Hello and welcome to Wednesday Signal. Today, we examine Europe's next big fault line, pick through the remains of the Islamic State, and ask what a retiring central Asian strongman can teach Vladimir Putin. We've also got some Twitter accounts we're ignoring and the usual hard numbers below.
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– Kevin (@kevinallison)
Chinese President Xi Jinping will arrive in Rome tomorrow ready to plant a flag in the heart of Europe. Italy is expected to break with most other advanced economies by formally signing onto Beijing's $1.3 trillion global Belt and Road (BRI) infrastructure initiative.
Announced in 2013, BRI aims to boost China's trade and international clout through massive new investments in roads, railways, and ports across the world. Italy's decision to sign onto the initiative – the centerpiece of Beijing's plans to overtake the US as the dominant global economic power of the 21st century – is controversial.
Brussels and Washington don't like it at all, because they fear that if Italy takes loans from China it could end up in a dangerous web of debt that exposes it to pressure from Beijing. After all, Italy is already Europe's second most indebted country, and unlike much smaller economies like Greece, a systemic crisis there could unravel the entire Eurozone.
Within Rome too there is some disagreement: Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio, of the centrist 5Star Movement, is all for closer relations with Beijing, but the far-right Interior Minister Matteo Salvini is more skeptical.
Still, Chinese cash solves a pressing problem for their populist governing coalition. Clashes with Brussels over budget parameters have forced Messrs. Di Maio and Salvini to backtrack on their campaign promises to cut taxes and boost social spending. Delivering new infrastructure with Chinese money could be a big political winner, especially after a high-profile bridge collapse last year.
More broadly, Europe is already having trouble finding consensus on how to approach China's tech investments, 5G equipment suppliers, and infrastructure investments. The smaller economies of Central and Eastern Europe welcome the cash, while most of the larger economies are concerned about the financial and security implications of Chinese capital. EU members are scheduled to meet on Friday to discuss a common approach to Chinese investment into the bloc. To which we say, in bocca al lupo!
The bottom line: The decision of the bloc's fourth largest economy to embrace Beijing has just opened up a major new fault line within Europe.
China's Belt and Road infrastructure initiative is one of the most ambitious geopolitical projects ever. By 2027, it aims to dish out an estimated $1.3 trillion in loans, around ten times what the US spent on the Marshall Plan in the aftermath of World War II. As China increases its investment in the West, will countries' loyalty shift toward Beijing? Here's a look at the already staggering scope of its agenda.
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As you read this, US-backed Syrian and Kurdish forces are killing or capturing the last few Islamic State militants holding out in a fingernail-shaped sliver of riverbank in eastern Syria. It's all that remains of the caliphate declared by the Islamist extremist group across a swath of Syria and neighboring Iraq in 2014.
Despite being on the back foot territorially, here are three ways that ISIS will continue to rile global politics:
Returning fighters: Experts estimate that up to 40,000 foreigners from 110 countries traveled to Syria and Iraq to fight for the caliphate, marry into ISIS, or accompany family members. Over 4,000 EU citizens are thought to have made the trip, along with a few hundred Americans and thousands of people from the Balkans, the Caucasus, and other geopolitical hot spots. Many of the fighters who weren't killed have already returned home, creating a massive headache for security services and law enforcement. Thousands more are sitting in Kurdish detention camps awaiting news about where they'll be sent next. Distinguishing between regretful and repentant hangers-on and truly dangerous fighters is a legal and political nightmare that's already creating fissures between the US and Europe.
The next (cr)ISIS: The black flag of ISIS may no longer be waving over the Syrian desert, but it is flying over an ISIS enclave on the southern Philippine island of Basilan, where a group of militants claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing at a cathedral in January. ISIS-linked groups are also active in Nigeria, Sudan, Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Bangladesh, and stretches of northern Africa and the Sahel. While they may not have the same access to oil revenues that once enabled ISIS to take on the trappings of an actual state, these pockets of fighters remain a potent security threat.
The virtual caliphate: While ISIS may not have much territory in the world, it's still got real estate on the web, where it remains a force on social media despite some progress in stamping out the viral spread of its gruesome and well-produced propaganda. EU security czar Julian King warned as recently as November that the group is still entrenched on social media, despite losing its grip on its physical territory. As we recently saw in the live-streamed New Zealand mosque massacre – clips of which are still circulating on the web – fully stamping out extremist material is a Sisyphean task.
As long as there are disaffected young Muslims, the virtual caliphate will continue to attract and radicalize adherents and inspire publicity-seeking acts of violence. The risk now is that, rather than being inspired to join an Islamist utopia in the Mesopotamian desert, even more people will be inspired to commit acts of violence at home.
Yesterday, President Donald Trump and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro got to the bottom of the South American leader's recent X-rated tweets. Watch the exclusive footage here.
What we are watching
A retiring strongman in Kazakhstan – Since 1989, one man has ruled the massive, oil-rich Central Asian republic of Kazakhstan. That is, until yesterday, when Nursultan Nazarbayev resigned as president and put a close ally in charge until new elections are called. The 78-year old Kazakh leader was rumored to have been planning a transition for more than two years, putting allies in key posts, weakening the power of the presidency, and bolstering the clout of the country's Security Council, which he will still head. But the exact timing came as a surprise. We're watching this story – not just because it's a rare example of a strongman leaving power of his own will, but because we suspect Vladimir Putin is watching, too. The hardy 66-year-old Russian leader needs to figure out what he'll do when his current term expires in 2024. The constitution says Putin can't run again. Is Nazarbayev charting a path that Putin can follow?
A suspicious death in Italy – Italian authorities are investigating the suspicious demise of Imane Fadil, a 34-year-old Moroccan model who died in Milan earlier this month – apparently with high levels of toxic metals in her blood that could indicate poisoning. Fadil was a frequent guest at ex-Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's infamous bunga-bunga sex parties, and was a key witness in his 2013 trial on underage sex allegations. Adding to the intrigue, Fadil was due to testify at another upcoming court case. Apart from all of this, her death could have an immediate impact on Italian politics: Italy's right-wing Lega party is now less likely to call a snap election this summer, because the Fadil case taints Berlusconi's Forza Italia party, the group that Lega would ideally like to team up with in order to gain a majority in parliament.
What we are ignoring
The Scent of Fascism – In a new commercial out of Israel, a beautiful woman glides through arty black and white scenes like a model, purring about putting new limits on the judiciary, and spritzing herself with a perfume called "fascism." Hot stuff, right? But this isn't just a sultry model hawking a designer fragrance – it's the country's right-wing Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, who has incensed the left with her bid to curtail the power of courts, which she says are too liberal. At the end of the spoof ad, which is meant to promote her New Right party ahead of upcoming elections, Skaked takes whiff of the perfume and tells viewers: "Smells like democracy to me." We are ignoring this bid to put her party's name back in the headlines because the fascism joke just isn't funny.
Devin Nunes' Mom – Devin Nunes, a Republican Congressman from California, has filed a lawsuit seeking $250 million in damages against a Twitter personality who goes by the handle @DevinNunesMom, other users of the popular messaging platform, and Twitter itself. According to a copy of the complaint uploaded by Fox News, Nunes, the ardent Trump supporter who used to chair the House Intelligence Committee, says @DevinNunesMom engaged in slander by calling him "presidential fluffer and swamp rat," and claiming he was "voted Most Likely To Commit Treason in high school," among other digital insults. The suit also accused Twitter of suppressing conservative viewpoints – an argument that other Republicans have used to put political pressure on the company. We'll be watching how that argument plays out, but we are ignoring @DevinNunesMom. Judging by the massive jump in followers that @DevinNunesMom has received since the case was filed, by the time this is all over, we're pretty sure Congressman Nunes will wish he had done so, too.
2.5 million: The United Nations estimates that up to 2.5 million people need assistance after a cyclone brought powerful winds and massive flooding to Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe this week, sparking fears of a humanitarian crisis in one of the continent's poorest regions.
800: More than 800 different versions of a video showing the New Zealand mosque shooter's terrorist attack have been uploaded to the internet since last Friday, according to a group that tracks such things – illustrating the difficulties facing governments and companies that want to stamp out violent propaganda online.
7: South Africa is facing a seventh-straight day of rolling blackouts as the country's outdated power plants struggle to meet demand. The outages will put further pressure on President Cyril Ramaphosa and his ruling African National Congress party ahead of elections later this year.
9: It is now 9 days until the UK is scheduled to exit the European Union. We should know soon whether the EU will agree to an extension, and for how long – but only if the UK can decide what it wants first.