In 1983 laboratory experimentation on genetic mutation seemed to pave the way for a future technological revolution. Entrepreneurs heavily invested in research and development of bio-technologies applied for agricultural purposes. In this regard, businessmen sealed a number of deals concerning new varieties of plants created through transgenic processes. European farmers were particularly concerned about this fast-paced development and aggressive propaganda in favor of transgenic products, especially because the agro-chemical sector had confirmed their resistance to pesticides and herbicides.
The development of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) raised some concerns about their impact on human health and on the ecosystem. At the same time, the European agricultural business sector feared that the development of GMOs would have created a dependency on U.S. multinational agro-chemical corporations.
The European public opinion – whose trust had already been broken after the scandals of BSE (mad cow disease) and dioxin in chicken – has so far been caution and vigil towards this new form of agriculture and demanded specific labeling for all GMO products (officially approved in February 2000).
American consumers instead, relied on quality controls provided by the federal agencies like FOOD & DRUG ADMINISTRATION and EPA , which were considered reliable watchdogs for public health and environmental safety. Since their approval is automatically considered as a guarantee for consumers’ safety, the GMO labeling procedure appears as superfluous. Free market regulations prescribe that every country intending to reject the import of a given product, must provide a proof of its health risks. The transatlantic debate on this topic mostly focused on food safety and environmental protection preserving biodiversity in the long run and promoting a healthy diet. The failure of Cartagena Convention to draft a protocol on biotechnological risks occurred during a phase in which European consumers demanded their governments to make clearer decisions. When in December 1996 the EU Commission authorized the placing on the market of transgenic corn (that benefited the company Novartis), many EU countries expressed their concerns. In February 1997, Austria and Luxembourg prohibited the import of that specific type of corn; similarly, in September 1998, Greece and the United Kingdom banned the rapeseed produced and distributed by Agrevo. Over the course of the same year, Denmark banned all kinds of GMOs and France suspended the farming of transgenic corn in accordance with the decision made by the Council of State on September 25th, 1998. Public opinion was also very worried and reluctant towards GMOs products. Fearing that governments would have not protected the interests of consumers, many associations and environmental movements vocally campaigned against GMOs and showed civil society’s response to the economic dominance of the United States. In January 1999, the Organization for Biological Certification Soil Association condemned the company Monsanto for the insufficient protective measures against the pollination of surrounding plantations. Soil Association revealed the risks of cross-contamination operated by winds and insects moving the pollen of transgenic plants for long distances. At the same time, a poll conducted by the French NGO Friends of the Earth revealed that numerous fast food chains had already eliminated – or were about to do so – all GMO based food.
The environmental experts of the scientific community were concerned about the impact of the extensive use of chemicals on the crops whose genes were resistant to herbicides; they hypothesized that in response to this, insects might develop a gene mutation as well. The British Medical Association demanded the creation of a health agency and the ban of antibiotic-resistant marker genes in transgenic food. They basically asked for a moratorium.
Already in August 1998, the British researcher Arpad Pusztai pointed out some health risks caused by GMO potatoes and a few days later he lost his job at the Rowett Research Institute. This episode – that had received extensive media coverage – reinforced the stances of the GMOs critics as it was perceived as an attempt to bury a certain kind of scientific research in order not to spread fear. For their part, consumers were already shocked by the BSE scandal and started reducing significantly the purchase of transgenic products. Pushed by public opinion, the British government – that had previously welcome GMO biotechnologies – recognized the importance of a moratorium. Therefore, it commissioned two studies on the impact of GMOs on health, agriculture and environment. Large retailers were therefore forced to yield to the will of consumers. Sainsbury – second largest grocery store in the UK – together with Body and Mark and Spencer announced the withdrawal of all GMO products and some other big European groups followed their example: Carrefour (France), Esselunga (Italy), Migros (Switzerland), Superquinn (Ireland), Delhaize (Belgium). These latter issued a press release in which they committed to addressing the requests of consumers and only sell GMO free products, in agreement with agricultural and raw materials industries.
They appointed Law Laboratories Ltd, an independent research lab, for quality controls in cultivated fields and in food-production chains in order to detect the potential presence of GMOs. Some GDO companies offered consumers the choice between transgenic products and a GMO-free alternative of their own production. Paradoxically, the campaign against GMOs turned into a marketing strategy that favored national brands over the big industrial chains. On April 27th 1999, Tesco, leader in the UK food distribution, decided to collaborate with Greenpeace in order to identify suppliers that guaranteed GMO free products. Tesco’s commitment in the distribution of biological products resulted in both great enthusiasm of environmentalist groups and in Greenpeace’s success in the countries where Tesco was present (Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Poland).
On April 28 of the same year, Unilever, the first grocery store that introduced GMOs on the UK food market, decided to stop distributing these products; so did Nestlé – the Swiss titanic food industry- and H. McCain, world leader in the frozen food distribution, that withdrew the sale of transgenic potatoes as consumers had requested. The actions taken by the European agro industrial sector led many foreign companies to adjust their policies. In the United States, for example, Gerber – company specialized in food for children – decided to utilize only organic corn. As a result, most American farmers realized that transgenic seeds were the reason of the drop in exports (60% drop in 1998). The reports issued by the federal agencies USDA and EPA clearly showed that the amount of insecticides used for a transgenic sowing was exactly the same used for traditional sowing. Besides, and that certain types of insect were resistant to the toxins present in transgenic plants.
These revelations produced some troubles in the agro-chemical sector that controlled 2/3 of the global market of pesticides and one quarter of the seeds one and the whole market of transgenic plants. Multinational corporations like Monsanto (USA), Du Punt de Nemours (USA), Novartis (Switzerland), Aventis (France and Germany) and Zenecca (United Kingdom) had made huge investments in order to reach the global control of pesticide market. They engaged in the significant challenge of setting the regulations of a new market (norms, rules, financing) to secure their absolute primacy in the biotechnological field. These companies also initiated a communication campaign on global food security with slogans like: “Acting in harmony with Nature” (Novartis); “You have the right to know what you are eating. Especially if it’s the best” (Monsanto). Since June 1999, Monsanto Director-General, Robert Shapiro, launched a massive advertising campaign involving the most important news outlets in the UK and in Europe in response to the protests. The leitmotiv of this campaign was the idea of improving people’s diet and health while protecting the environment. In an open letter addressed to the President of Rockefeller Foundation, Gordon Conway (that had previously discredited this technologies and highlighted the disadvantage of developing countries), Shapiro announced Monsanto’s intention to use biotechnologies to produce sterile seeds. Later, on October 6th, 1999 Shapiro intervened in a conference-call during the debate in London with Greenpeace. Loaded by the criticism of environmentalist and consumers, Monsanto tried to regain some credit. Since it was aware of the fact that the opposition to GMOs was caused by its obstinate attempt to acquire the absolute primacy in seed production and distribution, Monsanto decided to change strategy. The political change of course was due to the necessity of meeting market and investor requests, that started to share their very low expectations of growth for the agrochemical food sector.
In December 1999, thanks to the fusion with the group Pharmacia-Upjohn, Monsanto sold 20% of its agricultural division and developed its pharmaceutical branch, whose outcomes were very positive thanks to the sales of Celebrex – an analgesic medicine used in the treatment of arthritis. Most likely, this strategy paved the way and favored the increase in production of medicated feed, also known as “pharma-food”. These products that can be found on the counter of big food chains in the shape of candies for the sight-improvement or chewing gum for the cold. The core concept of the pharma-food is the focus on the advantages of a healthy diet and is one of the innovative challenges of the next century. This moment marked the beginning of a partnership between pharmaceutical laboratories and food industries on nutrigenetics, a new science that offered evidence for a healthy diet with healing properties. In recent years, about eight billion dollars invested in life sciences led to significant achievements in this new biotechnological branch. Nevertheless, the worldwide opposition of consumers and environmentalists made investor fear a sharp fall in sales and therefore the agro-chemical industry changed direction. The trade of transgenic products is a very important challenge for the U.S. government that traditionally supported the agrochemical industry. The United States never denied the favor towards the agrochemical industry and its ability to boost the production process, like in the case of the medicated feed. During the Cartagena conference in 1999, the opposition of a group from Miami led by the United States referred the matter to the World Trade Organization (Seattle, December 199) but no deal was reached anyways.
The US strongly supported the Montreal Conference (January 24 – 28th 2000) and managed to secure an important benefit. On the one hand, the act of the conference recognized the precautionary principle that granted the importer countries the right to ban GMO products; on the other hand, it was not very clear how these countries could claim this right in practice. The text of the agreement stated: “the exporters are only requested to inform about the possibility that a load may or not contain GMOs, without specifying the nature or ensure the presence of GMOs”. This formulation allowed the US to buy time since there was no specific measure prescribing the creation of a separate production chain.
Congressional lobbies – agricultural professional organizations backed by scientists and academics – defended the GMO cause in front of the U.S. Senate and asked for the government’s unconditional support and opposed the compulsory labeling procedure requested by the EU. The President of the National Organization of Corn Producer, Tim Hume, strongly criticized the European skepticism towards GMOs: in his opinion, European or American organization opposing GMOs only aim at increasing their profits through the exploitation of people’s fears and concerns. According to several researchers, GMOs would be the only solution to fight world hunger and cure many diseases. According to John Oblorogge, Professor at the University of Michigan, the second generation of transgenic plants will allow to increase the nutritive content of the crops. Charles Arntzen, Emeritus Professor at Arizona State University and former President of the Research Institute Boyce Thompson, considered the labeling process as an unjustified scaremongering for consumers and concluded that “The microbiological contamination of food is a problem as much as the labeling”.
Scientists therefore requested public funding to support university research on biotechnologies in order to avoid big corporation funding that usually represents an obstacle to independence and objectiveness.
In order for their strategy to be effective, GMOs critics needed to cast doubts on transgenic product and amplify it through local and regional press, TV channels, environmental associations websites, internet forums (that are often loaded with information). Besides, due to GMO critics’ initial disadvantage, they had to identify the contradictions in GMOs supporters discourse and exploit them to their own benefit. On their side, businessmen in the agrochemical sector had to conduct a number of tests on their products in order to prove the absence of toxicity before putting them on the market. Entrepreneurs must anticipate the strategy and study the potential of the opponent in order to foresee its attacks towards their products or their company and be able to react rapidly. It is no more a matter of crisis management and substantial communication, but rather of managing the power during the attack and react accordingly, case by case.
Greenpeace has indeed contributed to boosting the campaign against multinational agricultural corporations Unilever and Nestlé, which were forced to withdraw their transgenic products from the United Kingdom. The analysis of Greenpeace French website reveals a manipulative communication strategy. The absence of transparency of the debate on GMOs is quite remarkable in the narrative employed in the brief introduction to the topic posted in the topical issues section: “Manipulators”; “Sorcerer’s apprentices”; “disturbing lottery”; “inadequate and weak responses”; “the future of our health is at stake”; “environmental impact”; “risks for public health”. This narrative reflects the clarity of the premises of Greenpeace as a protest movement: it portrays the duel between the weak (consumers) and the strong (agrochemical multinational corporations), and exploits the power of the general discontent linked to the primary need of nutrition that is common to each human being. Its technique consists in manipulating the consumers (both figuratively and tangibly) according to the following scheme from the INFO-CONSUMERS section on Greenpeace website, articulated in four simple concomitant steps:
- Spread the two lists of products with the producers’ names: the white list of GMOs-free products for which it is possible to track the origin of the ingredients and additives; the black list of products that might contain GMOs and for which the supplier (highlighted in bold) does not oppose GMOs possible presence and cannot formally deny it.
- Questions to the suppliers through spamming the administration of the targeted company with petitions, fax, mail, phone calls in order to push it to take some measures in response, usually through a public statement. For this purpose, the website offers some pre-compiled letter templates that are filled with the address of the negligent industrial groups (Danone Unilever France and Nestlé France). In addition, Greenpeace shared a successful story of a company that, after having found its name on the black list and received a number of petitions, had publicly apologized for the presence of GMOs and issued a written statement declaring their withdrawal from its production.
- Forwarding the response of the company and the letters to at least 5 people.
- Keeping Greenpeace posted with updates on the activist participation and the recruiting of new activists.
This pressing strategy against agro-chemical industries turned out to be effective because it forced producers to report on their activities. Greenpeace has recently published other two lists containing all the GMOs introduced in the animal feed and asked consumers to make sure that poultry farmers used the organic ones. Activists are also asked to communicate the answers through updating the lists.
Whenever necessary, Greenpeace may also resort to disinformation. In its magazine, the organization reports that in 1998 the Council of States favored Greenpeace in revoking the authorization for the cultivation of GMOs corn that had been granted at the beginning of the year. Although on February 5th 1998, Greenpeace and other organizations had requested the annulment of a decree of the French Minister of Agriculture, the Council of State had simply decided on September 25th 1998 to suspend that decree and refer to the EU Court of Justice for the interpretation of the EU law. The activists did not actually win, but they have leveraged on a free interpretation of reality and deliberately spread misinformation across public opinion. In fact, what is important for Greenpeace is to push the intervention of national courts, no matter the result obtained. Greenpeace has also proved capable of considering all the nuances of a given issue, when it decided to admit a mistake and play the transparency card. In 1998, British researcher Arpad Pusztai was fired because he had proved that some test animals fed with transgenic potatoes presented some organic atrophies. In reality, the variety of potatoes that the researcher used in his experiments had been transformed with a gene of a toxin of a different species; therefore, these potatoes were not harmful because of the presence of GMOs, but because of this toxin that was harmful per se. In August 1998, Greenpeace had presented Pusztai as a renowned expert that had been unfairly fired after proving the toxicity of transgender plants. The following year, Greenpeace specified: “The conclusions of this research is still fragile, as some varieties of potatoes produce their own insecticide. Besides, similar vegetables are regularly sold in Canada”. In this specific case, Greenpeace managed to appear as genuinely misguided by this research, and recognizing to have made a mistake just like anyone else.
Transgenic market represents a strategic field for the U.S. government. Since the early ‘80s, multinational chemical and pharmaceutical corporations have freely operated in the field of genetic engineering and allowed the US to establish their worldwide primacy. Nowadays a consistent part of EU and U.S. public opinion (consumers and farmers) strongly opposes these initiatives. On the other hand, US government criticized the European public opinion and attacked the EU weaknesses in response, without offering justifications for its own support for GMOs. According to Alan Larson (Undersecretary ad interim for Economic, Trade and Agricultural Affairs):“because of the EU, many U.S. corn producers are deprived of almost 200 million dollars in exports. (…)Some EU agencies specialized in food safety revealed to be easily influenced by politics and should take inspiration from the FDA. I had never witnessed such a level of scaremongering in Europe between consumers.”
It is important to note that there is no independent health agency at the EU level. The only authorities that can effectively address this issue belong to Member States, that is the reason why it is legitimate to question their impartiality. According to James Murphy, U.S. adjunct representative for international trade:
“Our ability to sell these products goes beyond economic data. It is more a humanitarian, ecological and food safety issue. We are witnessing a strong opposition from Europe … with the lack of trust of public opinion towards science … the opposition group were able to exploit the anxiety of consumers that have consequently lobbied their political representatives.”
David Sandalow, Assistant Secretary of State for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, that represented the US at the Montreal Conference in 2000, declared to the Washington File that
“Focusing on biodiversity and environmental protection can sometimes overshadow the debate on food safety. Negotiations…should not be focused on trade regulations…that could hinder international trade. The United States will not support it. According to many experts, the scaremongering in Europe towards GMOs, risks to let thousands of people die from hunger and millions of children of developing countries, if scientists and institutes financing researches refuse to apply modern biotechnologies. The safety and the quality of the food produced through modern biotechnological techniques are not different from traditional food”.
The skepticism of the scientists and of the EU politicians is the proof of their incapacity to support research on GMOs and this delay is the cause of many deaths in developing countries. The defense strategies that the Department of Agriculture and the Federal Agencies put in place consisted in a discourse centered on accountability and justification: on November 1st1999, the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched its new internet website in order to inform consumers on the state of biotechnological research applied to the agricultural sector. The website was aimed at providing an answer to the most Frequently Asked Question (FAQ) and shed light on regulations and information on international trade related to agricultural products. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration organized three public conferences on the GMOs issue: Chicago – November 18th; Washington November 30th; Oakland – December 13th1999. These public debates allowed U.S. consumers to express their views on the policies of the FDA: many associations like Consumer Union demanded the labeling of transgenic product to ensure the respect of the right of choice.
During the Washington session, Joseph Levitt, Director of the Center of Food Safety at FDA declared: “Taken note of the controversy … we want to point out your recommendations in order to improve our verification of food safety strategies and optimize the sharing of information on the public level.”
According to the Director of the Center for Biotechnologies for Agriculture and Environment of the University of Rutgers, the skepticism of European consumers towards GMOs was the result of ineffective norms that had been proved incapable of preventing the BSE diseases and the sale of animal feed containing dioxin. James Maryanski, FDA Coordinator of biotechnologies maintained that EU regulations focused on product, foods and additives rather than on the plants used in the production process. Today FDA is managing to adopt new regulations to apply when a product does not comply to certain safety standards. The only law controlling the food obtained from transgenic plants dates back to 1992 and essentially consists in the same safety measures foreseen for traditional food. This law was heavily criticized by an American author, because it allowed the commercialization of GMOs without any proof of safety or authorization. It seems that at the moment FDA is imposing the agrochemical industries to carry out preemptive checks in order to avoid any risk for the health. Multinational corporations like Monsanto and Du Pont de Nemours were forced to batten down the hatches and tried to adopt a new approach based on accountability and justification. On October 6th, 1999 during a debate with Greenpeace, Monsanto took the initiative and admitted its lack of listening and conciliation spirit. Similarly, Du Pont de Nemours, recognized that businessmen were incapable of addressing the concerns of public opinion and considered them as the result of ignorance. Between the counter-offensive techniques used by Monsanto, the use of advertising campaigns as communication weapons plays a prominent role: “The protests of farmers, consumers and businessmen forced Shapiro to publicly withdraw Terminator technology from the market”.
This principle – an open letter addressed to a famous Foundation – allowed to orient the message towards the desired direction, limiting the competitor’s operating space.
“(…) The decision has therefore taken into account the opinions that you have expressed and those of a huge number of experts and personalities, included the representatives of our important agricultural community. We have consulted many international experts in order to get to a deep and independent evaluation of the subject. We will continue to encourage a free and transparent debate”.
This press release portrays Monsanto as a responsible company that pays attention to collective interests and partners up with farmers to help them improving their harvest, rather than a monopolistic corporation that exploits on its power.
The strong mobilization of GMOs detractors and its media echo provoked a sudden halt in the GMOs scientific progress. In fact, transgenic plants were created in order to improve agricultural output, but their long-term impact on people had not been considered. To this day, nobody is able to guarantee that GMOs are fully harmless. This is a key issue that is capable to persuade part of the U.S. population.
This year, the FDA has been subject to a legal action because of its politics on food biotechnologies that was considered too lightly regulated. This is the commercial reason why some U.S. retailers must obtain supplies of non-transgenic corn, so that they comply with the traceability designed at the EU level. The European campaign was not addressed to cope with the economic rivalry with the US on GMOs, but rather from a complete absence of clear information and from food safety issues (BSE and dioxin in chicken).
Agrochemical industries completely misinterpreted the balance of power and this precluded the chance of anticipating and foresee such a campaign. It was too late when they understood the necessity of changing communication strategies, since US farmers refused to buy their seeds.
When the protests broke out, companies showed their lack of global vision and knowledge of the fields, environment in general and of the other actors, so that the ignorance on competition principles dragged them into a crisis.
Managing information risks cannot be improvised but needs to be based on a substantial plan. This episode shows the power of information as offensive strategy and the limitations that companies go through when they have to reorganize their communication approach to attract consumers.
In a meeting, it is not so important to know the interlocutor, but rather having the ability of putting oneself in the other’s shoes.
After a New Massacre, Charges That ISIS Is Operating With Assad and the Russians
Authors: Anne Speckhard, Ardian Shajkovci
On July 25 in the Syrian province of Sweida a massacre began in the early morning. Ten jihadists from the so-called Islamic State entered Sweida town. They wore the traditional baggy trousers and loose-fitting overgarments of Druze men, but beneath the clothes they had hidden explosive vests. Three detonated in the main vegetable market, then one of them accompanied the many injured to the hospital and set off his explosive charge there. The other six suicide bombers were overcome before they could detonate, according to senior officials in the Druze community.
At the same time, hundreds of ISIS fighters entered three nearby villages, moving house-by-house slitting throats and shooting to death men, women and children. Some reported that the killers left a witness from each family alive to tell their hideous story. In all, 273 Druze were killed and 220 injured, Druze officials told us.
They strongly suspect that the attack by ISIS was carried out in cooperation with the Russian-backed Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad, and this is corroborated to some extent by ISIS prisoners we have interviewed who are being held by U.S.-allied Kurdish forces here in northern Syria. The Druse politicians and officials came here to try to forge an alliance with like-minded Kurds for mutual self-protection, which is when they told us the details of the massacre.
News of the atrocity has been reported internationally, but the story behind it still is not well understood.
The Druze are one of the smaller minorities in Syria, perhaps three percent of the population. But their reputation as fighters in the wars of the Levant goes back centuries. Altogether, they number about a million adherents of a monotheistic, Abrahamic faith mingling elements of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but also beliefs in reincarnation. Long persecuted for their beliefs, they keep their scriptures secret.
Their lands and their strongholds traditionally have been in the mountains of Syria and Lebanon, although some Druze are in Jordan and a large contingent are in Israel. Many live outside the region as well, and fit easily into the secular West. (Amal Clooney, for instance, is from an influential Druze family in Lebanon.) In Syria, the hills east and south of Damascus officially are known as Jabal al-Druze, the Druze mountain, and the communities that live there are very close-knit.
To this day, Druze fighters are well represented in the militaries of Lebanon and Israel, and until recently of Syria as well. But when the Syrian uprising of 2011 turned violent, Druze leaders decided to stay neutral in the conflict. They called those serving in the Syrian army to desert and return home. Druze officials we spoke to, who did not want to be quoted by name, claim to have their own militia of 53,000 – reservists, military deserters and young men whom they have trained – ready to defend their Syrian heartland.
As the ISIS massacres in the Sweida region began just after dawn, mysteriously, telephone land lines and electricity in the area had been cut off. But the news spread by cell phone, and well-armed Druze men came out in droves to defend their population. “The big battle started around noon and lasted until 8 p.m,” said one Druze official who joined the fight.
According to the Druze politicians we talked to, there were approximately 400 combatants from ISIS, or Daesh as they are called here, facing thousands of individually armed Druze who rose to fight — and who did not take prisoners.
“Currently 250 Daesh are dead,” one Druze official told us. “There are no injured [ISIS fighters]. We killed them all and more are killed every day in ongoing skirmishes in which the Daesh attackers continue to come from the desert to attack. Every day we discover the bodies of injured Daesh who died trying to withdraw. Due to the rugged terrain, Daesh could not retrieve them with their four-wheel-drives. We have no interest to bury them.”
Of 10 known ISIS captives taken during the fighting, three were hanged immediately. Another was captured and hanged during skirmishes earlier this week. The Druze officials said that the Syrian authorities are demanding any surviving ISIS captives be turned over to them, but the Druze are refusing to do so.
The horror of the Sweida massacre in an area most considered safe—and in these last moments when ISIS rule in Syria appears to be all but over—was magnified when the Druze learned that some of their women and children had been taken captive by ISIS cadres. “Most of the Daesh attackers were killed,” a Druze official told us. “The only escapees were those who were kidnapped in the first village: 29 women, teenagers and babies.”
One 19-year-old student already has been beheaded by ISIS, which also quickly posted pictures of their Druze female captives and demanded that the Syrian regime stop attacking them and exchange ISIS prisoners held by the regime for these women and children.
In addition to the sensational pictures of the helpless women holding their hands above their heads in the desert, ISIS sent a video of one of their Druze captives, 35-year-old A Shalguinz, who delivered her baby in the desert.
“Daesh said they will make them sabaya [slaves] if the regime doesn’t’ give 100 prisoners to them and the regime refused,” one of our interlocutors told us.
People in the Middle East constantly speculate about the machinations of their governments and political parties, and rumors are taken seriously since verifiable facts often are hard or impossible to come by. But the Assad regime and ISIS at this moment have a coincidence of interests that is hard to mistake.
Assad currently is readying his troops and Russian- and Iranian-backed allies to attack the jihadist militants in Idlib, and the Druze leaders we talked to feel that their people were directly punished for not agreeing to join the Syrians in that operation.
Replaying the events that occurred prior to the slaughter and kidnapping, one Druze leader points out that about a week before the massacre, “Three Russian military officers came to the region to meet the political representatives of our area. They were meeting to create the 5th army in the region, exclusively for that region, so that all the young Druze who fled the Syrian Army and the Druze reservists are invited back.”
If the Druze have anything like as many as the 53,000 combatants they claim, obviously they could be hugely valuable to the regime’s army. But that was not going to happen.
“We don’t attack outside of our area. We only defend ourselves if necessary,” said the same official. “They came and said, ‘We’ll make the 5th battalion to protect the area. They can join the combat against al Nusra [al Qaeda linked jihadists] in Idlib,” he explained. “But the local representative answered them clearly, that they cannot join any Syrian Army to combat outside the mountain of the Druze, only defensive not offensive actions.”
Assad’s alleged complicity with ISIS is long, gruesome, and well documented. Recently he has had a policy of allowing armed militants to escape from cities in busses, ostensibly to reduce the risk of civilian casualties.
““It is known that Daesh militants in the suburbs of Damascus have been displaced to the east of Sweida in green buses by an agreement with the government: 1,400 Daesh were moved this way to the area east of Sweida and near the Tanf base of the Americans,” one of our Druze sources told us.
The U.S. garrison at al-Tanf sits on the strategic Baghdad-Damascus highway, located in Syria on the Iraqi border and within miles of the Jordanian border. This outpost has served as a launching point since 2016 for counter-ISIS operations including training for Syrian opposition factions fighting ISIS, al-Nusra and other jihadists.
“Adding to that, 1,000 combatants of Daesh came in a discreet way from the Yarmouk area [a Palestinian refugee camp in Damascus] to join the local Daesh, estimated at 2,000 to 3,000 combatants,” said one of the Druze officials who talked to us. “We know this by internal sources of the Syrian army. There are still some Druze of the army who leak this information to us.” In these transfers, ISIS fighters “have the right to take their individual Kalashnikov and three magazines. According to the government all of them came armed this way as the Syrian government gave them this safe passage to move to our area.”
“On the 24th of July most of the official checkpoints of the Syrian army around Sweida were withdrawn—all around the villages where the massacres occurred,” this Druze official told us. “They hit at 7 a.m., but at night something else was happening. Where the villages are—facing the Daesh area—the Syrian army withdrew the local weapons from the local protection militias. No one knew why. They also withdrew their checkpoint in the area and cut the electricity and local phone service. The regime was a spectator to the massacre.”
“We think there is complicity between Daesh and the regime,” another of the Druze leaders said. “It’s so obvious to us. The regime refused to send ambulances to assist the population. They cut the electricity as well and the local telephone service to make it difficult to communicate. They couldn’t cut the mobiles.”
One of the 10 captured ISIS attackers admits on an interrogation video shared by the Druze leaders that in the village massacres a man from the Syrian government guided them from house to house, knocking on the doors and calling the inhabitants by name so they would unwittingly open their doors to the ISIS attackers.
This is not the first time we have heard of such cynical and deadly complicity between the Assad regime and the ISIS terrorists it supposedly is fighting. We have interviewed, now, 91 men and women who defected from ISIS or were taken prisoner by the forces fighting it. They have told us that ISIS sold grain and oil to the Syrian government while in return they were supplied with electricity, and that the Syrians even sent in experts to help repair the oil facility in Deir ez Zour, a major city in southeast Syria, under ISIS protection. Early in the the revolution, Bashar al-Assad released al Qaeda operatives and other jihadists from his prison to make the case that he was fighting terrorists, not rebellious people hoping for democracy. One of those jihadists he released, known as Alabssi, was one of the ISIS leaders in the battle in Sweida.
In neighboring Iraq, ISIS has been declared militarily defeated since November 2017. President Donald Trump, in his state of the union speech in January this year, said, “I’m proud to report that the coalition to defeat ISIS has liberated very close to 100 percent of the territory just recently held by these killers in Iraq and in Syria.” But on the ground, U.S.-led coalition forces say that in the area patrolled by Americans and their close allies, around 1,000 ISIS militants are still at large. And an estimated 9,000 ISIS militants are still roaming free in Syria and Iraq. And in both places heinous attacks continue to occur.
Where did the fighters come from who carried out the massacre in Sweida? Ten ISIS fighters were captured and hundreds killed. According to our sources 83 ID cards were recovered. Most were Chechens, Palestinians from the Syrian camps, and some Saudis. There was a Moroccan and a Turkman among them, a Russian and a Libyan, as well as some Iraqis. Supposedly the brother of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, commanded the assault.
The Chechens who were slain were all wearing suicide vests—as usual, our source said. Those who attacked in the center of Sweida wore suicide vests, but so did the snipers using powerful rifles to shoot from distant rooftops. “That’s where most our casualties came from,” said one of the Druze officials. “It seems ISIS is alive and well despite international reports that they are defeated, or nearly defeated.”
One of the officials will only speak to us anonymously out of concern the attack can be repeated. “If they kidnap one, they will kidnap more,” he worries. Some 114 villages and small towns are around Sweida with half a million Druze living there.
The leaders of Druze mountain tell us that they are now also appealing to the international community to be protected by an international force, as the Kurdish area is protected by the Americans, and to assist them to bring back the kidnapped women to their families.
“To safeguard our community and to protect the diversity in the future of Syria, we need to create a crescent against aggressors,” said one of the politicians. Running from north to south, including parts of Iraq, it would protect the Kurds, the Yazidis, Christians, and Druze. “The minorities are looking to the Coalition as the only credible force in the area,” he said, adding, “The crescent strategically speaking would also cut the Iranians from access to the regime.”
The world must decide whether or not to respond, but the record thus far does not hold out much hope.
Author’s note: This piece first published at the Daily Beast
The armed conflict between ISIS and al Qaeda has reached its climax
How Central Asian jihadists kill each other in Syria?
Exactly one year ago, on July 10, 2017, the Islamic state citadel of Mosul city was liberated and, as a result, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi solemnly announced that the Caliphate in Iraq had finally and irrevocably fallen.More than three months later, on October 17, 2017, the Kurdish combat units of the Syrian Democratic Forces, with the support of the aviation of the international anti-terrorist coalition led by the United States, drove out the Islamic State from the Syrian city of Raqqa.
But, as the terrorist attacks carried out by the supporters of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in July 2018 in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Canada showed, the Islamic state managed to regain its strength over the past year and further expanded the geography of its military operations. While victorious fanfares sounded, ISIS fighters successfully mastered the tactics of guerrilla warfare and deeply integrated into the Sunni population of the Middle East and Central Asia. Pinpoint terrorist strikes clearly indicate that the victory over the Islamic state is still far away and the jihadists are determined to take revenge. Today ISIS is conducting an intense offensive guerrilla war not only against Western countries and government regimes in the region but also against the Taliban and armed groups of alQaeda, who are its ideological rivals for leadership in the jihadist world.
In this brutal and intra-factional war between ISIS Islamist groups on the one hand, and al Qaeda and Taliban on the other hand, the jihadists of the Central Asia’s five countries, called the “Stans”, are actively participating.Islamists from the Fergana Valley, because of ideological confrontation, were divided into supporters of al-Baghdadi and Ayman al-Zawahiri and often commit terrorist acts against each other in Syria.
According to the Hayat Tahrir al Sham–affiliated information agency Ebaa, on July 9, 2018, an attack was carried out in Syria’s city Idlib against the amir’s house of the Central Asian terrorist group Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad Abu Saloh. As a result of the attack, his wife and four-year-old son were killed. The Uzbek jihadists’ leader himself was not injured. Security officer Hayat Tahrir al-Sham Anas al-Sheikh said that the house of Abu Saloh was attacked by an armed Khawarij (al Qaeda uses the term “Khawarij” as a synonym for ‘extremist’ to describe members of the ISIS), who was detained by the security forces of the city after hot pursuit.During the interrogation, a member of the Islamic state confessed to the crime. He was recruited by ISIS in Turkey. Later “Khawarij” was executed, Ebaa agency reported.
This is not the first victim among the Central Asian jihadists as a result of an armed confrontation between ISIS and al Qaeda. On April 27, 2017, during the evening prayer in the mosque of a Syrian city of Idlib, leader of the al Qaeda-backed Katibat Imam al Bukhari Sheikh Salahuddin was killed by an ISIS militant who was from Uzbekistan. The Islamic State distributed the following statement via Telegram messenger in this regard, “The emir of detachment of Katibat al-Imam Bukhari, Sheikh Salahuddin, was punished according to Sharia law for all the betrayals he committed.”Two ISIS terrorists from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan who murdered the Sheikh Salahuddin were detained and executed.
Lately in the northwestern province of Idlib, which is the last stronghold of the Syrian armed opposition, terrorist attacks of ISIS militants on military and religious sites al Qaeda-backed Hayat Tahrir al-Sham sharply intensified.Lately in the northwestern province of Idlib, which is the last stronghold of the Syrian armed opposition, terrorist attacks of ISIS militants on military and religious sites of al Qaeda-backed Hayat Tahrir al-Sham sharply intensified.
Terrorist organizations from Central Asia such as Katibat al Tawhid wal Jihad, Katibat al-Imam Bukhari, as well as Uyghur groups from Chinese Xinjiang, the Turkestan Islamic Party and Katibat al-Ghuraba are located in Idlib.All of them were affiliated with al Qaeda and were fighting within the largest jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham. The Salafi-jihadi ideologues of the Hayat Tahrir al-Sham are making efforts to transform the Idlib province into an emirate ruled under Shariah.
According the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 229 jihadists of al Qaeda were assassinated by ISIS terrorist attacks. Of these, 153 fighters belong to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, al Qaeda-linked jihadist group Ahrar al-Sham, Jaysh al-Izza, and other factions operating in Idlib. 25 jihadists of Uzbek, Uyghur and Caucasian nationalities have been assassinated in the same ways.
Caliphate rising from the ashes
On July 12, 2018, ISIS’ media center Amaq issued the message with three images from an improvised explosive device attack in Idlib city. The target was Sheikh Anas Ayrout, the President of the Court of Appeal in Idlib, a longtime opposition figure and senior Sharia official who played a key role in the formation of the Syrian Salvation Government. Based on Shariah rule the Syrian Salvation Government is a civil authority formed in Idlib province in early November 2017 and backed by the rebel coalition Hayat Tahrir al-Sham.
A pinpoint attempt on such a high ranking religious and political figure indicates that the explosion was not accidental or chaotic.The al-Baghdadi militants have studied the possible routes of Sheikh Anas Ayrout and easily identified his car. They received from the Syrian Salvation Government information about when he would travel on this route.From this, it can be concluded that the Islamic state succeeded in introducing its agents into the military and religious structures of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and created a complex network of underground cells throughout Syria, including the Idlib province.
On July 13, 2018, the Islamic State’s propaganda machine released the information with several photos about the assassination of the Turkey-backed Sultan Murad Division rebel group’s leader Abu Ahmed al-Sansawi in Idlib city.ISIS’ photos clearly showed that the killing was a targeted assassination, during which the terrorists confidently pursued the car of al-Sansawi. This once again testifies that the underground ISIS network is organized at a high level, and they have mastered the tactics of guerrilla warfare.
The Media Center Amaq almost daily reports about Islamic state’s successful armed attacks on the positions of the “enemies of Islam” Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in the province of Idlib.Indeed, the guerrilla attacks and terrorist acts of the supporters of al-Baghdadi not only complicated the life of al-Qaeda-backed jihadists in Idlib, but they also caused a more serious threat to the security and defense of the entire armed Syrian opposition, than a possible attack by the Assad army and Iranian proxy Shiite militias with the support of Russian aviation.
On July 25, 2018, ISIS gunmen committed the bloodiest attack in Syria’s history in the southwestern Sweida province, killing 215 people and injuring 180 people.The sad reality is that the fighters of al Baghdadi survived the air strikes of the Western coalition and today continue to pour out streams of blood in Sham.They are trying to prove to the outside world and the entire Sunni jamaat that, despite the fall of Mosul and Raqqa, the military, human and organizational potential of the ISIS remains high.
Today, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the Central Asian Salafi-jihadi groups have to fight on three fronts: with the armed forces of the Assad regime, the Iranian controlled Shiite proxy units and ideological opponents of the Islamic state.If the war with the first two is outlined by a clear front line, then the fight against ISIS is conducted as an invisible guerrilla war.
Since 2017, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham regularly conducts a security campaign to identify ISIS clandestine cells and eliminate its agents in the province of Idlib.But it is very difficult to solve the problem of ensuring the security.To intimidate those who support the emir of the overthrown Caliphate al Baghdadi and those who sympathize with him, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham began to publicly execute the ISIS prisoners of war.
On July 14, Anas Sheikh, a security officer inIdlib, told Eba news agency that in the village of Sarmin,Hayat Tahrir al-Sham executed 8 ISIS members led by their commander Abu Barra Sahili. As evidence, the group’s propagandists published a photo of executed terrorists.
On July 24, Eba agency reported that HTS militants destroyed a large cell of the Islamic state in the village of Jisr Shugur in the west of Idlib.As a result, the deputy amir of ISIS in Idlib Abu Said al-Shishani was captured and immediately executed. His photo was published on the Eba website.
Abu Said al-Shishani was the brother of ISIS military minister, Abu Omar al-Shishani (real name Tarkhan Batirashvili), a well-known Chechen terrorist and the closest military adviser to Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.The US Treasury Department added Batirashvili to its list of “Specially Designated Global Terrorists”, and the US government announced a reward up to $5 million for information leading to his capture in 2015.
A sacrifice of the pure Islam
It should be noted that according to the direction of al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri,Hayat Tahrir al Sham and Central Asian jihadist groups avoided publicizing public executions of their enemies.But the difficult situation caused by the terrorist attacks of ISIS, apparently, forced the ideologists of al Qaeda to change the tactics of their propaganda.
In response, the jihadists of the Islamic state staged a wave of terror in the province of Idlib, as revenge for the murder of their members.They named their operation in honor of the murdered commander Abu Barra Sahili.Such a tradition was initiated by al Baghdadi himself.Earlier, ISIS carried out a military operation in honor of the lost military minister, Abu Omar al-Shishani, and in honor of the official spokesperson and senior leader of the Caliphate, Abu Mohammad al-Adnani.
The ideological rivalry and armed conflict between al Qaeda and ISIS for the leadership in the jihadist world has reached its peak.As is known, both terrorist groups are fighting for the purity of Islam.Both seek to establish Sharia laws, create an Islamic caliphate and to spread it around the world.ISIS ideologists consider the supporters of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham apostates and kaafirs (infidels).Al Qaeda described the supporters of the Islamic state as Khawarij (the early Islamic sect that was involved in the disruption of the unity of the Muslims and rebelled against the Khalifah).
From the analysis of ISIS activities over the last six months, it can be concluded that, firstly, the group leaders are trying to compensate for the loss of the Caliphate with abundant terrorist acts behind enemy lines and by expanding the geography of “the holy war.” Secondly, the supporters of the Islamic state managed to create at an advanced level an expanded underground network among Sunni Muslims in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey, Yemen and Egypt. Thirdly, the publication of statements and press releases in the Amaq News Agency show that terrorist acts in different countries and regions are managed from a single ISIS center.
From a practical point of view, fighting between jihadists of the Islamic state and al Qaeda is beneficial to all countries that are fighting Islamist extremism and terrorism. A long and bloody confrontation will undoubtedly weaken the human, technical and financial potential of both Salafi-jihadi groups.
Total Catastrophe Demands Total Solution: Boko Haram and the Dilemma of Northeast Nigeria
The Boko Haram insurgency, far from being over and ravaging Northeastern Nigeria, has affected both the physical and social environment and led to displacing many residents of the Northeast from their homes. The Boko Haram insurgency, which can be traced back to the year 2009, has resulted in a grave humanitarian crisis with so many internally displaced persons in dire need of global intervention and assistance from donor agencies and states. The insurgency since 2013 has led to the displacement of 2.4 million people, including women and children making up the highest percentage most affected by the conflict. Food insecurity remains a major concern to the international community, with 5.2 million people in need of life-saving food assistance, especially those who are in IDP camps. Also, there is a growing health challenge being experienced by internally displaced persons. For instance, on 16 August 2017 a cholera outbreak was reported on the outskirts of Borno’s capital, Maiduguri, and later on in Dikwa and Monguno as well. Within just two weeks there were 125 suspected/confirmed cases as well as eight suspected cholera-related deaths. These health challenges facing IDPs won’t change in the foreseeable future due to the limited humanitarian aid from donor agencies. Thus, these entirely preventable diseases are becoming endemic throughout the northeast.
Also in August 2017 there were major attacks against civilians, including despicable suicide bombings inside of IDP camps. Over 10 suicide bombing attacks took place during the reported period in Borno alone. These attacks have understandably discouraged humanitarian agencies from deploying their aid workers to the theatre of the conflict. Considering the high risks posed by the Boko Haram insurgency, most aid workers are unwilling to work in the Northeast part of Nigeria entirely, which consequently means the fate of all the IDPs there, within camps and without, are at the mercy of Boko Haram.
In order to ensure that humanitarian actors can continue to address the most pressing needs, physical access must be improved in northeast Nigeria which will help reduce the dilemma confronting IDPs in the region. It was discovered that by August 2017 the lack of access in certain areas of northeast Nigeria prevented food security organizations from reaching over 337,000 affected persons. Furthermore, the unpredictable internal migration movements of IDPs continue to pose a grave challenge to humanitarian agencies’ ability to respond in a timely and targeted manner. There is a collective agreement by all the non-Boko Haram northeast stakeholders that a return to normalcy and comprehensive resettlement of all IDPs across the region is the penultimate goal, second only to ensuring stable economic growth for the region’s sustainable redevelopment as the ultimate fight against extremism. This collective agreement has led the federal government of President Muhammadu Buhari to intensify its efforts to bring normalcy to the region and resettlement of all IDPs by directly engaging selected Boko Haram-controlled areas. In the meantime, however, this engagement increases the instability (if also dynamism) of the IDP situation.
According to the UNHCR December 2016 Report, out of the estimated 176,000 Nigerians (a sub-set of the total 2.3 Million IDPs) who fled to neighboring countries (Cameroon, Chad, and Niger), only 17,000 have returned and under circumstances falling far short of international standards. In many of these cases, the returnees are being processed to join other IDPs in formal and informal camps. This above report shows a certain level of dynamism, as they indicate that the returns are beginning to happen spontaneously. For instance, 2016 governmental reports on return assessments indicated that an estimated total of 332,333 IDPs (47,476 IDP households) returned to northern Adamawa (Mubi North, Mubi South, Michika, Maiha, Hong and Gombi). IDPs in Yobe are also beginning to relocate to communities and camps close to their original communities and only Borno State currently has the slowest rates of IDP returns. This is on account of the intermittent progress being made by the Nigerian military to defeat Boko Haram and the fact that many IDPs indicated a strong willingness to return of their own accord to their home communities if safety and security was at least semi-guaranteed. However, the comprehensive and full resettlement and return of IDPs to their homes depends largely on the total defeat of Boko Haram insurgents. Despite progress by the Nigerian military, that total victory is far from achieved or guaranteed.
There is a dire need for infrastructural development in the region as the Boko Haram insurgency has resulted in the destruction of facilities and installations, especially healthcare and educational institutions throughout the northeast. This dearth of infrastructural development has generated immense concerns which led to the National Assembly putting forward a bill to begin engineering this essential development of the region. Most recently, there was the signing of the Northeast Development Commission Bill by President Buhari. This law provides for the establishment of the Northeast Development Commission (NEDC). How effective this will be in bringing meaningful development to the conflict-ravaged region depends largely on how much funding is diverted to it and how sincerely and honestly will the commission manage those funds?
Thus, the way forward to ensure lasting peace while overcoming the grave humanitarian crisis confronting the northeast part of Nigeria is for the federal government (through its military and executive branch) to intensify efforts and show a high level of commitment toward not only defeating Boko Haram insurgents but making the economic, social, and food security of all citizens there politically paramount. Humanitarian global actors should also increase their efforts by committing more personnel physically to the region, thus reinforcing the commitment of the Nigerian government. Finally, the management of the Northeast Development Commission (NEDC) should be free of corruption and manipulation when rebuilding the northeast, in order to avoid the pitfalls that bedeviled an earlier commission with similar mandate, the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC). Until all parties involved, local and global, understand the holistic effort needed to not just overcome extremist elements but make Nigeria truly safe for all Nigerians, then the scourge of Boko Haram will continue.
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