peter tinti

independent journalist

Sketches of West Florissant Avenue

Beacon

Amid the teargas and rubber bullets on West Florissant Avenue were the less tangible, but no less real complexities that my camera could not capture. What follows is the humble observations of an outsider who spent seven days in Ferguson, made possible by your support.

Ferguson, Mo. — By the time I arrived at the corner of West Florissant Avenue and Canfield Drive, Michael Brown’s death was already a national story. Not because the unarmed black teen was shot several times in broad daylight by a white police officer named Darren Wilson, but because the violent clashes between protesters and police in the wake of his death made for must-see TV.

Crowds had gathered to call for justice for Michael Brown, which in the short term, meant calling for the arrest of Darren Wilson, the police officer who shot him.  In response, police dressed like soldiers pointed sniper rifles at unarmed citizens. They deployed tear gas. They fired rubber bullets. They lobbed stun grenades at unsuspecting citizens and used something called a “sound cannon” to disperse crowds.

During my seven days in Ferguson, my dispatches from West Florissant Avenue focused on these dynamics. They emphasized the weapons of war, the looting and Molotov cocktails, and the tension between police officers and protesters. But these raw moments, while compelling and important, are only one part of the story unfolding on West Florissant Avenue.

What follows are notes from West Florissant Avenue that eschew play-by-play reporting in favor of something less tangible, but no less real. They do not aspire to tell the whole story, but to shed light on the underlying complexities that my camera could not capture. They are the humble observations of an outsider.

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The US and France Are Teaming Up to Fight A Sprawling War on Terror in Africa

VICE News

In July of this year, France launched Operation Barkhane, an ambitious counterterrorism initiative spread across five countries in Africa’s Sahel and Sahara regions. The mission seeks to build upon the success of the French military intervention that drove al Qaeda-linked jihadi militants from northern Mali in 2013, and comes at a time when the US is expanding its own counterterrorism operations on the continent, setting the stage for what some analysts consider a burgeoning Franco-American alliance in Africa.

“This is a new chapter in French-American relations,” Michael Shurkin, a former CIA analyst who is now a political scientist at the RAND Corporation, told VICE News. “There is an unprecedented level of cooperation going on.”

In an August 11 memo to US Secretary of State John Kerry and US Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, President Barack Obama, citing an “unforeseen emergency,” authorized the transfer of up to $10 million “to assist France in its efforts to secure Mali, Niger, and Chad from terrorists and violent extremism.” The move hints at a division of labor in which the US foots the bill for a cash-strapped French military that is both logistically and politically better placed than the US to engage in combat operations in the Sahel.

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The New French Militarism In the Sahel

Medium

France’s new counterterrorism mission in the Sahel represents a stunning rejection of recent French policy toward the African continent, and with its commitment to actively hunting and killing terrorists, Opération Barkhane could radically alter security dynamics throughout the region.

French government officials recently unveiled plans to launch a new counterterrorism initiative in the Sahel, code-named Opération Barkhane.The mission consists of over 3,000 troops spread across five countries who, according to The Economist, will be supported by 20 supply helicopters, ten transport aircraft, six fighter planes, three drones, and 200 armored vehicles.

Although the bulk of the forces and equipment required for Barkhane are already on the ground in Africa, it would be a mistake to characterize the operation as a mere reshuffling of French military assets in the region. In fact, Barkhane represents a stunning rejection of recent French policy toward Africa, which in turn was meant to be a departure from France’s previous post-colonial posture toward the continent.

“The objective is principally one of counterterrorism,” French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters in Paris last month. “The aim is to prevent what I call the highway of all forms of traffic to become a place of permanent passage, where jihadist groups can rebuild themselves between Libya and the Atlantic Ocean.”

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The Untold Stories of World War I in Africa

The World War I in Africa Project is an ambitious initiative by Kathleen Bomani and Jacques Enaudeau, who seek not to commemorate the passing of World War I, but to restore its meaning by challenging “boilerplate narratives” and finding new narrators.

As the project’s website explains, two million African soldiers, workers and porters participated in the war, yet their story remains largely ignored to this day. “Europe’s 20th century started in 1914, and the yoke of colonialism steered Africa along for the ride,” Bomani and Enaudeau write. “Battles between the French, British, Belgian, German and Portuguese colonial empires pitted Africans against each other on their own soil,” they continue.

Tens of thousands of African lives were lost, while migration trends were set, economies transformed, and borders redefined all as a result of “the war to end all wars.”

Both Ms. Bomani and Mr. Enaudeau were kind enough to speak with me via skype. You can listen to the interview by clicking on this link.

Understanding Ebola: A Roundtable Discussion with Four Experts

Beacon

For this week’s podcast on Beacon, a discussion of the deeper issues behind the Ebola epidemic in West Africa with professors Kim Yi Dionne, Adia Benton, Jeremy Youde, and Stéphane Helleringer.

The deadliest Ebola outbreak in recorded history is happening right now in West Africa, with three particular countries, Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone desperately trying to curb the spread of the disease. At the time of recording this podcast, over a dozen cases have also been reported in Nigeria.

The official death toll at the moment is 1,550 and counting. Earlier this week, the World Health Organization said the actual number could be as many as four times greater than the 1,550 reported. WHO officials have conceded that it will likely be 6 months before they can bring the spread of the virus under control and some estimates suggest that as many as 20,000 people may contract the virus before the end of the crisis.

With international air carriers cutting off flights to Ebola affected areas and local governments deploying their militaries to impose mass quarantines, the current outbreak now represents much more than a public health crisis. In fact, the International Monetary fund recently stated that the ongoing crisis has had an acute impact on economies throughout the region.

On today’s podcast I discuss the ongoing Ebola outbreak in West Africa with professors Kim Yi Dionne, Adia Benton, Jeremy Youde, and Stéphane Helleringer.

All four experts were kind enough to take the time to join me via skype, in what I pitched to them as a virtual roundtable of sorts.

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50 Photos from Ferguson

Beacon

On August 14, I travelled to Ferguson, Missouri thanks to generous donations from readers. Your support provided the budget for a full week of coverage from the front lines of the crisis. As I work on a longer piece that builds on my previously published day-to-day accounts, here are 50 photos from those seven days in Ferguson.

Ferguson, Mo. — 

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Days of Peace, Nights of Violence in Ferguson, Missouri

Beacon

After two consecutive days of peaceful protests were shattered by two consecutive violent nights, Ferguson residents see no end in sight. This is the latest crowd-funded dispatch from West Florissant Avenue for Beacon.

Ferguson, Mo. — Despite calls for peaceful protests and a gentler, more nuanced approach to community policing, the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson has been rocked by four consecutive nights of chaos stretching from Friday night into Tuesday morning (see notes on Friday and Saturday night here and here). 

Violence came to Ferguson earlier than usual on Sunday evening, when gunshots rang out from a crowd that had gathered on West Florissant Avenue to protest the killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson.  

The 9 p.m. volley sparked clashes between police officers and protestors, many of whom had come to Ferguson from outside the area to participate in ongoing demonstrations. Police used stun grenades, smoke canisters, and tear gas to disperse a crowd that included peaceful protestors and young children. 

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You Shoot, We Shoot Back: Notes From the First Curfew in Ferguson

Beacon

On Saturday, August 16, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon ordered a state of emergency and implemented a midnight curfew in the city of Ferguson in an attempt to restore order in the wake of the police killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown. Though many of the protestors returned home as midnight approached, a few hundred stayed in defiance of the curfew. Here are photos and video from the standoff that ensued.

Ferguson, Mo. — An air of uncertainty hung over the Ferguson community on Saturday night and into Sunday morning, as police and protestors prepared for a showdown in advance of the first curfew since the killing of unarmed black teen Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson. 

Protestors assembled at the lot of a QuikTrip convenience store on West Florissant Avenue. Since protestors set the store on fire last week, the charred remains of the QuikTrip have become a key gathering point for demonstrations in Ferguson.

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Peaceful Protests Take a Troubling Turn in Ferguson

Beacon

Demonstrators gathered on West Florissant street in Ferguson, Missouri for the seventh consecutive evening to protest the killing of an unarmed black teenager, Michael Brown. The protests began just as they had on Thursday night, in an organized and peaceful manner with minimal police presence. But the evening took an ugly turn when gun shots rang out. Amid teargas and a stalemate between protestors and police, looters targeted several local businesses. Photos and video below.

Ferguson, Mo. — Protestors in Ferguson took to the streets for a seventh consecutive evening on Friday in what many hoped would mark a turning point in relations between local police and the Ferguson community.

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Voices from West Florissant, Ferguson, Missouri.

Beacon

The Ferguson Police Department held a press conference today during which they disclosed the name of the police officer who shot unarmed teen Michael Brown on August 9. The much-anticipated press conference sparked outrage, however, when Ferguson police chief Tom Jackson chose to make Brown’s alleged participation in an unarmed robbery of a convenience store the focal point of the event. Here are some perspectives recorded in Ferguson following the press conference.

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Anatomy of a Peaceful Protest in Ferguson, Mo.

Beacon

Protestors from the Ferguson community and broader St. Louis metropolitan area gathered for a sixth consecutive evening to protest the shooting of unarmed 18-year-old, Michael Brown. But as much as the gatherings were meant to protest the killing of the black teenager at the hands of local police, they also served as a rebuttal to the widely-criticized, heavy-handed police responses to earlier protests.

FERGUSON, Mo — On Thursday evening, protestors initially gathered blocks away from where a police officer shot Michael Brown on Saturday, August 9.

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The Golden Hour and US-Africa Relations. An interview with Todd Moss

Beacon

On today’s podcast, I’m joined by Todd Moss, the Chief Operating Officer at the Center for Global Development, where he is also a Senior Fellow. From May 2007 to October 2008, Moss served as Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of African Affairs at the U.S. Department of State. In addition to being an expert in US-Africa relations, finance, and capital markets, Moss is also a novelist. His debut novel, The Golden Hour, will be released on September 4th.

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The New French Militarism In the Sahel

Beacon

Though most of the troops and materiel for France’s new counterterrorism mission, Opération Barkhane, are already on the ground in Africa, it would be a mistake to characterize the mission as mere reshuffling of French military assets in the region. As an operation committed to actively hunting Al Qaeda-linked militants across five countries in Sahel, Barkhane represents a stunning rejection of recent French policy toward the continent and could radically alter security dynamics throughout the region.

French government officials have been publicizing their plans to launch a new counterterrorism initiative in the Sahel, code-named Opération Barkhane, for the better part of a month. The mission will consist of over 3,000 troops spread across five countries, who, according to The Economist, will be supported by 20 supply helicopters, ten transport aircraft, six fighter planes, three drones, and 200 armored vehicles.

Although the bulk of the forces and equipment required for Barkhane are already on the ground in Africa, it would be a mistake to characterize the operation as a mere reshuffling of French military assets in the region. In fact, Barkhanerepresents a stunning rejection of recent French policy toward Africa, which in turn was meant to be a departure from France’s previous post-colonial posture toward the continent.

“The objective is principally one of counterterrorism,” French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters in Paris last month. “The aim is to prevent what I call the highway of all forms of traffic to become a place of permanent passage, where jihadist groups can rebuild themselves between Libya and the Atlantic Ocean.”

The operation is likely to deepen existing counterterrorism cooperation between France and Mauritania, as well as strengthen partnerships with Burkina Faso, from where France already carries out operations crucial to its counterterrorism efforts in the region.

Early indications are that approximately 1,200 troops will be based in N’Djamena, Chad, where France has maintained an uninterrupted presence since 1986 as part of Opération Épervier. Another 1,000 troops will remain in Gao, Mali, the launching pad for Opération Serval, France’s recently-concluded mission to drive Islamist rebels from northern Mali that began in January of last year.

Other troops will operate from of a constellation of forward-operating bases and sites in Mali and Chad, as well as Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Niger.

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Wonk Read: Ransoming Citizens, Europe Becomes Qaeda’s Patron

Beacon

From dirt roads to ivory towers, semi-regular reviews of academic papers, reports, articles, and manuscripts that come across my desk about the people, places, and topics I cover on Beacon and elsewhere.

Rukmini Callimachi* has just published a must read report for the New York Times on the inner workings of ransoms paid by European governments to Al Qaeda in exchange for hostages. “Put more bluntly,” Callimachi writes, “Europe has become an inadvertent underwriter of Al Qaeda.”

That European governments have been handing millions of dollars in cash, often literally, to Al Qaeda-linked groups since 2003 will come as news to few who follow kidnapping in the Sahara and Sahel. In fact, Mauritanian activist Nasser Weddady made a similar argument in the New York Times opinion pages in February 2013 (see: “How Europe Bankrolls Terror“).

But Callimachi’s reporting on the specific amounts paid by governments, interlocutors, third-party go-betweens, and state-owned companies is the most vivid and comprehensive to date. The report also stands out for its description of how kidnapping for ransom by groups linked to Al Qaeda began as a highly improvised endeavor and matured into a sophisticated gambit replete with advanced planning, logistics networks, best-practices, and divisions of labor.

On this front, I’d like to make a few points.

For the sake of argument and clarity, it makes sense to highlight where ransom money starts and ends. It is absolutely fair and accurate to report that the bulk of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s funding comes from ransom payments and that these payments are by and large paid out by European governments.

But we can also assess the impact of ransom payments in the Sahel through the lens of organized crime and political economies.  That is, ransom payments in the Sahel are particularly problematic not only because they transfer funds to terrorist organizations, but because these vast sums are injected into a criminal economy that is intertwined with political and security arrangements throughout the region.

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Wonk Read: Preventing Violent Extremism in Burkina Faso

Beacon

From dirt roads to ivory towers, semi-regular reviews of academic papers, reports, and manuscripts that come across my desk about the people, places, and topics I cover on Beacon and elsewhere.

The Global Center on Cooperative Security recently published a report titled,Preventing Violent Extremism in Burkina Faso: Toward National Resilience Amid Regional Insecurity.

Supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Denmark, and co-authored by Augustin Loada (Executive Director of the Ouagadougou-based Centre pour la Gouvernance Democratique) and Peter Romaniuk (Senior Fellow at the Global Center in New York), the report assesses the threat of violent extremism in Burkina Faso. It also surveys the sources of resilience to violent extremism.

This report is a timely analysis, as Burkina Faso is increasingly considered – rightly or wrongly – a pillar of stability within a region rocked by instability. Two of Burkina Faso’s neighbors, Mali and Cote d’Ivoire, descended into chaos in recent years and the specter of instability looms large over another neighbor, Niger. In nearby Nigeria, a full-fledged Islamist insurgency, and a haphazard government effort to quell it, has pushed the northern half of the country to the brink of full-scale civil war.

So many of these threats to stability are transnational in nature. Armed Islamist movements such as Boko Haram and its offshoot, Ansaru, operate in Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, and there is mounting evidence that they have collaborated with like-minded groups further abroad. Al-Qaeda’s North Africa affiliate, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and similar groups such as Mujao and Al-Murabitoun, operate in several states across the Sahara and Sahel. Transnational organized criminal networks, which are often intertwined with the groups described above, facilitate the flow of arms, narcotics and people in a multitude of directions throughout the region.

Despite inflows of refugees fleeing violence in neighboring states and the aforementioned groups that pass through Burkina’s territory, Burkina Faso has managed come away from regional turmoil relatively unscathed, and in doing so, successfully sold itself as a vital and reliable security partner for the United States and France.

In my own conversations with U.S. diplomatic and defense officials, Burkina Faso’s stability is regularly cited as a reason behind Washington’s decision to fly surveillance aircraft, including unarmed drones and turboprop planes designed to look like civilian aircraft, out of Burkina Faso. Eager to increase its intelligence gathering capabilities in the region, the U.S. had been searching for locations within West Africa from where surveillance aircraft could be flown. Several of the locations under consideration were ultimately scrapped either due to concerns over security and instability in the prospective host country, or because local governments decided that hosting U.S. surveillance aircraft would be too sensitive politically.

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