Signs of the Times (12/1/14)

UK Uncovers al-Qaida Plot to Blow Up Planes in ‘Christmas Spectacular’

Great Britain has discovered an al-Qaida terror plot to blow up five European passenger jets in a ‘Christmas spectacular,” according to a London newspaper. Quoting security sources, the newspaper said the threat was discovered about two months ago and would have involved militants smuggling bombs onto planes. It was taken so seriously that the government considered banning all luggage. According to the U.K.’s Sunday Express, the threat of a September 11-style attack on London and other major cities is considered imminent. “We’ve been told that five planes are being targeted in a high profile hit before Christmas. They’ve been waiting for the big one,” an airport security source told the newspaper. “High level negotiations are continuing at the governmental level but at the moment there has been little done to respond. There is paralysis because of the difficulty of banning hand luggage which is one of the strongest weapons we have against the new threats,” the source said, according to the Express. “The threat is aimed at Europe. The U.S. has improved their security over the summer but we have not. Everyone is expecting something catastrophic very soon,” the source said.

Majority of Americans say Things are Going Well

For the first time since 2007, a majority of Americans think things are going well in the nation, a new CNN/ORC International poll found. It’s a slim majority — just 52 percent of Americans said things are going well, while 48 percent said things are going badly — but it’s the most positive appraisal of the state of the nation that the poll has found since January of 2007. And it marks consistent improvement in the mood of the nation over the past few months, despite a series of national security crises and continued gridlock in Washington. Though just one-third of Americans believe the nation’s economy is starting to recover, it marks an 8-point increase from a year ago, when 24 percent said the same. A plurality, 41 percent, say the economy has stabilized, a 5-point improvement from November of 2013. And just 26 percent of Americans say the country’s economic conditions are getting worse, a decline from the 39 percent who said so in 2013.

Protesters Target Black Friday/Ferguson

One of the St. Louis area’s most popular shopping malls was closed for more than an hour on Black Friday when people protesting the grand jury decision in the Michael Brown case marched into the Galleria and lay down on the third floor. It was one of several protests around the country that targeted the rush of crowds in downtown shopping centers and suburban malls, some causing temporary or early closures and leaving broken storefront windows. Protests in the San Francisco area shut down a key commuter train for about an hour, while those in Seattle attempted to stop the city’s tree-lighting ceremony. At least three dozen people were arrested. Activists are calling for students to walk out of school and employees to walk off the job nationwide at 1 p.m. ET Monday to protest police violence.

The St. Louis Police Organization is demanding ‘a very public apology’ from the National Football League and the St. Louis Rams after five Rams players stood with hands raised before Sunday’s game in a so-called ‘don’t shoot’ protest over Ferguson grand jury decision to not indict the police officer who shot a Ferguson teenager. The group called the display ‘offensive and inflammatory.’

ObamaCare’s Small Business Site Opens to Scant Interest

A long-delayed section of the federal health care exchange website intended to help small business owners enroll their employees in health insurance plans for 2015 has drawn relatively little interest compared to the site’s plans for individuals. The Washington Post, citing data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, reported Sunday that the home page for the Small Business Health Options Program (SHOP) drew 200,000 visits during its first week. By contrast, more than 1.5 million people visited Healthcare.gov’s plan page for individuals over the same period. It was not immediately clear how many employers have offered health coverage to their employees through the plans or how many employees have bought them. The Post also reported that insurers are having trouble accessing their accounts on the site and are not appearing in the system’s master lists of professionals available to advise small businesses.

Fewer Shoppers Hit the Stores on Black Friday

The National Retail Federation, which tracks customer visits to stores as well as sales, reported that 5.1 million fewer people were out shopping on Black Friday than last year. That was a decline of about 7%.On Thanksgiving Day itself, when many of the largest retailers opened with door-buster deals between 6 and 8 p.m., the retail group found that around 1.8 million fewer shoppers went out than last year. Overall, traffic was also down over the long weekend: About 5% fewer shoppers visited stores from Thanksgiving through Sunday. More people are shopping online, and the holiday deals (in stores and online) are less concentrated on the one four-day weekend than they used to be.

Ebola Update

The number of confirmed, probable and suspected cases of Ebola in the current outbreak has surpassed 16,000, according to the World Health Organization, with nearly 7,000 deaths from those cases. Liberia has been hit hardest, with the WHO reporting 7,244 confirmed and potential cases as well as 4,181 deaths. Both numbers reported Friday are significantly higher than those released earlier in the week. The WHO and other health agencies have long said the scale of the Ebola outbreak is likely significantly worse than even the current high numbers indicate, because many people died before they could be diagnosed and many contracted the disease in remote areas without ready access to health care.

The head of the UN Ebola response mission in West Africa has told the BBC there is still a “huge risk” the deadly disease could spread to other parts of the world. Two months ago, the World Health Organization launched an ambitious plan to stop the deadly Ebola outbreak in West Africa, aiming to isolate 70 per cent of the sick and to have 70 per cent safe burials in the three hardest-hit countries— Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone — by December 1st, marking another failure in attempts to slow the biggest-ever outbreak of the deadly disease.. Only Guinea is on track to meet the goal, according to an update from WHO released Monday. In Liberia, only 23 per cent of cases are isolated and 26 per cent of the needed burial teams are in place. In Sierra Leone, about 40 per cent of cases are isolated while 27 per cent of burial teams are operational.

26th World AIDS Day

People around the world Monday will join forces to show their support for those living with the AIDS virus, as well as those who have died from the disease, when the 26th World AIDS Day is marked. An estimated 34 million people are living with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, and more than 35 million have died from the disease. This year’s theme is “Focus, Partner, Achieve: An AIDS-free Generation.” Ahead of World AIDS Day, the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) urged more investment and access to treatment for children. The group said that 1.1 million infections among children under 15 have been averted, but that more needs to be done. UNICEF said that while all other age groups have experienced a decline of nearly 40% in AIDS-related deaths between 2005 and 2013, those ages 10-19 are the only group in which AIDS-related deaths are not decreasing.

Economic News

OPEC’s decision to maintain oil-production levels could threaten financing for some U.S. oil industry expansion and trigger market consolidation in an only-the-strong-survive scenario, economists and analysts said Friday. Much of the recent increase in U.S. oil production, the product of fracking and drilling in North Dakota, Colorado and elsewhere, is funded with borrowed money, said Philip Verleger, an economist and energy industry consultant who forecast an abrupt end to the trend. U.S. oil production won’t necessarily fall sharply in the short term, because companies with existing wells can survive even if oil prices drop to $50 to $55 a barrel.

Oil prices plunged to their lowest level in five years Monday, piling pressure on Russia and other producers and raising the risk of deflation in Europe. Crude oil collapsed below $65 per barrel as new data confirmed a slowdown in manufacturing activity in Europe and China, and as OPEC’s decision not to cut output continued to roil markets. Russia depends heavily on oil revenue, and stands to lose billions from the market rout. The ruble plumbed new depths, tumbling more than 4% to hit a fresh low against the dollar. Slower global growth is one reason for the oil supply glut. The U.S. energy boom is another.

Crude oil’s latest plunge hit the energy sector hard again Friday, but consumers are likely to see a new round of softening gasoline prices well into the holiday season. Pump prices, already 49 cents lower than year-ago levels to a national average of $2.79 a gallon Friday – are expected to come down at least another 19 cents, to $2.60. But a handful of states, including Missouri, Oklahoma and South Carolina, could soon see sub- $2 gas, says Tom Kloza, senior analyst with the Oil Price Information Service.

Middle East

A Palestinian teenage girl with a knife assaulted an Israeli man Monday in the West Bank, adding another attack to a chain of ethnic violence. Israeli security officers opened fire on the Palestinian teenager. She sustained “serious injuries.” The knifing victim was “lightly wounded.” In recent weeks, Palestinian attackers killed and injured Israelis in gun, knife and car attacks. Israeli police have responded by shooting dead most of the assailants. Similar tensions over the killings of Israeli teens and Palestinian boys marked the run-up to the military conflict between Israel and Gaza in the summer, which took dozens of Israeli lives and more than 2,500 Palestinian lives.

Islamic State

As United Nations statistics estimate that over 5 million children’s lives have been affected in Syria as a result of the Islamic State’s ongoing jihad, U.N. officials are saying that ISIS has created new and more barbaric ways to utilize children in the conflict, including using them as human shields and forcing them to donate blood to injured militants. Although some children are used in more civil and “domestic” roles like “cooking, cleaning, bringing water or providing medical aid to the wounded,” some children are thrust to the front lines and used in military roles like combatants or human shields. According to testimony from an escaped 15-year-old former ISIS fighter, the militant leaders are also forcing child fighters to take anti-anxiety pills in order to make them more likely to follow through on a suicide attack.

The U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS in Syria has stepped up its attacks on the militant Islamist group’s de facto capital, with 30 airstrikes targeting Raqqa overnight, the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Sunday. Last week, almost 100 people were killed in Syrian government airstrikes in Raqqa, the observatory said. Many more were critically injured. Extremists have made the city, which sits on the banks of the Euphrates River, the de facto capital of their self-declared “Islamic State” that stretches across large areas of Syria and Iraq. The city is known as a place where ISIS puts training centers, weapons depots and accommodations for fighters.

The Islamic State group launched an attack Saturday on the Syrian border town of Kobani from Turkey. The assault began when a suicide bomber driving an armored vehicle detonated his explosives on the border crossing between Kobani and Turkey in order to attack Kobani from four sides. Turkey, while previously backing the Syrian rebels fighting to topple President Bashar Assad in that country’s civil war, has been hesitant to aid them in Kobani because it fears that could stoke Kurdish ambitions for an independent state.

Iraq

In its fight against Islamist terror militia ISIS, the Iraqi army may be weakened from within by corrupt soldiers not showing for duty — 50,000 of them. Maybe more. “Ghost” soldiers are members of the armed forces, who pay off their commanders with a portion of their salaries, so they don’t have to man their posts. Investigators are looking for additional cases, and expect many more to turn up. The Prime Minister vowed to punish those responsible. ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, has captured and held broad swaths of territory in Iraq’s north and west. Iraqi military forces have often appeared in disarray while doing battle against the extremists.

Afghanistan

Violence raged yet again Saturday in Afghanistan, including a battle at a sprawling military base that British troops gave up last month and an attack on a home for aid workers in Kabul. Taliban insurgents began an assault Thursday night on Camp Bastion, a facility in Helmand province that Britain handed over to Afghan authorities on October 14. At least five Afghan troops and nine Taliban fighters have been killed.

Taliban suicide bombers and gunmen attacked a foreign guesthouse near parliament in the Afghan capital Saturday, the latest assault targeting foreigners as NATO troops withdraw from the country. Police and intelligence officers quickly surrounded the scene of the attack, a guesthouse home to Europeans working for the Afghan government. The Taliban said in a statement that it had launched the suicide attack on “a secret missionary center” in the city’s west. The militants have waged a series of large-scale attacks on Kabul in recent days, including an assault in the upscale Wazir Akbar Khan district home to embassies and international agencies and the suicide bombing of a British embassy vehicle. There have been about a dozen attacks in the past two weeks alone.

Egypt

An Egyptian court on Saturday dismissed murder charges against former President Hosni Mubarak in connection with the killing of hundreds of protesters in the 2011 uprising that ended his nearly three-decade rule, citing the “inadmissibility” of the case due to a technicality. The ruling marks another major setback for the young activists who spearheaded the Arab Spring-inspired uprising nearly four years ago — many of whom are now in jail or have withdrawn from politics. Saturday’s verdict concludes Mubarak’s retrial along with his two sons, his security chief and six top security commanders, who were all acquitted. Also acquitted was wealthy businessman Hussein Salem, a longtime Mubarak friend tried in absentia. Mubarak, 86, was also acquitted of corruption charges that he faced along with his sons Alaa and Gamal — his one-time heir apparent — over a statute of limitations. It will likely reinforce the perception that Mubarak’s autocratic state remains in place, albeit led by a new president, former military chief Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi. It was not immediately clear whether Mubarak would now be freed since he is serving a three-year jail term for corruption charges he was convicted of in May.

Nigeria

More than 102 people were killed in the bomb explosions at the central mosque in Kano, Nigeria. Hundreds had gathered in the mosque Friday to listen to a sermon in a region terrorized by attacks from the extremist group Boko Haram. Multiple explosions ripped through the mosque. Boko Haram has not claimed responsibility, but the attack bears the hallmarks of the militant group that has carried out numerous such attacks in northern Nigeria. More than 1,500 have been killed this year in the insurgency. It may seem counterintuitive that Islamist militants should attack a mosque, but since its early days, Boko Haram has targeted the Muslim “establishment” in Nigeria, accusing it of not defending the interests of Nigeria’s 80 million Muslims, of corruption and of “perverting” Islam.

China

An attack in China’s troubled western Xinjiang region left 15 people dead and 14 injured, state media reported Saturday, the latest in a wave of ethnic violence there that has claimed dozens of lives over the past year. 11 of the 15 people killed were assailants. The official Xinhua News Agency reported that the attack took place at a “food street” Friday in Shache County, the same region where state media said a series of attacks in July left 96 people dead, including 59 assailants. The assailants in Friday’s attack wielded explosives, knives and at least one vehicle. Members of the Muslim Uighur (WEE-gur) minority group have bristled under what they say is repressive Chinese government rule.

Hong Kong

Clashes between Hong Kong police and protesters overnight Sunday and Monday morning marked a violent escalation for the more than two month-old pro-democracy movement in the South China port city, where many residents resent the restrictions that Beijing has set on the territory’s next leadership elections in 2017. To increase pressure on Hong Kong authorities, who have refused to make any concessions to protesters’ demands, a leading student group urged protesters Sunday night to surround government headquarters in Admiralty, close to the main protest site in the city’s financial district. Running battles ensued for hours as riot police deployed pepper spray, batons and water hoses to stop activists storming government buildings and laying siege to the office of Hong Kong’s embattled Chief Executive, Leung Chun-ying.

Uruguay

Ruling party candidate Tabare Vazquez easily won Uruguay’s presidential election on Sunday, returning to power a left-leaning coalition that has legalized gay marriage and moved to create the world’s first state-run marijuana marketplace. The runoff vote had drawn international attention because Vazquez’s rival, center-right candidate Luis Lacalle Pou, had promised to undo much of the plan. Sunday’s win marked a reversal of roles for Vazquez, who shook up Uruguayan politics when he became president his first time, peacefully ending 170 years of two-party dominance.

Volcanoes

A moderate earthquake that struck northern Arizona was widely felt around the tourist town of Sedona, but there were no reports of injury or damage. The U.S. Geological Survey says the magnitude-4.7 temblor that hit Sunday night was centered 7 miles north of Sedona and 6 miles underground. Area residents reported feeling shaking and swaying. The USGS website recorded 1,000 responses within an hour of the quake from people — mainly in Flagstaff and Sedona — saying they felt the quake. The Arizona Department of Transportation says crews removed some rocks and debris from a highway connecting Sedona and Flagstaff.

Weather

The small town of Cody, Wyoming, was taken by surprise when hurricane-force winds whipped the area, causing power outages, uprooting a power pole and transformers and blowing out windows. Chinook winds developed along parts of the Front Range of the Rocky Mountains on Friday. This strong downslope wind brought wind gusts of over 80 mph to some locations. The highest wind gust reported was 117 mph near Clark, Wyoming, and the high wind warnings continued into Sunday for parts of Wyoming and Colorado.

Days of heavy rain in the Mediterranean region of southeastern France triggered flash floods and severe flooding that killed at least four people and left two missing. The region has experienced rain off and on since Monday, with the heaviest rainfall on Thursday into Friday. More than 4 inches of rain fell on Hyères, France,; the area typically sees that much rain in a month. All of that rain has saturated the soil, leading to deadly flash flooding events and widespread river flooding.

 

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