Archive for the ‘The Arab Revolt, Islam, Iraq War, War on Terror’ Category

An Interview with Two Afghan Mayors

Friday, April 23rd, 2021

originally published in The Bulwark, 4/20/21 https://thebulwark.com/an-interview-with-two-afghan-mayors-about-the-u-s-withdrawal-from-afghanistan/

The mayors of Kabul and Mazar-i-Sharif explain what the American pullout means for Afghans.

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via email Print
“We have been your laboratory to fight terrorism. But Afghanistan has changed tremendously in the last 20 years. The Taliban cannot expect to walk in and rule this country. People have moved on. This is one of the freest countries in the region in terms of freedom of speech and media. No force can govern Afghanistan without the consent of the people.”

That was Daoud Sultanzoy speaking. He’s been the mayor of Kabul since April 2020, and a friend for about 15 years. We were talking over WhatsApp, discussing the impact of President Biden’s decision to unconditionally remove all American troops from Afghanistan by September 11, 2021.

The next day I spoke with another friend of long standing who is now mayor of Mazar-i-Sharif, Tawfiq Amini. And in general, both spoke of the time coming for Afghans to stand up for themselves.

What Americans may not fully appreciate is that, for Afghans, our withdrawal isn’t about us.

What follows are interviews with two of the most important politicians in Afghanistan.

Podcast episode cover image
PODCAST · APRIL 20 2021
Olivier Knox on Biden’s Challenges, Boehner, and Trump
I met Daoud Sultanzoy, 65, in Kabul when he was a member of the Wolesi Jirga—the lower House of Parliament—around 2006, during one of the reporting trips I made to Afghanistan. He’s Kabul-born and raised, from an aristocratic Pashtun family who have historically been landholders in nearby Ghazni province.

While Pashtuns are generally the most conservative ethnic group in Afghanistan (and the group from which the Taliban draw their most fervent support) Daoud is a liberal. He’s a Kabul University-educated engineer and former United Airlines pilot nicknamed “Captain Daoud”—and also a former American citizen who lived for many years in California.

Brilliant and articulate, Sultanzoy was always good for a pithy quote and sparkling conversation at one of the many gatherings of Kabul’s international. After leaving parliament in 2010, he did a stint as a talk radio host. He also ran for president in 2014 and in so doing gave up his American citizenship. (“I could be living in Malibu. But a human being needs to be useful. Afghanistan is where I can be most useful,” he explained.)

The war continues—in 2020 about 1,900 Afghan civilians were killed by anti-government forces. There are 2,500 American troops in Afghanistan currently, plus about 7,000 NATO forces. Afghanistan is currently protected by the 350,000 members of the Afghan Army and Air Force and 125,000 local police.

Sultanzoy seems unworried about the dangers of his job and only when I asked directly about assassination attempts did he mention that a few months ago his security detail discovered a bomb in his car.

Ann Marlowe: Daoud, I don’t think many Americans know how you become a mayor in Afghanistan? And what’s the best estimate of the population of Kabul?

Daoud Sultanzoy: Afghan mayors are supposed to be elected, but along with the District Council system, mayoral elections have not yet been set up. The mayor of Kabul is appointed by the president and sits in the cabinet. The mayors of all the other cities are appointed by the Independent Directorate of Local Governance (IDLG).

I have no fixed term limit. It depends on the president. I have received a lot of support from the president and the two vice presidents.

The best estimate is that Kabul has a daytime population of about 6,000,000 people, of whom 1,000,000 commute into the center every day from the outskirts or other provinces. We have 8,500 municipal employees.

Marlowe: Can you say something about the economic effect of the whittling away of the international community in Kabul? Is the aid money still there? Is there a sustainable economy?

Sultanzoy: Actually we are the only municipality that generates its own budget through fees. We do not depend on international aid, although we do receive some through the World Bank which comes with strings attached. It is not a significant part of our budget which is about 13 billion afghanis or $168 million at 77 afghanis per dollar.

There is a lot of economic activity here that has nothing to do with the foreign community and a lot of problems that are local problems. For example there are thousands of unregistered unlicensed pushcarts selling goods. This has been a big problem because it is not usually a question of one person owning one cart, it is a mafia of one person owning 800 or 1,000 carts which block the streets and pay no fees or taxes. [The cart operators pay fees to the mafia rather than the city.] We have registered 25,000 people who claimed to be owners of carts.

Marlowe: Is there still a huge problem in Kabul with informal housing settlements without water or electricity? As in other places in the developing world, people who live in these settlements do not have titles to their property which they have often paid significant amounts for . . .

Sultanzoy: Yes, this is a big problem, although we have made some progress since I took office. About 70 percent of the new construction in the last 20 years is unplanned and unregistered and because it is also untaxed we’re losing a lot of revenue. Depending on the size of the house, an average house would pay about 1,000 afghanis ($13) per year in taxes.

UN-Habitat undertook certain parts of this registration and there they have not produced good results. The government is not very happy about it. I’m not privy to what they have done because they took these projects before I became the mayor. One part was done in Kabul and it’s still not complete. What we are doing now is through the Afghan government. Land registration is done by the Ministry of Urban Development, unfortunately. I would have preferred it to have been done by the municipality.

I went head-to-head with warlords who have grabbed millions of square meters of land, including parkland and green space, and I received a lot of support from First Vice President Amanarullah Salah.

Marlowe: You became mayor right in the middle of the pandemic. What kind of impact has COVID-19 had in Kabul? From what I have heard and read, the situation has not been as catastrophic in Afghanistan as in the United States or other developed countries. There certainly isn’t testing going on, but I read that there are fewer than 3,000 deaths so far.

Do people take the pandemic seriously?

Sultanzoy: We prepared for many sick, but they did not materialize. We have a young population. For 40 days, during a lockdown, our municipality distributed 120,000,000 pieces of bread to 3.1 million households at a cost of $68.8 million.

Due to the economic situation, it is not possible for most people to wear masks. But they are aware of social distancing. As far as vaccinations, we have begun with the security forces here. We are waiting for supplies from ÇOVAX [which provides free vaccines to poor countries].

Marlowe: What kind of security situation did you inherit from your predecessor? My impression from talking to Afghan friends is that Kabul is more dangerous than it was the last time I was there in 2011. Is there anything you can do about this as mayor or is it outside your sphere?

Sultanzoy: I do not have control over the police in Kabul, even the traffic police. They report to the minister of the interior.

Marlowe: How well are the Afghan national security forces (ANSF) doing in your opinion? How well has the United States done at training the ANSF after spending $88 billion?

Sultanzoy: No meaningful territory has been lost by ANSF, although government forces have withdrawn from some places. There is a very small footprint of those who create insecurity.

Marlowe: What do you think Afghans are hoping for from Americans in the future?

Sultanzoy: We are hoping for more clarity about the civilian role of the United States after the military withdrawal. The United States has not mentioned what they will do beyond saying that financial support will continue, but this is very vague. When the international community is not clear about its intentions, insecurity grows.

This nation has to become a nation of the 21st century. We need education and healthcare—these are not western things, they are human things. America was not made from within alone. It was also made from Europe. Afghanistan should be supported as America was supported.

Marlowe: What do you think Americans don’t understand about Afghans? Why has the American mission in Afghanistan had so many problems?

Sultanzoy: This is a very complicated country both in terrain and people and the ways we interpret things are very different. We Afghans are not direct people. When Americans speak to us very directly we try to interpret what they’re “really” saying.

Marlowe: What are some of the other initiatives you’ve started since you took office?

Sultanzoy: Just three weeks ago we started a public bus system with five buses. We hope that by the middle of the year we will have more than 100 buses in service.

We are also trying to increase the number of women among municipal employees. There have been very few and we’re focusing on getting to 30 percent, but we have only added dozens so far out of our 8,500 employees.

Marlowe: Can you say something about some depressing numbers the World Bank has published on education:

Education spending has declined over recent years, especially on basic education. Education’s share of the budget has declined from 17 percent in 1390 to just 12 percent in 1397. Real per capita spending on education has decreased by around 13 percent over the past five years.

Sultanzoy: Part of the reason for this is systematic corruption in the past in the Ministry of Education (including fictitious teachers). Also in some areas the schools are not functioning due to insecurity.

Marlowe: In the ongoing negotiations, do you trust the Taliban?

Sultanzoy: Trust should be built and trust is measured by deeds, so in generic terms I should say any two parties that want to negotiate they have to embark on a path that will build trust and that path in our case is to prevent war. In the 21st century people shouldn’t be shedding blood in order to resolve disputes.

If we want to have a future together we have to put our arms on the side and sit down like our forefathers have done and talk about our differences and iron it out. There’s nothing that cannot be ironed out.

Marlowe: So do you think that there is anything valuable that the Taliban can contribute to Afghanistan?

Sultanzoy: Of course, of course! No one party is the only perfect party to monopolize governing this country. Every group of people who live in this country have something to contribute and we have to listen to all of them and we have to bring them all to the same table and and give them the proportionate role. . . . Their precondition was for American troops to withdraw. I think they should also cut their ties with foreign interference, then there’s nothing that we cannot iron out.

Marlowe: In conclusion, where do you expect that Afghanistan will be in another 20 years? A lot of Americans are pessimistic but you seem more optimistic.

Sultanzoy: If we embark on a durable peace that is just and that is equitable and that will uphold certain principles for a country that needs to be embarking on a path of development—then Afghanistan will develop very quickly because the ingredients are there. The manpower, the capital, the appetite for business and for entrepreneurship in the country, natural resources, agriculture, water resources and the availability of tools not only nationally, but internationally, that can speed up development.

I first visited Mazar-i-Sharif in fall of 2002 when there were only a few blocks of shops with glass windows, no buildings taller than the venerated Blue Mosque, and no commercial Internet providers. I stayed at the home of two very kind people, now deceased: Naser Amini and his wife Maryam. They shared a “roushan fekr” attitude, which in Farsi means “enlightened thinking.” The family were ethnic Uzbek landowners originally from Maimana in Faryab province, but more recently they had fled the Taliban takeover of Kabul. I spent a lot of time with their five children who were then teens or young adults.

The oldest son, Ahmad Tawfiq Amini, now 43 and known as Tawfiq, became the mayor of Mazar-i Sharif on March 2. Trained as a civil engineer, Amini is a burly, confident man with a sly sense of humor who looks like the contractor he was for many years. His wife is a teacher and he has supported his sisters’ efforts to graduate from university, and has sent his daughters to private school and university.

Mazar has always been a safer place than Kabul—the Taliban has little local backing in this multiethnic city, where Dari-speaking Tajiks are the single largest group and there are significant numbers of Uzbeks, Turkmen, and Hazaras. The last 20 years have brought many positive changes. The long-term provincial strongman, Atta Muhammed, has presided over a corrupt but efficient and business- friendly administration. Mazar is just 34 miles from the Uzbek border crossing of Termez, which is a source of abundant customs revenue. Now the population is around 1,000,000 and the city has tall buildings and an international airport—and most middle-class residents have smart phones with Internet access.

But the area also has more violence. For some years it has no longer been possible for government officials or foreigners to drive safely between Kabul and Mazar, something I probably did a dozen times in the past. While the Afghan government controls both cities, the Taliban has a presence in between.

Amini has also had a brush with danger since becoming mayor. On April 10, his oldest daughter called, telling me that the handcart mafia had burned his car.

Amini and I spoke on WhatsApp after I sent him questions—he reads and understands English better than he speaks it. As a result, this transcript has been edited slightly for clarity.

Ann Marlowe: So how did you become mayor of Mazar?

Tawfiq Amini: I am not elected by people. It’s a different system: This job was announced on the government website for everyone to apply. I applied and I was selected for the interview; when I passed the interview I was asked to give a presentation. As an engineer, I had enough experience working in the city that I was able to explain about my plans for the future of this city. Luckily within 24 hours I confirmed that I got the job. My term is two years.

Marlowe: And your responsibilities as mayor?

Amini: As a mayor, my responsibility is to keep the infrastructure safe and clean, I also try to create job opportunities for people who do not have jobs. We have about 100 jobs reserved for poor people and these jobs pay 5,000 afghanis per month (about $64). My goals are to help people and hear their stories and their needs. There are poor people whose land was taken away from them illegally. I am helping them to get their land back and also working on reducing the corruption in the city.

Marlowe: Does the United States provide any financial support to the city?

Amini: Since I started working as mayor I have not received any help from the United States government.

Marlowe: How about NGOs?

Amini: UN-Habitat has been working here for about four years registering houses [establishing a land titling system that enables the collection of taxes]. Maybe 60 percent or 65 percent of houses are now registered. An average house maybe pays 1,500 afghanis ($19) a year in taxes.

Marlowe: What is the amount of the annual budget of Mazar city?

Amini: It is about 100,000,000 afghanis ($1.28 million) per year depending on how many taxes we get.The money comes from taxes (including customs duties).

Marlowe: Do you think it is better that the Americans go or that the Americans stay?

Amini: It is better to stay. The economic situation might be bad after they leave. But we Afghans have to stand up and build our country. I know America has been great support during the last 20 years, but now it’s time for all Afghan ethnic groups to come together to be united and fight for their rights and bring peace to their country, and take responsibility. I believe that Afghans are the only ones who can solve their problems.

I hope that Afghanistan does not fall back to the hands of the Taliban. People are already so tired of war, they are so thirsty for peace and stability.

Marlowe: Do you think there is a high chance of the Taliban taking over Mazar?

Amini: No, only about a 10 percent chance. The people in the city are not liking the Taliban. The Taliban are in the villages.

Marlowe: Are there any American or other foreign troops stationed near Mazar?

Amini: Yes, at Marmul camp in Mazar, near the airport. They do not come into the city.

Marlowe: What changes will happen in Mazar when the Americans leave?

Amini: Well the American troops have already decreased. I don’t think there will be a major change as we are aware that the Afghan National Army is getting ready to take responsibility for the security of the city and country. We are hoping and expecting that government will come up with a plan to keep the people safe.

Marlowe: What do you think Americans don’t understand about Afghans? Why has the American mission in Afghanistan had so many problems? Why could they not defeat the Taliban?

Amini: Great questions. Ann, what Americans did not understand about Afghans is the history and culture of Afghanistan. Afghanistan has a complex history and also is a country where religion is a powerful social force. Americans did not understand the culture of Afghans, the values that they hold. If the country is profoundly rooted in tradition and religion, it’s hard to introduce the idea of democracy.

Also Afghanistan is a multiethnic and predominantly tribal country. Every tribe has its leader, and people listen to their leader more than the government. There are always conflicts between different tribes, which can be one reason why the American mission in Afghanistan had so many problems because it is hard to understand the cultural concept of each ethnic group.

Also, lack of education: The literacy rate in Afghanistan is the lowest in the world. [Afghanistan, with an adult literacy rate of 43 percent, is one of the handful of least literate countries in the world according to the World Bank. The literacy rate is now about double what it was in 1980.] That puts the country in a different danger. Afghanistan is one country that depends on foreign aid, and America has played a significant role in helping Afghanistan.

About why could they not defeat the Taliban: Geographically Afghanistan is located in central Asia where some neighbors of Afghanistan are interfering with Afghan policy, such as Pakistan, Iran, and their relationship with them.

Marlowe: What does Afghanistan need for the future?

Amini: I have seven children—five daughters and two sons, and I am very proud of them. My oldest daughter is studying medicine. My son is studying engineering.

This is what my country needs: more young people to study and help their country.

We Should Be Paying More Attention to Somalia…so should Rep. Omar

Monday, May 27th, 2019

Originally published in The Bulwark, March 22 2019: https://thebulwark.com/we-should-be-paying-more-attention-to-somalia/

Share on Facebook Share on Twitter Share via email Print
If you care about Somalia, this isn’t a good time. The local al-Qaeda affiliate, al-Shabab, remains active and effective, despite or perhaps because of a dramatic spike in U.S. airstrikes ordered by President Trump under loosened rules of engagement in March 2017.

In the first two months of 2019, United States Africa Command killed 225 people in 24 airstrikes targeting al-Shabab, the New York Times reported earlier this month. The air war seems to have substituted for a joined-up approach that might have a chance at stabilizing Somalia.

Stephen Schwartz, United States ambassador to Somalia from 2016 to 2017, told the New York Times, “It could be there is some well-thought-out strategy behind all of this, but I really doubt it.” Until December, the United States hadn’t had a resident ambassador in Somalia since 1991; it was simply too dangerous.

The U.S. and other Western powers are trying to help the federal government bring order to the country, but to little effect. In July, the European Parliament noted that “state actors” as well as non-state actors were responsible for human rights abuses in Somalia and that there have been extrajudicial executions, sexual and gender-based violence, arbitrary arrests and detentions and abductions; whereas according to the UN Human Rights Office, the National Intelligence and Security Agency (NISA) of Somalia routinely violates international human rights law; whereas it often operates in an extrajudicial manner and its powers are too broad;

The Parliament also stated, “according to Transparency International, Somalia is the most corrupt country in the world.”

Somalia needs some friends in Congress. Where is someone who can suggest something more creative than airstrikes, someone who can call the Trump administration policy to account? What about Ilhan Omar, the outspoken freshman representative from Minneapolis who was born in Somalia and elected with the help of Minneapolis’ large Somali population? (Around 74,000 Somalis have moved to or been resettled in Minnesota in the last couple of decades.) As a new member of the 47-member House Foreign Affairs Committee she might have some influence.

Yet Rep. Omar has tweeted a grand total of one time about Somalia since taking her seat, in the context of the firestorm over her attacks on Israel, claiming she would not hesitate to criticize any government, including Somalia’s or our own. But Rep Omar has not criticized Somalia’s government that I can find, nor engaged with U.S. policy there. In fact, she’s tweeted about Somalia just 15 times since January 2014 and most of these mentions were very superficial.

Ilhan Omar is ignoring her chance to be a much-needed voice for Somalia, and especially for Somalia’s women, 98 percent of whom experience FGM , according to UNICEF estimates. Instead, she’s expended much political capital posturing on Israel, which has earned her considerable backlash and led, in a meandering fashion, to a House resolution condeming anti-Semitism and other bigotry.

This is especially odd because a close ally of Donald Trump has been a major player in Somalia, someone a Democrat should relish attacking; someone many Republicans regard as unhinged, unwise, and remorseless: Erik Prince, brother of Education SecretaryBetsy DeVos and self-proclaimed Trumpworld insider, close associate of Steve Bannon and George Nader, using Chinese and Emirati funds to create companies in Somalia.

In fact, in June 2017, three months after Trump approved looser rules on airstrikes, Prince’s Frontier Services Group (FSG), announced a contract to provide “logistics, aviation and security services” for a development project in a new state in Somalia, the South West State.

Robert Young Pelton – who conducted Prince’s first major interview in 2004 for his book Licensed to Kill: Hired Guns in the War on Terror, points out that Prince is a Chinese proxy as well as a UAE proxy in the Horn of Africa. A Chinese state entity, CITIC, has a 20 percent stake in Prince’s Frontier Services Group.

In a recent Al Jazeera TV Head to Head interview with a notably hostile Mehdi Hasan, Prince made his extensive involvement in Somalia clear, saying that he was at the January 2017 Seychelles meeting with UAE and Russian nationals that Special Counsel Mueller is investigating, to talk about “Somalia and some of the other problem areas we’d helped with”. (That happens near the 34-minute mark.) . To an American, the Seychelles may seem like the middle of nowhere, but they are little more than 800 miles from Mogadishu. (My own take on Prince in the Seychelles is here.)

Prince’s influence in Somalia stems from his UAE backing; when Blackwater came under legal pressure in the years following its 2007 massacre of Iraqi civilians, Prince re-located to the UAE, where he still maintains a home. And the UAE has exerted its influence in what it perceives as its backyard.

One Somali-American expert says, “UAE training of elements of the Somalia National Army – including units trained by Prince – has been counterproductive because these units have been perceived as loyal to the foreign backers who finance them. They have been a magnet for attacks not only by al Shabab but by clan militia. These units have different uniforms and have better equipment. Sometimes they have gotten into exchanges of fire with regular units and civilian casualties have resulted.”

Pelton also noted Prince’s failed projects in Somalia: “When he left the U.S. in 2010, Prince attempted to set up a still-born presidential guard in Mogadishu and a failed anti piracy police force in Puntland.” Puntland is a semi-autonomous state that has tried unsuccessfully to win recognition as an autonomous state.

The New York Times published a scathing account of the Puntland effort in October 2012. Prince’s shell company, Sterling Corporate Services was criticized by the United Nations as a “brazen, large-scale and protracted violation” of the UN arms embargo on Somalia. After incidents involving beatings of trainees and a death, Sterling pulled out suddenly when one of its trainers was shot dead by a trainee:

with the antipiracy army now abandoned by its sponsors, the hundreds of half-trained and well-armed members of the Puntland Maritime Police Force have been left to fend for themselves at a desert camp carved out of the sand, perhaps to join up with the pirates or Qaeda-linked militants or to sell themselves to the highest bidder in Somalia’s clan wars — yet another dangerous element in the Somali mix.

So why isn’t Rep. Omar trying to do something to help Somalia? Why her silence on Prince?

Perhaps Rep. Omar is biding her time, planning on using her perch in the Foreign Affairs Committee to contribute to the dialogue on Somalia once she has more seniority (but Omar’s tweets on Israel don’t suggest that she is the patient type.) It should be noted that Omar hasn’t ignored the Horn of Africa completely; she was part of a recent House delegation to Eritrea, a nasty pariah state that has lately made peace with Ethiopia. Omar’s office declined to comment for this article.

What is Omar’s family’s history and how does it fit in the complex fabric of Somalia politics? On her father’s side, she is a member of the large, powerful Majerteen clan, which has a power base in Puntland. However, being Majerteen need not mean much given that Omar grew up in Mogadishu and left Somalia at the age of 8.

But there are hints of Omar’s loyalties. In March 2013, as a private citizen, Omar supported the creation of Jubbaland, a new state in Somalia bordering Kenya:

“Kismayo (the capital of Jubbaland) offered refuge for me as a child running from war in the capital Mogadishu, and it has since been a place of unimagined violence. I was excited to celebrate its liberation and look forward to one day returning there as peace prevails. To my relatives still residing in Kismayo, I would like to congratulate them and urge them to not lose sight of this amazing opportunity to secure peace and prosperity.”

Others take a less benign view of Jubbaland, pointing out that it is a Kenyan puppet state set up to control the port of Kismayo, where Kenyan smugglers operate. With this in mind, consider what Omar told Minneapolis Citypages in 2016 about her family’s fleeing Somalia in 1991: “My family chose to go to Kenya because my grandfather had contacts there.”Citypages reported,“Omar’s paternal grandfather Somalia’s National Marine Transport director. Abukar oversaw the string of lighthouses along the Arabian Sea coastline.”

So, by her own account Omar’s family had some pull in Kenya, and she might well feel grateful to Kenya and its satellite state, Jubbaland, for taking in her family as refugees.

Perhaps Omar doesn’t want to raise the specter of her own potential dual allegiances, given that she has made so much noise about AIPAC and Jewish American politicians. But given her general lack of reticence to speak up despite her newcomer status, and given that she could be advocating for policies that would benefit both the United States and her home country, her silence is curious.

Ann Marlowe
Ann Marlowe is a writer and businesswoman in New York. She tweets at @annmarlowe.
BULWARK VIDEOS

Terror and Slow Justice: Dragging Libya to court for a deadly 1989 hijacking.

Sunday, September 3rd, 2017

originally published in The Weekly Standard, Sept 4 2017

Few Americans noticed, but this past June, Muammar Qaddafi’s longtime spy chief Abdullah Senussi was apparently released from prison in Tripoli, where he had been sentenced to death in July 2015 for decades of officially sanctioned murders of his fellow Libyans. If Senussi was not released—everything is murky in Libya—he was at least seen at a festive meal at a Tripoli hotel.

Justice has been a long time coming to Senussi, one of six Libyans convicted in a French court in 1999 for the murder of 170 people on UTA Flight 772, the “forgotten flight” of the title of Stuart Newberger’s book. The DC-10 had left Brazzaville, Congo, on September 19, 1989, and reached its first stop, N’Djamena, Chad. It took off from N’Djamena for its final stop, Paris, but 45 minutes after takeoff a bomb exploded and the plane broke into four sections that plunged from the sky, some of the passengers likely still conscious when they smashed into the Niger desert.

Newberger, a lawyer who represented the seven Americans killed on Flight 772, writes that it is unlikely Senussi will leave Libya alive. But his own narration of decades of terror by Qaddafi and others, and decades of appeasing international responses, should make us wonder. One condition of the release of the American hostages from Iran in 1981 was that they could not sue Iran. Many laws have been passed since to assist victims of terror in seeking redress in civil lawsuits in the United States, but as Newberger’s UTA 772 case shows, legal judgments can always be overtaken by political events. The results are rarely fair to the victims of terrorism and their loved ones.

Newberger is most engrossing in describing the work supervised by France’s Jean-Louis Bruguière, an 11th-generation investigating magistrate, which he calls with some justice “one of the greatest detective stories of all time.” The plane’s debris—and the passengers’ remains—were scattered over a 50-by-5-mile area of remote desert in an era before GPS, mobile phones, Google Earth, and many other contemporary tools. Remarkably, within four weeks the remains of a suitcase were found; it tested positive for plastic-explosive residue.

Bruguière leveraged France’s good connections in Congo, where it turned out the bomb entered the UTA plane in a suitcase carried by a Congolese, Apollinaire Mangatany. His small group of revolutionaries aimed to overthrow Mobutu, the dictator of neighboring Zaire, and they accepted assistance from Libya’s Brazzaville embassy. In revenge for France’s support of Chad in the recently ended Libya-Chad war, Mangatany’s Libyan handlers supplied him with a suitcase containing explosives, telling him it was intended to blow up the French plane when it sat on the runway in N’Djamena. Mangatany may not have been killed in the explosion: His remains, along with those of over 60 of the other passengers, were never identified, and it’s possible he got off the plane in Chad and disappeared.

By June 1990, physical evidence surfaced indicating Libya’s involvement. Newberger details the patient police work that tied a tiny piece of green plastic circuit board found at the crash site to the German middleman who sold 100 Taiwanese-made timers to one of Abdullah Senussi’s subordinates in the Libyan Mukhabarat (intelligence service). The Germans apparently had thought they were providing timers for battery-operated runway lights on remote desert airstrips in Libya.

In October 1991, Bruguière issued international arrest warrants for four Libyans—including Senussi. But none was extradited: Libya doesn’t allow its citizens to be tried for crimes outside the country, and Libya’s lawyers pointed out at the time that France doesn’t either. Eventually Bruguière charged Senussi and five other Libyans with destroying UTA 772; they were convicted in absentia in 1999.

Meanwhile, in November 1991 a Scottish prosecutor had indicted Abdelbaset al-Megrahi and Lamin Khalifah Fhimah, apparent Libyan Mukhabarat agents, for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, on December 21, 1988, which resulted in the deaths of 259 passengers and crew, as well as another 11 people on the ground. The majority of victims aboard that flight were American and the crash site was easy to reach, so it received much more media attention than UTA 772. Yet even for Pan Am 103 it would take until 2003 for a compensation deal to come together, and it was not finalized until 2008.

Newberger entered the story in April 2002 when he was contacted by Douglas Matthews, the billionaire owner of the DC-10 leased to UTA. Matthews wanted to bring a civil suit against Libya for the destruction of his $40 million aircraft, and his lawyer knew of Newberger.

Newberger had become famous in 2000 for winning $40 million in compensatory damages for newsman Terry Anderson, held hostage for seven years by Iran. This lawsuit was only made possible by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 and by 1996 amendments to the 1976 Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act. These measures, enacted in response to the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, allowed for the waiving of sovereign immunity to bring lawsuits against states that sponsored terrorism, and allowed commercial assets of these countries to be seized in the United States. It took the passage of still another law for Anderson to collect his judgment from $400 million in Iranian government funds frozen in the United States.

The UTA 772 suit was filed in 2003 and took its name, Pugh v. Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, from Robert L. Pugh, a diplomat who survived the U.S. embassy attack in Beirut in 1983 and was ambassador to Chad in 1989. His wife Bonnie had been one of the seven Americans killed on UTA 772. It took until 2008, with Libya delaying every step of the way, but Pugh resulted in a massive judgment of around $6 billion in favor of the American plaintiffs. Here is where Newberger and the families involved in his case find out that “politics was more powerful than law”—because (spoiler alert) a political agreement ended up having a large effect on the settlement. The relatives who participated in the Pugh suit were each eligible to receive $10 million, just a tenth of what they would have received under the court judgment against Libya, had it been allowed to stand.

Newberger’s book is at its best—clear and fast-paced—when discussing the details of policework. The book would have benefited, however, from an editor who could have steered the author away from some formulaic descriptions and clichés. Also, it would have been compelling to hear the voices of the Pugh plaintiffs that Newberger represented, were they willing be interviewed and quoted. And, given the complicated nature of the story Newberger is telling, the absence of a timeline is keenly felt.

In the years since the Pugh case was decided, the struggle to use our legal system to bring terrorists and their supporters to justice has continued. A law passed in 2016—the Justice Against Sponsors of Terrorism Act, which was enacted in the only override of a presidential veto in the Obama years—allows federal courts to exercise jurisdiction over foreign states charged with supporting terrorism, regardless of whether the state is designated a sponsor of terrorism. This change in the law made it possible, earlier this year, for many of the families of the victims of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to sue Saudi Arabia in civil court. This is a welcome development, but if there is any lesson to be found in Newberger’s book, it is that expectations should be tempered, since justice can be very slow in coming.