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I Underwent Genital Mutilation as a Child—Right Here in the United States

Mother Jones

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Last week, an Indian American doctor was arrested in Michigan, charged with performing female genital cutting on two seven-year-old girls. As the story hit the local press and then the New York Times, and as it was shared by George Takei and Nicholas Kristof, my phone kept blowing up with breathless messages and links from childhood friends across the country.

“This story isn’t going away,” said one friend over the phone. We both grew up in the same controversial, secretive South Asian Muslim sect as the doctor, a 44-year-old emergency room physician named Jumana Nagarwala who was born in Washington, DC. “This time, the community can’t just pretend it’s not happening.” Just today, two more followers of the sect were arrested in connection with the case.

Our sect is known as the Dawoodi Bohras, a Shiite branch of Islam based in Gujarat, India, with an estimated 1.2 million followers around the world and thriving outposts across America. Some Bohras and others say the sect has veered toward a cult of personality and away from Islamic principles; it’s ruled by a well-heeled clergy of “totalitarian kings” with unusually wide-reaching control over their followers. (The Bohra clergy did not respond to Mother Jones‘ request for comment.)

Federal officials believe Nagarwala may have been clandestinely cutting girls since at least 2005. It’s the first case of its kind in the United States, where female genital cutting is a criminal sexual act and has been illegal since 1996. The practice is widely seen as an attempt to curb women’s sexuality by making sex less enjoyable, even painful.

Nagarwala admits she performed a procedure on the two seven-year-old girls, but says she didn’t cut them—she merely wiped away a mucous membrane and gave the gauze to the parents, who would bury it in keeping with Bohra tradition. She told investigators she’s not aware of anyone in her community who practices cutting.

As little girls, nearly all my female Bohra friends and I underwent khatna, the sect’s term for this practice. None of us remember being “wiped.” We were cut. Some of us bled and ached for days, and some walked away with lifelong physical damage. In interviews with investigators, one of the girls Nagarwala performed on said the procedure hurt so badly that she screamed in pain and “could barely walk afterward.” She drew a picture of the room where it happened, and marked an “X” to show where she bled on an exam table. Medical examinations show that both girls’ genitals have been altered.

While news coverage and the federal case focus on Nagarwala, khatna has been a mandatory religious practice inflicted on Bohra girls all over the world for generations, often in knowing violation of local laws. Bohras are the only Muslims in India who enforce female genital cutting; it’s not a common practice among South Asians or Muslims worldwide, and it’s not mentioned in the Koran. Privately, many Bohras have been praying for the clergy to end this practice for years, even decades. More than one mother I know wept when she learned she was bearing a girl, dreading what she might have to do to her child.

“Maybe this is the case that finally scares them into stopping it,” another friend messaged me. Her khatna happened during a family vacation in India. Mine took place in the bedroom of a family acquaintance in New Jersey in the late ’80s.

I buried the memory until I was 13, when my freshman year social-studies teacher put on a video about female genital mutilation in Africa. As I watched a young girl, dark-skinned like me, being prepared by village elders for her mutilation, I suddenly flashed back to a dim, chilly house my mother took me to when I was about seven. Two Indian aunties I had never seen before held me down on a mattress and pulled down my underwear as I squirmed to get free. One of them held a small pair of silver scissors, like the ones my dad used to keep his beard trimmed. Then, the sudden sensation of a tight, mean little pinch between my legs.

The memory exploded in my head in the dark, quiet classroom, and suddenly, a recurring nightmare I’d had for years made sense. In those dreams, the lower half of my body was made of kid’s construction toys, and pieces kept breaking off as I frantically tried to keep myself together. I began sobbing at my desk. The teacher kindly told me to catch my breath in the hallway; she thought I was upset over the images I was seeing in the video. Later, at lunch, my white girlfriends talked about being relieved that sort of thing doesn’t happen in America.

But it does. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that half a million girls in the United States were affected by or at risk for mutilation in 2012. I know of dozens of Bohra women whose parents had them cut in America over the last 30 years, from New York City to Houston to Chicago. Others were taken out of country to have the procedure done, a practice called “vacation cutting” that’s now also illegal in the United States.

We’re the first generation of Bohras born in America. Our parents began settling here after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which brought a wave of South Asian engineers, doctors, and other professionals to America. In our teens and 20s, my friends and I who underwent khatna assured each other the practice would die out as Bohras assimilated. We’re now in our 30s, and it hasn’t stopped. Some women our age and younger are still arranging or considering khatna for their own daughters.

“Nothing is going to change,” sighed the friend who called me to discuss the Nagarwala case. She spoke with a bitterness I could almost taste in my own mouth. “They’ll use this one doctor as a scapegoat, let her take the heat, and pretend it never happened.”

In 2015, the Australian Supreme Court handed down the first-ever conviction for a Bohra engaged in khatna. Many Bohras opposed to the practice hoped this was finally khatna‘s death knell. The Bohra clergy takes pains to maintain good relations with political leaders around the world; a guilty verdict in an affluent, English-speaking country seemed disastrous, especially in an increasing atmosphere of global Islamophobia.

Instead, the head cleric, Mufaddal Saifuddin, 70, seemed to double down on the practice during a cryptic sermon delivered last year in Mumbai. Congregations in the United States and elsewhere were sent letters instructing them to follow local laws, but some reading between the lines heard different instructions: Go underground, and don’t get caught. The parents in the Michigan case traveled with their daughters from Minnesota in February; community members tell me it’s become harder—but not impossible—to find Bohras willing to perform the procedure.

The task of getting a young girl’s khatna done falls on adult female relatives; men often don’t know it’s happening, or even that the practice exists at all. Girls are told to keep the procedure a secret after it’s performed, and they usually do. “For the longest time, I didn’t even know other people had this done, too,” one friend from the community told me. “I thought it was something my mom only did to me, and I didn’t know why.”

In the vacuum of secrecy, and with very little official guidance from Bohra leadership, there are wide variations in how khatna is performed. The seven-year-old girls in the Michigan case were allegedly cut by a licensed medical professional in an unnamed medical clinic. (Nagarwala’s employer, Henry Ford Hospital, says it did not happen on their grounds.) In other cases, the cutting is performed by laypeople with no medical training in unhygienic conditions.

There’s also little consensus about how the actual procedure is supposed to work; it’s often up to the interpretation of whoever is wielding the blade. In some cases, like mine, a “pinch of skin” from the clitoral hood is cut away, leaving no lasting physical trauma. Sometimes the entire clitoris is removed, or surrounding tissue is also damaged. Last year, writer Mariya Karimjee went on This American Life to tell the story of her cutting, which was performed in Pakistan and left her unable to have sex without unendurable pain.

Bohras even disagree on why khatna is performed. The prevailing view is that it keeps girls and women from becoming sexually promiscuous. Others say it has something to do with “removing bad germs” and liken it to male circumcision, which is widely (though not universally) believed to have hygienic benefits. The World Health Organization says female genital mutilation has no known health benefits and “violates the rights to health, security and physical integrity of the person, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life when the procedure results in death.”

Despite the prevalence of khatna among generations of Bohra women around the world, there has been almost no public conversation about it until just a few years ago. Speaking out about any of the numerous issues the clergy has come under scrutiny for—khatna, multiple lawsuits over alleged abuses of power, “big brother”-style surveillance of everyday Bohras—is seen as unacceptable. Dissidents can face excommunication and social boycott. The threat extends to family members, whose businesses often depend on Bohra financing, or who may not be allowed to marry within the community or be buried in a Bohra cemetery unless the rebellious relative is quieted.

I’m already estranged from my family because of disagreements over Bohra customs. Like a few of my friends, I’ve tried to bring up khatna to my parents, mostly my mother, with little progress. As in many rigid orthodoxies, the burden of social policing in the Bohra community falls largely on women, who have the most to lose from rocking the boat and who are often suffering from unacknowledged personal trauma of their own.

That’s why it’s remarkable that so many Bohra women have started speaking up over the last few years, from the explosive This American Life story to a documentary film, interviews with major news outlets in India and the United States, and a petition calling on the Bohra clergy to end the practice that’s been signed by 150,000 supporters. In 2015, five young women started a Bohra anti-FGM group called Sahiyo (Gujarati for “friends”) and conducted the first large-scale, global research study on the practice of khatna among Dawoodi Bohras. Nearly 400 Bohra women took the online survey, mostly from India and the United States and between the ages of 18 and 45. Eighty percent said they would like the practice of khatna to end.

None of this has moved the clergy to unequivocally end it.

One of the girls in the Nagarwala case in Michigan was temporarily taken away from her parents, an act that’s sure to cause additional trauma. Nagarwala could be sentenced anywhere from five years to life in prison for the assortment of charges she faces, though she’s just one of an untold number of khatna practitioners around the country. Bohras opposed to the practice now find themselves rooting against those who are arguably fellow victims.

“It’s feels sick to be happy about all this punishment,” said one of my friends the other night. “But I just don’t know how else to make them listen.”

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I Underwent Genital Mutilation as a Child—Right Here in the United States

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Quick! What Is 17 Times 6?

Mother Jones

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Over at the mothership, Matt Miller reports that the nation’s scientists have some questions for Donald Trump and the rest of the presidential field. They want to know about climate change, biodiversity, science education, nuclear power, vaccines, and so forth, but I think they’re being a little too ambitious. Here is Trump on the Howard Stern show a few years ago:

STERN: What’s 17 times 6?
Trump kids look like deer in headlights.
TRUMP: It’s eleven twelve, 112.
STERN: Wrong!
ARTIE LANGE: It’s 102.
TRUMP: 112.
STERN: It is 112?
TRUMP: 112.

Maybe we should ask Trump to tell us what is 17 plus 6. Then we can move on to the harder stuff.

Of course, there’s a real lesson here: Trump knows it’s better to have an answer, any answer, than to be caught out. Besides, he was just being sarcastic. Why do you people take everything he says so seriously, anyway?


Quick! What Is 17 Times 6?

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Mark Ruffalo Wants You to Imagine a 100 Percent Clean Energy Future


The celebrity activist isn’t just against fracking; he wants to turn the conversation to green solutions. Mark Ruffalo at a New York City anti-fracking demonstration in 2010. Bryan Smith/ZUMA For Mark Ruffalo, environmental activism started out with something to oppose, to be against: Fracking. It all began when the actor, perhaps best known for his role as Bruce Banner (The Hulk) in Marvel’s The Avengers, was raising his three small children in the town of Callicoon, in upstate New York. At that time the Marcellus Shale fracking boom was coming on strong and was poised to expand into New York, even as the area also saw a series of staggering floods, each one seemingly more unprecedented than the last. “That was alarming,” remembers Ruffalo on the latest episode of the Inquiring Minds podcast (stream below). “Not only alarming to me, but also alarming to all the farmers who used to make fun of me for talking about climate change and global warming.” In response, Ruffalo launched Water Defense, a nonprofit that takes on fracking and extreme or unconventional energy extraction in general (from mountaintop removal mining to deep sea drilling), and does so with a focus on grassroots activism. In the process, Ruffalo has become quite the visible spokesman: He even unleashed some Hulk-style anger toward the energy industry on the Colbert Report. But if you think Ruffalo is just another celeb with an anti-corporate tilt, you’re missing the real story. His true passion is promoting a clean energy solution to our climate and water problems, and demonstrating how feasible it is. Today. Like, now. Mark Ruffalo The Toronto Star/ZUMA “For the first time in human history, we’re actually at a place, technologically speaking, where we can make this transition,” explains Ruffalo. “And the amount of money, and resources, that we pour into this fossil fuel infrastructure, which has been an appendage to us, like a third leg that we’re dragging around, will be freed up, and no longer will we be worrying about having to extract energy. We’ll be just harvesting what’s already pouring on us every single day.” Ruffalo’s shift toward clean energy advocacy was a natural evolution from the fracking fight. “What I started to feel was, you can’t credibly say ‘no’ to something unless you can come up with an alternative that is equal to or better than what is being offered,” he says. And for that alternative, he naturally turned to scientists. Ruffalo had come across research by Mark Jacobson, a Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford, on the potential for the US to move to 100 percent renewable energy in the coming decades. “So I went to him and I said, ‘Hey Mark, could you make a plan for New York state based on this broad concept that the United States could actually do it, and do it in my lifetime hopefully, and definitely in my kids’ lifetime?” Jacobson initially demurred, saying he didn’t have time to write down much more than a few paragraphs. But he didn’t hold out for long. “The next day in my email inbox I had 40 pages of what is now a feasibility study on moving New York state from fossil fuels to renewable energy by 2030,” laughs Ruffalo. That study is here; it describes a state drawing 50 percent of its power from wind (10 percent onshore and 40 percent offshore), 38 percent from various forms of solar power, and the remainder from sources like geothermal and hydroelectric power—all while saving money, producing more jobs, and even saving lives (thanks to cleaner air). Notably, the New York state plan doesn’t just eliminate oil and coal; it also avoids nuclear power and natural gas. Here’s a figure from Jacobson’s paper, showing how much of New York’s total area would have to be devoted to clean energy projects to pull it off: Area required to implement a 100 percent clean energy plan for New York based on wind, water, and solar (“WWS”). Mark Jacobson et al, Energy Policy. To be sure, critics have questioned the feasibility of such a swift and absolute energy transformation. But Ruffalo isn’t deterred; the New York state study was just the beginning. “In the next few months, we will be dropping 50 plans for 50 states,” he says. The draft plans for California and Washington are already available. Meanwhile, Jacobson, Ruffalo, banker Marco Krapels, and documentary filmmaker Josh Fox have formed a new organization called the Solutions Project, which declares that “it’s not enough to simply be against something”; rather, the organization wants to use “science + business + culture to accelerate the transition to 100% renewable energy.” So is all of this just crazy and unrealistic? Consider some facts about the impressive growth of solar energy of late: A solar energy system is now installed every four minutes in the US, according to GTM Research. By 2016, that’s projected to be down to 83 seconds. According to the Solar Energy Industry Organization, the price of a solar panel has declined 60 percent just since 2011. Walmart is now producing more solar power at its stores than 38 US states. But the most impressive statistics about solar power involve its abundant supply and stunning potential. According to one estimate, the amount of solar energy reaching the Earth’s surface in one and half hours exceeds the entire world energy consumption in the year 2001. Such are the facts, but grasping what they really mean is another matter. And to hear Ruffalo talk about clean energy is to encounter a degree of optimism that is as infectious as it is rare. “We’re not getting the messaging about how wonderful a world we’re going to be living in when we make this change,” he says. People don’t know, Ruffalo continues, “what it will look like to go outside and see no smog. What it will look like to have cars that don’t make any noise, or have any exhaust come out of them.” To help in that visualization, Ruffalo is teaming up with the filmmaker and TV personality Jason Silva to make short-subject videos about “this beautiful concept of the abundance that will be manifested to us once we move to renewable energy.” And he has partnered with Mosaic, a company that helps to crowd-fund solar projects, in a “Put Solar on It” campaign to rapidly increase the number of US solar installations in 2014 (while making money for investors along the way). Just last week on the Fox Business Network, Ruffalo could be found promoting the Mosaic project to an audience of not-exactly-lefty investors. So will Ruffalo ever act in or produce a clean energy or global warming movie? He’s “mulling it over,” he says. “An issue has got to mature to a place that that story can be told without it smacking as a polemic,” he adds. You have to hit a kind of cultural sweet spot, sort of like what happened with Ruffalo’s influential 2010 film The Kids Are All Right, about same-sex parenting. In the meantime, Ruffalo wants you to simply imagine what our energy future could be. “A spill for a solar panel,” he says, “is a sunny day.” You can stream the full Inquiring Minds interview with Mark Ruffalo here: This episode of Inquiring Minds, a podcast hosted by best-selling author Chris Mooney and neuroscientist and musician Indre Viskontas, also features a discussion of what the year 2013 meant for climate and energy. To catch future shows right when they are released, subscribe to Inquiring Minds via iTunesorRSS. You can also follow the show on Twitter at @inquiringshow and like us on Facebook. Inquiring Minds was also recently singled out as one of the “Best of 2013″ shows on iTunes—you can learn more here.


Mark Ruffalo Wants You to Imagine a 100 Percent Clean Energy Future

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Mark Ruffalo Wants You to Imagine a 100 Percent Clean Energy Future

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Here’s Why I Think Jack Lew Needs to be Painfully Honest About the Debt Ceiling

Mother Jones

I’ve gotten a bunch of email and comments regarding my post earlier this morning that criticized Jack Lew’s vagueness about how Treasury would deal with a debt ceiling breach. Instead of adding an update to the post, I want to create a whole new one to address them. I think it’s important. Here’s a sampling from the comment thread:

TLM: Of course they have a plan. But telegraphing that plan is a no-win exercise on multiple levels.

histprof1: Why would any functional person give the GOP anything to work with at this point?….I suspect that he has a plan and has his rationale ready. I also suspect that he will let the politics work until past the last minute before he goes legal. In fact, I suspect that his first executive action after the GOP fails to raise the limit will be aimed at making them try again. After that, he goes into emergency powers territory and the checks and balances fun begins.

Jasper_in_Boston: What’s so hard to understand, Kevin? Default would quite possibly be catastrophic, and Lew (and Obama) quite understandably don’t want to give the forces of nihilism any reason to think we can get through it easily.

gyrfalcon: Bingo, bingo, bingo. The GOPers have already glommed onto the idea that we can pay off bonds from incoming revenues, and many of them are positively gleeful at the idea of having the government stiff everybody else, including SS and veterans’ benefits, thinking it will look to the public like Obama’s doing….It flat-out isn’t possible to discuss this honestly with this pack of denialists and nihilists. The admin’s only possible strategy is to keep it as vague as possible.

This is the conventional wisdom, and believe me: I get it. But I think it’s dead wrong. The assumption here is that (a) the alarm level needs to be kept at maximum, and (b) no one will ever find out if Lew was being truthful because the debt ceiling will eventually get raised.

Maybe. But that’s a pretty dangerous assumption at this point. And if we do breach the debt ceiling, and it turns out that prioritization was in the pipeline all along, and Social Security checks were never in danger, and Treasury can in fact choose which bills to pay—in other words, if the alarms turn out to have been overblown—then there’s going to be hell to pay. Republicans will be more convinced than ever that they can’t trust anything Lew or Obama says, and they’ll become even more instransigent about the debt ceiling. In other words, genuine disaster becomes even more likely.

Like it or not, my view is that Lew needs to be rigorously, meticulously honest. He absolutely can’t afford to say anything that might turn out not to be true, or that might eventually be seen as politicization or game playing. That includes making vague statements that later turn out to be deceptive because, in fact, plans were in place and he knew it.

Is it possible that being truthful will persuade some of the nutballs that the debt ceiling isn’t actually a big deal? Sure. But they already think that. So who cares? The real audience for Lew’s testimony is the folks who are conservative but not crazy. They’re on the edge already, but if they start to get an inkling that Lew is scaremongering in even the smallest way, they could turn against him.

I understand the arguments about how dangerous it is to run the risk of making a debt ceiling breach seem manageable. But I think it’s a lot more dangerous to be caught making even modestly deceptive statements “for the greater good.” My earlier post wasn’t written just because I’m personally curious about what Treasury’s plans are. It was written because I think Lew is playing with fire.

UPDATE: Just as I finish writing that a debt ceiling increase is a “dangerous assumption,” we start getting reports from Capitol Hill that Republicans are getting ready to pass a short-term debt ceiling increase. Only for a few weeks, though. Stay tuned.

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Here’s Why I Think Jack Lew Needs to be Painfully Honest About the Debt Ceiling

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Obama Talks About the Debt Ceiling

Mother Jones

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President Obama has been holding forth on the debt ceiling and the government shutdown for over an hour now, and you can’t fault him for his ability to stay on message. He’s been clearer than usual, and less stuttery than usual, and he’s repeated his basic position over and over and over: I’ll negotiate about anything, but not as ransom to prevent economic chaos. Democrats have asked Republicans for budget meetings 19 times over the past six months, and they’ve refused because they wanted to wait until they could use threats to get what they wanted. That’s unacceptable. Unilateral threats to burn down the country are unacceptable. But take the threats off the table, and then we can talk.

Will it work? I don’t know. I’ll leave the detailed commentary to others. But I did like it when Obama told one reporter (I forget which one) “You know they’ve been planning to use threats to get their way for months. You’ve been reporting on it.” It’s true. Reporters know perfectly well how this all happened. It’s not as if Republicans have made any secret of their plans, after all.

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Obama Talks About the Debt Ceiling

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How Dangerous Is Al-Shabaab, the Group Behind the Kenya Mall Massacre?

Mother Jones

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On Saturday, a popular mall in Nairobi, Kenya, turned into a bloody battleground when a Somali terrorist group seized hostages and killed more than 60 people. As Kenyan troops continue to fight the gunmen and shaken locals attempt to make sense of Kenya’s worst terrorist attack since 1998, Republican lawmakers are insisting the attack is proof that Al Qaeda is growing stronger, contrary to what the Obama administration’s contends. Rep. Pete King (R-N.Y.) went so far as to argue that the Nairobi assault shows that Al Qaeda is still “extremely powerful.” But is al-Shabaab—the Al Qaeda-affiliated group claiming responsibility for the attacks on the upscale Westgate Mall—as dangerous as the GOP claims? Here’s everything you need to know about the group, its strength, and its motives:

What is al-Shabaab, and what is its relationship with Al Qaeda? Al-Shabaab, also known as “The Youth,” is a designated foreign terrorist group based in Somalia that has been publicly affiliated with Al Qaeda since 2012, according to the US State Department. The group told Al Jazeera on Monday that it considers Al Qaeda a partner in the Nairobi attack and is taking orders directly from their leadership. It’s widely believed that the group’s senior leaders trained with Al Qaeda forces in Afghanistan in the late 1990s and received funding from Osama bin Laden. Al-Shabaab was originally the military workhorse for a political group called the Islamic Courts Union, which in 2006 seized control of most of southern Somalia before the organization was swiftly ousted by Ethiopian troops backing Somalia’s then-transitional federal government. Most of the original ICU members headed to Somalia’s neighboring countries, but al-Shabaab forces stayed in the south of Somalia, where they radicalized and instated Shariah law across the areas they controlled. Since then, they have been engaged in guerilla warfare against the Federal Government of Somalia, which took over from the transitional government in 2012 and is backed by an African peacekeeping alliance that includes Kenya and Ethiopia, plus the United Nations and the United States. The green areas on this Somalia map are currently under al-Shabaab control, according to the BBC:


Who is al-Shabaab’s leader? Ahmed Abdi Godane took over the group in June after murdering four other top commanders. If you know where he is, the United States will give you $7 million. Here is his identifying information, according to Rewards for Justice:

Why did al-Shabaab attack a mall in Kenya? In October 2011, Kenya sent hundreds of troops into Somalia with the designated purpose of kicking out al-Shabaab. The Kenyan government had become concerned that Kenya could be a target for terrorism after al-Shabaab killed more than 70 civilians in Uganda in 2010. Kenyan forces bombed key al-Shabaab strongholds in Somalia, including a major airport, and cut off al-Shabaab’s economic resources in the port city of Kismayo in 2012. The mall attack in Nairobi reportedly occurred because al-Shabaab wants Kenyan troops out of Somalia. Sheikh Abulaziz Abu Muscab, a spokesman for the terrorist group, told Al Jazeera that the mall is “a place where Kenya’s decision-makers go to relax and enjoy themselves and a place where there are Jewish and American shops. So we have to attack them.â&#128;&#139;”

What does al-Shabaab want? The different factions of al-Shabaab have splintered goals. However, the most vocal members are against the Somali government, any country that backs the Somali government (like Ethiopia, Uganda, and Kenya), Israel, Christians, and the West. In a 2007 statement, the group said it is “seeking to establish an Islamic state along the lines of the Taliban-ruled, by-the-law-of-Allah in the land of Somalia…and seeks to expand the jihad to Somalia’s Christian neighbours, with the intent of driving the infidels out of the Horn of Africa, along the same lines as al-Qaeda has been striving to do under the slogan, ‘expelling the infidels out of the Arabian Peninsula.'”

How big is al-Shabaab? Are there any Americans in it?! There are at least several thousand members of al-Shabaab, as well as a few hundred foreigners, according to NBC News. In 2011, US officials reported that at least 40 Muslim Americans—some of whom were recruited from the vibrant Somali American community in Minnesota—as well as 20 Canadians, were fighting for al-Shabaab. One of the terrorist group’s top leaders, who was killed this summer, was a “rapping Jihadist” from Alabama named Omar Hammami. Al-Shabaab also claims that three of the gunmen who stormed the Nairobi mall over the weekend were Americans, but the FBI is still investigating.

Wait…Somalia? Are members of al-Shabaab the infamous Somali pirates?

Somali pirates. Not al-Shabaab.

No. According to the Council on Foreign Relations, there is no direct connection between al-Shabaab and the Somali pirates, who in the last eight years have hijacked boats from more than 100 countries, held at least 3,740 crewmembers hostage, and thwarted climate change research. In general, the pirates are primarily focused on money, not jihadist ideology. However, as al-Shabaab has become increasingly desperate for funding, it has entered into financial agreements with the pirates.

So where does the group get its money? In 2011, the United Nations reported that al-Shabaab was getting between $70-$100 million per year by collecting taxes from the areas it controls. Until 2012, for example, al-Shabaab ran the port city of Kismayo, and it made a bunch of money from a racketeering business that exploited the city’s thriving coal industry. But after foreign forces kicked the group out of Somalia’s capital and Kismayo, it lost much of this revenue. The BBC says that Eritrea is now the group’s only ally in the region, although the country’s government has denied sending arms to al-Shabaab. (Google: Where is Eritrea?) According to the Council on Foreign Relations, the group also gets funding from kidnapping operations and allied terrorist groups.

What damage has al-Shabaab done in Somalia? In the areas al-Shabaab controls, the government stones women who commit adultery, cuts off the limbs of people who steal, and forces young boys to fight in battle. Somalia is home to one of the world’s most dire food crises, but al-Shabaab has “denied the existence of the famine, diverted water from poor villages, and kept food away from the people who need it most,” according to The New Republic. The group has launched a wave of deadly suicide bombing attacks across Somalia over the last few years—including one earlier this month that killed 15 people in a crowded restaurant. The US State Department notes that al-Shabaab is responsible for the assassination of Somali peace activists, international aid workers, numerous civil society figures, and journalists.

When else has al-Shabaab launched terrorist attacks abroad? Outside of the attack in Nairobi, the group’s biggest terrorist incident abroad occurred in 2010, when al-Shabaab mounted a coordinated wave of suicide bombs that killed more than 70 people in Uganda during the World Cup. Al-Shabaab has been blamed for attacking a bus station and a bar in Nairobi in 2011—injuring more than 20 people—and using grenades to kill at least six people in March at a Nairobi bus station, according to Reuters.

Is al-Shabaab a danger to the United States? The group’s leader, Ahmed Abdi Godaneâ&#128;&#139;, has threatened to attack the United States—but whether it can is debatable. Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), the ranking Republican on the Homeland Security Committee, told CBS’s Face the Nation that Al Qaeda is “on the rise, as you can see from Nairobi.” The American Enterprise Institute’s Katherine Zimmerman testified that “any strategy to counter the Al Qaeda network must recognize the role of these local groups in strengthening the network.”

But foreign policy experts point out that in many ways al-Shabaab is on the decline. The group has been pounded by the Kenyan and Ethiopian militaries and suffers from internal feuding. According to the Combating Terrorism Center at West, “the militant group has transformed from a Sharia-enforcing body to a weakened band of insurgents…It has ceased to be a viable political alternative to the Somali government.” Slate notes that this could mean the group will start turning its focus to foreign targets, rather than attempting to govern a failed state. But for now, the Obama administration is not proposing any further US military action against the group (it’s already doing drone strikes). “It’s not a question of either direct action or playing a supporting role,” National Security Council spokesman Jonathan Lalley told CBC. “Our approach has been to work to enable and support African partners.”


How Dangerous Is Al-Shabaab, the Group Behind the Kenya Mall Massacre?

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Don’t expect that hybrid minivan any time soon

Don’t expect that hybrid minivan any time soon

ToyotaThe Toyota Estima Hybrid. The Japanese text translates to “Ha ha, you can’t have one.”

For years, Grist readers have yearned, ached, and virtually begged for a hybrid minivan. Sorry, folks. Keep dreaming.

Toyota has sold its Estima Hybrid minivan (44 mpg) in Japan since 2001, but it has no plans to sell a hybrid or plug-in minivan in the U.S., a spokesperson tells the Chicago Tribune.

Why not? Green-car expert Jim Motovalli explains:

I have brought up the concept of a plug-in hybrid minivan several times to automakers, and they always dismiss it. Their claim: Minivans are big and boxy, and the fuel economy wouldn’t improve that much with a hybrid drivetrain. Plus, they’d be expensive (the Estima is $50,000). Besides, that segment of the market is really not that big, they say.

Tribune writer Robert Duffer speculates that Americans are just too demanding:

We want fuel economy but we want power and the ability to carry a lot of weight. All of these factors would reduce the effectiveness of a hybrid or plug-in on fuel economy. Other speculation on car forums clamoring for the hybrid minivan is that it wouldn’t meet stringent U.S. safety requirements. It would end up weighing about the same as the Toyota Sienna, again reducing the effectiveness of its hybrid gains.

On top of that, “Minivan owners are among the most cost-conscious shoppers, prizing utility and value.” Demanding and cheap.

Plus minivans are totally out now:

According to CNBC in March, minivans are on the decline, making up just three percent of total auto sales. Only 500,000 were sold in 2012. In 2000, there were 1.37 million sold.

Ford and Chevy don’t even make a minivan anymore. … It’s all about the crossover, or CUV, these days. It’s neither minivan nor wagon nor sport utility vehicle, shaking off the stigmas of each into its own hip sub-class. CUVs are more fuel efficient than SUVs, sharper looking than minivans and more versatile in terms of passengers than a wagon.

Car shoppers who want both roominess and efficiency could consider the crossover Ford C-Max Hybrid — “a mini minivan,” as Duffer puts it. Except that Ford just had to lower the car’s fuel-economy numbers this week and send “goodwill” checks to disgruntled customers. D’oh.

Lisa Hymas is senior editor at Grist. You can follow her on Twitter and Google+.

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Don’t expect that hybrid minivan any time soon

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Disinfecting wipes are clogging the nation’s sewer systems

Disinfecting wipes are clogging the nation’s sewer systems

Don’t believe everything you read.

Disinfecting toilet wipes may feel soft on the skin, but they’re really rough on sewage infrastructure.

Manufacturers like Cottonelle and Charmin claim the bathroom wipes are flushable, but wastewater treatment agencies around the U.S. disagree, saying the wipes are clogging up systems. From USA Today:

“It’s getting to be more and more of a problem,” says Marty Sunderman, superintendent for the city of Sauk Centre, Minn. This spring, the city had to hire a contractor to vacuum out a lift station to remove a truckload of cloth material.

“Ideally, what we’d like to see flushed down the system is just toilet paper,” Sunderman says. “When you put these type of rags down there, they don’t come apart. They just stay with it all the way to the pumps.”

The same problem is happening “all over the country,” says Cynthia Finley, director of regulatory affairs for the National Association of Clean Water Agencies (NACWA) .

“Consumers are being told by the packaging that these things are flushable,” Finley says. Although the material might make it through the toilet and the pipes leading away from the house, they tend to clog up once in the sewer system, she says.

If that weren’t bad enough, Grist advice columnist Umbra Fisk points out that many bathroom wipes contain a cocktail of chemicals that can cause rashes, itching, or worse.

All that trouble from a product that no one actually needs. Stick to the TP.

John Upton is a science fan and green news boffin who tweets, posts articles to Facebook, and blogs about ecology. He welcomes reader questions, tips, and incoherent rants:

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23 Definitions from the New National Security Dictionary

Mother Jones

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This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

In the months after September 11, 2001, it was regularly said that “everything” had changed. It’s a claim long forgotten, buried in everyday American life. Still, if you think about it, in the decade-plus that followed—the years of the PATRIOT Act, “enhanced interrogation techniques,” “black sites,” robot assassination campaigns, extraordinary renditions, the Abu Ghraib photos, the Global War on Terror, and the first cyberwar in history—much did change in ways that should still stun us. Perhaps nothing changed more than the American national security state, which, spurred on by 9/11 and the open congressional purse strings that followed, grew in ways that would have been alien even at the height of the Cold War, when there was another giant, nuclear-armed imperial power on planet Earth.

Unfortunately, the language we use to describe the world of the national security state is still largely stuck in the pre-9/11 era. No wonder, for example, it’s hard to begin to grasp the staggering size and changing nature of the world of secret surveillance that Edward Snowden’s recent revelations have allowed us a peek at. If there are no words available to capture the world that is watching us, all of us, we’ve got a problem.

In ancient China, when a new dynasty came to power, it would perform a ceremony called “the rectification of names.” The idea was that the previous dynasty had, in part, fallen because a gap, a chasm, an abyss, had opened between reality and the names available to describe it. Consider this dispatch, then, a first attempt to “rectify” American names in the era of the ascendant national—morphing into global—security state.

Creating a new dictionary of terms is, of course, an awesome undertaking. From the moment work began, it famously took 71 years for the full 10-volume Oxford English Dictionary to first appear! So we at TomDispatch expect to be at work on our new project for years to come. Here, however, is an initial glimpse at a modest selection of our newly rectified definitions.

Secret: Anything of yours the government takes possession of and classifies.

Classification: The process of declaring just about any document produced by any branch of the US government—92 million of them in 2011—unfit for unclassified eyes. (This term may, in the near future, be retired once no documents produced within, or captured by, the government and its intelligence agencies can be seen or read by anyone not given special clearance.)

Surveillance: Here’s looking at you, kid.

Whistleblower: A homegrown terrorist.

Leak: Information homegrown terrorists slip to journalists to undermine the American way of life and aid and abet the enemy. A recent example would be the National Security Agency (NSA) documents Booz Allen employee Edward Snowden leaked to the media. According to two unnamed US intelligence officials speaking to the Associated Press, “Members of virtually every terrorist group, including core al-Qaida, are attempting to change how they communicate, based on what they are reading in the media of Snowden’s revelations, to hide from US surveillance.” A clarification: two anonymous intelligence officials communicating obviously secret material to AP reporter Kimberly Dozier does not qualify as a “leak,” but as necessary information for Americans to absorb. In addition, those officials undoubtedly had further secret intelligence indicating that their information, unlike Snowden’s, would be read only by Americans and ignored by al-Qaeda-style terrorists who will not change their actions based on it. As a result, this cannot qualify as aiding or abetting the enemy.

Journalist: Someone who aids and abets terrorists, traitors, defectors, and betrayers hidden within our government as they work to accomplish their grand plan to undermine the security of the country.

Source: Someone who tells a journalist what no one, other than the NSA, the CIA, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and similar outfits, should know (see “secret”). Such a source will be hunted down and prosecuted to the full extent of the law—or beyond (see “Espionage Act”). Fortunately, as Associated Press president Gary Pruitt recently pointed out, thanks to diligent government action, sources are drying up. (“Some of our longtime trusted sources have become nervous and anxious about talking to us, even on stories that aren’t about national security. And in some cases, government employees that we once checked in with regularly will no longer speak to us by phone, and some are reluctant to meet in person.”) Someday, they may no longer exist. When an unnamed administration official offers information privately to a journalist, however, he or she is not a source—just too humble to take credit for feeding us crucial information needed to understand the complex world we live in.

Blood: This is what leakers have on their hands. A leak, embarrassing the national security state, endangers careers (bloody enough) and, by definition, American lives. Thus, Bradley Manning, in releasing classified State Department and US military documents to WikiLeaks, and Edward Snowden, in releasing NSA secrets to the Guardian, the Washington Post, the South China Morning Post, and Der Spiegel have blood on their hands. We know this because top US officials have told us so. Note that it does not matter if no deaths or physical injuries can directly be traced to or attributed to their actions. This is, however, a phrase with very specific and limited application. American political and military officials who launch aggressive wars, allow torture, kidnapping, and abuse, run drone assassination programs, and the like do not have blood on their hands. It is well known that they are bloodless.

Insider Threat Program: The name of an Obama administration initiative to promote patriotism inside the government. Its goal is to encourage federal employees to become more patriotic by picking up on clues that potentially traitorous co-workers might consider leaking classified information to the enemy (see “journalist”). Government managers, again to promote love of country, are encouraged to crack down on any employees who are found not to have been patriotic enough to report their suspicions about said co-workers. (Words never to be associated with this program: informer, rat, or fink.)

Patriot: Americans are by nature “patriots.” If they love their country too well like (to take but one example) former Vice President Dick Cheney, they are “super-patriots.” Both of these are good things. Foreigners cannot be patriots. If they exhibit an unseemly love of country, they are “nationalists.” If that love goes beyond all bounds, they are “ultra-nationalists.” These are both bad things.

Espionage Act: A draconian World War I law focused on aiding and abetting the enemy in wartime that has been used more than twice as often by the Obama administration as by all previous administrations combined. Since 9/11, the United States has, of course, been eternally “at war,” which makes the Act handy indeed. Whistleblowers automatically violate the Act when they bring to public’s attention information Americans really shouldn’t bother their pretty little heads about. It may be what an investigative reporter (call him “Glenn Greenwald”) violates when he writes stories based on classified information from the national security state not leaked by the White House.

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23 Definitions from the New National Security Dictionary

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Why the Digital Revolution Won’t be a Rerun of the Industrial Revolution

Mother Jones

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Whenever you talk about smart machines taking all our jobs, the usual pushback is that you’re being a Luddite—an argument that’s especially appropriate this year since it’s the 200th anniversary of the end of the Luddite movement. (Well, the 200th anniversary of the trial and conviction of the alleged ringleaders, anyway.) The basic argument is that all those skilled weavers in 1813 thought that power looms would put them out of jobs, but they were right only in the most limited way. In the long run, those power looms raised standards of living so much that everyone found jobs somewhere else (working in steel mills, building cars, operating power looms, etc.). So there was nothing to worry about after all.

But the Digital Revolution won’t be a rerun of the Industrial Revolution. I take a crack at explaining this in “Welcome, Robot Overlords,” and it turns out that Karl Smith was an easy sell because he already believes the same thing. Here’s his take:

Creating things is a matter of rearranging atoms. Broadly speaking, you need two things to do this — a power system to overcome the gravitational and electromagnetic forces that tend to hold atoms in their relative positions and a control system to guarantee that atoms wind up in the right place.

The industrial revolution was about one thing — more power! But, more power means the need for more control. Hence, the Industrial Revolution meant a rapid increase in the demand for human brains, not decrease.

Smart machines provide both the power system and the control system in one convenient package. You can still argue that displaced humans will end up doing something else—we just don’t know what yet—but it’s a tough argument to win. If you agree that artificial intelligence will be real someday soon, then by definition smart machines will be able to do just about anything that humans can do. The answer to “Humans will do X,” for any value of X, is “But robots can do that too.” That wasn’t true of the Industrial Revolution.

If you don’t believe that AI is around the corner, then there’s no argument to have here (aside from why you think AI is so far off). But if you do, then we have some serious questions to ponder about the future of work, the future of money, and the future of democracy. That’s what my piece is mainly about.

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Why the Digital Revolution Won’t be a Rerun of the Industrial Revolution

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