Book Review – Covering Bin Laden: Global Media and the World’s Most Wanted Man

Covering Bin Laden: Global Media and the World’s Most Wanted Man edited by Susan Jeffords and Fahed Al-Sumait. Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2015. 259 pp, $95 hardcover 978-0-252-03886-0, $30 paperback 978-0-252-08040-1, E-book 978-0-252-09682-2

This review must start with a note of caution: this is not a book about Osama bin Laden. The aim of the editors and authors is not to add another interpretation on what bin Laden and Al Qaeda have been or, in the latter case, currently is. What they do here is take the real and symbolic figure of Osama bin Laden as a critical axis to explore the interplay between politics and media during the Global War on Terror. The result is a kaleidoscope that illuminates how news media represent and re-create reality and how those representations translate into concrete policy action.

As the title reminds us, Osama bin Laden became the world’s most wanted man in the decade from the 9/11 attacks to his capture and killing in Abbottabad (Pakistan) in 2011. Al Qaeda was presented as the paradigm of an entirely new type of terrorism: without parallel in history, and ready to kill as many civilians as they could in the name of some indiscernible millenarian views. Hunting bin Laden became the supreme goal. In pursuit of it, governments reshaped geopolitical relations and domestic politics, and launched wars.

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Viejas y nuevas violencias

Quizá nadie lo dijo mejor que el Banco Mundial en su Informe Mundial sobre Desarrollo del año 2011. En todo el mundo, 1.500 millones de personas viven en situaciones que no pueden calificarse claramente de guerra o paz, de violencia política o violencia criminal.

Las guerras interestatales están en declive. Para entender la guerra en la actualidad es mejor olvidar la II Guerra Mundial y similares. Las guerras internas son más frecuentes, con 32 activas el año pasado, una cifra que se mantiene relativamente estable (aunque el número de víctimas aumenta, debido sobre todo a la situación en Siria).

Y proliferan por todo el mundo situaciones donde es difícil definir el tipo de violencia organizada que tiene lugar y a quienes la perpetran. Las categorías tradicionales no alcanzan para definir y clasificar estos procesos. Como consecuencia tienen un impacto desigual en los medios y, cuando los alcanzan, frecuentemente son simplificados.

Más de 60.000 personas murieron violentamente en México durante el sexenio de Felipe Calderón (2006-2012). Incluso sin sumar los secuestros, desapariciones, y víctimas de torturas y violaciones de los derechos humanos, la cifra superan a las de muchas guerras. Pero aquí la “guerra” es contra las drogas: entre el gobierno y los cárteles del narcotráfico, dentro de los cárteles y entre ellos. El DIH no se aplica, y las violaciones de los derechos humanos están a la orden del día. Los cárteles ejercen su influencia por todo el país, como muestra The New York Times en este mapa.

En lugares tan lejanos como Afganistán y Colombia, la violencia política y la guerra se entrelazan con la economía ilegal de las drogas y el crimen organizado. Actores de la guerra participan en este negocio. Y hay un fuerte debate sobre si es posible terminar a la vez con una insurgencia y con las drogas, o si una cosa impide la otra. Para algunos analistas, como Vanda Felbab-Brown en su libro Shooting Up, ambas guerras son incompatibles: erradicar las drogas echa a los campesinos, que no tienen alternativas, en brazos de la insurgencia. 

Grupos terroristas como Al Qaeda y sus “franquicias” regionales (como la de Yemen y Arabia Saudí, AQAP) conducen ataques contra sus propios países o en otros. Mientras, algunos de ellos, como la propia Al Qaeda del Magreb (AQMI) aprovechan antiguas rutas del contrabando y áreas remotas para financiarse con la economía ilegal y el secuestro, especialmente de occidentales.

Mientras, en la República Democrática del Congo, milicias locales y miembros de gobiernos vecinos sostienen una violencia continua con la minería y la explotación de minerales muy valiosos como el oro y el coltán. Este último es un mineral estratégico vital para muchas industrias, entre ellas la electrónica. Algunos han llamado a este conflicto la guerra “PlayStation“.  

Las tipologías de la violencia son complejas pero lo que está claro son sus efectos. Este mapa del Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre muestra la situación global de personas desplazadas por la violencia y la inestabilidad. El arco se extiende por todo el mundo y afecta especialmente a los países del Sur.

No es casualidad. La violencia organizada contemporánea tiene múltiples causas: nacionales e internacionales; individuales y sociales; políticas y económicas. El desempleo juvenil; el empobrecimiento; el incremento de población urbana sin expectativas; las tensiones regionales, sociales, étnicas y religiosas…

Todo ello es fuente de tensión, y es más fácil que derive en violencia cuando además las instituciones son frágiles y apenas pueden dar respuestas (en algunos casos porque han sido “vaciadas” de poder y medios). Y cuando los mecanismos tradicionales de una sociedad para resolver conflictos se han visto desbordados o desmantelados por las presiones de los cambios socioeconómicos, políticos y demográficos.

En muchos casos, a esto se suma otra pauta. Las redes económicas ilegales con las que sobreviven personas que carecen de alternativas conectan, muchas veces, con los mercados financieros internacionales y las economías desarrolladas. ¿A dónde si no van a parar las drogas, el coltán o el oro? Las armas, por su parte, recorren el camino contrario.

La distribución geográfica y social de la violencia contemporánea tiene raíces profundas y estructurales. No es un capricho o una anomalía. La falta de desarrollo y de equidad genera expectativas frustradas, economías ilegales, inseguridad y violencia. A la vez el conflicto y la violencia son barreras para el desarrollo, como señala el International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and State-building.

Sin entender que este círculo vicioso se retroalimenta a sí mismo no es posible entender por qué estalla la violencia y por qué es tan duradera. Cualquier esfuerzo por ponerle fin requiere en primer lugar saber de qué se trata.

Old and New Violence(s)

It was possibly the World Bank who best explained it in the World Development Report 2011. Around 1.5 billion people worldwide live in situations that cannot be described as war or peace, amidst repeated cycles of political and criminal violence.

Interstate wars are in decline. If we want to understand contemporary violence, let’s forget the II World War and similar events. Internal (intrastate) wars are more typical today, with 32 armed conflict active last year. The figure is relatively stable although numbers of victims were higher in 2012 (mainly due to the Syrian situation).

There is a proliferation of settings worldwide where the accurate description of the type of violence at stake is difficult, not to mention the nature of the actors involved. Traditional categories are not enough to define and classify those processes. Among the consequences, many of them receive scarce attention in mainstream media and, when they do, they are over-simplified.

More than 60.000 persons were killed in a six-year period in Mexico, under the Government of Felipe Calderon (2006-2012). Even if you leave aside kidnapping, disappeared people, and victims of torture and human rights violations, that figure is higher than in many wars. But here the war is against drugs: between the Government and the narco-trafficking groups, among the groups and within them. International Humanitarian Law does not apply. But the cartels area of influence reaches most of Mexican territory, as The New York Times shows in this map.

In countries so different and distant such as Afghanistan or Colombia, political violence and war intertwine with the illegal economy of drugs and organized crime groups. War actors take part in this business. And there is a growing debate about the methods and path of counter-insurgency. More accurately, the question is: Is it possible to fight at the same time against insurgency and against drugs? Or do both objectives need differentiated approaches? According to some analysts, among them Vanda Felbab-Brown in her book Shooting Up, both ‘wars’ are incompatible: if you engage in forcible drug eradication, farmers without feasible alternatives will turn to insurgent groups for protection. From this point of view, counter-insurgency is at odds with counter-drugs.

Terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and its regional ‘franchises’ (like Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, AQAP) perpetrate attacks in their own countries and/or in others. Some of them take advantage of old smuggling routes and isolated areas to finance themselves through kidnapping for ransom (especially of Western citizens) and illegal smuggling activities. This is the case of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, AQMI.

Meanwhile, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), local militia and members of neighbouring Governments fuel and finance a continuous cycle of violence through mining and exploitation of valuable mineral resources like gold and coltan. The latter is strategic for many industries and sectors, among them electronics. This deadly conflict has been called ‘the PlayStation war’.

The typologies and categories of contemporary violence are complex but their outcomes and consequences are clear. This map of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre provides an overview of forcibly displaced population worldwide. The instability arch has worldwide dimensions and specially affected are South countries.

This is far from casual. Contemporary organized violence is rooted in complex set of causes: national and international; individual and societal; political and economic. Youth unemployment; inequity and poverty rates; increasing rates of marginalized urban population; regional, social, ethnic and religious tensions…

All those factors, and others, cause civil unrest and may derive in violence, especially when they coexist with fragile institutions and bad governance. At times institutions have been hollowed out from power and means. And traditional mechanisms and procedures to accommodate interests and resolve societal conflicts have been weakened or even crushed under the pressure of socioeconomic, political and demographic changes.

In many places there is another factor to take into account. Informal and illegal economic networks that many people join as a coping strategy are frequently connected with international financial markets and developed economies. Where do illegal drugs, coltan or gold go, if not here? Weapons, on its part, travel in the opposite direction.

The geographical and social distribution of contemporary violence has strong and structural roots. It is not an anomaly or a fancy. Lack of development and equality give place to frustrated expectations, illegal economies, violence and insecurity. On its part, conflict and violence are barriers for development, as the International Dialogue on Peacebuilding and State-building has pointed out.

It’s not possible to understand why violence erupts and why it is so durable without a correct understanding of that vicious circle. Any effort to put an end to violence cycles requires, as a first step, get a better insight on what is happening and why.