It's the story that launched 1,000 headlines. And it's not hard to see why: Tunisian Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou announced last week that Tunisian women were traveling to Syria to wage "sex jihad," where they were having sex with "20, 30, [or] 100" militants, before returning pregnant to Tunisia.
There's only one problem: There's no evidence it's true. The Tunisian Interior Ministry has so far failed to provide any further information on the phenomenon, and human rights activists and journalists have been unable to find any Tunisian woman who went to Syria for this purpose.
"Everything I've heard were very broad allegations that didn't really have all the features of a serious reporting about the case," said Amna Guellali, the Tunisia researcher for Human Rights Watch. "All I have is very sparse, very little information, and I think that's true for a lot of people working in the human rights community, in addition to reporters."
According to Guellali, the political context of the statement could shed light on why the interior minister chose to make this accusation now. The Tunisian government has been under fire for allegedly asking adult women for authorization from their husbands or fathers before they travel to certain countries in the Middle East -- Ben Jeddou was justifying any restrictions by saying that the government was attempting to prevent women from embarking on "sex jihad" in Syria. The interior minister has also made the fight against extremist Salafi groups a centerpiece of his term in office. Suggesting that Tunisian Salafi women are sleeping with dozens of Syrian rebels could be another way to discredit them.
Reports of Tunisian women engaging in "sex jihad" in Syria have ping-ponged around the media for months, though the interior minister's statement is the first time it has been given an official imprimatur. As journalist Sana Saeed catalogs, the first reports appeared on Lebanese new channel Al Jadeed and in the pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat, which cited a fatwa by famed Saudi cleric Mohammed al-Arefe justifying the practice. Arefe, however, subsequently denied that he had done so, saying that "no sane person" would sanction such a thing.
Pro-Assad media have been only too eager to advance the idea of "sex jihad" as a way to tar their opponents. Syrian state television ran an interview with a 16-year-old girl named Rawan Kaddah in which she admitted to the practice. The Syrian opposition, however, denounced the program as staged and blasted the regime for exploiting children in such a way.
The only real evidence of women embarking on "sex jihad," comes not from Syria but from Tunisia's Chaambi Mountains, an area in the west of the country that has often been the site of clashes between the military and jihadists. Tunisian security forces there arrested several girls who were allegedly involved in the practice. Guellali said that she spoke to the mother of an 18-year-old female who was involved -- the mother said that a woman close to the Tunisian militant group Ansar al-Sharia got her daughter tangled up in a network of girls in the area.
But the scope of the problem -- and whether it is related to Syria in any way -- remains a complete mystery.
"It's a bit disturbing that we have these kind of declarations and then there is no follow-up," said Guellali. "[The authorities] threw out this information that they had several cases of women coming back pregnant, but there is no tracking of the cases either by the Ministry of Women or the Ministry of Interior. And they won't give any further information."
FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images
Even before President Barack Obama put his plans to strike the Syrian regime on hold, he was losing the battle of public opinion about military intervention. Part of the credit, no doubt, goes to a successful media blitz by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime and its supporters. In an interview aired on Monday night, Assad himself advanced his government's case to Charlie Rose, saying that the United States had not presented "a single shred of evidence" proving the Syrian military had used chemical weapons.
Assad has always been able to skillfully parry Western journalists' criticisms of his regime -- and, at times, it has won him positive international coverage. Before the uprising, the U.S. media often described the Assad family as Westernized leaders who were trying to bring their country into the 21st century. The most infamous example was Vogue's profile of Asma al-Assad, which described Syria's first lady as "a thin, long-limbed beauty with a trained analytic mind ... [with] a killer IQ." But even experts in the field went along: Middle East historian David Lesch wrote a biography of Bashar describing the president as a modernizer, before changing his mind during the uprising.
The carnage over the past two and a half years put an end to much of this praise -- but now pro-Assad media outlets have found a new way to influence the American debate. Assad supporters' claims have repeatedly been republished unquestioningly by right-wing commentators in the United States, who share their hostility toward both Sunni Islamists and the Obama administration. It's a strange alliance between American conservatives and a regime that was one of America's first designated state sponsors of terror, and continues to work closely with Iran and Hezbollah.
FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images
Area 51 is a touchstone of America's cultural mythology. It rose to notoriety in 1989, when a Las Vegas man claimed he had worked at the secret facility to discover the secrets of crashed alien hardware, spawning two decades of conspiracy theories and speculation about little green men. But the facility's history -- and the history of the strange, secret aircraft that were developed there -- extends back to 1955. Since its inception, the government has obliquely acknowledged its existence only a handful of times, and even the CIA's 1996 declassified history of the OXCART program -- the development of the SR-71 Blackbird at the secret site -- refers only to tests conducted in "the Nevada desert." The government has never publicly discussed the specific facility ... until now.
On Thursday, the National Security Archive reported that it had gotten its hands on a newly declassified CIA history of the development of the U-2 spy plane. The report, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, contains the CIA's secret record of how Area 51 came to be.
National Security Archive
Kim Jong Un may be a dangerous, totalitarian man-child, but he knows how to work the press.
For the last 30 days, the 30-year-old leader has manipulated global news wires in a way even his late father would envy. In the month of April, web interest in "North Korea" climbed higher than it has at any other point in the last decade, according to Google Trends. (Search queries for news articles on the subject experienced the same meteoric rise.) In the last 30 days, a LexisNexis search of major newspapers shows a 49-percent increase in articles about the isolated Hermit Kingdom compared with the previous month. For weeks, the top hour of cable and radio newscasts has trumpeted the latest bombastic threat from the regime.
Everyone knows that North Korea using its nuclear arsenal as blackmail is not new. But right now, it's the biggest news story of the month.
On the surface, Kim is using the same playbook as his late father: Scare the Western world with the threat of nuclear destruction in exchange for a desired outcome. But in his execution, Kim has broken new ground with a calculated slow-drip formula that involves issuing a unique threat each day of the week. Several hours ago, for instance, Pyongyang issued a new threat saying it has "final approval" for a nuclear attack on America. Substantively, the statement was not much different from previous threats to nuke the United States (e.g. the United States is a "boiled pumpkin" vulnerable to nuclear attack, or the DPRK will exercise its right to "pre-emptive nuclear attack"). But rhetorically, the language was tweaked just so that it sufficed as viable news. (You can see a complete list of threats here.)
Indeed, the sheer creativity of Kim's threats has surprised even the most seasoned of peninsula-watchers. "It does seem that the North Koreans are on the verge of running out of threats," Scott Snyder, senior fellow for Korea Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, told FP in early March. In fact, Korea was just getting warmed up.
It's easy, of course, to notice Kim Jong Un's programming schedule in hindsight. In the here and now, the slow drip of new threats keeps viewers (e.g. the world) on the edge of their seats. And at time when episodic storytelling is flourishing, Young Kim seems to have picked the perfect PR strategy. Tune in tomorrow, for Lil' Kim's next evil plot!
The U.S. public simply can't resist:
Whether North Korea is getting its message across in the way it intends is subject for debate. The White House has both dismissed Pyongyang's threats as bluster and vowed to take the warnings "seriously." As for the general public, the explosion of Kim Jong Un memes gives an impression of something slightly less than terror:
Whatever the case, the Dear Leader has our attention, which is exactly what he wants.
Rick Santorum announced today that he is ending his campaign for president, which will spare him the possible humiliation of losing his home state of Pennsylvania to Mitt Romney at the end of this month. Credit where it's due, the former senator ran a remarkably impressive campaign. Having lost his last senate election by a whopping 18 points, Santorum seemed like something of an afterthought in the race until literally days before the Iowa primary. He proceeded to win 11 states and rack up 275 delegates, looking for a time like he had a real chance to beat Romney, or at least force a contested convention.
Santorum's campaign will also be remembered for some downright bizarre utterances on foreign policy. Here's a few of the most memorable:
Dutch death panels
Shortly before the Missouri primary, Santorum -- arguing against Barack Obama's healthcare law -- made some rather startling claims about the medial system in the Netherlands, claiming that 1 in 20 deaths in the country were caused by forced euthanasia, and that elderly Dutch wear bracelets that say "do not euthanize me" and "don't go to the hospital, they go to another country, because they're afraid because of budget purposes that they will not come out of that hospital if they go into it with sickness."
When asked by a Dutch reporter where the candidate had gotten these alarming facts, a campaign spokeswoman would only say, "It's a matter of what's in his heart."
Declaring war on China
If China thinks Mitt Romney's rhetoric is bombastic, they should be glad that won't have to contend with President Santorum. During a discussion of Chinese currency policy during a debate in October, the candidate unleashed this one:
"You know, Mitt, I don't want to go to a trade war, I want to beat China," he said. "I want to go to war with China and make America the most attractive place in the world to do business."
Santorum was a marginal enough candidate at the time that Chinese state media evidently didn't deem it worthy of a response.
The Arab Spring should have started in Iran
Santorum may have "recognized the looming threat of Iran's nuclear ambitions for nearly a decade," but he seems fuzzy on some basic facts about the country's population. In a speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition last July, he criticized President Obama's policies in the Middle East, saying, “we see an Arab Spring that should have been a real Arab Spring starting in 2009 with the protests in Iran.”
Yes, because the Arab Spring would have been much better without all of the Arabs.
The inadvertant one-state solution
In a video from last November that surfaced around the time of the Iowa caucuses, Santorum defends Israel's West Bank settlements to a young voter, but seems to accidentally contradict official Israeli policy.
"All the people that live in the West Bank are Israelis, they're not Palestinians," he says. "There is no ‘Palestinian.'"
He should probably check with Tel Aviv before conferring Israeli citizenship on 4 million Palestinians, or whatever he wants to call them.
The Jelly Belly address
This wasn't so much about what he said as where he said it. For some reason, with his campaign starting to sputter, the candidate seemed to think that a national security address at the Jelly Belly headquarters in California would be a good idea. Yes, Ronald Reagan loved jelly beans. But the Gipper also had the good sense not to deliver the "Evil Empire" speech into a microphone with a Jelly Belly logo on it.
PAUL J. RICHARDS/AFP/Getty Images
We're very excited to present the first of the video interviews taped at last night's Global Thinker's gala, featuring Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother author Amy Chua in conversation with our own Daniel Drezner. Chua's father joined in, claiming at one point that his wife was the "real tiger mother."
Check it out:
We'll have more video in the coming days. You can also check out this photo gallery of images from the gala.
We actually kicked this off with David's post yesterday, but we're now making it official. In this regular Passport feature, we will be tracking signs of U.S. economic and political decline -- and the "rise of the rest," especially China.
We don't intend this to be an excercise in schadenfreude -- we're Americans ourselves and don't wish any misfortune on the country -- but there does seem to be an emerging conventional wisdom on American decline in the foreign-policy media that's worth tracking. We'll also hopefully use the column to puncture a few bogus decline trend stories.
Each post, we'll choose a datapoint or article that purports to show a sign of American decline and rate it from 1 to 5. Here's the scoring system:
1: We're totally screwed. Start learning Mandarin.
2. Being a superpower was nice while it lasted.
3. Stay calm and carry on.
4. Decline, schmecline. We're gonna be just fine.
5. USA! USA!
Today's sign of decline ... falling SAT scores:
Average scores on the college acceptance test, the SAT, fell across the nation this year, with the reading [comprehension] score for the high school class of 2011 falling three points to 497, the lowest on record, according to a report on Wednesday by the College Board, which administers the exams.
The average writing score dropped two points, to 489, and the math score was down one point, to 514.
Douglas McIntyre at AOL business makes the case:
What these test scores suggest is that in general, Americans who enter the work force in the next one to five years will not be as well educated as many of their foreign counterparts. That spells bad news for America's ability to lead the world in science and other critical disciplines. With a workforce whose education and skills are in decline, the U.S. will struggle to hold its lead in the industries that are key to our economic future.
Verdict: 3. Falling test scores are obviously not a good sign. On the other hand, the fact that English scores, in particular, are falling can be attributed to increasing national diversity and the fact that parents from around the world still want to raise their kids in the United States. The New York Times reports that "27 percent of the nearly 1.65 million test-takers last year came from a home where English was not the only language, up from 19 percent a decade ago." And while average scores may be falling, the number of students receiving high scores on math -- about 700 -- have increased by 20 percent over the last five years.
But any way you slice it, low income and minority students continue to lag behind. The numbers are nothing to be proud of.
Feel free to nominate any American decline stories you see. (No Jersey Shore references please.) E-mail Joshua [dot] Keating [at] foreignpolicy.com.
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