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Longform’s Picks of the Week

The best stories from around the world.


Every weekend, Longform highlights its favorite international articles of the week. For daily picks of new and classic nonfiction, check out Longform or follow @longform on Twitter. Have an iPad? Download Longform’s new app and read all of the latest in-depth stories from dozens of magazines, including Foreign Policy.

Al Qaeda Wants Africa

Aris Roussinos • Vice

A war travelogue through Mali alongside French troops as the “place just like Afghanistan” descends into chaos.

Not long before our grim tour, I had traveled to Mali to witness the aftermath of France’s intervention. I was to ride with a French military convoy from the capital of Bamako to Gao-a five-day journey across the desert. We would be the first such convoy to reach the city, where for the previous six months, al Qaeda and their local allies had taken over and created an Islamic theocracy, indoctrinating youths in jihad and enforcing Sharia law on the locals with whips and butcher’s knives. French troops had subsequently retaken the city with jets and attack helicopters, and we were bringing them food, bottled water, and generators: the full, ungainly logistics trail of a modern army digging its heels in. As we slogged through the Sahara, villagers periodically appeared from their huts to greet us as liberators, waving tricolours and shouting, “Vive la France!” and “Merci, merci!” But as one gets closer to Gao, the Islamist influence grows, and soon I would find out that not all the locals viewed their French saviors with the same fuzzy glow.


A King with No Country

Ariel Sabar • Washingtonian

The King of Rwanda is 76 years old, 7 feet 2 inches tall, and lives on public assistance in a small apartment in Virginia.

Kigeli V (as in the fifth) might himself have been easily forgotten, an accidental, throwaway ruler of one of the smallest and poorest countries in Africa, the last twitch of a monarchy abolished in 1961 as Rwanda moved from colonial feudalism to independence. Kigeli drifted in exile for decades, trundling from one African sanctuary to the next. A man with a kingdom had become a man with a street corner, like the one in Nairobi where curiosity seekers in the 1980s paid a few shillings to meet someone who’d once worn a crown.

But the genocide and its political aftermath opened a door, if ever so slightly, for Kigeli’s return-possibly even his restoration. Arriving penniless in the United States in the early 1990s, Kigeli robed himself in the mythology of the Rwandan monarchy: He was the eye through which God looked upon Rwanda, a father figure above clan, politics, and tribe, singularly qualified to pacify his fractious children.


A Nightmare in Real Life

Susan Svrluga • The Washington Post

On an American teenager and his mother who were kidnapped by Islamic militants while vacationing in the Philippines.

They hiked through the night, exhausted, sore, pulling leeches off, sometimes seeing clotheslines or houses or cows and thinking about escape, but there were too many men, too many guns. They stopped at midday the next day in the midst of a jungle so thick they could only feel the sun, not see it. They heard birds calling. There was a camp there, sticks holding up tarps, surrounded by mountains, and more men in uniform.

A commander of the group arrived who was able to speak the dialect Gerfa knows. He told her they were fighting for an Islamic state and that she and Kevin would be killed unless her husband paid the ransom: $100 million. She told him even the Philippine government did not have that much money. Ten million, he said.

She pointed to a tiny patch of night sky just visible through the leaves overhead and said, “If you can get that star, my husband can get $10 million.”

STR/AFP/Getty Images

The Bitcoin Bubble and the Future of Currency

Felix Salmon • Medium

A cultural history of Bitcoin and what happened when the nascent virtual currency began to be covered by the mainstream media.

But the biggest difference between bitcoin and other virtual currencies is that bitcoins are the only one which have speculative value. What’s more, because they’re not tied to a corporate parent, bitcoins appeal to the web’s anarcho-libertarians in the way that no other virtual currency can. Bitcoins hold exactly the same gleaming promise for techno-utopians as gold does for Glenn Beck. They’re a scarce resource, and there’s no government or corporation which can control that resource.

Bitcoins, like gold, are beholden to no government; they can’t be printed by any central bank, and they certainly won’t be subject to hyperinflation, since the global supply of bitcoins will never exceed 21 million. Like gold, bitcoins are mined; but unlike gold, no one can stumble over some large seam and make a fortune. Mining for bitcoins involves an enormous amount of computer power, and very little luck, and the global rate at which new bitcoins will be mined is both predetermined and slowing down. There were about 3 million coins outstanding at the beginning of 2010, there are about 11 million coins outstanding today, and we’ll get to 14 million in early 2014. Come 2021 or so, assuming bitcoins are still used then, the rate of growth of bitcoins will be so low that to a first approximation the money supply will be constant. This carries with it its own problems, as we’ll see.

Wikimedia commons

A Weapon of Minor Destruction

Robert Young Pelton • Foreign Policy

How the FBI duped an American Jihadist into incriminating himself.

On April 8, Eric Harroun will appear with his public defender in an Alexandria, Virginia, court to answer charges that he conspired to use a weapon of mass destruction outside the United States. While such legal wording may suggest that he was looking to get his hands on a chemical or nuclear weapon, Harroun’s alleged crime is actually much more mundane: He stands accused of using a rocket-propelled grenade launcher while fighting with rebels who aim to topple Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime.

If this story sounds familiar, it should: The 30-year old Harroun has joined a small but controversial club: young Americans who decided to fight in foreign jihads. And I’ve met a lot of them.

Eric Omar Harroun via Facebook

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