Archive for November, 2009

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Al-Qaeda…in English

November 24, 2009

(AFP)

Since the early 20th century, English has been considered the main language of the globalizing economy, thanks to the power and influence of the British and, later, the Americans. These days, it turns out English is also fast becoming one of the main languages to promote Islamic extremism. At the moment, there are some 200 Internet sites disseminating al-Qaeda’s views in the language, and recent years have seen the rapid proliferation of such sites. (Back in 2002, there were only about 30.)

It’s no secret that al-Qaeda has been tech-savvy enough to maintain a continuous online presence in the Internet Age. It sometimes even seems that without the occasional video or audiotape posted online, Osama bin Laden might just as well be stuck in a Pakistani mountain valley, his microphone unplugged.

But al-Qaeda knows well the strategic importance of the web, and that’s why it has been busy translating its message for the English-speaking online world. Religious sermons, op-eds, speeches—if they preach the al-Qaeda message, you can bet there are a number of folks writing up or recording English-language versions. Al-Qaeda’s increasing reach online has allowed it to build its brand in the West, where it hopes to pull disillusioned Muslim youth into its ranks.

And it’s savvy move. Worldwide, nearly half a billion people speak Arabic as their first or second tongue. The total number of English speakers—considering that many people learn the language even as a third language—is several times higher. So while the al-Qaeda ideology may remain morally bankrupt, its message is arguably being spread more widely than ever before. Whether the trend drives away or attracts potential recruits in the West is the big question.

-Russell Sticklor

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India: Challenges and Opportunities of Being a New Power

November 20, 2009

(AP/Gurinder Osan)

Though India has often been eclipsed by the rise of China over the past two decades, there is an awful lot of moving and shaking going on in New Delhi these days. Some 60 years after independence, India—now home to the world’s second fastest growing major economy and a population of some 1.1 billion—is well on its way to securing major player status on the international scene. And both Bush and Obama administrations have delighted that one of India’s foreign policy priorities has been and continues to be cultivating deeper economic, security and political ties with the U.S.

Earlier this week at a talk sponsored by George Washington University’s Sigur Center for Asian Studies, C. Raja Mohan—one of India’s preeminent strategic analysts—described how things are beginning to “click” for India. Mohan talked about how since the late 1940s, India has traditionally experienced a mismatch between its lofty geopolitical ambitions and its more modest economic and military capabilities. But he added that as India has achieved rapid modernization during that last 20 years, that gap finally seems to be narrowing. This means that in the relatively near future, India could see itself exercising political leadership and driving trade growth with a newfound sense of purpose, not only in South Asia but elsewhere around the world.

The U.S., for its part, is keen on teaming up with India, first and foremost because it is a fellow democracy and major trade partner. But U.S. policy makers are also well-aware that a stable and prosperous India is important because it serves as a strategic counterweight to the power of a rising China on the other side of the Himalayas.

Expect U.S. courtship of India to be in high gear early next week, as the two countries seek to sketch out a new chapter in their relations. Beginning Monday, Washington DC will morph into Little Delhi, as the White House hosts a state visit from Indian PM Manmohan Singh. Looks to be a lovefest all around.

-Russell Sticklor

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Liquid Gold: Water Discovered on the Moon

November 18, 2009
The area of the moon impacted in October by two NASA spacecraft searching for water.

(NASA/REUTERS)

Forty years after the U.S. landed a man on the moon, NASA has found irrefutable evidence of water there—and a decent amount, to boot. NASA officials announced Friday that a bold experiment conducted last month—one that involved crashing a satellite into the moon, and then analyzing the resulting debris plume with a second satellite to find traces of water—produced evidence far more convincing than perhaps had been originally anticipated. Team leaders revealed that the plume contained up to a dozen buckets worth of liquid water. They also suggested that there is much more water to be had on the lunar surface, particularly in areas that have been permanently shadowed for billions of years.

Despite the modest amount of water initially found, the finding is already huge news. “This is not your father’s moon,” says Greg Delory, a research physicist at the University of California, Berkeley. “Rather than a dead and unchanging world, it could in fact be a very dynamic and interesting one.”

The landmark announcement has major implications for future exploration of the moon, as the creation of a permanent lunar base now seems, well, a lot more feasible. That means while the actual construction of an international or state-sponsored moon base may still remain decades off, expect NASA and other nations’ space agencies to accelerate current plans.

And if you’re one of those folks who believes the militarization of space is inevitable—a subject explored in the forthcoming winter print edition of the Diplomatic Courier—the prospects of abundant harvestable lunar water might make control of near-space that much more strategically important down the road. Expect the race for space to heat up.

-Russell Sticklor

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Extremist Groups Recruiting Women for Central Asian Terrorism

November 12, 2009

Venus symbol.A troubling trend has been emerging in recent years across Central Asia, as terrorist cells have been increasingly turning to women to carry out their dirty work. Facing a declining pool of potential male recruits due to war casualties, extremist groups in that region have been enlisting females for a number of reasons. Not only are women available, but they are also unlikely suspects who can often catch security forces off-guard. The fact that females can easily conceal weapons in their clothing and are rarely subjected to body searches makes them even more effective from a strategic point of view.

Terrorist groups also know that the economic and political marginalization faced by many Central Asian women makes females more willing to engage in extremist activity. Indeed, living under highly oppressive societal conditions with few prospects for improvement, women become highly vulnerable to terrorist recruitment, whether it be from male relatives, other women, or religious leaders.

The Internet has done a great deal to facilitate the recruitment process. For example, as early as 2004, articles printed in Sawt al-Jihad—an online magazine sponsored by al Qaeda—highlighted why women should join the ranks of Islamic extremists. Sensing al Qaeda’s success with female recruitment, other extremist groups then turned to the web as well. The Internet provides access to women who might be otherwise secluded, creating a vast new pool of potential recruits. The web also serves as a forum for women to communicate freely and anonymously with one another, allowing them to operate ‘under the radar’ in comparison to other members of extremist outfits.

Unfortunately, the trend of female recruitment is unlikely to dissipate in the near-term. A growing number of Central Asia’s marginalized women may simply see joining extremist organizations as a way ‘out’ of their current situation. Perhaps an improvement in economic conditions or a greater respect for women’s rights in the region would be a panacea for this growing problem, but those developments do not seem likely anytime soon.

-Samantha Brletich

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Japan Aims to Capture Rising Sun in Outer Space

November 9, 2009
An illustrated model of the Japanese SSPS initiative.

(Japan USEF/SSPS Project)

The Japanese government has announced ambitious new plans to harvest solar energy high above the Earth’s atmosphere. The project, known as the Space Solar Power System (SSPS), is arguably the world’s most adventurous to date in terms of harnessing renewable energy.

The SSPS will carry a price tag of several billion dollars, and is not expected to be fully operational until 2030. Between now and then, a handful of elite Japanese technology firms and researchers handpicked by the government will be developing prototypes and figuring out how to turn something straight out of a sci-fi flick into reality.

If all goes according to plan, it would work a little something like this. First, giant solar photovoltaic cells or “dishes” would be brought up to space, where they would remain in a geostationary orbit. Covering an area of several square miles, they would capture the sun’s energy, which is five times more powerful above the atmosphere than it is on the Earth’s surface. Once harnessed, that energy would then be beamed down to Japan via microwaves or laser beams, and converted into electricity. Heady stuff.

The overhead costs for a project like this are enormous, but the Japanese are confident the investment will pay off in the long run. That’s because the fully operational model of SSPS is projected to generate power equivalent of a mid-sized nuclear plant, and create electricity at a cost six times cheaper than the current going rate for electricity in Japan. Plus, the fact that there’s no cloud cover in space also would mean that the supply of energy would flow essentially uninterrupted.

The daring SSPS initiative reasserts Japan’s position at the forefront of the clean-energy movement, but the country is also undertaking the project out of necessity: Japan currently relies heavily on oil imports, and doesn’t have many domestic energy resources. Viewed through that lens, its huge down payment on SSPS is a means of heightening the country’s energy independence in the coming decades.

You’ve got to credit Japan for thinking boldly outside the box. It’s this type of innovative drive that the U.S. energy sector would be wise to emulate in the years ahead.

-Russell Sticklor

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Klaus Fights On

November 6, 2009
EU-TREATY/CZECH

(REUTERS/Petr Josek)

At a speech in Washington, DC yesterday at Georgetown University, Czech President Vaclav Klaus threw a series of bombs at some of Europe’s most sacred shibboleths in his typical no-nonsense style. Just days after reluctantly dropping his refusal to sign the Lisbon Treaty, Klaus reiterated opposition to many of the ideas and structures of “political Europe.” He also expressed his well-known skepticism over the veracity of global warming, portraying the green movement as a collectivist ideological force with ulterior aims, eerily similar, in his thinking, to the communism he’d fought against his entire life—if wrapped in more innocuous language.

Klaus also responded to criticism that the Czech Republic and his Civic Democratic Party had lost influence in the European Parliament and the EU by dropping its affiliation with the mainstream European People’s Party in favor of a right-wing alliance with the British Conservatives, Polish Law and Justice, and others. He brushed off the criticism, noting that his party had much more in common politically with the Tories than Angela Merkel’s CDU.

-Brian Forest

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Delaware: The World’s Newest Rogue State?

November 5, 2009

delaware_roadsign~s600x600

Places like the Cayman Islands and Switzerland have long been known as global destinations for illicit money. But according to a new report released by the Tax Justice Network, an independent British research firm specializing in international financial transparency, there is another financial jurisdiction that is even more shady—and it’s just a stone’s throw from Washington, DC.

That’s right, folks—Delaware, of all places, tops the list of the world’s most secretive tax havens. In that state, tax loopholes that have been around for decades have allowed many of the U.S.’ biggest corporations to collectively avoid billions of dollars in tax payments every year. (I wonder what Vice President Biden has to say about that.)

Rounding out the TJN report’s top five are Luxembourg (#2), Switzerland (#3), the Cayman Islands (#4) and the United Kingdom (#5). The full list can be viewed at: www.financialsecrecyindex.com.

-Russell Sticklor