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Nov. 24 2015 10:34 AM

Turkey Downing That Russian Fighter Jet Is Terrible News for the War on ISIS

Whatever post-Paris unity there might have been in the fractious coalition of nations fighting ISIS in Syria crashed and burned on the Syria-Turkey border on Tuesday as Turkish F-16s shot down a Russian SU-24 fighter.

Turkey, which has previously protested Russian violations of its airspace and shot down an unmanned Russian drone in October, says the Russian fighter had entered its territory, which Russia denies.

Further raising the stakes, a group of Turkmen rebels in northern Syria, who have recently been supported by Turkish airpower, claim to have killed the two Russian pilots. Russian President Vladimir Putin called the incident a “stab in the back,” accusing NATO, of which Turkey and the United States are members, of being accomplices of ISIS. He promised “significant consequences, including for Russia-Turkish relations.”

Putin’s tough rhetoric aside, this is unlikely to lead to direct military confrontation between Russia and NATO-member Turkey. As veteran Russia-watcher Mark Galeotti lays out, the risks to both sides are just too great for this to dissolve into even an overly aggressive diplomatic confrontation. In this situation, that’s what counts as good news.

But the implications for the Syrian civil war, and the separate but related international campaign against ISIS, could be significant. The incident comes just as French President François Hollande arrives in Washington on the first stop of a trip aimed at a building a coalition to take more significant military action against ISIS. His next stop is Moscow. While the U.S. has viewed the Russian intervention in Syria with suspicion because of Russia’s support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and attacks on non-ISIS rebels, France has been more open to the idea of working with the Russians. France, tellingly, did not invoke NATO’s mutual defense clause after the Paris attacks—as the U.S. did after 9/11—possibly as a form of outreach to NATO-wary Moscow.

And recent days had actually given some rare cause for hope that the international coalition could get on the same page. In the wake of the bombing of a Russian passenger plane over Sinai—for which ISIS claimed responsibility—Russia finally began serious airstrikes on Islamic State targets in Syria after weeks of focusing its fire on anti-Assad rebels. More significantly, it alerted the United States to those strikes. On the diplomatic front, outside powers including Russia, Iran, the United States, France, and Turkey made more progress than was expected on developing a plan for a cease-fire between Assad and the rebels during a meeting in Vienna one day after the Paris attacks.

After Tuesday, Russia is unlikely to build on cooperation with NATO forces in Syria. Not surprisingly, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov has called off a planned trip to Turkey. Putin may also redouble the country’s campaign against Turkish-backed rebel groups in Syria and its support for the Assad regime. Turkey and the Gulf states had been pushing at Vienna to expand the number of rebel groups viewed as “legitimate” opposition, which Russia, Iran, and their Syrian proxies are now more likely to reject.

Under the best circumstances, Turkey and Russia would both be highly problematic partners in any project aimed at destroying ISIS. Russia is more interested in defending a Syrian regime that has abetted the Islamic State’s rise. Turkey has only belatedly joined U.S.-led airstrikes against ISIS, but has also continued to bomb the Kurdish fighters that have been the most effective force in fighting ISIS on the ground. Still, given their deep involvement in the conflict, it’s hard to imagine any meaningful political settlement in Syria without Turkey’s cooperation.

All in all, this was a good day for the Assad regime and for ISIS.

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Nov. 24 2015 9:13 AM

Turkey Shoots Down Russian Fighter Jet in Disputed Incident Near Syrian Border

Turkish F-16s shot down a Russian SU-24 figher jet Tuesday after the plane allegedly flew into Turkish airspace near the Syrian border—but Russia says its aircraft never left Syria, while President Vladimir Putin has called the attack a "stab in the back" that will have "serious consequences." An emergency meeting of NATO has been called in Brussels, which, as it happens, is still in a state of lockdown because of fears of a potential ISIS attack. (Turkey has been a member of NATO since 1952.) From the Guardian:

The Turkish military said it shot down the plane after it penetrated Turkish airspace in the province of Hatay at 9.20am warning it to leave 10 times in five minutes before it was shot down. Turkey published radar images claiming to show the plane briefly flying over its southern territory.
Russia said its SU-24 plane never left Syrian airspace. Putin said it came down 4km from the border with Turkey and did not pose a threat to Turkey.

A still from footage of the plane crashing:



It does not appear to be in dispute that the Russian jet actually came down in Syria. There are unconfirmed reports that both of the plane's pilots, who appeared to have ejected from their aircraft, are dead in Syrian territory, though it's not clear how they died. (Turkmen rebel forces in Syria say that they shot the pilots while they were parachuting to the ground.) Russia supports the government of Bashar al-Assad and has been attacking rebel targets in Syria since September; Turkey had reportedly complained to Russia as recently as last Friday about operations taking place too close to its border.

This post has been updated with new information.

Nov. 23 2015 11:14 PM

Washington Defensive End Says NFL Refs Aren’t Giving Them Calls Because Team's Name

Following the Carolina Panthers 44-16 demolition of the Washington NFL Team on Sunday, the losers were, understandably, searching for answers as it dropped to 4-6 on the year. Four wins in ten games actually isn’t all that bad for Dan Snyder’s personal piggybank of a franchise, but that’s besides the point. The locker room was down and Washington defensive end Jason Hatcher came up with a novel rationale for why several calls, and ultimately the game, had gone against the team—the team’s slur of a name.

“Don't single us out. At the end of the day, it's the name. Don't worry about the name -- we're players and we work our butts off, too. I'm just frustrated with it. We shouldn’t have to be punished for that.”

It’s an interesting—mutinous—theory that the refs are sandbagging the team because of their displeasure over the offensive reference to Native Americans in the team's name. There were certainly a couple of big calls that did not break Washington's way, but, for the record, ESPN’s stats show that Washington has, in fact, been flagged 81 times—13th fewest in the league—while their opponents have been called for penalties 87 times. “I don’t want us to be perceived as a team that is looking for excuses to why we lost,” Washington coach Jay Gruden said Monday. “The referees are not an excuse for us as to why we lost the game. The missed tackles, the five sacks, the five turnovers, we can point directly to that.”

Nov. 23 2015 9:57 PM

Texas “Clock Kid” Ahmed Mohamed Demands $15 Million and an Apology for “Hoax Bomb” Arrest

Lawyers for the family of Texas teenager Ahmed Mohamed—better known as the “clock kid”—demanded $15 million from the city of Irving and its school district for the reaction to the homemade clock Mohamed brought to school in September. The story made global headlines as the 14-year-old Muslim high school student, an aspiring engineer, was arrested and suspended from school after a teacher mistook his clock for a bomb.

In separate letters to the city of Irving and the Irving Independent School District on Monday, Mohamed’s lawyers laid out a series of accusations including that he was wrongfully arrested and illegally detained. Here’s more from the Dallas Morning News on the letter to the city:

- It says police illegally questioned Ahmed without his parents present, even after the 14-year-old asked for them.
- It says that during the questioning, Ahmed’s principal threatened to expel him if he didn’t admit that his clock was a hoax bomb—though he had never claimed it was anything but a clock.
- After police dropped the charges and news of the arrest went viral, city and school officials devised a plan to “trash Ahmed” to the media, according to the letter.
- School officials insinuated that Ahmed wasn’t telling reporters the truth about his arrest, and publicly pressured his parents to let them release his private student records.
- Officials falsely claimed that Ahmed violated school policy and “zero tolerance” laws, none of which apply to his homemade clock.

“In ways that are virtually impossible to comprehend, this thing turned the Mohamed family’s lives upside down," the letter to the city reads. "All semblance of what they knew before has vanished.” The letters also single out Mayor Beth Van Duyne and her interview with Glenn Beck in the immediate aftermath where she painted Mohamed—without evidence—as a jihadist who planned to get arrested to further “civilization jihad.” Mohamed’s family is seeking $10 million from the city of Irving and $5 million from the local school district, as well as written apologies from the Irving Mayor Van Duyne and the city police chief. The letters threaten a civil suit if the demands aren’t met. The Mohamed family has since relocated to Doha, Qatar where Ahmed accepted a scholarship to study.

Nov. 23 2015 6:52 PM

Increased Terrorist Threat Causes State Department to Issue Worldwide Travel Alert

A series of high profile terrorist attacks over the past several weeks has governments around the work on high alert. On Monday, the U.S. State Department issued a worldwide travel alert for American citizens stating: “current information suggests that [ISIS] (aka Da’esh), al-Qaida, Boko Haram, and other terrorist groups continue to plan terrorist attacks in multiple regions.”

Here’s more from the State Department:

Authorities believe the likelihood of terror attacks will continue as members of ISIL/Da’esh return from Syria and Iraq.  Additionally, there is a continuing threat from unaffiliated persons planning attacks inspired by major terrorist organizations but conducted on an individual basis.  Extremists have targeted large sporting events, theatres, open markets, and aviation services. 

The alert essentially confirms what most people already know: After a number of attacks in the last month, there is an elevated risk for Americans traveling abroad. The State Department memo specifically mentions attacks this year in Paris, Nigeria, Denmark, Turkey, Mali, and the ISIS-claimed bombing of a Russian plane in Egypt. ISIS also claimed responsibility for the Lebanon bombing earlier this month that killed dozens. Reuters reports: “A State Department official noted that the agency has issued worldwide travel alerts in the past and said this latest alert effectively updated past warnings.” The travel alert expires in three months.

Nov. 23 2015 5:42 PM

MTA Says They Didn’t Have A Choice But To Run Nazi Insignia on Subway. Not True.

New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority would like to welcome one and all to a dystopian alternate history in which the Axis powers of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan control America’s subways and put up spiffy and horrible insignias everywhere. Amazon is hoping to advertise for its upcoming series The Man In The High Castle, which imagines what America would look like if we had lost World War II, with Nazi Reichsadler eagle signs and Japanese imperial flags all over a Shuttle train.

The ads definitely convey the idea of the show in a way that is attracting attention. But this may be the exception to the rule that all publicity is good. “I shouldn’t have to sit staring at a Nazi insignia on my way to work,” the executive director of Jewish identity and social group the Workmen’s Circle, Ann Toback, told the Gothamist.

As a colleague said, it’s difficult to think of an ad campaign more obviously inappropriate than a promotional Nazi train.

An MTA spokesman defended allowing the advertising, which is set to run on a single shuttle train from November 15 through December 14. “[Our] updated standards prohibit political advertisements. Unless you’re saying that you believe Amazon is advocating for a Nazi takeover of the United States, then it meets the standards. They’re advertising a show,” Adam Lisberg told the Gothamist.

The MTA appears to be hiding behind its revised April 2015 advertising policy, which blocked all political advertising in order to avoid being obliged to run controversial and sometimes hateful political speech on First Amendment grounds. That new policy, the MTA now seems to saying, would not have prohibited this ad because it’s not political. “I’m not trying to be cute. Despite your, or my, or anyone’s feelings about a particular ad, we have to be guided by the ad standards we put forward,” Lisberg said.

The thing is that these ads—which could be seen as offensive to Jews or to New Yorkers who had families brutalized by Imperial Japan’s own pretty horrible war machine—seem like they could well have been prohibited had the MTA merely decided to block them. In announcing the new regulations in April, the MTA said they were meant to maintain “a safe and welcoming environment for all MTA employees and customers.”

Looking good.

Photo courtesy of Ann Toback

The rules also said the MTA had the ability to control what advertising it would allow and listed prohibited content. One of those prohibitions includes the following:

[Ads that contain] material that demeans or disparages an individual or group of individuals. For purposes of determining whether an advertisement contains such material, the MTA will determine whether a reasonably prudent person, knowledgeable of the MTA’s ridership and using prevailing community standards, would believe that the advertisement contains material that is abusive to, or debases the dignity of, an individual or group of individuals.

Whether you think a reasonably prudent person might consider a train full of Nazi Reichsadler eagles to be demeaning or disparaging, it is a judgment call. And it’s one the MTA could have almost certainly decided the other way without a legal threat from Amazon had they wanted.

Either way, maybe the MTA should consider implementing some policies prohibiting advertising that is in insanely awful taste. And Amazon might want to rethink its promotional strategies.

Update, Nov. 24, 2015, 5:20 p.m.: Amazon has decided to pull the ad.

Nov. 23 2015 4:57 PM

The Monday Slatest Newsletter

In the span of only a few days, Donald Trump has made a completely false claim about New Jersey Muslims celebrating 9/11, endorsed the resumption of waterboarding, retweeted completely bogus figures about black people murdering white people, and suggested a black protester at a Trump event might have deserved to get beat up. He's also still the Republican 2016 presidential frontrunner. In other news:

Have a good day out there.

Nov. 23 2015 4:49 PM

Trump Is Tapping Into One of the Oldest 9/11 Urban Legends

Donald Trump believes that the media owes him an apology for criticizing his claim that he saw “thousands and thousands of people” on television celebrating the destruction of the World Trade Center in Jersey City on 9/11.

Trump’s tweet follows a number of right-wing blogs picking up on the same article, asserting that it contradicts the Washington Post’s Glenn Kessler’s widely-shared debunking of Trump’s claim. It does nothing of the sort.

This is yet another example of Trump’s revisionist history of his own recent statements. Trump didn’t say that he had read reports of Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the attacks; he said he had seen thousands of them doing so. This seems like the sort of thing people other than him, and apparently Ben Carson, would remember seeing. (Update Nov. 23, 6:02 p.m.: Carson has clarified that he was thinking of people celebrating in the Middle East, not the United States.) Perhaps Trump’s investigators can dig up this footage as soon as they finally get back from Hawaii with proof that Obama’s birth certificate is forged.

Reports of celebrations in Muslim areas of Northeast New Jersey—particularly the heavily Palestinian town of Paterson—circulated in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. In a Sept. 23, 2001 article, which the Newark Star-Ledger has helpfully reposted today, it was reported that:

Hours after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, a story spread across the state: Palestinians in Paterson were celebrating in the streets. Braced for a riot, the Paterson police rushed to South Main Street, the center of the city's Middle Eastern community.
"When we got there," Paterson Police Chief Lawrence Spagnola said, "They were all in prayer."
In the ensuing days, the rumor went national, lighting up talk radio phone lines. In the end, it was nothing more than rapid-fire urban myth.

Howard Stern repeated the reports of celebrations in New Jersey on air, which can’t have helped in clearing things up.

In the tense days following the attack, there were a number of false reports of Muslims celebrating. In one case, reported by the Asbury Park Press, a group of Pakistani gas station attendants sharing birthday cake given to them by their Jewish boss on the morning of the attacks—unaware that the attacks had taken place— set off a panic in the town that included calls to local radio stations. A similar debunked story about a Budweiser employee pulling the company’s products from a gas station because he saw Arab employees celebrating was a popular e-mail forward at the time.

One strange cousin of the “celebrating Arabs” meme was the strange tale of the “dancing Israelis.” During the attack, a New Jersey homemaker with a view of the twin towers called the police and the FBI after spotting a group of men who appeared to be filming the attack and exhibiting “puzzling behavior.”  "They were like happy, you know … They didn't look shocked to me,” the unnamed witness later recalled. The men were Israeli employees of a Jersey-based moving company and accounts at the time stated they had been on the roof of their company’s building, though it was later reported they were on the roof of their van. Either way, five Israeli men were later arrested and interrogated for several days before being deported back to Israel. As ABC reported the following year, the men were investigated by U.S. authorities for connections to Israeli intelligence, but nothing was ever proven. (The lack of evidence hasn’t stopped the “dancing Israelis” from being a fixture of 9/11 conspiracy theories, particularly anti-Semitic ones, ever since.) The men later denied they had been celebrating, claiming they were just filming in order to document the event.

All major terrorist attacks, including the recent one in Paris, are accompanied by a great deal of unsubstantiated rumor and false information. That was even more the case for 9/11 thanks to both its size and how relatively little public attention had been focused on the al-Qaida threat before it happened. It was a confusing couple of days and a lot of mysteries still remain, but we can be confident in saying that Trump did not personally witness thousands of Muslims celebrating in New Jersey or anywhere else in America. 

Nov. 23 2015 4:03 PM

Why Isn’t Hillary Trying to Tie the Republican Party to Trump’s Idiot Racism?

Donald Trump is currently committing public acts of racist and/or religiously bigoted garbage sleaze at a rate of about one act of garbage sleaze per day. He is also leading the race to become the 2016 Republican presidential nominee. This reality is upsetting to our nation's many sane and nonracist Republicans—Trump's "unfavorable" ratings among Republicans are closer to those of failing candidates like John Kasich and Jeb Bush than to other top contenders like Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, and Ted Cruz. The erstwhile real-estate developer and reality-television celebrity is even more unpopular among members of the general population. And these are polls that were taken before Trump endorsed inflammatory hoax "facts" about treasonous New Jersey Muslims and black murderers.

Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, is very likely to become the Democratic nominee for president. She's not super well-liked herself and at this point it seems that the general election next year is probably going to be a close one. So with (apparently) little to fear from her top challenger, Bernie Sanders, Clinton is doing her best to look toward the general by trying to associate Republicans as a whole with Trump's hateful rhetoric—right?

Nope. Clinton, in fact, didn't mention Trump's name in either Democratic debate except to use him as an example of a rich person while arguing that rich people's kids don't need the government to pay for their college educations. She didn't mention Trump in this Sept. 27 Meet the Press appearance or her high-profile foreign policy speech last week. He only came up in this Oct. 7 PBS interview in the context of the federal budget. The New York Times actually has a piece out today about the recent general election–oriented shift in Clinton's rhetoric—but each example the Times cites is of Clinton criticizing the Republican Party in general, not Trump in particular. Democratic adviser Bob Shrum is the only person quoted in the Times piece who mentions Trump, asserting that attacking him could work to Clinton's advantage.

Shrum's point makes sense to me. Hyping up your most extreme and unelectable potential opponent is a time-honored political strategy, and Clinton right now has the opportunity to start tying the GOP to its Trump-shaped anchor. So why isn't she doing it?

Perhaps Clinton is worried that by playing up Trump's lunacy, she'll make an eventual non-Trump Republican nominee (Marco Rubio, say) look sane and reasonable by comparison. But couldn't a close race with Trump also force Rubio to dabble in right-wing zealotry himself, delaying his own general-election pivot toward the center? More broadly, Clinton has already seemed to suggest that she's going to run an oppositional campaign against the Republican Party. She's positioning herself as a fighter willing to tear into the GOP to get things done, not a hopey-changey-compassionate uniter like Obama or George W. Bush. Why not get started on that by being the candidate who stands up to Donald Trump's white-nationalist nonsense while incidentally mentioning over and over that Trump is currently the most popular figure in an increasingly extreme Republican Party that seems to be rapidly abandoning the values and beliefs of the typical nonracist American? After all, it's true.

Nov. 23 2015 1:10 PM

Looks Like the Mali Attack Was the Work of an Al-Qaida Leader We Once Thought Was Dead

Coming so soon after the Paris attacks orchestrated by ISIS, there was speculation last Friday, including by me, as to whether the attack on a hotel in Bamako, Mali—a country with a recent history of French anti-jihadist military intervention—was in some way related. But while the exact perpetrators are unclear, it now appears that the organizers of the Mali attack fell on the al-Qaida side of the jihadist world’s major global fault line. 

Given the proliferation of jihadist groups that emerged in the conflict in Northern Mali that began in 2012, and the unclear and shifting relationships between them, it’s not surprising that more than one group has claimed credit for the attack that killed 19 people and may have involved as many as 10 gunmen. But all the likely suspects appear to have at least some al-Qaida affiliation. The likeliest culprit at the moment appears to be Al-Mourabitoun, which operates in the desert region between Mali, Libya, and Niger, and was founded by the al-Qaida-linked militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar. France’s defense minister said on Friday that Belmokhtar was “likely behind” the attack.

I last wrote about the veteran, one-eyed jihadi crime boss in June when the Libyan government claimed he had been killed in a U.S. airstrike. It wasn’t the first time reports of his demise were greatly exaggerated. The Chadian military claimed to have killed him in 2013. Nicknamed Mr. Marlboro for his cigarette-smuggling activities and “the uncatchable” for obvious reasons, the Algerian-born militant is best known for the taking of hundreds of hostages at an Algerian gas facility in 2013. While nominally an al-Qaida commander, he has also clashed repeatedly with the global terror network’s leaders and is something of a lone operator. There were some reports earlier this year that he had switched his allegiance to ISIS, but the statements following the Mali attack suggest he’s still for the most part in the al-Qaida camp.

Al-Qaida’s once-feared global affiliates have been significantly eclipsed over the past three years by competitors like ISIS and Boko Haram, which have proved themselves more deadly and ruthless, more media savvy, better at international recruitment, and more dedicated to state-building. In the wake of ISIS’s most dramatic action outside the Middle East to date, the Mali attacks may have been an attempt by some combination of al-Qaida affiliated groups to demonstrate that they’re still relevant.