Signs of the Times (1/16/15)

First ‘Charlie Hebdo’ Issue since Paris Attacks Sells Out

The first edition of Charlie Hebdo since terror attacks in Paris last week left 17 people dead appeared to sell out at newsstands across France shortly after going on sale Wednesday. Residents in Paris formed lines at dawn and by mid-morning kiosks sported signs that said “No more Charlie Hebdo” and “Out of stock.” Scuffles broke out as people realized copies were selling quickly. A black market quickly developed: Copies of Charlie Hebdo are going for sale online for up to $117,000. One issue sold on the American eBay site for $20,000 after the winner beat out 116 other bids. Wednesday’s 16-page issue of the satirical newspaper featured a cartoon on its cover depicting the prophet Mohammed. He is crying and holding a sign in his hands that says, “Je suis Charle” (“I am Charlie”) — a reference to the slogan adopted by anti-violence and free speech campaigners in the wake of the attacks. It is forbidden under Islam to show images depicting the prophet. Three million copies were printed — 60,000 are usually published— and that may be extended to 5 million, local French media reported. It has been translated into six languages and is being distributed internationally for the first time.

  • As usual, violence backfires. Now cartoons of Mohammed are being distributed to 50 times more people than before the attacks

Al Qaeda Branch Claims Responsibility for Charlie Hebdo Attack

Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claimed responsibility Wednesday for last week’s rampage that killed 12 people at France’s Charlie Hebdo satirical newspaper. AQAP has its home in Yemen, an impoverished and troubled nation that borders Saudi Arabia and Oman. The attack was years in the making, AQAP claimed. In a video, the group said the late Anwar al-Awlaki masterminded the attack. The U.S.-born Muslim scholar and cleric was spokesman for AQAP before his death in 2011. The group did not claim responsibility for Friday’s deadly siege at a kosher grocery store in Paris, but praised it. The claim for the Charlie Hebdo attack came in a video showing AQAP commander Nasr Ibn Ali al-Ansi, with pictures of the two dead Paris gunmen — brothers Said and Cherif Kouachi — in the background. “When the heroes were assigned, they accepted. They promised and fulfilled,” al-Ansi said. He praised the attack, saying it was revenge for Charlie Hebdo’s depictions of Mohammed. “It is France that has shared all of America’s crimes,” al-Ansi added. “It is France that has committed crimes in Mali and the Islamic Maghreb. It is France that supports the annihilation of Muslims in Central Africa in the name of race cleansing.”

19,000 French Websites under Attack by Islamists

More than 19,000 French civilian websites are under attack by hackers, according to France’s head of cyberdefense. The scope of attacks is unprecedented, Rear Admiral Arnaud Coustillière said at a press conference Thursday. Since Saturday, hackers have defaced the websites of French businesses, religious groups, city governments and universities with pro-Islamic images and messages. Coustillière said the French Defense Ministry’s website was also bombarded with junk Internet traffic in a denial of service attack, causing it to be temporarily inaccessible. This wave of attacks seems to be part of a tit-for-tat. Last week, members of the ragtag hacker collective Anonymous blocked a jihadist website to show their support for Charlie Hebdo.

Two Dozen Arrested in Anti-Terror Raids across Europe

Authorities in France, Belgium and Germany arrested more than two dozen people in anti-terror raids across continental Europe on Friday. The police raids in Belgium came after authorities Thursday night moved swiftly to pre-empt what they called a major impending attack, killing two suspects in a firefight and arresting a third. The suspects intended to kill police in the streets or in their offices. A dozen searches led to the discovery of police uniforms, large amounts of cash and military-grade weapons including Kalashnikov assault rifles. This investigation into those detained began before last week’s terror attacks in Paris that killed 17 people. In France, 12 people were arrested Friday with suspected links to the Islamic State, or ISIS or ISIL.

Feds Order Random Searches in Airports, after Al Qaeda Publishes New Bomb Recipe

A terrorist group’s call for new attacks on U.S. airliners, an online “recipe” for detection-proof bombs and recent events in France and elsewhere have prompted federal authorities to order random searches of travelers and carry-on bags at U.S. airports. Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson met with airline security officials to brief them about the elevated threat, which came in the latest issue of Al Qaeda’s Inspire magazine. The online publication provided a guide to making the explosives, getting through security and even instructed suicide bombers on where to sit on the plane. The Transportation Security Administration has already stepped up random searches of travelers and carry-on luggage in addition to the enhanced screening that was ordered this summer at key airports.

US Central Command Accounts Taken Down after Pro-ISIS Hack

The Twitter account and YouTube page for U.S. Central Command were hacked on Monday and for several minutes carried incendiary messages promoting the Islamic State — including one that said, “AMERICAN SOLDIERS, WE ARE COMING, WATCH YOUR BACK. ISIS.” The cyber-attack sent U.S. military officials scrambling to respond, and they quickly suspended both accounts. Late Monday, Central Command’s Twitter account was back online but the YouTube channel remained offline as of Tuesday morning.

House Votes to Overturn Obama Immigration Actions

The Republican-led House voted Wednesday to overturn President Obama’s immigration actions from last November — and to unravel a directive from 2012 protecting immigrants who came to the U.S. illegally as children — sending the bill to the Senate where it faces an uncertain fate. The House voted 236-191 to approve the legislation, which funds the Homeland Security Department through the rest of the budget year to the tune of $40 billion. But as part of that bill, Republicans added provisions to gut the president’s immigration directives. Despite deep Democratic opposition, the House voted 237-190 on an amendment to undo the actions Obama announced in November that provide temporary deportation relief, and offer work permits, to some 4 million illegal immigrants. Another amendment would cancel Obama’s 2012 policy that’s granted work permits and stays of deportation to more than 600,000 immigrants who arrived in the U.S. illegally as kids. That measure passed more narrowly, 218-209, as more than two dozen Republicans joined Democrats in opposition. Republicans say Obama’s moves amounted to an unconstitutional overreach that must be stopped.

Falling Oil’s Next Victim: Banks

Big energy companies aren’t the only ones losing out on the dramatic fall in oil prices. Banks are in the hot seat, too. Hundreds of banks were forced to shut down in Texas when the state fell into a recession in 1986 during a steep decline in oil prices. That 1980s meltdown mirrors the current drop in prices that carried oil below $45 a barrel this week. Cheap credit helped fuel the U.S. shale boom, allowing countless energy companies to find oil in new places. Banks also capitalized on economic booms in oil-rich regions like Texas and North Dakota. Drilling projects that made sense at $100 may now be losing money, creating headaches for the lenders that financed the expansions. Some highly-leveraged shale companies may even go bankrupt due to the plunge in oil prices leaving banks with unpaid loans.

Economic News

Consumer prices fell sharply for the second straight month in December amid the continuing plunge in gasoline prices. The consumer price index declined 0.4% after dropping 0.3% in October. Excluding volatile food and energy items, prices were unchanged for just the second time since December 2010. Core prices are up 0.8%% the past year. Gasoline prices fell 9.4% and the tumble in pump prices has held down overall inflation for six straight months. The 4.7% fall in all energy costs was the largest in six years.

Crude oil’s global collapse is now expected to soon push the national average U.S. price for gasoline below $2 a gallon for the first time since early 2009. Nationally, regular unleaded gasoline currently averages about $2.12 a gallon, down 46 cents from just four weeks ago and $1.01 cheaper than year-ago levels. The unprecedented sell-off in crude, which has pushed benchmark West Texas Intermediate and Brent Crude down more than 55% since mid-2014, has yet to run its course, says Tom Kloza, senior energy analyst for the Oil Price Information Service. In yet another reminder that cheap oil isn’t good for everyone: 9,000 workers have lost their jobs at Schlumberger, a company that provides tools and services for oil and gas companies.

Retail sales fell sharply in December on disappointing holiday sales and falling gasoline prices. Consumer purchases declined 0.9%. So-called core sales, excluding autos and gasoline, fell 0.3%. Also, November’s 0.7% jump in retail sales was revised down to 0.4%. Last month, motor vehicle sales fell 0.7%, pausing after rising sharply in previous months. And sales fell 1.6% at electronics stores, 0.3% at clothing retailers and 0.9% at general merchandise stores.

America had 5 million job openings at the end of November, the most since 2001, according to new government data. That means the U.S. isn’t just back to pre-recession levels, it’s humming better than it has in a decade. In fact, last year was the best year for job growth since 1999. However, median weekly earnings in the U.S. are just shy of $800 — the same as in 2007 after adjusting for inflation. It’s hard for a family to feel any better off when their pay isn’t keeping up with the cost of living.

Thanks to the resurgent American economy, the greenback has strengthened significantly in recent months against almost every other currency. That’s especially true compared with the euro, which is getting slammed by gloomy growth in the Eurozone. Now Goldman Sachs believes the U.S. dollar will catch up to the euro and the two currencies will be about equal by the end of next year. That’s a dramatic turnaround considering €1 bought you $1.60 back in July 2008. Currently €1 fetches $1.18 in the international markets.

Asia’s rapid accumulation of debt in recent years is holding back central banks from easing monetary policy to fight the risk of deflation, endangering private investment needed to boost faltering growth, according to Morgan Stanley. Debt to gross domestic product ratio in the region excluding Japan rose to 203 percent in 2013 from 147 percent in 2007. Deflation risk is spreading from Europe to Asia as oil prices plunge, raising the specter of companies and consumers postponing spending and threatening a recovery in the global economy.

Switzerland stunned markets Thursday by allowing its currency to trade freely against the euro. The Swiss National Bank said it was removing a cap of 1.2 Swiss francs to the euro, introduced during the eurozone crisis in 2011 when a flood of cash sought refuge in the traditional safe haven. Switzerland was worried that a rapid appreciation in its currency would slam exporters and cause deflation in its economy. The announcement sent the franc soaring against all major currencies. By midday Thursday, the franc was approaching parity with the euro, up 14%. It gained similarly against the dollar to stand at $1.14.

The yields on government bonds in Europe and Japan have dipped into the uncharted waters of negative territory. That means buyers of those bonds are essentially taking a loss just to hold onto those assets. They think their money is better off losing a few cents than putting it elsewhere. The yield on short-term government bonds of Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Japan, and the Netherlands are all sub-zero. Even short duration U.S. bond rates are barely above zero.

Persecution Watch

Chris Kyle, often described as the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history, wrote in his autobiography that he prioritized his life in the following order: God, country, family. But God doesn’t make a central appearance in the film “American Sniper,” which opens nationwide on Friday (Jan. 16). The film offers a few similarities to “Unbroken,” Angelina Jolie’s recent World War II epic about POW Louis Zamperini. Both stories focus on the dramatic stories of warriors who died before the movie versions of their lives came out. Both “American Sniper” and “Unbroken” include an early scene of their families sitting in church. Both men struggle with substance abuse after returning from war. And both films largely skirt the faith that Kyle and Zamperini said were key to their identity — and their survival.

Islamic State

The brutal Islamic State (ISIS) terrorist organization that has conquered large swathes of Iraq and Syria continues to impose Islamic Sharia law sprinkled with generous helping of executions – one of its favorite methods, crucifixion, was put on display this week in rare form. In the last two days, ISIS terrorists crucified 15 Syrian civilians in several villages of the Deir ez-Zur region in the country’s east, over accusations of “opposing” the Islamic State. ISIS first shoots its victims and then crucifying their bodies and leaving them in the town square for three days as a message of deterrence to the rest of the residents to fear their iron rule, according to israelnationalnews.com.

The Islamic State terrorist organization has distributed a clip in which a 10-year-old boy is seen shooting two alleged Russian spies in the head. A grown man standing next to the child reads out the condemned sentences. The two executed men were purportedly FSB (Russian intelligence agency) officers sent to spy on ISIS and gather intelligence on “Caliph” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. One of them admitted to being a Kafir (infidel), having converted from Islam. The two men are seen confessing to their “sins” against ISIS and are then executed by the child, reports unitedwithisrael.org.

China

Legislators in China’s far-western Xinjiang province have passed a law to prohibit residents from wearing burqas in public in a continued campaign against what authorities view as religious extremism. The new ban in Urumqi was approved by local legislators last month, and given the greenlight by the regional legislature at the weekend. A spate of recent violent incidents has rocked Xinjiang, a resource-rich region long inhabited by the Turkic-speaking, largely Muslim Uyghurs. The arrival of waves of Han Chinese, the country’s predominant ethnic group, over the past decades has fueled ethnic tensions. Chinese officials have blamed the recent attacks on Uyghur separatists — whom they also label “religious extremists” — seeking to establish an independent state.

Cameroon

Cameroon’s government said Tuesday that its military killed 143 militants from the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram, which has been waging war in neighboring Nigeria. In a statement carried on state television, authorities said hundreds of militants had attacked a Cameroonian military camp in Kolofata the day before after crossing the border from Nigeria. The fight lasted five hours and left 143 of the militants dead. A Cameroonian corporal was killed and four other soldiers were wounded, the report said. “It is by far the heaviest toll sustained by the criminal sect Boko Haram since it began launching its barbaric attacks against our land, people and goods,” Cameroonian Information Minister Issa Tchiroma Bakary said.

Cuba

The Obama administration is putting a large dent in the U.S. embargo against Cuba as of Friday, significantly loosening restrictions on American trade and investment. The new rules also open up the communist island to greater American travel and allow U.S. citizens to start bringing home small amounts of Cuban cigars after more than a half-century ban. Only Congress can end the five-decade embargo. But the measures give permission for Americans to use credit cards in Cuba and U.S. companies to export telephone, computer and Internet technologies. Investments in some small business are permitted. General tourist travel is still prohibited, but Americans authorized to visit Cuba need no longer apply for special licenses. Thursday’s announcement of new Treasury and Commerce Department regulations are the next step in President Barack Obama’s ambitious goal of re-establishing diplomatic relations with the government of Cuba,

Venezuela

Venezuela’s economy is spiraling downward which many experts predict will default this year or next. Venezuela relies heavily on oil revenue to fund the government and pay for imported items. About 70% of its consumer goods are imported, some of which the country can no longer purchase. This has led to shortages in basic commodities like potatoes, which has caused the countries McDonald’s outlets to run out of French Fries. The nation’s currency, the Bolivar, devalued more than any other country’s last year, shedding 60% of its value. Protests and violence are mounting in Venezuelan cities as food and basic items are hard to come by.

Dominican Republic

A court in the Dominican Republic has ordered the arrest of three prosecutors and 21 police officers accused of not reporting drug seizures involving more than a ton of cocaine that has since disappeared. Among those accused is the former director of an anti-narcotics unit, who is among the dozen of suspects that have been arrested. One of the three drug seizures occurred in September near Santo Domingo, where 950 kilograms (2,000 pounds) of cocaine were discovered but never turned over to authorities, General Prosecutor Francisco Dominguez said he believes some of the drugs were sold, adding that some suspects have turned over the cash from the alleged transactions. Authorities are still investigating whether some of the drugs were returned as part of a bribe. A 2011 Amnesty International report found that some 12,000 police officers were accused of corruption between 2007 and 2010.

Weather

Wednesday morning should be the last hurrah for the worst of the cold, with subzero readings again over the Great Lakes as well as parts of the interior Northeast. A temperature moderation began late Wednesday and then accelerated Thursday into Friday. Friday’s forecasted high temperature shows that much of the Plains, Rockies and West will be engulfed by above-average temperatures. Some cities, including Omaha, Nebraska and Fargo, North Dakota, could be 10 to 20 degrees above mid-January averages. The above-average warmth will spread to the East Coast over the weekend.

Winter landed a last punch on parts of the Midwest as the last breath of polar chill brought the lowest temperatures of this entire cold snap to several cities. After hitting 13 below zero five times this season, Fargo, North Dakota, dropped to 17 below on Monday, setting a new low for this winter season. Sioux Falls, South Dakota was at 16 below early Tuesday; St. Cloud, Minnesota hit 21 below early Tuesday; Pellston, Michigan hit 21 below zero early Tuesday; and Sioux City, Iowa reached 11 below zero Tuesday morning. January’s shivering start has led to a rapid expansion of ice cover on the Great Lakes during the first half of January, with 34.2% of the five Great Lakes are covered in ice as of Jan. 14, 2015 versus 21.2% ice-covered on this date last year.

Severe weather warnings are in place for parts of the U.K. on Wednesday and Thursday as snow continues to cover much of the country. Snow, ice and high winds have caused road blocks and suspended rail services in the U.K. More than 200 schools were closed Wednesday across Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Twenty-four homes were damaged by a reported tornado and two were struck by lightning. More than 70 Red Cross volunteers were called to help in Northern Scotland and the Western Isles where the storm caused power outages. The volunteers are distributing hot food and drinks, water and gas heaters to those affected. Gusts of 50 to 65 mph were recorded Thursday in many areas, with gusts to 75 mph possible in the higher elevations of Scotland.

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