Colombia’s Slow March Toward Peace

Colombia will begin peace talks with the National Liberation Army (ELN), the country’s second-largest rebel group, that, if successful, would end the Latin American country’s five-decade-long conflict with the armed Marxist guerrilla movement.

ELN leaders and representatives of the Colombian government made the announcement in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas, where the two sides had been holding informal talks. Official talks will start in Ecuador, and will then move to Brazil, Chile, and Cuba, El Colombiano, the Colombian newspaper, reported. It’s unclear when the talks will actually begin.

“From the start of my time in office, I have said that we have to put an end to this conflict, and if the ELN joins in with these efforts, then we’ll have a more stable and lasting peace, which is what all Colombians want,” Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos said on national television.

These will be the first formal negotiations between the two sides, and the announcement came nearly two weeks after ELN released two hostages. The announcement also included six points of discussion, among them how guerrillas would surrender their weapons, and “guarantees to exercise political action,” El Tiempo, the Venezuelan newspaper, reported.  

ELN was formed in 1964 after the decade-long civil war, which ended in 1958, and amid the fervor of Fidel Castro’s Communist revolution in Cuba. One of the group’s early and more prominent leaders was Camilo Torres Restrepo, a Jesuit priest, who famously said: “If Jesus were alive today, he would be a guerrillero.”

The group attracted left-wing academics and poor farmers. But since its inception, it has battled for attention, fighters, and territory with the far larger Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), another Marxist guerrilla group. ELN never grew to FARC’s size or prominence, but both groups, which began as left-wing uprisings against the state, devolved into criminal enterprises, with links to drugs, extortions, and kidnappings. They often operate in the same areas of Colombia and have fought each other.  

Wednesday’s announcement came as the Colombian government is nearing a final peace deal with FARC. Those talks are now centered on how FARC’s rebels will disarm—an issue that is likely to come up with ELN, too. Analysts see the prospect of a peace deal with ELN as a sweetener to FARC to disarm and reach an agreement with the government.

More than five decades of fighting in Colombia involving the government, left-wing, and right-wing paramilitary groups has killed more than 200,000 people.

Orbital View: Seeing Spots

The struggle against jihadist terrorism isn’t the same as the struggle against communism—and it’s dangerous to conflate them.

The two leading Republican presidential candidates both suggest that America has a problem with Islam. Donald Trump and Ted Cruz sometimes frame the problem that they have diagnosed as one having to do with “radical Islam,” rather than simply “Islam,” though Cruz has called for increased police patrols of “Muslim neighborhoods,” not of “radical Muslim neighborhoods.”

Donald Trump, on this subject, as on others, is given to descriptive imprecision, and to a bluntness that can be terrifying. In a semi-forgotten 2011 interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, a friendly interlocutor asked Trump about a statement he had made about Islam on Fox. Trump said, in response, “Bill O’Reilly asked me if there is a Muslim problem. And I said, absolutely, yes.” Trump went on to say, “Many, many, most Muslims are wonderful people, but is there a Muslim problem? Look what’s happening.” He added, in reference to the Koran, “A lot of people say it teaches love … but there’s something there that teaches some very negative vibe.” Trump’s commentary on Islam since that interview has not gained depth or nuance.

Uber’s Troubled Kenyan Expansion

Uber’s expansion in Kenya is being met with some of the same kinds of protests that greeted the ride-hailing service elsewhere in the world.

On March 23, an Uber taxi was burned in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, the same day the service was launched in Mombasa, the country’s second-largest city.

The driver was directed into an alley by his passenger. He “sensed danger” when four men approached the car, Japheth Koome, Nairobi’s police commander, told reporters. The driver was able to escape without injury, but the car was burned. Nairobi’s police force is “determined to end this madness where people are maliciously attacking and damaging other people’s property,” Koome said.

Uber is in “open dialogue with authorities,” about the incident, Samantha Allenberg, an Uber spokeswoman, said.

“Any situation where driver or rider safety is put at risk is unacceptable to us,” she told Kenya’s Daily Nation. “Safety, reliability and choice, not violence, are what continue to draw people towards Uber’s driver-partners as well as alternative transportation service providers.”

The attack, the second of its kind in the past few weeks, continues Uber’s brief, but tense history in Kenya.

Uber drivers reported harassment in January 2015, when the company introduced the service in Nairobi. The app officially launched there last June, and since then there have been sporadic complaints, including smashed windows, and passengers being harassed while attempting to enter Ubers.

Mwangi Mubea, a spokesman for United Kenya Taxi Organization (UKTO), a lobbying group for taxi drivers, denied allegations that taxis drivers perpetrated these attacks.

“We cannot attack drivers who are employed just like us. In fact they worked with us before going to Uber. We have no problem with them,” Mubea said after an UKTO meeting. “Our only issue is the strategy used by their management to attract customers, which is driving us out of business.”

Under that strategy, Uber is registered as a technology company and therefore isn’t subject to government regulations, including taxation, that are demanded of a public-service provider in Kenya. The company does not pay the monthly fee required of taxi drivers. This business model, Quartz reports, contributes to Uber’s ability to provide a much cheaper service than local taxis.

Ashford Mwangi, another UKTO spokesman, said at a press conference those who want to become Uber drivers face other restrictions.

“First they demand the car to be almost new, making it hard for anyone who bought there taxi in 2009 to join them because we all cannot afford new cars,” he said.

UKTO wants President Uhuru Kenyatta to ban Uber, saying its members will otherwise paralyze Mombasa by blocking roads with their cars. Uber, the group said, “threatened the livelihood of 15,000 of” its members. It’s unclear if the ultimatum will have traction.

“We are in a liberalized environment and those who offer competitive services must be protected,” James Macharia, the minister of transport and infrastructure, said in a statement. “Uber operators and their clients will be protected.”

But Mwangi, the UKTO spokesman, points out that his group’s fight isn’t against ride-sharing companies, in general, but the way Uber operates in Kenya. Other ride-hailing apps that predate Uber have peacefully coexisted with taxis, he said.

“We have the likes of Maramoja and Easy Taxi apps working well within the industry simply because they involved stakeholders to determine rates,” he said. “So far, we have never had any issues with those apps for the two years they have been operational in Nairobi.”

Allenberg, the Uber spokeswoman, told  Nairobi’s Business Daily the company has been “engaging with taxi associations since last year to find a way that we can partner with them.

“We are happy that many taxi drivers are already using our technology to boost their incomes and we would welcome more who wish to join their colleagues,” she said.

Besides Mombasa, Uber also expanded last week to Abuja, the Nigerian capital. The company says it plans to use Nigeria and Kenya as “hubs of expansion,” to eventually launch the app in Ghana, Uganda, and Tanzania. The service is now available in 400 cities globally, and Uber faces protests from taxi drivers worldwide.

South African Uber drivers are entangled in tensions similar to those in Kenya. Reports of threats and intimidation pushed the app to provide security for South African drivers. Earlier this year, taxi drivers in several French cities refused to drive, slowing traffic “to a crawl.”

Other governments have been more responsive to taxi drivers’ complaints. Rio de Janiero Mayor Eduardo Paes signed legislation, declaring the app “forbidden.”  Sao Paulo’s city council passed legislation barring Uber, though its mayor has yet to sign it into law. The South Korean government charged the app’s founder, Travis Kalanick, with operating an illegal taxi service in 2014.

Mwangi, the UKTO spokesman, insists the group’s fight isn’t with Uber.

“We are not at war and have no problem with Uber staying,” he said. “But the problem comes in because they have not strategized on accommodating local players.”

The Battle for Palmyra

Syrian government forces have regained control of Palmyra, the historic Syrian city that was overrun by the Islamic State in May of last year.

Syrian state media reported Sunday that government troops, backed by Shia militias loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on the ground and Syrian and Russian strikes from above, drove ISIS militants out of the city overnight. Soldiers found and dismantled hundreds of bombs and other explosive devices planted by the Sunni extremist group throughout the city, which is located in the eastern countryside of the Homs province. State media estimates about 450 ISIS militants were killed in the operation to recapture Palmyra.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a British-organization that documents activity in Syria with the help of activists in the country, confirmed Sunday that government troops had pushed ISIS fighters out of the city.

Russia’s ministry of defense said Saturday Russian warplanes carried out 40 sorties and killed more than 100 militants in the operation.

Syrian government forces had been on the offensive for nearly three weeks in an attempt to gain control of Palmyra, which was seized by ISIS in May. Last week, troops recaptured Palmyra Castle, an ancient citadel.

Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is home to tens of thousands of people and a trove of ancient ruins. Last summer, ISIS fighters began pillaging the city’s antiquities, saying the ruins violate the Islamic injunction against idol worship. They destroyed the Temple of Baalshamin and the Arch of Triumph, structures that were nearly 2,000 years old. UNESCO, the United Nations that documents the world’s historic and cultural sites, called the destruction a war crime.

In August, ISIS fighters beheaded Khaled al-Asaad, an 82-year-old antiquities scholar who reportedly refused to reveal the location of valuable artifacts in Palmyra that were hidden before militants swarmed the city.

Stills from Russian television provided to Reuters on Sunday showed aerial views of the ruins of Palmyra. Maamoun Abdulkarim, the director of the museums and antiquities department in Damascus, said in a message to ISIS that “we will rebuild what you have destroyed,” the Associated Press reported.

Assad on Sunday described the Palmyra operation as a “significant achievement” offering “new evidence of the effectiveness of the strategy espoused by the Syrian army and its allies in the war against terrorism,” according to state media.

A member of the anti-Assad opposition coalition rebuked that assessment. “The government wants through this operation to win the favor of Western nations by fighting against terrorism, while obscuring its responsibility as providing the reasons for the spread of terror,” Khaled Nasser told the AP.

The Syrian government and opposition groups are currently engaged in United Nations-mediated peace talks in Geneva aimed at resolving the country’s civil war, which has left more than 250,000 people dead in over five years. The various factions agreed to a temporary cease-fire late last month that has mostly held despite some outbreaks of violence. Both the peace talks and that accord do not include ISIS, which lost ground in Syria after Russia began launching airstrikes on Assad’s behalf last fall, turning the conflict in the Syrian president’s favor. Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier this month withdrew a major part of Russian forces backing Assad’s troops in Syria, but has continued bombing targets there.

Brussels Attacks: What the Belgians Missed

Belgium’s prime minister was contrite after the Islamic State’s deadly attack on one of world’s most important cities.

“We have to do more,” Prime Minister Charles Michel said, “and we have to do better.”

Those comments were made in November 2015 after ISIS, as the Islamic State is also known, attacked multiple locations in Paris, killing 130 people and wounding scores of others. On Tuesday, Michel made similar remarks after ISIS struck Brussels, killing more than 30 people and wounding 300 others.

“What we feared has happened,” he said. “We were hit by blind attacks.”

The terrorist group’s strike at the heart of Europe—Brussels is both the Belgian capital and where the EU has its headquarters—showcases not only its ability to conceive, plan, and execute attacks outside the Middle East, but also highlights the intelligence failures that allowed ISIS to carry out attacks in two European cities four months and 200 miles apart.

There were warning signs—several of them—before the Brussels attacks: Belgium has long been known as Europe’s hub for Islamist radicals. More Belgians have joined ISIS as a proportion of the population than have people from any other Western country. Many of the Paris attackers were Belgian nationals or residents. One particular Brussels neighborhood, Molenbeek, has come under scrutiny from counterterrorism officials as well as the media as the epicenter of Belgian jihadism. Another, Schaerbeek, where police raids in the aftermath of Tuesday’s attacks were carried out, will likely face similar scrutiny soon. Europol, the EU’s police agency, warned as far back as January that ISIS “special forces” had planned to target European cities in attacks like those on Mumbai, India, in 2008.

But in the aftermath of Tuesday’s attacks there appear to have been as many opportunities missed by Belgian intelligence agencies as there were chances to stop the carnage. Belgian officials have not explicitly connected the Brussels and Paris attacks, but there are enough commonalities—including the attackers’ activities in Brussels itself and the name of Najim Laachraoui, who authorities say was one of the suicide bombers that struck Brussels airport and who they say made suicide vests used in the Paris attacks. These commonalities indicate that had Paris been prevented, or its alleged logistical mastermind, Salah Abdeslam, caught sooner than last Friday, then an examination of the intelligence missteps that led to Tuesday’s events in Brussels may have been unnecessary.  

Although it might be tempting—and uncharitable—to attribute the attacks to Belgians’ love of “eating chocolate and enjoying life and looking like great democrats and liberals,” as one Israeli minister did, Tuesday’s attacks point to a far more systemic problem. Europe’s intelligence services—with the exception of Britain’s and to some extent France’s—have long been viewed skeptically by their counterparts elsewhere. Of these, Belgium is seen to have one of the weakest.

There are several reasons for this. Belgium, which my colleague David Graham described as “a fragile artificial creation, riven between French- and Flemish-speaking citizens,” not unlike the Middle East, has been described as “a nation without a state.” And like the Middle East—and unlike the Europe in which it sits—illegal weapons are readily available, a legacy of the conflict in the Balkans in the 1990s.

Belgium has a weak central government and several powerful local municipal entities that are often at odds with one other. This spawns a gigantic bureaucracy. The Brussels area, where 1 million people live, is governed by 19 municipalities and is served by six police forces, each of which answers to a different mayor. Their actions are often hampered by rules such as no police raids between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m.—rules that could politely be called comical.

The case of the Abdeslam brothers is a case in point. They’d been on the radar of at least one Belgian intelligence service as far back as July 2014. Another Belgian intelligence service, however, said it became aware of them only in January 2015—six months later. The brothers were among the terrorists who struck Paris on November 13, 2015, and one of them, Salah Abdeslam, is believed to have been the only survivor. Abdeslam spent the next few months on the run. Belgian authorities came close to capturing him once, two days after the Paris attacks, but couldn’t raid the apartment in Molenbeek in which he was believed to be holed up because of the restrictions on when police can carry out raids. By the time they made it to the apartment, Abdeslam was gone. When he was eventually captured last Friday, four months later, he’d been hiding under everybody’s noses: in Molenbeek.

After the Paris attacks, Committee P, a government agency that serves as the police watchdog, identified several “deficiencies and weaknesses” in how authorities handled information on the Paris attackers. RTBF, the Belgian state broadcaster, reported that the watchdog cited several reasons for the failure, including technological ones. “Certain IT problems were not resolved,” it said, according to RTBF, and the watchdog criticized a lack of “qualified personnel.” Another issue was one of information-sharing: a nom de guerre used by one of the Paris attackers featured in several Belgian police databases, but not in the central one, the watchdog said. Then there are more mundane—but possibly more serious—problems, including misspelled names in terrorism databases that prevent efficient information-sharing not only in Belgium, but across the EU. All of which leads to Tuesday and Brussels.

The Belgian federal prosecutor confirmed Friday what Belgian media had reported earlier this week: that Najim Laachraoui was one of the suicide bombers at Brussels airport. Laachraoui, a Belgian, was an associate of Abdeslam and is believed to have made suicide vests used in the Paris attacks. His DNA, and Abdeslam’s fingerprint, was found in a Brussels apartment in December. Belgian authorities asked the public for information about Laachraoui after Abdeslam’s arrest last Friday. It was too late. On Tuesday, he, along with another suicide bomber, blew himself up at Zaventem airport.

There appear to have been both general and specific warnings about the threat to Brussels itself. Haaretz reported that Belgian security services knew the airport would be targeted. On Wednesday, a Turkish official said Turkey had deported Ibrahim el-Bakraoui, who Belgian authorities say attacked the airport along with Laachraoui, to the Netherlands last year and had warned that he was a foreign fighter captured on Turkey’s border with Syria. Nevertheless, el-Bakraoui was released. So far, no one has lost his or her job. Justice Minister Koen Geens and Interior Minister Jan Jambon both turned in their resignations this week, but the prime minister declined their offers.

When asked who was to blame, Geens said: “It is clear it is not one single person, but it is true that we could have expected from Ankara or Istanbul a more diligent communication, we think, that perhaps could have avoided certain things.”

And he added: “Our own services should perhaps have been more critical about the place where the person had been detained. When someone is arrested there in a city few people know, it is clear enough for insiders that it could be a terrorist. Here, though, he was not known as a terrorist. It is the only moment we could have linked him to it. And that moment, perhaps, we missed.”

That missed moment—and the ones that preceded it—proved costly.