TBR News December 9, 2015

Dec 09 2015

The Voice of the White House

Washington D.C. December 9, 2015: After a Muslim man and wife butchered over 20 people and injured many more in San Berndino, there was the backlash aganist religious fanatics in general and Muslims in specific. Hen Republican candidate Donald Trump said that Muslim immigration into the United States must stop, loud were the wailing and weepings of the world’s fuzzy liberals about fascism in the United States and the vicious behavior of Mr. Truimp. The left wing press predicted that Trump would now lose all his supporters but in fact, realistic public polls show he has jumped ahead of his rivals to lead the pack. Horrified Republicans have joined the chorus, and suggest Trump could be forbidden from travel and forced to listen to Wayne Newton records until he repented. Just as there are many Americans who think well of Russian President Putin but do not discuss this, so also do many approve of Mr. Trump’s brutal but practical solutions to religious fanaticism.”

Germany warns Saudi Arabia to stop funding radical Islamists

December 7, 2015


Germany has publicly warned Saudi Arabia against further financing religious radicals globally. German Vice Chancellor Sigmar Gabriel’s demand to cut money flowing to the Wahhabis comes as some lawmakers are growing weary of Saudi-funded radical mosques.

Gabriel stressed that the Saudi regime has been funding mosques known for radicalizing the Muslim population, including in various communities in Europe.

“We have to make clear to the Saudis that the time of looking away is over,” Mr Gabriel, Merkel’s deputy and the head of the Social Democrats (SPD), told Bild am Sonntag newspaper. “Wahhabi mosques all over the world are financed by Saudi Arabia. Many Islamists who are a threat to public safety come from these communities in Germany.”

Wahhabism is a strict version of Sunni Islam that is the official religion of the ultra-conservative state of Saudi Arabia. It is also said to be behind Islamic State’s (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) and Al-Qaeda’s extremist ideologies. The Saudis have historically always supported the building of Wahhabi mosques around the world to help the sect gain popularity.

I n response, the Saudi Arabian embassy in Berlin said in a statement that the nation wants to fight the radicalization of youths. “Like Germany, we are part of the anti-Islamic State coalition and fighting side by side against terror,” it said.

The allegations against Saudi Arabia have been around for some time, but it is rare for a Western politician to speak out against it, as the Gulf State remains a key western ally.

The German media has heavily criticized Saudi King Salman for proposing that 200 mosques be built for the Syrian refugees coming to Germany. This issue gained more traction as Saudi Arabia has refused to accept any refugees from Syria.

The surprisingly open disapproval of Saudi policies comes after a German foreign intelligence agency (BND) report claiming that Riyadh’s foreign relations could be a major destabilizing force in the Arab world.

Immediately after the report was released, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government attempted to create some distance between the BND analysis and official foreign policy line.

However, Gabriel’s comments reveal that the government is taking the report’s findings seriously.

“Of course we need Saudi Arabia to solve the conflicts in the region,” Gabriel said. “We cannot and must not ignore the country. And it does not help to put it in the pillory every day, because that won’t increase its readiness for serious negotiations over Syria.”

Gabriel is known for being outspoken. When visiting Riyadh earlier this year, he gave a speech in support of Raif Badawi, a Saudi blogger, who was sentenced to 1,000 lashes for insulting Islam. Moreover, Gabriel was responsible for blocking an agreement to build a German arms factory in Saudi Arabia.g with the appeals process to put out the documents; it just didn’t feel right, after all these years of secrecy, making them public. For Merrill, it had become ingrained.

Beijing issues first pollution red alert as smog engulfs capital

Alert will prompt schools and factories to close and force millions of vehicles off roads after smog reached 40 times safe level in some areas

December 7, 2015

by Tom Phillips in Beijing

The Guardian

Beijing has issued its first pollution red alert as acrid smog enveloped the Chinese capital for the second time this month.

The alert will begin at 7am on Tuesday and should see millions of vehicles forced off the roads, factories and construction sites shut down and schools and nurseries advised to close.

It is history – this is a precedent set,” said Ma Jun, director of the Institute of Public an Environmental Affairs in Beijing. “This is extremely important to stop children from being exposed to such a high level of pollution.”

Chinese authorities faced fierce criticism last week when they failed to issue a red alert even as Beijing’s residents choked on smog levels that in some areas rose to 40 times those considered safe by the World Health Organisation.

Greenpeace complained that the government’s insufficient alerting system compounded the effects of Beijing’s latest “airpocalypse” , in which readings of the hazardous airborne particle PM2.5 exceed 900 micrograms per cubic metre in some parts of the city.

Monday’s emergency announcement appeared in part to be a reaction to those criticisms. Ma Jun said it would have been a “very tough decision” for China’s leaders to declare the red alert in a city of about 23 million inhabitants.

It is going to involve some very challenging actions like stopping half of the cars. In a city with more than five million cars you can imagine that is going to be a big challenge,” he said. “It is not about the political or financial cost, first and foremost it is about the great difficulty in trying to organise such an emergency response.

But this will definitely help protect people’s health. With the red alert, primary schools, middle schools and kindergartens will be [advised] to stop having class. This will be very helpful in preventing extra exposure of the most vulnerable group of people to the air pollution hazards.”

Chinese state media said the latest bout of pollution would linger over Beijing until Thursday, when rain is expected to clear away the toxic smog. “Coal-fired power plants are the major culprit at this point,” said Xinhua, China’s official news agency.

Last year the Chinese premier, Li Keqiang, vowed to declare war on pollution, but despite such pledges smog continues to blight cities right across the country. Scientists blame air pollution for about 4,000 deaths a day.

Ma Jun said Beijing’s first red alert underlined how serious the smog problem remained. “It just shows that air pollution is still a very big challenge to the city of Beijing and that the government has paid greater attention to this issue,” he said.

The crisis is even more severe in the regions surrounding Beijing, where hundreds of millions of tons of coal are still being burned each year even as the capital tries to slash its use of the fossil fuel.

Ma Jun said government action in those places was also needed in order to solve Beijing’s smog problem. “Beijing actually isn’t even in the top 10 polluting cities in the region [any more]. There are others which are significantly more polluting,” he said.

The end of the post-World War Two order

December 5, 2015

by John Lloyd


After World War Two, having crushed evil, Western politicians unleashed a deluge of good. Welfare states were created, with healthcare, education, pensions and social services extended to entire populations.

The European imperialists, under the not-so-gentle prodding of the no-longer-imperialist United States, began to pull down their union jacks and tricolors — a process which was both bloody and protracted, but which ushered in, year after year, new states free to rule themselves.

A small group of highly motivated men lobbied for an extraordinary dream to be given substance: a union of the European states, ultimately a federal Europe — and, framing it as a medium for ending Europe’s centuries of war, they won part of their point (a union, but not a federal one).

These changes seemed to be the will of the people. In Britain, Winston Churchill was beaten in the post-war election by his loyal and unassuming deputy in the wartime coalition, Clement Attlee. Churchill, in a graceless put-down, said that the Labour leader was a modest man who “had much to be modest about” — who then modestly pioneered huge social change. Everywhere, including in the United States, trade unions flourished, and were brought in to help to determine much of economic policy.

The push came mainly from the left, but the reforms got a large consensus with the center right — especially with the Christian Democratic parties in continental Europe, infused with Catholic social teaching. These reforms were what are called today “top down”: framed and run by governments and large state institutions staffed by technocrats. When a member of Attlee’s government, Douglas Jay, wrote that “the gentleman in Whitehall (the government bureaucracy) really does know better than the people themselves what is good for them,” there were no calls for his resignation. That was what politicians and bureaucrats were for: to give people what they needed, to make life fuller, less risky.

At a conference at the Flemish Academy in Brussels this past week, the writer Ian Buruma, the Academy’s “thinker in residence,” argued that “postwar” was over. By that he means that the consensus that more or less held between center-left and center-right over social provision, strong states and, in Europe, a movement to closer integration, holds no more.

The “rot began in the 1980s,” Buruma believes, with the administrations of Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in the UK. It was deepened as the collapse of communism spurred the anti-collectivist mood; and now breaks down entirely, as “Neoliberalism filled the vacuum, creating vast wealth for some people, but at the expense of the ideal of equality” and “the rise of right-wing populism reflects revived yearnings for pure national communities, that keep immigrants and minorities out.”

I think that “neoliberalism” isn’t much help in understanding what’s happening to Western economies, which, even with some cuts, still spend hugely on socialized medicine, education, pensions and social care. In the case of the United States, spending on socialized medicine (Obamacare) has meant a rise in state spending on health. In the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, spending on health between 2010 and 2014 — the austerity period — has grown in richer countries, albeit by a measly 1 percent. Isn’t neo-liberalism supposed to mean slashing state budgets?

It’s true, though, that quite a lot of the state spending passes through the public health and education bureaucracies to private contractors. For a variety of reasons, there’s still a predisposition to think private enterprise is more efficient. It’s certainly true that the collectivist assumption that organized labor was good for society as well as the workers has shrunk, as unions have.

And it’s even truer that the European Union is in real trouble. Its economy is still weak, its borders, opened under the Schengen Area Agreement of 1995, are closing under the pressure of desperate migrants.

This is the time when gentlemen (and ladies) in governments everywhere don’t just not dare to know better, but really don’t know what’s happening to them. This is the time when populism thrives — in the United States, on the right, where a blowhard real estate mogul leads the Republican nomination race, but also, in a different way, in Europe.

The European populist right is doing well in many states. The National Front in France is now ahead of all other parties in all polls for regional elections happening Sunday. In the Netherlands, the strongly anti-Muslim Freedom Party also tops the polls. In Italy, two populist parties — the Five Star Movement of Beppe Grillo and the Liga — are first and third in the polls. Both are opposed to more immigration. And in Poland, which of all the post-Communist states has done best, its income per head doubling over the quarter of a century, a populist party runs the government, holding up both Russia and the EU as enemies of the true Poland.

The post-war push to slough off imperialism assumed that new, independent countries would produce governments responsive to the will of their peoples. That they would be pushed by newly enfranchised citizens to raise living standards and run more or less efficient and honest governments.

Instead, throughout Africa and the Middle East, governments are bywords for authoritarian rule or corruption or more often both. The resulting poverty and frequent wars power the migrant flows to Europe. The Dutch economist Erik Schlokkaert, who spoke at the Postwar Conference in Brussels, said that “nobody believes that the migration pressure will stop. It is impossible to keep Europe as an island of prosperity in a sea of misery.”

What is to be done?

Actually, a lot.

We can begin by taking climate change seriously and putting pressure on those who pollute. We must work to halt the spread of weapons of mass destruction; combat violent jihadism; revitalize civil societies; assist developing countries in keeping their citizens by cleaning up government and reforming their economies; seek agreements with Russia on Syria and Ukraine; encourage citizens everywhere to hold, not just governments, but themselves to account for their choices and public actions.

On these, people of the left and right could again find a post-post war consensus. On these, political movements can again find causes and the need for renewed energy. It’s a tall order: and it’s not true that we have nothing to fear but fear itself, for we have a lot to be fearful about. But we can do nothing other than try to shape up, and tackle the challenges the 21st century throws at us so generously.

ISIS smuggles majority of oil through Turkey, says Iraqi PM amid ‘sovereignty violation’ rift

December 8, 2015


Amid a discord in relations over a serious violation of Iraq’s sovereignty by Turkey’s deployment of ground troops, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi accused its neighbor of being a hub for the “majority” of illegal oil smuggling operations by ISIS terrorists.

During a meeting with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Abadi stressed the importance of stopping oil smuggling from jihadi-controlled parts of Iraq and Syria. The Iraqi prime minister also called for international support to help his country fight Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL)

Turkey is a country neighboring Iraq, and a country that should be friendly with Iraq, they promised us that they would stop the entry of terrorists, however we need more action in order to stop the pumping of terrorists from Turkey into Syria and into Iraq. Also the stopping of the smuggling of petrol from Syria and Iraq and the financing of Daesh [the Arabic name for IS] in a general sense through this illegal trade,” Abadi said.

The Iraqi PM said that the Turkish side was aware of the issue which they promised to resolve under UN Security Council resolution adopted last month that had urged all nations to combat the ISIS threat.

According to the latest estimate more than 43 percent of Islamic State revenue comes from the illegal oil trade. Russian Ministry of Defense reconnaissance data gathered as part of the military operation in the Syrian skies shows that most of the illegal smuggling is done through Turkey.

The hot subject of alleged oil profiteering by the Turkish side follows the downing of the Russian Su-24 bomber by Turkey in Syrian airspace amid the ongoing campaign against ISIS oil infrastructure on the Syria-Turkey border.

Russian President Vladimir Putin described the act as “a stab in the back” by terrorist supporters and accused Turkey of involvement in the illegal oil deals with IS. Following the rogue act by Turkey, Russia introduced several sanctions against Ankara and deployed additional missile defense capabilities to protect its operating space in Syria.

Meanwhile Turkey, which is part of the US-led anti ISIS coalition, continues to take single-handed actions in the region. On Thursday it deployed over a hundred military personnel equipped with tanks and artillery to Iraq, next to the IS-controlled city of Mosul.

Baghdad has called the move a violation of Iraq’s sovereignty, while Turkey continues to insist that the troops are there as part of an international mission to train and equip Iraqi forces to fight against Islamic State.

However in a meeting with German FM, Abadi once again made it clear that the entry of Turkish troops into Iraqi territory is “unacceptable” and happened “without the knowledge or consent of the Iraqi government.”

On Sunday, Baghdad gave Ankara 48 hours to pull out its forces from Iraq.

In case we have not received any positive signs before the deadline we set for the Turkish side, then we maintain our legal right to file a complaint to the Security Council to stop this serious violation to Iraqi sovereignty,” Iraqi government spokesman Saad al-Hadithi said Monday adding that Iraq is still waiting for Turkey to respond officially.

Russia was ready to bring the matter to the UN Security Council as early as Tuesday, according to a RIA source.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari clarified that Iraq only wants Turkey to withdraw their recent deployment made without Baghdad’s consent and not those Turkish trainers indeed assisting Iraqi forces and militia fighting IS.

The Iraqi demand is only related to the violation recorded by the presence of Turkish armed forces without coordination with Iraq,” Jaafari said after meeting his German counterpart. “The advisers are another issue; there are advisers from a number of countries and we accepted the principle of advisers, but not the principle of ground forces entering Iraqi territory.”

However a senior Turkish official told AFP on Monday that Ankara is unlikely to withdraw its forces. “We expect them to remain,” the official said, although “it will depend on discussions.”

Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu promised in a letter to Abadi on Sunday that Turkey’s armed forces would not send additional troops until the current tension is resolved.

No further forces will be deployed to Bashiqa until concerns of the Iraqi government are overcome,” the letter said, Reuters reports, according to sources at the prime minister’s office.

“Turkey is ready to deepen its cooperation with Iraq in coordination and consultation,” it said. “Those who are disturbed by the cooperation of Turkey and Iraq and who want to end it should not be allowed to attain their goal.”

Crimea back to full power – Russian energy ministry

December 8, 2015


Electricity has been fully restored to Crimea, the Russian Energy Ministry announced on Tuesday. The region has been under a partial blackout after Ukrainian activists blew up power lines providing electricity to the peninsula on November 22.

On December 8, a 220 KV line linking Kakhovsky-Titan-Krasnoperekopsk was switched on,” the ministry said on its website, confirming reports from officials in Ukraine’s Kherson region.

On Tuesday, Kherson officials said they had partly restored power to the Crimean peninsula.  They said the power line was repaired following an agreement with Ukrainian activists attempting an energy and provisions blockade of Crimea. The activists had earlier prevented repair crews from restoring energy supplies.

Crimea has been facing a serious shortage of electricity since last month after power lines in Ukraine were sabotaged. The blown up pylons delivered electricity to the peninsula. Nearly 1.9 million people were left partly or fully withot electricity. Crimean authorities declared a state of emergency and put in place a power rationing schedule.

Last week, the first power line was extended from the Russian mainland across the Kerch Strait providing 200 MW of electricity to Eastern Crimea. Another 200 MW will be delivered by a second power cable expected to be connected by December 20. This should cover 80-90 percent of Crimea’s energy needs. Prior to the blackout Crimea was receiving about 70 percent of its energy from Ukraine.

Russia’s construction of the 14 kilometer long power bridge across the Kerch Strait to Crimea started in October to cut the peninsula’s electricity dependence on Kiev. The second stage of the construction is scheduled to be finished next summer and to increase the power delivery to 800-840 MW.

Crippled in Syria, Turkey goes for a ‘Sunnistan’ in Iraq

December 9, 2015

Pepe Escobcar


Turkey’s “incursion” into Iraq is a cold, calculated move. And once again, the name of the game is – what else? – Divide and Rule.

Turkey sent to Iraqi Kurdistan – which is part of the state of Iraq – no less than a 400-strong battalion supported by 25 M-60A3 tanks. Now the Turkish boots on the ground at Bashiqa camp, northeast of Mosul, have reportedly reached a total of around 600.

The short breakdown: this is not a “training camp”- as Ankara is spinning. It’s a full-blown, perhaps permanent, military base.

The dodgy deal was struck between the ultra-corrupt Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) and then-Turkish Foreign Minister Feridun Sinirlioglu in Erbil last month.

Torrents of Turkish spin swear this is only about “training” Peshmergas to fight ISIS/ISIL/Daesh.

Absolute nonsense. The crucial fact is that Ankara is terrified of the “4+1” alliance fighting Islamic State, which unites Iran, Iraqi Shiites and the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), as well as Hezbollah, with Russia.

In Syria, Ankara is virtually paralyzed, after the “stab in the back” downing of the Su-24; the Russian revelations of complicity between Turkey’s first family and stolen Syrian oil (Bilal Erdogan, a.k.a. Erdogan ‘Mini Me’, denies everything); and the Russian Air Force relentless pounding of Turkey’s fifth column Turkmen. Not to mention the deployment of S-400s and even a third-generation submarine complete with Kalibr cruise missiles.

So Ankara now switches the attention to Iraq with a “counter-alliance”, made up of Turkey; the KRG (which – illegally – sells oil to Turkey); and Sunnis in northern Iraq under the supposed leadership of the sprawling Nuceyfi tribe in Mosul.

This is textbook neo-Ottomanism in action. We should never forget that for the AKP in power in Ankara, northern Syria and northern Iraq are nothing but former Ottoman Empire provinces, an eastward extension of Turkey’s Hatay province. ‘Sultan’ Erdogan’s (unstated) wet dream is to annex the whole lot.

Meanwhile, Daesh still controls Mosul. But Iraqi Sunnis – as well as the Iraqi Army – are slowly setting up an offensive.

So what Ankara wants with this military base close to Mosul is to be part of the game, coupled with two “invisible” agendas; protect their fifth-column Turkmen, wherever they are, and having more boots on the ground to fight – what else – PKK Kurds taking refuge in Iraqi Kurdistan. 

‘Sultan’ Erdogan’s whole rationale is that Baghdad does not rule northern Iraq anymore (he’s got a point). But the problem, for Ankara, is that the real powers in the region may turn out to be Shiites and the PKK (that’s far-fetched; but that’s Erdogan thinking.)

Sultan’ Erdogan has extremely close business deals with the KRG’s ‘Mobster-in-Chief’, Massoud Barzani – as in the oil exporting deal which, illegally, bypasses Baghdad. Barzani, predictably, has no problems with Turkish military designs; after all “his” oil is paid for by the Turks.

As for the clincher, follow geopolitical ace Mick Jagger: it’s a gas, gas, gas.

Ankara’s move plays straight into the ultimate ‘Pipelineistan’ war; the clash between two competing gas pipelines, Qatar-Saudi Arabia-Jordan-Syria-Turkey, or Iran-Iraq-Syria, at the heart of the Syrian tragedy.

Erdogan’s paranoia that Russia may cut off gas supplies to Turkey after the downing of the Su-24 – something that Gazprom simply won’t do – has led Ankara, in desperation, to force Baghdad, mob-style, to “accept” a Qatar gas pipeline crossing Iraqi, not Syrian territory.

Needless to add this far-fetched scheme is an absolute no-go for Baghdad, which is part of the “4+1” alliance. Moreover, expect Iran – and Russia – to go no holds barred exploiting divisions among the notoriously divisive Kurds to bomb Erdogan’s elaborate plans.   

Erdogan’s bottom line is quite something; he is aiming for no less than an Iraqi ‘Sunnistan’ – jointly managed by the ultra-corrupt KRG and assorted Sunnis, but under Turkish security arrangements. As if Washington and Tel-Aviv would let him get away with that. 

The fact is that at least for the moment, while his game in Syria may be going down the drain, Erdogan has decided to change the subject and turbo-charge his strategy for breaking up Iraq.

The gift

And that brings up the question, once again, of how Daesh was able last year to conquer Mosul – the second city in Iraq – without a fight. And this after their notorious convoy of gleaming white Toyotas crossing the desert from Syria to Iraq managed to evade detection by the most sophisticated satellite surveillance system in the history of the Universe.

Regarding the mystery, persistent intel rumblings across the Middle East and among the “4+1” coalition are bound to turn into a volcano.

According to the rumblings, the official – Pentagon – narrative that the Iraqi Army supposed to fight Islamic State in Mosul last year got scared and simply ran away is a myth.

As we know, the Iraqi Army, trained by the Pentagon, left behind a wealth of tanks and heavy weapons duly captured by IS. And IS couldn’t be luckier in collecting this almighty ‘gift’.

The new narrative rules that the Pentagon deliberately “instructed” the Iraqi Army to run away, as a sort of tactical retreat, leaving behind all that fabulous hardware.

So what we have here is the Pentagon fully protected by plausible deniability.

And Islamic State duly weaponized as a proxy/regime change army in Syria. A perfect chaos-provoking tool aligned with the strategic objective of the ‘Empire of Chaos’ in Syria. Which, by the way, does include, in the absence of full regime change, the formation of a ‘Sunnistan’ in Syria as well. 

Oh, but the Pentagon would never engage in such practices, would they?

Turkey’s human wave assault on the West

December 7, 201

by Gregg Roman and Gary C.Gambill

the hill

For months, Western policymakers have agonized over what to do with the masses of Sunni Muslim migrants flooding Europe by the boatload, particularly Syrians.  Largely missing from this discussion is the question of why this flood is happening.  

For starters, it doesn’t have much to do directly with the civil war in Syria or the rise of ISIS.  The vast majority of the 886,662 migrants who illegally entered Europe this year embarked from Turkey, a little over half of them Syrians who took shelter in the country over the past four years.  “EU officials have said … Ankara was very effective in previous years in preventing the outflow of refugees from the country,” according to the Wall Street Journal.

What caused the spike in migration is that Ankara stopped containing it. Over the past year or so, the Turkish government has allowed human traffickers to vastly expand their operations, bringing prices down tenfold (from $10,000-$12,000 per person last year to around $1,250 today, according to one report). This spawned what the New York Times calls a “multimillion-dollar shadow economy” profiting from the traffic, ranging from the smugglers to manufacturers of cheap rafts, life vests, and other equipment.  

By the spring of this year it had become easier and cheaper than ever before to illegally enter Europe through Turkey, and more people have taken advantage of the opportunity Ankara has created.  

So why did Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan open the spigot?  Put simply, to extract financial, political, and strategic concessions from European governments in exchange for closing it. 

Ankara certainly hasn’t been shy about asking for money over the course of its negotiations with EU officials in recent weeks. On November 29 the EU agreed to provide Turkey with an “initial” $3.19 billion and take steps to expedite its bid to join the EU in exchange for Turkish promises to better patrol its coastlines.

Erdogan also used the crisis to generate foreign political support ahead of snap elections on November 1, essentially a re-do of the June 2015 elections that saw the ruling AKP lose its parliamentary majority for the first time.  Though Western diplomatic protocol frowns on state visits during election time, German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Istanbul for high-profile meetings with Erdogan and Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu just two weeks before the vote.  The European Commission postponed the release of a report detailing the erosion of the rule of law, freedom of expression and judicial independence in Turkey until after the election in order, according to Reuters, “to avoid antagonizing” its president.

Most worrisome, perhaps, is Turkey’s pursuit of strategic payoffs for its human wave assault on Europe.  In a letter sent to European leaders at the September 23 EU migration summit, Davutoglu proposed the creation of a “safe zone” and U.S.-enforced no-fly zone stretching from the Turkish border 80 km into northern Syria, where his government has backed a variety of Sunni Islamist insurgents against both pro-regime Syrian forces and local Kurds.

Although the start of Russian military intervention in Syria on September 30 put an end to this fantasy for the time being (which perhaps explains why the Turks were so trigger-happy in shooting down an SU-24 that only slightly violated their airspace on November 24), you can bet Erdogan will use the migrant crisis to pressure the West into supporting his ambitions in Syria.

If all of this sounds familiar, it’s because the late Libyan leader Moammar Qaddafi used to play the same game, turning the pipeline of illegal trans-African migration into Europe on and off as a way of extracting concessions.  The most vexing question, then as now, is not what to do with the migrants, but what to do with a government that so callously manipulates masses of downtrodden human beings as a diplomatic pressure tactic.

On this there’s room for debate.  But the first step in doing anything about it is to call Erdogan out for what he is – dangerous and manipulative – no partner for Western leaders.  Still, after meeting with the Erdogan in Paris on Tuesday, President Obama praised Turkey for being “extraordinarily generous when it comes to its support of refugees.”

The next step, instead of bribing Turkey with ransom payments to end the hemorrhaging of Syrian and other Middle East refugees into the West, should turn the tables on Ankara.   The potential loss of Western support to Turkey as it deals with both Russia and ISIS should be the sword of Damocles, convincing Erdogan to contain the refugee crisis.

Western material support to Turkey should be cut off entirely unless Ankara puts an end to the refugee crisis it is manufacturing and begins to play a constructive role in bringing stability to the region. How appropriate that an ancient Greek tragedy disrupt the current calamitous Turkish-born reality.

Roman is director and Gambill is a research fellow at the Philadelphia-based Middle East Forum

America’s Reckless War Against Evil: Why It’s Self-Defeating and Has No End

by Ira Chernus


Oh, no! Not another American war against evil!

This time, it’s the Islamic State (IS). After the attacks in Paris, Barack Obama, spokesman-in-chief for the United States of America, called that crew “the face of evil.” Shades of George W. Bush. The “evildoers” are back. And from every mountaintop, it seems, America now rings with calls to ramp up its war machine.

By the way, George W., how did that last war against the “evildoers” work out for you? Not quite the way you expected, right? I bet you didn’t imagine that your Global War on Terror would plant the seeds of an Islamic State and turn significant stretches of Iraq (and Syria) into fertile soil in which IS would grow into a brand new, even more frightening enemy.

But that’s the way wars against evil always seem to work.

Pardon me if I vent my exasperation with all the Washington policymakers, past and present, surrounded by their so-called experts and those war-drum-beating pundits in the media. I know I shouldn’t be shocked anymore. I’ve seen it often enough as a historian studying wars against evil in the past — ever since biblical times, in fact — and as a citizen watching wars in my own lifetime, ever since the one that tore Vietnam (and, incidentally, America) apart.

Still, it drives me crazy to watch policymakers and experts making the same dumb mistakes time after time, several mistakes, actually, which synergistically add up to one self-defeating blunder after another.

What’s worse, the dominant trend in public opinion is so often on the side of just those mistakes. You’d think someone would learn something. And in that someone I include “we, the people,” the nation as a whole.

Yet now, facing the Islamic State, you guessed it: we’re doing it all over again.

Let me try to lay out our repetitive mistakes, all six of them, one by one, starting with…

Mistake Number One: Treating the enemy as absolute evil, not even human.

Barack Obama called the Paris tragedy “an attack on all of humanity,” which means that, even for the president, IS fighters stand outside that category. They are evidently some other species and merely appear to be human. And this was the mildest of descriptions in this overheated political season of ours. “The face of evil” sounds modest indeed compared to the vivid images offered by the Republicans vying to replace him. For Ben Carson, IS are a bunch of “rabid dogs”;  for Ted Cruz, “scorpions.”  Donald Trump calls them “insane,” “animals.”

All point to the same dangerous conclusion: Since we are human and they are not, we are their opposite in every way. If they are absolute evil, we must be the absolute opposite. It’s the old apocalyptic tale: God’s people versus Satan’s. It ensures that we never have to admit to any meaningful connection with the enemy. By this logic, it couldn’t be more obvious that the nation our leaders endlessly call “exceptional” and “indispensable,” the only nation capable of leading the rest of the world in the war against evil, bears no relationship to that evil. 

That leads to…

Mistake Number Two: Buried in the assumption that the enemy is not in any sense human like us is absolution for whatever hand we may have had in sparking or contributing to evil’s rise and spread. How could we have fertilized the soil of absolute evil or bear any responsibility for its successes?  It’s a basic postulate of wars against evil: God’s people must be innocent.

As a result, we don’t need to look at all the ways in which the U.S., even in battle mode, continues to contribute to the successes of Islamic State fighters in Sunni Arab lands by, for instance, supporting an Iraqi Shi’ite regime in Baghdad that has a grim history of oppressing Sunnis, a history that drives many of them to tolerate, or even actively support IS.

By refusing a future role of any sort for Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad, we have hindered the diplomatic process that might heal the civil war in that country. Instead we let the Syrian chaos continue as a breeding ground for IS expansion (though perhaps this policy is just beginning to change). Our long-term alliance with Saudi Arabia is equally counterproductive, protecting funding networks that feed a burgeoning caliphate.

Just as we don’t look at all this in the present, so we blind ourselves to what the U.S. has done in the past. Consider this…

Mistake Number Three: Call it blotting out history. We lose the ability to really understand the enemy because we ignore the actual history of how that enemy came to be, of how a network of relationships grew up in which we played, and continue to play, a central role.

The historical record is clear for all who care to look: The U.S. (the CIA in particular) was a key to the creation, funding, and arming of the mujahidin, the rebel fighters in Afghanistan who took on the Soviet army there in the 1980s, the men (often extreme Islamists) whom President Ronald Reagan compared to our founding fathers. From that situation came al-Qaeda.

George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq cracked the region open and paved the way for the Islamic State. The Bush administration tore Iraq to shreds and then demobilized Saddam Hussein’s army and dispatched its members to the unemployment lines of a wrecked country.

One of those shreds, al-Qaeda in Iraq, populated by disaffected officers from that disbanded army, would later transform itself into the nucleus of the new Islamic State movement. Indeed the U.S. nurtured the present leadership of that movement in American military prisons in Iraq, where we introduced them to each other, so to speak. The process was at least hastened, and perhaps ultimately caused, by the vehement anti-Sunni bias of the Shi’ite Iraqi government, which the U.S. installed in power and also nurtured.

To sustain our image of ourselves as innocents in the whole affair, we have to blot out this empirical history and replace it with a myth (not so surprising, given that any war against evil is a mythic enterprise). That’s not to say that we deny all the facts. We just pick and choose the ones that fit our myth best.

In that tale, the enemy is simply what Christians for centuries have called the devil, which brings us to…

Mistake Number Four: We assume that the enemy, like Lucifer himself, does evil just for the sake of doing it. Even the most liberal parts of the media often can’t see IS fighters as more than “lunatics” bent on “slaughter for its own sake.”

Under such circumstances, what a foolish task it obviously is even to think about the enemy’s actual motives. After all, to do so would be to treat them as humans, with human purposes arising out of history. It would smack of sympathy for the devil.

Of course, this means that, whatever we might think of their actions, we generally ignore a wealth of evidence that the Islamic State’s fighters couldn’t be more human or have more comprehensible motivations.  In fact, if you look hard enough, you can find evidence of just that.

he Atlantic, for instance, gained some attention for publishing an article by Graeme Wood that explored the complex religious ideas of the IS movement. In the New York Review of Books, Scott Atran and Nafes Hamid offered insights from people who had taken the time to actually talk with IS fighters or former fighters about its strategy and their own motives in becoming part of it. In this manner, Atran and Hamid helped explain the great mystery of IS (if you believe it is an inhuman organization): How can it attract so many young followers, especially from the U.S. and Europe?  Why do some disaffected young men and women find the movement “profoundly alluring”?

Olivier Roy, a leading scholar of political Islam, has answered that many of these youth, full of “frustration and resentment against society,” are lured by the fantasy of joining a “small brotherhood of super-heroes.”  But a recent study by the Program in Extremism at George Washington University, full of rich details on American IS supporters, concluded that “their motivations are diverse and defy easy analysis.”

Add up this sort of evidence and you’re likely to come to a startling and, in our present context, deeply unsettling conclusion. It’s not just that IS fighters are distinctly human, but that in some ways they are eerily like us. After all, we, too, have a military that uses an ideological narrative to recruit young people and prepare them to be willing to die for it. Our military, too, is savvy in using social media and various forms of advertising and publicity to deploy its narrative effectively. Like IS recruits, youngsters join our military for all sorts of reasons, but some because they are rootless, disaffected, and in search of a belief system, or at least an exciting adventure (even one that may put them in danger of losing their lives). And don’t forget that those young recruits, like the IS fighters, often have only the sketchiest grasp of what exactly they are signing up to die for or of the nature of the conflicts they may be involved in.

Our state ideology is, of course, secular. But most of us are certainly familiar personally (or at one remove) with American religious fundamentalists whose beliefs share much with the IS narrative. On both sides, people want to turn back the clock of history and live according to a sacred plan supposedly etched in stone many centuries ago.

There are, in fact, striking parallels — and I say this as a professor of religious studies — between the evangelical mood and methods of our fundamentalists and those of the Islamic State.  Both agree that one must choose between God’s truth (derived from an ancient text) and the devil’s. Both offer the psycho-social comfort of a community supposedly living by immutable laws. Some of our fundamentalists, like the Christian Reconstructionists, would be happy to see this nation governed under religious law, as long as it’s their religion we’re talking about.

Whatever any of us think of our homegrown fundamentalists, we would hardly deny them their humanity, even if we often wonder what leads them to such (to many of us) strange beliefs. So here’s the question: Why shouldn’t we be just as curious about the believers of the Islamic State, even if they are our enemies?

Remember, to understand is not to justify. Quite the opposite, understanding often opens up ways of thinking more constructively and creatively about how to respond to such a challenge. It’s clear that Islamic State strategists understand American and European political cultures well indeed and, as they’ve repeatedly shown, they use that understanding to their grim advantage. They know just how to provoke us into anti-Muslim rhetoric and belligerent policies, which they find most useful to their project and their movement. Like classic judo warriors, they employ our immense strength remarkably effectively against us.

Every one of Washington’s words and acts of war, every ally like Great Britain that joins the bombing campaign against IS, only confirms the Islamic State’s message that Muslims are under attack by the West. All of it only plays into the IS’s own apocalyptic worldview. Every step in the process makes the IS more attractive to Muslims who feel oppressed and marginalized by the West. So think of every threat uttered in the presidential campaign here and every bomb now being dropped as yet more global recruitment posters arriving “like manna from heaven” for that movement.  Each is an invitation to launch yet more Paris-style attacks.

Our blindness to them as human beings, and to all the ways we have influenced them, increases their power and undermines our power to shape the outcome of events in Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere in the Greater Middle East. Ironically, we accept this loss of power willingly, even eagerly, because it allows us to hold on to what seems to matter most to us: our vision of a war against inhuman evildoers, which brings us to…

Mistake Number Five: To convince ourselves that the Islamic State is evil incarnate, we imagine that the enemy is as relentless, intractable, and implacable as the devil himself. As a result, we also imagine that nothing we could do might diminish their will to evil. Since, as we see it, we had nothing to do with creating these monsters, no changes in our policies or actions could possibly influence their behavior.  And since they are just crazy — not capable of normal rationality — there is no point in trying to talk with them.

By this route we finally, inevitably, arrive at…

Mistake Number Six: The belief that we have only one option: annihilation. Or if that proves impossible, despite the military forces at our disposal, then at least containing them forever.

In fact, the presidential candidates of this moment all demand annihilation and nothing less. In Donald Trump’s words, “bomb the shit out of ‘em.” In Hillary Clinton’s more demure formulation, “crush ISIS… break the group’s momentum and then its back.” Even Bernie Sanders agrees: “Our priority must be… to destroy the brutal and barbaric ISIS regime.”

The dream of a war of annihilation against evil has a long, long history in white America.  It began in 1636 when Puritans in New England wiped out the Pequot tribe, promising that such a lesson would prevent further attacks by other tribes. In fact, it created a spiral of violence and counter-violence, and a war-against-evil template that the country still follows nearly four centuries later in its “war on terror.” The current conflict in Iraq and Syria seems only to be locking us into that template and its guaranteed cycle of violence ever more firmly.

Why do we as a nation keep on playing into the same dismal scenario and committing the same mistakes? Why this seemingly irresistible urge to fight yet another war against evil?

I worry that the answer to such questions may lie in what I’ve called an American myth of national insecurity. It tells us that we will always be at war with evildoers bent on destroying us; that this war (whichever the latest one may be) is the mission and the meaning of our nation; and that the only way to feel like a real American is to enlist permanently in permanent war.

In other words, even as we stoke the Islamic State, we stoke ourselves as well. The longer we fight, the more deeply we are seized by fear. The more we fear, the more fiercely we are determined to fight. Perhaps the point is not to win the war but to remain trapped in this vicious circle, which feels perversely comforting because it offers a sense of unified national identity as nothing else can in our otherwise deeply divided nation.

National myths are, however, invented by human beings, and we are always capable of changing our minds. Who knows? Maybe someday the Islamic State will figure out that brutal killing and other acts of horror in the name of the caliphate are not such a good idea after all. And maybe the United States will figure out that depending on an eternal, self-defeating war against evil for our national identity is a huge mistake after all. Maybe.

Conspiracy Theories and San Bernardino

What do you really know about anyone?

December 8, 2015

by Philip Giraldi


Every time there is a terrorist incident friends and acquaintances contact me and tell me “how it actually happened.” God knows as a former intelligence officer I truly do believe that nearly anything is possible given enough planning and good luck in arranging for a misdirection or cover-up, so I am generally speaking receptive to what people are saying and thinking in the belief that even seemingly wild conspiracy theories sometimes can be rooted in reality.

People often embrace conspiracy theories because the government has lost all credibility. Official lying has probably been the norm since the time of Pharaoh Khufu but recent U.S. investigative commissions starting with the Warren Report on the killing of JFK and continuing with the 9/11 report have clearly avoided inquiring into matters that might be regarded as controversial, raising serious questions about their objectivity and veracity. And then there is the question of what is not investigated. Where, for example, is the investigative report on the disastrous U.S. decision to invade Iraq which used fake intelligence and might have amounted to a criminal conspiracy to go to war? If such a review had ever taken place a few neoconservatives might well be hanging out to dry in some federal prison rather than appearing on Sunday morning talk television. Truth, or at least the government version thereof, is clearly selective.

So what am I being told about San Bernardino? Islamic State (ISIS) has declared that Syed Rizwan Farook and Tashfeen Malik were its followers though it has not claimed that it directed the operation. There may also have been some kind of minimal contact, possibly limited to visiting websites, with al-Nusra in Syria and al-Shabab in Somalia. That notwithstanding, the most popular narrative I have been hearing is that it was none of the above, being instead a false flag operation carried out by any one of a number of possible suspects who might have been motivated to advance the “clash of civilizations” between western governments and Islam. The two gunman could have been in touch with someone who they thought to be a friend and co-religionist but who was in reality an agent provocateur hoping to inspire them to some act of violence that would harden U.S. opinion against Muslims. Far fetched? Perhaps, but stranger things have happened.

And then there is a perhaps more plausible variation on the false flag, which is an FBI sting operation gone rogue or at least spinning out of control. The FBI’s counter-terrorism effort has largely consisted of identifying disaffected young Muslims through intercepts of internet messages and phone calls prior to placing them on a list for more intrusive investigation. There are reported to be something like 1,000 terrorist suspects who are currently being watch listed, though there are many more who do not quite meet the threshold requirements for active and ongoing investigation. The shooters in California, for example, reportedly had visited some terrorist related sites but had not actively engaged with them so they did not cross the redline that would have mandated further action by the Bureau.

Those disgruntled young Muslims who do meet the FBI requirements for more intensive handling frequently find that they have a new friend who is someone just like themselves who is really unhappy about what the United States is doing in the Middle East and to Muslims worldwide. That friend is usually an FBI informant who is not supposed to encourage any criminal act, which would be entrapment. But who knows what actually goes on behind closed doors in conversations that are not being recorded? The new friend sometimes claims to have access to bombs and weapons. The bombs don’t work and the weapons don’t fire but even before they can be used an arrest is made and everyone involved in the sting gets promoted.

In the case of San Bernardino, the FBI claims that it was completely unaware of the potential threat posed by Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik. But it is being suggested by some who are suspicious of such disclaimers that they might have indeed known enough about them to insert an informant. After that point the game possibly went a little bit too far with the targets coming up with their own weapons probably unbeknownst to their new friend and deciding to act. Or maybe the informant himself was in the loop but playing a double game against his FBI paymasters, who is to say? But the end result could possibly have been the same, with the attack taking place killing fourteen innocent people and also the two shooters who will never be able to talk about what motivated them to do what they did.

A good friend of mine has advanced yet another theory that is definitely outside the box. Syed Rizwan Farook met his future wife through an Islamic matrimony website. It was an arranged marriage though he did meet her once or twice before they were wed. By one estimate, 15% of young Muslims who are being radicalized and joining ISIS are women. If one were set up an ISIS-linked marriage agency intended to entice lonely young men who have western passports it might be relatively easy to staff. And once the couple is actually married and in place in Europe or the U.S. there comes the indoctrination phase and you wind up with a radicalized agent in place who is at least somewhat above suspicion and carrying a passport that can be used to travel worldwide. And if he is in the United States his “mission” is much easier in that he can easily acquire all kinds of weapons and bomb making material.

And using a woman to trap a prospective agent is not exactly that unusual in clandestine operations. The Soviets had their “sparrows” and western intelligence exploited “honeypot” operations. So I am actually kind of inclined towards the viability of the marriage agency idea and I will explain why. Last week’s newspapers quite understandably explored Tashfeen Malik’s background in great detail. Relying on government sources they have explained how Malik was checked on terrorism data bases, against criminal records and also interviewed several times by consular officers before she was issued her a K-1 visa, commonly referred to as a “fiancé” visa.

My response to that is “So what?” If someone has not lived or traveled in the U.S. or Europe he or she will, with rare exceptions, not have come to the attention of anyone who actually compiles and shares such information. She would not be in any general terrorism related data bases that American officials would normally have access to without going to the local intelligence liaison service, which they would only rarely do if there were definite red flag concerns. Nor would the U.S. Embassy Consular Section, which issues visas, have any ability to access local criminal records in Pakistan or Saudi Arabia under normal circumstances, where Malik reportedly lived and grew up. All of which means that nothing would come to the surface even if Tashfeen Malik had been a raving militant, which just might have been the case.

The inability of the U.S. government to “vet” immigrants and those who have entry permission by right through marriage or family is at the heart of the problem in keeping out the bad people while still allowing ordinary travelers and genuine refugees to enter the United States. It is a dilemma rendered even more complicated by the lack of any local government in parts of Syria and Iraq where many of the refugees claim to originate from. If someone speaking Arabic produces a tattered passport that could be fake or identifies himself using a name and address in bombed out Aleppo or Mosul how do you confirm it? And if a U.S. government official claims that someone has been thoroughly checked and investigated, should you believe it?

Trump defends proposed Muslim ban from U.S. as outrage mounts

December 9, 2015

by Emily Stephenson and Susan Heavey


WASHINGTON-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on Tuesday defended his proposal to ban Muslims from entering the United States, comparing his plan to the World War Two detainment of Japanese-Americans and others in dismissing growing outrage from around the world.

The White House called on Republicans to say they would not support Trump, currently the party’s front-runner for the November 2016 election. U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said his comments could undermine U.S. security.

The prime ministers of France and the United Kingdom, Canada’s foreign minister, the United Nations and Muslims in Asian countries all denounced the real-estate mogul’s comments.

But Trump said his ideas were no worse than those of then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who oversaw the internment of more than 110,000 people in U.S. government camps after Japanese forces bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

“What I’m doing is no different than FDR,” Trump said on ABC’s “Good Morning America” program.

“We have no choice but to do this,” he said. “We have people that want to blow up our buildings, our cities. We have to figure out what’s going on.”

Trump said on ABC’s “World News Tonight” the ban would be “short term.” He said the ban could be lifted “very quickly if our country could get its act together.”

Trump also pressed his case in fractious appearances on MSNBC and CNN.

On Monday, he called for blocking Muslims, including would-be immigrants, students, tourists and other visitors, from entering the country following last week’s California shooting spree by two Muslims who authorities said were radicalized.

It was the most dramatic response by a presidential candidate following the San Bernardino, California, rampage, even as other Republicans have called for a suspension of President Barack Obama’s plan to allow in 10,000 refugees from Syria.

Homeland Security Secretary Johnson said Trump’s proposal could thwart U.S. efforts to connect with the Muslim community, and the Pentagon issued a similar warning. Secretary of State John Kerry said Trump’s ideas were not constructive.

A Trump campaign spokeswoman, asked for comment on U.S. officials’ reactions, did not address their criticism.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Trump’s comments disqualify him from being president and said other Republican candidates should disavow him “right now.”


Trump leads the Republican pack seeking the White House in 2016 with 35 percent of support in a recent Reuters/Ipsos poll. Nearly all of Trump’s rivals criticized his proposal on Monday.

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus told the Washington Examiner political news website that the United States must combat terrorism “but not at the expense of our American values.” The two top officials in the Republican-controlled Congress – House of Representatives Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell – criticized Trump but said they would support their party’s eventual nominee.

But other Republicans warned that if Trump is the party’s choice for the November 2016 election, his stance could hurt in a matchup with Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton.

“All this helps is his buddy Hillary Clinton, for sure,” presidential hopeful and former Florida Governor Jeb Bush told reporters in Manchester, New Hampshire. “I don’t think Republicans are going to abide this language that guarantees that Hillary Clinton has a far better chance of winning.”

Democrats, meanwhile, blamed Republicans for Trump’s extreme language and warned it could help him with primary voters.

“Unfortunately, Trump is leaning into the kind of fear of progress that very well could help him win the nomination,” Huma Abedin, a top aide to Clinton, said in a fundraising email declaring her own Muslim faith.

Clinton said at a campaign event in New Hampshire that Trump’s Muslim ban was a “shameless and dangerous idea” which played right into the hands of extremists.

Polls have shown a stark divide between Republicans and Democrats in how they view Muslims, who number about 3 million in the United States, or less than 1 percent of the population.

Some conservative commentators, such as pundit Ann Coulter, came to Trump’s defense. Columnist Adriana Cohen wrote in the Boston Herald that Trump should go a step further and call for closing the U.S. border entirely.

Trump on Tuesday tweeted a link to a poll showing that 68 percent of his supporters would vote for him if he left the Republican Party and ran as an independent.

Still, Thomson Reuters data showed sentiment on social media toward the outspoken billionaire became substantially more negative compared with that before his proposal on Monday afternoon to ban Muslims.

Trump’s campaign dismissed criticism that his plan would likely be unconstitutional for singling out people based on their religion. Spokeswoman Katrina Pierson told MSNBC that the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees freedom of religion, does not apply to people outside the United States.

“We have never been as far removed from what we’ve just heard in the United States,” Canadian Foreign Minister Stephane Dion said. The United States’ northern neighbor does not usually comment on elections in other countries.

A spokesman for United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon rejected Trump’s comments, and Muslims in Pakistan and Indonesia denounced him.

Two international refugee organizations rejected Trump’s comments, saying U.S. presidential campaign rhetoric threatens resettlement efforts.

Trump warned repeatedly that an attack on the scale of Sept. 11, 2001, could happen again if officials do not act first. He said that he did not know how long a ban would remain in place and that Muslim Americans would be allowed into the country after overseas trips.

Trump told MSNBC that people would be asked about their religion at U.S. borders and that the ban would extend to Muslim leaders of other nations. He said he would not support internment camps.

Some observers poked fun at Trump.

The Democratic mayor of St. Petersburg, Florida, Rick Kriseman, said in a tongue-in-cheek tweet that he was barring Trump from visiting the city.

“I am hereby barring Donald Trump from entering St. Petersburg until we fully understand the dangerous threat posed by all Trumps,” Kriseman wrote.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey and Emily Stephenson; Additional reporting by David Lawder, Lisa Lambert, Eric Beech and Megan Cassella in Washington, Andrew Callus in Paris and Letitia Stein in Tampa, Florida; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Cynthia Osterman)

Scams, ignorance burn foreign buyers of Detroit properties

December 9, 2015

by Megan Davies


DETROIT |Buying a property in Detroit a few years ago seemed like a steal for overseas investors – as little as a few thousand dollars would get them a house in a city that had hit rock bottom and could only see better times.

Yet the promise turned into a nightmare for many and stories of properties vandalized, ransacked, left untended and un-rentable have sapped the interest from overseas buyers, real estate brokers say. “The bottom has fallen out of the speculative market,” said Darin McLeskey, co-founder of Denovo Real Estate, who said he had received a lot of “cries for help” from investors.

For a city that only emerged from bankruptcy a year ago on Thursday, any setback in the real estate market’s recovery could hurt prospects of a sustainable rebound by depressing property tax revenues and making Detroit less appealing to live.

Property tax revenues fell to $100 million in 2014 compared with $183 million in 2006 as a result of population loss and the aftermath of the 2008 credit crisis, according to data from the Citizens Research Council of Michigan.Detroit largely missed out on the mid-2000 housing boom and was hit harder than the United States overall during the economic downturn, according to property website Zillow. Now, just as this city of 680,000 is gaining a reputation for industrial cool, attracting young professionals and artists, its housing market has become tainted by reports of scams and dubious practices.

“Nothing is as good as it seems,” says Des Curtis, who lives near Bristol, England. Curtis says he invested $45,000 in a Detroit house in 2011 with the promise of steady rent but had his property vandalized and deemed unrentable. “My lesson was: keep away from Detroit for many years until it’s been re-established.”Curtis tried to hold the agents responsible and discovered he did not actually own the property. He said, after a long fight, he recovered most of the money via settlements with firms he declined to name due to confidentiality agreements.   


A reputation for scams “creates blight for the city, it creates ill-will towards Detroit,” said Debbie Schlussel, an attorney and conservative commentator who represented plaintiffs suing property management company Metro Property Group LLC in 2013.    

They accused Metro of buying homes in Detroit in unpopular and destitute locations for $500 to $5,000 and selling them to investors for up to $50,000, despite knowing they were unlikely to be rentable, according to the lawsuit. The firm made fraudulent guarantees about the properties, failed to do repairs when promised, and created fake tenants, the lawsuit alleged.

In court documents, Metro said that the vast majority of investors were satisfied with their returns and the services provided.

A judge held Metro and other defendants liable to pay the plaintiffs $625,000, according to court documents.

“The case was settled with a strict confidentiality agreement,” said David Fink, lead counsel for the Metro Property group defendants. “The case was not adjudicated, so the court never made any findings of fact regarding the allegations in the complaint or in the counter complaint.”

There is no hard data on foreign buying since many transactions are done through especially established companies or intermediaries. However, out of seven Detroit real estate agents interviewed by Reuters, six said that foreign demand was down.

There are other indications of dwindling foreign interest.

Data from Zillow showed that cash purchases – an indicator of interest from those looking for an investment rather than a home – accounted for 45 percent of the Detroit market in the first quarter of 2015 compared with 74 percent late in 2011.    

Property website Trulia figures also show overseas searches for Detroit properties fell to 6.2 percent of all searches in November from 10.1 percent in February 2014. The figures are one-year rolling averages.

Bernard Youngblood, Register of Deeds for Wayne County where Detroit is situated, said he has established a property fraud task force which receives a variety of complaints about overseas purchases.

“There are a lot of scams across various countries trying to get investors to buy Detroit properties,” Youngblood said.

Wayne County Assistant Prosecutor Mariam Bazzi said her office had successfully prosecuted a case involving foreign investors and was investigating another.

A representative for Detroit’s mayor’s office did not respond to a request for a comment.


With an eerie mix of beautiful well-kept homes or stately mansions and burnt-out ruins next door or just a few blocks away, Detroit is a market like no other. For example, Palmer Woods, with its Tudor-style houses lies streets away from run-down properties and empty lots across Woodward Avenue, Detroit’s major thoroughfare.

Even after price rises in the last few years, it remains the cheapest among the 50 largest U.S. cities, according to Zillow.

“It was the only place in the developed world where you could buy a detached brick house, three bedrooms, in a nice lot, for under $10,000,” Canadian engineer Hamid Shad said in a phone interview. Shad said he got interested in Detroit 2-1/2 years ago and initially had some bad experiences with contractors but later developed a network of locals who helped fix up his properties.

Prices vary dramatically depending on the neighborhood, the street and the individual property and while some areas are stagnant, others have seen significant gains. Opportunities still abound for savvy investors but so do pitfalls for the ill-prepared.

According to Zillow, median home values for the city recovered modestly to $39,800 in October from a low of $37,300 in 2012, but still well below $79,500 in December 2005. Homes fetch more than $260,000 in some affluent suburbs such as Troy and West Bloomfield, still a bargain compared with $1.1 million in San Francisco.

Brokers say overseas investors got burned by their own inexperience or were misled by companies misrepresenting the state of the properties and over-promising rental income.

Foreigners also had trouble finding contractors or property management companies they could trust.

Amsterdam-based investor Edwin Schouten said he was shocked to find his locally-managed houses empty and vandalized.

“The first red flag was when I found houses empty and I could see the grass growing half a meter high,” said Schouten, who now organizes his own property management.

Many investors have never visited Detroit and were unaware of problems such as buying the lone intact house on an otherwise abandoned block, brokers say. Michael Jordan, founder of StrategyProperties.com, estimates overseas demand has fallen by a third since 2013 and says foreigners who come to him to sell are often taken aback by losses they would need to take.

“The problem I run into is that investors are so deep in the hole.”

According to a staff member at a Detroit title agency, who requested anonymity, foreigners were still interested in the city but have become savvier – buying via trusted intermediaries and “making real money.” Hong-Kong-based investor Joseph Hung is among those who have not given up. Speaking by phone, Hung estimated that his roughly $155,000 investment in four properties and one plot of land was now worth $200,000. “I’m confident that Detroit will eventually come back.”

(Reporting by Megan Davies; Additional reporting by Rebecca Cook; Editing by Martin Howell and Tomasz Janowski)

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