News Briefs Nov. 8th, 2017

Eight killed in NYC terror attack

On Tuesday, Oct. 31, there was a terrorist attack in New York City. Just after 3 p.m., a rented Home Depot truck swerved into the Houston Street bike line along the West Side Highway, located in the lower part of Manhattan. The attack took place not far from the site of the Sept. 11 attacks. After striking multiple pedestrians and bikers, the driver crashed into a school bus near Chambers Street. Of those struck when the truck turned into the bike line, six were presumed dead at the scene and two more died at the hospital. Two children and two adults on the bus were wounded, but none of them fatally (New York Times, “Terror Attack Kills 8 and Injures 11 in Manhattan,” 10.31.2017).

After the crash, the driver, Sayfullo Saipov, got out of the truck and ran through traffic, waving a paintball gun and a pellet gun. After yelling “Allahu Akbar,” meaning “God is great” in Arabic, he was shot in the stomach by New York Police Department officer Ryan Nash on Chambers Street (CBS News, “‘This Was An Act Of Terror’: 8 Dead, More Than A Dozen Injured When Truck Strikes Pedestrians In Lower Manhattan,” 10.31.2017).

The motorist is still alive, but is in police custody. The attack has been compared to the terrorist attack in Nice, France last year, in which a different motorist struck those celebrating Bastille Day.

Saipov, who is 29 years old, came to the United States from Uzbekistan in 2010. Prior to the attack, Saipov, a New Jersey resident, did not have a criminal history, and his only law violations were traffic-related. When he moved to the United States seven years ago, Saipov worked driving cars and trucks and recently begun driving for Uber, for which he passed the background check.

Law enforcement officials have concluded that Saipov was “self-radicalized” because he did not have ties to the terrorist organization, despite being inspired by it. This was further supported by findings of a note by the vehicle, reading “ISIS Lives Forever” in both English and Arabic. Saipov, who spent a year planning the motor attack, also requested that an ISIS flag be hung in his hospital room. On Thursday, Nov. 2, ISIS took credit for the attack that it had inspired (NBC News, “Sayfullo Saipov’s Path from Immigrant Trucker to Suspected Terrorist,” 11.01.2017).

On Tuesday, Oct. 31, there was a terrorist attack in lower Manhattan, near the location of the Sept. 11 attacks. Eight people were killed and several more were injured. The perpetrator, Sayfullo Saipov, is alive and in custody, awaiting trial./ Courtesy of Pixabay

Normally, presidents of the United States are discourgaed from providing their opinons on unsettled criminal cases, as these thoughts can interfere with the trial. However, President Trump tweeted his response to the attack, stating that “In NYC, looks like another attack by a very sick and deranged person. Law enforcement is following this closely. NOT IN THE U.S.A.!” This was later followed up by another tweet reading, “He killed 8 people, badly injured 12. SHOULD GET DEATH PENALTY!” (New York Times, “Trump Declares Suspect ‘Should Get Death Penalty,’” 11.01.2017).

—Pazit Schrecker, Guest Reporter

Mueller make first indictment charges

Ever since Trump’s election, tremendous suspicion of Russia’s involvement in the election is omnipresent in the news cycle, which eventually led to a federal investigation. This week, incriminating information about key figures from Trump’s foreign policy sector of the campaign revealed potential collusion between Russia and the United States.

The first indictment charges were made under the investigation of special counsel Robert Mueller last week. The investigation is focusing on potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia that gave Trump his November victory. Those from Trump’s campaign who were charged were scheduled to be taken into custody as soon as Monday. However, these charges were sealed from the public eye. Mueller’s sealing of the documents sends a signal to other defendants that these are serious allegations worth decades of jail time (CNN, “First on CNN: First charges filed in Mueller investigation”, 10.30.2017).

The indictments include Paul Manafort, Rick Gates and George Papadopoulos, all former Trump campaign aides. Manafort and Gates, who are longtime international business associates, were the first to be indicted on 12 counts, including conspiracy to launder money on behalf of the campaign. Gates and Manafort were both ousted from Trump’s inner circle amidst rising suspicions about their lobbying work in Eastern Europe, especially in the Ukraine (Washington Post, “At least nine people in Trump’s orbit had contact with Russians during campaign and transition,” 11.5.2017).

According to their indictment, Manafort and Gates funneled millions of dollars to the United States from consulting a Ukrainian presidential campaign. The seemingly democratic candidate Victor Yanukovych had close ties to Vladimir Putin. Gates was found to have opened as many as 30 bank accounts this year alone—one with over $10 million dollars in Cyprus—which constitutes massive tax fraud (CBC News, “How cases of Paul Manafort and Sergei Magnitsky are linked: money laundering through Cyprus,” 11.04.2017).

This week, it was discovered that Papadopoulos, a seemingly low level advisor to the campaign, was trying to set up meetings in Moscow with the Trump campaign. Evidence in Mueller’s investigation suggests that Papadopoulos may have been directed by higher campaign members to spark collusion between the campaign and Russian authorities, including Vladimir Putin. It was later discovered that he sent emails to other campaign aides, notably Manafort and Gates, working on Trump’s foreign policy about collaborating with Russia. In an email sent from Manafort to Gates, he wrote, “We need someone to communicate that DT is not doing these trips. It should be someone low level in the campaign so as not to send any signal” (NPR, “Former Trump Adviser Admits To Seeking ‘Dirt’ On Clinton From Russians, Lying To FBI,” 10.30.2017).

Although he went to great lengths to skirt around Trump’s national security, the 29-year-old Papadopoulos confessed to lying to the FBI about his relations with Russia. However, the exact question of the Trump campaign’s alleged illegal collusion with Russia remain unanswered. Mueller’s investigation suggests that the Russians had disclosed they had important, and perhaps incriminating, information about Hillary Clinton. These illegal meetings never happened, as the campaign claimed to have refused them.

The Trump administration tried to stop the investigation but ultimately failed. Furious after receiving notice about Mueller’s strong prosecution advocating for electoral justice, Trump’s tweet read, “This is the greatest witch hunt of a politician in American history!” (CNN, “Trump ‘seething’ as Mueller probe reaches former aides,” 10.31.2017). In the upcoming weeks, the Mueller probe will continue to uncover the hidden truths behind Russia’s role in the 2016 presidential election.

—Kelly Vinett, Guest Reporter

Congress holds hearings for tech giants

Last week marked the start of Congressional hearings for the biggest tech companies in the country in connection to their role in Russia’s meddling in 2016 presidential election. On Tuesday, Oct. 31, and Wednesday, Nov. 1, three of the tech giants, Facebook, Twitter and Google, had to defend themselves in front of Senate in a series of three hearings over the two days. The hearings were conducted to investigate the role social media played in the 2016 presidential election and the extent of the reach and influence it had. It was the first time that tech companies testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee about the role they played in the elections. While the senators were hoping for a conversation with top executives, the corporations instead sent their in-house lawyers, putting themselves on the defensive.

At the beginning of this year, the U.S. Intelligence Community jointly confirmed Russian government interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. One of the tactics was the use of social media to spread controversial and divisive messages, focusing on race, religion, gun rights and gay and transgender issues in the U.S. They used Facebook in two ways: firstly, by paying Facebook for advertisements and secondly, by creating Facebook groups where they promoted divisive messages and encouraged debate. The Russian government influenced the election by using Facebook’s own strategy of encouraging people to be more engaged, by commenting, liking and sharing content. It has been revealed that a shadowy Russian company with links to the Kremlin, Internet Research Agency, posted around 80,000 pieces of divisive content that reached 19 million people between January 2015 and August 2017 (The Atlantic, “15 Things We Learned From the Tech Giants at the Senate Hearings,” 10.02.2017). These posts were then shared, liked and commented on, spreading them to an even wider group of people. Moreover, Internet Research Agency paid Facebook more than $100,000 in advertisements (Reuters, “Facebook says 126 million Americans may have seen Russia-linked political posts,” 10.30.2017).

Last week’s hearings presented a shift in the relationship between Washington and Silicon Valley. For years their relationship has been very friendly, especially in regards to favorable regulatory treatment of Silicon Valley. However, the hearings revealed the increasing frustration with Silicon Valley in Washington. This was apparent in the line of questioning from Minnesota Senator Al Franken, who asked Facebook’s general Counsel Colin Stretch: “You put billions of data points together all the time … you can’t put together rubles and a political ad? How did you not connect those two dots?” (Reuters, “U.S. senators hammer Facebook for power over elections,” 10.31.2017). The past month has also seen a circulation of Senator Amy Klobuchar’s bipartisan Honest Ads Bill, which would require political ads on the internet to be regulated in the same way as those on TV and radio (Business Insider, “McCain, Democrats introduce first major legislation targeting Facebook ads since Russia intervened in the 2016 elections,” 10.19.2017). Facebook has taken some steps to change its practices when it comes to political ads in order to avoid regulation from Washington and has hired 1,000 new people to review political ads. The argument for self-regulation has been present in the discourses of all the big tech companies.

—Marusa Rus, Guest Reporter

ISIS loses control of Deir al-Zour

Last Friday, the Islamic State suffered an important defeat by Syrian government forces, Iraqi militaries and international backers of both armies and lost much of its territory.

Syrian forces declared victory in Deir al-Zour, the last major city held by ISIS. The city is regarded as an important place geographically and economically; it is near the Iraqi border and has abundant amount of oil. As a result, the Syrian government and ISIS had an ongoing territorial dispute over the city. Deir al-Zour has been divided into a Syrian portion and an ISIS portion for three years (Independent, “ISIS Driven Out of Final City Stronghold in Syria,” 11.03.2017).

However, allied with Russian and Iranian army, Syrian forces started to besiege Deir al- Zour against ISIS and have been moving forward ever since. Finally, last Friday, they succeeded in recovering control over the city (Independent, “ISIS Driven Out of Final City Stronghold in Syria,” 11.03.2017).

“The armed forces, in cooperation with allied forces, liberated the city of Deir al-Zour completely from the clutches of the Daesh terrorist organization,” Syrian state media reported, using an Arabic acronym for ISIS (Reuters, “Islamic State on Verge of Defeat After Fresh Losses in Syria, Iraq,” 11.03.2017).

Meanwhile, on the opposite side of the border, the Iraqi military allied with Iranian army took over al-Qaim, the border-crossing city near the Euphrates River. Iraq’s Prime Minister Haidar Abadi announced that government forces succeeded in seizing power over the city (Independent, “ISIS Driven Out of Final City Stronghold in Syria,” 11.03.2017).

After these defeats, ISIS is now isolated in the small desert countryside surrounded by its opponents. Indeed, it has lost 90 percent of its territory in the last three years, including key cities such as Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria (Reuters, “Islamic State on Verge of Defeat After Fresh Losses in Syria, Iraq,” 11.03.2017).

Syrian forces against ISIS anticipated that a few more wars are left in order to annihilate ISIS influence on territories. They estimated that ISIS does not have many soldiers left; around 1,500 to 2,500 soldiers are estimated to remain in al-Qa’im and 2,000 to 3,000 in Abu Kamal (Independent, “ISIS Driven Out of Final City Stronghold in Syria,” 11.03.2017).

Refugees from Deir al-Zour and al-Qa’im were also relieved by the victory. Hosna Quray’a, a refugee from Deir al-Zour who has stayed at a school shelter in Qudsaya, commented to The New York Times, “I want to return. Most of my relatives left there, and I don’t know what happened to them” (The New York Times, “ISIS, Squeezed on Two Sides, Loses Syrian City and Border Crossing,” 11.03.2017).

However, there are several obstacles to the fully recover the lost territory and to wipe out ISIS’s power. To begin with, the war is not finished yet. Both the Iraqi and Syrian government are cautious about guerrilla attacks of ISIS (Independent, “ISIS Driven Out of Final City Stronghold in Syria,” 11.03.2017).

Moreover, for the refugees, the victory does not mean they can immediately return to their homes. The cities may still contain numerous land mines and ISIS sleeper cells. It will also take a huge amount of time to rebuild the destroyed cities again (The New York Times, “ISIS, Squeezed on Two Sides, Loses Syrian City and Border Crossing,” 11.03.2017).

Finally, the political conflicts among the militaries would be a critical concern in the aftermath of the war. The New York Times reported, “That battle for the remaining Islamic State territory could inflame tensions among the competing forces fighting the militants as they converge on the region … the competing armies [are] seeking not only to vanquish the Islamic State, but [are] also racing against each other to win influence in the strategic border zone” (The New York Times, “ISIS, Squeezed on Two Sides, Loses Syrian City and Border Crossing,” 11.03.2017).

— Youngju Chang, Guest Reporter

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