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ISIS Concerns Remain After Trump Announces Leader’s Death

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  • President Donald Trump announced that U.S. special operations forces killed the leader of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
  • While Baghdadi’s death is generally viewed as a symbolic hit for ISIS, many experts are worried it will not impact the group’s operations.
  • The leader’s death also comes as Trump has moved to withdraw U.S. troops from Northern Syria, prompting concerns of an ISIS resurgence in the region.

Trump’s Announcement

President Donald Trump announced Sunday that United States forces had killed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, 

“Last night the United States brought the world’s number one terrorist leader to justice. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead. He was the founder and leader of ISIS, the most ruthless and violent terror organization anywhere in the world,” Trump said speaking at a press conference.

“U.S. special operations forces executed a dangerous and daring nighttime raid in northwestern Syria and accomplished their mission in grand style,” he continued.

“The U.S. personnel were incredible. I got to watch much of it. No personnel were lost in the operation, while a large number of Baghdadi’s fighters and companions were killed with him.” 

Trump went on to say that Baghdadi died by exploding a suicide vest after he was cornered in a dead-end tunnel, also killing three of his children.

“Baghdadi’s demise demonstrates America’s relentless pursuit of terrorist leaders and our commitment to the enduring and total defeat of ISIS and other terrorist organizations. Our reach is very long,” the president added.

While Trump’s announcement is certainly significant, Baghdadi’s death has left many wondering: what does this mean for ISIS?

Implications for ISIS in Northern Syria

There are a couple of key issues at play here. First, and perhaps the most relevant geopolitical question, is the situation in Northern Syria.

Several weeks ago, the White House announced that the U.S. would be withdrawing troops from Northern Syria and stepping aside to let Turkey launch a military operation. 

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan claimed the operation was necessary to clear Syrian Kurdish groups Turkey considers terrorists, and that the U.S. considers key allies who have done the majority of fighting against ISIS on the ground.

Many world leaders and politicians in the U.S., including some of Trump’s biggest supporters, condemned the move. They argued that not only was the U.S. abandoning an ally but that the move also could lead to a resurgence of ISIS in the region for two reasons.

First of all, with U.S. forces gone and Syrian Kurdish forces busy fighting a military attack from Turkey, ISIS could feel emboldened to attack and take over areas of Syria that the U.S. and the Kurds had fought to reclaim.

Second, Syrian Kurdish forces who had been guarding camps holding tens of thousands of captured ISIS fighters and their families would be short-staffed, again because many of them would have to shift to fight the Turkish invasion, making it easy for the captured fighters and their families to break out of the camps.

Already there have been reports that ISIS prisoners have broken free from the camps. 

Although there are conflicting reports of how many exactly have escaped, last week, U.S. Special Envoy for Syria Jim Jeffrey said in a testimony before the Senate that “over 100” ISIS militants had escaped, and that it was unclear where they were.

Even though Turkey and Syria agreed to a ceasefire last week, Kurdish forces on the ground guarding the prisons have said that they are still understaffed. As one guard told The Washington Post, “Half of our guards were transferred to the front line.”

With the U.S. withdrawing forces in Northern Syria, the power vacuum that they have created has been filled by the Syrian government and Russia, who the Kurdish forces have allied with for military and tactical support.

While the Trump administration has generally supported this move, many experts have argued that Russia and Syria do not have the ability to organize and command the same kind of coalition that the U.S. did to drive ISIS out of the region.

In short, if ISIS were to reemerge, those actors would not be equipt to deal with it.

“There is nobody else in the area that we’re talking about right now,” William Wechsler, a former deputy assistant secretary of defense for special operations and combating terrorism told the Post.

Wechsler also added that if there were anyone in the area who had the ability to counter ISIS, “ISIS would not have emerged in the first place.”

Will Bahgdadi’s Death Hurt ISIS?

Another big question for the future of ISIS is how much the loss of their leader will impact them.

While many have said this is certainly a huge symbolic blow for the organization, a lot of experts have basically argued that the net impact will not really hurt ISIS.

“When you think about the impact it will have on ISIS going forward, this is more like the close of a chapter, but by no means the end of the story,” Nick Rasmussen, the former head of the National Counterterrorism Center told the Post.

Others have also pointed out that Baghdadi was obsessed with security and keeping himself safe, and as a result, he gave ISIS a lot of power to act on their own.

In fact, American and Iraqi officials told The New York Times that the elusive leader largely limited his communications with the outside world, meaning ISIS mostly operated with little leadership on his part.

“Baghdadi was a figurehead. He was not involved in operations or day-to-day,” one anonymous regional intelligence officer told Newsweek. “All Baghdadi did was say yes or no—no planning.”

Sam Heller, a senior analyst at the International Crisis Group also told reporters that the autonomy of ISIS agents under Baghdadi prompted the group to become much more decentralized in both decision-making and financing, especially in Syria and Iraq.

Some have also pointed out that U.S. covert action against Islamist extremists have killed a number of militant leaders and the groups still lived on.

“In the annals of modern counterterrorism so far, what history has shown is these types of strikes do not lead to the strategic collapse or organizational defeat of a terrorism organization,” Javed Ali, a former White House counterterrorism director told the Post.

Other analysts and experts have even said that Baghdadi’s death could embolden ISIS cells to re-invent themselves, grow in recruits, or even band together to make bigger cells.

As the Times noted, two successors were killed before Baghdadi became the leader of ISIS, significantly expanding the group’s influence and reach. 

“In the face of the kind of pressure and the mutual threats that they’ve experienced, I wouldn’t be surprised to see more cooperation, even if it doesn’t mean a public alliance,” Tricia Burton, a former State Department counterterrorism official told the Post.

Others, however, have been more optimistic about ISIS’s inability to re-group following Baghdadi’s death. 

 “Their recovery has been very slow, their organization is fragile and the killing of Baghdadi is bad timing for them,” Hassan Hassan of the Center for Global Policy said. “Even though they have likely prepared for this moment, it will be hard for them to ensure the organization remains intact.”

See what others are saying: (The Washington Post) (The New York Times) (NPR)

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Four Students Arrested, 12 Protest Leaders Barred from Elections in Hong Kong National Security Law Crackdown

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  • Four Hong Kong student activists were arrested Wednesday for “secession” over a social media post.
  • Notably, this is the first police crackdown outside of street protests since implementation of China’s national security law on June 30.
  • Hours later, the Hong Kong government barred 12 pro-democracy leaders from running in upcoming elections—including four incumbents.
  • Despite the national security law supposedly not being retroactive, several of those candidates were barred over concerns stemming from their past actions.

Four Students Arrested for “Secession”

China began enacting harsh crackdowns under its new national security law on Wednesday, beginning with the arrests of four student activists who are being accused of inciting “secession” after making a post on social media.

That news was shortly followed by the announcement that 12 pro-democracy candidates seeking seats within the city’s legislature, the Legislative Council, have been barred from upcoming elections in September.

Reportedly, the students who were arrested range from ages 16 to 21. Notably, outside of street protests, these are the first arrests that have been enacted using the national security law since it went into effect on June 30.

As far as specifically why they were arrested, in a press conference last night, Senior Superintendent Steve Li Kwai-wah said that all four students are believed to be part of an online group that pledged to fight for Hong Kong independence.

Li went on to say they “posted about the establishment of a new party” that would promote pro-independence ideals “using any means possible” in an attempt to build a “Republic of Hong Kong.”

“We have to enforce the laws even if the crimes are committed on the internet,” he added. “Don’t think you can escape from the responsibility in cyberspace and commit crimes.”

According to Li, police also seized their computers, phones, and other documents.

While police declined to say what group the students were a part of or even give their names,  pro-independence group StudentLocalism said on Facebook that one of the people who was arrested is Tony Chung, the group’s former leader. 

Chung disbanded the group’s operations in Hong Kong pretty much immediately after Beijing passed this national security law for the city; however, it’s still been active on social media, and activists are reportedly working overseas. 

All four of the students who were arrested appear to also have ties to another organization, the Initiative Independence Party. Their activity with that group might actually be why they were arrested.

Police have already executed ten arrests during street protests under the new national security law. Of those, they’ve charged one person. 

As far as whether these students will be charged, according to a police source who spoke with the South China Morning Post, police will likely seek legal advice from the Hong Kong Department of Justice. From there, they will decide whether those suspects will ultimately be charged or released on bail.

Activists Speak Out On Student Arrests

Despite it long being expected that China would eventually target online dissent, criticism of this move was still potent. 

“That four young people could potentially face life imprisonment on the basis of some social media posts lays bare the draconian nature of the national security law,” Amnesty International’s Asia Pacific Regional Director Nicholas Bequelin said in a statement. 

The idea that anybody can now be jailed for expressing their political opinion on Facebook or Instagram will send a chill throughout Hong Kong society,” he added. “No one should be arrested solely for expressing an opinion that is contrary to that of the government.”

On Twitter, prominent activist Nathan Law, who fled the city earlier this month, said, “So students are arrested because of a SOCIAL MEDIA POST. Bloody hell. How vulnerable a country is to be afraid of a post by a group of teenagers.” 

The arrests have also resulted in condemnation from the Human Rights Watch. The group’s China Director described them as a “gross misuse of this draconian law (which make) clear that the aim is to silence dissent, not protect national security.”

That director, Sophie Richardson, also said the arrests “raise chilling concerns of a broader crackdown on political parties” as September’s legislative elections approach.

12 Candidates Barred From Elections

Ironically enough, Richardson’s concern came true just hours later when the Hong Kong government announced that 12 pro-democracy candidates running for seats in LegCo have now been disqualified from doing so.

For its part, the government argued that those candidates can’t stand for candidacy because 

their political positions would be at odds with the basic law of Hong Kong. For example, they have advocated for democratic reforms and have objected to the national security legislation.

Those candidates include Joshua Wong and Gwyneth Ho, who were both front-runners in an unofficial democratic primary held earlier this month. Notably, that list also includes four incumbents.

LegCo contains 42 pro-Beijing lawmakers scattered across 70 total seats. Citizens themselves are only allowed to directly elect representatives in 35 seats while the other half is indirectly elected through interest groups. Hong Kong is also led by Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who is backed by Beijing and has been frequently criticized as being a “puppet” for the mainland. 

Unsurprisingly, Beijing has said it supports these disqualifications. The Hong Kong government has also since said that more disqualifications could follow. 

Three pro-democracy lawmakers—Alvin Yeung, Dennis Kwock, and Kenneth Leung—were told they were barred from re-election because of previous calls for the United States to impose sanctions on those responsible for rights abuses in Hong Kong. 

As Yeung and Kwok pointed out, those pushes mainly happened in August and September—months before the national security law went into effect. The national security law, on paper, indicates that it cannot be applied retroactively.

Still, election officials have argued that candidates’ past actions and remarks reflect their true intentions, meaning they can still be barred from running.

International Outrage to Barring Candidates

Wong was also barred in a similar fashion. That decision was made even though he disbanded his pro-democracy party, Demosisto, hours before the national security law went into effect. On Monday, he also pledged to no longer lobby for foreign sanctions against Hong Kong.

Nonetheless, the Hong Kong government has cited previous statements made directly by him and his party as a reason for barring him. 

“Beijing has staged the largest-ever assault on the city’s remaining free election,” Wong said on Twitter. 

“In the letter of government, they have nearly screened all my posts, co-eds, interviews and statements for cooking up excuses for disqualification. Under the surveillance of secret police, I have been trailed by unknown agents, let alone the growing risk of being assault[ed].”

“However, after a whole year of resistance, Hongkongers will not surrender.”

Internationally, the qualifications have also received condemnation from a number of lawmakers in different countries. 

In the U.S., Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fl.) called the disqualifications “outrageous,” saying this move shows “the Chinese Communist Party’s determination to remake the city in its image.”

He then called on the Trump administration to “push back and hold officials accountable.”

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has also urged Hong Kong to move forward with its Sept. 6 election as planned. That comes after concerns that the government may delay the election for one year because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Pro-democracy supporters, however, have accused the pro-Beijing lawmakers of trying to stifle an election that could yield a first-ever majority for pro-democracy lawmakers.

On Thursday, the Hong Kong government responded to criticism, saying, “There is no question of any political censorship, restriction of the freedom of speech, or deprivation of the right to stand for elections as alleged by some members of the community.”

See what others are saying: (Aljazeera) (South China Morning Post) (The New York Times)

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Global Coronavirus Cases Hit 16 Million as Recovered Countries See New Spikes

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  • Global coronavirus cases hit 16 million on Sunday, with new cases continuing to pop up all around the world. 
  • The U.S. leads with the highest amount of coronavirus cases by far with over 4.2 million— nearly a quarter of all cases worldwide.
  • While the cases continue to increase in hard-hit countries like the U.S., Brazil, and India, other countries in Asia and Europe that had previously curbed the virus are now seeing new spikes.
  • On Monday, China reported its highest new cases since April, and Australia recorded its highest new cases ever. In Spain, cases have more than tripled since the country ended its lockdown, prompting concerns about a second wave in Europe.

Global Spikes

The global number of reported coronavirus cases officially hit 16 million on Sunday, adding another one million in the course of just four days.

The number of coronavirus cases in the world is now nearly twice the population of New York City. Even then, the actual number is expected to be much higher because of a lack of testing, unreported cases, and concerns that some countries are downplaying or underreporting numbers.

Countries all over the world are seeing alarming spikes, but the U.S. still leads in the highest cases and deaths. Right now, the U.S. accounts for nearly one-quarter of all reported cases with than 4.2 million, meaning that roughly one out of every four coronavirus cases are in the U.S.

The U.S. has also reported nearly 147,000 deaths, making up roughly one out of every five coronavirus-related deaths in the world.

Last week, the U.S. reported over 1,000 coronavirus-related deaths a day for four days straight, marking the highest death counts since late May. According to the New York Times, deaths are increasing in 25 states and Puerto Rico. Cases are increasing in 32 states, Puerto Rico, and D.C.

Last week, California officially overtook New York and became the state with the highest number of confirmed cases, reporting over 452,000 total cases as of Monday. Over the weekend, Florida also surpassed New York as the state with the second-highest case count.

On Monday, John Hopkins reported 423,855 cases in Florida, which is notable because even though Florida’s count is still less than California’s, California has nearly double the population of Florida.

Spikes in Other Countries

The U.S. is not the only country that has been seeing increases in coronavirus cases.

Brazil, which has the second-highest number of cases with over 2.4 million, has also been experiencing spikes. According to reports, Saturday marked the fourth day in a row that Brazil reported more than 50,000 new cases, breaking its previous weekly record with 321,623 new cases.

On Sunday, India, which has the third-biggest case count, reportedly recorded its highest single day of confirmed cases so far with more than 50,000, pushing up the country’s total to over 1.4 million.

However, in addition to the countries that have already been experiencing swells over the last few weeks, countries that had previously curbed the virus are also beginning to see new spikes.

On Monday, China recorded its highest number of new cases since April with 61. According to reports, almost all of the cases are centralized in the northwestern region, though there have been regional clusters.

In response, some regional authorities have declared “wartime mode” lockdown measures to combat the virus.

Hong Kong, which had largely controlled transmission, has also recently imposed its toughest coronavirus restrictions yet as spikes continue. The city has reportedly recorded over 1,000 infections since the beginning of the month, which accounts for nearly half of the total recorded cases total since the virus first arrived there in late January.

Other Asian countries that had previously curbed the virus are also seeing spikes as well, like South Korea, which reported a four-month high on Saturday with 113 new cases— many of which were imported.

Over the weekend, North Korea also locked down a city near its border with South Korea after officials reportedly found someone who may have been infected with the virus. If true, the individual would mark North Korea’s first confirmed reported case.

However, it is not just Asian countries that had previously cut transmission and are now seeing increases. Australia, which still has strict lockdown measures and other restrictions in parts of the country, had its deadliest day on Sunday with ten fatalities. On Monday, the country broke its previous record for the highest number of daily cases of at least 549. 

In Europe, Spain’s caseload has reportedly tripled in the weeks since the country rolled back restrictions, prompting the United Kingdom to respond Saturday by placing restrictions on travelers from Spain, requiring them to self-isolate for 14 days.

However, Spain’s leaders have insisted it is not experiencing a second wave and that it is still safe to visit. Still, the undeniable spikes have brought concerns over a European second wave.

Those concerns will also likely raise new questions about travel within Europe, where many countries have reopened their economies and are encouraging tourists despite the fact that many tourist-heavy countries like Spain, as well as France and Germany, are now seeing new spikes.

See what others are saying: (France24) (The Wall Street Journal) (The Guardian)

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U.K. to Ban Junk Food TV Ads Before 9 PM to Tackle Obesity Amid Pandemic

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  • Prime Minister Boris Johnson is set to roll out sweeping new rules for the sale and advertisement of unhealthy food, including a ban on TV ads for junk food before 9 p.m.
  • The move comes as a growing body of evidence has shown that obesity is an increased risk factor for the coronavirus.
  • Johnson had previously opposed efforts to crack down on unhealthy foods, but according to reports, he changed his mind after he was hospitalized for COVID-19 in April, now believing his weight was a contributing factor to the severity of his illness.
  • While some praised the plan, food manufacturers, advertising agencies, and broadcasters condemned it, arguing that the measure would hurt the economy and have little effect on reducing obesity.

New Food Rules

U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to ban junk food advertisements from airing on television before 9 p.m. as a part of a series of new regulations on how junk food is sold and advertised. Those rules are set to be rolled out early next week.

While the plans have yet to be finalized, sources have told reporters that, in addition to the crackdown on televised ads, the new rules are likely to include a ban on online ads for unhealthy foods, restrictions on in-store promotions, and requirements for some restaurants to put calorie labels on menus.

The move marks a significant shift for Johnson, who has previously criticized the U.K.’s sugar tax as a “sin stealth tax.”

However, the prime minister changed his tune after he was hospitalized with the coronavirus in April. According to reports, Johnson believes that his weight was a contributing factor to his illness and hospitalization. 

Numerous studies have shown that people who are overweight or obese are at a greater risk of severe illness from COVID-19, a fact noted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

While speaking at a medical center in east London, Johnson said that while he did not like “nannying” the country, he believed that overweight U.K. citizens need to get in shape to protect themselves from COVID-19. 

“Obesity is one of the real co-morbidity factors,” he said. “Losing weight, frankly, is one of the ways you can reduce your own risk from coronavirus.”

Statistics provided by the government estimate that in 2019, 28.7% of adults in England were obese, while another 35.6% are overweight. Currently, the U.K. has the highest coronavirus death rate in Europe.

Speaking to BBC Friday, Health and Social Care Minister Helen Whately said that obesity was “possibly the greatest health challenge” the U.K. has faced “particularly with Covid.”

In an interview with BBC Radio 4, Chairman of the National Obesity Forum Tam Fry praised the prime minister’s plan.

“There hasn’t been a ban like this but it has got to be given a try – and if after a period of time it is shown not to be so effective, then maybe it will stop,” he said. “It is indeed a risk but the problem is that the consequence of obesity is so great that risks and daring measures have to be put in place.”

Criticism

However, the idea has also been rejected by food manufacturers, advertising agencies, and broadcasters, who were quick to voice their strong opposition.

Tim Rycroft, the chief operating officer of the Food and Drink Federation, called move a “slap in the face” to the food industry which has worked “heroically” to keep food output going during the pandemic. 

“It is going to put enormous costs on the advertising industry and on broadcasters at a time when the economy is in quite a tenuous situation,” he continued.

In a letter to Johnson sent by the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA), the organization pointed out that a government impact assessment from last year showed that a ban on ads for unhealthy foods and drinks would be negligible in changing childrens’ diets. 

“The introduction of such a draconian measure at this time could have deep repercussions for agencies and the advertising sector, generally, in terms of jobs and creative output, for very little end result,” IPA director general Paul Bainsfair wrote in the letter. 

Those remarks were also echoed by Stephen Woodford, the chief executive of the Advertising Association, who argued that the ban would hurt small companies.

“Speculation that the government intends to introduce bans on high fat, salt and sugar advertising would be in direct conflict with its own evidence that such restrictions would have a minimal impact on obesity levels,” he said.

These measures, if introduced, would have significant economic impact at a time when the economy is already under strain. The government must reconsider any proposals which could damage the recovery.”

Johnson’s new initiative is not the only plan aimed at tackling obesity that has been proposed in recent years. In 2016, Prime Minister David Cameron was set to announce significant regulations on food marketing and advertising. However, he abruptly left office after Brexit, and Theresa May, his successor, abandoned most of his ideas.

In 2018, May and Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt came out with plans to ban fast food advertising on TV before 9 p.m. and stop supermarkets from promoting unhealthy foods, but those plans dissolved after Johnson took office. 

With Johnson’s new revival of the measures, many hope that the U.K. will once and for all have a comprehensive plan to tackle manageable obesity.

See what others are saying: (The Guardian) (BBC) (The Independent)

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