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October 22 2012

Le Liban dans la tourmente syrienne

L'assassinat le vendredi 19 octobre de Wissam Al-Hassan, le chef de la branche du renseignement des Forces de sécurité intérieures (FSI), représente le plus grave attentat commis au Liban depuis 2008. Et un acte d'autant plus inquiétant qu'il pourrait contribuer à entraîner ce pays dans la guerre qui se déroule en Syrie. Les affrontements à Tripoli, dans le nord du Liban, ont fait plusieurs morts, tandis que des heurts avaient lieu aussi à Beyrouth après les funérailles. La radicalisation de certains (...) - Nouvelles d'Orient / Liban, Violence, Al-Qaida

May 09 2012

Le Nord-Mali aux mains des rebelles

Gao, Kidal, Tombouctou : les trois capitales régionales du nord du Mali sont tombées en moins de trois jours (du 30 mars au 1er avril 2012), deux mois après le déclenchement de la rébellion, provoquant la débâcle de l'armée. L'administration, les services publics et financiers ont été anéantis dans l'ensemble du nord du pays par les rebelles touaregs et leurs alliés islamistes, les cycles de production et les réseaux d'échange désorganisés, ce qui laisse craindre une véritable désintégration sociale dans (...) - Visions cartographiques / Mali, Touaregs, Sahel, Al-Qaida, AQMI

May 06 2011

Incendiary image: Osama bin Laden's body

Obama's decision not to release the photograph of Bin Laden's body speaks volumes about the continuing power of the photograph

President Obama's decision not to release images of Osama bin Laden's corpse, and the heated debate it has engendered, speaks volumes about the continuing power of the photograph even in a time when we are overwhelmed by digital images of every hue, from the mundane to the ultra-explicit.

Revealingly, Obama chose to frame his decision in both practical and moral terms. "It is important for us to make sure that very graphic photos of somebody who was shot in the head are not floating around as an incitement to additional violence, as a propaganda tool," he said. "You know, that's not who we are."

Others – most notably more hawkish Republicans and their supporters in the US media – argue that the images should be released precisely to show that this is "who we are": an America that wants the world to know in the most graphic terms what happens to those who attack their country. Photography, for better or worse, possesses this immediate power in a way that words – too reflective – and the moving image – too animated – do not. It is a moment, freeze-framed forever.

History has shown that the intended message of such photographs can backfire. Back in 1967, when Cuban revolutionary leader Che Guevara was captured and executed in Bolivia by troops loyal to military General Barrientos (with the help of the CIA), his corpse was photographed to leave the world in no doubt of his identity. With his unkempt hair and beard, the dead Che resembled the dead Christ in a Renaissance painting. In his biography of the insurgent, Compañero, Jorge G Castañeda wrote: "The Christ-like image prevailed ... It's as if the dead Guevara looks on his killers and forgives them, and upon the world, proclaiming that he who dies for an idea is beyond suffering."

Could an image of Bin Laden's bloodied corpse send out the same message to his followers? Almost certainly, and we will no doubt see that power soon enough when the photographs leak out into the media, as they surely will – with or without Obama's sanctioning.

More problematic for Obama's moral reasoning is the fact that other graphic images of the aftermath of the attack on Bin Laden's compound have already been leaked, showing the bloodied corpses of unidentified men. Why is it acceptable to show these bodies but not that of their leader, a figurehead for global terrorism? Indeed, why show such graphic images at all?

In her recent book, The Cruel Radiance: Photography and Political Violence, the American academic Susie Linfield argues that, in the internet age, we must regain our ability to distinguish between gratuitous images of violence and hardship – including "the onslaught of images from the Muslim world that celebrate suicide bombings, beheadings and other forms of barbarism" – and more morally defensible images of war and conflict, however explicit.

"If we want to construct a politics of human rights that isn't merely an abstraction, we need to look at these photographs of suffering, degradation and defeat," she writes. "We need to think clearly not only about the relationships among these images, how they function and what they communicate in aggregate, but about the specific conditions each one depicts, no matter how disturbing, shaming and bewildering an experience that may be." One senses that Linfield would support Obama in his decision, especially at a time when many Americans are in no mood for painstaking and self-searching moral debates of this kind.

Interesting, too, is the group photograph of President Obama, Hilary Clinton and their retinue of advisers in the situation room watching Bin Laden die via a camera fixed to a soldier's helmet. It gives some indication of the horror of the moment, if only in Clinton's look of shock and disbelief as well as in the president's stern gaze. Why, though, was this image released? Perhaps because it shows no trace of celebration or gloating – "That's not who we are" – but instead a grim acknowledgment of the horror of what is happening in all its cruel radiance. It is a fascinating document, for what it doesn't show us as much as what it does. That is the often-overlooked power of great photography: to suggest rather than to shock.


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May 04 2011

Why did Bin Laden build such a drab HQ?

The world's No 1 villain had a background in building. So why did he end his days in a lair with no flair?

If the death of Osama bin Laden tells us anything it's that life isn't like a Bond movie. Rather than running al-Qaida from some spectacular Ken Adam-designed lair under the ocean or inside a volcano, Bin Laden ended his days in an exceptionally ugly and ignoble townhouse – a bland, square, flat-roofed three-storey block with few windows or other features.

Blofeld or Scaramanga wouldn't have been caught dead in such a design abomination, while Bin Laden very much was. But does his style-free crib betray a wider architectural pathology? Is there a case that the world's most evil man was at heart a frustrated architect?

Let's consider the evidence. Osama's father, Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden, was the founder of the powerful Saudi Binladin Group, builders to Saudi's royal family and Islam's holiest sites. Already there's a connection between architecture and religious zeal. Proving his worthiness to dad cannot have been easy for Osama, with 53 other brothers and sisters in contention, but he studied civil engineering in Jeddah evidently anticipating a place in the family business. For whatever reasons, that didn't work out. So did his failure in construction leave Bin Laden with an architectural chip on his shoulder? Did he turn his architectural ambitions to global terror instead? Is it coincidence that "al-Qaida" could be translated as "the base" or "foundation"? Could his horrendous crimes, particularly the destruction of the twin towers, be seen as a form of extreme architectural criticism?

Let's not forget that Bin Laden's own design experiments were regularly thwarted. First there were the famous Tora Bora caves in eastern Afghanistan. According to the press, these really were the stuff of Bond movies. A month after 9/11, the Independent published a sensational description of Tora Bora as an impregnable base built deep inside a mountain. The Times then printed an even more preposterous cross-section of "Bin Laden's underground fortress", equipped with its own hospitals, offices, bedrooms, hydroelectric power supply, and roads big enough to drive a tank into, apparently. The US did little to deny it. Presented with this fantasy design, Donald Rumsfeld stated, "there's not one of those, there are many of those". According to some reports, Bin Laden really did fit the caves with ventilation and hydroelectric power systems for Tora Bora, drawing on his civil engineering knowhow. He can't take full credit; the caves were primarily built during the 1980s by the mujahideen, using CIA money, but who knows what might have been had the US not bombed him out of there?

Most of Bin Laden's other homes were similarly destroyed by US air raids at some stage. He appears to have been flirting with dictator chic in his half-built house in Kandahar, which was said to include a mosque, 15 bedrooms, western bathtubs, carved wooden window frames and pastel-coloured conference rooms. Oddly enough, Turner prize-nominated British artists Langlands and Bell found another of his bombed-out Afghan residences in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, in 2002, which they turned into a digital art piece.

If their virtual reconstruction is to be believed, it shows some progress in Bin Laden's design sensibility. This is light, spacious and sensitive to the surroundings. Note those considerately framed views, the relaxing veranda and sturdy bomb shelter. And the translucent foliage ceilings are a nice touch – very eco but traditional, too.

Fundamentalist terrorism's gain was the Ideal Home Show's loss.

In his final Pakistan abode, though, Bin Laden was cornered into the architecture of anonymity. Despite spending a million dollars on his bespoke compound, it had to be as inconspicuous as possible. Perhaps the frustrated fugitive still harboured some ambitions of grandeur, hence the ostentatious security wall, 18 feet high in places. And the fact that the house was roughly eight times larger than its neighbours – a mansion of mediocrity, and a bit of an own goal in the anonymity department. As a White House spokesman stated, "Intelligence analysts concluded that this compound was custom-built to hide someone of significance." When it came down to it, Bin Laden just couldn't rein his architectural ambition in, and it proved to be his downfall.


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May 02 2011

La mort d'Oussama Ben Laden

Oussama Ben Laden a été tué au Pakistan par un commando américain. Cette opération a bénéficié de l'aide de la direction pakistanaise. Si les détails ne sont pas encore connus – nous ne reviendrons pas ici sur la légalité de cette opération, ni sur la moralité de l'exécution –, la mort du chef d'Al-Qaida est un sérieux revers pour l'organisation qui voulait incarner la lutte « contre les Juifs et les croisés ». Marginalisée par la révolte arabe, dans laquelle elle ne joue aucun rôle, l'organisation (...) - Nouvelles d'Orient / Afghanistan, Pakistan, Al-Qaida, Ben Laden (Oussama)

April 28 2011

Big time: the Casio F-91W watch

The built-in longevity of this humble 1991 timepiece makes it the weapon of choice for both the retro and the righteous

There is one accessory de rigueur with both skinny jeans on the streets of Shoreditch and an orange jumpsuit and black hood in the searing heat of Guantánamo Bay. The latest WikiLeaks dump has revealed that a disproportionate number of terrorism suspects in America's most notorious prison were apprehended wearing a Casio F-91W, a plastic digital watch you can buy for £8.99 from Argos. Beloved of hipsters and jihadis alike, the model has a rare and divergent customer loyalty that suggests we are in the realm of great design. But are these latest revelations the kiss of death for Casio or marketing gold?

The Casio F-91W was launched in 1991 and remains unchanged 20 years later. Since the 1974 launch of its first wristwatch, the Casiotron, this Japanese calculator maker has come to dominate the digital watch market, rebranding the conventional timepiece as an "information device for the wrist". Casios famously include not only stopwatches and alarm clocks but calculators and calendars. Their calculator versions, with fiendishly small buttons, epitomised the Japanese passion for miniaturisation. But the F-91W was a simpler model, stripped back both in its form and its multifunctionality.

That simple form no doubt accounts for its enduring popularity. In an age when the technological convergence of the "information device" has migrated to the smartphone, the watch is something of an anachronism, worn as much as a fashion statement or status symbol as for its time-telling properties.

The F-91W features the classic seven-segment numerical display on a grey LCD screen. It's a trusty timepiece: water-resistant, extremely durable and accurate to within 30 seconds a month. And while it is possible to buy luxury watches at 10,000 times the price that tick with atomic accuracy, doing so for precision reasons is functionalist logic taken to its absurd extreme.

By contrast, the F-91W's popularity with the young, cool set follows a converse logic that is no less a form of snobbery. On the one hand, the model is consistent with a diehard 80s revivalism, the wrist-based equivalent of a pair of Ray–Bans and a taste for Kraftwerk – and, yes, there is even the requisite touch of irony in sporting a 20-year-old digital watch alongside an iPhone 4. But it's more than that: unlike supplicants in the temple of the luxury Swiss watch, hipsters treat their ability to pull off cheapness as a mark of sartorial confidence.

What, then, do terrorists see in this watch? With 28 inmates of Guantánamo found to have had one in their possession, the F-91W and its metallic twin, the A168WA, were described earlier this week as "the sign of al-Qaida". According to testimony given by one prisoner, the model was useful because it was water-resistant: Muslims wash their arms up to their elbows before prayers. Another, more hapless inmate cited the built-in compass that enabled him to pray towards Mecca. His interrogators will have smelled a rat: there is no compass in an F-91W.

In fact, the model is al-Qaida's equipment of choice as the timing device for improvised exploding devices (IEDs). They're handed out in terrorist training camps, where junior jihadis learn how to wire them up to a circuit board, a couple of 9V batteries and a wodge of plastic explosive. This nasty package is concealed in a standard electrical outlet box, with the F-91W a macabre calling card – programmable up to 23 hours, 59 minutes and 59 seconds, it allows the bombers to put ample distance between themselves and their targets. In truth any cheap, reliable digital watch would do, and it may be an accident of fate that led to the F-91W gaining notoriety: some flunky gets packed off to an electronics shop in Peshawar to bulk-buy cheap digital watches, likes the blue rim around the face of that Casio number and lumps a donkey-load of them over the Afghan border.

When I approached Casio's PR team for some information about their bestselling model, I got a curt email response saying: "Casio is not making any further comment on the F-91W watch at this point in time." Is this a case of too much negative publicity? Is the fact that Osama Bin Laden himself wears an F-91W bad for the brand's street cred? Yes and no. Arguably, it is a ringing endorsement of the product's lethal reliability. Many brands would embrace that cult status.

All of this is a colourful distraction from what is truly remarkable about the F-91W – the fact that it is a digital product that has remained unchanged for 20 years. How many other devices can we say that of, apart from the even more anachronistic calculator? Casio's mainstay comes from a parallel world where designed obsolescence – the sales strategy that has cursed everything from our lightbulbs to our computers – doesn't exist. We desire no improvements or embellishments: it just works. In that first flush of affordable consumer electronics, I'm sure no one dreamed that in two decades the F-91W would still be popular and still relevant – just as in the 1990s, when futurists thought videophones were just around the corner, no one imagined a technology as archaic as texting would take off. We are intoxicated by technological potential, but it's the primitive devices we reward with longevity.

Should we – in solidarity with those Guantánamo inmates who are innocent, and in the spirit of resistance to an illegal detention centre – flock to Argos to buy Casios and flood the obtuse immigration counters of American airports with our F-91W-appointed wrists in an "I am digi-Spartacus" moment? No thanks – life looks a lot better through a pair of retro Ray-Bans than it does through a black hood.


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November 08 2010

Yémen, « la guerre contre le terrorisme » est déjà perdue

Une des impasses de « la guerre contre le terrorisme » lancée par le président George W. Bush et reprise, sous des formes différentes, par Barack Obama – guerre que soutiennent les pays européens et notamment la France –, vient de l'incapacité de « penser localement ». Au lieu de tenter d'analyser les données de chaque pays – Irak, Afghanistan, Liban ou Yémen – les Occidentaux ont tendance à le situer dans un cadre global d'affrontement, qui empêche de comprendre et aboutit forcément à des échecs. Dans les (...) - Nouvelles d'Orient / Terrorisme, Yémen, Al-Qaida
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