, stockholders, and consumers. A CEO doesn’t typically write the chief financial officer’s year-end summary or the marketing director’s strategy — instead, he views both products from 25,000 feet to ensure the company is on steady footing. The DNI should have a similar role: rather than replicating work, it should focus on reviewing the source material from the various agencies and collaborating to ensure all of the information has been reviewed. In the case of the Benghazi talking points, the intelligence community all had a role in editing the talking points once passed from the CIA. Other points of view make sense, but in the immediate aftermath of something like Benghazi, the arrival of new (and possibly conflicting information) is likely to confuse, not improve, the product. It is best to leave the dissemination, in the immediate aftermath, in the hands of the agency that owns the source of the information and is in the business of disseminating intel products — in this case the CIA.

As with the recent and somewhat ironic leaking that the Pentagon is going to overrun the Earth with hordes of DIA covert agents [i.e. 90% of new money and personnel will probably feed the CONUS based DIA bureaucracy as a budget protection strategy] when an agency or entity can get political authorities to grant them incursions into another bureaucracy’s turf, it is because that bureaucracy has ceased doing it’s job so long ago everyone has just accepted that it will never change.

The Bakos piece contrasts well with the politicized bullshittery being offered in The New York Times. Here are some of my favorite bits of harmful nonsense:

….The United States has over 280 diplomatic posts worldwide. They are working on drug interdiction, arms control negotiations, border security, counterterrorism, access to energy and trade, implementing sanctions, fair trade and the like. Intelligence helps diplomats recognize everything from cheating on agreements to social unrest and surprise attack. And it helps them make decisions that lower the risks and consequences of war.

The new director should rededicate the C.I.A. to supporting these diplomatic operations.

Right. Each ambassador should get to play amateur Station Chief and fritter away extremely scarce intel resources on pet projects because, you know, the State Department has done such an awesome job on it’s own core missions the past decade or so, and….uh…wait….

….The best way to ensure the intelligence process can both produce the best analysis possible, free from political and policy influence, and that covert operations are smart and legal is to ensure the director is an independent actor not subject to political pressure. Making the job a 10-year appointment, which will cross the lines of elections, offers a way to reduce the risk of politicization.

Shorter Bruce Reidel: The DCIA should be able to delay or refuse the President’s order to do covert ops so the US will do far fewer of them and in maximum risk-averse fashion.


You de-politicize the DCIA by not having new presidents fire old DCIAs because they were appointed by an administration from the other party, a practice begun not by Ronald Reagan as Bruce Reidel mistakenly believes, but by his predecessor, Jimmy Carter. The idea that the DCIA who is expected to oversee the most sensitive covert missions (i.e. those intended to have strategic or political effects) should be “independent” of the President is some form of really poor Constitutional theorizing. What happens when an “independent” DCIA launches covert ops *against* the wishes of a President?

Here are a few ideas that would be useful to keep in mind, if “reform” of the IC and CIA is actually desired and isn’t merely a stalking horse for smuggling in a different set of  foreign policy preferences unsupported by the wider American public (which I suspect much of the recent noise is):

It isn’t a choice between a “Militarized” CIA and a CIA that does HUMINT collection:

The CIA is supposed to do both covert action and intel collection and always did. Period. The true anomaly is the comatose period after the Church-Pike Hearings bloodied the CIA on Capitol Hill and created a deeply risk-averse generation of CIA managers, who, it must be said, did not exactly bend over backwards in the 1990’s to unleash a legion of deep cover operatives and agents of influence. The “militarized CIA” meme is utter B.S. from folks who dislike armed drones and kinetic tactics and lost that policy argument two years ago.

Drones and nefarious celebrity generals are not what prevents the CIA from more robust intel collection effort – only CIA management prevents better HUMINT collection by not prioritizing it and increasing the number of CIA personnel in overseas postings.

The Director of the CIA, alone or in combination with the DNI, is not the solution:

What is required is an engaged and active Chief Executive willing to spend time and political capital making the IC work for his administration the way it should and the way he needs. This may mean firing the recalcitrant, the resistant and the risk-averse and taking heat from The Washington Post and The New York Times when their favorite “senior official” sources start screaming bloody murder on background to undermine their DCIA and DNI.

Top talent in the DCIA chair, one with real gravitas on the Hill if possible, will be important but that person will still need the full backing of the President and key members of Congress or nothing will change.

“Clandestinity” and Strategic intel are more important than “Reportage”:

Senior officials in any administration like to get IC  briefs that edge out the media on breaking events and bring them details they can’t find in their own, usually very extensive, personal networks or from the bureaucracies and agency experts they themselves oversee.  The CIA in particular has catered to this demand as, it must be said, they are obligated to do.

The problem is that in economic terms, the marginal value of “secret” information over what information is available in the open media in an emerging crisis is not going to be very great unless the CIA has made substantial investments in clandestine networks in the crisis area over a period of years or decades to acquire “strategic” intel, or at least a formidable position to uncover some.

Pouring ever greater resources into near real time “reportage” and being a slightly spooky version of CNN makes such long-term, clandestine investments by the CIA less likely, less deep and less influential in shaping emerging events. Much like having a .357 magnum when someone is crawling through your bedroom window at 3 am, when a crisis erupts overseas, America either has a robust clandestine network on location or it does not.

Congress has a key role and usually abdicates it in favor of grandstanding or rearranging deck chairs:

The IC will work better with consistently active oversight done with a minimum of partisan rancor and an avoidance of any new legislation that features a new (and usually more complex) org chart. It’s important -sometimes delicate operations and lives depend on our politicians behaving and speaking with discretion. If there are important objectives for national security for the IC to accomplish, nothing sends that message better than the administration and key members of the intelligence committees acting in concert to make a policy succeed.

I’m not holding my breath on that last one.

We do our job, He does His.

Wednesday, May 30th, 2012

[ by Charles Cameron — today’s NYT, just war, Brennan, Obama ]


Today’s New York Times piece by Jo Becker and Scott Shane, Secret ‘Kill List’ Proves a Test of Obama’s Principles and Will, refers to just war theory while comparing John Brennan, counterterrorism advisor to the President, not once but twice to a priest:

Beside the president at every step is his counterterrorism adviser, John O. Brennan, who is variously compared by colleagues to a dogged police detective, tracking terrorists from his cavelike office in the White House basement, or a priest whose blessing has become indispensable to Mr. Obama, echoing the president’s attempt to apply the “just war” theories of Christian philosophers to a brutal modern conflict.

As regular readers here know, I can’t resist a hint of theology…


The President does in fact speak of “just war” in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech:

War, in one form or another, appeared with the first man. At the dawn of history, its morality was not questioned; it was simply a fact, like drought or disease — the manner in which tribes and then civilizations sought power and settled their differences.

And over time, as codes of law sought to control violence within groups, so did philosophers and clerics and statesmen seek to regulate the destructive power of war. The concept of a “just war” emerged, suggesting that war is justified only when certain conditions were met: if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the force used is proportional; and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence.

Of course, we know that for most of history, this concept of “just war” was rarely observed. The capacity of human beings to think up new ways to kill one another proved inexhaustible, as did our capacity to exempt from mercy those who look different or pray to a different God. Wars between armies gave way to wars between nations — total wars in which the distinction between combatant and civilian became blurred.

That quote about “our capacity to exempt from mercy those who look different or pray to a different God” seems particularly poignant.


But let’s return to the priestcraft of John Brennan, as Harold Koh offers it to the NYT:

“If John Brennan is the last guy in the room with the president, I’m comfortable, because Brennan is a person of genuine moral rectitude,” Mr. Koh said. “It’s as though you had a priest with extremely strong moral values who was suddenly charged with leading a war.”

That’s (arguably) good.


But then consider this observation from the same article:

… Mr. Obama embraced a disputed method for counting civilian casualties that did little to box him in. It in effect counts all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, according to several administration officials, unless there is explicit intelligence posthumously proving them innocent.

On the face of it, John Brennan doesn’t seem to be guiding his pupil into the ways of “genuine moral rectitude” with great success, particularly regarding that bit about the just war requiring that “whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence”.


Perhaps, though, that’s okay. After all, Arnaud-Amaury, the Abbot of Cîteaux who led the siege of Béziers in which 20,000 heretics — heretics, mind you — were slaughtered, is reported to have said:

Caedite eos! Novit enim Dominus qui sunt eius

In plain English, that’s “Kill them! The Lord knows his own”.


A similar sentiment may be found in other theologies:

According to an old, old, so old it’s Archived piece in the Wall Street Journal written by Amir Taheri — whose reputation for accuracy in quotation has been questioned — the late Ayatollah Sadeq Khalkhali wrote a fatwa in which he said:

Among those we seize hostage or kill, some may be innocent. In that case, Allah will take them to his paradise. We do our job, He does His.

Which in turn gives me the title for this post.


But this isn’t only a Shi’ite opinion: in the same article, Taheri quotes the distinctly Sunni Abu Anas al-Shami, “the self-styled ‘mufti’ of al Qaeda”:

“There are times when Mujahedeen cannot waste time finding out who is who in the battlefield,” he wrote. “There are times when we have to assume that whoever is not on our side is the enemy.”

… which reminds me of another remark made by a recent US President …


… which in turn reminds me of the apparent paradox presented by Luke 11:23, “He that is not with me is against me: and he that gathereth not with me scattereth” — when set beside Luke 9:50, “And Jesus said unto him, Forbid him not: for he that is not against us is for us”.

Drones at Volokh, Drones at the Times, Send in the Drones…..

Sunday, February 19th, 2012

Kenneth Anderson, one of the legal eagles at The Volokh Conspiracy, has taken up some of the legal questions in my private drone war post:

Drones, Privacy, and Air Rights 

….Private parties over private property, engaged in aerial surveillance.  Is it lawful and in what ways?  And, lawful or not, what countermeasures are permitted to the property owner, if any?  And what general bodies of law and regulation are implicated here – property law, trespass, nuisance, etc.  Comments are open, but I’m particularly interested in informed comments that run to the possible questions of law here.  More general comments are better directed to Zenpundit’s site.

Note in advance that the pigeon shoot story is different from the precise question I am asking here.  According to the animal rights group, the drone was over public property (although this was simply one side of the story).  There is a further interesting question of whether it would ever be lawful to shoot down a surveillance drone over public property, on some theory of nuisance or trespass or the like affecting private property. But please leave that possibility in order to deal with the more obvious and conceptually prior question – what about a surveillance drone in air space over private property?

Comments there are interesting and useful.

Dr. Venkatesh Rao also drew my attention to this drone article in the New York Times:

Drones Set Sights on U.S. Skies

….A new federal law, signed by the president on Tuesday, compels the Federal Aviation Administration to allow drones to be used for all sorts of commercial endeavors – from selling real estate and dusting crops, to monitoring oil spills and wildlife, even shooting Hollywood films. Local police and emergency services will also be freer to send up their own drones.

But while businesses, and drone manufacturers especially, are celebrating the opening of the skies to these unmanned aerial vehicles, the law raises new worries about how much detail the drones will capture about lives down below – and what will be done with that information. Safety concerns like midair collisions and property damage on the ground are also an issue.

American courts have generally permitted surveillance of private property from public airspace. But scholars of privacy law expect that the likely proliferation of drones will force Americans to re-examine how much surveillance they are comfortable with.

“As privacy law stands today, you don’t have a reasonable expectation of privacy while out in public, nor almost anywhere visible from a public vantage,” said Ryan Calo, director of privacy and robotics at the Center for Internet and Society at Stanford University. “I don’t think this doctrine makes sense, and I think the widespread availability of drones will drive home why to lawmakers, courts and the public.”

Some questions likely to come up: Can a drone flying over a house pick up heat from a lamp used to grow marijuana inside, or take pictures from outside someone’s third-floor fire escape? Can images taken from a drone be sold to a third party, and how long can they be kept?

Drone proponents say the privacy concerns are overblown. Randy McDaniel, chief deputy of the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department in Conroe, Tex., near Houston, whose agency bought a drone to use for various law enforcement operations, dismissed worries about surveillance, saying everyone everywhere can be photographed with cellphone cameras anyway. “We don’t spy on people,” he said. “We worry about criminal elements.”

Still, the American Civil Liberties Union and other advocacy groups are calling for new protections against what the A.C.L.U. has said could be “routine aerial surveillance of American life.”

Under the new law, within 90 days, the F.A.A. must allow police and first responders to fly drones under 4.4 pounds, as long as they keep them under an altitude of 400 feet and meet other requirements. The agency must also allow for “the safe integration” of all kinds of drones into American airspace, including those for commercial uses, by Sept. 30, 2015. And it must come up with a plan for certifying operators and handling airspace safety issues, among other rules.

The new law, part of a broader financing bill for the F.A.A., came after intense lobbying by drone makers and potential customers….

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