Archives for January 2016

How the FBI is pressuring Muslim immigrants to become informants


BuzzFeed reports: When he got the last call to come meet with the FBI agents, A.M. allowed himself an uncharacteristic bit of optimism. An immigrant from Pakistan, he had spent the last seven years trying to get a green card, a process that had so far included a series of interviews, three encounters with the FBI, and unexplained bureaucratic delays. Maybe this meeting would bring some resolution?
But when the 37-year-old software programmer arrived at the Homeland Security offices in Dallas that day in August 2014, the conversation quickly swerved. One of the two agents placed a piece of paper on the table and told him to write down the names of all the people he knew who he thought were terrorists.

Bewildered, he said he didn’t know any terrorists. He said he didn’t know about any suspicious activity at all. “We think you do,” the agents replied.

A.M. was quickly becoming alarmed. (Like almost all other immigrants interviewed for this story, he said he did not feel safe allowing his name to be published. A.M. are his initials.) He was a family man, with a highly skilled 9-to-5 job. He had lived in America for nearly two decades. He went to college in America. Why would the FBI see him as a link to terrorism? And weren’t they supposed to be discussing his green card application?
As it turned out, that’s precisely what they were discussing. “We know about your immigration problems,” he recalls one of the agents telling him. “And we can help you with that.” If, they said, he agreed to start making secret reports on his community, his friends, even his family.

Pressuring people to become informants by dangling the promise of citizenship — or, if they do not comply, deportation — is expressly against the rules that govern FBI agents’ activities.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales forbade the practice nine years ago: “No promises or commitments can be made, except by the United States Department of Homeland Security, regarding the alien status of any person or the right of any person to enter or remain in the United States,” according to the Attorney General’s Guidelines Regarding the Use of FBI Confidential Human Sources.

In fact, Gonzales’s guidelines, which are still in force today, require agents to go further: They must explicitly warn potential informants that the FBI cannot help with their immigration status in any way.

But a BuzzFeed News investigation — based on government and court documents, official complaints, and interviews with immigrants, immigration and civil rights lawyers, and former special agents — shows that the FBI violates these rules. Mandated to enforce the law, the bureau has assumed a powerful but unacknowledged role in a very different realm: decisions about the legal status of immigrants — in particular, Muslim immigrants. First the immigration agency ties up their green card applications for years, even a decade, without explanation, then FBI agents approach the applicants with a loaded offer: Want to get your papers? Start reporting to us about people you know. [Continue reading…]


The failure of Egypt’s democratic transition was not inevitable


Michael Wahid Hanna writes: The fifth anniversary of the 2011 Egyptian uprising has produced an oddly structuralist set of reflections in which the failure of its democratic transition has taken on an almost foreordained quality. Influential political science interpretations of the Egyptian uprising’s failure have focused analytical attention on structural factors, such as the role of a politicized and overreaching military, the uneven balance of power between the Muslim Brotherhood and its non-Islamist competitors, the former regime’s political structure and the weakness of transitional institutions.

Structure matters, of course. But so does agency. Overly structural interpretations miss the decisive impact of highly contingent events, deflects responsibility from the political actors whose choices drove the transition off course and can lead to unwarranted skepticism about the possibility of meaningful political change.

Egypt’s transition to a legitimate, civilian-led political order after the popular mobilization of January 2011 always faced long odds, but the failure of the transition was never inevitable. Structural explanations of the July 2013 military coup gloss over the fear and uncertainty that shaped political decision-making over the previous two years. The political openings of 2011 were real and potentially transformative and could have provided a platform for slow but sustainable change. Structural analysis should not become an excuse for political malpractice or an analytical surrender to the necessity of autocracy. Different decisions by key political actors such as the military, the Muslim Brotherhood and the National Salvation Front could have shaped a very different political environment. [Continue reading…]


Masked men in Stockholm threaten to ‘punish’ refugee children

The Guardian reports: A gang of masked men have been detained in Stockholm after distributing leaflets threatening to punish “north African street children roaming” the Swedish capital.

Police said one man had been charged with assaulting a police officer and the others had been charged with wearing a mask in public, which is illegal in Sweden, and for causing a public disturbance.

A police spokesman told local media the men detained were believed to have gathered “with the purpose of attacking refugee children”.

According to the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet, up to 100 masked men marched into central Stockholm on Friday to hand out leaflets carrying the message “It’s enough now” and threatening to give the “north African street children who are roaming around” the “punishment they deserve”.

This week an employee at a refugee centre for unaccompanied youths in Mölndal, near Gothenburg, was fatally stabbed, allegedly by a young man living at the centre.

The killing of Alexandra Mezher, 22, has led to questions about overcrowded conditions in some refugee centres, with too few adults and employees to take care of children, many of whom are traumatised by war. [Continue reading…]


10 children among the dead as refugee boat capsizes off Turkey

The New York Times reports: One photo showed a small boy, perhaps 3 years old, dressed for a mild winter — dark blue pants and coat, a sky blue sweater for extra protection. The grown-up who had dressed him for the journey — barely five miles across the Aegean Sea — had cared enough to put on matching socks, with little blue cars. The boy was lying face up on the rocks. A winter hat, sky blue with a white pom-pom, covered his lifeless face.

The little boy was among 37 people — most of them believed to be Syrians fleeing war and trying to reach European shores — who died when their boat capsized on Saturday and washed up on the rocky shoals of the Turkish coast. At least 10 children died in the accident, according to reports from The Associated Press, which came as the rival parties in Syria were in Geneva, squabbling over the terms of sitting down for peace talks.

Another photo showed a Turkish rescue worker carrying a child, slightly older, maybe old enough to be in first grade. He was wearing jeans and a red life jacket. His eyes appeared to be half open, staring at the rescue worker who was putting him into a body bag. [Continue reading…]


Greece resists role as European Union’s gatekeeper

The New York Times reports: On a recent weekday, 40 buses jammed into the parking lot of a gas station near the Macedonian border, carrying thousands of refugees who had survived a perilous crossing on wintry seas from Turkey.

Now they were approaching ground zero in the intensifying debate over how to curb the unceasing stream of men, women and children from war-ravaged and poor nations in the Middle East and Africa heading to the safety and prosperity of Europe.

After trying and largely failing to persuade Turkey to stem the flow, Europe has reached a critical point in the migrant crisis. With few options left, short of halting the war in Syria, much of the Continent is coalescing around proposals that would harden the border with Macedonia and effectively turn Greece into a giant processing center for migrants.

At the border crossing here — one of the busiest gateways for migrants on the path north and the site of occasional violence between the authorities and frustrated migrants — Greece has played that filtering role to some degree for months. In theory, Greece is allowing only Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans to continue toward their preferred destinations in Germany and Austria. [Continue reading…]


We are Syria’s moderate opposition — and we’re fighting on two fronts

Asaad Hanna writes: Last October the UN special envoy for Syria, Steffan de Mistura, invited Syrian military factions to engage in dialogue with the regime through the so-called Four Committees Initiative. The initiative was rejected by the factions out of mistrust, but it did reveal the elevated number of opposition fighters that were active in Syria: 74 military factions signed the rejection statement, the smallest of which numbered 1,000, while others totalled more than 10,000.

Crucially, none of these 74 are internationally classified as extremists. The moderate opposition is not a myth. Syrians do not need foreign fighters to help them fight Isis; they have indigenous fighters, better acquainted with the land and able to confront any aggressor, particularly where there is firm international will to support them to do so.

The Syrian armed opposition is fighting a war on two fronts: against Assad and against Daesh. Assad’s barbarity has driven Syrians from their homes and resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Syrians over the past five years.

On the other side, we are facing Daesh, a terrorist group whose creation Assad must take some of the responsibility for. Daesh is helping the Assad regime by fighting us, the armed moderate opposition. The relationship between the two should not be in doubt.

Whenever we have made advances and secured victories, Daesh has defended the Assad regime. For example, we have seen Daesh launch offensives in order to draw Free Syrian Army forces away from battle, to ease pressure on the regime. During a battle near Qardaha – the birthplace of Bashar al-Assad – the armed opposition was achieving great victories until Daesh suddenly launched an attack on a key military position in the nearby city of Aleppo, killing a number of Free Syrian Army commanders. Just three days later they withdrew, at which point they handed the area over to regime forces. [Continue reading…]


Russia is exploiting Syria’s Kurds and U.S. frustrations to complicate the fight against ISIS

Huffington Post reports: As Syria peace talks begin in Geneva, America’s key partners on the ground feel neglected, excluded and increasingly receptive to a man who says the U.S has the war-torn country all wrong — Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Putin’s government this week used the process of deciding who would attend the negotiations to endear Russia to the Syrian Kurds, whose militia has chalked up high-profile victories against the self-described Islamic State group with U.S. air support.

Moscow repeatedly demanded that the talks should include the most powerful Kurdish political organization, the radically leftist PYD. Its co-president Salih Muslim said this week that the party — controversial among Western and Muslim-backed Syrian Arab nationalist groups — did not receive an invitation. The Middle East Eye reported Friday that he stopped by Geneva and then promptly left.

Conversely, Washington stayed relatively silent.

The Kurds now feel that though they have become close enough to the United States to host America’s Special Operations troops, receive U.S. weapons through a Pentagon-vetted program for an Arab-Kurdish rebel force and share Islamic State targets with American intelligence, the Obama administration abandoned them in the run-up to the high-profile talks, according to analysts close with Kurdish leaders.

“These talks started in a very troublesome manner with the Kurds not being there,” said Mutlu Civiroglu, a Washington-based analyst who monitors the Syrian Kurds. “Kurds being the pioneers of the fight against ISIS, having lost more than 4,000 fighters, were sure they were going to be invited.”

Michael Werz, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress who just returned from a major Kurdish conference in Brussels, told The Huffington Post the current view among some in the PYD is, “we know that the Russians are going to betray us, but they’re the only ones actually lobbying for us to be part of the Geneva talks.”

“‘We are the only secular fighting force, we are the only movement giving freedom to women, and the United States doesn’t even stand up to the Turks when it comes to participating in the peace negotiations,” Werz added in his summing up of Kurdish sentiment. “‘Nobody is publicly supporting us, so what are we supposed to do?'”

The popularity of that thinking is a problem for Washington because it could bolster distrust among Syrian Kurds already nervous about their fledgling relationship with the U.S. [Continue reading…]


Iraq: Possible war crimes by Shia militia

Human Rights Watch: Members of Shia militias, who the Iraqi government has included among its state forces, abducted and killed scores of Sunni residents in a central Iraq town and demolished Sunni homes, stores, and mosques following January 11, 2016 bombings claimed by the extremist group Islamic State, also known as ISIS. None of those responsible have been brought to justice.

Two consecutive bombings at a café in the town of Muqdadiya, in Diyala province, some 130 kilometers north of Baghdad, on January 11, killed at least 26 people, many of them Sunnis, according to a teacher who lives near the café. ISIS claimed the attacks, saying it had targeted local Shia militias, collectively known as Popular Mobilization Forces, which are formally under the command of the prime minister. Members of two of the dominant militias in Muqdadiya, the Badr Brigades and the League of Righteous forces, responded by attacking Sunnis as well as their homes and mosques, killing at least a dozen people and perhaps many more, according to local residents.

“Again civilians are paying the price for Iraq’s failure to rein in the out-of-control militias,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “Countries that support Iraqi security forces and the Popular Mobilization Forces should insist that Baghdad bring an end to this deadly abuse.” [Continue reading…]


‘I have never seen such destruction’ as in Yemen, says aid worker

PBS Newshour reports: Fighting in Yemen after rebels overthrew the government in early 2015 has created a dire humanitarian situation unparalleled even in places as battle-scarred as Syria, according to a Doctors Without Borders worker.

“I’ve worked in war zones for the past 11 to 12 years, in some of the worst conflicts like Syria, but I have never seen such destruction conducted in such a short period as in Yemen,” wrote Michael Seawright from Auckland, New Zealand.

Seawright served as project coordinator for Doctors Without Borders in the Middle Eastern region. “I was based in Saada, in the north, in a Houthi-controlled area that was experiencing almost daily attacks from coalition air forces. These airstrikes were often close to our facilities and we clearly felt their effects,” he wrote. [Continue reading…]


Boko Haram burns children alive in northeast Nigeria

The Associated Press reports: A survivor hidden in a tree says he watched Boko Haram extremists firebomb huts and heard the screams of children among people burned to death in the latest attack by Nigeria’s homegrown Islamic extremists.

Scores of charred corpses and bodies with bullet wounds littered the streets from Saturday night’s attack on Dalori village just 5 kilometers (3 miles) from Maiduguri, the birthplace of Boko Haram and the biggest city in the northeast, according to survivors and soldiers.

The shooting and burning continued for four hours, survivor Alamin Bakura said, weeping on a telephone call to The Associated Press. He said several of his family members were killed or wounded. [Continue reading…]


What you need to know about the Zika virus and climate change

Climate Central reports: The rapid rise of the Zika virus is turning into a full-on public health crisis. The virus, transferred via specific types of mosquitoes, “is now spreading explosively” across Latin America, according to Margaret Chan, the head of the World Health Organization (WHO).

There could be up to 4 million cases right now, just eight months after the first case was reported in Brazil. There are 23 countries where the virus is active.

A number of factors have had to line up for the Zika virus — a disease that’s been associated with birth defects — to spread so far and wide so quickly, but chief among them is heavy rain and heat. Climate change could play a future role in this virus’ — as well as other mosquito-borne illnesses — spread as it creates conditions more favorable to the mosquitoes that transmit it. [Continue reading…]


Study: Grid for renewables key to cutting emissions


Climate Central reports: Carbon dioxide emissions from generating electricity could be cut by 78 percent within the next 15 years if the country makes the same Herculean effort to expand solar and wind technology that it did to build the Interstate Highway System.

That’s the conclusion of a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) study published Monday in Nature Climate Change, which shows that a new system of transcontinental transmission lines connected to wind and solar farms nationwide is the key to dramatically reducing emissions from the nation’s power plants.

Alexander MacDonald, retired director of NOAA’s Earth System Laboratory and the study’s lead author, said weather occurs on a very large scale and any system capturing sunshine and wind has to be built on a scale to match it. MacDonald said putting such as system in place would be like building a new Interstate Highway System, but the stakes are higher because of climate change.

“There is an opportunity to start very serious (emissions) mitigation right now, that’s what the study says,” MacDonald said. “The idea that wind and solar are too intermittent, or wind and solar are too expensive, or we have to wait for a breakthrough, this study shows that’s not true.” [Continue reading…]


Did the Vikings use crystal ‘sunstones’ to discover America?

By Stephen Harding, University of Nottingham

Ancient records tell us that the intrepid Viking seafarers who discovered Iceland, Greenland and eventually North America navigated using landmarks, birds and whales, and little else. There’s little doubt that Viking sailors would also have used the positions of stars at night and the sun during the daytime, and archaeologists have discovered what appears to be a kind of Viking navigational sundial. But without magnetic compasses, like all ancient sailors they would have struggled to find their way once the clouds came over.

However, there are also several reports in Nordic sagas and other sources of a sólarsteinn “sunstone”. The literature doesn’t say what this was used for but it has sparked decades of research examining if this might be a reference to a more intriguing form of navigational tool.

The idea is that the Vikings may have used the interaction of sunlight with particular types of crystal to create a navigational aid that may even have worked in overcast conditions. This would mean the Vikings had discovered the basic principles of measuring polarised light centuries before they were explained scientifically and which are today used to identify and measure different chemicals. Scientists are now getting closer to establishing if this form of navigation would have been possible, or if it is just a fanciful theory.

[Read more…]


Do chins have a purpose?


Ed Wong writes: “Little pig, little pig, let me come in,” says the big, bad wolf. “No, no, not by the hair on my chinny chin chin,” say the three little pigs. This scene is deeply unrealistic and not just because of the pigs’ architectural competence, the wolf’s implausible lung capacity, and everyone’s ability to talk.

The thing is: Pigs don’t have chins. Nor do any animals, except for us.

The lower jaw of a chimpanzee or gorilla slopes backwards from the front teeth. So did the jaw of other hominids like Homo erectus. Even Neanderthal jaws ended in a flat vertical plane. Only in modern humans does the lower jaw end in a protruding strut of bone. A sticky-outy bit. A chin.

“It’s really strange that only humans have chins,” says James Pampush from Duke University. “When we’re looking at things that are uniquely human, we can’t look to big brains or bipedalism because our extinct relatives had those. But they didn’t have chins. That makes this immediately relevant to everyone.” Indeed, except in rare cases involving birth defects, everyone has chins. Sure, some people have less pronounced ones than others, perhaps because their lower jaws are small or they have more flesh around the area. But if you peeled back that flesh and exposed their jawbones — and maybe don’t do that — you’d still see a chin.

So, why do chins exist?

There are no firm answers, which isn’t for lack of effort. Evolutionary biologists have been proposing hypotheses for more than a century, and Pampush has recently reviewed all the major ideas, together with David Daegling. “We kept showing, for one reason or another, that these hypotheses are not very good,” he says.

The most heavily promoted explanation is that chins are adaptations for chewing — that they help to reduce the physical stresses acting upon a masticating jaw. But Pampush found that, if anything, the chin makes things worse. The lower jaw consists of two halves that are joined in the middle; when we chew, we compress the bone on the outer face of this join (near the lips) and pull on the bone on the inner face (near the tongue). Since bone is much stronger when compressed than pulled, you’d ideally want to reinforce the inner face of the join and not the outer one. In other words, you’d want the opposite of a chin. [Continue reading…]


Music: Wayne Shorter & Milton Nascimento — ‘Ponta de Areia’


Syrian peace talks — fake diplomacy is no diplomacy


An editorial in The Guardian says: There can be no more urgent matter than putting an end to the terrible human tragedy and the lethal regional destabilisation produced by the Syrian conflict. This is a war in which 300,000 people have died, which has internally displaced half the country’s population and which has caused more than 4 million to flee the country altogether. Syria has become the worst humanitarian catastrophe of our time. The plight of its people is also dangerously destabilising Europe and exposing weaknesses in its institutions. If the humanitarian crisis were not enough on its own, then the need to resolve Europe’s refugee crisis at its source would be reason enough to pay close attention to the peace talks that are scheduled to begin on Friday in Geneva. Yet even getting everyone round the table is looking fraught.

In the current climate, the stated aim of the talks appears breathtakingly ambitious. Mandated by a UN resolution passed in December, their purpose is to organise a gathering of representatives of both the Assad regime and opposition groups, in the hope that it could eventually lead to the formation of a new government, and later, elections. At this stage of a devastating war, it is tempting to see the very possibility of talks as an achievement in itself. Yet for several reasons there is a danger that they amount to nothing more than fake diplomacy.

First, the question of protecting Syrian civilians has all but fallen off the agenda. There can be no progress without attention to their plight. Second, western powers seem to have made key political concessions to Russia and Iran, the main enablers of the Assad regime. As as result, the Syrian dictator will feel even more empowered to pursue the mass targeting of his own countrymen and to continue a war of attrition in the belief that he will ultimately come out the winner. [Continue reading…]


Mayors across the U.S. see Donald Trump as a threat to national security

Politico Magazine’s fourth national Mayors Survey (which had 73 participants) found that: mayors of varying constituencies and political stripes agreed on one key priority: diversity training and outreach, with a focus on tolerance and inclusion. Sixty-two percent of mayors said their police forces had a program to engage the Muslim community, and over a quarter of respondents cited “community relations and distrust of law enforcement” as a key challenge to counter-terrorism efforts.

“It’s prudent for us to establish real and sustainable relationships with immigrant and Muslim communities,” wrote Newark Mayor Ras Baraka. “It is equally important to address those that are marginalized and secluded of all groups, particularly youth, to stabilize communities and lower the opportunities for recruitment and propaganda.”

Wrote one mayor anonymously: “Communities are still very much segregated. And public education needs to be intentional about teaching respect in a diverse society.” One mayor cited as a key accomplishment “strengthening our relationships with the many ethnic groups who live [here]. 1 of 4 residents were not born in the US and 1 of 3 are a person of color.”

National politicians, the mayors charged, are harming counter-terrorism efforts through anti-Muslim rhetoric. “Islamophobia is a huge threat to the well-being of my constituents,” wrote a mayor of a major Midwest city. “The president gets that, congress doesn’t.” Added another: “Some candidates for President and Congressional leaders don’t understand that good relations, tolerant policies, and community outreach is critical to getting tips and leads on terrorist activity and keeping our cities safe.”

Asked which presidential contender would be the worst for security, 51 percent named a certain billionaire real estate mogul.

“Donald Trump will be the worst,” wrote Mayor Marilyn Strickland of Tacoma, Washington, population 203,000. “Peddling hate, fear and xenophobia will not make us more safe.”

“Trump would be a disaster,” concurred Mary Salas, of Chula Vista, California, whose city has a population of about a quarter of a million.“He’d create terrible foreign relations — a dangerous climate.”

Still, some mayors took a contrarian view on where the real terrorist threat is emanating from.

“Austin’s experience with terrorism, whether it’s someone flying his plane into the IRS building or shooting at the police station and the Mexican Consulate, has been exclusively domestic in origin,” said Austin Mayor Steve Adler. Said Kitty Piercy, of Eugene, Oregon: “I think having a national wildlife refuge taken over by out of state militia is pretty frightening. We may need to think of American terrorism in whole new ways.” [Continue reading…]


The GOP candidates are shockingly uninformed about foreign policy

Fred Kaplan writes: hursday night’s Trump-less debate was less blustery than the Republicans’ previous spectacles, but on foreign policy issues, the Donald’s absence didn’t make it less slight, cynical, or shruggingly uninformed.

Earlier in the week, Robert Gates — a lifelong Republican who has served as secretary of defense and CIA director — said the GOP candidates’ discussion of national security issues “would embarrass a middle schooler.” If Gates tuned in Thursday night, he would have had no cause to revise his assessment.

Sen. Marco Rubio started off by promising that, if — or, rather, when — he’s elected president, “We are going to rebuild our intelligence capabilities, and they’re going to tell us where the terrorists are.” Rubio seems unaware that President Obama has vastly boosted spending on intelligence and that the spy agencies’ No. 1 priority is to find terrorists. But Rubio went further: Under his administration, he said, “If we capture terrorists, they’re going to Guantánamo, and we will find out everything they know.” I think this means that he would bring back torture — a technique that George W. Bush ended in 2006. None of the other candidates, or the questioners, seemed to mind. [Continue reading…]