Signs of the Times (9/28/16)

FBI Director Warns of Upcoming Massive “Terrorist Diaspora”

FBI Director James Comey said Tuesday that even though he is convinced that the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria will be destroyed soon, that will not be the end of it. Comey, in testimony before Congress, said the U.S. remains extremely concerned that violent extremists will eventually flow out of Syria and Iraq and into other countries in hopes of committing terrorist attacks. “There will be a terrorist diaspora sometime in the next two to five years like we’ve never seen before,” Comey said. Nicholas Rasmussen, director of the National Counterterrorism Center, said that in addition to ISIS militants, U.S. government officials are concerned about the capabilities and ambitions of al-Qaida and its affiliates. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said terrorist threats have evolved, moving from terrorist-directed attacks “to a world that also includes the threat of terrorist-inspired attacks” in which individuals who live in the U.S. are “self-radicalized” to attack their own country. Johnson says that by their nature, terrorist-inspired attacks and terrorist-enabled attacks are difficult to detect by intelligence and law enforcement communities, and can occur with little or no notice.

Transcripts Show ISIS Influence On Orlando Gunman

The Wall Street Journal reports that Omar Mateen, the Orlando nightclub shooter, told a hostage negotiator that he was angry about the death of a top Islamic State operative, according to recently released transcripts of their phone conversations during Mateen’s massacre earlier this year. The new details of the conversations, released by Orlando Police last week, show Mateen had more than a passing interest in Islamic State, counterterrorism experts said.  He specifically singled out the death of Abu Wahib, one of the more visible leaders of the terror group, as one of the main motivations for his attack. Abu Wahib was killed in an airstrike in Iraq just weeks before Mateen opened fire at the Pulse nightclub in June in an attack that killed 49 people and wounded 53. Mateen died in a shootout with police.

Homeland Security Says They’re Unable to Fully Vet Refugees

Refugee fraud is “easy to commit” and much tougher to detect, Homeland Security officials acknowledged in an internal memo made public by members of Congress. The U.S. has relaxed requirements for refugees to prove they are who they say they are, and at times may rely solely on testimony. That makes it easier for bogus applicants to conspire to get approved, according to the department memo, which was obtained by the House Judiciary and Oversight committees. “Refugee fraud is easy to commit, yet not easy to investigate,” the undated memo says. The memo says that there have been clear instances where “bad actors … have exploited this program,” gaining a foothold in the U.S. through bogus refugee claims.

Children from Central America Flood U.S. Border Again

The number of Central American children fleeing to United States is booming once again, as security and economic troubles continue to grip El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The rush of minors across the southwest border became a political firestorm in the summer of 2014, prompting the Obama administration to enact emergency measures to stem the flow. Last year, the efforts seemed to work as the number of unaccompanied minors from those three countries entering the U.S. dropped from nearly 70,000 in 2014 to 39,970. Now the exodus to the USA is back on the rise. In the first 11 months of the 2016 fiscal year, which ends in September, 54,052 children made the journey. In El Salvador, people are fleeing a staggering level of violence that has made the country the murder capital of the world. In Guatemala, pockets of intense violence are driving some to the U.S. But Guatemalan officials said at the United Nations last week that their migrants are leaving mostly for economic reasons and should not be considered refugees.

Senate Overwhelmingly Overrides Obama’s 9/11 Veto

The Senate on Wednesday voted to override President Obama’s veto of a bill letting the victims of the 9/11 attacks sue Saudi Arabia, striking a blow to the president on foreign policy. The 97-1 vote marks the first time the Senate has mustered enough votes to overrule Obama’s veto pen. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was the sole vote to sustain Obama’s veto. Not a single Democrat came to the Senate floor before the vote to argue in favor of Obama’s position. Lawmakers don’t want to be seen as soft on punishing terrorist sponsors a few weeks before the election, at a time when voters are increasingly worried about radical Islamic terrorism in the wake of recent attacks in Manhattan, Minnesota and Orlando, Fla., reports MinutemenNews.com.

Charlotte Protesters Disrupt Council Meeting

Protesters overwhelmed an emotionally charged Charlotte City Council meeting Monday night, chanting “No justice, no peace” and demanding the resignations of Mayor Jennifer Roberts and Police Chief Kerr Putney. More than 50 people stepped to the podium, including a few children, to express anger over the fatal police shooting of African American Keith Lamont Scott and the city’s response to days of sometimes angry and violent demonstrations that followed. The packed audience held signs reading “Black Lives Matter” and the names of residents killed by police officers. The meeting started with the Pledge of Allegiance, with many in the crowd refusing to stand. Police Chief Kerr Putney acknowledged there “is no definitive, visual evidence” that Scott had a gun in his hand. “You see something in the hand and that he pointed it at an officer,” Putney said before the videos were released. The department has said officers perceived Scott’s movements as posing an imminent threat.

Violent Crime Up Nearly 4% in 2015

Overall violent crime in the U.S., increased by nearly 4 percent last year, a new FBI report concluded Monday, as several major cities struggled to deal with rising gun violence. The FBI’s annual crime report found that murder was up 12.8 percent in cities, driving the overall increase. Property-related crime, however, dropped by 2.6 percent. While the one-year violent crime increase was significant, the 2015 total was nearly 1 percent lower than in 2011 and 16.5 percent below the level a decade ago, according to FBI records. Facing increasing questions about police departments’ use of deadly force, the Justice Department is attempting to create a database to track deadly encounters between police and the public.

Mississippi Forces Welfare Users to Work for Food Stamps

A new Mississippi policy requiring that food stamp recipients find work or volunteer to maintain their benefits went into effect recently. Mississippi Gulf Coast news station WLOX reported that the policy requires that recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program work or volunteer 20 hours per week. One volunteer at an organization that provides food for the homeless said, “It’s more of a job opportunity to help you get out into the job world, and being up here helps you out a lot.” Fox News notes that, “More and more states are moving to require able-bodied adults to work in exchange for food stamps.” However, more than 40 states still do not require welfare recipients to work.

Migrant Update

French President Francois Hollande said on a visit to the port of Calais Monday that the sprawling “Jungle” migrant camp would be “definitively dismantled” under a plan to relocate the migrants to centers around the country. The French government has tried to close “The Jungle” in Calais multiple times. But so far, each attempt has failed.

A total of 204 bodies have been recovered from the migrant boat that capsized off the coast of Egypt last week. The vessel had set off from Egypt carrying around 450 people and was heading for Italy when it overturned last Wednesday. Most of those on board were from Egypt, Eritrea and Somalia. On the same day the boat capsized near Rashid, the coast guard foiled an illegal immigration attempt, rescuing 294 on board a boat off the shore of Egypt.

Economic News

U.S. consumer confidence rose in September to the highest level in nine years. The Conference Board says that its consumer confidence index rose to 104.1, up from 101.8 in August. It was the strongest reading since the index stood at 105.6 in August 2007, four months before the beginning of the Great Recession of 2007-2009. The September gain was primarily propelled by an improvement of consumers’ views about the labor market.

About 3.5 million Americans were able to raise their chins above the poverty line last year, according to census data released earlier this month. More than seven years after the recession ended, employers are finally being compelled to reach deeper into the pools of untapped labor, reports the New York Times. Employers are creating more jobs, especially among retailers, restaurants and hotels. They are also paying higher wages to attract workers and meet new minimum wage requirements. Poverty declined among every group. But African-Americans and Hispanics — who account for more than 45 percent of those below the poverty line of $24,300 for a family of four in most states — experienced the largest improvement.

When Barack Obama entered the White House, the U.S. government was 10.6 trillion dollars in debt.  Today, the U.S. government is 19.5 trillion dollars in debt and will increase to over $20 million by the end of his term. The rate at which we are adding to the national debt is actually increasing.  During the fiscal year that is just ending, the U.S. government has added another 1.36 trillion dollars to the national debt. It isn’t just the federal government that is on a massive debt binge.  Total U.S. corporate debt has nearly doubled since the end of 2007. Default rates on U.S. corporate debt are the highest that they have been since the last financial crisis.

U.S. home prices rose again in July, pulled up by strong gains in Portland, Seattle and Denver. The Standard & Poor’s CoreLogic Case-Shiller 20-city home price index, released Tuesday, rose 5% in July from a year earlier. The latest report is further evidence that prices are being pushed higher by the limited inventory of homes on the market. That is hurting sales of both new and existing homes, despite buyer enthusiasm and historically low mortgage rates. The Commerce Department reported Monday that new home sales fell 7.6% in August. And the National Association of Realtors said last week that sales of existing homes slipped 0.9% in August. Inventory collapsed 10.1% from a year ago to 2.04 million homes.

Despite the improvements in home prices, MarketWatch.com reports that there are at least 9 cities where more than 20% of homes are underwater, meaning that their mortgages cost more than the homes are worth. Cleveland is highest at 27.5% with Las Vegas next at 25.7%. Nationally, only about 12% of homes are underwater. During the month of August, commercial bankruptcy filings were up 29 percent compared to the same period a year ago. Corporate profits have fallen for five quarters in a row, and it is being projected that it will be six in a row once the final numbers for the third quarter come in.

Two former Wells Fargo employees have filed a class action lawsuit against the bank seeking $2.6 billion or more for California workers who were fired or demoted after refusing to open fake accounts. The suit accuses Wells Fargo of orchestrating a “fraudulent scheme” to boost its stock price that forced employees to “choose between keeping their jobs and opening unauthorized accounts.” It’s the latest legal headache facing Wells Fargo, which earlier this month was fined $185 million for inflating sales metrics by opening more than two million fake bank and credit card accounts. Wells Fargo also faces a hearing in the House, an investigation from the Department of Justice and is still reeling from a grilling by the Senate banking committee last week.

Islamic State

Islamic State militants are ‘dead set’ on using chemical arms and are likely to try them again as Iraqi forces advance on Mosul, a Pentagon spokesman said on Monday, a week after a rocket with a possible chemical agent landed near U.S. troops. The rocket fired Tuesday landed in an unpopulated area near Qayyara West base, several hundred yards from where hundreds of U.S. troops are working to prepare an airfield for an Iraqi offensive to recapture the city of Mosul. No one was hurt in the attack.

Syria

There’s been more violence in Syria as diplomacy to establish a ceasefire seems to have failed once again. Air raids are worse than before the ceasefire went into effect, the opposition says. About 200 airstrikes have pummeled neighborhoods in eastern Aleppo since Friday morning, said Ammar al-Selmo, the head of the Syria Civil Defense group, a volunteer emergency medical service. Rescue teams are still working to extract people from the rubble. More than 100 people have been killed and hundreds more injured within Aleppo neighborhoods by the airstrikes, said al-Selmo. United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that the Syrian offensive’s airstrikes, incendiary weapons and bunker-buster bombs in densely populated places may amount to war crimes. The secretary-general urged the international community to unite and say it will not tolerate the indiscriminate use of power weapons against civilians. As many as 20 churches have reportedly been destroyed in the renewed bombing attacks in Aleppo, Syria, reports Christian Headlines Daily.

As deadly airstrikes pounded Aleppo, Syria over the weekend, a major foreign ground force was also converging on the region. As many as 3,000 Iranian-backed fighters have arrived in Aleppo supporting the Syrian regime in its fight to crush the rebellion, two U.S. officials confirm to Fox News. There are an estimated 250,000 Syrian civilians trapped in Aleppo facing an onslaught of Russian and Syrian bombs, according to reports. The Iranian-backed Shiite militias include fighters from neighboring Iraq as well as Afghanistan, officials say.

Iraq

An explosion Sunday evening in central Baghdad marked the third attack of the day in the Iraqi capital, where a total of eight people were killed and at least 25 wounded in the three blasts. ISIS claimed responsibility for the day’s deadliest attack, a suicide bombing that killed at least six people. Separately, at least one person was killed and two wounded when a bomb exploded on a bus in central Baghdad, the Baghdad Operations Center told CNN.

Iran

Iran is not ready to compromise on the issues of intelligence sharing, sanctions and definitions of terrorist groups in order to join an international task force against terror financing, a minister said today. Iran, along with North Korea, is blacklisted by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) and aims to be removed from “high risk and non-cooperative” status, even if it does not obtain full membership. Economy Minister Ali Tayebnia said Iran is not obliged to accept all the conditions put forward by the task force.  But it will implement some of the recommendations in an Action Plan developed with the FATF in order to be upgraded to either a fully cooperating or partially cooperating country, he added.

A senior commander in Iran’s Revolutionary Guards said Tuesday that Iran is in possession of missiles that can hit Israel. Iran’s Press TV quoted Commander of the IRGC’s Aerospace Division Brigadier General Amirali Hajizadeh as telling reporters that “we do not need missiles with a range of over 2,000 kilometers. The longest range required for [Iran’s] missiles is the [Israeli] occupied lands.” The commander warned that “the Zionist regime is our biggest target.”

Germany

Security has been stepped up in the German city of Dresden, following two bomb attacks on a mosque and a conference center Monday evening. No one was injured in the attacks, which included two homemade devices, according to police. The bombings come ahead of next weekend’s German Unity Day celebrations, which German Chancellor Angela Merkel is expected to attend. The celebrations mark the 26th anniversary of the reunification of East and West Germany. The explosions — first at the mosque and then at the International Congress Center — happened within minutes of each other, leading police to believe they’re related. Part of Dresden’s Unity Day celebrations were set to be held at the center. All Muslim institutions in the city are now under increased surveillance, It is unclear at this point who is behind the attacks.

Ukraine

The New York Times reports that a Dutch-led investigation has concluded that the powerful surface-to-air missile system that was used to shoot down a Malaysia Airlines plane over Ukraine two years ago, killing all 298 on board, was trucked in from Russia at the request of Russian-backed separatists. The report, by a team of prosecutors from the Netherlands, Australia, Belgium, Malaysia and Ukraine, was significant for applying standards of evidence admissible in court while still building a case directly implicating Russia, and it is likely to open a long diplomatic and legal struggle. With meticulous detail, working with cellphone records, social media, witness accounts and other evidence, the prosecutors traced Russia’s role in deploying the missile system into Ukraine and its attempts to cover its tracks afterward.

Mexico

Tens of thousands of people marched through Mexico City on Saturday in opposition to President Enrique Pena Nieto’s push to legalize same-sex marriage. Organizers of the National Front for the Family estimated at least 215,000 people participated, and while that number could not be immediately confirmed, it was clearly one of the largest protest marches in Mexico in recent years. On the other side of a police barricade separating the two sides at Mexico’s Independence Monument, a far smaller crowd of same-sex marriage supporters — perhaps a couple hundred — listened to music and speeches. Many saw the massive march as the Roman Catholic church flexing its political muscle in a country where about 80 percent of people identify as nominally Catholic. In May, Pena Nieto proposed legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide.

Columbia

A conflict that lasted over five decades. An estimated 220,000 people killed. Five million displaced. These staggering figures are now consigned to history as the Colombian government buries the hatchet with its longtime nemesis, the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia rebel group. In a symbolic gesture, the pens used to sign the historic peace deal, years in the making, have been made from recycled bullets once used in the fifty-two year conflict. An inscription on the side of the pens reads: “Bullets wrote our past. Education, our future.” The two sides, joined by leaders from the United States, Mexico, El Salvador, Uruguay, Cuba and the United Nations, came together on Monday in the coastal colonial city of Cartagena to sign the accord.

Earthquakes

Nearly 200 small earthquakes — including three of a magnitude greater than 4 — struck the Salton Sea area in Southern California over the past few days. According to the U.S. Geological Survey, the swarm of quakes started early Monday morning and continued into the evening. Quakes measuring 4.3 and 4.2 magnitude occurred Monday night.  Nine of the quakes measure greater than 3.0. The sea sits atop a very thin crust that is being constantly stretched as the North American and Pacific plates grind against each other. The area is also veined by dozens of faults — most notably the San Andreas — that run parallel to and crisscross one another. The quakes continued Tuesday but the size of the temblors were decreasing.

Volcanoes

Indonesian authorities are searching for several hundred tourists after Mount Barujari on Lombok island spewed a massive column of ash into the atmosphere and have evacuated more than 1,100 others, the country’s disaster agency says. The volcano, also known as the Child of Rinjani because it sits within the Mount Rinjani caldera, erupted without warning on Tuesday afternoon, delaying flights from airports on the islands of Lombok and Bali, the AP reports. The ash column reached more than a mile into the air. A Disaster Mitigation Agency spokesman says that nearly 400 foreign and local tourists had been registered since Sunday to climb the mountain, leaving from a monitoring post about 7 miles from the volcano’s crater.

Wildfires

A fast-moving brush fire on top of Loma Prieta in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains has led to mandatory evacuations. The Loma fire is threatening homes and has grown to least 2,250 acres, according to Cal Fire, and is 10 percent contained. Evacuations have been ordered for 300 structures near the fire. Several roads are closed. The fire broke out at 2:45 p.m. Monday and began as a structure fire.

Weather

Thousands of Iowans are taking no chances in advance of what could be one of the worst floods in the state’s history. For days, the rising waters of rivers and creeks in eastern Iowa have forced more than 10,000 residents of Cedar Rapids, Iowa’s second-largest city, out of their homes and businesses. Volunteers filled sandbags and moved objects to higher ground over the weekend in preparation for the flooding. The recommended evacuation was not mandatory, but fire officials requested names of the next of kin from those who didn’t leave their homes. A curfew has been ordered in the evacuation zone between 8 p.m. and 7 a.m., according to local officials. Swollen by floodwaters, the Cedar River in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, has crested at nearly 22 feet Tuesday, 6 feet above flood stage and was flowing at 85,000 cubic feet per second, much faster than the typical 24,000 cfs.

Torrential rainfall led to flooding that closed roads and even some schools in the San Antonio area Monday morning. Rainfall rates up to 3 inches per hour fell on parts of Bexar County prior to the morning commute, and before the event was over, up to 7 inches of total rainfall had been reported. KENS-TV said the heavy rainfall led to water rescues in multiple places around the city, and some streets had to be closed after they became inundated with flood water. Among those road closures were parts of interstates 35 and 10.

After Taiwan suffered a direct blow from Typhoon Megi, which has killed at least five people and injured hundreds, China’s Fujian province was swamped by heavy rains that left widespread flooding. The storm was also responsible for several collapsed structures in the Chinese town of Quanzhou, where one person was killed. Megi prompted school closures and dozens of flight cancellations in Quanzhou Wednesday. More than 120,000 fishermen were evacuated in Fujian province alone. More than 600 people were injured – many of which were caused by flying debris – during the storm, the AP reported. In the wake of the typhoon, more than 2.9 million Taiwanese homes and businesses lost power.

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