Good Reads: Libyan rebels' push on Sirte, Nigeria's Boko Haram, Clooney's satellites

Today's stories feature a look at the Libyan rebels' final push on Qaddafi's hometown, Nigeria's Boko Haram, and how George Clooney's satellite project may affect Sudan.

Front pages tend to love war zones, but good reads can also come from quieter places – air-conditioned boardrooms covered with pie-charts and figures and grainy photographs. Today, Monitor editors are highlighting examples of both.

● There are two great things about reporting on fallen regimes. One is finding souvenirs in the abandoned homes of dictators – Muammar Qaddafi’s creepy photo album dedicated to former US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice comes to mind. (Eww.)

The other great thing is finding a treasure trove of official documents that tell us about the policies and mindset about a regime. The Washington Post’s Thomas Erdbrink and Joby Warrick filed a piece from Tripoli yesterday that promised an inside look into how the Qaddafi regime fretted about and dealt with Al-Qaeda-influenced Islamist terror groups on its own turf, but it didn’t actually do a lot of quoting from documents it has obtained.

Instead, the reporters focused on the former Islamist commander, Abdelkarim Belhadj, the self-proclaimed former leader of the Tripoli Brigade that fought against Russian occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

It’s conceivable that the reporters concluded that printing information from the documents might people individuals at risk, and that’s a legitimate concern. But the writers don’t say that, and this reader felt a bit let down. Perhaps there is more to come?

● The Monitor’s Kristen Chick continues strong frontline reporting with a piece today on the rebel force’s “final push” to take the Libyan city of Sirte, one of two major cities still in the hands of pro-Qaddafi forces.

As Ms. Chick explains, “Victory in Sirte is crucial because it would unite rebel-held territory from Tripoli in the west to the eastern city of Benghazi, giving the rebels uninterrupted control of the country's long coastal area and its many oil facilities. Taking Sirte would also pose a key test of rebels' ability to persuade Qaddafi loyalists to admit that a 42-year era of dictatorial rule is over, lay down their arms, and integrate themselves in the new Libya.”

In Nigeria, political rivalries between the mainly Muslim north and the mainly Christian south have taken a violent turn, most recently with the suicide bombing of a UN compound in the Nigerian capital of Abuja last Friday. Time Magazine’s Karen Leigh writes a fine profile of the Islamist militant group, Boko Haram, that claimed responsibility for that attack, and that may have carried out the attack as a way of gaining the attention and respect of that “other” Islamist militant group, Al Qaeda.

Boko Haram’s recent change in tactics from mere firebombings and gun battles against the Nigerian Army to a more sophisticated suicide bombing of the UN may be an indication that Boko Haram is ready to ally itself with Al Qaeda’s local franchise in the West African Sahel region, the shadowy Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Here, Ms. Leigh quotes Andrew Lebovich, a policy analyst for the National Security Studies Program at the New America Foundation, who specializes in studying AQIM:

"They don't get as much recognition from international jihad groups because they haven't really engaged in large-scale operations, and because they haven't attacked Europe — so many are still suspicious of how effective they are. This would be a way of solidifying their place within al-Qaeda."

● If it seems like news coverage is becoming more and more celebrity oriented – an endless red carpet that travels from Hollywood to Cannes to the most distant war zone – there’s a good reason for this. Hollywood stars have taken their money and their ideals out into the field, bringing attention to war crimes in Darfur, child mortality in Asia, and the need for clean drinking water in Zambia. All this glamorized activism tends to chafe foreign correspondents (see the case of the Darfur campaign, where Hollywood pressure for military intervention may have actually made that conflict worse), but in some cases it has the potential to do a lot of good.

Onetime Monitor contributor Alexis Okeowo writes a nice piece in The New Yorker this week explaining why George Clooney’s latest project, the Satellite Sentinel Project, may be worth the attention it's getting.

In this teaming up with veteran activist John Prendergast’s Enough Project, the SSP uses private satellite images in the Sudan to uncover what appear to be mass graves in Sudan’s South Kordofan region, where the Khartoum regime has begun cracking down on separatist rebels. Mr. Clooney’s satellite photo project has already discovered about eight suspected grave sites, and satellite photos are one of the main reasons the UN has begun to pressure Khartoum to open up the South Kordofan region for investigations and for aid relief.

As Ms. Okeowo writes, the Satellite Sentinel Project takes Hollywood activism to a new level.

“I was skeptical of Clooney’s Sudan activism, the latest case of a celebrity visiting a war-torn land and posing for photos with hungry children. But his satellite-monitoring project is far more than a publicity ploy. Not only do we have evidence of continuing atrocities, but Sudan may also finally be paying attention to international pressure. The country has said it will allow U.N. teams to enter South Kordofan and investigate the human rights situation – though the government is organizing the mission – and Sudanese President Omar Bashir called for a two-week ceasefire in the state last Tuesday.”

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