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At around 7 p.m. local time in Afghanistan last night, the United States military used a GBU-43 weapon in Afghanistan.
DAVE SEGLINS: The announcement yesterday that the US had dropped the mother of all bombs on an eastern Afghanistan province came as a surprise to everyone, including it seems President Trump himself. He wouldn't say whether he had authorized the military action against ISIS. Well, this massive explosion involved one of the most powerful conventional weapons in the US arsenal. In a moment, we'll look into its explosive impact—physical and political. And then this attack on ISIS comes just days after an attack by ISIS. Palm Sunday was a bloody one as deadly explosions rocked two churches in Egypt.
[Through translator] I was sitting in the front and suddenly everything went dark. I passed out and someone pushed me off my seat. A few seconds later, I got up and saw bodies all around me.
DS: ISIS has once again targeted Egypt's Coptic Christians who have long felt persecuted and unsafe for their own country. In half an hour I'll talk to a doctor in Cairo about his refusal to give into fear ahead of Easter celebrations. I'm Dave Seglins. This is the Friday edition of The Current.Back To Top »
Analysts question U.S. strategy over massive bomb strike in Afghanistan
Guests: Paul Rogers, Eric Schmitt, Christina Lamb
VOICE 1: We are so proud of our military and it was another successful event.
VOICE 2: Did you authorize it, sir?
VOICE 1: Everybody knows exactly what happened and what I do is I authorize my military. We have the greatest military in the world and they've done a job as usual. So we have given them total authorization and that's what they’re doing. And frankly that's why they've been so successful lately. If you look at what's happened over the last eight weeks and compare that to really what’s happened over the last eight years, you'll see there's a tremendous difference.
DS: US President Donald Trump pulled the monster blast that rocked the eastern province of Nangarhar in Afghanistan yesterday. The US administration says the intended target was ISIS and its network of tunnels and caves. Now this bomb is officially known as the GBU-43—Massive Ordnance Air Blast. You may have heard it referred to as its acronym MOAB, or the Mother Of All Bombs. It's one of the most powerful conventional weapons there is, with a blast power of more than 11 tons of explosives. US officials said they took every precaution to avoid civilian casualties, but they didn't elaborate on those steps and they didn't provide information on the impact on local civilians. One Afghan local who spoke to The Guardian newspaper said, “I have grown up in the war. I have heard different kinds of explosions through 30 years, suicide attacks, earthquakes, different kinds of blasts. I have never heard anything like this.” Paul Rogers knows a lot about the MOAB and its capabilities. He is professor of peace studies at the University of Bradford and we reached him in Kirkburton, England. Hello.
PAUL ROGERS: Hello there. Good morning.
DS: Good morning. Give us an idea of what kind of damage a bomb like this can do.
PAUL ROGERS: Well, it produces a blast overpressure getting on for 1,000 pounds a square inch in the immediate area of the explosion. It has a radius of very severe effects of probably about 300 yards. Well, in fact, nearly 300 metres. It is pretty devastating. It is not an earthquake bomb. It is not designed to penetrate into rock or concrete bunkers. As the name implies, it’s an air burst or air blast weapon so actually explodes above ground level. But the effect of the explosives—more than eight tons of actual explosive within the casing—is very considerable and it will hugely damage fairly shallow tunnels, shallow bunkers and of course anybody caught out in the open is just absolutely killed. You do not survive against a weapon like this. It's not the most powerful bomb in the world. The Americans also have what is known as the massive earth penetrator and essentially that is a device which is a true earthquake bomb—weighs a lot more than the GBU-43 but has a rather smaller charge because it's all about an extremely heavy object which will penetrate very deeply through rock and everything. That has not been used yet in combat. Given the attitude of the Trump administration, I wouldn't be at all surprised if that was used as well in the near future.
DS: Now this bomb has been called America's biggest non-nuclear bomb. Is that a good description for the weapon?
PAUL ROGERS: It’s correct. Yes. I mean some fuel air explosives are very devastating. If you produce a device which disputes lots of sub munitions like the Multiple Launch Rocket System, then that can basically destroy an area over the best part of 20 hectares—well over 40 acres—by delivering lots of smaller devices. But just a single weapon, that's a correct description. Of course if it has this kind of explosive force, say about 10 kilotons, that still means it's less than a thousandth of the size of the bombs that killed Hiroshima, Nagasaki. So that does give you some sense of perspective but that does not deny that it is a very potent weapon.
DS: Now a lot has been made and the US military has indicated that part of the reason it was used was to penetrate tunnels and underground bunkers. You're saying that this isn't the one that's designed to go deep into the earth. So why do you think it was used in Afghanistan?
PAUL ROGERS: I think probably two reasons. One from a military point of view, there were probably sufficient shallow tunnels and bunkers for it to have an effect but it was mainly political. I mean this is basically symbolic. This is basically to show the ISIS faction in Afghanistan what the Trump administration can do. It’s very much a part and parcel of the attitude of the administration as a whole. We heard that clip that you just gave, that essentially Trump has given the military more or less carte blanche to go their own way and it's probable he didn't even know this was going to happen. Now that has been developing over the last four or five weeks. Things have already gone wrong. There was the special forces raid in Yemen which went badly wrong. Only two days ago, an American air attack in Syria actually killed 18 friendly rebels against the Assad regime when the belief was it was targeted against ISIS. And we're seeing the far wider use of airpower and indeed artillery power in this very drawn out process of trying to take control of western Mosul. An independent report suggests that civilian casualties are mounting very rapidly, even though in due course ISIS will probably be defeated in that city.
DS: Let's just go back to the bomb though for a minute.
PAUL ROGERS: Sure.
DS: I mean what was its original purpose?
PAUL ROGERS: Its original purpose, well, basically it's a very large area impact munition. It's a standard term. For example, if you had a barracks and this would probably destroy a complete barracks in one go. If you had people scattered out in the open with fairly low protection, then this would really kill them in very large numbers. It is also though intended from the start to create fear, to be symbolic and you have that very strong statement by the young Afghan who said it was more powerful than anything you'd ever heard. It's designed to have this kind of impact. The other side of the coin of course is that a group like ISIS will immediately recognize what it's up against. The United States has a number of these bombs in his arsenal. So they will disperse. They will not have any kind of bunker or tunnel complex in one location in future. But that may take some time to do that and meanwhile they will be in some difficulty.
DS: And this has never been used in combat before, we're hearing.
PAUL ROGERS: This hasn't. No. There have been smaller ones which were ready in the US arsenal which were used pretty widely back in 2003 at the time of the Iraq War and indeed in Afghanistan the previous year. And that really descended from a huge bomb, a 10 ton bomb—the BLU-82B—known as The Big Blue which was actually developed 40 years ago for use in Vietnam. One of its extraordinary uses was basically to clear an area of rainforest with a single blast to act as a helicopter landing pad. It was also used against people on the ground as well. So this whole area has a long history. You could go back even further to the Grand Slam bomb that the British developed in 1944 to targets the Nazi U-boat pens, the heavily protected pens in France. And that was of a similar size, but the great majority of the weight in that was actually the metal to get the charge through into the pens.
DS: Now as much as this bomb, it was targeting ISIS for strategic interest in Afghanistan, there’s has been a lot of discussion and analysis that this strike is also sending a message to North Korea over the nuclear dispute. What do you think?
PAUL ROGERS: It's possible, but the North Koreans have been wise to the American developments over many years and in fact for the best part of 20 years or so, there's been what some analysts called the Dick Bomb Race. In other words, one side builds bigger and bigger, deeper penetrating bombs. The other side goes even deeper into the ground or into the mountainside. And I think essentially that is probably the way the North Koreans see it. But of course, if the worst came to the worst, then there was any kind of open conflict between the United States and North Korea, then this kind of weapon would certainly be used. The long-term effect, that's a very different matter. I mean we're now into the 16th year of the war on terror. And Mr. Trump has come in saying that you know he's going to end things. Well, good luck to him, but his predecessors certainly haven't. We seem to be no nearer. And in fact if anything, the state of the perception of insecurity certainly in Western Europe is probably higher than it was 15 years ago.
DS: Professor Rogers, we're going to leave it there. Thank you.
PAUL ROGERS: Thank you.
DS: That's Paul Rogers. He is a professor of peace studies at the University of Bradford in England. Now to discuss the ramifications of yesterday's bombing in Afghanistan, we're joined now by two journalists who know the region well. Christina Lamb is the chief foreign correspondent for the Sunday Times. She's also the author of Farewell Kabul: From Afghanistan to a More Dangerous World. She was in Nangarhar Province, Afghanistan a week ago and she joins us today from London, England. And Eric Schmitt is a national security correspondent for the New York Times. He's co-author of Counterstrike: The Untold Story of America's Secret Campaign Against Al Qaeda and he's in Fairfax, Virginia. Hello to you both.
ERIC SCHMITT: Thank you.
CHRISTINA LAMB: Hello.
DS: Christina, let's start with you. You're just back from the area that was bombed. What can you tell us about Nangarhar?
CHRISTINA LAMB: Well, Nangarhar is a province which borders Pakistan which of course is where most of the fighters have come over from. This area is very near the mountains where Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda fighters hid, the Tora Bora mountains in 2001. So that is nearby. It’s a largely rural area with high mountains and wooded forests.
DS: And what sort of presence did ISIS have there?
CHRISTINA LAMB: So ISIS moved into that area about two years ago and took a number of villages, kind of really making use of the fact that there was a land dispute between some of the tribes that are mainly Shinwari people. They kind of moved in and said that they were creating a southern caliphate. They never really expanded very much. They moved into Kunar state next door. But over the last year, they've lost a lot of territory. And in fact, I interviewed the US Commander John Nicholson when I was there a couple of weeks ago and he said that they've killed their top 12 leaders and reduce their territory by two-thirds in recent months.
DS: I'm just trying to imagine how many ISIS members are we talking? Hundreds? Thousands?
CHRISTINA LAMB: Yeah. Well, his estimate was 700. So this is not a huge number of people and it's also quite different, I think, to ISIS in Iraq and Syria. I mean they’re mostly tribal people in Pakistan and also some Uzbeks, and a few disgruntled Taliban who see ISIS as this big new brand in global terrorism. But you know the real threat in Afghanistan continues to be the Taliban who are widespread throughout the country. However, some of the recent attacks in Kabul, including a really horrific attack recently on a military hospital where patients were killed, shot, had their throats slit as they went floor to floor, that was claimed by ISIS.
DS: Eric Schmitt, why would the United States use such a powerful bomb against this ISIS base?
ERIC SCHMITT: Well, I think there are several reasons, Dave. One is that this is a very—as Christine has just described—this is a very remote area. So you could have sent ground forces in there but you're going to end up fighting it out in caves and mountains and you could suffer casualties. You could use other conventional bombs and certainly the United States and its allies have been carrying out airstrikes against ISIS and the Taliban for many years here. I think what you have here though, picking up on something your first guest talked about, was they identified a certain area of caves and tunnels. They were looking for the weapon that would best address that, go after the threat there. But it would also send a very powerful psychological message to the remaining members of not just ISIS, but some of these other insurgent groups that have gained ground and gained momentum in the last several months in Afghanistan against the government there and their US allies. So I think you know General Nicholson was quoted as saying he picked this weapon, it was thought the best weapon. And that may be true tactically speaking, but I think there was very much of a psychological impact to try and demonstrate to all the militant groups in the area that this is the kind of capability that the US can bring to bear if it wants.
DS: I hear you on the symbolism of it, but reports are saying that 36 ISIS militants were killed by this huge bomb, which by many reports $315 million per bomb. I mean what do you make of that? Is that proportionate? Why such a big bomb?
ERIC SCHMITT: I'm kind of surprised again at the low numbers so far. Well again, these are the initial reports. A spokesman for the Afghan ministry of defence gave today in doing that and it may also get at the network. Maybe one of these things where they saw a lot of tunneling going on and they’ve been using these tunnels to produce IEDs and other bombs that are smuggled out of that area and used in attacks against Kabul and other cities. So it may not just be the number of militants themselves that’s important—the number of those who were killed—but the capability, the things they were doing in those tunnels and caves that the American command was trying to eliminate.
CHRISTINA LAMB: Also the training camp was thought to be there and also it was being used as ammunition dump. [unintelligible] When they describe the tunnel complex that people are imagining some very sophisticated kind of place. Afghanistan is very rural. [unintelligible] Described as being something almost like a James Bond kind of setup. Actually it was a few caves and tunnels, so it does seem a bit odd to me something as this size and that expense to do this.
DS: But Christina, the US military's referring to this group as ISIS-K. This is the section there on the ground in Afghanistan. What do you know about what they were actually up to?
CHRISTINA LAMB: ISIS-K stands for Khorasan which is a historic name for that area of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan, parts of Central Asia. They were trying to create what they call the southern caliphate. Now when I spoke to General Nicholson a couple weeks ago, he said his priority was at the moment to defeat ISIS because their concern is that as ISIS is squeezed out of Mosul and Raqqa, they might then choose Afghanistan as their new base.
DS: So how high a priority is ISIS in Afghanistan, given that the Taliban is largely a much larger figure in that country?
CHRISTINA LAMB: Honestly, for the government of Afghanistan, I would say it's not a major priority. I think they realize that the label “ISIS” brings a lot more international attention than Taliban. So if they talk about attacks being carried out by ISIS, they're more likely to get help from outside. But when you speak to them individually, it’s the Taliban that are in most of the 34 provinces. They' are setting up shadow governments and shadow legal systems in various parts of the country and it has taken much in Helmand province, has at various times twice now taken Kunduz which is the fifth-biggest city. They've lost it again quickly, but they’ve shown that they can take a city if they want to. So that is the real security threat to most people in Afghanistan and I think although they claimed this horrific attack on a military hospital, a lot of people doubt that they were really able to do that because that was clearly an inside job and something long in the planning and a lot of the slogans that were being shouted by the fighters that were caught on CCTV were Taliban slogans.
DS: Eric Schmitt, how does this strike change the United States battle against ISIS?
ERIC SCHMITT: Well again, I would agree with Christina that the assessment is that the ISIS branch in Afghanistan is one of the smaller ones. It certainly is nothing compared to what the US and its allies are fighting in Iraq and Syria or even the concern they have for ISIS elements that are in Libya for instance or even in West Africa. But it is interesting because I think it’s part and parcel of what General Nicholson is going to be asking President Trump for. He's been asking for additional troops not just to fight ISIS in Afghanistan but some of the other insurgent groups. And the president's National Security Adviser General HR McMaster is going to be visiting Afghanistan to kind of look at this assessment there. So I think you have to look at this strike perhaps as a kind of Nicholson trying to get a little bit of attention for his larger aims and the larger threat frankly, that other insurgent groups besides ISIS that are stronger than ISIS have deeper popular popularity in Afghanistan, pose to the government in Kabul.
DS: Christina, what do you think the fallout of this strike will be in Afghanistan?
CHRISTINA LAMB: Well, it certainly sends a powerful message that you can’t mess with them. But you know some Afghans have been very disturbed by it, saying if dropping big bombs on Afghanistan was the answer, then all of this war would have ended long ago. And the real issue in Afghanistan is that people are fed up with corruption as the government, they’re not getting legal cases sorted out, that there’s no employment. When you go into villages, there’s all these young men sitting around with nothing to do. And of course, then they’re ripe for joining the Taliban or ISIS. And ISIS has been paying people to join. That's the one link that there seems to be with a sort of central ISIS in Iraq and Syria—money has been apparently coming from there to pay for recruitment in Afghanistan.
DS: Eric, we're now a few years out from the formal end of the war in Afghanistan. Is the US being drawn back in?
ERIC SCHMITT: Well, I think only in the sense that I think what you're seeing is that the US isn't going to be withdrawing anytime soon. I think that was the lesson, one of the big lessons that even President Obama and his team realized at the end of their administration, that withdrawing forces from Iraq in 2011 for instance was probably a mistake. And so the plans that the US had under President Obama to withdraw to a very small number of US forces were paused and then they were rolled back. And now we're even seeing a very strong likelihood that in this administration, General Nicholson is probably going to get some more troops. So I think we're not going to see tens of thousands of US troops going back into Afghanistan. But there is a sense to me, particularly with the team in place now—remember who we're talking about. With General Jim Mattis, HR McMaster, these guys have experience in Afghanistan and in that region and they're now taking a harder second look at it in what it takes to basically help support the government to continue the training, and most importantly keep some element of a counterterrorism force on the ground, a capability there that ensures both that the military and the CIA frankly can continue to operate both in Afghanistan and across the border in Pakistan.
DS: Now we only have about a minute left. Christina, do you have any insights into the timing of this bombing? Why now?
CHRISTINA LAMB: No, I don’t. I assume that perhaps they had some intelligence that there was a particular gathering or something like that in the area and that's why they dropped such a big bomb now. But they haven't been saying that since and the numbers were fairly small. So I think that either it does appear to have been, as Professor Rogers said, more of a psychological impact. Yeah. We'll wait and see what happens next. General Nicholson has asked for more troops and is expected to get it. So we will see perhaps they’re stepping up a bit. But I find it quite hard to understand what a few thousand more troops will really do to make a difference.
DS: Eric, in a word, any thoughts on why now?
ERIC SCHIMITT: I think again, it all comes at a time when the president is kind of rethinking some of his administration's commitments to various conflicts. We saw a 180-degree turn on Syria just last week. We've seen changes in policies in both Yemen and Somalia that give the commanders more authority, lifts some of the protections against civilian casualties there. So I think this is kind of part and parcel of again, kind of loosening the reins a little bit for the commanders in the field to do what they believe is necessary to go after the militant targets that they’re pursuing.
DS: Okay. We're going to have to leave it there. Thank you both.
ERIC SCHMITT: Thank you.
CHRISTINA LAMB: Thank you.
DS: That’s Christina Lamb, chief foreign correspondent for the Sunday Times. She was in London, England. And Eric Schmitt is a national security correspondent for the New York Times and he was in Fairfax, Virginia.
DS: I'm Dave Seglins. You're listening to The Current on CBC Radio One.Back To Top »
Coptic Christian says recent ISIS attacks won't deter Easter celebrations
Guests: Dr. Ehab Wagdi, Rukmini Callimachi
DS: Hello. I'm Dave Seglins and you're listening to the Good Friday edition of The Current.
[Sound: Singing hymns]
[Sound: Explosion, screaming]
DS: Last Sunday—Palm Sunday in the Christian calendar—worshippers gathered at the Mar Girgis Coptic Church in Tanta, Egypt to pray and sing hymns. The singing turned to screams of horror when a bomb exploded and then a second explosion struck St. Mark's Coptic Church in the port city of Alexandria that day. The bombs that ripped through the two churches killed at least 47 members of that country's largest religious minority. Over 100 people were injured. ISIS has claimed responsibility and has vowed more attacks. The carnage is one of the latest reminders of the danger faced by Egypt's Copts. Dr. Ehab Wagdi is a Coptic Christian living in Cairo and that's where we reached him. Hello.
EHAB WAGDI: Hello.
DS: How shocked were you by these bombings at two of your churches when you first heard last Sunday?
EHAB WAGDI: You would be surprised that we are expecting this and we’re expecting more and more coming. That's the history and that's the situation nowadays happening in Egypt. We've been used to this since a long time ago.
DS: What do you mean you were expecting it?
EHAB WAGDI: If you remember a few months ago, they did the same thing at our main cathedral in Cairo. Early in 2012 when President el-Sisi came over and they started to catch all the Muslim brotherhoods. They are targeting four categories of the Egyptian community. First is the military. Second is the police. Third is the judges and fourth of course is the Coptic Orthodox because they were one of the main supporters for that moment when el-Sisi came over. So that's their wording and they said that we are going to kill you. We're going to put fires. We’re going to target you. That's the easiest target for them nowadays, is the Egyptian churches and Egyptian peoples. The timing is the best time, which was the celebration of Easter. So that's the best timing.
DS: As a Coptic Christian in Egypt, how vulnerable do you feel right now?
EHAB WAGDI: I'm just sad of what happened of course. I believe, today I was in the church and I found the churches were very crowded and people were praying and people were celebrating. Of course there's a lot of sadness, but people went to the churches and all the ceremonies as it goes every time. Of course there is more restriction, police restrictions and so many investigations to go into the church. But once you are in there, everything is fine.
DS: So you think this is actually generating more support for the church.
EHAB WAGDI: Of course, for the church and for the country.
DS: Now ISIS is claiming responsibility for these attacks. What do you make of that? What do you make of that?
EHAB WAGDI: That is a small question we need to answer before that. Who are ISIS? ISIS is part of a bigger community called the Muslim Brotherhoods. Muslim Brotherhoods, those are the people who are behind all what's happening.
DS: So you believe that they're closely aligned.
EHAB WAGDI: They are the military.
DS: And how much faith do you have in your president, Mr. el-Sisi at the moment, to protect Coptic Christians?
EHAB WAGDI: I think they are doing more than they can do. But you know that Egypt is a third nation country. Security is not as it should be. But nowadays there is more security cameras.
DS: Do you feel the government is doing enough?
EHAB WAGDI: For the time being, yes. Yes. As I told you before, it's not only the Christians. The police themselves, they are targeted. The military itself is targeted. So what else can you do? I think they are doing what they can do.
DS: The president has declared a state of emergency. What does that mean?
EHAB WAGDI: Of course, yes.
DS: What does that mean in practical terms for life in Egypt for you?
EHAB WAGDI: For my life? For my daily life?
EHAB WAGDI: I'm more happier. I'm more happier. If you remember during Mubarak's time, 30 years, we've been for this security measure for 30 years and no one has been affected.
DS: But we're hearing reports of arrests. We're hearing reports of unwarranted searches of people's homes. Does that cause you any concern?
EHAB WAGDI: This is not true. This is not true. There is a lot of people who are supporting Muslim Brotherhood and those people who are paying for those people to go and kill us. But they are not affecting anyone who is—if I'm going to say tomorrow that I'm not happy with this is, no one would come and arrest. No one would say anything. These measures has been taken only for those people, for the security and just remember that France has taken this measures after their attacks and the attacks during France was not as huge as what was happening here in Egypt. So I believe that every country can take their measures to protect their people.
DS: Except that we've just had two bombings.
EHAB WAGDI: This was not the first and it will not be the last. This is my belief.
DS: Do you think the measures under the state of emergency are going to work?
EHAB WAGDI: For some time, yes. For the time being, yes. We've been asking for this for a long time, since three four years ago. But the government was not happy to do that because of the economic status of the country. But we have to take this measures. I'm happy with these measures.
DS: Let me ask you this—Pope Francis is expected to visit Cairo at the end of this month at the invitation of the Coptic pope. What do you hope will come from this visit?
EHAB WAGDI: I hope that people realize that we are living here very, very good. The world has got its role to prevent Egypt from going down economically and to support what's going on, from the infrastructure going into the country, from the measures that's taken to regain our main source of income which was the tourism. The poverty is one of our problems here in Egypt. If you raise the poverty level of the people here, you won't find someone happy to go and kill himself. As well, if you really want this to stop, you have to search for the main supporter and for the main payers for this.
DS: This is Easter weekend. You said you are celebrating and observing what is the holiest holiday in the Christian calendar.
EHAB WAGDI: Yes. Yes.
DS: Do you feel safe going to church this weekend?
EHAB WAGDI: Actually I'm on my way now to church. It is very safe. I'll be very, very, very happy for all people to go to church. Nothing—nothing will stop the Coptic Orthodox people from going to church. Nothing.
DS: Dr. Wagdi, I want to wish you a safe and a Happy Easter.
EHAB WAGDI: Thank you, sir.
DS: That’s Dr. Ehab Wagdi, a Coptic Christian living in Cairo. Now the 47 people who died in the bombings in Alexandria and Tanta on Sunday prompted President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi to declare a three-month state of emergency. Reports have emerged of police killing seven suspected ISIS militants planning more attacks on Christians. ISIS’ growing interest in Egypt is something that Rukmini Callimachi has been tracking. She's a foreign correspondent for the New York Times and we've reached her in Mosul, Iraq. Hello.
RUKMINI CALLIMACHI: Hi, Dave.
DS: How surprised were you by these attacks on Coptic Christians in Egypt?
RUKMINI CALLIMACHI: Not surprised at all. This is an ongoing tactic. I believe it's at least the third attack on Coptic Christians specifically and of course the group has been targeting Christians all over the Middle East as well as in Europe. If you'll recall, the Berlin truck rampage was an attack that targeted a Christmas market.
DS: Why have Coptic Christians become a target for ISIS?
RUKMINI CALLIMACHI: The Islamic State has made very clear that in their view, the only people that are worth of being allowed to live are Sunni Muslims. So to them, every other religion, every other faith consists of unbelievers, of infidels.
DS: What is ISIS’ goal in Egypt?
RUKMINI CALLIMACHI: One theory regarding Egypt is that ISIS is trying to import the same sort of sectarian tactics that they have employed in Iraq against the Shia. And those attacks which consisted of attacking Shia places of worship, Shia politicians, Shia figures, led to really this evolution of that country into sectarian warfare that created the power vacuum that allowed ISIS to take rise. So the Coptic Christians are an important minority in Egypt. I believe that the Christians in Egypt are the largest Christian population in the Middle East. And so I believe that by targeting them, they are trying to fuel the same sort of sectarian tensions as they have elsewhere.
DS: Now the sectarian tensions, we just heard from Coptic Christian in Cairo who views the ISIS attackers as part of the Muslim Brotherhood. What do you make of that?
RUKMINI CALLIMACHI: I'm not sure what to make of that. The Islamic State considers the Muslim Brotherhood to be a group of apostates. They have said that and they believe that because the Muslim Brotherhood has taken part in elections which means that they've taken part in the democratic process which means that in ISIS' view, they have put man’s laws above God's law. That doesn't make sense to me. That would not follow.
DS: But it's clearly in the minds of at least one Coptic Christian. It's certainly sowing the discontent and the divisions between Muslims and Christians.
RUKMINI CALLIMACHI: Right. Right. And I think that's the point. ISIS has put out numerous articles and has frequently referred to the phrase “the gray zone”. They want to eliminate the gray zone in the world and the gray zone is basically that zone where moderate Muslims co-exist with other religions. To them, they want to see the world turned into a black and white panorama where on the one hand, you have ISIS and on the other hand, you have everybody else.
DS: Now ISIS has seen some of their geographic strongholds. We can think about Iraq, Libya, Syria. They've lost ground or they've been under siege in those areas. Do you think they're looking to put physical roots down in Egypt?
RUKMINI CALLIMACHI: I mean this is a group that has declared its intention to create basically a global caliphate. So just next door to Egypt, you have Libya which was the seat of ISIS’ largest presence outside of Iraq and Syria. And so it follows that of course they would like to hold territory in Egypt. I don't believe that the security situation is such that they would be able to succeed in doing that. But certainly holding territory is a larger aim.
DS: How do you think President el-Sisi has handled the jihadi threat in Egypt so far?
RUKMINI CALLIMACHI: At some level, this is a threat that is hard for any leader to handle. I mean we've seen how the Obama administration and now how the Trump administration is struggling to contain this threat. This is a group that [unintelligible] ideology that has inspired tens of thousands of people, possibly hundreds of thousands to join their cause. One approach to dealing with them is force, that by the way is what we're seeing in Afghanistan with the dropping of these very powerful munitions. But unfortunately this is a group that cannot be killed just with bullets. That’s because they’re fighting an idea, and it's unclear to me how you kill an idea with bullets.
DS: So where do you think Egypt fits into ISIS' overall strategy?
RUKMINI CALLIMACHI: Egypt is an important territory for them. It's the seat of the Sinai affiliate of the Islamic State which has shown itself to be one of the stronger affiliates. One of ISIS' biggest attacks, most catastrophic attacks, was the downing of the Metrojet flight in the fall of 2015, really around the same time as the Paris attacks. That was a flight that left the Sharm El Sheikh resort on Egypt and was headed back to Russia. And according to the information we now have, ISIS was able to get an explosive aboard that flight. It exploded over the Sinai desert, killing over 200 people. So that was the Sinai affiliate of ISIS—the same affiliate that has now carried out these twin bombings on Palm Sunday. I think that that just shows that this is an affiliate that is worth taking seriously.
DS: Let me ask you now about the US action in Afghanistan. This 21,000-pound bomb dropped in Nangarhar province—why do you think that region has been targeted?
RUKMINI CALLIMACHI: I think it's too early to know. We’ve seen very little communication about the reasons for this particular use of this munition. But I do believe that this might be the area where a US serviceman was recently killed by an Islamic state faction. So my first thought was whether or not this is perhaps in retaliation to that.
DS: Now there has been release from the US military saying that there is a series of tunnels in the area that they were looking to clear and destroy. Is this area known as an ISIS stronghold?
RUKMINI CALLIMACHI: Afghanistan is one of the few theatres in the world where we have had competing claims of responsibility after a terrorist attack. We've had ISIS claim attacks and the Taliban simultaneously claim the same attack. So this is an area of the world where the battle lines are blurry and not as clear as elsewhere.
DS: Had you heard any rumblings or intelligence community chatter? Any warnings in advance that this bombing was going to happen?
RUKMINI CALLIMACHI: Not at all. But what I can say is that really within minutes of this attack, Islamic State channels on Telegram which is encrypted to communicate with each other were on fire. Let me just quote one. This is from [unintelligible]. This is a well-known ISIS account on Telegram. He posted a link to a story about the dropping of the bomb and said: “When the Americans and their dogs get slaughtered, they use this method.” And then it showed a picture of an enormous GBU-43, the bomb, being carried on the back of an open bed truck.
DS: What do you make of that? What is the message? What is the concern going on within ISIS right now?
RUKMINI CALLIMACHI: Airstrikes are one of the things that this group appears the most. This is the main advantage that the coalition has in fighting ISIS. And in every single attack that we have seen in the West, in the claims of responsibility that ISIS has put out in the wake of those attacks, the reason that they fight for an attack on Berlin, on Paris, on Brussels, on Orlando, et cetera, is in retaliation for the airstrikes by what they called the Crusader coalition. What's interesting to me is we’ve had now three different attacks in Europe—St. Petersburg, Stockholm and now most recently in Dortmund, Germany on a bus that was carrying a German soccer team. All three of those attacks, we have officials saying that they believe that ISIS was involved and ISIS has not claimed them. So these same channels that you would expect would be claiming responsibility for those attacks have been silent on those attacks. And instead within minutes of the news coming out of the dropping of this munition, we see them discussing this.
DS: So then what do you think the fallout—forgive the word—but what is the result of this attack? What is that going to yield in terms of ISIS response?
RUKMINI CALLIMACHI: I'm not sure that is going to be a specific response to that particular gesture since we’re already seeing—basically you know not a week goes by without an ISIS attack somewhere in the world. Whether it's against Coptic Christians on Palm Sunday or whether it's a truck rampage in Stockholm or a suicide attack in St. Petersburg, not a week goes by without what we believe is an ISIS attack somewhere in the world. Are they able to ramp it up even more? I don't know.
DS: Do you think this kind of bombing activity will deter ISIS?
RUKMINI CALLIMACHI: Well, that's the argument of whether force can extinguish this terrorist group. This is going to be an interesting experiment to see whether this type of muscular force has an impact or not. What we've seen in the past is that force will take you to a certain point, but it won't take you all the way. When American forces withdrew from Iraq, Al Qaeda in Iraq was described as decimated, as on the rope, as degraded, and yet saw where that led. That small nucleus of fighters who was still alive and kicking, came back stronger than ever before, to the point that they were able to take the city of Mosul which was a city of nearly two million people—the second largest in Iraq. And so that's the thing that we're struggling with here. I don't think that anybody has figured out how you kill an idea.
DS: Rukmini, we’ll leave it there. Thank you very much for joining us.
RUKMINI CALLIMACHI: Thank you.
DS: Rukmini Callimachi is a foreign correspondent for the New York Times and we reached her in Mosul, Iraq.Back To Top »
How a brain tumour changed Madeleine Hardin's life for the better
Guests: Madeleine Hardin
[Music: The Disruptors theme]
DS: All this season on The Current, as part of our project, The Disruptors, we've been sharing some of your own personal moments of disruption. These are your stories about the moments that forever changed your lives. Madeleine Hardin is one listener who got in touch about her moment of disruption. Here it is.
When the brain tumour was discovered, I was 58 years old. I'm now 61 and I can honestly say that my life has never been better than it is now. I was very ambitious. I was an associate dean at my university. I was hoping to even become a vice president. It was a crazy busy time. My eye doctor in a routine checkup discovered I was blind in the upper left quadrant of both eyes. And so he sent me for a brain scan, a CT scan. And then the doctor came out and got kind of serious and injected a dye, a contrast dye into me. I was joking with my husband and I said oh well, maybe I have a brain tumour. And the doctor looked at me and she said, “You do, and it's as big as a baseball.” And she said, “But we don't think it’s cancerous. But we don't know for sure.” Well, that’s what I call a holy crow moment. I mean it’s scary and unexpected.
I was asymptomatic. I never even had a headache. When it first happens, you just walk around in disbelief for a little while. You know for sure that life will never be the same again. You just don't know in what way it won't be the same again. I mean you're just sort of stunned. I was immediately put into emergency admittance and then transported by ambulance to another hospital where I stayed until my brain surgery eight days later. And so you have eight days to kind of wrap up your affairs, make sure everything's in order. Luckily I had a will and all of that already. And you're told that one of the greater side effects of the surgery could be death. You're on this trajectory and all you can do is walk it. And you know I had a saying at that time and it was “when you're in hell, just keep on walking.” So I just kept on walking and doing what had to be done every day until the surgery. It's quite possible the steroids I was on were somewhat hallucinogenic because I saw everyone as a Buddhist monk around me. [laughs]
I felt like I was loved and cared for. But during the surgery itself, I had what I call a near-death experience or anyway some sort of transcendent experience, where I was a point of light floating in a place as big as a mountain or a world, I don’t know. I felt like I was in the Sea of Love. That's how I describe it. And I heard the most transcendent and beautiful music. And I woke up and I told everyone all about it. It was so beautiful in fact, I told my neurosurgeon about it a few months later and I said, “I heard the most beautiful music while I was being operated on. I'm sure it was divine.” And he kind of nodded and he said, “Yeah, well, you know Madeleine, I always play Steven Halpern’s soul music when I'm operating.” And I laughed a lot because I had told everyone they had that to look forward to when they passed over. But instead, you just have to go out and buy the CD.
I lost my sense of direction. It's like losing your sense of smell or something. It was something I’d always just depended on. I had lost my ability to multitask. I used to tell my doctor that I really had to get better quickly because I had to finish my dissertation. [laughs] And he looked at me and he said, “Madeleine, you've accomplished enough in your life. You don't need that.” And it took a while for me to agree with him, for me to realize that I didn't have to work anymore. I didn't have to accomplish what I thought I had to accomplish, that it wasn't about building up my CV or my career anymore. At first after my surgery, I had to learn to walk and talk again. Your brain takes 25 per cent of your body's energy and unless you've had a brain injury, you don't know how exhausting that is. It took me about two years to settle down and realize that I really was, I feel like, retired and that my life was different.
When I got the diagnosis, it’s funny—it’s a laser point of figuring out your priorities. The most important thing becomes love of family really and love of friends and love of God, I guess. Those three things and nothing else matters. Just nothing. And so you realize that the rest of the things that you kept busy with were really just a distraction sometimes from those three priorities.
DS: That was Madeleine Hardin and fortunately her brain tumour was benign. That story produced by The Current’s Karin Marley. If you have a personal moment of disruption that you'd like to share—an event that transformed your life—well, you can contact us on our website, www.cbc.ca/thecurrent. Well, that's our program for today. Stay tuned for Radio One for q. You probably know actor Anna Chlumsky from her role as Washington insider Amy Brookheimer on the HBO hit, Veep. Well, with the goings on inside the real White House inspiring peak public interest right now, there is a new season of Veep coming. Next on q, she'll talk about that and her long career. Remember you can always take The Current with you wherever you are using the CBC Radio app. It allows you to browse our past episodes and start listening in just a few clicks and you can also choose to hear the day's top stories. You can make your own playlist. Listen on your smartphone or tablet. It is free at the App Store or Google Play. We were speaking earlier about the latest violence and tensions in Egypt, so we're going to end off today with a classic homage to Egypt and its many people unified and proud of their country. This is Dalida, performing Helwa Ya Baladi, which means "my country, you're beautiful". I’m Dave Seglins. Thanks for listening to the Friday edition of The Current.
[Music: “Helwa Ya Baladi” – Dalida]
CBC would like to acknowledge the support of the Broadcasting Accessibility Fund.