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How will the Moscow concert hall attack affect Putin?

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On Friday, armed men stormed the Crocus Concert Hall outside Moscow, killing at least 137 people and injuring more than 100. A day later, President Vladimir Putin addressed the nation, promising to “identify and punish everyone who stands behind the terrorists who perpetrated this atrocity”.

Some observers may see this moment as history coming full circle. Once again Russia is in the midst of a bloody war and facing terrorist attacks and once again Putin is in charge.

The Russian president came to power in 2000 amid war in Chechnya and in the wake of bombing attacks in Moscow. His promise as a young and energetic leader was to bring stability and security to the country. And he did.

Putin managed to put an end to the Second Chechen War with a combination of brutal military force and political manoeuvring. He managed to split the Chechen forces by putting their religious leader, Akhmad Kadyrov, the father of the current ruler, Ramzan Kadyrov, in charge of the republic. As the Chechen rebellion was suppressed, terrorist activity also dwindled. The last major terror attack in Russia took place in 2011.

His success in the Russian “war on terror” has been one of the major achievements of Putin’s rule and one of the main reasons for his political longevity. He is being widely credited for bringing security and a semblance of order to Russia after the turbulent decade that followed the collapse of the USSR.

Today, 30 years later, the threat that Russians hoped they would never face again is back, causing anxiety and demoralising society. A much older Putin is making the same promise amid a crisis that at least some Russians blame on him. Will he be believed?

The attack on the Crocus Concert Hall, which the ISIL (ISIS) affiliate Islamic State in Khorasan Province (ISKP) has claimed responsibility for, comes against the backdrop of Russia’s brutal aggression in Ukraine. Unsurprisingly, within hours of the tragedy, Putin and his security bodies were already linking it to Ukraine.

Their claims derived from the fact that four of the suspects, who had made it out of the burning venue by blending into the fleeing crowd, were detained about 140km (90 miles) from the Ukrainian border. In his address to the nation, Putin claimed that they had been offered an “open window” at the border, supposedly by Ukraine’s security services.

Ukraine denied any involvement in the attack. United States officials were adamant that it was carried out by ISKP and Ukraine had nothing to do with it. The US had indeed warned about the possibility of an attack in Moscow, citing its own intelligence, which it said it had shared with the Russians.

Pro-Kremlin commentators and media who have pushed the theory of the Ukrainian connection have pointed to suspected Ukrainian involvement in the bombing attacks that killed prominent pro-war blogger Maksim Fomin, better known as Vladlen Tatarsky, as well as Daria Dugina, the daughter of the far-right ideologist Aleksandr Dugin. Another bombing destroyed a section of the bridge that connects Russia to occupied Crimea.

A few pro-Kremlin commentators like the war-monitoring collective Rybar have also gone as far as pointing a finger at the US and claiming that it supports ISKP in Afghanistan to undermine the Taliban.

Pro-Ukrainian commentators, on the other hand, have been quick to revive a longstanding theory suggesting that Putin could have staged a bombing in Moscow in 1999 to seize power. The Crocus attack, they claimed, was another false flag operation staged by his regime.

The suspects arrested by the Russian security services appear to be ordinary Tajik migrants, like the 1.3 million Tajiks working in Russia. Russian independent media have confirmed that photos of the arrested men match those in the numerous visuals of the attackers in the concert hall.

One of them said he was recruited by an aide to a Muslim preacher and offered about 5,000 euros ($5,420) for the attack. The testimonies were obtained through torture that Russian security services weren’t shy of circulating online; suspects were electrocuted, one had his ear cut off.

No matter who recruited them to carry out the attack, its aim was to demoralise the Russian population.

So will Russians blame Putin for failing to avert the tragedy? Collective psychology is notoriously unpredictable. Some may, but it is unlikely that anything would come of it.

Even without this attack, it has been clear to the Russian population that the period of stability, security and economic growth that Putin has been lauded for is long over. War is literally at the door with Ukrainian forces conducting incursions into Russian territory, sending drones to strike oil refineries and destroying Russian battleships in the Black Sea.

The thinking behind the idea of bringing war into Russian territory – aired by many in Ukrainian security circles since 2014 – assumes that instability and the lack of security would somehow shake Putin’s regime and eventually lead to its downfall. But this idea has proved irrational and delusional over and over again.

Unlike Ukraine, which has the backing of the West behind it, Russians don’t have an alternative guarantor of security they could swap Putin for, even at their own peril – the way Ukrainians did it in the last decade. No matter what they think about Putin, they are existentially dependent on him in the situation that most of them see, like it or not, as a proxy war the West is waging against Russia rather than Russia’s own aggression against neighbouring countries.

Their current security arrangement is a trap with no other option but to sit tight and hope that a peaceful solution to the conflict in Ukraine will be found and life will return to normal.

The way things are going on the front lines in Ukraine at the moment, this hope is far more grounded in reality than a nebulous better future they could achieve by attempting to topple Putin, which in current conditions would most likely precipitate a civil war. There is doom, gloom and a firm determination to sit it out until the age of troubles is over one way or another.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.

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Elephant in the room: Why Botswana, Namibia want fewer of the gentle giants

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They might be an awesome sight to see from a safe distance on safari as they lumber around with their big, lopping ears and long trunks, but for those who live side by side with elephants, these mammals can quickly become a menace.

Elephants’ numbers in African countries have dwindled hugely in the past. Conservation efforts since the 1980s, however, have seen populations recover somewhat. In Southern African countries, where about half of the African elephant population resides, their higher numbers mean they are starting to come into conflict with humans.

As a result, some of these countries have tried to reduce their elephant numbers. In Botswana, which has the largest number of elephants in the world, President Mokgweetsi Masisi has sought to push controversial policies, like the promotion of hunting by rich tourists. Last month, he lashed out at the German government for considering a ban on the import of elephant parts, threatening to send Berlin 20,000 of its jumbos.

The diplomatic spat made catchy headlines. But it belied the serious challenges facing elephants, rural communities and conservationists working to find solutions.

Two men lift huge elephant tusks in Kruger national Park, South Africa
Officials carry a large elephant tusk at Skukuza in the Kruger National Park, South Africa, in 2001 [File: Denis Farrell/AP]

How have elephant numbers changed in the past?

Following long periods of overhunting and poaching for their meat and expensive ivory tusks, elephant numbers collapsed dramatically across Africa between the 1970s and 80s. About 100,000 elephants were killed each year during that time, according to the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). While an estimated three to five million elephants roamed the continent around 1930, the number had fallen to 1.3 million in 1979, the WWF says. According to researchers who have looked back as far as the 1500s, elephant populations in Africa have shrunk by some 98 percent.

Numbers continued to fall from 1979 until conservation practices – including crucial bans on sales of elephant parts and trophy hunting – halted the decline. Total elephant numbers in Africa currently stand at about 415,000, according to WWF estimates.

This is still low compared with historical numbers. In particular, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists the African bush elephant as endangered and the African forest elephant as critically endangered, meaning they still face the threat of extinction.

The African bush elephant is a bigger animal inhabiting the savannah grasslands of Southern and Eastern Africa, making up 70 percent of the total population on the continent. Its cousin – the African forest elephant – is native to Western and Central Africa and is recognisable by its smaller, rounded ears and short, pointed tusks.

Botswana, Namibia, Angola, Zambia and Zimbabwe together account for more than half of the African bush elephant population. Botswana alone is home to about 130,000 bush elephants – about half of the region’s numbers. It is a big country with a small population of two million people, comparable in size to France, which has a population of 67 million. For every 15 people in Botswana, there is about one elephant.

Zimbabwe has the second-largest bush elephant population at about 100,000.

Elephants roam in the Hwange Game Reserve, Zimbabwe
Elephants roam in the Hwange Game Reserve in Zimbabwe, August 6, 2015 [File: Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP]

Why have rising numbers of elephants become a challenge?

The largest living land animals’ feeding habits can dramatically alter ecosystems during their roughly 60 years of life. They have few natural predators to manage their numbers besides humans and, with people out of the way, elephants can populate quickly, says researcher Lucy King from the non-profit organisation, Save the Elephants.

“When left alone, they breed pretty well [and] their numbers can go up quite steadily over time because their survival rate is pretty good,” King says.

During the same time that elephant numbers have steadied, human population growth has doubled across Africa. In Southern and Eastern Africa, the population grew from 312 million in 1994 to 633 million in 2021 according to the United Nations Population Fund. That growth has seen humans occupy more land area and increasingly encroach on wildlife habitats. Settlements and farms have also cut roaming wildlife off from water or food sources.

As a result, humans and elephants are coming into more frequent contact and are clashing over the same resources. Foraging herbivores often roam onto farms, rip open thatch roofs on huts in search of food or cause damage to water pipes and other infrastructure. This has prompted angry locals to retaliate and attack them. Those interactions can be fatal for both man and beast.

Climate change has also caused more elephants to wander further than they once would have – and to more unpredictable places – to seek scarce food and water.

Zimbabwe is a peak conflict site, but human-elephant clashes are increasingly occurring across the region, King says.

Countries like Zimbabwe and Botswana blame elephant overpopulation and argue that reducing their numbers would reduce these clashes. However, some experts reject this suggestion, pointing out that there used to be many more elephants in Africa.

How have governments tried to tackle the issue?

South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe and Botswana have all tried to reduce the number of elephants in their territory at certain points, but nearly all their methods have been met with criticism or outright condemnation from animal welfare organisations.

One practice is culling – the deliberate targeting and killing of several animals, usually whole families, together.

This practice was popular around the 1980s and 90s. In South Africa’s Kruger Park, a culling campaign saw about 14,000 elephants killed between 1967 and 1995. However, the practice was outlawed after African countries faced a global backlash, such as widespread calls for tourists to boycott countries culling elephants.

However, in 2008, South Africa defied the global outcry and lifted its culling ban. In 2021, Zimbabwe – which had killed about 50,000 elephants between 1967 and 1988 – said it was considering bringing back the practice.

Conservationists such as King argue that culling is particularly cruel for elephants, who are emotionally intelligent and can experience trauma. Besides, the method is not effective and will “hardly scratch the surface”, she says.

Governments have also attempted to simply sell off part of their herds, although animal welfare groups say elephants could be shipped to zoos and used for human entertainment.

In 2021, Namibia auctioned 170 elephants but sold only a third – at 5.9 million Namibian dollars ($400,000). There was so much bad press and criticism of the sale that buyers were discouraged, officials said.

Another way to control numbers is by allowing trophy hunting, whereby countries license adventure seekers – usually tourists from the United States and other Western countries – to kill a limited number of animals in specific, allocated areas for their horns, skins and tusks. Often, these tourists target male elephants – or bulls – for their bigger tusks.

Government officials in Southern Africa – and hunters themselves – argue that hunting helps manage the elephant population naturally and provides revenue for local communities. That in turn incentivises local communities to stop illegal poaching and to ensure that elephant numbers remain steady — and never drop below a sustainable level. Hunting licences can cost as much as $10,000, depending on the animal being hunted.

African governments are often angered by the idea of Western countries telling them the practice is unethical – hence the threat by Botswana to ship 20,000 elephants to Germany. Botswana’s President Masisi has been a particular advocate for the return of hunting licences. In 2019, after he took office, Botswana lifted a five-year ban on elephant hunting.

What are the arguments against hunting?

Some conservationists dismiss this anger from African governments.

“I just think it’s extremely shortsighted. I think it’s a convenient smokescreen behind which to hide and justify trophy hunting which is big business,” says Ross Harvey, a wildlife economist with the non-profit organisation Good Governance Africa. Harvey points out that much of the funds from trophy hunting – first introduced in colonial Kenya – go to wealthy businessmen who own trophy hunting companies, rather than into conservation efforts.

“How much of it actually ends up going to conservation is highly questionable, certainly not enough to conserve the landscape, and how much of it accrues to poor community members is also extremely unclear,” he adds. “But now that elephant is gone, now you live with the negative effects of having taken out all the bulls – typically in their reproductive peak.”

Older males often help guide younger bulls, teaching them where to find food and water, or how to behave. When they are killed, younger males can become aggressive, researchers have found.

“My prediction is that you’re going to see an increase in human and elephant conflict because when you take out all the bulls that are responsible for disciplining the herd, then crop raiding is going to increase, not decrease,” says Harvey.

So, what is the solution?

Harvey says while elephant numbers may have increased since the 1990s, the real problem is not one of “overpopulation” but rather of humans cutting off connecting land strips or corridors which elephants – and all wildlife – use to migrate in search of food and habitat. Freeing up those spaces, he argues, will reduce human-elephant interactions.

“If you shoot them, you just exacerbate the problem,” he says.

“There’s only two solutions really,” says King. “One, to have breathing space. We keep throwing up fences everywhere and stopping [elephants], so they get squeezed into areas where they can then deplete the vegetation incredibly fast. The only solution is to release the valves and make sure the fences come down. That does not mean that elephants should be everywhere … but you can’t fence elephants in.”

In northern Botswana, one initiative called the “Eco-Exist Project” worked with locals to identify and demarcate more than 60 elephant corridors across the sprawling Okavango Delta. The team then worked with communities to replan village layouts, so that farms, homes and other infrastructure would be positioned away from these “elephant highways”.

It is not yet clear how much this project has reduced human-elephant conflict, but some 65,000 hectares (160,600 acres) of farmland belonging to 500 farmers, have been protected so far. Farmers have also clustered to share farm spaces which they have ringed with fences or crops such as chilli – which elephants dislike and therefore avoid.

Another solution, King says, is to teach people how to live more harmoniously with the animals. Her research on natural ways to fend off elephants from settlements and farms in southern Kenya has yielded some results.

King found that when she played sound recordings of swarming bees, elephants would disperse in a hurry. She then started to experiment with building beehive fences around several farmsteads. This is a rudimentary method which is suitable for rural communities – farmers need only poles to mount boxes housing the hives. Women then harvest the honey and sell it for some side income. The method is now being employed in 17 African countries and some areas in Asia.

“We’re really proud about it … and it’s completely open source,” King says. “We let people have the manuals, develop their own bio fence project, and run with it. And the interesting thing is it’s really working everywhere.”

However, the method works for small land areas only. It is also threatened by drought – which is not conducive for bees.

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Photos: Sikhs celebrate harvest festival of Baisakhi, marking new year

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Baisakhi is an ancient festival symbolising the new harvest season and the beginning of the solar new year.

In gurdwaras, or Sikh temples, people participate in congregational singing, eat communal meals and reflect on the tenets of their faith that revolve around “seva,” or serving fellow human beings and seeking to build a just society while living a simple life.

The Sikh religion, with its line of 10 gurus, is traced back to the time of Guru Nanak, the first guru. He was born in a village in present-day Pakistan in the northern state of Punjab in 1469.

He rejected the prevalent unequal caste system, which determined and fixed the status of people by birth. Instead, he looked upon humanity as one and encouraged his followers to work hard and perform acts of charity.

The spirit of Baisakhi is reminiscent of the ideals of the gurus.

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Iran’s IRGC seizes ‘Israeli-linked’ ship near Strait of Hormuz

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Tehran, Iran – Iranian armed forces have seized a container ship near the Strait of Hormuz amid rising tensions across the region after a deadly Israeli attack on Iran’s consulate in Syria.

The ship was commandeered by the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), the elite force that lost seven members, including two generals, in the Syria strike, Iranian state media reported on Saturday.

“The ship has now been guided towards the territorial waters of our country,” state-run IRNA reported.

The vessel was identified as the Portugal-flagged MSC Aries, which reportedly departed from a port in the United Arab Emirates en route to India. It is associated with the London-based Zodiac Maritime, a part of the Zodiac Group run by Israeli billionaire Eyal Ofer and his family.

Footage from the deck of the vessel obtained by The Associated Press news agency on Saturday showed soldiers rappelling down from a helicopter.

‌The helicopter appeared to be a Soviet-designed Mil Mi-17, which is operated by the naval forces of the IRGC.

Zodiac Maritime said in a statement that MSC, an Italian-Swiss shipping group, was responsible for all vessel activities.

MSC confirmed there were 25 crew members on board the ship, adding in a statement that it is “working closely with the relevant authorities to ensure their wellbeing, and safe return of the vessel”.

The United Kingdom Maritime Trade Operations (UKMTO) had said a vessel was seized by “regional authorities” 50 nautical miles (92km) northeast of the UAE’s Fujairah in a waterway vital to world trade.

Another Israeli-linked container ship was attacked and damaged by a drone in the Indian Ocean in late November, which the United States blamed on Iran.

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz said in a post on X that the move by Iran was “a pirate operation in violation of international law”.

He called on the European Union and “the free world to immediately declare” the IRGC a “terrorist organization and to sanction Iran now”.

White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said the ship’s crew comprised of Indian, Filipino, Pakistani, Russian and Estonian nationals, and pushed back against the vessel’s seizure.

“We call on Iran to release the vessel and its international crew immediately,” she said. “Seizing a civilian vessel without provocation is a blatant violation of international law, and an act of piracy by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.”

Soaring regional tensions

The US military is moving more military assets to the Middle East as it anticipates an Iranian response to the Israeli attack on the consulate in Syria.

A US defence official told Al Jazeera that the move is mainly aimed at better protecting US troops in the region, but also to ramp up regional deterrence.

US media confirmed the move but the Pentagon has not officially said which assets it is moving to the region.

The Wall Street Journal quoted unnamed US officials as saying on Friday that it includes repositioning two destroyers, with one of the warships already in the region and another redirected there.

On Saturday, US President Joe Biden said he was cutting short his weekend stay in Delaware to return to the White House early to meet with his national security team and monitor the security situation ahead of a feared Iranian attack on Israel.

On Friday, Biden said he expected an Iranian retaliation to come “sooner than later” and that Washington will continue to defend Israel.

“Don’t,” he said when asked by reporters if he had a message for Iran.

Since the start of the war on Gaza after the Hamas-led October 7 attacks in Israel, the US has sent thousands of bombs and ammunition to its ally Israel despite growing international criticism, along with moving warships and troops to the region.

John Kirby, the White House’s national security spokesman, said on Friday that Iran’s threats to retaliate against Israel remain “real” and viable”.

General Erik Kurilla, the head of US Central Command in the region, arrived in Israel on Friday to discuss a potential Iranian attack and met with top officials, including Israeli military chief of staff Herzi Halevi.

Israeli military spokesperson Daniel Hagari said that “Iran funds, trains, and arms terror proxies across the Middle East and beyond”, adding that the Islamic republic doesn’t just threaten the people of Israel, Gaza, Lebanon, and Syria”, but “fuels the war in Ukraine and beyond”.

He said that Israel was on “high alert” and was “prepared to respond” to what he called “any Iranian aggression”.

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