Avoiding Past Mistakes in Arabia

Today the Washington Post has a story up about the constellation of secret drone bases the US is building in and around the Arabian Peninsula and the Horn of Africa to deal with the al-Qaeda threat out of Somalia and Yemen.


Leaving aside the secret part of this story - I'm not sure how secret these bases are anymore, now that nearly every major newspaper and network has written and commented on them. 

The Post, like most other newspapers, continues to adhere to administration requests that it not reveal the location of the drone base in the Arabian Peninsula.  But as I mentioned on twitter last night - and for those of you who still, inexplicably, do not follow me - I will repeat here: the location of this base can't really be that secret anymore.

The base is designed to deal with militants in Yemen and, presumably, it is closer to the "hot zones" in Yemen than the base in Djibouti, which had previously seen drone flights over Yemen.  So that leaves ...... (I'll leave it to you to fill in the blank).

Also, as one anonymous - is there any other kind of official in these stories - relates:

The locations “are based on potential target sets,” said a senior U.S. military official. “If you look at it geographically, it makes sense — you get out a ruler and draw the distances [drones] can fly and where they take off from.”

Today, Greg Miller, a fine reporter at the Post and one of the co-author's of the article, explains on the Post's blog that the idea behind these new bases is to "avoid the mistakes of the past."

The worry Miller says is:

"When al-Qaeda fled Afghanistan into Pakistan in 2001 and 2002, it took years before the CIA had assembled a drone program capable of putting the terrorist network under pressure. That delay, and costly deals for air-basing access in neighboring countries, allowed al-Qaeda to flourish."

And so in an effort to avoid that mistake, the US is building:

"... at least four drone airstrips in the Horn of Africa region: a long-standing military base in Djibouti; a secret new CIA facility being built in the Arabian Peninsula; an installation on the Seychelles; and a fourth facility in Ethiopia."

Now, I'm all for avoiding mistakes, but I worry that the US is taking a mistakenly shallow view of history.  It is almost as if all history begins on September 11 - and that is a mistake and a potentially costly one.

One of the primary motivations for Osama bin Laden's jihad against the US were the military bases housing US troops in Saudi Arabia during after the the Gulf War. 

This was key not just for bin Laden, but also for the recruits he attracted with the argument that the Arabian Peninsula had to be kept pure and that US troops in Arabia constituted a type of occupation.

Does the US think this current of thought no longer holds sway in Arabia?  And that building bases on the peninsula is somehow going to go unnoticed?

Remember, AQAP is currently making an argument that Yemen is under western military attack, which should mean that all Muslims are obligated to fight in defense of Muslim lands.  They have had some success making this argument recently, but it is still limited. 

Building a base in Arabia and increasing bombings into Yemen will only make recruiting that much easier.

By all means the US should avoid past mistakes - but it has made more than one.  Repeating those of the 1990s won't eliminate those of the past decade.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
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Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.