Geopolitics

Wanted: How Bin Laden's Demise Resembles A Sicilian Mafia Manhunt

With Osama bin Laden and Mafiosi, similar patterns emerge when ultra-infamous criminals are forced into hiding.

Top Sicilian Mafia boss Toto Riina was capture in 1993 after a decade-long manhunt (Sarah Murray)
Top Sicilian Mafia boss Toto Riina was capture in 1993 after a decade-long manhunt (Sarah Murray)
Francesco La Licata

The Tora Bora mountains, Osama bin Laden's long-time presumed hideout, have little in common with the hills near Corleone, Sicily; and the highway leading out of Abbottabad, where the world's most wanted man was found and killed, is not exactly the vegetable-lined stretch of road around Palermo; and the exploits of the Mafia's now imprisoned top bosses, Salvatore Riina and Bernardo Provenzano, pale in comparison with Osama bin Laden, his spectacular demise and the location that served as a backdrop for the triumph of the U.S. Navy SEALS.

So why is it that, for some of us, the details emerging about bin Laden's death inevitably harken to recent Mafia manhunts?

It may be that years of dealing with the Mafia will do that to your mind, or maybe that, at the end of the day, all stories of criminals in hiding look similar, regardless of whether the fugitives are international terrorists or local mobsters.

Are the crowds at Ground Zero rejoicing that "justice has been done" so different from the people who gathered outside police headquarters in Palermo to celebrate the 2006 arrest of boss of bosses Provenzano, and the other killers of heroic anti-Mafia prosecutors? Even the sense of pride expressed by our police investigators sounds much the statements made by U.S. law enforcement officials.

Many analysts have expressed surprise at the fact that bin Laden had been hiding in a compound just a stone's throw from an important Pakistani military base, only protected by a tall wall and barbed wire. Many noted that there was no phone or Internet connection inside the compound, which confounds the common idea of sophisticated communications' systems, satellite phones and so on.

While everyone thought bin Laden was hiding in Tora Bora, there he was, just a few miles away from Islamabad, from the center of security and intelligence services that had been looking for him since 1995, well before 9/11. Just like most of the Mafiosis, who were captured in their own homes: Riina lived in a quiet middle-class building in Palermo, Provenzano hadn't left his home village.

Bin Laden and mobsters also avoided telephones? Provenzano would only communicate via "pizzini" – scraps of papers on which he wrote his orders. A slow but safe method of communication: they were only given to his most trusted aides.

Just like the messenger who unknowingly led the American "frogmen" right to the Abbottabad compound – showing that classic, old-fashioned tailing can sometimes work as efficiently as a high-tech investigation.

Even bin Laden's presence in such an exposed location falls within the same logic employed by the Mafiosi: There are some things that a No. 1 boss cannot delegate but must do himself to impose his charisma – be it meeting with terror cells in Afghanistan or Pakistan, defining a strategy vis a vis the Arab uprisings, or agreeing to a suspicious meeting with other clans if necessary.

Details that have emerged about the long hunt for bin Laden suggest further links with the pursuit of the Mafia. Take for example, the US informant, perhaps attracted by the generous bounty on bin Laden, who was found beheaded with a sign reading: "This is what happens to traitors." This primitive system of internal communication is typical of Mafia groups, when a murder is used as a deterrent, a warning toward those considering betrayal.

And fnally, there is the inevitable question that follows the announcement of the death of any larger-than-life mobster or terrorist – is he really dead? We've seen that one before, too. Indeed, just a few weeks ago, Italian authorities exhumed the body of Salvatore Giuliano, the Sicilian gangster who was killed under mysterious circumstances in 1950. Some will always believe it was a look-alike.

Read the original article in Italian

photo - Sarah Murray

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Society

Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum

-Analysis-

SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.


It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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