AQAP and the al-Awaliq Tribe

Early yesterday morning I woke up, fired up the computer, and began skimming through the news from Yemen. One of the first articles that caught my attention was this piece from News Yemen, explaining that AQAP had sent a letter to the al-Awaliq tribe imploring them not to cooperate with the Yemeni government against them.

Interesting, but I'm a guy who likes more than a couple of quotes, so I opened up another window and got on to some of the jihadi forums where AQAP usually posts its statements. But, and here is where it gets interesting, there was no statement. I skimmed down the page. Nothing. A bit frustrated I logged on to another forum. Same story.

I went back to the News Yemen article and found the problem. The entire story was based on a SITE Intelligence Group report. Now, I don't know a lot about SITE and I don't use it - I'm a poor struggling student after all - but I do know a number of journalists who rely on the organization for translations of al-Qaeda statements. With that in mind, I spent a bit more time surfing through the forums but still came up with nothing.

This morning, the New York Times, used the same SITE report in this article. So back to the forums and again nothing.

Here is what I think happened. SITE found a thread in one of the forums from somebody (or somebodies) identifying themselves as members of AQAP and the al-Awaliq tribe, and thought it looked interesting and translated the message. The only problem is that it wasn't an AQAP statement.

This, I think, is an incredibly important point. Right up there with making sure the US and Yemeni government identify exactly who is and who is not a member of AQAP.

There are a lot of people in Yemen that look (big bushy beards) like al-Qaeda and sound (screeching rhetoric about shariah law) like al-Qaeda, but aren't actually members of al-Qaeda (that is individuals that have sworn an oath of allegiance to Nasir al-Wihayshi). This is important because if the US and Yemeni government start fighting everyone who looks like they might be a member of AQAP then they are fighting a war they can't win. Simply put, there would be too many people. They have to limit the fighting only to those who are sworn members of the organization. That problem is bad enough without going out and creating new, shooting enemies where none existed.

AQAP is incredibly protective of its brand, a point they have made over and over. This is how someone like Qasim al-Raymi gets to go on camera and say "trust us" for the news about AQAP. This is how they get away with constantly calling the Yemeni government out on its "lies" and shadings of the truth. Precisely because AQAP is so careful with the statements it releases.

The only AQAP statements are those released through al-Malahim. This was not. Now, I'm not faulting SITE for translating the forum post, as far as I could tell on their website (based on my non-subscriber status), SITE identified the forum post along the lines of how the author of the post described himself. But I think they owe their subscribers (many of whom don't speak Arabic and/or don't understand the forums) more detailed information about this post.

That is, specifically pointing out that it is not an official AQAP statement and that it could have been from anyone. Anyone with a computer and knowledge of Arabic could have written it - it is like any internet chatroom - the attractive woman you think you are speaking with could easily be a 40-year-old unemployed Wall Street guy.

Now, do I think AQAP would prefer that the al-Awaliq tribe not work with the government? Yes, certainly a statement like this would be in keeping with what AQAP has said in the past. But this wasn't an AQAP statement and it is best if we don't go treating it like one. There is enough confusion about the situation in Yemen, without people who are supposed to be on the side of the good guys muddying the waters further.

I was going to post a bit on the al-Awaliq tribe, the new Awakening movement in Shawa, and Anwar al-Awlaki, but this post has went on too long, so I'll save those thoughts for a bit later.

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Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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