May 082011

After the killing of Usama bin Laden, there has been a palpable desire for something to see. Having decided not to release photographs of the operation itself, the U. S. government released an assortment of video clips to the news media today, as if to serve that need. While much attention is being visited on bin Laden’s rather routine flub of his lines for a video recording, it seems from one of the other clips that bin Laden was better networked than we were previously told. Given the large satellite dish visible in pictures of the compound, it’s not surprising that he had TV.

bin Laden choosing channels

In this still, I can clearly read channels like al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya but also BBC World and BBC Arabic, Dubai TV and so on. The TV was linked to some kind of modem:

bin Laden's TV set up

Any techies out there know what that is? He certainly made some interesting viewing selections in the clips we have been shown. It appears that he watched the U. S. Congress, as the screen appears to show the House of Representatives in the manner used by the networks when a vote is in progress. And he seems to have watched Hillary Clinton at work:

Here’s the screen in detail:

Hillary Clinton on bin Laden's TV

I can’t be sure it’s her, but it certainly looks like it: it might be quite an old clip, as it looks as if she’s chairing a Senate committee, so it would be before 2009, when she became Secretary of State.

Finally, in this brief but rather remarkable video, we can see that bin Laden had access to reasonably modern computer equipment, like this flat screen monitor:

A computer in bin Laden's compound

The fact that whoever took these pictures wanted to show clips of bin Laden watching himself, as stressed in the media, is open to many interpretations: it may be that this is what bin Laden liked to do, or it may have been a setup for the video shoot.

Taken together, all of this suggests that even the most recent assertions that bin Laden was isolated in his compound seem highly dubious: whether he had direct Internet access or not, he was clearly part of the contemporary communications world. As anyone who has cable knows, there must have been several visits to set up and later update the equipment. All of which suggests that the idea that the entire world was shocked to discover where he had been for the past six years or so cannot be true.

Watch this space:)



In writing about visuality, I learned one major lesson that I keep having to re-learn: visuality is a colonial technique and it is best understood from the places of it application–the plantation, the colony, the neo-colony–looking back at its metropolitan sites of deployment.

As nuclear counterinsurgency continues, it is time to consider how an atomic countervisuality might be developed and from where. For the paradigmatic tools of GCOIN are now being used in Japan, where Global Hawk Unmanned Aerial Vehicles have been flown across the destroyed reactors of the Fukushima Daiichi plant, while they are also directing aerial observation in Libya.

The Global Hawk UAV

The Global Hawk is designed, as the name suggests, for extremely long-range missions and is capable of circumnavigating the globe. It has no standard equipment for radiation detection but is a surveillance and/or targeting platform, using synthetic aperture radar, infrared and other systems.

It was striking to me that the Global Hawk over Japan was launched from a U. S. base in Guam, the major military outpost in the Pacific.  Guam was recently rebranded as the “tip of the spear” in GCOIN operations, after troops had to be relocated there from Japan, following recent elections. Here, then, is one “atomic”  location from which we might counter the increasingly odd fusion of nuclear politics with counterinsurgency. In countering the fission of the nuclear with the singularity of the atomic, I hope to map the complex “entanglement” (Achille Mbembe) produced by nuclear counterinsurgency, linking the Second World War, the Cold War, nuclear weapons, decolonization, the global war on terror and climate change.

Whatever the Global Hawk missions revealed has been kept secret. At the same time, so-called experts are advising that the “safest way to deposit radiation is in the ocean.”  It seems that residents of Oceania, including  those in U. S. territories like Guam– and other nearby island nations operating under the Compact of Free Association with the U. S., like Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia–are once again invisible to Western and Japanese eyes alike.  The “plume” of radiation that is said to have no chance of reaching the mainland U. S. will certainly reach those islands, especially now that it has become clear that large quantities of iodine-131 and caesium-137,  highly carcinogenic isotopes, are already in the sea.

Bikini Atoll 1946: Operation Crossroads Baker

Perhaps it is just assumed that there is so much residual radiation from the 67 above ground nuclear weapons tests conducted by the U. S. from 1945 to 1962 in the Western Pacific that a little more is neither here nor there. Or perhaps the scientifically-accredited but nonetheless magical view of the period that it “seemed logical to believe that water would cleanse Bikini” of radiation is still operative. In fact, the former residents of Bikini Atoll (above) are still in exile, 65 years after the tests that irradiated their island in the interests of discovering whether naval ships (visible in the photo above) could survive nuclear attacks–answer:  yes, but in so radioactive a state as to be unusable.

Bikini islanders leaving in 1946 Today in exile on Kili

The disastrous but forgotten history of these people from the expropriation of their homes to their emiserated exile, radiation-induced cancer epidemic and sustained marginalization in the name of some greater good may indicate what is in store for Northwestern Japan.

The islands that are being used to launch the UAVs are most at risk from the rising sea levels caused by anthropogenic climate change. At the same time as 20,000 troops are being redeployed to Guam, the Army Corps of Engineers–the people who brought you Hurricane Katrina–are busy building sea walls to try and hold back the ocean.

A newly-built sea wall on Guam is already at risk

As this photo taken in August 2010 shows, the walls are barely keeping out the rising tides. Scientists have shown that the rising sea levels in the Pacific have been concentrated in the Western half of the ocean for contingent reasons of tide and wind patterns. At an IPCC meeting in Kolkata that I have not seen reported here,  Rajenda Pachauri attributed the severity of the tsunami to the  additional water mass caused by climate change.

There is, then, a further irony that the U. S. and its allies are using Western Pacific islands as counterinsurgency prisons. Five Chinese Uighurs, formerly detained at Guantànamo Bay, have been relocated to Palau, an independent nation whose budget entirely depends on revenue from the Compact of Free Association with the U. S. These islands were mandated to the U. S. at the end of the Second World War, after Koror had been for some thirty years capital of the Japanese empire in the Pacific.

View of the district of Koror where the Uighurs now live, August 2010

Living in a house in downtown Koror, whose location is known to all locals, the Uighurs are the subject of some resentment because they do not work but spend most of their time in religious observance. A few hundred meters away, Koror floods on a regular basis at high tide.

Flooding in downtown Koror, Palau

This less-than-secure location was presumably selected as a prison because it is so “remote” but it is only a two-hour flight to the Philippines. Elsewhere in the region (broadly defined–see the map below) the Australian government detains over 2,000 asylum seekers on Christmas Island, some 350 km south of Java. Held in facilities designed for several hundred people, the detainees rioted on March 17 and one person recently committed suicide there.

Xmas Island and Palau

Here, then, are a set of “invisibles” from post-war histories, and forced exiles, radiation, detainees, sea level rise, climate change to aerial surveillance that a countervisuality needs to bring into view as a tactic to displace the hegemonic logics of nuclear counterinsurgency. I am well aware that they cut across academic disciplinary lines, perhaps exceeding individual competences (including of course my own). I’d be curious to hear your thoughts about how (and indeed if) such tactics might be developed in the current crisis: comments are open and all will be approved



Counterinsurgency TV

 counterinsurgency, television, watching  Comments Off on Counterinsurgency TV
Mar 272011

After nine days of warfare, President Obama has deemed the new war worthy of our attention with a broadcast on Libya on Monday at 7.30 EDT. We have so many wars going on, it seems there isn’t even time to get on TV and announce the newest one. I’m drafting this review  ahead of the actual speech because it’s not too hard to guess what will have been said. Really, once the speech is announced, there’s almost no need to give it.

President Obama addresses the nation

Obama will talk in the overly rapid way he uses on these occasions, intended perhaps to convey “man of action,” but revealing more clearly that he’s just rattling through to the end, performing a task he’d rather not have to do. When he speaks in public, he takes his time and makes good use of pauses. He’ll also use a strange little chopping gesture with his left hand, no doubt focus-grouped to demonstrate decisiveness. It distracts from what he’s saying and you end up waiting for the next one.

There will be bromides to “our brave men and women in uniform.” Not to challenge the personal courage of these people in any way, but this mission is one where the “Allies” get to play bully in the playground. We will hear of “progress,” measured by the news that Mafeking has been relieved, I’m sorry, make that Ras Lanuf or one of the other small Libyan towns very few of us knew existed ten days ago.

Then it will be stressed that the mission is “limited,” but that the dictator al-Khalifa, I’m sorry, Gaddafi must fall. It will be emphasized that the U. S. has as good as left, before it even officially arrived via Presidential broadcast. In short, this is not a war but if it was one, it’s already over. Except if by any chance it isn’t, then NATO are running it, and we all know how independent NATO is from the U. S.

A quick shout-out to Hillary Clinton–remember the women’s vote in 2012!–and then it’ll be off for a world tour of the other wars, which will be going just fabulously well. A mere eight years after intervening in Iraq for a lightning quick regime change, the U. S. will be about to leave. Or have we already left, I forget? Afghanistan! we’re as good as out of there, because we know that the Pakistanis know where Osama is, and they know that we know, and so that’s ok.

For all the satire, this unwatched and unoriginal broadcast serves to reinforce the imperial dimension to global counterinsurgency (GCOIN) that had seemed vulnerable in the wake of Afghanistan’s palpable failure. The benefit of the Libyan mission, as GCOIN boosters from John McCain to David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy were quick to see, is that here the “Allies” can play Afghanistan Light. A “failed state” subject to the dominion of militia groups organized via personal obligations and hierarchies can, it is hoped, be quickly subjected to domination from the air, using digitized machines. The aspiration is a re-run of Gulf War 1991, an easy techno-triumph to restore the luster, not of the New World Order touted by Bush 41, but of the “Global Counterinsurgency.”

Feel free to scorecard these predictions in the comments section (which will all be approved, BTW, it’s moderated only to keep the spammers out). More serious remarks on atomic countervisuality on Tuesday.

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