North Korea

North Korea
The always bombastic and unpredictable North Koreans go hysterical again. This time the country is prepared to "go to war" with South Korea because that country is playing loudspeakers directed at North Korean territory. A headline from a UK paper reads, "More than 50 North Korea submarines 'leave their bases' as war talks with South continue "

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Yemen likely to revert to old kingdoms, with AQAP as the wild card

It is tempting to consider the brief and ill-fated Arab Spring as the starting point for many of the Arab nations current sad, if not tragic, state of affairs. A case in point is Yemen, the region on the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula, where long standing desert tribes have ancient civilizations as their history.

Yemen, an arid and mountainous land on the southern end of the Arabian Peninsula. Current population approximately 24.5 million people. It is similar in size to the U.S state of Montana, similar even to the mountains in the west, flatter dry lands to the east. Graphic from

In the past week, Houthi "rebels,"which had established themselves last fall in Sanaa, the country's capital, suddenly besieged the President in his palace demanding he give further concessions regarding power and autonomy for the Houthi people. The President, Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, rather than conceding, unexpectedly resigned. It leaves the country without a functioning government for the moment, with the Houthis reluctantly standing guard over the nation's instruments of power. And then, from here, the story gets quite a bit more complicated.

President Hadi, besieged by Houthi rebels, resigned - leaving a power vacuum in his country. Photo from

Hadi (Sunni) became president just four years ago in 2011 when the previous President Saleh (Shia-Houthi), who had been in power for 33 years, left office due to protests seeking more democratic participation - part of the brief Arab Spring. Hadi obtained backing from Western powers, including the U.S., who were seeking themselves to prevent the country from descending further into chaos.

The unrest was from two sources: the north Yemen based Houthis - a Shiite tribal alliance - seeking better governance (notwithstanding Saleh's Shia roots), and the other source coming the well known Sunni extremist group - Al qaeda.

Yemen has a religious/ethnic split with the Houthi-Shiite affiliation in the Northwest mountainous region, while Sunni-affiliated tribes are found in the South and East regions, as well as along the coastline.

While the Al qaeda jihadists are relatively new, the Houthi-Sunni divide is long standing (but complicated). In fact, though, the ethnic split falls fairly cleanly along a border where Yemen was recently two separate nations.

We find that 1962 the People's Democratic Republic of Yemen was a Communist state in the southern and eastern provinces of the present-day Republic of Yemen. It united with the Yemen Arab Republic (commonly known as "North Yemen") in May 1990, to form the present-day Yemen. (Yes, the demise of the People's Republic occurred in conjunction with the Soviet collapse). In 1994, however, South Yemen declared its secession from the north, and the north occupied south Yemen after a brief civil war. There has been turmoil ever since, corruption and misgovernance, and eventually the Arab Spring protests.

These two countries made up what is currently today's Yemen. They existed from 1962 to 1990 before reuniting. Graphic from

Spring forward 20 years, however, and now the Sunni-based extremist movement (Al qaeda on the Arab Peninsula (AQAP) has found space to grow and fight. In 2004, the Shia-oriented Houthi youth movement emerged and has since rapidly grown into a militarily capable force. In the fall of 2014, the Houthi's gained control of Sanaa at the invitation of President Hadi in order to cleanse the capital of a wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, but the movement never left, and were present with the official Yemeni armed forces. The troubled country now has three defacto power centers - though the western backed government and loyal forces per se is at the moment absent.

Not exactly progress. Now in 2015, instead of two entities, there are three centers of power. Light yellow/green - Houthis; Pink - Western backed Hadi - now resigned; Gray - Al qaeda (AQAP)Graphic from

These days, Shia groups have the backing of Iran, and other Sunni nations are quite vocal that Iran is continuing to expand its influence across the region. It is an influence that includes the well known Hezbollah in Lebanon, Assad's Syrian forces, notable allegiances among Iraq's Shia population, pockets of Shia minorities in a variety of Sunni dominated Arab nations, and now some new potential influence in Yemen. But it is probably too early to think that in Yemen Iran has cleanly moved into yet another region as it has elsewhere.

Supporters of the Shiite Muslim Houthi movement attend Eid al-Adha prayers, in Sanaa October 4, 2014. (File Photo: Reuters)

Where does this country go from here?

The Houthis are an unknown as to their ultimate allegiance and goals. For a group who have found themselves in charge in the absence of a functioning government, it may be they are primarily concerned with their own tribal region. Though the Shiite roots are real, and Iran has been steadfast in promoting its side of the religious schism, observers are unsure how compliant this Yemeni Shiite offshoot will behave.

An alarabiya news agency story reports, "The Houthis (also known as Ansar Allah, or Partisans of God) belong to the Zaydi school of Shiite Islam, named after Imam Zaydi Ibn Ali, who led a revolt in the eighth century against the Umayyad Caliphs.

Although considered a branch of Shiite Islam, the Zaydis are sometimes referred to as the Sunnis of the Shiites. Why? Because there are substantial differences between the Shiite Twelver imamate doctrine that is dominant in Iran and Zaydism, whereas the doctrinal gap between Zaydism and mainstream Sunni Islam is relatively narrow." (The article in question can be found here.)

While the world watches, diplomats talk their specialized language, and various nations and powers fret and negotiate secretly, the Houthis are nonetheless the ones that must now be approached. And while their connection to the regional power Iran is unclear, their popular slogans are wearily familiar: "Allah is the greatest. Death to America, death to Israel, a curse on the Jews, victory to Islam".

Houthi armed vehicle stands guard at a checkpoint in front of Presidential Palace. Photo from CNN

Then there is still that other movement - the AQAP - in Yemen. AQAP has claimed responsibility for the recent jihadist attacks in France, and the U.S. has long conducted a program of drone strikes against them in Yemen.

In any case, the road to stability in this torn nation is a long one, a path that might not be followed at all, the country may yet return to a prior set of borders - two kingdoms, but this time more fractured and violent than ever.

Still, enough with the text. Since most of us won't make a trip to this corner of the globe, here are a few pictures of its striking scenery ...

Breathtaking views from ancient villages. Think of the care and effort of previous generations to terrace the landscape and build dwellings by hand, though now thereon lies the carelessly discarded plastic and paper litter of modernity. Photo from

Sanaa - capital of Yemen. Photo from

A rather foreboding headline from the NY Times article containing this landscape, "Is Yemen the next Afghanistan?" Photo from

Yemeni's next generation faces an uncertain future. Photo from

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Venezuela stumbles as poor leadership and cheap oil take their toll

Venezuela may soon become the world's first nation in 2015 to see its government and economy implode. The South American country, led by Hugo Chavez for 15 years from 1998 to 2013 (with all the controversy the man brought on the world stage) is heavily dependent on its oil industry and the revenues it brings. Those revenues also allowed Chavez to champion socialism in his nation, and create economic alliances with other socialist-leaning or communist nations in the Western Hemisphere, though Teatree believes it fair to say, that simple anti-US and anti-capitalist perspectives provided most of the heat for these groupings.

Venezuela - with a population approaching 30 million people, immense oil reserves and therefore potential wealth for the whole nation (if distributed justly as in the case of Norway), high and untrammeled biodiversity across its landscape, and an avowed socialist governance for the past 16 years - should really be something of a powerhouse and inspiration to the world, and yet ... Graphic from

Unfortunately, today, Venezuela is teetering as oil revenues have plunged in the past six months, corruption remains rampant, and its leader (handpicked by Chavez and propped up in power by the few benefiting from the power-structure status quo), unable to articulate a pragmatic path forward.

President Maduro, to be fair, is in over his head, and chained to the ideology and memory of Hugo Chavez. As wikipedia notes, "A former bus driver, Maduro rose to become a trade union leader, before being elected to the National Assembly in 2000. He was appointed to a number of positions within the Venezuelan Government under Chávez, ultimately being made Foreign Minister in 2006. He was described during this time as the "most capable administrator and politician of Chávez's inner circle"."

Maduro was Venezuela's Minister of Foreign Affairs from 2006 to 2013 and Vice President of Venezuela from 2012 to 2013. With his main asset being supportive of Hugo Chavez who in turn was able to talk big because oil prices were high and revenue flowing in, it was a very narrow base upon which to lead the nation on Maduro's own (about 95 percent of the money Venezuela earns from exports comes from its oil sales, according to an AP article on January 16).

As President, Maduro spent 2013 and the first half of 2014 making bombastic speeches in the form of "Hugo Chavez-isms," and even created a Ministry of Happiness. Photo from

In the past six months, however, since oil prices have plunged, Maduro is confronting an increasingly dire range of options. For most of January, Maduro has gone on a world circling trip visiting nations that might lend him substantial funds to cover the lost oil revenues. He has visited Russia to meet with President Putin. In China, he secured a $20 billion infusion of Chinese investments, and in Qatar, he announced a new financial alliance. Maduro also stopped in Iran, Saudi Arabia and Algeria, but with not a great deal to show for it.

Returning home, Maduro received the equivalent of a ticker-tape parade organized by his supporters, even though while traveling, his government had to implement a new rationing system to curb out-of-control lines at stores. In addition, young protesters began blockading streets and opposition leaders were loudly calling for immediate change.

Another AP article reports, "Venezuela is seeing lines unheard of even in this shortage-plagued nation, with people lining up overnight to buy necessities like soap, milk and diapers. The state has deployed military guards to maintain order as stocks run low after long winter holidays.

A man leaves a private supermarket with disposable diapers, the long line are those waiting for their turn to shop. Photo from (AP Photo/Fernando Llano)

Many items have become impossible to find even on the thriving black market. At least one upscale Caracas hotel is no longer providing laundry service unless guests bring their own detergent. ...

Food Security Czar Carlos Osorio drew jeers last week when he said that the existence of long lines proved that Venezuela has plenty of food. Otherwise, he said, there would be nothing to line up for."

For those unable to afford shopping at private supermarkets, there are government supermarkets where prices are capped. This is a line near the Petare shantytown in Caracas, Venezuela. Apparently this line represents "success" for Venezuela's government, as there must be something in the store to buy ...

Beyond the immediate scarcities and unrest, there are those pesky loans already taken out by Venezuela, and payments are coming due. Default on a variety of financial instruments looms. And where it all ends, in this nation with enormous potential wealth, no one knows.

But let's end on a positive note - leaving behind the long lines that give testimony to scarcity and corruption in urban Venezuela, a couple pictures of the country's southern and western regions.

The website observes, "in the state of Bolìvar, we find the huge Canaima National Park, which is generally more humid and has greener landscapes; here we find incredible waterfalls like Salto Angel, 3,212 feet (979 meters) high, and Salto Kukenan, 2,211 feet (674 meters) high."

In Western Venezuela, the Andes mountains can be found, providing the contrast to the steamy jungles and plateaus in places such as the Canaima National Park. Photo from

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Violent jihad strikes hard in the new year

While the world was justifiably immersed in the violent and tragic events in France this past week, the Boko Haram jihadists in Africa have surpassed the France toll and even their own bloody history, with new large scale killings and mayhem in northern Nigeria. Some observers are starting to characterize Boko Haram as having established a defacto African Islamic caliphate - a mini-ISIS state if you will - across those arid lands.

This graphic was developed for a September 2014 story. In the last three months of 2014, and indeed this past week, Boko Haram has expanded its control of territory and its ability to raid in the face of the Nigerian military. Graphic from

Boko Haram is accused of returning and killing up to 2000 within the last few days, in the town of Baga on Nigeria's eastern border with Chad. A deed that follows their overrunning of a military base in the same town the week before.

Baga, the scene of a Boko Haram raid on a Nigerian military base in the first week of January 2015, has since borne the savagery of a massacre of its residents by the same jihadists the following week.

The list grows and grows

Boko Haram - up to 2000 civilians killed last week, military base overrun the previous week. The group has also abducted hundreds of schoolgirls in multiple events over the past year, with the apparent best response that the West can muster (not to mention Nigeria's authorities) is a #Bring Back our Girls media campaign.

While social media was stirred by the "bring back our girls" campaign, complete with Hollywood celebrities (to wit, Anne Hathaway and husband) and politicians holding posters, it is clear that more than posters is needed to change the trend in Nigeria ... Photo from

While Boko Haram has killed up to 10,000 civilians in 2014, that is Syria's civilian death toll in just the past two months alone, according to a report in the New York Times.

Pakistan's Tehrik-e-Taliban which killed over 130 students in Peshawar as 2014 drew to a close, is now issuing new threats to kill more.

Al Shabab's attack in a Kenyan mall last year ended with 67 dead; a bus attack this past November ended with 28 non-Muslim passengers separated out and shot; and again in December, another 36 non-Muslim quarry workers were separated out and executed.

And now in the past few days, the radical Islamic violence has hit France, where a "mere" 20 deaths, including three jihadists and three police, have captured the world's attention.

French security forces storm Jewish grocery in the second and related attack in Paris. Here 4 hostages were killed by a jihadist, and one policewoman the previous day, before the French police moved in killing the attacker holding hostages inside. Previously, as well, well covered, two jihadists stormed a newspaper building, executing 9 citizens, mainly journalists, along with two policemen attempting to stop the attackers.

Time to sharpen our vocabulary, even as a backlash forms

This is quickly becoming the issue for 2015 - how do we talk more clearly about jihadists, terrorists, extremists, and probe more seriously as to why the majority of the brutal and unrelenting string of atrocities stem from individuals referring to the Koran as their guide. It is important because this stream of violence is beginning to fuel a backlash across the Western world that can easily spill over into a variety of xenophobic themes, and hostility to numerous minorities.

In Germany, for example, a movement called Pegida (Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West) is swelling - with immigrants or at least lenient immigration policies the target, and anti-Muslim immigration in particular. Far broader and less extreme than the vitriol of Nazi-skinheads, the Pegida movement nonetheless provides shelter for these Nazi remnants, as well as other far-right groups espousing various strains of ethnic purity and hostility towards minorities.

In France, the National Front Party headed by Jean-Marie Le Pen,long been considered extreme with its emphasis on tight immigration controls, is suddenly becoming more appealing. In a recent New Yorker article, Jean Marie states, “It was to be expected. This attack is probably the beginning of the beginning. It’s an episode in the war that is being waged against us by Islamism. The blindness and deafness of our leaders, for years, is in part responsible for these kinds of attacks.”

Jean-Marie Le Pen, head of France's National Front party. Photo from the New Yorker, in an article written by Philip Gourevitch, a journalist who wrote extensively about the Rwanda massacre in 1994.

All across Europe, parties promoting narrow brands of nationalism and ethnic boundaries are challenging the underlying sentiments that have guided the European Union's growth. The latest French attacks deal a double blow - against civil society directly, and against tolerance and solidarity across borders indirectly.

A German anti-Islam rally attended by 15,000 in Dresden in mid-December, though authorities and counter demonstrators all are challenging the group's premise. Photo by Jens Meyer/AP Photo in Bloomberg News article.

It is late, but there is still time

A little mentioned detail regarding the police officer, Ahmed Merabet, killed point-blank by one of the jihadists attacking the Charlie Hebdo news building was that he was a Muslim. The slain officer's brother Malek, lamented "He was killed by people who pretend to be Muslims. They are terrorists, that's it."

And another young Muslim from Mali distinguished himself during the second jihadist attack on a Jewish grocery.

Lassana Bathily, an employee at the Hyper Cacher kosher supermarket in Vincennes,and a "practicing Muslim," helped guide a group of hostages into a downstairs walk-in freezer while gunman Amedy Coulibaly was preparing to kill them. According to reports, he escaped the building via a freight elevator and ran outside, where he assisted police by describing the location of the freezer where hostages were hiding. Photo from

Still, there seems to be a shrill and repeated insistence among some leaders after every jihadist attack that "Islam is a religion of peace." It is to the point when that statement is repeated, that one can assume there must have just been another attack in the name of defending the Prophet, even if the details have not yet emerged.

And while it is understandable to refer to individuals killing in the name of Allah as "lone wolfs" "deranged", etc, one can't ignore that after 9/11, hundreds of Muslims were dancing in the streets in East Jerusalem. As one Israeli opinion piece noted after this past week's events, that was not limited to a reaction against US foreign policy. "Not all Muslims are terrorists, but almost all terrorists are Muslims," wrote Abdulrahman al-Rashed, the former general manager of the Al-Arabiya television news channel in the important Arabic newspaper Asharq al-Awsat. This is, in brief, Europe's big dilemma. Millions of Muslims have nothing to do with terror but, according to surveys, hundreds of thousands support jihad, suicide bombings and even the Islamic State." (noted in Ynet News, Ben-Dror Yemini 1-8-15)

Mr Al-Rashed believes there is an opening in the Arab media to tell both sides (and an opening then that must surely be seized). Photo from the New York Times,

Even Egypt's new President, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi remarked, "I am referring here to the religious clerics. We have to think hard about what we are facing — and I have, in fact, addressed this topic a couple of times before. It's inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire umma (Islamic world) to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world. Impossible!

"That thinking — I am not saying 'religion' but 'thinking' — that corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the years, to the point that departing from them has become almost impossible, is antagonizing the entire world. It's antagonizing the entire world!

"Is it possible that 1.6 billion people (Muslims) should want to kill the rest of the world's inhabitants — that is 7 billion — so that they themselves may live? Impossible! ... I say and repeat again that we are in need of a religious revolution. You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world, I say it again, the entire world is waiting for your next move … because this umma is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost — and it is being lost by our own hands."

Egyptian President al-Sisi heads the largest Arab nation in terms of population. Egypt is also burdened with a history of hosting extremist groups as the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Gama'a al-Islamiyya, and al-Qaeda which at the moment is headed up by a former Egyptian doctor, Ayman Al-Zawahiri. Photo from

France's President Hollande has declared war on "radical Islam." Teatree isn't sure what that will look like - perhaps it will be a coordinated effort to marginalize or even arrest inflammatory Imams - the same situation in Pakistan that seems to be avoided. This seems a good place to start.

Transitioning from what we're against to include what we're for, France's Prime Minister Manuel Valls declared, “It is a war against terrorism, against jihadism, against radical Islam, against everything that is aimed at breaking fraternity, freedom, solidarity ...”

Similarly, UK's Prime Minister Cameron was quoted months ago in a Daily Mail article,"Muslim clerics in the UK who inflame terrorism by denouncing free speech, equality and democracy will be opposed in a ‘muscular’ new defence of ‘British values’, David Cameron has pledged.

The North London Central Mosque has gained a reputation in the U.K as a center of radical preaching. Photo from

In a powerful intervention clearly aimed mainly at ‘preachers of hate’, the Prime Minister says the failure to stand up to such firebrands has ‘allowed extremism – both the violent and non-violent kind – to flourish’. It is time to stop being ‘squeamish about Britishness’ and tell everyone who lives here that refusing to accept British laws and the British way of life is ‘not an option’, Mr Cameron argues."

There is another issue of concern - symbolism and dress. While this concern seems somewhat foreign in the US, Germany has long banned the use of any Nazi symbolism in its de-nazification efforts, and the burqa has already been banned in France.

Burqa and full body robes were banned in France in 2010, though Teatree is not sure of how it is enforced or current status. Photo by Alexandre Renahy / JerryCom / Pix Palace

To take the other side, many felt the lash of Charlie Hebdo's irreverent cartoons and consider them unnecessarily provocative. And freedom of speech and expression finds limits with the example of falsely shouting fire in a crowded theater.

Today's marches across France to stand up against extremism, but more importantly for tolerance and liberty was inspiring, and important as the crowds were said to have totaled more than 3.7 million. From today's events, Teatree believes citizens everywhere need to be more active in pushing for the values we hold dear, if for no other reason than a lack of forceful response will lead to more violence and an even more chaotic backlash.

Estimates of over 3.7 million people gathered across France in solidarity against violent jihadism, 1.6 million in Paris alone. Now the hard work begins. Photo from

For Teatree, "jihadism" will be his term for describing the nihilistic, violent mayhem wrought by extremists in the name of Islam. Teatree, will nonetheless, consider cynically any studied attempt to ignore inflammatory language and preaching (preachers of hate)of violence in mosques. Bland statements such as "Islam is a religion of peace" are already, to this blogger, considered mere bromides that at times seem deliberate in order to sidestep more serious consideration.

If world leaders do not step up with proactive, serious (yes, and hopefully thoughtful) efforts to degrade and reject this growing stream of deadly jihadist teaching, there will likely be much less constructive backlash in the years to come.

Saturday, January 3, 2015

Walkers possibly sighted in Antarctica

January in the Antarctica is when one sees the sun nearly all "day" long. For human sojourners, one can take selfies throwing snowballs in T-shirts, and other symbolic poses.

Nothing like short sleeve weather at the U.K. Rothera station when you can compare it to bad weather back in London. Photo from 2013 at the

The Halley Station on the Antarctic continent is one of four year-round stations operated by the U.K. on the continent. One can also see why the Falkland Islands and the South Georgia Islands are part of the bigger picture of U.K. presence in the region. Map from

At Halley Station itself, though, researchers are enjoying and reminiscing over the first full year of living in new facilities. A unique station design is one which has captured everyone's attention.

The Halley VI Research station - a series of modules, built on "skis" so they can be moved as needed. No, they don't walk by themselves ... Photo from

The units were built, tested, and put together over a four-year period finishing in 2013. (Apparently workers can only link the modules during a 9 week outside working window each year...) Last June-August was the first "winter" test. And at one point the power did go off for 19 hours, and researchers had to move into an emergency module that had its own generator. But with brutal winter conditions, these things happen, and apparently the design is proving itself.

The big red center module is for everyone - it has a dining room, bar and a gym (and library one hopes ...)
Still, as with sasquatch in the U.S. Pacific Northwest, one hears stories, of moving, somewhat angry modules that roam the loneliest continent ...

Yes, this was found on the internet, so it must be true. At

A couple pictures of the brief Antarctic summer, complete with tourists and sunshine. Photo from

There may be sunshine, but its always pretty low on the horizon ... Photo from