Off the Wires

Brazil arrests group plotting 'acts of terrorism' before Olympics

July 21st, 2016  |  Source: Reuters

Brazil arrested 10 people on Thursday on suspicion of belonging to a group supporting Islamic State (IS) and preparing acts of terrorism during next month's Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Justice Minister Alexandre Moraes said.

The loosely organized group were all Brazilian citizens and in contact via internet messaging groups such as WhatsApp and Telegram, but did not know each other personally, the minister said.

The group did not have direct contact with IS though some of its members had made "pro forma" declarations of allegiance to the militant Islamist group, the minister said. He did not elaborate.

"Those involved participated in an online group denominated 'the defenders of Sharia' and were planning to acquire weapons to commit crimes in Brazil and even overseas," Moraes told a news conference.

"It was an absolutely amateur cell, with no preparation at all, a disorganized cell," the minister said, adding that authorities decided to intervene when the group started to plan actions.

He said members of the group had visited a weapons site in neighboring Paraguay that sells AK-47 assault rifles, but there was no evidence they acquired any weapons. Two people will be brought in for questioning, in addition to the 10 already detained, he added.

Interim President Michel Temer had called an emergency cabinet meeting following the arrests, the first under Brazil's tough new anti-terrorism law approved this year.

The minister said the leader of the group was based in the southern Brazilian city of Curitiba, with others spread in nine Brazilian states.

A court in the state of Parana, where Curitiba is based, said there were indications that the group was planning to use weapons and guerilla tactics to achieve its aim.

Brazil's intelligence agency said on Tuesday it was investigating all threats to the Rio Olympics, which start on Aug. 5, after a presumed Brazilian Islamist group pledged allegiance to IS.

The SITE Intelligence Group that monitors the internet reported the previously unknown group calling itself "Ansar al-Khilafah Brazil" said on the Telegram messaging app on Sunday that it followed IS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and had promoted IS propaganda in Arabic, English and Portuguese.

Brazilian authorities stepped up security measures following the truck massacre in Nice, France last week, planning security cordons, additional roadblocks and the frisking of visitors in Rio de Janeiro for the Olympics.


Trump now worth $3 billion, according to Bloomberg

July 19th, 2016  |  Source: Bloomberg

Bloomberg released Donald Trump's new net worth on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index:

His worth has increased to $3 billion, up from $2.9 billion a year ago. The story by Caleb Melby shows that while Trump is richer in property - the value of his golf courses and Trump Tower in NYC have risen - his debt has nearly doubled over the past year, up to $630 million in total debt from $350 million in 2015. Trump has sold at least $50 million of stocks and bonds. He also drew down on a $170 million line of credit from Deutsche Bank AG for a hotel project in Washington. Trump has said he will spend $200 million renovating the Old Post Office building, blocks from the White House. Trump's liquid assets shrunk to about $170 million from $225 million. He has also loaned about $50 million to his campaign but doesn't plan on recouping the amount, he said.


The Donald Trump circus rolls on, to Cleveland

July 18th, 2016  |  Source: The Economist

THE INAUGURAL day of the Republican National Convention, which begins on July 18th in Cleveland, Ohio, is dedicated to national security and immigration. It might seem appropriate, therefore, that a highlight will be an appearance by Melania Trump, the presumptive nominee’s Slovenian-born wife. On Day Two of the four-day confab, dedicated to the economy, Tiffany Trump, Donald Trump’s 22-year-old daughter, seems a less obvious choice of speaker. Her half-brother, Donald Trump junior, is not necessarily the man you would choose to hear on that topic either, though he will also speak. Neither is their brother Eric Trump a recognised expert on opportunity and prosperity, to which Day Three, when he is scheduled to speak, is dedicated. Their sister Ivanka Trump will introduce Mr Trump, on Day Four, ahead of the speech in which he will formally accept the Republican presidential nomination.

The Trump-heavy line-up is, to a degree, tactical. A big chunk of Republican voters sympathise with Mr Trump’s anti-trade, anti-immigrant, anti-Barack-Obama invective: polls suggest up to 70% support his promise to close America's borders to foreign Muslims. His difficulty is that most voters—about 60% of the total—dislike Mr Trump himself; parading his relatives, who should know him best, is accordingly an effort to create sympathy for him. The convention will reveal a “very personal” side to the Republican torch-bearer and star of Celebrity Apprentice, promised his campaign manager, Paul Manafort, on July 17th. “I mean, you’re going to have his family speaking,” he said. “You’re going to have friends who have known him speaking. You’re going to have people who have worked with him.”

Having crushed his 16 rivals for the Republican ticket in the primaries, Mr Trump has won the right to tailor the convention to his needs. Such a heavy reliance on his wife and offspring is also borne of necessity, however, most potential speakers from the Republican elite having refused to show up. They include the party’s previous two presidential nominees, Mitt Romney, the main leader of the failed #NeverTrump campaign to block Mr Trump, and John McCain, who says he will take a trip to the Grand Canyon instead of attending his party's customary main pageant.

The past two Republican presidents, George Bush senior and junior, will also stay away, as will their son and brother, Jeb Bush, the former governor of Florida, whose nasty, comedic belittling by Mr Trump in the primaries gave an early taste of his political method. That John Kasich, Mr Trump’s final victim in the primaries, will also give the convention a miss is perhaps more remarkable. Because he is also the governor of Ohio, and responsible for the convention's heavy security precautions, necessitated by an expectation of rowdy protests, or worse, against Mr Trump.

With many senators and congressmen also giving Cleveland a miss—especially those, such as Senator Mark Kirk in Illinois, and indeed Mr McCain in Arizona, who face tough re-election battles in November—the convention’s organisers had thin pickings for speakers. According to a schedule released on July 17th, Chris Christie and Scott Walker, two other failed presidential candidates, will be among four governors scheduled to speak. Paul Ryan, Speaker of the House of Representatives, will be the best-known among five congressmen to appear on stage. Mitch McConnell, the majority leader in the Senate, will be among eight senators—making Senate Republicans the only arm of the GOP better represented among the speakers than Mr Trump's family.

Mr Trump promised that this would not be a regular party convention. Yet the “show-biz” element he promised to lighten the boring old policy discussion (to which, to be fair, his campaign has hardly subjected voters thus far) is not evident either. Mr Trump will be heralded by a golfer, Natalie Gulbis and a couple of actors, of whom Scott Baio, a television star of the 1980s, is perhaps the best-known. He has described how bumping into Mr Trump at a recent Republican fund-raiser led to this arrangement. “He was walking out and I looked at him and said, “Mr Trump, Scott Baio.” And he goes, “Oh my God!” recounted Mr Baio. "And he said to me, “Did you want to speak?” And I went “Here (at the fundraiser)?” And he goes, “No, no, no, I mean at the convention."

Thus the Trump circus, a show entirely dependent on the brute charisma of its ringmaster, rolls on. It is absurd—so absurd as to risk deflecting attention from the dreadful significance of what is about to happen in Cleveland. At a time of mounting global uncertainty, the Republicans are about to adopt as their presidential pick a man dedicated, if you believe half his pronouncements against trade, NATO and the United Nations, to dismantling the world order over which America has presided since the second world war. At a time of racial anxiety and some violence in America, they are about to nominate a man who has risen by dog-whistling to the worst racial prejudices, against Hispanics, blacks and immigrants of all sorts, of white America.

It is still likely that Mr Trump will not make it to the White House. But certainly he might. The latest polls show him trailing Hillary Clinton, who will formally accept the Democratic candidacy next week, by between four and seven percentage points. And if his show in Cleveland, which will receive blanket coverage on all the networks, goes off well, that gap may well be about to close.


FDIC Accused Of Covering Up China Hacking To Protect Chairman’s Job

July 14th, 2016  |  Source: Reuters/HuufPo

“The FDIC’s intent to evade congressional oversight is a serious offense.”

The Chinese government likely hacked computers at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation in 2010, 2011 and 2013 and employees at the U.S. banking regulator covered up the intrusions, according to a congressional report on Wednesday.

The report cited an internal FDIC investigation as identifying Beijing as the likely perpetrator of the attacks, which the probe said were covered up to protect the job of FDIC Chairman Martin Gruenberg, who was nominated for his post in 2011.

“The committee’s interim report sheds light on the FDIC’s lax cyber security efforts,” said Lamar Smith, a Republican representative from Texas who chairs the House of Representatives Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

“The FDIC’s intent to evade congressional oversight is a serious offense.”

The report was released amid growing concern about the vulnerability of the international banking system to hackers and the latest example of how deeply Washington believes Beijing has penetrated U.S. government computers.

The report did not provide specific evidence that China was behind the hack.

Shane Shook, a cyber security expert who has helped investigate some of the breaches uncovered to date, said he did not see convincing evidence in the report that the Chinese government was behind the FDIC hack.

“As with all government agencies, there are management issues stemming from leadership ignorance of technology oversight,” Shook said.

Speaking in Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang repeated that China opposed hacking and acted against it.

People should provide evidence for their accusations and not wave around speculative words like “maybe” and “perhaps”, he told reporters.

“This is extremely irresponsible.”

The FDIC, a major U.S. banking regulator which keeps confidential data on America’s biggest banks, declined to comment. Gruenberg is scheduled to testify on Thursday before the committee on the regulator’s cyber security practices.

Washington has accused China of hacking computers at a range of federal agencies in recent years, including the theft of more than 21 million background check records from the federal Office of Personnel Management beginning in 2014.


U.S. senator probes Pokemon GO maker over data privacy concerns

July 13th, 2016  |  Source: Reuters

A Democratic U.S. senator on Tuesday asked the software developer behind Nintendo Co Ltd's Pokemon GO to clarify the mobile game's data privacy protections, amid concerns the augmented reality hit was unnecessarily collecting vast swaths of sensitive user data.

Senator Al Franken of Minnesota sent a letter to Niantic Chief Executive John Hanke asking what user data Pokemon GO collects, how the data is used and with what third party service providers that data may be shared.

The game, which marries Pokemon, the classic 20-year-old cartoon franchise, with augmented reality, allows players to walk around real-life neighborhoods while seeking virtual Pokemon game characters on their smartphone screens - a scavenger hunt that has earned enthusiastic early reviews.

Franken also asked Niantic to describe how it ensures parents give "meaningful consent" to a child's use of the game and subsequent collection of his or her personal information.

"I am concerned about the extent to which Niantic may be unnecessarily collecting, using, and sharing a wide range of users’ personal information without their appropriate consent," Franken wrote.

"As the augmented reality market evolves, I ask that you provide greater clarity on how Niantic is addressing issues of user privacy and security, particularly that of its younger players," he added.

Franken additionally asked Niantic to provide an update on a vulnerability detected on Monday by security researchers who found Pokemon GO players signing into the game via a Google account on an Apple iOS device unwittingly gave "full access permission" to the person's Google account.

Pokemon GO on Tuesday released an updated version on iOS to reduce the number of data permissions it sought from Google account users.

Niantic did not immediately respond to a request for comment about Franken's inquiry.

The company, spun off by Google last year, created the game in tandem with Pokemon Co, a third of which is owned by Nintendo.

Pokemon GO has been a smash hit for Nintendo. The Japanese company's first venture in mobile gaming brought market-value gains of $7.5 billion in just two days after the game's release last week.

Franken asked for a response by Aug. 12.


Tribunal overwhelmingly rejects Beijing's South China Sea claims

July 12th, 2016  |  Source: Reuters

An arbitration court ruled on Tuesday that China has no historic title over the waters of the South China Sea and has breached the Philippines' sovereign rights with its actions, infuriating Beijing which dismissed the case as a farce.

A defiant China, which boycotted the hearings at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague, vowed again to ignore the ruling and said its armed forces would defend its sovereignty and maritime interests.

China's state-run Xinhua news agency said shortly before the ruling was announced that a Chinese civilian aircraft had successfully tested two new airports in the disputed Spratly Islands.

And China's Defence Ministry said a new guided missile destroyer was formally commissioned at a naval base on the southern island province of Hainan, which has responsibility for the South China Sea.

"This award represents a devastating legal blow to China's jurisdictional claims in the South China Sea," Ian Storey, of Singapore's ISEAS Yusof Ishak Institute, told Reuters.

"China will respond with fury, certainly in terms of rhetoric and possibly through more aggressive actions at sea."

The United States, which China has accused of fuelling tensions and militarizing the region with patrols and exercises, urged parties to comply with the legally binding ruling and avoid provocations.

"The decision today by the Tribunal in the Philippines-China arbitration is an important contribution to the shared goal of a peaceful resolution to disputes in the South China Sea," State Department spokesman John Kirby said in a statement.

U.S. officials have previously said they feared China may respond to the ruling by declaring an air defense identification zone in the South China Sea, as it did in the East China Sea in 2013, or by stepping up its building and fortification of artificial islands.

China claims most of the energy-rich waters through which about $5 trillion in ship-borne trade passes every year. Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam also have claims.

Finding for the Philippines on a number of issues, the panel said there was no legal basis for China to claim historic rights to resources within its so-called nine-dash line, which covers almost 90 percent of the South China Sea.

It said China had interfered with traditional Philippine fishing rights at Scarborough Shoal and had breached the Philippines' sovereign rights by exploring for oil and gas near the Reed Bank.

None of China's reefs and holdings in the Spratly Islands entitled it to a 200-mile exclusive economic zone, it added.


U.S. economy posts largest job gains in eight months in June

July 8th, 2016  |  Source: Reuters

U.S. job growth surged in June as factories and retailers boosted hiring, confirming the economy has regained speed after a first-quarter lull, but tepid wage growth could see the Federal Reserve still cautious about hiking interest rates.

Non-farm payrolls increased by 287,000 jobs last month, the largest gain since last October, the Labor Department said on Friday. May payrolls were revised down to show them rising 11,000 rather than the previously reported 38,000.

"It's a great number. This affirms the economy is still on decent footing but it doesn't change the Fed's path," said Darrell Cronk, chief investment officer at Wells Fargo Wealth and Investment in New York.

Last month's tally beat economists' expectations for an increase of only 175,000 jobs. While the unemployment rate rose two-tenths of a percentage point to 4.9 percent, that was because more people entered the labor force, a sign of confidence in the jobs market.

Wage growth remains sluggish even as the labor market tightens. Average hourly earnings increased only two cents or 0.1 percent in June. The year-on-year gain in earnings rose to 2.6 percent after advancing 2.5 percent in May.

The strong rebound in June payrolls added to data on consumer spending and housing in suggesting that economic growth accelerated from the first-quarter's anemic 1.1 percent annualized rate. The Atlanta Fed is currently forecasting the economy growing at a 2.4 percent pace in the second quarter.

But the signs of strength in the economy precede Britain's stunning vote last month to leave the European Union.


Obama, in shift, says he will keep 8,400 U.S. troops in Afghanistan until 2017

July 6th, 2016  |  Source: Reuters

President Barack Obama, saying the Afghan security situation remained precarious, announced on Wednesday that he would keep U.S. troop levels in the country at 8,400 through the end of his administration rather than reducing them to 5,500 by year's end.

Obama, in a statement to the press at the White House, said the role of U.S. forces in Afghanistan would remain unchanged, training and advising Afghan police and troops, and supporting counterterrorism missions against the Taliban and other groups.


Trump narrows gap on Clinton in new poll

June 29th, 2016  |  Source: AFP

The US presidential battle is too close to call, but one element is clear: Americans have soured on candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, a poll released Wednesday showed.

Respondents to the latest Quinnipiac University national poll put Clinton ahead of Trump just 42 percent to 40 percent, a narrowing from Clinton's four-point margin in the organization's June 1 survey.

It is also considerably closer than the 12-point Clinton advantage in an ABC News/Washington Post poll published Sunday which highlighted Clinton capitalizing on Trump's recent mis-steps.

The Quinnipiac survey of 1,610 registered voters notably showed that 61 percent believe the 2016 election "has increased the level of hatred and prejudice in the US."

Of that group, two thirds blame the Trump campaign, with just 16 percent blaming Clinton's team.

Overall the survey shows less-than-flattering views of both candidates in the months before the November 8 election to determine who succeeds President Barack Obama in the White House.

"Voters find themselves in the middle of a mean-spirited, scorched earth campaign between two candidates they don't like. And they don't think either candidate would be a good president," Quinnipiac poll assistant director Tim Malloy said in a statement.

Trump has made several incendiary statements during the campaign, including a call for banning Muslims from entering the United States, and describing Mexicans as rapists and criminals.

It has been a tumultuous week for Trump, a political novice who recently fired his campaign manager and faced criticism for having a paltry $1.3 million war chest at the end of May.

Following the mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, the brash businessman earned rebukes for tweeting out self-congratulations over "being right on radical Islamic terrorism."

Respondents said by 58 percent to 33 percent that former secretary of state Clinton is better prepared to be president than Trump.

But they said Trump would be better at creating jobs (52-40 percent) and at handling Islamic State extremists (52-39).

The poll has a margin of error of 2.4 percentage points.


Cracks show inside Islamic State's shrinking caliphate

June 28th, 2016  |  Source: Reuters

It was barely more than a squiggle, but the mark of a single letter sprayed overnight on a wall in the heart of Islamic State's self-proclaimed caliphate was a daring act of dissent.

The next day, ultra-hardline Islamic State fighters came and scrubbed out the "M" -- the first letter of the word for "resistance" in Arabic -- which appeared in an alley near the Grand Mosque in the Iraqi city of Mosul about three weeks ago.

A video of the single letter, scrawled about a meter long on the wall, was shared with Reuters by an activist from a group called "Resistance", whose members risk certain execution to conduct small acts of defiance in areas under Islamic State rule.

Nearly two years since Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi delivered a sermon from that same mosque summoning Muslims worldwide to the "caliphate", it is fraying at the edges.

As an array of forces make inroads into their territory spanning Iraq and Syria, the jihadis are becoming even harsher to maintain control of a population that is increasingly hostile to them, according to Iraqi officials and people who managed to escape.

"They are harsh, but they are not strong," said Major General Najm al-Jubbouri, who is in command of the operation to recapture Mosul and the surrounding areas. "Their hosts reject them."

Many local Sunnis initially welcomed the Sunni Muslim militants as saviors from a Shi'ite-led government they perceived as oppressive, while thousands of foreigners answered Baghdadi's call to come and wage holy war.

For a time, the militants claimed one victory after another, thanks as much to the weakness and division of the forces arrayed against them as their own strength. They funded themselves through sales of oil from fields they overran, and plundered weapons and ammunition from those they vanquished.

But two years since the declaration of the caliphate, the tide has begun to turn in favor of its many enemies: Iraqi and Syrian government troops, Kurdish forces in both countries, rival Syrian Sunni rebels, Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias, and a U.S.-led coalition which has bombed the militants while conducting special operations to take out their commanders.

Of the 43 founders of Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh, 39 have been killed, said Hisham al-Hashimi, a Baghdad-based expert who advises the Iraqi government.

The self-proclaimed caliph, Baghdadi, is moving in a semi-desert plain that covers several thousand square kilometers west of the Tigris river and south of Mosul, avoiding Syria after two of his close aides were killed there this year: "war minister" Abu Omar al-Shishani and top civilian administrator and second-in-command Abd al-Rahman al-Qaduli, Hashimi said.

The most senior commanders after Baghdadi are now Abu Mohammed al-Adnani, the group's spokesman who took over military supervision after Shishani's death, and Abu Muhammad al-Shimali, who oversees foreign fighters and succeeded Qaduli as civilian administrator, he said.

Kurdish and Iraqi military commanders say the group is deploying fighters who are less experienced and less ideologically committed to defend what remains of its quasi-state, which is under attack on multiple fronts.

Iraqi forces recently entered the Islamic State bastion of Falluja just west of Baghdad, and are pushing north towards Mosul, by far the biggest city Islamic State controls with a pre-war population of 2 million.

In neighboring Syria, U.S.-backed forces are closing in on the militant stronghold of Manbij, and President Bashar al-Assad's Russian-backed army has advanced into the province surrounding the de facto Islamic State capital Raqqa.

On a front south of Mosul, a group of women displaced by the offensive said Islamic State fighters' grip had begun to loosen as Iraqi forces advanced, to the point that they no longer punished people for not wearing the full face veil.

The number of foreign fighters has fallen significantly, and renewed efforts by the group to recruit locals have proven largely unsuccessful, except amongst the young and destitute, according to people who recently fled, including three repentant Islamic State members.

"When you are a young man and you don't own 250 dinars and someone comes and offers you 20,000, 15,000 or 30,000, you will do anything," said a former Islamic State militant from Iraq's northern Hawija district who recently gave himself up to Kurdish forces.

Members of Islamic State's vice squad, the Hisba, are increasingly being sent to the frontlines as designated fighters are killed off, according to people who escaped as well as Iraqi and Kurdish military and intelligence officials.

That means there are fewer militants to enforce the group's draconian rules and dress code. But a 28 year-old teacher who recently fled Mosul said people were so afraid of the militants they did not disobey them even when they were not around.

"If they say black is white, you agree," said the teacher, who asked not to be identified because he still has family inside the city and feared they could be targeted.

School courses were redesigned by the militants to reflect their war-like ideology. He gave an example of a math problem given to his pupils: "The Mudjahid is carrying seven magazines for his rifle, each with 30 bullets; how many rounds can he fire at the unbelievers?"

He said Arabic lessons were also redesigned, with pupils asked to fill in blanks in slogan-like sentences such as "The Islamic State is xxxx and xxxx". The answer is "staying and expanding".

ASSET AND LIABILITY

The Sunni population in which the militants have embedded themselves is becoming more of a liability to them but also remains one of their greatest assets.

As living conditions deteriorate and the militants crack down, the local population is increasingly hostile to the group, which has repeatedly used civilians as human shields to slow the advance of Iraqi forces in frontline cities like Falluja.

Those caught trying to escape Islamic State territory are liable to be executed on the spot -- even women and children.

Despite outnumbering the militants, the population remains weaker than them. Residents were disarmed and the security forces purged in the early days after the fighters captured Mosul. But residents are increasingly cooperating with the security forces outside the city by informing on the militants.

Nineveh provincial council member Abdul Rahman al-Wakaa said the group had begun moving local leaders around so people could not identify them as easily and pass their location on to coalition and Iraqi forces.

The jihadis have also cracked down on communications with the outside world, executing people for using mobile phones and confiscating satellite dishes to prevent people from seeing the progress made by Iraqi forces.

Iraqi military leaders are hoping there will be an uprising against the insurgents as the army draws nearer to Mosul. A top Iraqi general told Reuters troops were in contact with people inside Mosul to synchronize such action with an external military assault.

The plan is to engage the militants on several fronts around Mosul simultaneously, to draw them out of the city, giving the local population a chance to revolt.

Acute hardship and hunger since Baghdad cut salaries to state workers living in areas under Islamic State control around a year ago has forced more locals to work for the group.

Islamic State, for its part, plays on the population's fears of retribution from Iraqi forces and pro-government Shi'ite militias. Despite a string of defeats, military officials say there have been few defections from the group.

Three young men who joined Islamic State and recently surrendered to Kurdish forces in northern Iraq said the militants hunted down those who tried to abandon them.

Ahmed Ibrahim Abdullah said he had been arrested and tortured by the militants when he left. He sold a cow to pay for his bail so he could escape.

Twenty-six year old Ahmed Khalaf said he had surrendered to the Kurds in the hope he would be treated with more leniency than if captured by government forces, but that others were too afraid to the same: "There are people who have a certain idea that their fate is tied to the fate of Daesh."




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