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Bradley Manning, the unknown soldier

The spotlight has been on Julian Assange, but the 23-year-old accused of leaking US secrets to Wikileaks.

The spotlight has been on Julian Assange, but the 23-year-old accused of leaking US secrets to WikiLeaks, is held in solitary confinement at a US army base and faces life in prison. Can anyone save him?

On 26 May 2010, 23-year-old American soldier Bradley Manning was arrested in Iraq on suspicion of leaking classified information. As Manning was charged and imprisoned, first in Iraq and then in the US, the organisation WikiLeaks released an unprecedented amount of information into the public sphere: most significantly, the Afghanistan war logs in July, the Iraq war logs in October and then thousands of diplomatic cables in November. Julian Assange, the founder and pale face of WikiLeaks, went into hiding but emerged in London after the Swedish judiciary requested his extradition to face charges of alleged rape and sexual assault.

As Assange became a worldwide media sensation, with a host of well-known supporters paying his bail and publicly offering him support, Manning was comparatively forgotten. Assange himself says they have never met (if it cannot be proven that Manning leaked data directly to Assange, then the US authorities will have no case to prosecute or extradite the WikiLeaks founder). But in an interview with MSNBC in December, he described Manning as a "political prisoner".

Manning is being held at the Marine Corps Brig in Quantico, Virginia. He has been there since 29 July 2010 after spending two months in a military jail in Kuwait. Only two people visit him: his lawyer, David Coombs, and a friend, David House. Manning doesn't have many friends. Since his arrest, people have fallen away, reluctant to be associated with a man who has incurred the wrath of the highest levels of the US government and who could spend the next 52 years of his life in jail.

House - a softly spoken, intense 23-year-old from Alabama - has taken Manning up as his cause. When I meet him in London, he says he didn't know Manning personally before the events of last year. A researcher at MIT, House is involved in the hacker community in Boston. Manning was connected to the group through a friend and House said he knew of him. After Manning's arrest, state department officials, the FBI and police investigated the hackers, trying to fathom their informal set-up and find out what they knew about Manning. In response, members of the group formed the Bradley Manning Support Network. House got involved and began to visit Manning in jail.

Brig problem

The military base at Quantico is huge. An hour outside Washington DC, it is mostly used as a training centre for marines, but there is also an air base and accommodation for military personnel and their families. It has a suburban atmosphere, says House - woods and fields surround the area, and a river passes through it. Manning is held in the "Brig", a squat, one-story building surrounded by barbed-wire fences. The unit is normally used as a short-term pre-trial detainment centre, where suspects are held for a maximum of 90 days. Manning has been there for seven months.

When House arrives to see Manning, he is searched and then lead into a fluorescently-lit room dissected by a glass wall. There is a tiny hole in the wall through which the two men can speak. The whole facility has to go into lockdown when Manning - a "maximum custody" prisoner - is taken out of his cell. House says he can hear his friend before he sees him, because his chains rattle so loudly. "I can't really describe how bizarre it is to see a 110-pound, five-foot-three individual done up in chains from his hands to his feet, connected at the waist, so he can't really move," he says.

As they talk, three marines stand behind Manning and listen to the conversation. They stare at House. His first visit was in September 2010 and he has been to Quantico every few weeks since then. As time has gone on, House has noticed that Manning has become increasingly anxious about discussing his situation in the Brig. There have been other changes, too - it takes Manning longer to warm up to conversation; sometimes it will be nearly an hour before he is able to speak at any length or with coherence. He has also gained weight and appears exhausted. Most recently, he has appeared almost catatonic, barely able to communicate at all.

This kind of deterioration is typical of prisoners held in solitary confinement. Manning is under a Prevention of Injury (POI) order, which limits his social contact, exercise, sleep and access to external stimuli such as newspapers or television (Manning had no idea of the impact the WikiLeaks release was having until House told him). He spends 23 hours a day alone in his cell. The hour he is allowed out, he is taken to an empty room and walks in circles. If he is caught exercising in his cell, he is forced to stop. At night, Manning is stripped to his underwear and has to sleep under blankets that he says give him carpet burn. He is usually woken several times throughout the night by guards. POI orders are usually issued when prisoners present a risk to themselves or others and are supposed to be temporary. Manning has been under the order since he arrived at the Brig in July.

In January, the Brig commander put Manning on suicide watch for three days (though none of his psychological evaluations have suggested he has suicidal tendencies or any inclination to harm himself). Manning's glasses were removed, so he was unable to see properly. A guard was stationed outside his door, his clothing removed and he was kept in his cell for 24 hours a day. House cannot understand why the suicide watch or POI conditions are enforced, given the recommendations by Brig psychiatrists that Manning is psychologically fit. Pentagon officials maintain that Manning receives the same treatment and "privileges as all other prisoners held in what the military calls 'maximum custody'". But House points out that Manning is the only maximum-custody detainee at Quantico, "so he is being treated like himself".

When House and Manning talk, they cover a range of subjects and common interests - computers, philosophy and the impact of technology on society. They share a passion for the potential of the internet, for free information. At their first meeting they had "this amazing conversation about Hinduism and the way the internet distils ethics down". Manning requested that House visit again.

Born in December 1987 in the small town of Crescent, Oklahoma, Manning grew up with his parents and sister. In his early teens, his father walked out and his mother, Susan, decided to move with the children back to her home of Haverfordwest in south-west Wales. It was an awkward transition for Manning, who went to the local school and spent much of his time in the computer room. When he was 17, he returned to Oklahoma to live with his father, who threw him out when he discovered his son was gay. Manning lived on the road, moving from place to place without a job. He visited a boyfriend, Tyler Watkins, in Boston where he met the network of hackers around MIT. In October 2007, he joined the US army and was soon despatched to a base outside Baghdad in Iraq.

The reasons for Manning's disaffection with the US military have been widely discussed. House says it is difficult for him to talk about this with Manning directly, as he doesn't feel comfortable talking about the past or about his alleged crime in any detail in front of the marines. But House says there is one incident they have discussed that had a clear impact on Manning. A group of Iraqis had been detained for publishing "anti-Iraqi literature". Manning, tasked with investigating the case, got the leaflets translated and discovered they were a serious critique of government corruption. He notified his superior officer, who simply told him to find more Iraqis to detain.

According to chat logs of alleged conversations between Manning and a fellow hacker, Adrian Lamo (later published incompletely by Wired), the huge download of information from government databases was easy to execute. Manning appears to explain how he was able to copy data from the classified network using unmarked CDs. In the chat logs, Manning seemed to realise the potential impact of his actions. "Hillary Clinton and several thousand diplomats are going to have a heart attack when they wake up one morning and find an entire repository of classified foreign policy is available, in searchable format, to the public," he wrote. Lamo, based in California, informed the authorities and Manning was arrested.

At attention

Manning has no set date for a trial. Those, such as House, who are campaigning on his behalf, want Manning's case to be handled with "due process" and the extreme conditions of his detainment to be re-evaluated. They want him to be seen by an independent pyschiatrist and are also trying to raise awareness in the UK, as Manning holds dual UK/US citizenship.

But the authorities, it seems, do not like the attention. In January, House drove to the Quantico base to visit Manning with Jane Hamsher, a Washington DC film producer and blogger. The pair were stopped before they reached the base and held by the police on the basis that Hamsher only had a digital copy of her car insurance certificate. They were eventually let go, as visiting hours ended, and so were unable to see Manning. This incident occurred shortly after Manning was on suicide watch. As Hamsher put it to me: "It felt like they didn't want David to see Bradley that day and they were going to do anything they could to stop it."

Towards the end of our conversation, I ask House why he thinks Manning might have committed the crime he is accused of. "If the chat logs between Manning and Lamo are true, you can see Manning's need for attention," he says. "But we also see him calling for worldwide debate and reform. When I meet him, I see the individual that wants reform. But I think at the core of it are the conditions in his life. He needed to find some self-worth in the world."

Sophie Elmhirst is an assistant editor of the NS

Sophie Elmhirst is features editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 07 March 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The great property swindle

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Brothers in blood: how Putin has helped Assad tear Syria apart

The Syrian catastrophe has created the worst humanitarian crisis since the end of the Second World War. And the world watches helplessly as Putin and Assad commit war crimes.

Sometimes we know the names. We know Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old boy who, covered in mud and dust, was pictured on the back seat of an ambulance in the aftermath of an air attack. We know his name because pictures and a video of him were released on social media and travelled around the world. The outrage that followed was widespread and sincere, the image of the dazed little boy seeming to symbolise the greater plight of the beleaguered residents of Aleppo. But then the moment passed. Few will know that a few days later doctors announced that Omran’s elder brother Ali, who was injured in the same air strike, had died from his injuries. He was ten.

Sometimes we know the names of the babies pulled from the rubble of collapsed buildings – occasionally alive, but often dead; or the names of the children weeping over lost parents; or the women grieving over lost husbands and children; or the elderly simply waiting (and sometimes wanting) to die.

We know Bana Alabed, the seven-year-old girl trapped inside Aleppo whose Twitter account has gone viral in recent weeks. “Hi I’m Bana I’m 7 years old girl in Aleppo [sic],” reads the on-page description. “I & my mom want to tell about the bombing here. Thank you.”

A series of pictures depicts Alabed and her mother, Fatemah, struggling to live as normal a life as possible, one showing the little girl sitting at an MDF desk with a book. Behind her, in the corner, is a doll. “Good afternoon from #Aleppo,” says the caption in English. “I’m reading to forget the war.”

The conflict, however, is never far away. Alabed, whose mother taught her English, has repeatedly tweeted her own fears about dying, followed by stoic messages of defiance whenever the immediate threat of an impending air strike passes. On the morning of 3 October, her words were simply: “Hello world we are still alive.” On 17 October, Fatemah tweeted: “The airstrikes ended in the morning, all the last night was raining bombs.”

But in most cases we never know the names of the victims of air assaults led by Presidents Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin. One of the most haunting images to emerge in recent weeks was that of a mother and child, killed while sleeping in the same bed. The scene had an eerily preserved-in-amber feel to it: a snapshot of snatched lives, frozen in the act of dying. Pictures of ruined buildings and distraught civilians have become routine now, holding our attention briefly – if at all.

As many as 500,000 people are believed to have been killed since the beginning of the Syrian uprising in early 2011. According to a report released in February this year by the Syrian Centre for Policy Research, a further 1.9 million have been wounded. Taken together, those figures alone account for 11.5 per cent of Syria’s pre-revolutionary population. Combine that with the number of Syrians who have been displaced – more than ten million (almost 50 per cent of the population) – and the sheer scale of the disaster becomes apparent.

The conflict has become the worst humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. Today it centres on Aleppo, in north-west Syria, one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world, and a cradle of human civilisation. Various conquerors from the Mongols to the French have fought battles there but none, so it would seem, has been quite as ruthless or committed to the city’s annihilation as Bashar al-Assad.

Aleppo remains the most significant urban centre to have been captured by the anti-Assad rebels, most of whom will (by now) be strongly influenced by an Islamist world-view. Indeed, the most prominent fighting groups on the rebel side are overwhelmingly Islamist in their troop composition and beliefs, a sad marker of Western failures to support secular forces that led the anti-regime resistance in the incipient phases of the uprising.

Yet Aleppo remains too important to fail. Although rebel forces succeeded in capturing only half of the city – the western side remained firmly in the control of the regime – the symbolism of anti-Assad forces holding ground in Syria’s second city (which also served as the country’s economic hub) has buoyed the rebel movement.

Assad is more brazen and bullish than at any other point since eastern Aleppo fell into rebel hands in July 2012. That optimism is born of a strategy that has already worked in other parts of the country where the regime’s troops have slowly encircled rebel-held areas and then sealed them off. Nothing can leave, and nothing can enter. Once the ground forces seal off an area, an aerial campaign of barrel bombs and missile attacks from both Syrian and Russian fighter jets inevitably follows.

To get a sense of just how terrible the aerial campaign has been, consider that the United States accused the Russian air force of potential war crimes when a UN aid convoy was bombed just west of Aleppo last month. It was carrying food and medicines when it was hit. Since then, the UK and France have said that Russia’s bombardment of Aleppo amounts to a war crime.

Putin’s support has come as a boon to Assad ever since Russia formally entered the conflict in September 2015. Despite his administration already using Iranian forces and aligned groups such as the Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah, rebels had continued to make significant gains throughout the early months of 2015. The most important of these was the capture of Idlib city, 40 miles from Aleppo, which presented Assad with two problems. The first was that it dented the official narrative of revanchist military successes by his forces. The ­second was that it handed the rebels power in a province adjoining Latakia Governorate in the west, where Syria’s Alawites are largely concentrated (Russia has an airbase in an area south-east of the city of Latakia). The Alawites are a heterodox Shia sect to which the Assad family belongs, and which forms the core of their support base.

Keen to reverse these gains – and others made elsewhere – Assad enlisted Putin, given Russia’s long-standing interests in, and ties to, Syria. The Kremlin has long regarded Syria as an important ally, and has served as the country’s main arms supplier for the past decade. There are important assets to preserve, too, such as the Russian naval base in the port city of Tartus on the Mediterranean, which was first established during the Soviet era.

For his part, Putin has felt emboldened by events. The world is changing – not just in the Middle East and North Africa, where the
contours of power continue to be recast, but also closer to home in Ukraine, where the pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych was overthrown in 2014.

The West is still haunted by the 2003 invasion of Iraq and has been reluctant to be drawn too deeply into the Syrian War. In 2013, the Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own people. This was a violation of President Barack Obama’s so-called red line against the use of chemical weapons, but no retaliatory action came and there was nothing to prevent the Kremlin from using force to shape events in Syria – as it had done in Ukraine.

All of this has marked a new phase of brutality in a conflict already noted for its barbarism. Civilians who avoid death from combined Russo-Syrian air assaults suffer under Assad’s strategy of “starve or submit”, in which supplies are withheld from besieged areas, slowly choking off those ­inside. It has been used to devastating effect against civilians in towns such as Madaya and in Daraya, on the outskirts of Damascus, both of which fell to government control after being sealed off from the outside world for several years. Such a strategy is not designed to deliver quick victories, however. Consider how the residents of Daraya defied Assad’s forces for four years before capitulating in August 2016.

Assad and his allies (Putin, Iran, Hezbollah) have decided to punish and brutalise, deliberately, civilian populations in rebel-held areas. To invert the famous aphorism attributed to Chairman Mao, they hope to dredge the sea in which the revolutionaries swim. And so, it is the 300,000 residents of eastern Aleppo who must suffer now.




It’s easy to lose track of precisely what is happening in the Syrian War as parcels of land swap hands between rebels and the regime. Assad’s forces first began encircling Aleppo at the start of July this year and succeeded in imposing a siege by the middle of that month, after cutting off the last of two rebel-controlled supply routes into the city. The first was the Castello Road, which leads from the town of Handarat into the north-western part of ­rebel-controlled territory. The second route, via the Ramouseh district (which led into the south-western end of the city), had already been sealed off.

The closure lasted for roughly four to five weeks before the rebels re-established access. Aleppo is too important for them, and the siege has forced various groups to work together in breaking it. The effort was led by Jaish al-Fateh (JaF, the “Army of Conquest”), an umbrella group and command structure for several of the most prominent jihadist and Islamist groups operating in northern Syria. JaF also co-ordinated the Idlib military campaigns. One of its key members is Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS, “the Syrian Conquest Front”), which was previously known as Jabhat al-Nusra (JaN or “the Supporters’ Front”) and was recognised as al-Qaeda’s official chapter in Syria.

Several months before the regime began its assault on Aleppo, rebel groups in the north recognised the deteriorating situation there, stemming principally from Russian air strikes. As a result, al-Qaeda urged the various factions to merge and work together to counteract not just Assad, but also Putin. Even the global leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, issued a speech last May titled “Go Forth to Syria”, in which he called on all fighting groups to unite in order to consolidate their control across the north. This opened the way at the end of July for Jabhat al-Nusra to declare that it was formally severing its links with al-Qaeda. It “rebranded” as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham.

There are two reasons for doing this. The first is to erode partisanship among the Islamist groups, forcing them to set aside differences and narrow their ambitions in favour of the greater goal – in this case, the breaking of the siege of Aleppo, while also deepening rebel control across the north. The second aim of rebranding is to win popular support by portraying themselves as fighting in the service of ordinary civilians.

Groups such as JFS and others are succeeding in both of these goals. Responding to the abandoned and assaulted residents of Aleppo, they have repeatedly demonstrated their commitment to alleviating the humanitarian crisis. Much of their messaging echoes this theme. The group’s English-language spokesman is Mostafa Mahamed, an Egyptian who previously lived in Australia. “[JFS] is deeply embedded in society, made up from the average Syrian people,” he explained on Twitter, after the group decoupled from al-Qaeda. “We will gladly lay down our lives before being forced into a situation that does not serve the people we are fighting for . . . jihad today is bigger than us, bigger than our differences.”

It is indisputable that this ethos of “fighting for the people” has endeared the group to civilians living in besieged areas – even when those civilians don’t necessarily agree with the full spectrum of its religious beliefs or political positions. That goodwill was only reinforced when the group helped break the siege of Aleppo (in which approximately 500 rebels were killed) in August, if only for a few days. Assad reasserted control within a week, and entrapped the residents again in the middle of that month. The rebels are now planning how to break the siege decisively, but have not yet launched a major counteroffensive.




A freelance American journalist and film-maker, Bilal Abdul Kareem, who has reported on rebel movements inside Syria more intimately than most, has found himself among those trapped inside eastern Aleppo since the siege was restored seven weeks ago. “We came here expecting a two- or three-day trip,” he told me during an interview over Skype.

Life inside is becoming insufferable for civilians, Abdul Kareem said; every building is potted and scarred by shrapnel damage. Those whose homes remain standing are the lucky ones. “Your day consists of nothing,” he said. “There’s no work, there’s no fuel, no industrial zone, no food to sell. ­People sit around and chit-chat, drink tea, and that’s all they do.”

Food supplies are already running low, with most people limiting themselves to basics of chickpeas and groats – crushed grains such as oats or wheat. Sealed off from the rest of the world, those inside preoccupy themselves with survival and wait for the next wave of attacks.

It is tempting to ask why the inhabitants of Aleppo did not flee when they had the chance. Indeed, the Assad regime routinely accuses the rebels of preventing civilians from leaving besieged areas, though there is no evidence to support this view. On 17 October Russia and the Syrian regime said they would halt their bombardment for eight hours on 20 October to allow rebels and civilians to evacuate the city.

In truth, what choice do the civilians have? Most do not trust Assad and they are therefore unwilling to move into regime-administered areas. The alternative is to become refugees, with all the uncertainties and trials associated with that. For instance, refugees have found themselves subject to sectarian violence in Lebanon, and they have few opportunities to find employment in Lebanon, Turkey or Jordan, the three countries where most of the fleeing Syrians have found shelter.

For them, merely to exist in rebel territory is an act of defiance, which is precisely why Assad’s forces make no effort to distinguish between combatants and civilians in rebel areas. To be present is a crime.

The effects of this have been devastating. A spokesman for the Syrian American Medical Society told Middle East Eye, an online news portal, that in July, Syrian and Russian jets had hit medical facilities in rebel-held territory every 17 hours.

Only a few hospitals and medical staff remain. The physical conditions are primitive and perilous. Doctors work in makeshift facilities – a former flat, a commercial garage – which makes them unable to provide anything beyond basic emergency care. In-patient facilities are non-existent, not just because of high demand from those newly injured in fresh attacks, but also from fear that the facility itself will be targeted. “People are literally shuffled out of the hospital with IV [intravenous drips] in their arms,” Abdul Kareem says.

The West’s indifference to all this – coupled with its occasional pious pronouncements and diplomatic dithering – has squandered any goodwill Washington might once have had among Syria’s beleaguered civilians. When Sergey Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, and John Kerry, the US secretary of state, agreed a ceasefire in September it lasted barely two days because they overlooked the fears of those trapped inside eastern Aleppo.

The deal had stated that no party would try to capture any new territory. That might seem reasonable enough but given that the ceasefire came into effect just days after Assad re-established the siege of Aleppo, those on the inside were being asked, in effect, to acquiesce to their own starvation.

Deprived of food and medication, no one trusted Assad to negotiate access in good faith, especially after he thwarted UN efforts to deliver aid. “People saw it as a conspiracy,” Abdul Kareem told me. Moreover, there were no significant groups inside eastern Aleppo that claimed to have accepted the terms of the ceasefire in the first place. Kerry had negotiated on their behalf without approval and without securing any humanitarian concessions.

“What planet are these people on?” Abdul Kareem asked. “[Do] they think people will turn on their protectors, for people who didn’t do them any good? They look to JFS and Ahrar [Ahrar al-Sham is one of the Islamist groups fighting in JAF]. Western intervention is pie in the sky.”

The rise of these reactionary rebels is a direct result of liberal elements not being strongly supported at any stage in the conflict. Left to fend for themselves, many have deserted their cause. Those who have persisted not only risk the constant threat of being killed by Russo-Syrian bombs, but are also at threat from jihadist elements operating in rebel areas. That much was clear when remnants of the secular opposition protested against the leader of JFS, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, in the southern Idlib town of Maarat al-Nouman earlier this year. Many of those who did were arrested by jihadists and intimidated into silence.

Whereas liberals are fragmented and frayed, the Islamist rebels continue to coalesce into an ever more coherent unit. The overwhelming might of Russian airpower has convinced them of the need to form a united front in order to pool their resources and co-ordinate their efforts. That is one of the reasons why a jihadist group called Jund al-Aqsa (“Soldiers of al-Aqsa”) announced early this month that it was disbanding and being absorbed into JFS.

Herein lies the real story of how Aleppo – and, indeed, Syria itself – has been delivered to the jihadists. A conspiracy of all the external parties has forged a menacing millenarian movement that is embedded in civil society and communities across the north. Whether Aleppo falls or not, the jihadists will endure.

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a member of the war studies department at King’s College London

Shiraz Maher is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and a senior research fellow at King’s College London’s International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood