Saturday, November 28, 2015

NSA’s bulk collection of Americans’ phone records ends Sunday

By Ellen Nakashima November 27 at 10:52 PM, WashPost

The National Security Agency on Sunday will end its mass collection of data about Americans’ phone calls under the Patriot Act, 2 1/2 years after a leak by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden forced the government to confirm its existence.

The halt was ordered by Congress, which in June passed the USA Freedom Act to ban the controversial collection of information known as metadata. That data includes the dates and durations of phone calls and logs of call times, but not content.

Under the new law, the NSA must obtain a court order to receive records about phone numbers suspected of belonging to terrorist suspects.

The program began in secret 14 years ago under the authority of President George W. Bush, and for years, the government kept it mostly secret. But in the summer of 2013, it was forced to acknowledge the program after Snowden’s leak of a court order showing that the agency was gathering from a Verizon phone company “all call detail records” of its customers on a daily basis.

The revelation touched off a contentious two-year debate about the proper scope of government surveillance and several lawsuits challenging the program

(More here.)

Failure to stop Paris attacks reveals fatal flaws at heart of European security

By Griff Witte and Loveday Morris November 28 at 4:00 PM, WashPost

PARIS — To carry out the attacks that left 130 people dead in Paris this month, the killers relied on a cunning awareness of the weaknesses at the heart of the European security services charged with stopping them.

Poor information-sharing among intelligence agencies, a threadbare system for tracking suspects across open borders and an unmanageably long list of homegrown extremists to monitor all gave the Paris plotters an opening to carry out the deadliest attack on French soil in more than half a century.

Two weeks later, European security experts say the flaws in the continent’s defenses are as conspicuous as ever, with no clear plan for fixing them.

“We lack the most obvious tools to deal with this threat,” said Jean-Charles Brisard, chairman of the Paris-based Center for the Analysis of Terrorism. “We’re blind.”

With the Syrian war raging on the continent’s doorstep and thousands of Europe’s own citizens traveling to and from the battlefield under the influence of a spellbindingly effective propaganda campaign, Brisard’s bleak assessment is widely shared.

(More here.)

Iranian media is revealing that scores of the country’s fighters are dying in Syria

By Hugh Naylor November 27 at 10:15 AM, WashPost

BEIRUT — An increasing number of Iranian soldiers and militiamen appear to be dying in Syria’s civil war, and observers credit media from an unexpected country for revealing the trend:


A flurry of reports in Iran’s official and semi­official news outlets about the deaths — including funerals and even a eulogy to a fallen general by Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — have surprised analysts who monitor the country’s tightly controlled media. The reports, they say, indicate that at least 67 Iranians have been killed in Syria since the beginning of October.

Just a few months ago, Iranian media said little about the country’s military intervention in ­Syria to shore up the government. But as Iranian fighters participate in a new Russian-led offensive against Syrian rebels, Iran’s leaders might have a reason to offer more details of their country’s involvement, said Ali Alfoneh, an Iran expert at the ­Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

“They are proud of this and they want to show it,” he said. Since Iranian forces became increasingly involved in the conflict in 2013, he noted, about 10 fighters were being killed every month, but the numbers surged after Russia, another ally of Syria’s government, began launching airstrikes at rebels in late September.

(More here.)

The New Atomic Age We Need

By PETER THIEL, NYT, NOV. 27, 2015

THIS past summer, the Group of 7 nations promised “urgent and concrete action” to limit climate change. What actions exactly? Activists hope for answers from the coming United Nations climate conference in Paris, which begins Monday. They should look instead to Washington today.

The single most important action we can take is thawing a nuclear energy policy that keeps our technology frozen in time. If we are serious about replacing fossil fuels, we are going to need nuclear power, so the choice is stark: We can keep on merely talking about a carbon-free world, or we can go ahead and create one.

We already know that today’s energy sources cannot sustain a future we want to live in. This is most obvious in poor countries, where billions dream of living like Americans. The easiest way to satisfy this demand for a better life has been to burn more coal: In the past decade alone, China added more coal-burning capacity than America has ever had. But even though average Indians and Chinese use less than 30 percent as much electricity as Americans, the air they breathe is far worse. They deserve a third option besides dire poverty or dirty skies.

In America, the left worries more about our five billion metric tons of annual carbon dioxide emissions and what it might do to Earth’s climate. On the right, even those who discount the environmental effects of fossil fuels can’t deny their contribution to economic volatility. We saw this in 2008 when a historic high oil price coincided with a historic financial crisis.

(More here.)

Friday, November 27, 2015

Once in Guantánamo, Afghan Now Leads War Against Taliban and ISIS

Hajji Ghalib, the governor of Achin District in the province of Nangarhar in eastern Afghanistan, was once imprisoned in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. Credit Andrew Quilty for The New York Times

NOV. 27, 2015

KABUL, Afghanistan — Hajji Ghalib did just what the American military feared he would after his release from the Guantánamo Bay prison camp: He returned to the Afghan battlefield.

But rather than worrying about Mr. Ghalib, the Americans might have considered encouraging him. Lean and weather-beaten, he is now leading the fight against the Taliban and the Islamic State across a stretch of eastern Afghanistan.

His effectiveness has led to appointments as the Afghan government’s senior representative in some of the country’s most war-ravaged districts. Afghan and American officials alike describe him as a fiercely effective fighter against the insurgency, and the American military sometimes supports his men with airstrikes — although Mr. Ghalib complains that there are too few bombers and drones for his taste.

Accounts of former Guantánamo detainees who went on to fight alongside the Taliban or Islamic State have become familiar. So are those of innocents swept up in the American dragnet and dumped in the prison camp without recourse or appeal. But this is a new one: the story of a man wrongly branded an enemy combatant and imprisoned in Guantánamo for four years, only to emerge as a steadfast American ally on the battlefield.

(More here.)

Rising temperatures have broad implications for the economy, livability

OUR VIEW: Global warming climate change may be inevitable business trend

Mankato Free Press
Posted: Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The World Meteorological Organization reported that between man-made global warming from fossil fuels and the weather-warming phenomenon El Nino, this year will be the warmest on record, breaking 2014’s record.

That has broad implications for livability of the planet, but also will give a boost to several positive business trends.

The United Nations weather agency is not alone in its forecast. Scientists at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are also predicting 2015 will be the warmest. Last year, the NOAA, NASA, Japan’s weather agency and the U.N. agency agreed 2014 was the warmest since records have been kept in the 1880s. The report comes just a week before the world leaders will meet in Paris to negotiate climate change agreements.

Any agreements will likely continue what has been a somewhat soft push to address an issue that is clearly convincing not only to consumers but also businesses around the world of its serious economic implications and, not surprisingly, its opportunities for new business.

(Continued here.)

Inside the Republicans’ Opposition Research Machine

NOV. 27, 2015

The vast right-wing conspiracy Hillary Rodham Clinton once cited in 1998 works from cluttered offices on Capitol Hill, led by a man who was in high school when she first made the charge.

Raj Shah runs the Republican National Committee’s opposition research arm, a beehive of two dozen tech-savvy idealists who have already spent two years searching through decades of government documents, tax filings, TV footage and news archives. One of their colleagues in Arkansas turns up every day in the Clinton presidential library to probe the Clintons’ accumulated past. More than 330 Freedom of Information Act requests have netted 11,000 pages of records, and counting. The R.N.C. has also retained Mark Zaid, an attorney who also is representing the Gawker website in suing the State Department over records from Mrs. Clinton’s time as secretary of state.

Today, presidential candidates start campaigning two years before the first primary vote is cast. That gives researchers a head start in finding flip-flops, fibs and perhaps most damaging of all, moments when politicians are caught being themselves.

Both political parties conduct opposition research — for proof of the Democrats’ prowess, there’s the “macaca moment” in 2006 that torpedoed the re-election of Senator George Allen in Virginia. In this political cycle Republican investigators have been given a rare gift: a clear front-runner with a long and public history.

(More here.)

The GOP’s self-inflicted wounds

Eugene Robinson Opinion writer November 26 at 7:59 PM, WashPost

As the leading Republican presidential candidates rant and rave about deporting 11 million immigrants, fighting some kind of world war against Islam, implementing gimmicky tax plans that would bankrupt the nation and other such madness, keep one thing in mind: The party establishment brought this plague upon itself.

The self-harming was unintentional but inevitable — and should have been foreseeable. Donald Trump and Ben Carson didn’t come out of nowhere. Fully half of the party’s voters didn’t wake up one morning and decide for no particular reason that experience as a Republican elected official was the last thing they wanted in a presidential candidate.

The insurrection that has reduced Jeb Bush to single-digit support while Trump and Carson soar is nothing more than the understandable reaction of the jilted. Republican leaders have spent the years of the Obama presidency inflaming GOP base voters with extreme rhetoric and wooing them with empty promises. The establishment won its goal — electoral gains in Congress and many statehouses — but in the process may have lost the party.

(More here.)

Cleaning up Bobby Jindal’s mess in Louisiana

By Editorial Board November 26 at 7:44 PM, WashPost

IT’S NOT so clear who really won Louisiana’s gubernatorial election over the weekend, Democrat John Bel Edwards, who will run the state starting next year, or Republican David Vitter, who will be spared the task of cleaning up the shambles that outgoing Gov. Bobby Jindal (R) is leaving behind. Mr. Jindal put ideological purity over prudence, the Grover Norquist no-tax pledge over good policy. The result has been, as with Kansas under Gov. Sam Brownback (R), a state-level conservative experiment gone awry.

Either candidate who sought to succeed Mr. Jindal would have been an upgrade. Mr. Edwards and Mr. Vitter both rightly criticized the outgoing governor’s plans to fill massive budget gaps. The latest is a $500 million midyear hole that the state’s leaders are trying to close. It appears the “solution” will involve digging more into health-care funding and pushing some payments off into the next fiscal year — making budget imbalances the next governor’s problem.

This is the same basic budget strategy Mr. Jindal’s Louisiana has used for some time: loot the state’s rainy-day funds and other one-time sources while cutting education and other state programs. The outgoing governor’s last budget raised some revenue through cigarette taxes and other measures, but it clearly wasn’t enough given the midyear fiscal straits the state is dealing with now. While it’s true that the energy-rich state’s revenue has suffered from the drop in oil prices, Mr. Jindal’s mismanagement — optimized to appeal to voters in GOP presidential primaries — has been a major contributor to the problem.

(More here.)

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Gas Driller Hits a Gusher—and Sinks Its Own Stock

A big find typically would send an energy company’s stock surging, but in an industry awash in the commodity, it is having the opposite effect

By Timothy Puko And Ryan Dezember, WSJ
Nov. 26, 2015 5:33 a.m. ET

EQT Corp. this summer drilled what by some measures is the biggest natural-gas gusher ever. The Pittsburgh energy company’s reward: a tumbling stock price.

The well, in southwestern Pennsylvania’s Greene County, spewed enough gas in its first 24 hours to power every home in Pittsburgh for nearly three days. Named Scotts Run 591340 after a historic coal field that sparked a regional energy boom after World War I, the well has continued to produce at unusually high rates with no signs of fading soon.

That would sound like good news. But in a glutted industry in which natural-gas prices are plunging as record amounts of unused gas build up in storage, it is a problem. Since EQT finished drilling the gusher in July, its shares have lost 29%, while U.S. natural-gas prices have fallen 24%.

Scotts Run 591340 taps part of a rock formation called the Utica Shale that has only been lightly explored so far because it sits almost 3 miles below the Earth’s surface.

Situated beneath Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio, the Utica is close to gas-consuming regions of the Northeast. If it proves as productive as EQT’s well and a few nearby wells suggest, it could mean trouble for billions of dollars of wells and pipelines built in and from more established regions like north Louisiana and the Rocky Mountains.

(More here.)

Ted Cruz, climate idiot

AP FACT CHECK: Most GOP candidates flunk climate science

Nov. 22, 2015 10:51 AM EST

WASHINGTON (AP) — When it comes to climate science, two of the three Democratic presidential candidates are A students, while most of the Republican contenders are flunking, according to a panel of scientists who reviewed candidates' comments.

At the request of The Associated Press, eight climate and biological scientists graded for scientific accuracy what a dozen top candidates said in debates, interviews and tweets, using a 0 to 100 scale.

To try to eliminate possible bias, the candidates' comments were stripped of names and given randomly generated numbers, so the professors would not know who made each statement they were grading. Also, the scientists who did the grading were chosen by professional scientific societies.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had the highest average score at 94. Three scientists did not assign former Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley a score, saying his statements mostly were about policy, which they could not grade, instead of checkable science.

(More here.)

Sex After 50 at the Supreme Court

Linda Greenhouse, NYT
NOV. 26, 2015

Fifty years after the Supreme Court, in Griswold v. Connecticut, granted married couples the constitutional right to use birth control, here we are back at the court, still wrestling with contraception. Am I the only one who finds this remarkable?

It’s less startling to find abortion also back at the court, given that we’ve never stopped debating abortion even as the birth control wars receded into a dimly remembered past. It’s the conjunction of the two issues that deserves more notice than it has received. Maybe it’s just a coincidence of timing that they now sit side-by-side on the court’s docket, in cases the justices accepted on consecutive Fridays earlier this month for argument and decision later in the current term.

But it feels like more than mere coincidence. Big Supreme Court cases don’t arrive randomly at the justices’ door. Rather, they are propelled by contending forces deep within American society, conflict eventually taking the shape of a legal dispute with sufficient resonance to claim the Supreme Court’s attention. It’s from that perspective, in the waning weeks of Griswold’s anniversary year, that I propose to consider these two crucially important cases.

The birth-control case — actually seven separate appeals that the court has consolidated under the name Zubik v. Burwell — is a challenge to the accommodation the Obama administration has provided for nonprofit organizations with religious objections to covering birth control under their employee health plans, as required under the Affordable Care Act. All these organizations have to do to claim the privilege of opting out is to send a letter to the Secretary of Health and Human Services. The abortion case, Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole, is an appeal by abortion clinics in Texas from a decision upholding state regulations that invoke women’s health as a pretext for destroying the state’s abortion-provider infrastructure.

(More here.)

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Emirates Secretly Sends Colombian Mercenaries to Fight in Yemen

NOV. 25, 2015

WASHINGTON — The United Arab Emirates has secretly dispatched hundreds of Colombian mercenaries to Yemen to fight in that country’s raging conflict, adding a volatile new element in a complex proxy war that has drawn in the United States and Iran.

It is the first combat deployment for a foreign army that the Emirates has quietly built in the desert over the past five years, according to several people currently or formerly involved with the project. The program was once managed by a private company connected to Erik Prince, the founder of Blackwater Worldwide, but the people involved in the effort said that his role ended several years ago and that it has since been run by the Emirati military.

The arrival in Yemen of 450 Latin American troops — among them are also Panamanian, Salvadoran and Chilean soldiers — adds to the chaotic stew of government armies, armed tribes, terrorist networks and Yemeni militias currently at war in the country. Earlier this year, a coalition of countries led by Saudi Arabia, including the United States, began a military campaign in Yemen against Houthi rebels who have pushed the Yemeni government out of the capital, Sana.

It is also a glimpse into the future of war. Wealthy Arab nations, particularly Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the Emirates, have in recent years embraced a more aggressive military strategy throughout the Middle East, trying to rein in the chaos unleashed by the Arab revolutions that began in late 2010. But these countries wade into the new conflicts — whether in Yemen, Syria or Libya — with militaries that are unused to sustained warfare and populations wi

(More here.)

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Afghan Leaders Try to Halt Exodus, but Pleas Ring Hollow


KABUL, Afghanistan — President Ashraf Ghani took a stage here last week and urged the crowd of young people before him not to join a huge exodus from Afghanistan, despite rising insecurity and economic hardship.

The gates of Western nations are closed on us, Mr. Ghani said. “Our dignity, our respect is in Afghanistan.”

To many Afghans, though, that rang hollow.

That is not only because Mr. Ghani’s path to power and prominence was paved abroad, as he lived and worked in the United States for much of his adult life. The addresses of the families of a majority of his government’s senior officials read like an atlas of world capitals, near and far — just not Kabul.

“How will they understand our pain?” said Mohamed Abas, 19, a roadside mechanic in Kabul, as he took a break from his lunch of fries and bread. Having entered Iran, Mr. Abas was turned back from the border with Turkey last month as he tried to make his way to Norway, where he had heard there were jobs.

“Their own children study, live and are having fun in Europe and America,” Mr. Abas said. “They cruise in their armored Lexus in front of us and they don’t even slow down — we eat their dirt. And if we complain, they smash us in the mouth.”

(More here.)

What Woodrow Wilson Cost My Grandfather

John Abraham Davis, center, and his family at their farm in the early 1900s.

By GORDON J. DAVIS, NYT, NOV. 24, 2015

OVER the last week, a growing number of students at Princeton have demanded that the university confront the racist legacy of Woodrow Wilson, who served as its president before becoming New Jersey’s governor and the 28th president of the United States. Among other things, the students are demanding that Wilson’s name be removed from university facilities.

Wilson, a Virginia-born Democrat, is mostly remembered as a progressive, internationalist statesman, a benign and wise leader, a father of modern American political science and one of our nation’s great presidents.

But he was also an avowed racist. And unlike many of his predecessors and successors in the White House, he put that racism into action through public policy. Most notably, his administration oversaw the segregation of the federal government, destroying the careers of thousands of talented and accomplished black civil servants — including John Abraham Davis, my paternal grandfather.

An African-American born in 1862 to a prominent white Washington lawyer and his black “housekeeper,” my grandfather was a smart, ambitious and handsome young black man. He emulated his idol, Theodore Roosevelt, in style and dress. He walked away from whatever assistance his father might have offered to his unacknowledged black offspring and graduated at the top of his class from Washington’s M Street High School (later the renowned all-black Dunbar High School).

(More here.)

Monday, November 23, 2015

El Niño may trigger floods, famine and sickness in much of the world

Monte Morin, LA Times

El Niño events have been responsible for two of California’s wettest and most destructive rainy seasons, in the winters of 1982-83 and 1997-98. Experts have said a potentially powerful El Niño this coming winter could be the beginning of the end of the drought.

A fog of suffocating smoke settles over the Indonesian countryside, sickening hundreds of thousands of people and triggering an environmental crisis.

In Peru, officials abandon plans to host the lucrative Dakar Rally and prepare instead for torrential rains and devastating floods.

And in Ethiopia, crops perish for lack of seasonal rain as United Nations officials warn of imminent famine.

Although many Californians hope forecasts of a "Godzilla" El Niño will deliver drought-busting rains this winter, mention of the mysterious climate phenomenon inspires dread in much of the world.

Its long-distance, or teleconnected, effects are so great that some researchers argue it doubles the risk of war in much of the Third World.

"It's a spawner of hazards everywhere," said El Niño researcher Michael "Mickey" Glantz, director of the Consortium for Capacity Building at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

(More here.)

In this holiday season, give but give wisely

America's Top 50 charities in 2015 ranked by total income

In choosing a charity, when is bigger better?

Big charities have advantages when it comes to responding to sudden disasters and providing aid in foreign countries, but local and start-up charities offer donors more of a direct opportunity to see how their money is being put to work.

By Schuyler Velasco, Staff writer
Christian Science Monitor, NOVEMBER 21, 2015

Charities are as diverse and wide-ranging as for-profit businesses. There are the giant, Fortune 500 equivalents – United Way, The Y, American Red Cross (see our chart rating the biggest US charities of 2015). On the other end, there are local charities and those just getting off the ground.

Bad or poorly run nonprofits can lurk in each group. Earlier this year, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) charged a network of four major cancer charities with bilking well-meaning donors out of a combined $187 million between 2008 and 2012. But even a well-meaning charity can have mismanaged finances, or just offer ineffective support of the causes with which it is aligned.

Of course, the opposite is true, too: A good charity can come in the form of a local start-up with a two-person staff or a multibillion-dollar giant with resources to stretch across the globe.

(The article is here.)

America’s [Failed] War for the Greater Middle East

Military historian Andrew Bacevich’s devastating review of our 35-year war in the ‘Greater Middle East’

By Eric Black, MinnPost 11/20/15

In his last State of the Union address, in January of 1980, President Jimmy Carter announced what became known as the Carter Doctrine. The paragraph that enunciated it, reportedly written by Carter’s hawkish national security advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski, stated:

“Let our position be absolutely clear: An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the United States of America, and such an assault will be repelled by any means necessary, including military force.”

Before that, the United States had a relatively small military presence in the Middle East. Since then, it has grown bigger and bigger. Now, with the Obama administration struggling to find a policy to deal with ISIS, you might say we are marking 35-plus years when U.S. military action revolves more and more around the Mideast and some other nearby portions of the world in which Islam predominates.

And how is that working out?

(Answer here.)

Health Reform Lives!

Paul Krugman
NOV. 23, 2015, NYT

To the right’s dismay, scare tactics — remember death panels? — and spurious legal challenges failed to protect the nation from the scourge of guaranteed health coverage. Still, Obamacare’s opponents insisted that it would implode in a “death spiral” of low enrollment and rising costs.

But the law’s first two years of full implementation went remarkably well. The number of uninsured Americans dropped sharply, roughly in line with projections, while costs came in well below expectations. Opponents of reform could have reconsidered their position — but that hardly ever happens in modern politics. Instead, they doubled down on their forecasts of doom, and hyped every hint of bad news.

I mention all of this to give you some perspective on recent developments that mark a break in the string of positive surprises. Yes, Obamacare has hit a few rough patches lately. But they’re much less significant than a lot of the reporting, let alone the right-wing reaction, would have you believe. Health reform is still a huge success story.

Obamacare seeks to cover the uninsured through two channels. Lower-income Americans are covered via a federally-funded expansion of Medicaid, which was supposed to be nationwide but has been rejected in many Republican-controlled states. Everyone else has access to policies sold by private insurers who cannot discriminate based on medical history; these policies are supposed to be made affordable by subsidies that depend on your income.

(More here.)

Saturday, November 21, 2015

The War on Islamic State

To prevail, the West must settle on military tactics, cut off oil money, counter propaganda, strategists say

By Julian E. Barnes and Stephen Fidler in Brussels and Gordon Lubold and Philip Shishkin in Washington, WSJ
Nov. 20, 2015 8:32 p.m. ET

The Paris attacks and the downing of a Russian airliner have heightened determination in Moscow, Paris and Washington to defeat Islamic State, a challenge easier said than done.

Many strategists say military advances will show little progress unless more work is done to eliminate the militant group’s financing, counter its propaganda and cut a diplomatic deal among world powers on Syrian rule.

For military planners, destroying the terrorist group’s headquarters and crippling its fighting force is a relatively simple assignment, say strategists: It would require some 40,000 troops, air support and two months of fighting.

The problem is what do to after taking responsibility for won territory. With the recent experience of Afghanistan and Iraq, that is a job no Western leader wants. Many officials, especially in Europe, believe a full-scale military response would help Islamic State, also known as ISIS and ISIL, by broadcasting an image of Westerners seizing Arab lands, attracting more followers to the militants’ cause.

(More here.)

Military leaders dubious of bigger war against ISIL

Military officials worry that leaders in Washington haven't absorbed the lessons of America's last big wars.

By Bryan Bender,
Updated 11/18/15 12:30 AM EST

U.S. military leaders are skeptical about calls for escalating the war against the Islamic State, saying they have watched too many of their troops’ hard-won victories slip away amid civilian inattention in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Even as U.S. and allied aircraft step up their bombing campaign against the terrorist group after Friday’s attacks in Paris, senior military officials privately express worries that political leaders in Washington and foreign capitals still haven’t absorbed the lessons of America’s last two big wars. In both cases, the military defeated the Taliban, Saddam Hussein’s regime and the Iraqi insurgents, but civilian leadership failed to do the political, economic and diplomatic heavy-lifting needed to sustain those wins.

The same thing could happen again in the fight against ISIL, the military officials say, unless far more is done to train and arm local allies, beef up the State Department's capacity to assist foreign allies to improve governing structures, counter the terrorist group's message in mosques and in social media and employ much more international leverage to end the Syrian civil war. Otherwise, the growing pressure to strike back hard against ISIL will mean that guns and bombs once again get far more attention and resources than the other levers of power that would ultimately prove more consequential.

The military officials say these concerns are behind President Barack Obama’s refusal to launch a more expansive military operation that includes American ground troops against the terrorists.

(More here.)

Saudi Arabia, an ISIS That Has Made It

By KAMEL DAOUD, NYT, NOV. 20, 2015

Black Daesh, white Daesh. The former slits throats, kills, stones, cuts off hands, destroys humanity’s common heritage and despises archaeology, women and non-Muslims. The latter is better dressed and neater but does the same things. The Islamic State; Saudi Arabia. In its struggle against terrorism, the West wages war on one, but shakes hands with the other. This is a mechanism of denial, and denial has a price: preserving the famous strategic alliance with Saudi Arabia at the risk of forgetting that the kingdom also relies on an alliance with a religious clergy that produces, legitimizes, spreads, preaches and defends Wahhabism, the ultra-puritanical form of Islam that Daesh feeds on.

Wahhabism, a messianic radicalism that arose in the 18th century, hopes to restore a fantasized caliphate centered on a desert, a sacred book, and two holy sites, Mecca and Medina. Born in massacre and blood, it manifests itself in a surreal relationship with women, a prohibition against non-Muslims treading on sacred territory, and ferocious religious laws. That translates into an obsessive hatred of imagery and representation and therefore art, but also of the body, nakedness and freedom. Saudi Arabia is a Daesh that has made it.

The West’s denial regarding Saudi Arabia is striking: It salutes the theocracy as its ally but pretends not to notice that it is the world’s chief ideological sponsor of Islamist culture. The younger generations of radicals in the so-called Arab world were not born jihadists. They were suckled in the bosom of Fatwa Valley, a kind of Islamist Vatican with a vast industry that produces theologians, religious laws, books, and aggressive editorial policies and media campaigns.

One might counter: Isn’t Saudi Arabia itself a possible target of Daesh? Yes, but to focus on that would be to overlook the strength of the ties between the reigning family and the clergy that accounts for its stability — and also, increasingly, for its precariousness. The Saudi royals are caught in a perfect trap: Weakened by succession laws that encourage turnover, they cling to ancestral ties between king and preacher. The Saudi clergy produces Islamism, which both threatens the country and gives legitimacy to the regime.

(More here.)

Friday, November 20, 2015

Inside the surreal world of the Islamic State’s propaganda machine

By Greg Miller and Souad Mekhennet November 20 at 10:30 AM , WashPost

CONFRONTING THE ‘CALIPHATE’ | This is part of an occasional series about the rise of the Islamic State militant group, its implications for the Middle East, and efforts by the U.S. government and others to undermine it.

RABAT, MOROCCO — The assignments arrive on slips of paper, each bearing the black flag of the Islamic State, the seal of the terrorist group’s media emir, and the site of that day’s shoot.

“The paper just gives you the location,” never the details, said Abu Hajer al-Maghribi, who spent nearly a year as a cameraman for the Islamic State. Sometimes the job was to film prayers at a mosque, he said, or militants exchanging fire. But, inevitably, a slip would come with the coordinates to an unfolding bloodbath.

For Abu Hajer, that card told him to drive two hours southwest of the Syrian city of Raqqa, the capital of the caliphate, or Islamic realm, declared by the militant group. There, he discovered that he was among 10 cameramen sent to record the final hours of more than 160 Syrian soldiers captured in 2014.

“I held my Canon camera,” he said, as the soldiers were stripped to their underwear, marched into the desert, forced to their knees and massacred with automatic rifles.

His footage quickly found a global audience, released online in an Islamic State video that spread on social media and appeared in mainstream news coverage on Al Jazeera and other networks.

(More here.)

The Doomsday Scam

For decades, aspiring bomb makers — including ISIS — have desperately tried to get their hands on a lethal substance called red mercury. There’s a reason that they never have.

NOV. 19, 2015

The hunt for the ultimate weapon began in January 2014, when Abu Omar, a smuggler who fills shopping lists for the Islamic State, met a jihadist commander in Tal Abyad, a Syrian town near the Turkish border. The Islamic State had raised its black flag over Tal Abyad several days before, and the commander, a former cigarette vendor known as Timsah, Arabic for "crocodile," was the area’s new security chief. The Crocodile had an order to place, which he said he had received from his bosses in Mosul, a city in northwestern Iraq that the Islamic State would later overrun.

Abu Omar, a Syrian whose wispy beard hinted at his jihadist sympathies, was young, wiry and adaptive. Since war erupted in Syria in 2011, he had taken many noms de guerre — including Abu Omar — and found a niche for himself as a freelance informant and trader for hire in the extremist underground. By the time he met the Crocodile, he said, he had become a valuable link in the Islamic State’s local supply chain. Working from Sanliurfa, a Turkish city north of the group’s operational hub in Raqqa, Syria, he purchased and delivered many of the common items the martial statelet required: flak jackets, walkie-talkies, mobile phones, medical instruments, satellite antennas, SIM cards and the like. Once, he said, he rounded up 1,500 silver rings with flat faces upon which the world’s most prominent terrorist organization could stamp its logo. Another time, a French jihadist hired him to find a Turkish domestic cat; Syrian cats, it seemed, were not the friendly sort.

War materiel or fancy; business was business. The Islamic State had needs, it paid to have them met and moving goods across the border was not especially risky. The smugglers used the same well-established routes by which they had helped foreign fighters reach Syria for at least three years. Turkish border authorities did not have to be eluded, Abu Omar said. They had been co-opted. "It is easy," he boasted. "We bought the soldiers."

This time, however, the Crocodile had an unusual request: The Islamic State, he said, was shopping for red mercury.

Abu Omar knew what this meant. Red mercury — precious and rare, exceptionally dangerous and exorbitantly expensive, its properties unmatched by any compound known to science — was the stuff of doomsday daydreams. According to well-traveled tales of its potency, when detonated in combination with conventional high explosives, red mercury could create the city-flattening blast of a nuclear bomb. In another application, a famous nuclear scientist once suggested it could be used as a component in a neutron bomb small enough to fit in a sandwich-size paper bag.

(More here)

Thursday, November 19, 2015

U.S. Investigators Struggle to Track Homegrown ISIS Suspects

NOV. 19, 2015

WASHINGTON — At least three dozen people in the United States suspected of ties to the Islamic State were under heavy electronic or physical surveillance even before the Paris attacks, senior American officials say. But unlike the attackers in France, the officials say, the majority of those under investigation here never traveled to Syria to fight alongside the Islamic State or receive training from it.

In many ways, the officials say, that makes the American investigations even harder. Those under investigation typically have little terrorism expertise or support from a cell, which makes thwarting an Islamic State-inspired attack in the United States less like stopping a traditional terrorist plot and more like trying to prevent a school shooting.

Stopping a potential attack has taken on new urgency after Paris, which served as a reminder that even people who have already caught the eye of intelligence services can spring attacks on short notice. Although at this point American officials say there is no credible threat from the Islamic State inside the United States, they worry that Paris could provide the spark to inspire angry, troubled people to finally do something violent.

This year, American counterterrorism officials began focusing their resources on these Americans — known as homegrown violent extremists — after the Islamic State altered its tactics. After months of trying to persuade Americans to travel to join it in Syria and Iraq, the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, began using social media to urge its sympathizers in the United States to stay put and plot violence here.

“They’re targeting the school-shooter types, the mentally ill, people with dysfunctional families and those struggling to cope with different issues,” said one senior law enforcement official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not allowed to speak to reporters. “We have been pretty successful in disrupting these cases because they are not very sophisticated or smart.”

(Continued here.)

Paris Attacks Highlight Jihadists’ Easy Path Between Europe and ISIS Territory

NOV. 18, 2015

LONDON — One of the militants in the Paris attacks traveled to Syria from his hometown in France and back, officials said, even after his passport had been confiscated and he had been placed under judicial oversight. So did another, despite having been arrested eight times in petty crimes and having been listed as a national security risk in France.

Even the man suspected of organizing the massacre on Friday, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, a well-known figure in the Belgian jihadist scene, is believed to have traveled between Islamic State-controlled territory and Europe a number of times — including for an attack plot in Belgium in January.

The Paris attacks, the deadliest in France to date, have sharpened the focus on the inability of security services to monitor the large and growing number of young European Muslims who have fought alongside the Islamic State or to spot terrorist plots in their early stages, even when the participants are well known to them.

It appears so far that as many as six of the assailants who killed 129 people with guns, grenades and suicide bombs at six sites last Friday were Europeans who had traveled to Syria and returned to carry out attacks at home — precisely the nightmare scenario security officials have been warning about for the past two years.

(More here.)

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

‘It’s All Back in Snowden’s Lap’

Former CIA Acting Director Michael Morell on how the NSA leaker’s revelations might have led to the Paris attacks.

By Michael Hirsh,
November 17, 2015

Michael Morell, the former acting head of the CIA, says the Paris attacks have exposed how freely the Islamic State was able to operate in a chastened environment in which intelligence gathering was partly shut down after Edward Snowden’s exposure of National Security Agency surveillance in 2013. Now, Morell says, the need for greater security is on everyone’s mind—especially since the terrorist group has threatened an attack on the U.S. In his recently published book, The Great War of Our Time: The CIA’s Fight Against Terrorism From Al Qa’ida to ISIS, Morell accuses Snowden of aiding in the rise of the Islamic State. In an interview on Tuesday with Politico Magazine National Editor Michael Hirsh, Morell elaborates on the damage he believes the leaker has done.


Michael Hirsh: How did the Snowden revelations help the Islamic State, and did they somehow lead to the Paris attacks?

Michael Morell: First, ISIS went to school on how we were collecting intelligence on terrorist organizations by using telecommunications technologies. And when they learned that from the Snowden disclosures, they were able to adapt to it and essentially go silent … And so, part of their rise was understanding what our capabilities were, adjusting to them so we couldn’t see them. No doubt in my mind. And the people who say otherwise are just trying to defend Edward Snowden.

(More here.)

Confessions of an ISIS Spy

He joined the self-proclaimed Islamic State, trained jihadist infantry, and groomed foreign operatives—including a pair of Frenchmen. And now, Abu Khaled says he is ready to talk.

Michael Weiss, The Daily Beast

For all the attention paid to ISIS, relatively little is known about its inner workings. But a man claiming to be a member of the so-called Islamic State’s security services has stepped forward to provide that inside view. This series is based on days of interviews with this ISIS spy.

Part One: An Appointment in Istanbul

ISTANBUL — It took some convincing, but the man we’ll call Abu Khaled finally came to tell his story. Weeks of discussion over Skype and WhatsApp had established enough of his biography since last we’d encountered each other, in the early, more hopeful days of the Syrian revolution. He had since joined the ranks of the so-called Islamic State and served with its “state security” branch, the Amn al-Dawla, training jihadist infantry and foreign operatives. Now, he said, he had left ISIS as a defector—making him a marked man. But he did not want to leave Syria, and The Daily Beast was not about to send me there to the kidnap and decapitation capital of the world. I had met him often enough in Syria’s war zones in the past, before the rise of ISIS, to think I might trust him. But not that much. “Lucky for you, the Americans don’t pay ransoms,” he ventured, after the two of us began to grow more relaxed around each other and the question of ISIS hostage-taking inevitably came up. He said he was joking.

(More here.)

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

What I Discovered From Interviewing Imprisoned ISIS Fighters

They’re drawn to the movement for reasons that have little to do with belief in extremist Islam.

By Lydia Wilson, The Nation
October 21, 2015

No sooner am I settled in an interviewing room in the police station of Kirkuk, Iraq, than the first prisoner I am there to see is brought in, flanked by two policemen and in handcuffs. I awkwardly rise, unsure of the etiquette involved in interviewing an ISIS fighter who is facing the death penalty. He is small, much smaller than I, on first appearances just a boy in trouble with the police, his eyes fixed on the floor, his face a mask. We all sit on armchairs lined up against facing walls, in a room cloudy with cigarette smoke and lit by fluorescent strip lighting, a room so small that my knees almost touch the prisoner’s—but he still doesn’t look up. I have interviewed plenty of soldiers on the other side of this fight, mostly from the Kurdish forces (known as pesh merga) but also fighters in the Iraqi army (known as the Iraqi Security Forces or ISF), both Arab and Kurdish. ISIS fighters, of course, are far more elusive, unless you are traveling to the Islamic State itself, but I prefer to keep my head on my shoulders.

Rumors abound as to summary executions of ISIS prisoners without due process, but of course no one will go on the record to report such abuses of human rights. Anecdotally, we were told about a prisoner who was interrogated for 30 days but only said “Allahu Akbar” (God is great) for the entire month. “Wouldn’t you shoot him?” they asked. One peshmerga gave an eyewitness report about five prisoners captured, questioned, and shot in the head. We spoke to various military leaders who said they didn’t want to take prisoners, since injured bodies are often booby-trapped and kill approaching soldiers; for this reason the PKK has a take-no-prisoners policy. (The PKK, or Kurdistan Workers’ Party, is the Kurdish separatist group based in Turkey and northern Iraq that is on the international terrorism list; in proving themselves indispensable in the fight against ISIS, they have caused a dilemma for Western governments. They are seemingly not so indispensable that those governments have felt compelled to oppose Turkey’s recent bombing campaign against them.)

(More here.)

Mindless terrorists? The truth about Isis is much worse

They deal in chaos, but they work from a script. The failure to understand that is costing us dear.

Scott Atran, The Guardian

It’s “the first of the storm”, says Islamic State. And little wonder. For the chaotic scenes on the streets of Paris and the fearful reaction those attacks provoked are precisely what Isis planned and prayed for. The greater the reaction against Muslims in Europe and the deeper the west becomes involved in military action in the Middle East, the happier Isis leaders will be. Because this is about the organisation’s key strategy: finding, creating and managing chaos.

There is a playbook, a manifesto: The Management of Savagery/Chaos, a tract written more than a decade ago under the name Abu Bakr Naji, for the Mesopotamian wing of al-Qaida that would become Isis. Think of the horror of Paris and then consider these, its principal axioms.

Hit soft targets. “Diversify and widen the vexation strikes against the crusader-Zionist enemy in every place in the Islamic world, and even outside of it if possible, so as to disperse the efforts of the alliance of the enemy and thus drain it to the greatest extent possible.”

Strike when potential victims have their guard down. Sow fear in general populations, damage economies. “If a tourist resort that the crusaders patronise … is hit, all of the tourist resorts in all of the states of the world will have to be secured by the work of additional forces, which are double the ordinary amount, and a huge increase in spending.”

(More here.)

Monday, November 16, 2015

After Paris Attacks, a Darker Mood Toward Islam Emerges in France

NOV. 16, 2015

PARIS — November is not January. That thought has been filtering through the statements of most French politicians and the news media, and most people seem to understand.

Unlike the response in January after attacks at the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and elsewhere left 17 dead, there were no grand public appeals for solidarity with Muslims after the Friday attacks that left 129 dead in Paris. There were no marches, few pleas not to confuse practitioners of Islam with those who preach jihad.

Instead, there was a palpable fear, even anger, as President François Hollande asked Parliament to extend a state of emergency and called for changing the Constitution to deal with terrorism. It was largely unspoken but nevertheless clear: Secular France had always had a complicated relationship with its Muslim community, but now it was tipping toward outright distrust, even hostility.

The shift could be all the more tempting because the government is struggling to find its footing politically as it is threatened on its far right by the anti-immigrant National Front party.

(More here.)

The U.S. must launch a 'Manhattan' or 'going to the moon' program to alleviate climate change

Big company CEOs need to lead climate change effort

By Gerald Rabe
NOVEMBER 15, 2015, Minneapolis Star Tribune

Gerald Rabe, retired director of strategic technology development at Pillsbury Co., is the author of the book, “Through the Lens of Reality”.

Life places huge demands on most of us at some time; our character and resolve is put to the test.

And coming is the granddaddy of circumstances mankind has ever faced: the likelihood of global disaster caused by global warming. Only one small group might be capable of leading the effort to avert this catastrophe: the chief executives of Standard & Poor’s 500 companies.

No other group appears capable of stepping up to the task. Global warming, often confused with weather, and energy production are subjects that are complex and difficult for nonscientists to understand. And importantly, greed and self-interest of key players — the fossil fuel companies, pandering politicians — now overrides their objectivity and clear thinking.

(Continued here.)

The Attacks in Paris Reveal the Strategic Limits of ISIS

By OLIVIER ROY, NYT, NOV. 16, 2015

FLORENCE, Italy — As President François Hollande of France has declared, the country is at war with the Islamic State. France considers the Islamist group, also known as ISIS, to be its greatest enemy today. It fights it on the front lines alongside the Americans in the Middle East, and as the sole Western nation in the Sahel. It has committed to this battle, first started in Mali in 2013, a share of its armed forces much greater than has the United States.

On Friday night, France paid the price for this. Messages expressing solidarity have since poured in from all over the Western world. Yet France stands oddly alone: Until now, no other state has treated ISIS as the greatest strategic threat to the world today.

The main actors in the Middle East deem other enemies to be more important. Bashar al-Assad’s main adversary is the Syrian opposition — now also the main target of Russia, which supports him. Mr. Assad would indeed benefit from there being nothing between him and ISIS: That would allow him to cast himself as the last bastion against Islamist terrorism, and to reclaim in the eyes of the West the legitimacy he lost by so violently repressing his own people.

The Turkish government is very clear: Its main enemy is Kurdish separatism. And a victory of Syrian Kurds over ISIS might allow the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, or P.K.K., to gain a sanctuary, and resume its armed struggle against Turkey.

(More here.)

G20: Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin agree to Syrian-led transition

Katherine Murphy, The Guardian

A White House official said Obama and Putin had agreed the United Nations would mediate negotiations between the Syrian opposition and the regime after a ceasefire.

The thaw between Obama and Putin came in the lead-up to the summit’s working dinner, where G20 leaders were due to focus on strategies to counter violent extremism.

Earlier in the day, the US president used his opening remarks at the summit to declare America would intensify efforts to “eliminate” Islamic State and also bring about a “peaceful transition” in Syria.

The Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, had a brief discussion with president Obama before the leaders gathered for the G20 “family photo”.

Turnbull and Obama will meet for longer talks at the Apec summit in Manila on Tuesday.

In addition to pushing a political solution for Syria, officials told the Guardian, Obama used interventions during summit sessions on Sunday to urge leaders to produce a strong communiqué on climate change as a precursor to the UN-led climate talks in Paris next month.

(More here.)

Europe’s Terrorist War at Home

Learn from Israel, end the open-borders policy, and dig in for a long war of ideas against Islamists.

By Ayaan Hirsi Ali, WSJ
Nov. 15, 2015 5:27 p.m. ET

French President François Hollande declared the Nov. 13 terrorist attack in Paris an “act of war” by Islamic State, and he was right, if belated, in recognizing that the jihadists have been at war with the West for years. Islamic State, or ISIS, is vowing more attacks in Europe, and so Europe itself—not just France—must get on a war footing, uniting to do whatever it takes militarily to destroy ISIS and its so-called caliphate in Syria and Iraq. Not “contain,” not “degrade”—destroy, period.

But even if ISIS is completely destroyed, Islamic extremism itself will not go away. If anything, the destruction of ISIS would increase the religious fervor of those within Europe who long for a caliphate.

European leaders must make some major political decisions, and perhaps France can lead the way. A shift in mentality is needed to avoid more terror attacks on an even bigger scale and the resulting civil strife. Islamic extremists will never succeed in turning Europe into a Muslim continent. What they may well do is provoke a civil war so that parts of Europe end up looking like the Balkans in the early 1990s.

Here are three steps that European leaders could take to eradicate the cancer of Islamic extremism from their midst.

First, learn from Israel, which has been dealing with Islamist terror from the day it was born and dealing with much more frequent threats to its citizens’ security. True, Islamic extremists inside Israel today resort to using knives and cars as their weapons of choice, but that is because attacks like those in Paris last week are now simply impossible for the terrorists to organize. Instead of demonizing Israel, bring their experienced, trained experts to Europe to develop a coherent counterterror strategy.

(More here.)

The Islamic State’s trap for Europe

By Harleen Gambhir November 15 at 7:57 PM, WashPost

The writer is a counterterrorism analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.

Last week, President Obama said that the Islamic State is “contained ” in Iraq and Syria, but the group’s attacks in Paris soon afterward showed that it poses a greater threat to the West than ever. The Islamic State is executing a global strategy to defend its territory in Iraq and Syria, foster affiliates in other Muslim-majority areas, and encourage and direct terrorist attacks in the wider world. It has exported its brutality and military methods to groups in Libya, Egypt, Afghanistan and elsewhere. Now it is using tactical skills acquired on Middle Eastern battlefields to provoke an anti-Muslim backlash that will generate even more recruits within Western societies. The United States and its allies must respond quickly to this threat.

The Islamic State’s strategy is to polarize Western society — to “destroy the grayzone,” as it says in its publications. The group hopes frequent, devastating attacks in its name will provoke overreactions by European governments against innocent Muslims, thereby alienating and radicalizing Muslim communities throughout the continent. The atrocities in Paris are only the most recent instances of this accelerating campaign. Since January, European citizens fighting with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria have provided online and material support to lethal operations in Paris, Copenhagen and near Lyon, France, as well as attempted attacks in London, Barcelona and near Brussels. Islamic State fighters are likely responsible for destroying the Russian airliner over the Sinai. These attacks are not random, nor are they aimed primarily at affecting Western policy in the Middle East. They are, rather, part of a militarily capable organization’s campaign to mobilize extremist actors already in Europe and to recruit new ones.

The strategy is explicit. The Islamic State explained after the January attacks on Charlie Hebdo magazine that such attacks “compel the Crusaders to actively destroy the grayzone themselves. . . . Muslims in the West will quickly find themselves between one of two choices, they either apostatize . . . or they [emigrate] to the Islamic State and thereby escape persecution from the Crusader governments and citizens.” The group calculates that a small number of attackers can profoundly shift the way that European society views its 44 million Muslim members and, as a result, the way European Muslims view themselves. Through this provocation, it seeks to set conditions for an apocalyptic war with the West.

(More here.)