Signs of the Times (2/7/17)

ISIS-Inspired “Lone Wolves” Were Guided by Planners in Syria and Iraq

The New York Times reports that many, if not most, of so-called ‘lone-wolf’ attacks were actually guided step-by-step by ISIS planners in Syria and Iraq. They are examples of what counterterrorism experts are calling enabled or remote-controlled attacks: “violence conceived and guided by operatives in areas controlled by the Islamic State whose only connection to the would-be attacker is the internet.” For the most part, the operatives who are conceiving and guiding such attacks are doing so from behind a wall of anonymity. Because the recruits are instructed to use encrypted messaging applications, the guiding role played by the terrorist group often remains obscured. The ‘lone-wolves’ don’t even know who they are or what they look like. As a result, remotely guided plots in Europe, Asia and the United States in recent years, including the attack on a community center in Garland, Tex., were initially labeled the work of “lone wolves,” with no operational ties to the Islamic State, and only later was direct communication with the group discovered.

Iraqi Archbishop Says World Ignoring Persecuted Christians

Catholic Archbishop Bashar Matti Warda of Iraq said on the Catholic website Crus, “It is terrible to live with terrorism. My country lives with terrorism daily. And if the United States wants to have a strong vetting process, I can understand and appreciate that… From my perspective in Iraq, I wonder why all of these protesters were not protesting in the streets when ISIS came to kill Christians and Yazidis and other minority groups. They were not protesting when the tens of thousands of displaced Christians my archdiocese has cared for since 2014 received no financial assistance from the U.S. government or the U.N. There were no protests when Syrian Christians were only let in at a rate that was 20 times less than the percentage of their population in Syria.”

Washington Judges Blocks Trump’s Immigration Ban

U.S. District Senior Judge James Robart of Seattle on Friday issued a nationwide restraining order temporarily blocking the travel ban put in place by President Trump last week. The White House quickly responded, saying the federal government would challenge the judge’s decision. President Trump, in a Saturday morning tweetstorm, personally challenged the credentials of the “so-called” federal judge in Seattle who issued a nationwide temporary restraining order blocking the travel ban Trump put in place last week. “The opinion of this so-called judge, which essentially takes law-enforcement away from our country, is ridiculous and will be overturned,” Trump tweeted from his winter retreat in Mar-a-Lago. In a conference call Friday night, airlines were told that the U.S. government would reinstate previously canceled traveling visas. U.S. Customs and Border Protection advised airlines that refugees possessing U.S. visas will be allowed to enter as well, according to media reports. A federal appeals court in San Francisco denied the Trump administration request for immediate reinstatement of a controversial, temporary ban on travelers from seven Muslim-majority nations and all refugees. A U.S. federal appeals court Tuesday will hear arguments over President Trump’s controversial temporary travel ban, and whether Trump’s order should be restored after last week’s federal judge’s ruling.

  • The legal battle over the immigration ban is likely to continue for some time, probably reaching to the Supreme Court.

Judge’s Assertion Proven Wrong by the Associated Press

Judge James Robart, a federal district judge in Seattle, stated that no one from the seven countries on Trump’s list – Iraq, Iran, Syria, Somalia, Sudan, Yemen and Libya – has been arrested on terrorism charges since the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on America. However, the judge was wrong in stating that no one from the seven countries targeted in Trump’s order has been arrested for extremism in the United States since the 2001 terrorist attacks, according to the Associated Press (AP). “Just last October, an Iraqi refugee living in Texas pleaded guilty to attempting to provide support to the Islamic State group, accused of taking tactical training and wanting to blow himself up in an act of martyrdom. In November, a Somali refugee injured 11 in a car-and-knife attack at Ohio State University, and he surely would have been arrested had he not been killed by an officer.”

Tech Firms Oppose the Travel Ban

America’s biggest tech firms have stepped into the legal fight against President Donald Trump’s travel ban. A total of 97 companies — including Apple, Facebook, Google, Intel, Microsoft, Netflix and Twitter — filed a court motion Sunday night declaring that Trump’s executive order on immigration “violates the immigration laws and the Constitution.” Almost all the companies that signed on in support are tech companies. The few exceptions include yogurt producer Chobani, snack maker Kind and fashion brand Levi Strauss. All three companies were founded by immigrants.

Thousands March near Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Estate in Florida

Hundreds of people took to the streets of downtown West Palm Beach to protest President Trump’s policies. About 2,000 gathered outside Trump Plaza and marched 2.5 miles down Flagler Drive. There were many young people, parents with children in strollers or on their shoulders, women in hijabs and even a woman in a wheelchair. Protesters chanted “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Donald Trump has to go” and “No hate, no fear, refugees are welcome here” in reference to Trump’s temporary travel ban on refugees into the U.S. Some brought handmade signs reading “Deport Trump,” “Welcome refugees” and “The dark side will not take away our freedom.” Demonstrators also gathered in cities such as Denver, Houston, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, St. Louis and Washington.

Betsy DeVos Confirmed as Education Secretary after VP Pence Breaks Tie

The Senate confirmed Betsy DeVos on Tuesday as education secretary, approving the embattled nominee only with the help of a historic tiebreaking vote from Vice President Mike Pence, reports the New York Times. The 51-to-50 vote elevates Ms. DeVos to be steward of the nation’s schools. She is a wealthy philanthropist from Michigan who has devoted much of her life to expanding educational choice through charter schools and vouchers, but has limited experience with the public-school system. Two Republicans voted against Ms. DeVos’s confirmation, a sign that some members of President Trump’s party are willing to go against him, possibly foreshadowing difficulty on some of the president’s more contentious legislative priorities.

Trump Blames ‘Obama People’ for Leaked Telephone Transcripts

President Trump on Saturday denounced the leaks of transcripts of his telephone conversations with leaders of Australia and Mexico as “disgraceful” and said his administration was searching “very, very hard” for the leakers. Trump, speaking to Fox News, accused “Obama people” of giving news organizations embarrassing details of his recent tense phone conversations with his Australian and Mexican counterparts, and said that the holdovers from the Obama administration still serving on his White House and National Security Council staff were being replaced. “It’s a disgrace that they leaked because it’s very much against our country,” Trump said. According to the Daily Caller; Three brothers who managed office information technology for members of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence and other lawmakers were abruptly relieved of their duties on suspicion that they accessed congressional computer networks without permission.

Pentagon Failed to Disclose Thousands of U.S. Airstrikes in Middle East

The U.S. military failed to disclose thousands of airstrikes over the last several years in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the Military Times. An investigation revealed Sunday that the U.S. conducted at least 456 airstrikes in Afghanistan last year that were not recorded in the open-source database kept by the U.S. Air Force. The airstrikes were conducted my several U.S. aircraft – including helicopters and drones. Military officials told the Military Times they were unable to determine how far back some information was excluded in reports. But the incomplete data might date back as far as when the U.S. entered Afghanistan in 2001 and could question other data the Pentagon releases to the public, including casualties, the bill footed by the American taxpayer and the military’s progress in the war on terror in the Middle East.

Persecution Watch

The residents of a small Mississippi town have engaged in rallies and protests after an atheist organization forced the mayor to take down the Christian flag at a local park. TheBlaze.com reports that the Freedom From Religion Foundation threatened to sue the town of Rienzi, Mississippi for $500,000 if Mayor Walter Williams did not remove the flag from the public park. Williams felt he had no choice but to give in to the FFRF’s demands since Rienzi is such a small town and does not have the funds to engage in an expensive lawsuit. However, the residents of Rienzi, who are predominantly Christian, were not surrendering without a fight. They organized and staged protests in an attempt to send a message that there was support for the flag to fly, even in a public space.

A Christian preacher in the U.K. was arrested and accused of a hate crime after he responded to a gay teen’s question about homosexuality. The Telegraph reports that 42-year-old Gordon Larmour was handing out leaflets and street preaching in the town of Irvine when he was approached by the 19-year-old who questioned him on what the Bible said about homosexuality. Lamour proceeded to tell the young man about Scripture and specifically shared the story of Adam and Eve and how God told them to be fruitful and multiply. He also reportedly told the young man and his friends, “Don’t forget Jesus loves you and He died for your sins.” Soon after responding to the young man’s question, police arrested Lamour, accused him of using threatening or abusive language regarding sexual orientation, and locked him up in a jail cell overnight. Now, after a prolonged trial, Lamour has been acquitted of all charges. Although thankful to be released, he and many other Christians worry about the state of free speech due to this incident.

An atheist group filed a complaint against a Tennessee school district after a pastor prayed with a high school football player who was seriously injured. OneNewsNow.com reports that when a high school footbal player at the Tennessee school was severely injured, youth pastor Eric Dill of Bayside Baptist Church was asked by another student to pray for the injured player who reportedly received a hard blow to his neck and was unable to move his legs. Upon hearing that Dill prayed with the student and that some teachers and coaches had bowed their heads in prayer as well, the Freedom From Religion Foundation filed a complaint against the school district, alleging that “coaches cannot participate in prayer in school, and even that student-led prayer at football games is unconstitutional,” according to the FFRF’s complaint.

Economic News

US bankruptcy filings by consumers rose 5.4% in January, compared to January last year, to 52,421 according to the American Bankruptcy Institute. In December, bankruptcies rose 4.5% from a year earlier. This was the first time that consumer bankruptcies increased in back-to-back months since 2010. Business bankruptcies began to surge in November 2015 and continued surging on a year-over-year basis in 2016, to reach a full-year total of 37,823 filings, up 26% from 2015.

General Motors sold 10 million cars in a year for the first time in its century-plus history. Strong sales in China more than made up for slower sales in the United States. The milestone led GM, the largest American automaker, to record profit. GM was in third place among world automakers, behind Volkswagen, which sold 10.3 million cars, and Toyota, which sold 10.2 million. GM was the world’s largest automaker for 77 years but lost the title to Toyota in 2008. Volkswagen topped global sales for the first time in 2016.

Domino’s and Papa John’s are booming — even as many other big restaurant and food chains have struggled lately. Sales at McDonald’s have started to cool off in the U.S. after a resurgence last year. Starbucks just reported disappointing domestic results. And Chipotle is still a mess as it struggles to win back customers after its E coli woes.

Israel

Israel’s Knesset passed a historic bill Monday evening retroactively legalizing nearly 4,000 homes built over the last several years in various communities in the West Bank on land whose ownership is disputed. It also imposes Israeli law in parts of Area C, setting in motion what many on the Left decried as a step towards Israeli annexation of the disputed territories. Several NGOs announced plans to challenge the move in the courts while Palestinian leaders warned that it was the beginning of the end of hopes for a Two-State solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit predicted that the legislation would be easily overturned in the courts, citing over 40 years’ worth of rulings against the legalization of Israeli-built structures on land owned by private Palestinian interests.

Syria

Thousands of people have been hanged at a Syrian prison in a secret crackdown on dissent by the regime of Bashar al-Assad, a report by Amnesty International has alleged. The human rights group says up to 13,000 people have been executed at Saydnaya prison north of the capital Damascus in a “hidden” campaign authorized by senior regime figures. Amnesty’s report says prisoners are moved in the middle of the night from their cells under the pretext of being transferred. They are taken to the grounds of the prison, where they are hanged. The report is based on result of a year-long investigation, including interviews with 84 witnesses including security guards, detainees, judges and lawyers, Amnesty says.

Iran

In apparent defiance of the new sanctions imposed by the Trump administration, Iran held a military exercise Saturday to test missile and radar systems. The aim of the exercise, held in Semnan province, was to “showcase the power of Iran’s revolution and to dismiss the sanctions,” Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards website said. “If the enemy does not walk the line, our missiles come down on them,” Gen. Amir Ali Haijazadeh said. The drill comes a day after the White House imposed sanctions on Tehran for its recent ballistic missile test.

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis said Saturday that Iran was the world’s biggest state sponsor of terrorism, as President Donald Trump slapped fresh sanctions on the country’s weapons procurement network. “As far as Iran goes, this is the single biggest state sponsor of terrorism in the world,” Mattis said at a press conference in Tokyo, but added that the U.S. had no plans to increase troop numbers in the Middle East in response. “It does no good to ignore it. It does no good to dismiss it and at the same time I don’t see any need to increase the number of forces we have in the Middle East at this time,” he said.

Turkey

Turkey detained nearly 750 suspects in a police operation against the Islamic State group, authorities said Monday. Anti-terrorism police launched the security operation against people with alleged links to IS early Sunday, conducting simultaneous raids in 29 provinces. The Interior Ministry released a statement Monday saying that 748 people have been detained in the police sweep, but did not give their nationalities. In addition, 72 other suspects were detained last week, it said. The state-run Anadolu Agency said police seized IS documents, digital material and six firearms during the raids. Anadolu, citing police sources, said the IS was “searching” for ways to carry out a “sensational attack” in Turkey, and was actively engaged in propaganda in order to recruit fighters. It said the raids targeted suspects believed to be in contact with IS operatives in conflict zones.

Afghanistan

At least 20 people are dead after an explosion Tuesday outside the Supreme Court in the Afghan capital, Kabul, sources told CNN. At least 35 people were wounded in the blast, according to Saleem Rasooli, head of Kabul’s hospitals.

Environment

A new study predicts that invasive wild pigs could soon be a major problem from coast to coast. The study published in The Journal of Applied Ecology this week found the United States’ wild pig population is steadily growing and predicts that the animals could inhabit most counties in the continental U.S. within three to five decades.

Weather

California’s Sierra Nevada snowpack measured in at 173 percent of average last week. According to the California Department of Water Resources, runoff from the overall Sierra snowpack is at its highest level since 1995. In a year when snowfall is plentiful, runoff can provide up to a third of the state’s water. Gov. Jerry Brown will wait to decide on lifting a drought-related emergency declaration until the spring, when the rain and snow season winds down, state officials said. But the snowpack indicates that California’s long-standing drought might finally be over.

Residents south of the Mason-Dixon Line began seeing flowers bloom in their gardens and other plants beginning to grow – in January. This year, the Spring Leaf Index is being reached in the southern U.S. weeks ahead of schedule, as a result of recent warmth in these regions, reports weather.com. Some parts of Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia are already nearly three weeks ahead of schedule. Temperatures climbed to 20 to 25 degrees above average in the southern Plains and lower Mississippi Valley on Monday.

At least 119 people have died in avalanches along the Afghan-Pakistani border triggered by heavy snowfall, officials said Monday. Those figures were expected to rise as rescue teams made their way through snow-blocked roads to afflicted areas. A least 89 people have been injured and 190 homes destroyed by avalanches in multiple provinces. Most of the fatalities come from Nuristan province, near the Pakistani border, where two villages were buried in snow.

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