If Mullah Omar is dead, then what comes next?

If it is true that Mullah Omar died in Pakistan in 2013 then there are some pretty serious consequences:

  1. What happens to peace talks? Things were ticking along in the right direction. The crucial issue was always what does Mullah Omar want? And there was a clear feeling that credible negotiators could do nothing without his say so. So what if Omar is dead…? Can peace talks survive?
  2. The Taliban’s coalition of militias essentially held together over two issues: Loyalty to Mullah Omar and opposition to US troops in Afghanistan. If Omar is dead, can the Taliban hold together… particularly when the well-financed Islamic State is trying to attract converts…?
  3. Who sent Mullah Omar’s last few Eid messages? Given that diplomats in Islamabad believed the ISI was able to get a line to the leader of the Taliban when it needed to, it will reinforce the idea that Pakistan has been the hidden hand behind the group

Update… on reflection

Jihadist approaches to social media

The director of the FBI was at a security conference this week and discussed Isil’s use of social media.

“Isil’s MO is to broadcast on Twitter, get people to follow them, then move them to Twitter direct messaging” to evaluate if they are a legitimate recruit, he said, according to The Aspen Times. “Then they’ll move them to an encrypted mobile-messaging app so they go dark to us.”

He contrasted it with al-Qaeda, which required much more of an effort on behalf of a would-be Jihadist to seek them out online. Emails may or may not be answered. (In the trial of Abid Naseer it was notable that many of his emails to a handler in Pakistan went unanswered, for example, much to his frustration.)

It all shows the difference in approach between AQ and Isil. While one saw itself as a core cabal of revolutionaries whose task was to wake the ummah, the other is a mass movement open to all. While one vetted would-be recruits for strength of mind and devotion, the other is open to the lonely and lost. While one is elitist, the other is populist.

And it seems AQ has lost out not only because of drone strikes over Pakistan and its failure to react rapidly to the Arab Spring, it has also failed to react to the growth of social media.


I spent a chunk of last week in Chattanooga after the terrible murders of four marines and a sailor.

The overriding sense in the city was one of shock: Shock at the killings but also utter bewilderment that it could have happened in a small city in Tennessee. I wrote about that sense here…

Chattanooga searches for answers amid the grief

And then over at my burger blog attempted to make some sense out of the gunman’s links to the Middle East, which for my money aren’t what led him to such a terrible act. His Islamic quotes, to me, seem more a manifestation of his misery, rather than the driving force behind his actions…

You don’t need Islam to explain the Chattanooga shootings

The wit and wisdom of Harper Lee

I arrived back from Monroeville last night. Attending the launch of Harper Lee’s new/old novel in her home town was a lot of fun. (And a rare good news story – so long as your first born son wasn’t named Atticus.) I picked up the book at 2am on Tuesday morning and only really had a chance to start reading it on the plane home.

The reviews have been decidedly mixed. And I’ll reserve judgment until I’ve finished. But there have been plenty of barbed moments to savour and a huge amount of evidence that this first draft contains all the bite of Harper Lee’s first/second novel To kill A Mockingbird.

I particularly enjoyed her take on America’s newspapers (and there’s another dig later at The New York Post and its lack of a sense of humour…)


And then there’s her casual dismissal of what essentially was the plot of seven seasons of Mad Men…


The universal theme at heart of Go Set a Watchman

Vintage cars in Monroeville

Vintage cars in Monroeville

Monroeville is proper small-town Alabama. A restaurant owner looked at me with shock when I asked for coffee at 3pm, pointing to a switched-off percolator machine.

But this is the hometown of Harper Lee, and a small cottage industry has grown up around the author. Last night more than 400 people queued for copies of her new/old novel and the town has turned back the clock to 1955 with vintage cars and characters in costume to celebrate the event.

Everyone here has a reason to dismiss the New York Times review (which found a bigoted, racist Atticus Finch in the new book). This is uncomfortable territory for the town which provided the model for Lee’s fictional Maycomb.

But at the same time, maybe race isn’t the real focus of the new book. (Disclaimer – I have yet to read it.) I am particularly struck by what Wayne Flynt, a historian and friend of the author, said this morning when discussing the legacy of – first – To Kill a Mockingbird.

“It has transcended race in the South. It has become a universal book about tolerance. Just like in 50 years I predict, Go Set a Watchman will have transcended race and it will be a book about passages, about how in all of our families, if our parents do not abuse us, they are perfect between six and nine, and deeply flawed between 16 and 30.”

Wayne Flint

Wayne Flint

In some ways, it is the dilemma faced by many people as they grow up – more particularly for those raised in the segregation era South: Leave and never come back; or stay and fight for change.

“Nelle leaves and she never really comes back. Just because she is here don’t think she ever came back. She never wanted to come back. If you don’t believe me just read Go Set a Watchman.”

UN peacekeeping chief calls for South Sudan arms embargo

United Nations peacekeeping chief Herve Ladsous pushed the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday to impose an arms embargo on South Sudan and to blacklist more rival leaders in the war-torn country, where he sees little prospect of a political solution.

As the world’s newest state marks four years of independence from Sudan, Ladsous briefed the council behind closed doors after the United Nations accused government forces of sexually abusing women and girls and reportedly burning some alive.

“This situation is absolutely appalling,” Ladsous told a small group of reporters before briefing the 15-member Security Council. “What really should be looked at is a possibility of more sanctions towards more leaders.”

“There should be a decision about an arms embargo because it is really completely questionable that the very meager resources that the country has go into buying more weapons,” he said (from Reuters).

There has been consensus among aid agencies operating in South Sudan for some time that the only way to stop the insanity is to prevent the country spending its tiny income on weapons. The problem, of course, is that the creation of South Sudan was championed by American politicians intent on giving Khartoum a bloody nose. And that still seems to be their priority. So people like Susan Rice, now Barack Obama’s national security adviser, seem to be the barrier to progress.

James Salter and the Brooklyn Public Library

 JamesSalter (2)

It’s a tough business being a writer’s writer it seems. James Salter died recently. I only heard of him a couple of years ago, thanks to a New Yorker profile.

He checked all my boxes. He had a stripped down style of prose, tales of derring-do and, best of all, he was revered by writers and unknown to almost everyone else. I set about buying his books and actually got around to reading one of them – The Hunters – which delivered exactly what I wanted (although with a slightly trite ending).

So I read all the obits when he died. And then… this. A few days ago I spotted his book of travel writing, There & Then, discarded on a Brooklyn sidewalk. (My neighbourhood is so rich that no-one knows what to do with the still-usable stuff they want to get rid of. They don’t have relatives that wear hand-me-downs, or know where the nearest charity shop is, so they simply dump it outside the house for people like me to take. Which is great… but very spooky in the case of children’s shoes).

Would you not have the decency to wait a few weeks before chucking it out? Or perhaps they had a thing about dead writers? Who knows?

Anyway, I picked it up only to discover it had a Brooklyn Public Library bar code. So this morning I pottered to my local branch where they told me the book was no longer registered with them, and I was free to keep it. Phew.

I think they might have thought I was bonkers.