Monitor Daily Podcast

January 17, 2018
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Monitor Daily Intro for January 17, 2018

What’s the image of Africa in many developed countries? Last Friday, editors here got a quick reminder of the portraits that dominate.

Our photo of the day feature targets a topic in the global conversation. In this case, we were looking for photos from African countries of the modern development – skyscrapers, for example – that is there for the seeing. Our choice was in response to the headlines over President Trump’s reportedly derogatory comments about the conditions in many US immigrants’ home countries.

We looked. And looked. We broke from our rule that the photo has to have been taken that day. We had recent Monitor photos of a new light rail system in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, but they had already run. We were dismayed at the lack of diverse offerings from photo services.

In talking about the issue with our Africa bureau chief, Ryan Lenora Brown, she noted the high global awareness of conflict or poverty in a number of African countries, but the far lower profile of progress. For middle-class Africans, she said, “the comments struck a nerve because they rendered invisible a version of African life that is on the rise almost everywhere on the continent ­– of skyscrapers and five-star hotels, populated by doctors and lawyers and architects every bit as worldly as their counterparts.”

It was a lesson in making sure we’re seeing the full picture. 

Here are our five stories today, showing the power of vision, equality, and environmental protection at work.

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Spy suspect’s arrest: What motivates turncoats?

No one factor leaps out in an individual's decision to spy on his country. But a major Chinese case that broke this week reminded of the need to focus on human factors as much as a country's high-profile cyber capabilities.

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What causes people to spy against their country? Oftentimes it’s money. Sometimes it’s an appeal to their ethnic heritage. Occasionally it’s bitterness at perceived professional or personal slights. All these motivations may be at play in the case of a former CIA officer arrested Monday night on allegations of illegal retention of classified information. The FBI suspects that Jerry Chun Shing Lee, also known as Zhen Cheng Li, passed secrets that helped Beijing brutally dismantle US espionage operations in China. If true, this shows that China has developed human espionage capability on the level of its well-known hacking skills. US officials have long worried about the growing Chinese intelligence threat. This big case may show that threat has fully arrived. But spy and counter-spy has long been an element of big power competition. “I don’t think this should be seen as something that should undermine the [US-China] strategic relationship,” says Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Spy suspect’s arrest: What motivates turncoats?

Larry Downing/Reuters/File
The lobby of the CIA Headquarters Building in Langley, Va. The FBI suspects former CIA officer Jerry Chun Shing Lee of using classified information to help dismantle US espionage operations in China.

The datebook was 49 pages long; the address book 21. Both were full of secrets. The former contained operational notes and meeting locations for CIA “assets,” meaning spies, among other things. The latter had the true names and phone numbers of covert CIA employees, and the addresses of CIA facilities.

That’s what the FBI alleges in court documents, in any case. These two small books – allegedly found in a secret search of luggage in a Hawaii hotel room in August 2012 – are the crux of the case against Jerry Chun Shing Lee, the former CIA officer arrested Monday and charged with illegally retaining documents. His action may have helped Beijing dismantle US espionage operations in China.

If the allegations are true, they would answer a question that’s been haunting US counterintelligence officials: Who, if anyone, was the mole who did grave damage to the CIA’s insight into Chinese government intentions and actions, beginning around 2010?

But if the allegations are true, they also raise other questions: Why would Mr. Lee betray America? What does this mean for the sometimes cold, sometimes warm relationship between the world’s existing economic superpower, and a rising rival?

Further developments in the case may shed light on motive. As for geopolitics, the US is now aware that China has developed a full spectrum intelligence capability. But espionage is an old, and generally mutual, practice.

“Espionage is conducted in any adversarial relationship, and the US-China relationship is on a trajectory that is headed in the direction of growing strategic competition. It's not surprising that there is active espionage operations on both sides,” says Bonnie Glaser, director of the China Power Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It is unlikely, however, that this will undermine the US-China relationship.”

A disgruntled American citizen

Lee is a naturalized American citizen. Court documents say he is also known as Zhen Cheng Li. He served in the US Army from 1982 to 1986, and then joined the CIA as a case officer in 1994. Among other positions, he did serve in China.

He left the CIA in 2007. According to news reports, he was disgruntled that his career had stalled, among other things. He has been living in Hong Kong with his family, where he works as a security chief for a prominent auction house. The FBI first interviewed him during a 2012 visit back to the US, but for unexplained reasons, he was not arrested following the discovery of the two notebooks hidden in his luggage. However, when he arrived at JFK Airport in New York this week, US law enforcement arrested him.

His arrest has its roots in the disappearance of US espionage assets in China. Beginning in 2010, the elements of a high-level US spy ring began disappearing, one by one. The collapse of this penetration was a disaster for US intelligence. It was also a human disaster, in that the Chinese government killed or imprisoned from 18 to 20 sources within the space of several years.

Some FBI officials had suspected Lee for some time. His service and knowledge would have provided him access to the compromised information. The information contained in date book and address book found in his luggage was derived from this personal knowledge, according to court documents.

“Classified cables that Lee wrote when he was a case officer, which describe his interaction with assets and information he learned from those meetings, and for which he was the derivative classification authority, contain much of the information reflected in the books,” wrote the FBI in a charging document released Monday night.

Lee also fits another pattern: In the past, China has focused espionage recruitment efforts on ethnic Asian minorities. That emphasis has lessened in recent years, however, as Beijing has improved the subtlety and breadth of its human intelligence collection. China has focused on recruitment of US national students who are studying or working in China, for instance.

“Chinese intelligence services seek to recruit agents from a variety of backgrounds,” concludes a report from a congressionally-mandated US-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

Lee is also a retiree, another category China has targeted in the US and elsewhere.

“As retired officials, they are not subject to further background checks or the other security measures that countries often put in place to monitor officials with sensitive access,” said Peter Mattis, a fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, in 2016 congressional testimony.

A primary attraction: money

Yet money – especially when combined with lingering resentment against former employers – remains the primary attraction for many turncoats. News reports say there are indications that China may have arranged Lee’s current Hong Kong position.

The lure of cold cash was documented in 2002 by a large study of all known cold war US turncoats carried out for the Pentagon’s Defense Personnel and Security Research Center.

“Americans most consistently have cited money as the dominant motive for espionage, and over time money has increased in predominance among motives,” concluded this study.

It’s possible this incident will have a negative effect on US-Chinese relations going forward. But the truth is that the relationship is now so complicated, containing so many points of contention as well as obvious areas of mutual interest, that any effect will only be marginal.

The Trump administration’s new National Security Strategy taps China as a rival and possible partner. China steals hundreds of billions of dollars a year in US technological intellectual property, the NSS points out. The loss of more than 21 million US government personnel records in a hack that the US says was perpetrated by China has already alerted American counterintelligence to the kind of damage Beijing can inflict.

China is spending billions on infrastructure projects in other countries and gradually expanding its reach as it seeks to become the dominant military and economic power in Asia, supplanting the US.

“We are going to compete with them across all dimensions of power,” says Dan Blumenthal, director of Asian Studies at the American Enterprise Institute and a former commissioner of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission.

This Lee case may look particularly bad for the US. But the Chinese hacked US government personnel records. They are focused on stealing plans and technology related to top-tier US weapons. They have played their own influence game in US politics, as Russia has. And they are building up their own military, Mr. Blumenthal says.

The US is now slowly waking up to the facts of this competition, he says.

“We’re not quite in the game yet. If the United States really decided to use all elements of national power to push back we would be quite successful…. We just haven’t made a full commitment as a nation to compete with China in this way,” he says.

Editor's note: The quote from Bonnie Glaser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies has been updated. This story was also changed to clarify the charges against Mr. Lee.

Outreach, retreat: Why Red Cross adjusts in Afghanistan

In Afghanistan, the International Committee of the Red Cross is facing a sharp challenge to what it sees as the foundation of its security: the visibility of its helping hand. But while it is dialing back for now, it remains committed to ensuring that those who need help, get it.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
A young Red Cross patient received treatment at the Kabul Orthopedic Center Jan. 10 in Afghanistan.
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For the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has spent decades helping Afghanistan cope with the human cost of war, security for its workers lies in its visibility to the Afghan public. The more varied and broadly distributed its services, the more assured are ICRC workers that the public welcomes them. “Our security is not guaranteed by high blast walls, or by armed people,” says Monica Zanarelli, the ICRC head of delegation in Kabul, Afghanistan. “Our security concept is all around what we deliver, in terms of services, the relevance of it, and the acceptance we get in return.” Today, however, insecurity has prompted the organization’s most significant downsizing here in a generation. In 2017, seven staffers died in three incidents. Perhaps most painful and inexplicable, a physiotherapist was gunned down by one of her own patients, leading the organization to announce in October it would “drastically reduce” its work, especially in northern Afghanistan. For now, no new security paradigm has presented itself other than to hunker down and hope the situation improves with time. “We still have to be accessible to people,” says Ms. Zanarelli. “Otherwise we are not relevant anymore.”

Outreach, retreat: Why Red Cross adjusts in Afghanistan


The International Committee of the Red Cross, which has been in Afghanistan since 1987, generally runs toward disaster and conflict, not away from them.

Najmudin Helal is just one symbol of the ICRC’s ability to transform lives broken by war in Afghanistan. In 1988, he arrived at the ICRC’s newly opened orthopedic center in Kabul for treatment after having lost both his legs to a landmine years before.

In the three decades since, Afghanistan has been convulsed by a string of wars and chronic insecurity; relief workers have been targeted by killings and kidnappings; and Mr. Helal became the director of the Kabul center.

Today, however, the ICRC’s capacity is diminishing, as new levels of insecurity prompt the organization’s most significant downsizing here in a generation. A Taliban insurgency is encroaching upon Kabul; an emergent Islamic State franchise is conducting attacks; and militias are fragmenting, all blurring the lines for relief workers between what is safe and what is not.

For years, the organization found security for its workers in its visibility to the Afghan public. The more varied and broadly distributed its services, the more assured the ICRC workers were that the public welcomed them.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
At a workshop at the ICRC's Kabul Orthopedic Center Jan. 10, 2018, an employee assembles prostheses for patients wounded by landmines and other war victims.

“Our security is not guaranteed by high blast walls, or by armed people,” says Monica Zanarelli, the ICRC head of delegation in Kabul. “Our security concept is all around what we deliver, in terms of services, the relevance of it, and the acceptance we get in return.”

But the loss of seven ICRC staff in three incidents in 2017 – including the inexplicable gunning down of a Spanish physiotherapist by one of her own patients inside the ICRC orthopedic center in Mazar-e-Sharif – led the organization to announce in October that it would “drastically reduce” its work, especially in northern Afghanistan.

Balancing risk and need

That decision illustrates the increasing challenge of balancing the risk of relief work in Afghanistan against the vast scale of the need, even for a humanitarian player that has become an organic part of Afghanistan’s health infrastructure.

“Emotionally we were very, very sad that something like that happened. We were all shocked,” Helal says of the murder of Lorena Enebral Perez by a polio patient she had been helping last September. The ICRC has closed two offices, scaled down the Mazar-e-Sharif orthopedic center, and stopped work in less-secure rural areas. As it assesses its previous assumptions that higher visibility meant more safety, no new security paradigm has presented itself other than to hunker down for now and hope the situation improves.

The Kabul center – one of seven ICRC orthopedic centers nationwide – also closed for a week immediately after the shooting.

“We could see how the people were suffering. People were coming to the gate and asking, ‘When will you open?’ and ‘How it can be?’ ” recalls Helal.

“I am telling you not as an ICRC worker, but on behalf of the disabled population of the country, that what they get at ICRC centers around the country is unique,” adds Helal. “It’s always positive, they are very happy.”

The numbers indicate how, in Afghanistan’s vast field of disability and rehabilitation, the ICRC accounts for roughly 50 percent of activities, which include micro-loans, job placement, food distribution, and even home-schooling, to maximize chances of social integration for those with life-altering war injuries and diseases.

Thousands of artificial limbs each year

The ICRC annually produces more than 19,000 artificial legs and arms and other prosthetic devices in Afghanistan, and registers more than 10,000 new patients each year, for a total of about 160,000 across the country.

In the past, that has served as vital for ICRC workers’ security, because Afghans knew of and respected ICRC efforts to help them in even the most remote areas.

If “our acceptance is not recognized for what we do, that’s where we become weak. We are a soft target like any other humanitarian actor in this country,” says Ms. Zanarelli.

This accounts for the surprise at being targeted by a patient, she says, “in a place where we thought our acceptance was at the maximum possible. Of course we are vulnerable in those situations…. We have still to be accessible to people, otherwise we are not relevant anymore.”

Security measures have been stepped up, with metal detection wands and pat-down checks at ICRC facilities. But they are of limited value when so many patients have metal inside them already. At the same time, the military and political situation fluctuates daily.

On top of that, relief agencies on the ground during the past two years, especially, have also seen lines blur as militias in northern Afghanistan have fragmented, says Zanarelli: “There are more gray zones than there were in the past, gray zones for everyone, in the sense of, ‘Who is in charge of what?’ ”

Scott Peterson/Getty Images/The Christian Science Monitor
Afghan war victims are fitted for artificial limbs at the Kabul Orthopedic Center, which is run by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Seeking a 'responsible withdrawal'

Still, the ICRC is working on what it calls a “responsible withdrawal” from where it is pulling back, handing over part of the workload to the local Afghan Red Crescent, for example, and other relief agencies, so the majority of ICRC beneficiaries will not be affected.

That is important because many of the cases the ICRC takes on – such as the 27,000 patients registered at the orthopedic center in Mazar-e-Sharif, which the ICRC is looking for others to take over – require years of commitment.

The ICRC decision to reduce its footprint was especially tough for an organization that, for example, was the only relief agency that kept working in Kigali during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. It kept a hospital open, despite horrific carnage that left 800,000 dead in 100 days.

But the ICRC has also shut down before, as it closed its 23-year-old operations in Iraq after its Baghdad headquarters was bombed in 2003. In Afghanistan in 2013, the ICRC also shut down its office in Jalalabad after a suicide bomb attack, and trimmed operations in the east of the country, gradually moving back from 2015.

The latest attacks saw one ICRC staff member abducted in Kunduz province in December 2016 and held for four weeks. In February 2017, six ICRC Afghan staff were killed when their convoy was ambushed, and two abducted and held for four months, released just days before the killing of the physiotherapist.

Alarm for other relief agencies

The ICRC decision served as an alarm for other humanitarian agencies such as the Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC), which also has a large footprint in Afghanistan and provides emergency response with shelter, food, and water.

The attacks on the ICRC were “really unfortunate; cumulatively I think they had to make that decision to scale down, particularly in northern Afghanistan,” says William Carter, the NRC country director in Kabul.

“In some ways it means that we need to do a little bit more, to help stem some quite important gaps up there,” says Mr. Carter. “It’s a high-risk area, so we definitely don’t think we are invulnerable…. If the ICRC can’t work, it’s one of the standard-bearers of humanitarian organizations, so it’s pressure on us and scrutiny to look at whether it’s worth it…whether we feel our staff is safe enough.”

The ICRC may be a bellwether for other relief agencies, but it is also “in its DNA” say one former European staffer, to one day expand again in Afghanistan, where needs are so great.

Helal doesn’t doubt it, as he looks at the transformation of his own life by the ICRC – and those of so many other Afghan amputees.

“When I see a patient come to us crawling, and leaving us by walking, it gives me energy,” says Helal.

Reaching for equity

A global series on gender and power

Where gender quotas help ‘fast track’ women into office

Can a critical mass of women's voices change how we prioritize action? A number of countries have decided it can produce a notable shift in thought. This story is the second in a series. 

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Picture a country that prizes gender equality, including in public office. For decades, when people around the world imagined that, all eyes turned to Scandinavia. But places like Sweden, Finland, and Norway didn’t create opportunities for women overnight; often, they were decades in the making. What happens when you need to change things quickly? One “fast track” attempt: gender quotas. They’re particularly common in Latin America and Africa, now home to 12 of the top 20 countries in the world for women’s legislative representation. Today, 24 African, Latin American, and Caribbean countries have crossed the so-called critical mass threshold of 30 percent female representation. At that point, experts say, there are enough women to band together to create substantive policy changes. Sometimes, they bring new urgency to matters that weren’t typically thought of as “women’s issues” – such as renewable energy. “It changes the agenda,” says the director of one Zimbabwean NGO. “It creates a critical alliance on issues where, in the past, women have had to be the sole campaigners in a house full of men.”

Where gender quotas help ‘fast track’ women into office

Juan Carlos Ulate/Reuters/File
Costa Rica's then-President Laura Chinchilla addresses the Congress during her annual state of the nation speech in San Jose on May 1, 2014.

When Laura Chinchilla was elected Costa Rica’s first woman president in 2010, she made sure to thank some of her symbolic supporters. Schoolchildren cast ballots in their own mock presidential elections, which she won by a landslide.

“When I showed up at the schools, teachers pulled me aside to say that a lot of their girls returned to class after the election more outspoken,” former President Chinchilla says in an interview. “They were suddenly saying they wanted to be president – of their classroom, their school, the country, their sports teams,” she recalls.

Moments like that make her hopeful that in the future there will be more women in leadership positions, she says.

Chinchilla worked her way up from minister of public security, to congresswoman, to vice president, before taking the helm as presidenta from 2010 to 2014. Throughout her career, she’s faced obstacles because of gender stereotypes, she says. But she has benefited from one big advantage: the country’s 1998 gender quota law that obliged political parties to ensure that at least 40 percent of their candidates are women.

Today, roughly 33 percent of the National Assembly is made up of women, putting it above the United States, Germany, Canada, and most other countries in the world.

“When you can’t guarantee a quick cultural revolution [for equality], you have to force change by creating laws,” she says of gender quota systems that have been legislated across Latin America.

For decades, when people around the world imagined a model where gender equality flourishes, including in public office, all eyes turned to Nordic countries.

David Mercado/Reuters/File
Bolivian congresswomen arrive at the parliament building to participate in a meeting to discuss Bolivia's maritime dispute with Chile, in La Paz on Feb. 25, 2015.

But places like Sweden, Finland, and Norway didn’t create a culture that prioritizes gender parity overnight. In many cases they laid the groundwork for the lowest gender pay gaps in the world by granting women the right to vote as early as 1906 – decades before most other parts of the globe.

When nations across Africa and Latin America began emerging from civil conflicts and brutal dictatorships in the 1980s and ‘90s, they recognized the need to involve broader swaths of society in governance, particularly women. But waiting nearly 100 years for a culture of equality to take hold was out of the question.

So, “they created a fast-track model,” says Drude Dahlerup, professor of political science at Stockholm University in Sweden and co-creator of the Quota Project, referring to the slew of Latin American and African nations that have established gender quotas in politics since 1991, when Argentina first made them into law.

“Nordic countries have been the forerunners, but they’re not the only model anymore,” says Dr. Dahlerup, who writes about the impact of gender quotas worldwide in her book, “Has Democracy Failed Women?” In Scandinavia, although individual parties commit to gender equality on their candidate list, quotas are not actually law. In “fast track” countries where quotas are on the books, on the other hand, governments have created “a kind of insurance” for female representation, Dahlerup adds. “When it’s law, it’s harder to backtrack.”

Spirit vs. letter of the law

Gender quota systems vary greatly around the world, and sometimes prompt controversy. Almost all quota laws in Latin America constitutionally reserve spots for women on political ballots, while some countries in Africa set aside physical seats in parliament for women.

In 2013, Zimbabwe approved a new constitution that reserved 60 of the 270 seats in its lower house of parliament for women. Today, Zimbabwe’s parliament is about one-third female. But that isn’t particularly unusual in Africa or Latin America. Overall, 12 of the top 20 countries in the world for women’s legislative representation are in Africa and Latin America. Rwanda tops the list with a legislature that’s 61 percent female, followed closely by Bolivia with 53 percent.

Quotas alone are rarely enough to alter the perceptions of women in society across the board, however.

In Latin America, where nearly every country has now adopted a gender quota law, one of the biggest challenges has been ensuring that political parties aren’t just going through the motions. At first, many parties were “meeting gender quotas in rhetoric, but not in spirit,” says Magda Hinojosa, a politics professor at Arizona State University and author of “Selecting Women, Electing Women: Political Representation and Candidate Selection in Latin America.”

For example, in 1999 municipal elections in Bolivia, parties repeatedly “misspelled” the names of male candidates, making them look like female candidates: “Ramón” might have been listed as “Ramona.” In 2009 Mexican elections, eight women were voted into office in a case now referred to as Las Juanitas: Almost immediately the women victors stepped down, handing their seats to their party’s male alternates.

“It was a way to meet the requirements of the law, but only simulate real change,” says Fernando Dworak, a political analyst and consultant in Mexico. In the aftermath, Mexico’s law was amended to require an alternate to be the same sex as the candidate on the ballot.

Not everyone supports quotas, with some viewing them as a different type of discrimination. Reserved-seat systems, in particular, have provoked complaints of unfairness. They are less common, however: 23 countries reserve seats for female legislators, while 54 implement quotas that only require women be included on candidate lists.

“I’ve heard many people complain that it’s not democratic to reserve seats [for women],” says Sakhile Sifelani-Ngoma, the executive director of the Women in Politics Support Unit, a nongovernmental organization that tracks and assists women in Zimbabwean politics. But “I think it’s not democratic to leave half the population out of your political decision-making process.”

Polling data in Latin America shows that if parties nominate women, both men and women will cast ballots for them, says Dr. Hinojosa.

“Latin America has, because of its widespread adoption of gender quotas, in some ways overcome a lot of obstacles for women” in one of the most stereotypically macho regions in the world, she says.

“But the primary obstacle is getting women onto the ballot.”

Women at the helm

Once elected, women make a difference. Almost immediately after Zimbabwe created its quota, Ms. Sifelani-Ngoma began to notice the legislature’s agenda shifting.

It wasn’t just that the newly-elected women MPs were taking up issues around domestic violence, child marriage, and increasing access to sanitary pads – although they did all of that. They were also bringing new urgency to matters that weren’t typically thought of as “women’s issues,” says Sifelani-Ngoma.

For instance, female MPs in Zimbabwe have been key drivers of renewable energy policy in recent years. Women are disproportionately affected by the country’s shoddy electricity grid, the MPs argued, since they are the ones generally responsible for power-intensive household tasks. That means women and girls are the ones who often have to walk miles each day to fetch firewood, for example, preventing them from doing a paid job or going to school.

“This push to talk about climate change and then also to see its impacts in a gendered way – that was led by women,” Sifelani-Ngoma says.

Today, 24 African, Latin American, and Caribbean countries have crossed the so-called “critical mass” threshold of 30 percent female representation. It’s the point at which experts say there are enough women to band together to create substantive policy changes.

“It changes the agenda,” Sifelani-Ngoma says. “It creates a critical alliance on issues where, in the past, women have had to be the sole campaigners in a house full of men.”

Challenges to real change persist, even as more and more countries adopt quotas, says Dahlerup from the Quota project. As women’s representation becomes an expected norm, pressure mounts for countries to include women for the sake of signaling progress, with or without follow-up measures to help put men and women on equal footing.

“Today, you have a global discourse that in order to be modern and democratic, you have to include women,” she says. “So, if you want to look modern… you use women.

“But,” she adds, “women also use the system.”


The Quota Project

Jacob Turcotte/Staff


Libya crisis as opportunity: Who are the Madkhalis?

Libya's post-Qaddafi collapse has been a tragic case study on the consequences of instability: the haven it provides militants, the surge of desperate migrants it drives toward Europe, the cautionary tale it offers North Korea's Kim Jong-un. That's why the world is watching as one group in particular finds its footing amid the chaos.

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Why did Muammar Qaddafi, the late dictator, open up Libya to the Madkhalis in the early 2000s? Probably because the apolitical fundamentalist movement from Saudi Arabia had a reputation for unquestioning support of dictatorships and antagonism toward democracy. Sure enough, the Madkhalis were the last group to abandon Mr. Qaddafi despite his regime’s violence against its own citizens. Fast-forward to today, and the ultraconservative Salafist movement is still in Libya, taking advantage of the post-revolution chaos to impose their hard-line interpretation of Islam through force and coercion. As the Madkhalis align themselves with strongmen around the country, longtime experts and observers warn that the group may devastate civil society and impose an undeclared theocracy. For more on who the Madkhalis are and how they likely will use their growing influence in Libya, please read the full-length four-question Q-and-A.

Libya crisis as opportunity: Who are the Madkhalis?

Hani Amara/Reuters/File
Mobile artillery belonging to forces allied with the UN-backed Libyan government is seen near the front line of fighting with ISIS militants in a district of Sirte, Libya, in October 2016. Thousands of Madkhalis formed an effective fighting force in central Libya that was instrumental in driving ISIS from Sirte and other strongholds along the coast.

While the Islamic State has grabbed headlines as it tries to regain its footing in war-torn Libya, a less-known, fundamentalist Islamist movement is quietly extending its influence across the country.

The Madkhalis, an ultraconservative Salafist movement from Saudi Arabia, have been taking advantage of Libya’s post-revolution chaos to impose their hardline interpretation of Islam through force and coercion, patrolling the streets and using their control over mosques to dramatically alter Libyan society.

To that end, the Madkhalis have aligned themselves with nearly every self-proclaimed government and warlord in Libya over the past three years, silencing liberal and Islamist critics in the process.

The Madkhalis have consistently opposed the anti-Western Islamic State (ISIS), which has sought to set up a new base of operations in Libya after being mostly driven out of Iraq and Syria. But unless a peaceful solution is reached and state institutions provide services in Libya soon, long-time experts and observers warn that the Madkhalis may devastate civil society and impose an undeclared theocracy.

Who are the Madkhalis?

The Madkhali movement reveres and follows 85-year-old Saudi Arabian cleric Rabee al-Madkhali, who is currently based in Medina.

The apolitical group, formed largely as a religious response to the politically active Muslim Brotherhood, gained in popularity in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other Arab regimes in the Gulf in the 1990s. The states sought to use the new Salafi strain as a counterbalance against Islamist opposition groups and solidify their own religious legitimacy. 

The Madkhalis’ unquestioning support of dictatorships, aversion to politics, and antagonism toward both democracy and the Muslim Brotherhood made the group a perfect partner for the regime of Muammar Qaddafi, who opened Libya to the group in the early 2000s.

Sure enough, the Madkhalis were the last group to abandon Qaddafi despite his regime’s violence against its own citizens, urging citizens to obey the ruler until the waning days of the 2011 revolution.

Now unbound by a dictatorship or government for the very first time, the formerly passive movement has quietly formed its own fighting forces and vice squads and aligned itself with warlords and governments in eastern, central, and western Libya, with its eye on complete control over Libyan society.

What is their ideology?

The Madkhalis’ central tenet is a near-slavish loyalty to whatever regime, ruler, or group is in power in a particular country, known as wali al amr, literally the one who rules.

Unlike other Salafis or the Muslim Brotherhood, who demand that governments be influenced by Islam or impose strict sharia law, Madkhalis freely throw their support behind secular Arab regimes. The group, as articulated by Mr. Madkhali himself, argues that these secular and undemocratic regimes have “divine” authority to rule over their subjects – otherwise, God would not have put them in the position of power in the first place.

So fierce is their defense of whatever regime or ruler they serve, the Madkhalis make it their mission to attack any critic or opposition, using Islamic scholarship to portray them as heretics or unbelievers.

The second core concept in Madkhali ideology is an aversion to politics and a fierce opposition to democracy, arguing that politics by nature creates divisions among Muslims, encourages loyalty to groups other than God, and allows un-Islamic movements to creep into society.

On the social front, there is little to differentiate Madkhalis from the ultraconservative Wahabi strain of Islam that until recently has governed daily life in Saudi Arabia and which the House of Saud has exported across the Muslim world.

Madkhalis believe women have little role outside the home and must require male guardianship to move or travel. They view music, television and any non-Islamic literature as “sinful,” and mixing with non-Muslims as a threat to lead Muslims “astray.”

What role do they play in Libyan politics?

Although the Madkhalis shunned the ballot box in Libya’s two post-revolution elections, the group has quietly formed its own forces and institutions and made alliances on the ground to become one of the most influential players in the country.

In western Libya, Madkhalis have formed a policing force to patrol the streets of Tripoli, break up crime and un-Islamic “vice,” and even disrupt ISIS cells and attacks. The Madkhali force has been so successful, the UN-backed government in Tripoli relies on it as an official policing force under the interior ministry.

In central Libya, Madkhalis formed an effective fighting force numbering in the thousands that in 2016 was instrumental in driving ISIS from Sirte and other strongholds along the coast. Since driving out ISIS, the Madkhali militias have remained behind, patrolling many towns and villages.

But perhaps the Madkhalis’ biggest power play has been in eastern Libya, where a branch of the movement has made an alliance with the Egypt- and Russia-backed strongman, Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar.

In return for using its forces and pulpit to support Mr. Haftar and urge loyalty to the strongman as an Islamic duty, Madkhalis have been given free reign over mosques, endowments, and religious institutions across eastern Libya. Crucially, Madkhalis have been given the power to issue official fatwas.

In each part of Libya, Madkhalis have had a consistent strategy: attack, silence, and delegitimize all rivals, including liberals, democrats, the Muslim Brotherhood, jihadists, and rival Salafi groups. It is a campaign that has strengthened whichever faction it is serving and has put every other actor and civil society group on the defensive.

How will they use their rising influence?

Longtime observers and researchers say the Madkhalis have built up goodwill in communities by providing security services at a time there is no functioning government, providing it a gateway to impose their ideology.  

“Madkhalis are pushing the narrative ‘We are Salafis, we are not corrupt, we are cleaning up drugs and alcohol, we are providing security,’ and there is a certain attraction to that for local communities,” says Frederic Wehrey, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who has interviewed Libyan Madkhalis.

Last November, Madkhali security forces acting on behalf of the Tripoli government shut down a comic book convention in the capital, accusing it of “exploiting the weakness of religious faith and fascination with foreign cultures.”

Earlier, in March, Madkhalis in the east arrested three young men preparing an Earth Day celebration in Benghazi for promoting immoral “freemasonry.”

Also last year, a military governor, under the directives of a Madkhali fatwa, issued a ban on women travelling without a male guardian in eastern Libya – though it was later overturned after unprecedented public opposition.  Meanwhile, Madkhalis have reportedly organized multiple book burnings in Benghazi, while the movement’s supporters run some two-dozen radio station across the country.  

Madkhalis have also reportedly been given free control within prisons in both western and eastern Libya, proselytizing and “rehabilitating” detainees.

Madkhalis’ lasting impact on the course of the Libyan conflict may be their silencing and targeting of opposition and political groups. Many Libyan civil society leaders and human rights activists have been targeted, silenced, driven abroad, or killed, according to Human Rights Watch – a process that has been accelerated and blessed by the Madkhalis.

Libyan human rights activists say they fear criticizing the group, who in turn “denounce you at the minbar [in the mosque], on the radio, and arrest you the same day.”

Without a counter-balance to the Salafis, longtime Libya experts and officials warn there will be little resistance to the fundamentalist group’s control over daily life once militias lay down their arms for good.

“More liberal voices are in retreat if they haven’t disappeared altogether,” says Ben Fishman, a former White House official who worked on Libya under the Obama administration.

“The longer it takes to have a functional unity government, the deeper these roots will enmesh themselves into the daily norms of local communities and the more difficult it will be to untangle them.”

In Cambodia, a single push to protect both land and people

The interests of animals and humans have often been at odds when it comes to preservation efforts. But in Cambodia, one effort is finding a way to bolster the prosperity of both.

Heng Sinith/AP/File
A Siamese crocodile roams at a wildlife-rescue center in the village of Phnom Tamao, south of Phnom Penh, Cambodia.
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O Soam commune is nestled in Cambodia’s remote Cardamom Mountains in a dense, biodiverse swath of forest that’s home to 2,000-year-old rock paintings. About 200 families in the Chong ethnic group live in the area – as do 50 of the country’s 200 remaining Siamese crocodiles. Cambodia’s animals have been hit hard by rapid deforestation that is among the fastest in the world. But so have communities like the Chong, whose livelihood and culture have long drawn on the forests – including “spirit forests” where many make offerings as a sign of respect for the environment. By working with environmental organizations, however, some hope they can build a more secure future for the forest and themselves. Initiatives to protect the habitat are providing ecotourism jobs and other sustainable livelihoods, helping to reduce the economic incentives for logging. Resident Put Poeurn is on the front line, monitoring crocodiles’ habitats to detect illegal hunting – a job he took over from his father. “I am proud to be Chong and living here in this historic area, preserving the crocodiles for the next generation,” he says.

In Cambodia, a single push to protect both land and people


For the Chong people of Cambodia, Siamese crocodiles are revered, respected, and left alone.

But several times a month, Put Poeurn goes looking for them.

Wearing the everyday clothes of rural Cambodia – old jeans, faded collared shirt, and sandals – plus a GPS and machete, he ventures through forest rivers to investigate signs of illegal hunting. This time of year, amid the six-month rainy season, “it is much harder to walk around the area where they live, as the water is deeper and the plants higher,” says Mr. Put Poeurn. But even when checking crocodile nests, he’s not scared: thanks to his yearly offering at a forest shrine, he says, the crocodiles will leave him be.

Put Poeurn is one of the wardens at the frontline of efforts to ensure that human activity does not disturb the critically endangered crocodiles, a job he took over from his father four years ago. Rampant deforestation and development have increased pressure on animals throughout Cambodia. They’ve especially intensified in the country’s “spirit forests,” as the hill communities like the ethnic-minority Chong call them, which are some of the creatures’ last refuges. But the changes also threaten their culture, as the landscape that’s sustained them for centuries transforms and draws more outsiders to the region.

Peter A. Ford
Put Pourn stands outside his wooden house, which is near the crocodile habitat, in Phnom Kravanh Commune, Cambodia.

If the disappearance of the forest has tied the Chong’s and the crocodiles’ futures closer together, however, they may be able to use that connection for good. New, nongovernmental organization-led initiatives to protect the animals’ habitat provide ecotourism jobs and other financial support, which could boost the Chong’s chances to determine their future.

“I am proud to be Chong and living here in this historic area, preserving the crocodiles for the next generation,” says Put Poeurn.

Disappearing forests

O Soam, the collection of villages where Put Poeurn lives, is nestled in the remote Cardamom Mountains, a dense, biodiverse swath of forest on the Cambodia-Thai border that is home to 2,000-year-old rock paintings. Two hundred Chong families live around O Soam – as do an estimated 50 of Cambodia’s 200 krapeu phnom, or mountain crocodiles. Globally, there are likely fewer than 1,000 left, all in isolated pockets across Southeast Asia.

Cambodia’s deforestation rate is among the fastest in the world, thanks to a mix of population growth, lax law enforcement, and illegal logging driven in part by rural poverty. As habitat loss accelerates, so does poaching. Once-endemic tigers are now believed to be extinct, and leopards likely to follow.

“I am very proud that the Chong have protected the crocodiles, and it makes me angry that others have killed them,” says Hun Tang, a retired farmer. “We have always been Buddhist, but also with a strong belief in spirit forests and nature. But these beliefs are weakening. Before, no one would cut the trees. Just look around and you can see this is no longer true,” he says, waving at the pepper, banana, and pineapple plantations now flourishing where forest stood five years ago.

“A lot of this is done by Khmer, but some Chong also,” he sighs. Poorer members of the community typically make less than a dollar per day, while a single hardwood tree, once chopped down, can fetch hundreds of dollars.

Chinese-funded hydroelectric projects are increasingly reaching once-remote locations, adding further pressure to the sensitive habitats. There are at least six dams on waterways around O Soam, which have flooded some spirit forests, but have also brought jobs, electricity, and increased access to the outside world.

As new opportunities emerge, old ones may disappear – including environmentally sustainable livelihoods. Put Poeurn, for example, is one of eight Chong residents paid by the conservation group Flora and Fauna International (FFI) to monitor the crocodiles. But he also farms rice, and travels far into the surrounding area searching for resin trees, whose collected sap is used to make varnish, to waterproof boats, and as a cheap fuel. Others sell cardamom and honey, both alternatives to the timber industry. Such trees used to be more easily found in O Soam’s spirit forests, but as they vanish, so does this source of income.

Caught amid change

Those economic changes are entwined with cultural ones, as well.

“The community faces a number of threats to its cultural identity,” says Eam Sam Un, a senior biologist at FFI’s Flagship Species Program. Key among those is the destruction of spirit forests. For generations, Chong people have made biannual offerings here, leaving food and drink in return for spiritual protection – and a sign of respect for the environment in which they lived, foraged, and hunted.

The loss of spirit forests “may shake the basis of their identity,” says Hiroyuki Ishibashi, a researcher at the Research Institute for Humanity and Nature in Japan who studies communities in the Cardamom Mountains. Losing forestland also means losing a “place where people can recall and tell stories to others about their ancestors and historical experiences.”

Forty years ago, there were 100 Chong families in the area, and no one else, according to Sok Boeurn, the newly elected chief of several villages. Now there are almost 800 families total, and only a quarter are Chong. They have largely lost their distinct language, with only a few words differing from the old-fashioned, long-isolated Khmer they use everyday.

Like many older Chong in O Soam, Mr. Sok Boeurn blames some of the changes on Cambodia’s many years of conflict and disruption death and disruption under Pol Pot’s genocidal regime in the 1970s.

“I remember the ladies used to wear high-necked dresses.... But all that changed with the Khmer Rouge, and now we wear the same as everyone else,” he says, sitting on a plastic chair in his 3-room wooden office, dressed in a blue collared shirt and worn grey suit pants.

“I would prefer we didn’t lose our identity, but of course it is up to the people. I do my best to protect our culture and traditions,” says Sok Boeurn.

Peter A. Ford
A villager renovates the spirit house, which is decorated with yellow crocodile flags, in O Soam commune, Cambodia.

'Many more years to come'

Working hand-in-hand with environmental non-governmental organizations, however, some Chong hope they can build a more secure future for the forest and themselves.

In the Areng Valley in the southern Cardamom Mountains, the group Mother Nature has spent years working with the Chong community to prevent illegal logging, and blocked off a hydroelectric dam project after winning public support. And FFI’s crocodile-warden project, now going on 17 years, is just one of its activities in the region. The group is also working to identify distinct crocodile populations and relocate at-risk animals – not only to save individuals, but to boost the genetic diversity of the remaining, isolated communities.

“By working with the Chong and local populations, we are confident that O Soam’s crocodiles will enjoy protection for many more years to come,” Mr. Sam Un says. FFI’s approach goes to the roots of deforestation, working with O Soam residents to boost food security and more sustainable, forest-friendly income to diminish logging’s appeal. Indigenous communities’ livelihoods have been improving as they deepen their engagement with its programs, he adds.

The forest destruction is hard to miss, but the Chong stories about crocodile spirits have struck a chord with new, non-Chong arrivals. At a moon-lit barbeque to celebrate the annual Water Festival, Khmer residents swap tales of what’s befallen people who touch them or their nests.

“The crocodiles are special, and we should leave them alone,” one reveler warns the others.

Lifelong O Soam resident Mr. Hun Tang sees fewer crocodiles than he used to. He says he cannot predict whether environmental NGOs, the government, or the local community will be able to preserve the remaining crocodiles. But he is happy to know “I have never harmed one, and never will.”

Thavry Thon contributed reporting.

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Coarse words and new thinking

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Words matter. Coarse or profane language usually represents an outburst of emotion, not careful reason. It’s a mode of thought not conducive to calm and effective problem-solving. The offensive term used by the US president (there remains disagreement on the exact word or phrase used) expressed a derogatory and dismissive view of the people of African countries. The best lesson here may come in the form of self-examination: It’s a good time for everyone to ask themselves if they are nurturing unfair or inaccurate images of people from any racial, ethnic, or religious group. In an informal survey of last Sunday’s sermons at churches around the United States, The Washington Post found religious leaders reminding their congregations of this opportunity to examine their thinking. “There were some controversial words spoken this week about the value of people,” said one Indiana pastor, according to a parishioner. “Talk of others who are not deserving. Let me be clear,” the pastor said, “[t]hese words are not of Christ.”

Coarse words and new thinking

Joshua Roberts/Reuters
Sen. Richard Durbin (D) of Illinois questioned Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen during a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee Jan. 16. The senator asked Secretary Nielsen about her recollection of coarse language being used at an Oval Office meeting on immigration.

Words matter because they express thoughts. As is often pointed out, coarse or profane language usually represents an outburst of emotion, not careful reason. It’s a mode of thought not conducive to calm and effective problem-solving.

The president of the United States recently used coarse language while discussing important legislation regarding immigrants with members of Congress.

That incident was unfortunate and beneath the dignity of that high office. But more than the need to maintain propriety or adhere to social norms was at stake.

The best lesson here may come in the form of self-examination. It’s a good time for everyone to ask themselves if they are nurturing unfair or inaccurate images of people from any racial, ethnic, or religious group. 

In this instance the offensive term (there remains disagreement on the exact word or phrase used) expressed a derogatory and dismissive view of the people of Haiti and African countries. 

Sometimes, attitudes change with new information. A recent analysis of immigrants to Canada, for example, shows that those from Africa, the Caribbean, and Central America – regions that President Trump said he would like to see fewer immigrants from – are more likely to be employed and receive less government assistance than those from so-called Norway countries (Northern Europe, including Scandinavia).

These “less desirable” immigrants are also on average better educated than native Canadians (27 percent with a college degree in contrast with 18 percent of native Canadians), concludes Arvind Magesan, an associate professor of economics at the University of Calgary, who based his research on 2011 census data (the latest available).

In the US adult immigrants from Africa were more likely than native-born Americans to be college educated (41.7 percent to 28.1 percent), according to an analysis based on 2009 data by the Migration Policy Institute. In addition, “16.7 percent of [immigrant] Africans reported having a higher degree than a bachelor’s, compared to 10.2 percent of the native born and 11.0 percent of immigrants [in general],” the report concludes.

In an informal survey of this past Sunday’s sermons at churches around the US, The Washington Post found religious leaders reminding their congregations of this opportunity to correct their thinking.

“There were some controversial words spoken this week about the value of people. Talk of others who are not deserving. Let me be clear: These words are not of Christ,” the Rev. Chris Danielson told St. Andrew United Methodist Church in West Lafayette, Ind., according to notes made by a parishioner. 

In the Bible the disciple Nathanael asks skeptically “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” when he first hears about Jesus. “Can anything good come out of these [African] nations?” Mr. Danielson asked his congregation. “You better believe it, and boy do they have gifts to give.”

If words such as these are now heard more frequently, the furor over the use of foul language in the Oval Office may yet yield a blessing.

A Christian Science Perspective

About this feature

Each weekday, the Monitor includes one clearly labeled religious article offering spiritual insight on contemporary issues, including the news. The publication – in its various forms – is produced for anyone who cares about the progress of the human endeavor around the world and seeks news reported with compassion, intelligence, and an essentially constructive lens. For many, that caring has religious roots. For many, it does not. The Monitor has always embraced both audiences. The Monitor is owned by a church – The First Church of Christ, Scientist, in Boston – whose founder was concerned with both the state of the world and the quality of available news.

Home is a power

In the spirit of evolving the Monitor Daily toward the best and clearest statement of the Monitor’s mission, changes are coming to the Christian Science Perspective starting Jan. 22. Learn more here.

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So many people move from one house to another. Others sleep on the open desert, on a mattress in a homeless shelter, or on a cot in Army barracks. Some people struggle to keep their homes because of financial challenges. Regardless, everyone can gain a spiritual sense of home that goes with them everywhere, and with it comes tangible strength and peace of mind. Mary Baker Eddy once said: “Home is not a place but a power. We find home when we arrive at the full understanding of God” (Irving C. Tomlinson, “Twelve Years with Mary Baker Eddy,” Amplified Edition, 1996, p. 211). Home can be felt by acknowledging the presence of God and affirming His goodness, tenderness, and perpetual care for each of His children – each of us. The ideas that constitute this highest sense of home are indestructible and always present. And since home is a power, it is something that can be discerned and demonstrated in practical ways for every one of us, through inspiration that brings solutions to our needs.

Home is a power


After the clerk had made sure everyone had left the store, she confided in me, the one remaining customer, that she’d just received news that her house had burned down. “Thirty-five years completely gone,” she said. She’d waited until the building was empty because she didn’t want everyone to know – “Too hard to handle all that emotion.”

As I stood at the counter, my heart went out to her, and I looked her straight in the eye. Trying to be as calm and comforting as I could, I told her that somehow everything would be OK. She and her husband were alive and safe, and so was their dog. The woman’s eyes started to tear even as she struggled to control her emotion.

In no way did I want to minimize the calamity of what had happened, but I couldn’t stay silent, nor could I just hop in the car and go home. As I looked at her distressed face and sad eyes, I thought of something Monitor founder Mary Baker Eddy said in regard to home, and shared it with the woman: “Home is not a place but a power.”

Her face brightened visibly, and she smiled with a look of surprise and relief. She said: “That is absolutely wonderful. That is so helpful. Wow.”

There’s more to that quote, but just that first sentence was enough to lighten the woman’s load, to brighten her face with a ray of hope. The entire quotation comes from a comment Mrs. Eddy made. She said: “Home is not a place but a power. We find home when we arrive at the full understanding of God. Home! Think of it! Where sense has no claims and Soul [God] satisfies” (Irving C. Tomlinson, “Twelve Years with Mary Baker Eddy,” Amplified Edition, 1996, p. 211).

So many people move from one house to another. Others sleep on the open desert, on a mattress in a homeless shelter, or in a different hotel room each night while on a business trip. For someone else, home is a cot in Army barracks. Some people are struggling to keep their homes because of financial challenges. Regardless, everyone can gain a spiritual sense of home that goes with them everywhere, and with it comes tangible strength and peace of mind. It can be felt by acknowledging the presence of God, and affirming God’s goodness, tenderness, and perpetual care for each of His children – each of us.

This true sense of home is powerful because its source is untiring divine Love, which expresses itself at every moment. Spiritual peace comes from abiding in the arms of God’s fathering and mothering of each one of us, His spiritual offspring. A weather-tight roof, beautifully furnished rooms, and a two-car garage in a quiet neighborhood can neither guarantee nor destroy this peace – which can be discerned and demonstrated in practical ways for every one of us, even if we have to start all over again, through inspiration that brings solutions to our needs. The ideas that constitute this highest, spiritual sense of home are indestructible and always present, because God, divine Spirit, is infinite.

The Bible is clear about God’s fathering and mothering care for all His beloved children. For instance: “Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may lay her young – even Your altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God. Blessed are those who dwell in Your house; they will still be praising You” (Psalms 84:3, 4, New King James Version).

When I returned to the store a few days later, the clerk was decidedly more upbeat. She told me that she and her husband had quickly found a small cottage to live in while steps were being taken to restore their housing situation. She expressed her gratitude for a better sense of what real home is.

“And thou shalt be secure, because there is hope; yea, thou shalt dig about thee, and thou shalt take thy rest in safety” (Job 11:18).

Adapted from a Christian Science Perspective article published Feb. 25, 2009.

A message of love

Hot spot

Stefano Rellandini/Reuters
A visitor entered the sauna on the peak of Mt. Lagazuoi in Cortina D'Ampezzo, Italy, Jan. 16. The Finnish-designed resort sauna, made of larch wood, is called 'the highest in the Dolomites.'
( The illustrations in today’s Monitor Daily are by Jacob Turcotte and Karen Norris. )

A look ahead

Thanks for joining us today. Tomorrow, as the future of DACA swirls in Washington, we will take a fresh look at the issue of unauthorized immigration, where bipartisan agreement has often appeared to be within reach, only to slip away at the last minute. 

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