A lack of intelligence

Harim Air Strike MAP annotated

The second of the three recent US air strikes I’ve been looking at took place near Harim [Harem on the map above] in Syria on the night of 5-6 November 2014.  The report of the military investigation into allegations of civilian casualties is here.

The aircraft launched multiple strikes against two compounds which had been identified as sites used as meeting places for named (though redacted) terrorists and sites for the manufacture and storage of explosives by the al-Qaeda linked ‘Khorasan Group’ (if the scare-quotes puzzle you, compare here and here).

The compounds each contained several buildings and had previously been on a No Strike List under a category that includes civilian housing; they lost their protected status when ‘they were assessed as being converted to military use’ but ‘other residential and commercial structures were situated around both targets’.  An annotated image of the attack on the first compound is shown below:

Harim Air Strike on Compound 001

Although the report argues that ‘the targets were engaged in the early morning hours when the risk to civilians was minimized’ – a strange statement, since most civilians would have been asleep inside those ‘residential structures’ – US Central Command subsequently received open-source reports of from three to six civilian casualties, together with still and video imagery.  By the end of December 2014 the Combined Joint Task Force conducting ‘Operation Inherent Resolve’ had completed a preliminary ‘credibility assessment’ of the claims and found sufficient evidence to establish a formal investigation into the allegations of civilian casualties.  The investigating officer delivered his final report on 13 February 2015.

He also had access to a report from the Syrian Network for Human Rights that provided a ground-level perspective (including video) unavailable to the US military.  Its narrative is different from US Central Command, identifying the targets as being associated with An-Nussra:

The warplanes launched, at first, four missiles that hit three military points, which are located next to each other, in the northeast of the town:

1 – The Agricultural Bank, which is used by An-Nussra front as a center.
2 – The central prison checkpoint, where An-Nussra fighters were stationed.
3 – An ammunition depot in the same area.

The shelling destroyed and burned the Agricultural Bank’s building completely in addition to damaging a number of building nearby. Furthermore, a number of cars were burned while a series of explosions occurred after an explosion in the ammunition depot..
Afterwards, the warplanes targeted a fourth center with two missiles. [This target] was a building by an old deserted gas station located near the industrial school in the south of the town. The shelling destroyed the center completely as well as the gas station in addition to severely damaging the surrounding buildings. Harem residents were aided by the civil-defense teams to save people from underneath the rubble.

SNHR documented the killing of two young girls; one could not be unidentified but the other was Daniya, aged 5, who was killed along with her father who was said to be one of the An-Nussra fighters living in a house near the Agricultural Bank.  Daniya’s mother and her brother Saeed, aged 7, were seriously wounded.

The report also included post-strike imagery from YouTube videos and Twitter feeds:

Harim VIDEO 1 jpeg

Harim VIDEO 2 jpeg

In contrast to the report on the air strike in Iraq I discussed in my previous post, this one includes no details of the attack, nor the procedures through which it was authorised and conducted – though we do know that there is a considerable military bureaucracy behind all these strikes, especially in the administration of what in this case was clearly a pre-planned rather than emergent target.  For more on the bureaucratisation of targeting, incidentally, see  Astrid Nordin and Dan Öberg, ‘Targeting the ontology of war: From Clausewitz to Baudrillard’, Millennium 43 (2) (2015) 392-410; analytically it’s right on the mark, I think, and I’ll be advancing similar arguments in my Tanner Lectures – though stripped of any reference to Baudrillard…

But there is one revealing sentence in the report.  Although the investigating officer had no doubt that the Harim strikes were perfectly legal, everything worked like clockwork and nothing need be changed –

Harim conclusion

– there is nevertheless a recommendation for ‘sustained ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] whenever practicable based on operational requirements, to ensure that no civilians are entering or exiting a facility.’  The clear implication is that these strikes – pre-planned, remember: these were not fleeting targets of opportunity – were not supported by real-time ISR.  When you add to that the reliance placed by the investigation on ground imagery from YouTube and Twitter, you begin to realise how little the US military and its allies must know about many of the targets they strike in Iraq and Syria.  (I might add that the US has not been averse to using Twitter feeds for targeting too: see Robert Gregory‘s compelling discussion in Clean bombs and dirty wars: air power in Kosovo and Libya, where he describes the central role played by Twitter feeds from Libyan rebels in identifying targets for the US Air Force and its NATO allies: by the closing months of the campaign France was deriving 80 per cent of its intelligence from social media contacts on the ground).

All this gives the lie to the cheery ‘let ’em have it’ guff from Robert Caruso, commenting on US air strikes in Syria last September:

By relying so heavily on drones in our recent counter-terror campaigns we’ve been fighting with one hand tied behind our back. But a key to the success of Monday’s strikes was the use of manned aircraft with pilots who can seek out enemy targets and make on-the-spot decisions…

it’s time to drop the drone fetish, and the limitations it imposed, and go back to using manned airpower, which is more powerful and better suited to hunting down elusive targets like ISIS.

Regular readers will know that I’m not saying that drones are the answer, or that their ability to provide persistent, real-time, full-motion video feeds in high definition makes the battlespace transparent; on the contrary (see my ‘Angry Eyes’ posts here and especially here: more to come soon).

But the absence of their ISR capability can only make a bad situation worse.  In February, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center conceded that that US had not ‘closed the gap on where we need to be in terms of our understanding, with granularity, about what is going on on the ground in Syria.’  Indeed, during the first four months of this year ‘nearly 75 percent of U.S. bombing runs targeting the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria [a total of more than 7,000 sorties] returned to base without firing any weapons’, and reports claimed that aircrews held their fire ‘mainly because of a lack of ground intelligence.’

Full-motion video cannot compensate for that absence, of course, and in any case there are serious limitations on the number of ISR orbits that are possible over Iraq and Syria given the demands for drones over Afghanistan and elsewhere: each orbit requires three to four aircraft to provide 24/7 coverage, and the global maximum the US Air Force can provide using its Predators and Reapers varies between 55 and 65 orbits (or ‘combat air patrols’).

In late August 2014 Obama authorised both manned and unmanned ISR flights over Syria, and since then the United States has been joined by the UK and France in deploying MQ-9 Reapers over Iraq and Syria, where their video feeds have helped to orchestrate missions carried out by conventional strike aircraft (see, for example, here).  In August 2015 France claimed that all its air strikes in Iraq had to be validated by ISR provided by a drone:

reaper-20150508

But that was in August, before Hollande threw caution to the winds and ramped up French air strikes in response to the Paris attacks in November – an escalation that relied on targeting packages supplied by the United States.

In any case, Predators and Reapers are also armed and in their ‘hunter-killer’ role they had executed around one quarter of all airstrikes conducted by the United States in Iraq and Syria by June 2015 and more than half the air strikes conducted by the UK in Iraq.  Although the UK only extended its bombing campaign against Islamic State to Syria this month, its Reapers had been entering Syrian airspace in steadily increasing numbers since November 2014 to provide ISR (in part, presumably, to enable the United States to orchestrate its air strikes) and in September 2015 it used one of them to carry out the UK’s first acknowledged targeted killing near Raqqa (see also here and here); the United States has also routinely used the aircraft in the extension of its multi-sited targeted killing program to Syria (see also here).

All this bombing, all this blood: and yet strategically remarkably little to show for it.   And all for a lack of intelligence…

Je ne suis pas Charlie

Once you decide you want to engage with audiences beyond the academy – one of my reasons for starting this blog, which also spirals in to my presentations and (I hope) my other writing – you run the risk of accepting invitations to comment on issues that lie far beyond your competence.  Even supposed ‘experts’ can be caught out, of course: think of  Steven Emerson‘s extraordinary claim earlier this week on Fox News (where else?) that in the UK ‘there are actual cities like Birmingham that are totally Muslim where non-Muslims just simply don’t go in…’  Emerson is the founder and Executive Director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism, and ‘is considered one of the leading authorities on Islamic extremist networks, financing and operations’ – or so he says on his website – and he subsequently apologised for his ‘inexcusable error’.

Emerson was being interviewed as part of Fox News’s continuing coverage of the murders at the office of Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket in Paris on 7 January, and specifically about the supposed proliferation of what he called ‘no-go zones … throughout Europe’.

A good rule is to treat areas you know nothing about as ‘no-go zones’ until you’ve done the necessary research.

Academics need to take that seriously too, especially as universities become ever busier pumping up their public affairs, boosting their media profiles and offering journalists ready access to the specialised knowledge of their faculty.  Don’t get me wrong: I believe passionately in the importance of public geography, especially with a little g, and I also understand how producers and journalists racing to meet a deadline need talking heads.  But we need to be careful about the simulation of expertise.

This is, in part, why I haven’t said anything so far about the murders in Paris.  But on Thursday I was invited to lead a lunch-time discussion about them at the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies; one of the many wonderful things about the place is the trust that emerges out of a commitment to the irredeemably social nature of intellectual work, and so – beyond the cameras, the microphones and the notebooks – I tried to sort out what I had been reading and thinking.    In many ways, it was an extended riff on Joe Sacco‘s cartoon that appeared in the Guardian just two days after the attacks (if you want to know the reactions of Arab cartoonists, then see Jonathan Guyer here and here):

joesaccoonsatire1200

My starting-points were provided by The colonial present.  First, many commentators have suggested that the attacks were ‘France’s 9/11’; Le Monde‘s banner headline declared emphatically ‘Le 11 Septembre Français’.

le_monde_11_septembre

I think this absurd for many reasons, but there are several senses in which the comparison is worth pursuing, particularly if we focus on the response to the attacks in New York and Paris.  Both events, or more accurately television and video feeds of the developing situations, were relayed to watching audiences in real time.  This sense of immediacy is important, because it says something about the ways in which viewers were drawn in to the visual field and interpellated as subjects who were enjoined to respond – and crucially to feel – in particular ways.

Since this is emphatically not what Dominique Moisi, author of The geopolitics of emotion, had in mind when he insisted that ‘the attacks in Paris and in New York share the same essence’, that both cities ‘incarnate a similar universal dream’ of ‘light and freedom’, perhaps a different comparison will clarify what I mean.  Think of the killing of hundreds, even thousands of people by Boko Haram in Baga in northern Nigeria two weeks ago; reports began to appear in Europe and North America just one day after the murders in Paris, but the focus on France remained relentless.  There were surely many reasons for that (see Maeve Shearlaw‘s discussion here and Samira Sawlani‘s here), but the contrast between the live feeds from Paris and the scattered, inchoate and verbal reports from Baga is part of it – particularly when you realise that the scale of that distant atrocity was eventually  ‘laid bare’, as the Guardian put it, by satellite photographs released by Amnesty International showing more than 3,000 houses (‘structures’) burned or razed in Baga and Doron Baga.  For all the importance of surveillant witnessing in otherwise difficult to reach locations, the distance between bodies and buildings, an ordinary camera and a satellite, and live television and static imagery is telling, and sustains an affective geopolitics that is at once divided and divisive.

(Imagery is important to the Paris attacks in another sense too: when the murderers stormed in to the offices of Charlie Hebdo the focus of their rage was a series of cartoons mocking Mohammed – but they were radicalised by quite other documentary images, including coverage of the wars in Iraq and photographs showing the atrocities committed by American troops in Abu Ghraib: see here and here, and look at Joe Sacco’s cartoon again).

My second borrowing from The colonial present was a re-borrowing of Terry Eagleton‘s spirited invocation of ‘the terrible twins’, amnesia and nostalgia: ‘the inability to remember and the incapacity to do anything else’.  In the book I suggested that these are given a special significance within the colonial memory theatre, where the violence of colonialism is repressed and replaced by a yearning for the culture of domination and deference that it sought to instill.   And in much (fortunately not all) of the commentary on the Paris attacks, France’s colonial past has been effaced.  But here is Tim Stanley writing in the Telegraph:

The ability of a society to forget its recent past is like the amnesia that follows an accident – the body’s way of protecting itself against trauma. Yet in the 1950s and 1960s, as France tried to cling on to its African colonial possessions, political violence was far more common than today. Muslim Algerian nationalists (their race and religion regarded as interchangeable by the French) bombed the mainland, assassinated officials and killed colonialists en masse. The reaction of the state was shocking. In 1961, 12,000 Algerian immigrants were arrested in Paris and held in a football stadium [and at other sites: see the map below]. Many were tortured; more than a hundred disappeared. For days, bodies were found floating in the Seine.

Carte.ParisAlgerie1961Bis

EINAUDI Bataille de ParisYou can find more on the events of 17 October 1961 – on the arrests, torture and summary executions following a mass rally to protest against a curfew imposed on Algerians in Paris – here and here, but the definitive account remains Jean-Luc Einaudi‘s Bataille de Paris (1991).

DIKEÇ BadlandsThis is but one episode in a violent and immensely troubled colonial history.  To point to this past – as Robert Fisk also did, in much more detail, in the Independent – is to loop back to 9/11 again, when attempts to provide similar contextual explanations were dismissed (or worse) as ‘exoneration’.  To be sure, one must be careful: although Chérif and Said Kouachi were the Paris-born sons of Algerian immigrants, Arthur Asseraf is right to reject attempts to draw a straight line between violence in the past and violence in the present.  But can the continued marginalisation of Muslims in metropolitan France, particularly young men in Paris’s banlieus, be ignored?  (Here there is no better place to start than Mustafa Dikeç‘s work, especially Badlands of the Republic).  Doesn’t it matter that more than 60 per cent of prisoners in French jails are Muslims? For the Economist all this means is that jihadists ‘share lives of crime and violence‘ so that structural violence disappears from view, but Tithe Bhattacharya provides a different answer in which the ghosts of a colonial past continue to haunt the colonial present.

And doesn’t the responsive assertion of a ‘freedom of expression’ that is, again, highly particularistic seek to absolutize a nominally public sphere whose exclusions would have been only too familiar to France’s colonial subjects?  Ghasan Hage reads its triumphalist restatement in the aftermath of the Paris murders as a colonial narcissism – a sort of colonial nostalgia through the looking-glass – fixated on what he calls a strategy of ‘phallic distinction’ in which ‘freedom of expression’ is flashed at radicalised Muslims to tell them: ‘look what we have and you haven’t, or at best yours is very small compared to ours.’  (And whose governments have done so much to prop up authoritarian regimes in the Arab world and beyond that thrive on the suppression and punishment of free speech?)

There are, as Joe Sacco’s cartoon makes clear, real limitations on what can be said or shown in France too, including how somebody can present themselves in public – think of the arguments over the veil and the headscarf.  There are also limitations elsewhere in the world, of course, which is why the sacularisation of Charlie Hebdo and, in particular, the march in Paris on 11 January seemingly headed by politicians from around the world, arm in arm (in some cases arms in arms would be more accurate), processing down the Boulevard Voltaire (symbolism is everything), was a scene that, as Seumas Milne noted, was beyond satire:

from Nato war leaders and Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu to Jordan’s King Abdullah and Egypt’s foreign minister, who between them have jailed, killed and flogged any number of journalists while staging massacres and interventions that have left hundreds of thousands dead, bombing TV stations from Serbia to Afghanistan as they go.

True enough, but here too appearance is everything: the photograph was artfully staged (even before one ‘newspaper’ airbrushed the women from the frame) and took place in an otherwise empty side-street.

Paris photo-op PNG

If I can make one last nod to The colonial present, not surprisingly many of these politicians have also used the murders to justify the continued violence of the wars being fought in the shadows of 9/11; if you are in the mood to reverse the looking-glass, then Markha Valenta‘s sobering reflection at Open Democracy is indispensable:

[E]verything that might be said about revolutionary Islamist movements – when it comes to global violence – could be said about global Americanism and US foreign policy. It has been ruthless, cruel, illiberal, anti-democratic. It has wreaked havoc, killed innocents, raped women, men and youths, tortured viciously, violated the rule of law and continues to do so…

It does so in our name. In the name of democracy. And those who expose this … are shut up ruthlessly, cruelly and in ways designed to degrade. (Yet we did not march then.)

This matters because it clarifies what our condition is today, the condition under which last week’s violence took place: an extended and expanding global war between those who claim the right to intervention, brutality and terror in the name of democracy and those who do so in the name of Islam.

No less predictably, one of the immediate and dismally common responses to the murders, amidst the clamour for freedom of speech, was a renewed call for more state surveillance and regulation.  As Teju Cole wrote in the New Yorker,

The only person in prison for the C.I.A.’s abominable torture regime is John Kiriakou, the whistle-blower. Edward Snowden is a hunted man for divulging information about mass surveillance. Chelsea Manning is serving a thirty-five-year sentence for her role in WikiLeaks. They, too, are blasphemers, but they have not been universally valorized, as have the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdo.

But it’s not only politicians who are guilty of appropriation.  Putting on one (far) side the extraordinary attempts to turn “Je suis Charlie” to commercial account – to ‘trademark the tragedy and its most resonant refrain‘ – there are other, less venal and more complicated appropriations.

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Heat map of #jesuischarlie hashtag; animation is available here

So back to the looking-glass.  You might think that “Je suis Charlie” is an affirmative gesture born of anger and horror but also of sympathy and compassion, a simple human reflex that has become virtually commonplace – comparable to, say, “We are all Palestinians“.  That was my first thought too. But the trouble is that such a rhetorical claim comes with a lot of baggage.  David Palumbo-liu suggests that  “I am Charlie” can be an assertion of empathy, solidarity or identification.  Even empathy is far from straightforward – why do we extend our fellow feeling to these people and not those? – but, as he shows, the other two progressively raise the stakes.    Sarah Keenan and Nadine El-enany wire this to appropriation with exquisite clarity in a short essay at Critical Legal Thinking:

The #JesuisCharlie hashtag and its social media strategy of solidarity through identification with the victim is … an appropriation of what was a creative and subversive tool for fighting structural violence and racist oppression, perhaps most famously in the “I am Trayvon Martin” campaign. When young black men stood up and said “I am Trayvon Martin”, they were demonstrating the persistent and deeply entrenched demonisation of black men which not only sees them killed in the street on their way to the local shop, but also deems their killers innocent of any wrongdoing. When predominantly white people in France and around the world declare “Je Suis Charlie”, they are not coming together as fellow members of a structurally oppressed and marginalised community regularly subjected to violence, poverty, harassment and hatred. Rather, they are banding together as members of the majority, as individuals whose identification with Charlie Hebdo, however well-​meaning, serves to reproduce the very structures of oppression, marginalisation and demonisation that allowed the magazine’s most offensive images to be consumed and celebrated in the first place.

As the invocations of Voltaire should have demonstrated, there is a substantial difference between defending the right to draw a cartoon and celebrating what is drawn.  Too many commentators clearly want to elide the difference, but there is another distinction to be made too.  A Muslim friend who lives in Paris was distraught at the murders, but when he heard the calls for the cartoons to be re-published immediately after the killings he told me he felt brutalised all over again.  Those who made such demands, who casually sneered at the ‘cowardice’ of those who failed to comply, either forgot or chose to ignore the existence of a far, far larger Muslim audience than the terrorists against whom they vented their spleen: or, still worse, it never occurred to them that there is a difference between the two.

So: je ne suis pas Charlie; I think I’d rather ‘be’ Joe.

***

I am grateful to my friends and colleagues who helped me think through these issues – I realise there’s a lot more thinking to be done, so please treat this as a first, fumbling attempt – and to Jaimie.

Handling the news

A follow-up to Virtual Gaza : Gilad Lotan, chief data scientists at beteaworks, has provided a mapping of the intersections between mainstream media news media and social media here, including a discussion of what he calls ‘personalising propaganda’.

Twitter handles responding to UNRWA school shelling 25-30 July

The Israeli liberal newspaper Ha’aretz appears between the broadly ‘pro-Palestinian’ networks on the right and the ‘pro-Israeli’ on the left.  These are his designations not mine (BBC? the New York Times??!!), but the mappings are of Twitter handles responding between 25-30 July to the Israeli shelling of an UNRWA school in Beit Hanoun – a particular event that sparked a particular series of reports – not the war as a whole.  And we should also remember that there is often a significant difference between reporting in the English-language and Hebrew editions of Ha’aretz

Darkness Descending

I woke this morning to media reports of the continued carnage in Gaza and to headlines recycled from Associated Press announcing that Israel had struck ‘symbols of Hamas power’.  Front and centre in the frenzied assault was an attack on Gaza’s only power station: but its importance is hardly ‘symbolic’.

1509120862In Targets of opportunity Samuel Weber wrote: ‘Every target is inscribed in a network or chain of events that inevitably exceeds the opportunity that can be seized or the horizon that can be seen.’

In ‘In another time-zone…’ (DOWNLOADS tab) I elaborated his comment in relation to so-called ‘deliberative targeting’, which ‘places a logistical value on targets through their carefully calibrated, strategic position within the infrastructural networks that are the very fibres of modern society’:

The complex geometries of these networks then displace the pinpoint co-ordinates of ‘precision’ weapons and ‘smart bombs’ so that their effects surge far beyond any immediate or localised destruction. Their impacts ripple outwards through the network, extending the envelope of destruction in space and time, and yet the syntax of targeting – with its implication of isolating an objective – distracts attention from the cascade of destruction deliberately set in train. In exactly this spirit, British and American attacks on Iraqi power stations in 2003 were designed to disrupt not only the supply of electricity but also the pumping of water and the treatment of sewage that this made possible, with predictable (and predicted) consequences for public health. Similarly, on 28 June 2006, during the IDF’s Operation Summer Rains, Israeli missiles destroyed all six transformers of Gaza’s only power station (which provided over half of Gaza’s power). Being powerless in Gaza was as devastating as in Iraq:

‘The lack of electricity means sewage cannot be treated, increasing the risk of disease spreading, and hospitals cannot function normally. It means ordinary Gazans cannot keep perishable food because their fridges do not work. At night, they are plunged into complete darkness when the electricity cuts off. They rely on candles and paraffin lamps. Many residents have also been left with an irregular water supply as they need electricity to pump water up from nearby wells or from ground floor level to higher floors in blocks of flats.’

In attacking the power station – a repeated and familiar target, and so not one struck ‘by accident’ – the IDF knows very well that in the days, weeks and months to come hundreds, even thousands of people will get sick or even die as sewage plants and water pumps fail, as refrigeration systems stop, and as essential surgeries and life-support systems are interrupted.

The situation before the latest Israeli offensive was highly precarious, as the map below shows; you can download a hi-res version here (if you have power), and the accompanying one-page report spells out the implications.  Israeli restrictions on the importation of spare parts mean that the power plant has never been restored to full capacity after the previous attacks, and since June 2013 the situation has been exacerbated by ‘the halt in the smuggling of Egyptian-subsidized fuel used to operate the [power plant] via the tunnels’ (last year the differential was 3.2 shekels/litre compared with 7.1 shekels/litre for fuel imported from Israel).

GAZA power deficit

At full capacity, Fares Akram reports, the power station should supply 80 megawatts of electricity; before the most recent Israeli offensive it was already degraded, producing at most only 50-60 megawatts.  It was damaged by Israeli shelling three times last week, and the effects tore into what was left of the fabric of everyday life.  Listen to Atef Abu Saif, writing in his ‘Diary of a Palestinian’ on Saturday 26 July (and read the whole thing: it is an astonishing and eloquent testimony to the depravity of the onslaught):

It has now been 40 hours with no electricity. The water was also cut off yesterday. Electricity is a constant issue in Gaza. Since the Strip’s only power station was bombed in 2008, Gazans have had at best 12 hours of electricity a day. These 12 hours could be during the day, or while you are fast asleep; it’s impossible to predict. Complaining about it gets you nowhere. For three weeks we’ve barely had two or three hours a day. And right now, we would be happy with just one.

These blackouts affect every part of your life. Your day revolves around that precious moment the power comes back on. You have to make the most of every last second of it. First, you charge every piece of equipment that has a battery: your mobile, laptop, torches, radio, etc. Second, you try not to use any equipment while it’s being charged – to make the most of that charge. Next you have to make some hard decisions about which phone calls to take, which emails or messages to reply to. Even when you make a call, you have to stop yourself from straying into any “normal” areas of conversation – they’re a waste of power.

And remember that without those mobiles and laptops much of what the IDF has done would not reach the outside world: see this report , for example, which describes how 16 year old Farah Baker (@Farah_Gazan), ‘one of Gaza’s most powerful online voices’ with over 70,000 Twitter followers, was abruptly silenced when she was unable to charge her phone.

Gaza tweet power cut

Last night the power plant was hit by Israeli tank shells again – the IDF spokesman insists that the plant ‘was not a target’: just how many times do you have to strike something before you recognise what it is? – and now it has been forced to shut down completely.  You can watch a video interview with Sara Badiei, an ICRC water and sanitation engineer in Gaza, who describes the knock-on effects of the power shut-down here:

‘If there is no electricity, there is no water, and I want to make that clear… Water needs to be pushed down the lines, down these tubes, you need pumps to be able to run to bring the water out of the well, to push it down the line and to deliver it to the population.  If there’s no electricity, that can’t happen…’

Gaza also relies on 10 power lines from Israel and Egypt to provide an additional 120 megawatts but 8 of these have been cut by Israeli shelling.  In the interview, Sara explains that it takes 5-7 days to repair each line and it is, of course, extremely dangerous work in a war-zone under constant Israeli shelling.

This is not ‘symbolic’: it is infrastructural war of the most vicious kind, waged without restraint or remorse.  In the past, some Israeli politicians have demanded that Israel shut off the power (and water) supply to Gaza – for some of the international legal considerations, see Kevin Jon Heller’s careful review for Opinio Juris – but what has happened today isn’t about turning switches on or off.  Here is Harriet Sherwood in the Guardian:

The power plant is finished,” said its director, Mohammed al-Sharif, signalling a new crisis for Gaza’s 1.7 million people, who were already enduring power cuts of more than 20 hours a day.

Amnesty International said the crippling of the power station amounted to “collective punishment of Palestinians”. The strike on the plant will worsen already severe problems with Gaza’s water supply, sewage treatment and power supplies to medical facilities.

“We need at least one year to repair the power plant, the turbines, the fuel tanks and the control room,” said Fathi Sheik Khalil of the Gaza energy authority. “Everything was burned.”

Since I published the original version of this post, Human Rights Watch has documented – on 10 August – the cascading effects of the strike on the power plant:

 

It has drastically curtailed the pumping of water to households and the treatment of sewage, both of which require electric power. It also caused hospitals, already straining to handle the surge of war casualties, to increase their reliance on precarious generators. And it has affected the food supply because the lack of power has shut off refrigerators and forced bakeries to reduce their bread production.

“If there were one attack that could be predicted to endanger the health and well-being of the greatest number of people in Gaza, hitting the territory’s sole electricity plant would be it,” said , deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “Deliberately attacking the power plant would be a war crime.”…

Ribhi al-Sheikh, deputy head of the Palestine Water Authority, said the lack of electricity had idled wells – except where generators were able to provide some back-up power – as well as water treatment and desalination plants. Idling wells endangers crops that require water at the hottest time of year.

Most urban households in Gaza need electricity to pump water to rooftop tanks. Ghada Snunu, a worker for a nongovernmental organization, said on August 4 that her home in Gaza City had been without electricity since the attack on the power plant, forcing her family to buy water in jerry cans and to conserve the used household water to empty the toilets. The collapse of electricity service meant that many Gazans lacked access to the 30 liters of water that is the estimated amount needed per capita daily for drinking, cooking, hygiene and laundering, said Mahmoud Daher, head of the Gaza office of the UN World Health Organization.

This is how Israel exercises its ‘right to defend itself’ and how ‘the most moral army in the world’ is set loose on civilians.

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In the case of targeted killing (see ‘Drone geographies’, DOWNLOADS tab), the same network effects obtain:

‘…by fastening on a single killing – through a ‘surgical strike’ – all the other people affected by it are removed from view. Any death causes ripple effects far beyond the immediate victim, but to those that plan and execute a targeted killing the only effects that concern them are the degradation of the terrorist or insurgent network in which the target is supposed to be implicated. Yet these strikes also, again incidentally but not accidentally, cause immense damage to the social fabric of which s/he was a part – the extended family, the local community and beyond – and the sense of loss continues to haunt countless (and uncounted) others.’

This tactic, too, has been honed by the IDF, though not exactly refined.  Last year Craig Jones noted:

Since September 29th 2000, Israel has killed 438 Palestinians using the method of targeted killing. Of these, 279 were the ‘object’ of attack, meaning that Israel intentionally targeted them. The other 159 were ‘collateral damage’, chalked up to accidental or incidental consequences of targeting the other 279.

Rummaging around today, I’ve discovered another version of Sam Weber’s thesis with which I began, thanks to Jon Cogburn.  It’s a poem by the late (nationalist) Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai (who died in 2000) called ‘The Diameter of the Bomb’ (translated here by Chana Bloch):

The diameter of the bomb was thirty centimeters
and the diameter of its effective range about seven meters,
with four dead and eleven wounded.
And around these, in a larger circle
of pain and time, two hospitals are scattered
and one graveyard. But the young woman
who was buried in the city she came from,
at a distance of more than a hundred kilometers,
enlarges the circle considerably,
and the solitary man mourning her death
at the distant shores of a country far across the sea
includes the entire world in the circle.
And I won’t even mention the crying of orphans
that reaches up to the throne of God and
beyond, making a circle with no end and no God.

The poem was written in 1972, and in 2006 was the inspiration for a documentary film, also called The Diameter of the Bomb, about the aftermath of a suicide bombing in Jerusalem.  But its power reaches beyond place and time.  And that, in case anyone is wondering, is symbolic.

Virtual Gaza

idffacebook

I had originally thought The everywhere war would include a reworked and extended version of my discussion of cyberwarfare and Stuxnet which appeared in the Geographical Journal (DOWNLOADS tab), but the chapter is now about ‘virtual’ battlespaces more generally – which are far from being purely ‘virtual’, of course – and includes some of the jottings I’ve made on the role of digital media in later modern war (see here and here).  With that in mind – but rather more than that in mind – I should update the part they are playing in Israel’s latest war on Gaza where, as the Wall Street Journal‘s headline on 23 July had it, ‘Israel and Hamas take fight to social media’.

The IDF is no stranger to information warfare and to the power of social media.  John Timpane explains the back-story succinctly:

In November 2012, Israel launched Operation Pillar of Defense – on Twitter. It thereby became the first nation to initiate hostilities by social media. Starting with a YouTube video of the aerial assassination of Hamas leader Ahmed al-Jabari, Pillar of Defense escalated the social-media war. The Israeli Defense Force (Twitter following: 292,000) tweeted times and places of rocket strikes against Israel. A rag-tag bunch of pro-Hamas Twitter feeds (such as the oft-shut-down @alqassam, with 11,000-plus followers), Facebook pages, and YouTube videos published images of torn bodies and bombed schools.

As of 2014, “both sides,” says [Lawrence] Husick, “have become remarkably more sophisticated in how they use social media to engage with the rest of the world.”

To provide some idea of the scale of operations, al-Jazeera has produced this remarkable representation of the unfolding of a global Twitterstorm about the war; what appears below are screenshots and you really need to watch the whole thing:

#Israelunderfire

#Gaza under attack

The resources each side has at its disposable are far from equal.  According to Harriet Sherwood:

The propaganda war between Israel and the Palestinians is not new, but this battle-round is being fought with unprecedented ferocity. And like the asymmetry in the military conflict, the strength and resources of the Israel social media troops outweigh those of Hamas and other Palestinian organisations.

And those asymmetries have increased. Max Schindler reports,

With dueling Twitter hashtags, Facebook posts and YouTube channels, the Israeli Defense Forces and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group, are trading not just fire but also barbs over social media, in an attempt to win hearts and minds around the world. But Hamas, barred from certain platforms, faces additional challenges in the Internet war.

In this round of violence, the social media battle has become increasingly important. Israel’s ability to wage its campaign in Gaza depends on the level of international criticism it sustains.

On Wednesday, Twitter suspended several accounts used by Hamas…. Twitter’s terms of service block use of the website to “a person barred from receiving services under the laws of the United States or other applicable jurisdiction.” Hamas is classified as a terrorist organization by the State Department, denying it access to American commercial products…. Facebook maintains a similar policy, and has deleted dozens of Hamas accounts due to American government restrictions.

All of this has still wider implications because many of the tweets and the cell-phone videos uploaded to YouTube(see below) re-circulate through mainstream media too – though my strong suspicion is that the cautionary ‘cannot be verified‘ tag is used more often to diminish the suffering of people in Gaza than to call into question the IDF’s hasbara (public diplomacy/propaganda, take your pick).

These are more than military (or paramilitary) media operations, but the remainder is not only the work of individual ‘citizen-journalists’.  Ali Abunimah reports on a social media ‘war room’, set up on the first day of the current offensive by students at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, a private university, to ‘explain’ Israel’s actions to overseas audiences: ‘israelunderfire’ originated here.  Some 400 volunteers from around the world are now involved in targeting online forums and producing their own (dis)infographics (more – and affirmative – reporting from the the Jerusalem Post here).

IDC Herzliya %22War Room%22

But most of the running is being made by the  IDF’s own concerted media campaign, and as I noted earlier Rebecca Stein has provided a timely analysis of ‘How Israel militarized social media’ that debunks some of the myths that have grown up around its ‘success’ (see also the link to her previous work here):

‘What’s been lost in this coverage – in this story of surprise — is the history of the Israel’s army presence on social media. For in fact, the military’s move to social media as a public relations platform has been rife with improvisation and failure, a process that runs counter to IDF narratives about its innovative work in this regard (the IDF lauding itself as a military early adopter). The army’s interest in the wartime potential of social media can be traced to the first few days of the 2008-2009 Gaza incursion….

In the years that followed, the IDF investment in social media would grow exponentially both in budgetary and manpower allocations, building on this ostensible wartime triumph.

But the process was rife with challenges and missteps…

Today, Israelis are also concerned about losing the media war. But they tell the story differently. In their rendering, the Israeli media problem is a by-product of damning or doctored images (this was the spirit of Netanyahu’s infamous “telegenically dead” remarks), of Palestinian media manipulation, of global anti-Israeli cum anti-Semitic bias. The Israeli media manages these problems by removing most traces of Palestinian dead and wounded from national news broadcasts.’

This feeds in to a deeper narrative in which both Palestinian casualties and Israeli culpability disappear from view, deftly characterised by Yonatan Mendel:

‘”We can forgive the Arabs for killing our children,” Golda Meir said in 1969, ‘but we cannot forgive them for forcing us to kill their children.’ Forty-five years on, in the third week of the Israeli attack on Gaza, with more than 800 Palestinians killed, about a quarter of them children, Israel’s government, its media and Israeli society have turned Meir’s idea of Israel being ‘forced’ to do unacceptable things into a vast and dangerous superstition. It refuses to take responsibility for the killing, just as it refused to take responsibility for the military occupation and the blockade: these, it tells itself, are what it has been forced into. Killing in Gaza in 2014, killing in 2012, and in 2008. But Israel has convinced itself, despite the rising numbers of dead, that isn’t killing anyone in Gaza. Hamas are the people doing the killing; they are responsible for the siege, the destruction, the underdevelopment, the poverty, the absence of peace talks, the postponement of a ceasefire and the use of UNRWA schools for military purposes.’

One final, crucial qualification. Even as he explains how the IDF and Hamas are fighting a media war, a battle to control the story on social media, John Tirmane insists that ‘the real war is of steel and fire, flesh and blood.’  What the countervailing voices of the ‘Twitterstorm’ seek to enable and to disable is an all too material firestorm.

The twitter of drones

BAFANA Tweet Drone strike in YemenBack in May the Bureau of Investigative Journalism described how local activists were using Twitter and other social media platforms to spread the news of US drone strikes in Yemen.  Haykal Bafana, a lawyer living in San’a, the capital of Yemen, kept up a barrage of tweets recording the ‘covert’ strikes in near real-time, which were then amplified through Facebook and micro-news platforms in the region. You can follow him here.

Haykal Bafana

This is all of a piece with the incorporation of social media into the conduct of late modern war that was evident during Israel’s recent attack on Gaza and, as Noel Sharkey told the Bureau,

‘It is incredible how the same type of technology used by the CIA to kill people with drones in the Yemen, is empowering the Yemenis to tweet the attacks as they are happening. They can send us all pictures and bring us closer to the horror they are experiencing. Technology in the small may eventually bring down the over-use of military technology in the large.’

Josh BegleyDrone strikes are certainly now being made visible across a range of social media platforms, and now comes news – from the wonderful Jorge Amigo – that Josh Begley (whose Drones+ app was serially rejected by Apple) has started tweeting what Jake Heller calls ‘the entire history of US drone strikes’ in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia as part of a graduate class at NYU, Narrative Lab, which focuses on ‘the impact of interactivity and technology on traditional narrative structure’.  Begley told Heller that, for him, ‘it’s about the way stories are told on new social-media platforms.’

Dronestream

How complete the data series can be is an open question – and the rhetorical impact would be even more devastating if Afghanistan were included – but as you can see from my screen grab above Begley, who started at noon on Tuesday 11 December, tweeted that after twelve hours ‘we’re only at March 2010’…  Follow him at Dronestream here.  And, as Connor Simpson at the Atlantic Wire commented, ‘if this project doesn’t merit an A, we would love to see one that does.’