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April 16 2015 4:31 PM

ISIS or al-Qaida? An Indictment in Ohio Reveals How Wannabe Jihadists Choose Sides. 

When Columbus, Ohio, resident Abdirahman Sheik Mohamud got back to the United States on June 8, 2014, after spending a little less than two months abroad, he planned to do “something big.” According to an indictment released by the Department of the Justice on Thursday, he told an unnamed individual that he “wanted to go to a military base in Texas and kill three or four American soldiers execution style.” What makes Mohamud’s plan more alarming than the musings of most keyboard jihadists is that Mohamud had just returned from training with a terrorist group in Syria.   

Some headlines today have inaccurately stated that Mohamud was charged with providing support to ISIS. He was actually charged with providing support to ISIS’s rival in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra, an affiliate of al-Qaida. But the confusion is understandable. As terrorism researcher J.M. Berger notes, Mohamud’s loyalties seem to shift throughout the events described in the indictment. As the case reveals, the lines between the two sworn enemies aren’t always so clear.

Here’s what we know: Mohamud’s brother Aden, also a former Columbus resident, fought for al-Nusra from August 2013 until he was killed in battle in June 2014. Mohamud, who was naturalized as a U.S. citizen in February 2014, traveled to Syria by way of Turkey in April of that year to join his brother. Prior to that, despite Aden fighting for Nusra, Mohamud had posted pro-ISIS propaganda on his Facebook page. Shortly after arriving in Turkey, he gave money to another individual to give to Aden. In a conversation included in the charges, that person says that Mohamud had “wanted to go to ISIS” but is now with Nusra.

Mohamud eventually wound up in Syria, where, he later told an unnamed person, he had “received training from a group in various areas, including shooting weapons, breaking into houses, explosives, and hand-to-hand combat.” He had planned to fight in Syria, but a cleric allegedly told him he should “return to the United States and carry out an act of terrorism.” Oddly, the indictment doesn’t specify what group Mohamud trained with in Syria, though from the context it seems likely that it was al-Nusra.

I’d like to know for sure, because the distinction matters. ISIS has called on its online supporters in Western countries to carry out attacks, and some have done so. But with the notable exception of Mehdi Nemmouche, who opened fire at the Jewish Museum of Belgium last May, we haven’t yet seen Syria-trained ISIS figthers carrying out attacks in the West. This is the nightmare scenario for many governments, but for now it’s incredibly rare, which is why, despite the fact that ISIS has been getting most of the attention over the past year, U.S. officials argue that al-Qaida’s affiliates still pose a greater threat.

Mohamud’s case is also evidence of what was observed during January’s Paris attacks: that international followers of the two groups aren’t that hung up on the distinction. The indictment describes a conversation in which Mohamud “compared different extremist groups within Syria to see which was better or more effective. Mohamud talked about which groups could teach Arabic and which groups could fight better.” This prospective fighter was comparison shopping not based on ideology, but on which group could give him the better jihad experience. It sounds as if he was more enthusiastic about ISIS but wound up with Nusra mostly because of his brother’s connections.

Either way, it appears that just like some recently arrested ISIS supporters, Mohamud didn’t get too far with his plot before the authorities caught up with him. When foreign fighters in Syria stop broadcasting their affiliations on Facebook is when we’ll really have to start worrying.    

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April 16 2015 3:47 PM

NFL Officially Reinstates Adrian Peterson After Suspension Over Child Abuse Case

The NFL has reinstated star Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson, who was suspended after being indicted by a Houston-area jury in September 2014 on charges that he had physically abused his 4-year-old son with a tree branch (aka a “switch”). After negotiations with prosecutors, Peterson pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of reckless assault in November and agreed to pay a fine, perform community service, and be placed on probation.

Peterson may be traded, as he’s reportedly upset with the Vikings for backtracking on their initial decision to let him rejoin the team while charges were pending. (The NFL didn't officially suspend Peterson until November, but the Vikings held him out of games after Sept. 7.)

An illuminating November 2014 ESPN piece by reporter Joel Anderson depicted the culture of physical discipline in Peterson’s hometown, Palestine, Texas. Wrote Anderson:

Those pictures of the injured 4-year-old might have shocked the rest of the nation, but they were mostly greeted with a shrug in Palestine. "If people think we're backward, that's OK with me," says Daniel Dyer, director of Palestine's Museum for East Texas Culture. "They can go on ahead and leave us alone. But at least our kids don't go running around all wild."

Palestine has held an Adrian Peterson Day every summer since 2007, and the tradition is expected to continue this year.

April 16 2015 2:18 PM

A Federal Judge Came So Close to Rejecting the DEA’s Absurd Classification of Pot

Pot’s slow march toward legalization almost found a shortcut this week in federal court, but a federal judge in California ultimately had second thoughts about removing marijuana from the government’s list of the most dangerous drugs. The ruling wasn’t necessarily unexpected—the challenge to the existing law was always an uphill battle—but it was still a disappointment for activists who had a major momentum-building victory in their sights.

Here’s the Associated Press with the play-by-play from Sacramento, which shows just how close the pro-pot crowd came to persuading the judge to knock pot from a category of drugs that includes heroin, LSD, Ecstasy, and a handful of other heavyweights (emphasis mine):

U.S. District Judge Kimberly Mueller said during a brief court hearing that she was initially prepared to rule that marijuana should not be a Schedule 1 drug but then decided it was up to Congress to change the law if it wishes. "It has been 45 years since Congress passed the Controlled Substances Act," Mueller said, noting "the landscape has changed" since then.
However, the judge pointed out that courts are not designed to act as a maker of public policy and explained that she had made her decision based on the facts of the marijuana growing case that sparked the legal challenge. "This is not the court and this is not the time" to overturn federal law, she said.

An overwhelming majority of Americans think that the legalization of marijuana is inevitable, and Mueller’s remarks suggest she too believes it’s only a matter of when, not if, the federal government ends its eight-decade complete prohibition of pot. Still, even if the Obama appointee had rejected the government’s classification of cannabis, it would have applied only to the case in question—concerning 16 men accused of conspiring to grow more than 1,000 pot plants in a national forest—and almost certainly would have been appealed by the government. Nonetheless, legalization is likely to happen in incremental steps—in many ways it already is—and a pro-pot ruling here would have represented a precedent-setting leap.

The Drug Enforcement Agency classifies pot as a Schedule 1 drug under the Controlled Substances Act, that law signed by Richard Nixon in 1970 shortly before he officially launched the “war on drugs” and that still serves as the backbone of federal drug policy today. Schedule 1 drugs, according to the federal definition, have “no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

Placing pot in that category as opposed to a lesser one was always more about politics than science, but the absurdity of the decision has become even more difficult to deny in the nearly half-century since. The classification runs counter to the medical consensus that cancer patients and others can benefit from marijuana use, to public opinion, and to the 23 states that have legalized medical marijuana. It also is in conflict with Congress’s decision last year to temporary block the Justice Department from spending a dime to prosecute patients or medical marijuana dispensaries that are acting in accordance with state law but running afoul of federal ones.

Judges typically accept the federal classification of marijuana as a given, so Mueller’s decision to allow the defendants to spend five days this past fall arguing the scientific and medical case for the drug was noteworthy in itself. In the end, though, Mueller decided it wasn’t for her to say whether the feds were correct that pot has no medical benefits, but instead only whether they effectively made that decision in good faith. As Paul Armentano, the deputy director of pro-pot NORML who assisted the defense, put it in the ruling’s immediate aftermath: “The continued Schedule I classification of cannabis, in 2015, [is] self-evidently ridiculous. But unfortunately, the law may be ridiculous and still pass constitutional muster.”

The defense plans on appealing the ruling to the 9th Circuit, but they’ll have to wait until after the current proceedings in district court wrap up. In the meantime, the pro-pot crowd is likely to turn its attention back to Congress, where a small but growing group of bipartisan lawmakers is working to clear the way for medical marijuana, and to a host of states where initiatives to legalize recreational weed are expected to be on the ballot in 2016.

April 16 2015 12:47 PM

Rhode Island Democrat (and Former Republican) Lincoln Chafee Will Run for President

Rhode Island’s Lincoln Chafee, who’s served as both a Republican senator and an independent governor, said on CNN Thursday that he will run for the 2016 Democratic nomination. Chafee has thus far only formed an 2016 “exploratory committee” rather than formally declaring himself a candidate, but told CNN that he is “running.” A spokeswoman said that Chafee “will file the proper papers to be an official candidate,” though he has not done so yet.

Chafee’s father, John, was also a Rhode Island senator and governor. The elder Chafee was a moderate Republican, supporting abortion rights, gun control, and conservation efforts, and his son has largely supported the same sorts of policies. Lincoln Chafee left the Republican party in 2007 after losing his Senate re-election race to Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse, and had been publicly uncomfortable in the party for years—he was critical of what he perceived as George W. Bush’s extremism and announced that he’d voted for the more moderate George H.W. Bush as a write-in candidate in 2004. Chafee endorsed Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 and officially joined the Democratic Party in 2013 while governor. With his approval rating at 30 percent, he announced later in 2013 that he would not run for re-election to that office.

April 16 2015 11:48 AM

Can Freedom-Loving Czechs Build a New Nation on the Danube?

Tired of high taxes, meddling bureaucrats, and the military-industrial complex? Forget voting for some watered-down sellout like Rand Paul and consider moving to the world’s newest (sort of) country, Liberland.

A Czech man named Vit Jedlicka proclaimed the new republic between Serbia and Croatia on the western bank of the Danube on Monday and has been doing the media rounds all week. With a land area of about 2.7 square miles, Liberland would be the world’s third-smallest country, after the Vatican City and Monaco. According to its website, it has a flag, a motto (“to live and let live”), and an official language (Czech, which seems ill-advised). Jedlicka is taking applications for citizenship, though you’ll have to apply by email because there’s no post office yet. Liberlanders must be people who: 

  • have respect for other people and respect the opinions of others, regardless of their race, ethnicity, orientation, or religion
  • have respect for private ownership which is untouchable
  • do not have communist, nazi or other extremist past
  • were not punished for past criminal offences

Still a member of the Czech Republic’s libertarian, euroskeptic Party of Free Citizens, Jedlicka says he is working on writing a constitution that “significantly limits the power of politicians so they could not interfere too much in the freedoms of the Liberland nation.”

Jedlicka says his country is on land that was previous terra nullius, unclaimed by either Serbia or Croatia—a quirk of an ongoing border dispute between the two former Yugoslav countries.

This is somewhat similar to Bir Tawal, the unclaimed patch of desert on the border between Egypt and Sudan that was briefly in the news last year when a Virginia man traveled there to plant a flag so he could declare his daughter “princess of North Sudan.”

While it’s not clear quite how serious Jedlicka is actually taking this, he at least seems to have a more ambitious long-term agenda for his new micronation. A better comparison might be Paddy Roy Bates, who ruled the self-declared Principality of Sealand on an abandoned naval artillery platform off the coast of England from 1967 until his death in 2012

Whether publicity stunt, impossible dream, or future libertarian utopia, best of luck to the brave citizens of Liberland.

April 16 2015 11:47 AM

Tulsa "Reserve Deputy" Who Killed Suspect May Have Had Falsified Training Records

The Tulsa World reports that the Tulsa County Sheriff's Office—whose wealthy 73-year-old patron and volunteer "reserve deputy" Robert Bates shot suspect Eric Harris to death on April 2, apparently by accident—may have falsified the training and certification records that allowed him to participate in department operations. Bates has been officially affiliated with the department since 2007 or 2008. From the World:

Supervisors at the Tulsa County Sheriff’s Office were ordered to falsify a reserve deputy’s training records, giving him credit for field training he never took and firearms certifications he should not have received, sources told the Tulsa World.
At least three of reserve deputy Robert Bates’ supervisors were transferred after refusing to sign off on his state-required training, multiple sources speaking on condition of anonymity told the World.

The sheriff's department denied the allegations.

Bates, an insurance executive, worked for the Tulsa Police Department (not the Sheriff's Office) as an officer in 1964 and 1965. He was sheriff Stanley Glanz's campaign manager in 2012 and has donated five vehicles as well as guns and stun guns to the Sheriff's Office, which says that "many" other wealthy individuals who donate items also participate in the "reserve" program.

Bates is accused of second-degree manslaughter for killing Harris during a sting operation; Harris allegedly ran from officers who were arresting him for selling a stolen gun. Harris was reportedly being subdued by two officers when Bates shot and killed him. Bates' statements and video of the incident indicate that he mistakenly believed he was firing his Taser at Harris rather firing a gun.

April 16 2015 10:05 AM

Obama Approval Rating on Economy Highest Since 2009

A new Bloomberg poll indicates Barack Obama’s economic policies are perceived more positively than negatively by the public—the first time that’s happened in more than five years. The poll also shows the president with a positive approval rating overall, though he gets negative marks in other specific areas of policy:

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Bloomberg Politics

Bloomberg also found that a large majority of individuals (69 percent) believe the gap between the rich and poor is growing, though respondents were almost exactly split on what should be done about it:

screen_shot_20150416_at_9.54.17_am

Bloomberg Politics

Obama’s Gallup approval rating, as measured by the weekly average of the company’s daily polls, is currently at 48 percent; it’s been as low as 40 percent on a number of occasions, most recently in November 2014.

April 15 2015 9:59 PM

Clinton Foundation Will Restrict, but Not Eliminate Foreign Donations During Campaign

The board of the Clinton Foundation decided to amend the its rules on who can donate to the organization, but will still allow select foreign governments to contribute, the Wall Street Journal reports. The changes accompany Hillary Clinton’s departure from the foundation’s board and are aimed at limiting the perception of—as well as an actual conflict of—interest as she mounts her latest presidential bid.

Under the new guidelines six countries would still be able to donate to the Clinton Foundation, including: Australia, Canada, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway, and the United Kingdom. Other foreign governments will still have access to the Clinton Global Initiative and can attend other foundation events with attendance fees of $20,000. The foundation’s donor disclosure will also be released with increased frequency—quarterly, rather than yearly.

The approved countries are all pretty uncontroversial political allies though, the Journal notes, they still substantially impact American foreign policy from the Keystone XL pipeline to the ongoing Iran nuclear negotiations. The Clinton Foundation has in the past faced criticism for large donations from Saudi Arabia, and others that have questionable human rights records.

“The Obama administration in 2009 wanted to avoid conflicts of interest with former President Bill Clinton raising money from foreign governments that also would be working with Mrs. Clinton as secretary of state,” according to the Journal. “At the time, the Clinton Foundation agreed to stop raising new money from foreign governments, with a few exceptions for multiyear pledges for health and other initiatives.”

April 15 2015 8:22 PM

Scientists in Kenya Believe They’ve Just Found the Oldest Tools Ever Discovered

A team of scientists working in Kenya says it has unearthed the oldest tools ever discovered, dating back 3.3 million years ago. The stone flake tools are 700,000 years older than the earliest known stone tools, predating modern humans by 500,000 years and “suggesting that our ancestors were crafting tools several hundred thousand years before our genus Homo arrived on the scene,” according to Science magazine.

Here’s more from NPR on what the researchers believe they’ve found and what it might mean:

Leading stone tool experts who've seen the tools say they have the markings of a process called "knapping." Knapping a piece of stone produces flakes that can have sharp edges and are useful for working with plants, nuts or meat… Scientists who study stone tools say it's premature to say that these tools led to the evolution of the first humans, commonly known as Homo habilis, or "handy man" as they are sometimes called. The gap between these tools and the previous oldest known is so long — 700,000 years — suggests that whomever made these newly discovered tools could have died with the knowledge, and stone tools were "reinvented" again hundreds of thousands of years later.

April 15 2015 6:33 PM

2015 Is Shaping Up to Be the Hottest Year on Record

The first three months of 2015 were the warmest start to any year on record, according to new data released from NASA on Wednesday.

All major global temperature-tracking agencies have ranked January, February, and March 2015 as among the warmest three months on record, respectively. Collectively, those numbers mean 2015 has been record hot so far. What’s more, the last 12 months (from April 2014 to March 2015) was the warmest 12-month period on record, according to the NASA data. The previous warmest 12-month period ended just last month, so don’t write this one down in your diary in ink.

Jan-March-line-chart3
Global temperatures so far in 2015 are running 0.79 degrees Celsius warmer than normal, based on a 1951-1980 average.

Vivian Selbo

The news comes amid increasingly confident forecasts that there will be a strengthening El Niño for the remainder of 2015, which could spark a litany of impacts worldwide, not the least of which is the more efficient transport of heat from the oceans to the atmosphere. That liberated heat from the Pacific Ocean should boost global temperatures to never-before-recorded levels, making 2015 the warmest year ever measured.

Compared to last year at this time (when most of the weather world, myself included, was freaking out about a coming huge El Nino, but it didn't pan out) the data looks even more convincing now.

In fact, off-the-charts warm water is already lurking just below the surface of the tropical Pacific Ocean:

Besides El Niño, a more worrying, longer-term trend is also taking shape. The Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) is a decades-long periodic warming of the Pacific Ocean that tends to favor bursts of accelerated global warming. As I wrote last October, the Pacific appears to be in the midst of a shift into a new warm phase that could last 20 years or so.

The PDO—or, “the blob” as it’s been referred to recently—is starting to freak out some scientists. There are emerging signs of a major shift in the Pacific Ocean’s food chain, including a dearth of plankton, tropical fish sightings near Alaska, and thousands of starving sea lion pups stranded on the California coast. As Earth’s largest ocean, what happens in the Pacific affects the weather virtually planet-wide, and that means an “imminent” jump in global warming may have already begun—spurred on by the PDO.

The PDO has skyrocketed to record-high monthly levels over the past four months. In fact, there have only been four other similarly warm four-month bursts of the PDO in the last 115 years (in 1940, 1941, 1993, and 1997). A quick look at the historical record (for both 15 years prior to and 15 years after the bursts) shows that global temperatures rose at twice the rate of the 20th century average immediately after these bursts.

Combined with the overall long-term warming trend from climate change, the emergence of the PDO warm phase means the current state of the world’s oceans has little precedent.

A study out last week connects the worsening California drought and recent spate of brutally cold winters in the Northeast to the emergence of the newly warm north Pacific Ocean in 2013, with the warm waters persistently shifting weather patterns across the continent. 

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