12/6/19

It's Willis with your Friday edition of Signal. Today, we'll consider the future of ISIS fighters and their families, tag a Ukrainian plan to wall off the East, dodge teargas canisters in France, and keep Kim Jong-un away from our reindeer.

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Cheers,

Willis Sparks

Should ISIS fighters and families be allowed home?

FILE PHOTO: Children look through holes in a tent at al-Hol displacement camp in Hasaka governorate

Turkey's government has captured many thousands of ISIS fighters as a result of its operations in northern Syria. Many of these prisoners have already been deported to some of the more than 100 countries they come from, and Ankara says it intends to send more. There are also more than 10,000 women and children – family members of ISIS fighters – still living in camps inside Syria.

These facts create a dilemma for the governments of countries where the ISIS detainees are still citizens: Should these terrorist fighters and their families be allowed to return, in many cases to face trial back home? Or should countries refuse to allow them back?


Consider the best arguments from both sides…

Accept them:

  • Repatriated fighters and their families should stand trial for membership in a terrorist organization at home, and the guilty should go to jail. That's better than allowing them to remain at large.
  • Some of these ISIS fighters and their families were brainwashed. Others, particularly some of the women, were coerced to join a fight they wanted no part of. Yes, many of those who claim to be victims are lying, but it's better to allow a guilty person to return home to stand trial than to leave an innocent person to a potentially terrible fate they don't deserve.
  • Then there are the children, thousands of whom were born in Syria. They're guilty of nothing. Many of these children are sick, malnourished, and at risk of death inside overcrowded and dangerous refugee camps, which are also centers of radicalization.
  • Governments must abide by their own laws. Many of the fighters and their family members are still citizens of the countries they left, and citizens have rights. In many countries, the children of citizens are also considered citizens, even if they were born elsewhere.

Reject them:

  • A citizen who declares war on his or her own government and carries out or enables the murder of innocent people should forfeit some rights—including the right of citizenship.
  • It's true that some of these people may have been tricked or coerced into a war they didn't want, but how are courts in their countries of origin expected to separate fact from fiction.
  • It is not the responsibility of governments to rescue people from their own bad decisions.
  • Government has responsibility to protect all its citizens, not just those who chose a life of terrorism. On December 1, Usman Khan stabbed two people to death and wounded three others on London Bridge. Khan was a convicted terrorist, though not directly affiliated with ISIS, who was released after serving less than half of his 16-year prison sentence because he was judged to have been rehabilitated.

The Bottom Line: This debate will become more important in dozens of countries around the world in coming months and years, because the detention of thousands of people in camps in countries that don't want them is unsustainable.

What's the right answer? Tell us what you think.

Graphic Truth

The collapse of the Islamic State's self-declared caliphate in Iraq and Syria has given rise to a host of new challenges for governments around the world. Turkey has captured thousands of ISIS fighters as a result of its offensive in northern Syria, many of whom are foreign nationals who left their home countries to fight with the Islamic State. To date, non-Middle East countries have mostly opposed ISIS fighters returning home, leaving them, and their spouses and children, in legal limbo. Here's a look at where these foreign fighters come from.

The fair of change in Sanzule

The Business and Market Fair that recently took place in Sanzule, Ghana featured local crops, livestock and manufactured goods, thanks in part to the Livelihood Restoration Plan (LRP), one of Eni's initiatives to diversify the local economy. The LRP program provided training and support to start new businesses to approximately 1,400 people from 205 households, invigorating entrepreneurship in the community.

Learn more at Eniday: Energy Is A Good Story

What We're Watching: Kim Jong-un as Santa

Kim Jong-un as Santa – With US nuclear talks stalled, Kim Jong-un has been trying to grab President Trump's attention in recent months by, for example, lobbing more rockets into the Sea of Japan, and today making good on threats to again call Trump a "dotard." But North Korea's supreme leader is also trying out some scary Santa shtick. This week, a North Korean official criticized efforts to restart the nuclear talks and said (ominously) that it's "entirely up to the US what Christmas gift it will select to get." We ignored his "Epitome of Civilization Village" in our Wednesday edition, but we admit we're curious to see what stunt Kim might dream up next.


A Ukrainian wall? – Next week, the leaders of Ukraine, Russia, Germany, and France will meet for the first time in more than three years to discuss the war in eastern Ukraine between Ukrainian troops and Russian-backed separatists, which has so far killed more than 13,000 people. A senior advisor to President Volodymyr Zelensky warned this week that Ukraine might build a wall to separate the Russia-backed breakaway provinces of Donetsk and Luhansk from the rest of Ukraine unless the Kremlin agrees to a ceasefire and prisoner swap. Failure to reach an agreement next week will again raise a painful question for Ukrainians: Should Ukraine recognize the renegade provinces as independent in order to deprive Russia of its foothold in Ukraine? Or do the Ukrainian people believe that such a surrender of territory is unthinkable?

France on strike - Nationwide protests against proposed pension reforms have brought France to a standstill for a second day, shutting down Paris' sprawling public transport system and leaving schools and hospitals unstaffed. The strikes – dubbed "black Thursday" by French media – started when President Emmanuel Macron announced plans to overhaul France's 42 separate retirement schemes in order to offset the country's ballooning deficit. France has one of the world's most generous pension systems, and French politicians tinker with it at their peril. For now, Macron is going full steam ahead (unlike last year, when he dropped a fuel tax hike because of the Yellow Vest protests). But growing social discontent is still his biggest challenge. After last year's protests he softened up his image and returned from the political dead, but can Macron defuse this latest crisis and keep the calm for another two years to win re-election?

Kashmiris lose WhatsApp – This week, at least one million Kashmiris had their WhatsApp accounts suddenly wiped from the platform, and no one knew why. It soon became clear that the Facebook-owned messaging app automatically disables accounts after 120 days of inactivity. Why were so many Kashmiris inactive for so long? Because four months ago India's government revoked the legal autonomy of Kashmir— India's only Muslim-majority state – and shut down the region's phone and internet communications, making it impossible for Kashmiris to use WhatsApp. India is WhatsApp's largest single market, and many Kashmiris rely on it to communicate with dispersed family and friends. Now they will be doubly cut off from their loved ones beyond Kashmir's borders.

What We're Ignoring

Sisi vs Tuktuk – The Egyptian government wants to do away with tuk-tuks, the popular motorized rickshaws that careen through the capital's streets, beeping and blaring Arab pop music. They pollute, yes. And they are a nuisance for some drivers, yes. But they are also a source of informal livelihood and transport for millions of lower-income people in one of the world's most crowded cities. Ya raagel, as they say in Egypt, this seems like a battle the government isn't going to win easily.

GZERO World: Does NATO still have a purpose?

Is NATO still relevant 70 years after its founding and 30 years since the end of the Cold War? Adm. James Stavridis, former supreme allied commander of the alliance, has some thoughts about the ties that still bind. See his conversation with Ian Bremmer on GZERO WORLD here.

Hard Numbers: China's trust deficit with its neighbors

78: An overwhelming majority of Americans think that divisiveness in US politics is a big problem, with 78 percent of those surveyed saying that national political leaders are responsible for promoting "a mostly destructive public debate," according to a recent Public Agenda/USA Today/Ipsos poll.


58: In one of the deadliest tragedies this year among migrants trying to reach Europe by sea, 58 people died Thursday when a boat from Gambia carrying 150 migrants capsized off the West African coast of Mauritania. It's the second shipwreck involving migrants headed to European shores in less than two weeks.

105 million: The Trump administration has lifted an unexplained freeze on a $105 million aid package to Lebanon. It's unclear why the cash was held up last week, but some congressional officials said it was out of fear that funds could flow to Hezbollah, the politically influential Iran-backed Shiite group, which has the largest bloc in parliament.

59: While China's influence is largely seen as positive in many emerging markets, this is not the case among its neighbors in the Asia-Pacific: on average, 59 percent of those surveyed across Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, and India think that investment from China is risky, giving Beijing too much influence over their economies.

Dueling Words of Wisdom

"The facts are uncontested. The president abused his power for his own political benefit at the expense of our national security, by withholding military aid and a crucial Oval Office meeting in exchange for an announcement for an investigation into his political rival."

— US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, announcing that the House of Representatives will proceed with articles of impeachment against President Donald Trump.

"The Do Nothing Democrats … have no impeachment case and are demeaning our Country. But nothing matters to them, they have gone crazy."

— President Trump, in response.


This edition of Signal was written by Willis Sparks, Gabrielle Debinski, and Kevin Allison. Editorial support from Alex Kliment.. Graphics magic by Paige Fusco. Happy birthday to Alfred Eisenstaedt, pioneer of photojournalism.

12/4/19

Hello there,

Today we wonder what would bust the deadlock on climate change, check on Trump's new trade tiffs, and open a can of potent Italian "Sardines." Plus, a growing crisis in Zimbabwe, and a trip to peak civilization in North Korea.

Follow us on Facebook and Instagram.

- Kevin and the crew

Disrupting climate change: What's it gonna take?

U.N. climate change conference (COP25) in Madrid

This week, delegates from around the world are in Madrid to try – yet again – to hammer out a plan to address climate change. Four years ago, world leaders agreed in Paris to cap and then reduce greenhouse gas emissions to stave off the worst effects of global warming, but they left the details TBD. Today, CO2 levels are still rising, President Donald Trump has begun the process of withdrawing the US from the Paris Accord, and other governments haven't yet agreed on how to get emissions down. Spoiler alert: the meetings in Madrid are unlikely to change that.


The reasons are familiar by now: Rich countries are reluctant to give up the cheap and/or convenient coal, oil, and gas that power their economies. Poorer countries think it's unfair that they should have to swear off fossil fuels before they've had a chance to grow rich themselves. And policies like fuel taxes or carbon pricing, which are meant to cut emissions and boost renewable energy, are politically unpopular almost everywhere in the world.

But a more interesting question is: What could disrupt this political dynamic? Here are three ways the logjam could break:

1. Innovation: There's no one silver bullet here, but breakthroughs in wind, solar, energy storage, carbon capture, and new approaches to nuclear power all have the potential to bring costs of cleaner energy down. And don't forget artificial intelligence, which can make all of these technologies work better. As the digital revolution rolls on, and the pace of technological breakthroughs quickens, it could shake up the politics of climate change by lowering one of the key hurdles to a political agreement on climate — the cost of transitioning away from fossil fuels — much faster than expected.

2. The return of "great power competition": A new focus on strategic economic competition with China – which is directing massive state investments towards clean energy tech both at home and abroad – is pushing Western governments to more actively invest in green technologies themselves. Brussels' new "Green Deal" (a plan to make Europe climate neutral by 2050, while creating millions of new jobs and transforming its economy along the way) isn't just about cleaner energy, it's also partly about preventing French and German jobs from being siphoned off by Chinese companies that are angling to produce the next generation of wind turbines and smarter power grids. Even the US might eventually come around to a "Moon shot" project to boost investment in new energy technologies if the competition with Beijing gets serious enough.

3. A (financial) climate crisis: While many politicians seem unmoved by alarming headlines about raging wildfires and the potential for "catastrophic" global warming, it'll be a lot harder to ignore climate change when a natural disaster sparks a financial crisis. Think: insurers refusing to rebuild California towns torched by wildfires, or a city unable to take out insurance or borrow in the bond market after a major hurricane. When the people with the money start to get concerned enough about climate change, the politicians will follow.

Of course, relying on a huge technology breakthrough or another plot twist to get leaders to agree to a workable plan for tackling climate risks isn't a great strategy. But it may be the best shot the planet has to break the political deadlock that is allowing the world to grow hotter and hotter.

Graphic Truth

In recent years, international forums for accelerating action on climate change have turned into finger pointing exercises about which countries should do the heavy-lifting when it comes to tackling global warming. The US and China are usually deemed the worst culprits because they produce the most carbon dioxide in absolute terms, accounting for a combined 42 percent of global pollution. But population and economy size are two major determinants of a country's carbon footprint. When CO2 emissions are considered on a per-capita basis, for instance, China doesn't even make the top ten. Here's a comparative look at the countries that pollute the most.

How AI is helping unlock information about melting glaciers

The Earth is warming. The extent and the effect of this change is experienced differently across the planet, but there is much work to be done before we understand it. Dr. Joseph Cook, a Microsoft AI for Earth grant recipient, and his team are looking into some of the toughest questions around climate change — why are things heating up the way they are? What, if anything, can be done about glacial melting?

For more, follow Microsoft on the Issues on Twitter.

What We're Watching: Trump targeting trade

Trump Targeting Trade – This week, President Trump has again become very aggressive on trade. On Monday, he announced new tariffs on steel and aluminum from Argentina and Brazil in response to what he called "massive devaluation of their currencies." Then the administration threatened tariffs on $2.4 billion of French imports in response to a new digital-services tax imposed by France. On Tuesday, Trump said during the NATO summit in London that "I like the idea of waiting until after the [US] election" in November 2020 for a deal that would resolve the massive trade fight with China, a comment that, given the enormous economic stakes, sent markets tumbling. Perhaps Trump feels confident after a robust month of November for US equity markets. Maybe his advisors want him to push now while the rally continues and before election-year pressures kick in. Either way, we're watching to see how long this posture will last and what sort of impact it might have.


Hunger in Zimbabwe – Food scarcity has become so dire in the landlocked African country of Zimbabwe that it poses a serious threat to national security, a UN envoy has warned. Skyrocketing inflation and recurrent droughts are pushing many Zimbabweans to the brink of starvation. Currently, 60 percent of the population is considered "food insecure" and nearly 8 million people are dependent on international food aid – with much of the problem man-made. The United Nations World Food Programme says it will double the number of Zimbabweans it helps to more than 4 million, but that's only half of those in need. As people grow more desperate, fears of civil unrest, and in turn, a brutal government crackdown– a common response to dissent in Zimbabwe – are growing.

Italian "Sardines" – That's what students who have packed themselves into city squares in Milan and other cities in Italy in recent weeks to protest former deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini's anti-immigrant, nationalist rhetoric are calling themselves. What started as a hastily-arranged flash mob is showing signs of morphing into something bigger ahead of what could be a pivotal regional election in the northern Italian region of Emilia Romagna next month. Despite being just a few weeks old, the Sardines have amassed 200,000 followers on Facebook. They've also left Salvini – a master at delivering barbs to his opponents on social media – uncharacteristically tongue-tied and struggling to respond to a group that's taken aim both at him personally and his in-your-face, populist brand of politics. We're watching this story to see where the Sardines swim from here, because the last organic popular movement to emerge in Italian politics – the 5-Star movement – eventually ended up in government.

What We're Ignoring

Kim Jong-Un's Potemkin village – On Tuesday, North Korea's leader traveled to the base of Mount Paektu, the reputed birthplace of the communist dictatorship's founder Kim Il Sung, to unveil a new town. The village of Samjiyon has been described by the North Korean press as the "epitome of civilization" - complete with a ski hill, shiny new stadium, and apartments for 4,000 people. As much as we like the idea of hitting the slopes and strolling through a quaint North Korean mountain village during the holidays, we'll be skipping a trip to Samjiyon this year, not just because experts say it was likely built with forced labor, but also because it's not clear whether anyone actually lives there.

What We're Reading

"Blood and Soil in Narendra Modi's India," a gripping read by Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker, paints a disturbing picture of the Hindu-nationalist backlash against Muslims in the world's most populous democracy. We'd love to know what our readers in India and elsewhere think of the story. You can email us here.

Hard Numbers: A Kiwi crackdown on foreign political cash

20: When an image of tennis god Roger Federer is imprinted on a Swiss 20 franc silver coin in January, the 20-time Grand Slam winner will become Switzerland's first living person to have their likeness minted on a coin. Naturally, the "heads" side of the coin will show Federer executing his signature one-handed backhand.


58: Madrid may currently be hosting the UN Climate Change Conference, but 58 percent of Spaniards surveyed say they are "dissatisfied" with their country's environmental conservation efforts.

50: New Zealand's government has introduced legislation that would cap all foreign donations to political campaigns at just NZ $50 ($32 USD) in a bid to reduce foreign influence over domestic politics. Last year, the country's opposition leader was accused of failing to declare a $100,000 donation from a Chinese businessman.

208: Iranian state TV has confirmed that security forces shot and killed people in their brutal crackdown on nationwide protests last month, but said that those who died were "thugs and rioters." The broadcast didn't give a specific death toll, but the human rights watchdog Amnesty International says at least 208 people were killed.

This edition of Signal was written by Kevin Allison, Willis Sparks, and Gabrielle Debinski. Edits by Alex Kliment. Graphics magic by Ari Winkleman.

12/3/19

Hi there,

Today we'll ask what NATO is good for, worry about the future of the planet, give a performance review of Mexico's president, and question whether Iraq can form a new government.

As a bonus: what single country supplies a quarter of the world's sailors?

Let us know what you love/hate here.

-Alex Kliment

A Summit of the Brain Dead?

"The NATO states are not paying their fair share," the American president said. "We have been very generous to Europe," he continued, "and it is now time for us to look out for ourselves, knowing full well that the Europeans will not do anything for us simply because we have in the past helped them."

So said John F. Kennedy during a national security meeting with his staff in 1963.

At the time, NATO was just 14 years old. The issue of burden-sharing in the alliance was already a divisive topic, but the Soviet threat held things together. This year the alliance turned 70 – and as leaders of the bloc's 29 member states meet in London today to mark that anniversary, NATO's purpose and future are more uncertain than ever.


Three big questions hang over the summit:

First, is NATO relevant? NATO was formed in the earliest days of the Cold War as a military bloc to deter Soviet aggression. Since the USSR collapsed in 1991, the alliance has struggled to define a new purpose as unifying as that one. Is it meant to prevent Russia from doing to former Soviet-bloc NATO members what it's done to Ukraine since 2014? Is it also a Western counter-terrorism bloc? Should it also focus more on the 21st century threat of cyberwarfare? Or is it enough that it's a military alliance guaranteeing security and stability for the world's two largest economic areas (North America and the EU)?

Second, is NATO "brain dead"? French President Emmanuel Macron recently threw a (rhetorical) bomb into the alliance by warning that Washington's shakier commitment to NATO, alongside internal disagreements over NATO-member Turkey's invasion of northern Syria, had put the alliance in danger of "brain death." Macron thinks the EU must develop its own collective defense plans if it wants to stay globally relevant. Other European NATO leaders don't really agree with that (they see in it Charles De Gaulle's old ambition of a Paris-led European security order), but Macron's remarks threw a harsh light on a basic question: are there still common transatlantic values and aspirations that can hold NATO together into the future?

Third, is NATO fair? NATO member states are supposed to spend 2 percent of their GDP on defense. Currently, only seven of them reach that level, while the US spends a hefty 3.39 percent. As the Kennedy quote above shows, questions about European "freeloading" are at least three generations old, but Trump is the first president to raise this issue so openly.

NATO heads of state are expected to renew their commitment to hitting those targets this week, but the bigger questions about the alliance's future will remain. Word is that the bloc is going to appoint a council of "wise persons" on how to reform and refresh the alliance ahead of the next summit in 2021.

What do you think the point of NATO in the 21st century ought to be? Let us know, and we'll run some of your best ideas.

Graphic Truth

For almost half a century NATO and the Soviet-backed Warsaw Pact alliance glowered at each other across the Iron Curtain. But after the Soviet empire collapsed, NATO expanded further eastwards, welcoming former East Bloc members into the organization. For these countries, it was a way to anchor themselves firmly in the "West," and to protect themselves from any future Russian revanchism. But Moscow saw NATO's eastward creep as a direct challenge to Russia's sphere of influence. Tensions between Washington and Moscow over NATO persist. Here's a look at the history of the organization's expansion.

What We’re Watching: Doomed to catastrophic climate change?

U.N. climate change conference (COP25) in Madrid

The future of the planet: The 25th annual UN Climate Change Conference summit began yesterday in Madrid, just days after a new report warned that it's now basically impossible to prevent the globe from crossing the catastrophic threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures. To prevent that outcome, global emissions would need to fall 55 percent between now and 2030. That seems unlikely: the US has already ditched the main international agreement on climate policy, and large polluters like China and India don't see why they should give up fossil fuels earlier in their economic development than the US and Europe did. No wonder UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres has decried a "lack of political will." Delegates in Madrid will do their best over the next two weeks to forge new agreements that enable countries to trade the rights to emit certain amounts of carbon gas, or to offset pollution by investing in reforestation initiatives. That would be good, but without a broader commitment from the world's major economies, it may just be a drop in the (rapidly warming) ocean.


President AMLO at 1: Sunday marked one year since the inauguration of Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO), Mexico's first leftist president since the 1930s. The good news: AMLO has strengthened pensions for the elderly and government workers, created scholarships and job training for young people, cut government salaries (including his own) by more than half, and turned the presidential palace into a public park. The bad news: Mexico is on pace for 35,000 homicides in 2019, the highest total on record. That problem predates AMLO, but his strategy to deal with it hasn't inspired confidence. Meanwhile, his pledge to hit four percent GDP growth hasn't panned out: Mexico was in recession for the first half of 2019 and growth was flat in the third quarter. His approval rating has fallen from 86 percent last February to 67 percent now. That's nothing to sneeze at, but AMLO still has a lot to do to realize the most ambitious promises he made on the campaign trail.

Iraq's prime minister calls it quits: After eight weeks of protests driven by anger over political corruption, unemployment, and Iranian influence on his government, Iraq's Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi resigned over the weekend. He had faced mounting pressure to step down over his handling of the unrest, in which security forces were found to have used "excessive force" to quash protests, killing some 400 people. Mahdi will now serve in a caretaker government until a new prime minister and cabinet are approved by a parliamentary majority, but that could take months due to Iraq's dysfunctional sectarian politics. Back in 2018, after tightly contested elections, Iran helped to broker an agreement that gave Mahdi the top job – but with chants of "Iran: Out! Out! Baghdad: Free! Free!" now featuring at daily protests, any Iranian intervention could be a huge liability, exacerbating the country's political crisis.

What We're Ignoring

Bolsonaro vs DiCaprio: Brazil's pugnacious climate-skeptic President Jair Bolsonaro picked a fight with an unusual target this week, blaming actor and environmentalist Leonardo DiCaprio for the fires sweeping through the Amazon rainforest. "Cool guy, right? Giving money to torch the Amazon," Bolsonaro said on a Facebook Live broadcast Thursday, claiming that NGOs sparked the wave of forest fires in order to get DiCaprio to write a fat check as part of a publicity stunt intended to embarrass Brasilia. We're ignoring this because it's baseless, and also because the Bolsonaro administration's lax enforcement of forest preservation laws seems somehow more pertinent.

Hard Numbers: American shoppers set new records

126: Marking the Year of Return – the 400th anniversary of the beginning of the US slave trade– Ghana granted citizenship to 126 African Americans and Afro-Caribbeans last week as part of an effort to encourage slaves' descendants to return. Three quarters of the West African slave "dungeons" that held slaves before their forced journey to the Americas were based in what is now Ghana.


18: The death toll from a capsized boat carrying Libyan migrants last week has risen to 18 after five more bodies were discovered Sunday in the waters off the Italian coast. More than 1,100 migrants have died or gone missing this year while trying to make the perilous journey across the Mediterranean by boat.

9.4 billion: American consumers are projected to have spent $9.4 billion on "Cyber Monday" purchases, the highest on record and an 18.9 percent jump from a year ago, according to a retail tracking report. That's on top of the record $7.4 billion spent on "Black Friday" in the US. What were Friday's biggest selling items? Frozen 2 toys, FIFA 20 video games, and L.O.L Surprise Dolls.

400,000: Boats carry 90 percent of global trade, and a quarter of the world's 1.6m commercial seamen hail from just one country: the Philippines. The 400,000 Filipinos who ply the high seas send home about $6 billion in remittances every year. (This NYT profile of the seamen has some amazing photographs, plus you'll learn what bolitas are.)

Words of Wisdom

"People have come to these meetings intending for nothing to happen."

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on the stalled efforts to bring peace to Ukraine after five years of war with Russia.

This edition of Signal was written by Alex Kliment, Gabrielle Debinski, and Willis Sparks. The graphic was made by Gabriella Turrisi. Spiritual counsel from the young woman who said to her dad "you shouldn't skip work, you are a lawyer and he is a hamster."

Hello there,

Today we'll prep for the US Thanksgiving holiday by imagining what a few world leaders are grateful for this year. We'll keep an eye on violent clashes in Lebanon, follow Aung San Suu Kyi to the Hague, and ask whether Singapore's new fake news law is really a good idea.

Signal will be taking a break on Friday while your authors recover from their turkey comas. Normal service will resume next week.

Gobble gobble,

-Kevin and the Signalistas

What they’re thankful for

Tomorrow, millions of people will gather around dining tables across the United States to celebrate Thanksgiving – a day traditionally reserved for food, football, and reflecting on life's blessings. There'll be turkey and stuffing. And pie. But also: political conversations with relatives. To get you ready, we've imagined what some of the most important world leaders are thankful for this year:


Donald Trump: Mueller, the Ukraine scandal, impeachment proceedings. It's been a miserable year. Ok? Thankfully the economy is very, very strong – unemployment near 50-year lows, and just look at the stock market. Record highs! Senate Republicans will never vote to impeach me with the economy humming like this. So much to be grateful for, America! All thanks to me. You're welcome! Enjoy!

Vladimir Putin: On New Year's Eve I will mark 20 years in power in Russia. I am thankful to have made Russia great again after the humiliation by the West in the 1990s. I'm grateful for the internet and social media, which help me sow confusion and undermine my rivals; but most of all, this year, for the US withdrawal from Syria, which has confirmed Russia's status as a major power broker in the Middle East.

Xi Jinping: Yes, my economy is slowing. Yes, Hong Kong is a mess. And those leaked files on Uighur detention camps are terrible for China's overseas image. But I'm still the country's most powerful leader since Mao, with an ability to invest and mobilize state resources that few, if any, Western leaders can match. Thank goodness for that.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan: Gratuitous Turkey reference on Thanksgiving, huh? Ok, I'll play. Like Vlad, I'm grateful that Trump withdrew those troops from Kurdish-controlled northern Syria: without that I'd never have been able to clear the buffer zone I need to resettle millions of Syrian refugees who are causing me political headaches.

Boris Johnson: I couldn't have asked for a weaker opponent in next month's general election than my friend, Jeremy Corbyn. Three years of Brexit omnishambles should have voters lining up to punish my Tory Party when they hit the polls on December 12, but the Labour leader's hard-left policies and fence-sitting on Brexit have given Remain voters a difficult choice. If I can maintain our comfortable lead in the polls, we'll be out of the EU, with a deal, by January. Then the real negotiations over the UK's future relationship with the EU can begin. Thanks, Jeremy!

Theresa May: I'm so thankful I no longer have to deal with this.

Carrie Lam: I'm thankful that once my term is up, or Beijing finally lets me resign, no one can force me to run for Hong Kong chief executive again. Staying in Hong Kong might be tough. Maybe I can apply for one of those new UK skills visas.

Mark Zuckerberg: Sorry, this content is not available to our community right now. This year Priscilla and I have decided we'll only be sharing what we are thankful for with a small group of family and friends in an encrypted WhatsApp chat.

Preserving cultural heritage one language at a time

There are close to 7,000 languages spoken around the world today. Yet, sadly, every two weeks a language dies with its last speaker, and it is predicted that between 50% and 90% of endangered languages will disappear by next century. When a community loses a language, it loses its connection to the past – and part of its present. It loses a piece of its identity. As Microsoft thinks about protecting this heritage and the importance of preserving language, it believes that new technology can help.

For the past 14 years, Microsoft has been collaborating with te reo Māori experts and Te Taura Whiri i te Reo Māori (the Māori Language Commission) to weave te reo Māori into the technology that thousands of Kiwis use every day with the goal of ensuring it remains a living language with a strong future. The collaboration has already resulted in translations of Minecraft educational resources and it recently commissioned a game immersed entirely in the traditional Māori world, Ngā Motu (The Islands).

Read More at Microsoft On The Issues.

What We're Watching: Myanmar's Nobel Peace Prize winner at the Hague

35th ASEAN Summit in Bangkok, Thailand

Myanmar at the Hague – Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel peace prize winner who spent years under house arrest in Myanmar before being elected leader of the country in 2015, will travel to the Hague next month to defend her country against allegations of genocide. Few have been punished since the military-led crackdown on the Rohingya Muslim minority in Rakhine state in 2017, which left thousands dead and forced more than 700,000 people to flee to neighboring Bangladesh. Aung San Suu Kyi is thought to have little control over the army (a junta until recently), but she has refused to condemn its actions. Until now, Aung San Suu Kyi has defended the onslaught as a justified counterinsurgency against Muslim militants. The first public hearing at the International Court of Justice will begin on December 10.


Violent clashes in Lebanon – Clashes between Lebanese protesters and supporters of Hezbollah and Amal – the forces representing the country's large Shia population – intensified on Tuesday with reports of gunfire in some cities. The confrontations are some of the worst since protests erupted in mid-October, forcing Prime Minister Saad Hariri to step down. And they're a worrying display of precisely the political and sectarian strains that demonstrators say they want to get rid of. Consultations to appoint a new prime minister are expected to begin later this week. We're watching to see if this new appointment– a post reserved for a Sunni Muslim in Lebanon's sectarian power-sharing system – will defuse tensions, or inflame them.

"Fake news" laws in Singapore – Last month, Singapore adopted a new law that makes it a crime to spread false or misleading information online. This week the law was used for the first time to pressure a member of an opposition party to correct a Facebook post in which he criticized the government. In this case, the politician admitted he'd gotten some key facts wrong. But just like governments around the world started labelling their enemies "terrorists" after 9/11, the concern about making fake news a crime is the temptation for governments to label as "fake news" any speech they don't like. With other governments from Nigeria to the European Union preparing their own new measures to prevent the spread of disinformation, we are wary of the chilling effects that the push against malicious online falsehoods may have on legitimate speech.

What We're Ignoring

A rebranding exercise in Nigeria - Residents of Unguwar Wawaye, a small settlement in northern Nigeria's Kano state, have special reason to give thanks this year after a local emir gave their village a new name. Unguwar Wawaye, which means "Area of Idiots" in the local Hausa language, had been the butt of local jokes for decades. The new name, Yalwar Kadana, means "Area of Plenty." We're happy for the residents of Yalwar Kadana – Area of Plenty is a definite improvement and we wish them the best. But we can't help thinking they could have gone for something even catchier.

Puppet Regime: Friendsgiving at the White House!

President Trump invites his closest pals from around the world to cook up a storm for the holiday. But who gets to carve the Turkey? See the whole thing here.

Hard Numbers: The House of Saud cracks down on dissent– again

13: A helicopter accident in Mali on Monday night killed 13 French soldiers, the single biggest loss for France since its intervention in the West African country in 2013. The crash occurred during a clash with armed militants who have staged a series of deadly attacks in northern Mali in recent weeks.


3.9: Global temperatures are on track to rise around 3.9 degrees Celsius by the end of the century (7 degrees Fahrenheit), which would have disastrous implications, according to a grim United Nations report. Increasingly acidic oceans could dissolve all coral reefs, and severe heat, already extreme in many regions, would become intolerable, the report warns.

9: Saudi Arabia is intensifying its crackdown on dissent within the kingdom: at least nine journalists, writers and academics have been detained in recent weeks, according to a rights group. The New York Times reported that recent arrests included a female journalist who tweeted support for political prisoners.

76: The World Health Organization and the UN Children's Fund evacuated 76 staff working in the Ebola epidemic zone in the Democratic Republic of Congo due to the country's deteriorating security situation. A deadly attack by rebel factions that left at least eight people dead angered residents who say the government and UN peacekeeping forces were "unwilling to intervene" to fend off attackers.

This edition of Signal was written by Kevin Allison and Gabrielle Debinski. Spiritual counsel from Willis Sparks and Alex Kliment. Artwork by Gabriella Turrisi.

Hi there,

Today we'll make you a key player in Hong Kong, check a Bolivian breakthrough, get new details on China's techno-surveillance hell, and show the apparent costs of exposing the Egyptian president's son as a dullard. Bonus: how much has the price of a cup of coffee risen in Caracas this year?

Enjoy,

Alex Kliment

Pro-democracy forces won Hong Kong's election: now what?

Officials open a ballot box at a polling station in Kowloon Tong, Hong Kong

There are upsets. There are watersheds. There are landslides. And then there is the Hong Kong election that happened on Sunday.

In a vote that showed the largest turnout in the territory's history, candidates who want a more democratic system won 85% of Hong Kong's 452 district council seats, flipping hundreds of those seats from incumbent council members who support the status quo.


Pro-democracy (or "pan-democracy" as they are locally called) officials will now control 17 of Hong Kong's 18 district councils. After the last election, in 2015, they controlled precisely zero of them.

And it's not just a shift in opinion: the results show Hong Kongers are energized and highly motivated. Voter turnout spiked from 1.4 million in 2015 to 2.9 million last weekend.

To be clear, these councils have limited political power: they deal mostly with hyper-local issues like potholes and trash collection (no small set of issues, from this New Yorker's perspective, but I digress). And they have only a sliver of influence over whom Beijing appoints as chief executive.

But the symbolism of the vote was clear: it undermined Beijing's message that the protests are the work of fringe "terrorists." Yes, there are some vandals and provocateurs in the streets, but a vast majority of Hong Kongers clearly support the protests' basic call for more democratic freedoms.

So, here's how some of the key players might be looking at all this now:

Protest movement: Why stop now? Our five demands – including the right to elect our leaders directly, investigations of police brutality, amnesty for those arrested – are as relevant, and well supported, as ever. We've delivered a message, but what was the point if we're not ready to build on this momentum? To the streets!

Beijing: Why give in now? If we do, it will only encourage more people to demand concessions, and firewall or not we can't be sure that Hong Kongers don't have sympathy elsewhere in China. But mainly, the risks of a military intervention against the protesters just got much more dangerous, since people around the world can now see the protests are popular with a vast majority of Hong Kongers. Let's just keep waiting. For now.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam: Dangling by a single phone line. I am going to "seriously reflect" on these results and continue to say conciliatory things – but I better not stray too far from the phone in case Beijing has something important to tell me.

The world needs a digital traffic cop, now. 

Data is reshaping the 21st century world order. Different approaches to technology are dividing the US and China in potentially dangerous ways. Before things go too far, we need a World Data Organization to set data standards and keep things in line, argues Ian Bremmer, president of our parent company Eurasia Group. Read his whole argument here, and let us know what you think.

Graphic Truth 

The world's economy is set to grow at its slowest pace since the global financial crisis a decade ago, according to the OECD, a group of industrialized nations. The gloomy forecast notes that governments aren't doing enough to deal with big structural changes like US-China trade tensions, climate change, or the digital revolution. The last time the global economy nose-dived, countries were able to muster enough collaboration to coordinate a global response. But given the profound dysfunction of the international order these days, it's hard to imagine countries doing the same again if things take a turn for the worse. Here's a look at global GDP growth over the past decade as measured by the OECD.

What We're Watching: More details about Xinjiang

More details about Xinjiang: The world already knew that China has imprisoned more than a million ethnic Uighur Muslims and other minorities in camps in the country's far-west Xinjiang province. Beijing says the prisoners are volunteers receiving job training. Rights groups say they're locked in mass incarceration "re-education camps" designed to indoctrinate ethnic minorities. But a classified blueprint of the system that's been leaked to the media now details life on the inside. The camps reportedly have watch towers, double-locked doors, and video surveillance "to prevent escapes." What's more, the Chinese state is evidently using the camps to train its artificial intelligence programs for use in mass surveillance. This is the largest incarceration of people based on an ethnic or religious identity since the Holocaust. We're watching for any sign the governments of predominantly Muslim countries, the US, or Europe will take meaningful action against the Chinese government.


Press crackdown in Egypt: Over the weekend, Egyptian authorities raided the offices of the digital publication Mada Masr, one of the country's last bastions of independent investigative journalism. Top editors were detained and arrested, and there's a decent chance it had to do with the site's publication, just days earlier, of a report that strongman President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi's son had been quietly removed from his senior role in the intelligence services due to poor performance. Though Mada Masr is well-accustomed to the security apparatus' techniques used to intimidate journalists, the clampdown has been more aggressive since anti-government protests broke out in September. Egypt ranks 163rd of 180 countries in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters Without Borders.

A breakthrough in Bolivia? Supporters of ousted president Evo Morales have reached a deal with the new interim government to ease tensions and pave the way to new presidential elections. Under the pact, approved over the weekend by a Congress that Morales' MAS party still controls, lawmakers will appoint a new electoral board that will set the date for a vote early next year. Morales himself will not be permitted to run. Pro-Morales groups and unions have agreed to take down hundreds of road blockades that have strangled the Bolivian economy in recent weeks, and interim-president Jeanine Áñez has begun meeting with pro-Morales activists. But things aren't exactly going swimmingly: Morales' party wants to exempt him from prosecution for backing the blockades, while the new interior minister wants to jail him for the "rest of his life."

What We're Ignoring

The Pope's call to banish nuclear weapons. Look, it's not that we are opposed to eliminating the world's most dangerous weapons. It's just that only one of the nine nuclear powers has a majority of people who consider themselves Catholics—and just 15% of French adults say they are "practicing." Which leads us to the old line: "And how many divisions does the Pope have?"

Puppet Regime: Time to jump ship?

Well, most Americans' minds are made up about impeachment, but what do mere humans know? Puppet Regime burrows deep into the White House to find out what some of humanity's most keenly-attuned observers are thinking. See the whole episode here.

Hard Numbers: What does a cup of coffee cost in Venezuela?

79: Almost a decade since the Tunisian Revolution that marked the start of the Arab Spring, a majority of Tunisians remain disillusioned with the country's leadership: 79 percent of adults surveyed said that government corruption is widespread, according to a new Gallup poll. Many Tunisians doubt that the newly elected Ennahda party will improve living standards for everyday people.


98.5: Members of Ethiopia's Sidama ethnic group voted overwhelmingly to form their own self-governing region, with about 98.5 percent of voters backing the push for semi-autonomy. Since April 2018, Ethiopia has been plagued by ethnic violence that's caused some 3 million people to flee their homes.

200,000: The International Monetary Fund says inflation in Venezuela will hit 200,000 percent this year. Consider that a cup of coffee that cost 150 bolivars a year ago now costs 18,000 bolivars (see Bloomberg's cup-of-coffee inflation tracker here.) The silver lining? Things are better than a year ago, when inflation was 1 million percent.

63: A majority of Americans are deeply concerned about the privacy of their personal data. Sixty-three percent of adults surveyed believe that Uncle Sam is constantly collecting data about them and that they are powerless to prevent it, according to a recent Pew study.



This edition of Signal was written by Alex Kliment, Gabrielle Debinski, and Willis Sparks. The graphic was made by Gabriella Turrisi.

It's Willis with your Friday edition of Signal. Today, we'll look toward the future of migration, check in on Ethiopia's big vote, map Israel's chaos, and bang heads with the Punk Rock President.

If you like what you see, please share Signal with a friend.

Cheers,

Willis Sparks

A lost generation of migrants?

Willis Sparks

A family of refugees steps off a boat or arrives at a border. Should they be allowed to enter? This question provokes passionate responses in countries around the world these days.

But there's a second set of questions: if they are admitted, where will they live? How will they learn a new language? How will their children be educated? Will they have access to the training needed to get jobs to help them support themselves?

In short, how can they be integrated into society?

These questions are at the heart of a new report from the EU, which warns of a potential "lost generation" of migrants, people who enter Europe to build better lives but then find little chance of integrating into society.


Between 2015 and 2018, nearly two million people were granted protection within the European Union. Some were refugees. Others were migrants looking for better economic prospects for themselves and their families. About 80 percent of these people were under the age of 34.

To ensure they can be integrated, the report calls on EU member states to:

  • speed up asylum procedures
  • cut the red tape that delays the reunification of families
  • provide proper housing
  • improve mental healthcare for refugees under enormous stress
  • grant asylum applicants early access to education, vocational training, and jobs to protect them from exploitation of their labor or criminals pushing them toward lives of crime.

This is not charity. EU countries, especially those with fast-aging populations, need an infusion of young people to power their economies and pay for their social safety nets. Immigrants can provide that boost, but only if they're given a real opportunity to contribute.

The report's authors point to good news. They say that the six countries covered in the report (Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Italy and Sweden) have already taken positive steps on housing and on language programs for children. But there are still dangerous gaps that need to be addressed in all these countries.

This is a global problem. There is nothing uniquely European about this challenge. There are now more than 71 million displaced people around the world. It's a hot political topic in every region of the world, and the forces that have pushed so many from their homes—war, organized crime, the impact of changing weather patterns on agriculture, inequality among nations, and broader public awareness of better conditions elsewhere—continue to intensify.

The bottom-line: Serious thinking about how best to integrate migrants will benefit the countries that choose to welcome them and the migrants themselves. The need will only grow more urgent in coming years.

The secrets of the first element

Eni

Hydrogen is the most widespread element in nature, found in everything from the ocean depths to the air we breathe, in every earthly substance and in stardust. Hydrogen is the foundation stone of the universe. In terms of energy, its applications are widespread, including fuel cells, industry and space. It's hydrogen that launches into orbit satellites, space stations, monitors, telecommunications systems and probes destined to fly about for decades.

Eni, Toyota and the city council of Venice have agreed to assess whether they can build a service station for filling vehicles powered by hydrogen. The site for the new plant will be chosen soon, and our eye is on Bavaria, where hydrogen cars are making great headway.

Learn more at Eniday: Energy Is A Good Story

What We're Watching: Lifting the lid in Ethiopia

GZERO Media

Ethiopia's big vote – Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed has kept his promise to bring change since arriving in power in April 2018. His push for peace with neighboring Eritrea brought him a Nobel Prize, but his willingness to grant greater autonomy to the country's many ethnic groups has triggered violence, forcing some three million people from their homes during his brief time in office. On Wednesday, members of the Sidama ethnic group, Ethiopia's fifth largest, went to the polls to vote on whether they should have their own regional state within Ethiopia's federal system. That would give them power to make their own policies, spend their own budget on local priorities, and to maintain their own police force. We're watching to see whether the results of the vote will be peacefully accepted—and whether the demands of other groups will cause greater political turmoil in the country.


Israel's uncharted political waters – "Law enforcement isn't optional. It's not a question of politics. It's a duty." So said Israel's Attorney General as he announced Thursday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would be indicted on three charges of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. The indictments further complicate Israel's chaotic political landscape and threaten Netanyahu's bid to remain in power. Netanyahu is now likely to ask the Knesset, Israel's parliament, for immunity, which will delay criminal proceedings by several months. But the Knesset is not fully functional; no coalition government has been formed since Israel's September elections, the second in just six months. A third election is now extremely likely. But in the absence of a body authorized to decide on parliamentary immunity, it's unclear how Netanyahu's request might be considered. In a combative address, Netanyahu insisted the charges are politically motivated, and called on Israelis to "investigate the investigators." These are uncharted political waters, and all eyes are on the judiciary.

Donny Ramone – Fellow Signalista Alex Kliment is not like you and me. Where we see a photo of the handwritten notes that President Trump used on Wednesday to push back at charges he demanded the government of Ukraine investigate his political rival Joe Biden in exchange for military aid, Alex sees 1970s New York-style punk rock lyrics. You need to see this. This isn't the only reason we keep him around, but it's a really, really good one.

What We're Ignoring

Candidate Bloomberg – Former New York City Mayor and billionaire businessman Mike Bloomberg has officially filed his paperwork for the Democratic Party's presidential nomination. But, his spokesperson said on Thursday, that "does not mean he has made the decision to run." We don't think he has a good chance to win anyway.

Ebola Survivor Dr. Craig Spencer to GZERO World: "We didn't learn a lot from 2014"

In 2014, Dr. Craig Spencer became the first and only confirmed case of Ebola in New York City, after contracting the virus while volunteering for Doctors Without Borders in the West African nation of Guinea. The news of his infection caused a citywide panic. In the end, there were no other NYC cases, and Dr. Spencer recovered, but the experience was both traumatic and eye-opening for him. Five years on from his ordeal, Dr. Spencer talked with GZERO Media about his life today, his reflections on that time, and his concern that the lessons of the 2014 Ebola outbreak haven't been learned.

The Democratic debate: foreign policy makes a comeback! 

Democratic U.S. presidential candidates pose at the start of their fifth 2020 campaign debate at the Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta

Foreign policy was a central topic in Wednesday's fifth Democratic presidential debate, with the candidates taking on issues like Saudi Arabia, Israel-Palestine, and Washington's relations with its (jilted) allies. Read our key takeaways here.

Hard Numbers: Most US men not so comfortable with a woman president

391: A national effort in Colombia to remove improvised explosives has resulted in 391 municipalities now being declared mine-free. More than 700 of Colombia's 1,122 municipalities once had landmines, the result of a decades-long armed conflict between leftist guerillas, criminal factions, paramilitary groups, and the government.


13.29 million: US crude oil will average 13.29 million bpd next year, according to the Energy Information Agency, indicating that US production will have more than doubled in the past decade. This would make the US the world's largest oil producer by far, ahead of Russia and Saudi Arabia.

49: Less than half of American men say they'd feel "very comfortable" with a woman as head of government, according to a new Reykjavik Index study. More shocking, however, is that just 59 percent of American women surveyed said they'd feel comfortable with a woman at the helm.

52: Deaths from terrorism fell globally for the fourth consecutive year, decreasing by 52 percent since 2014, according to the Global Terrorism Index. Terrorism-related deaths decreased by more than 15 percent in the last year alone, with the most significant falls occurring in Iraq after the defeat of ISIS, and in Somalia after US-led airstrikes on the Al-Shabab terror group there.

Words of Wisdom

"Fear has never been a good adviser, neither in our personal lives nor in our society."

– Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel

This edition of Signal was written by Willis Sparks and Gabrielle Debinski. Editorial support from Alex Kliment. Artwork by Gabriella Turrisi. Happy birthday, Billie Jean King.

Hi there,

Today we'll learn how a group of shaggy gunmen in 1979 shaped today's Middle East, wonder who's going to pay for US troops in Korea, check on Bolivia's new president, mark the impeachment calendar for Democrats, and build a giant dog statue in Turkmenistan.

Write us here or find us on Twitter and YouTube.

-Alex Kliment

The siege of Mecca: what 1979 gave to 2019

Alex Kliment

Forty years ago today, dozens of bearded gunmen stormed the holiest site in Islam, the Grand Mosque at Mecca, in Saudi Arabia.

They held the complex for two weeks before a French-trained Saudi force (pictured above) rooted them out, but the fallout from the attack went on to shape the modern Middle East in ways that are still with us today: in the scourge of transnational jihadism and the deepening rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran.


It's worth recalling the backdrop in November 1979. Cairo had recently allied itself with the US and made a controversial peace deal with Israel at Camp David that would later lead to Egyptian president Anwar Sadat's assassination. The Iranian revolution had just brought to power a Shiite Islamic theocracy that was immediately a political and sectarian rival to the Saudis. The godless Soviets were mulling their fateful invasion of Afghanistan. And several years earlier, the Saudi King himself had been assassinated by an extremist relative who resented his introduction of television to the kingdom.

The gunmen who took the mosque at Mecca were of a similar mindset. Their leader, Juhayman ("the scowler") el-Oteibi, was a homegrown Saudi religious fanatic who believed – as did many of the kingdom's clerics, in fact – that Saudi Arabia's rapid, oil-fueled modernization of the 1970s had caused it to stray from strict Islamic ideals: Too many women in the workforce. Too much TV. Too many foreigners. Too many Saudi princes carrying on in Monaco.

Stung by Iran's external challenge to its legitimacy and Juhayman's internal one, Saudi Arabia radically changed course: it rolled back all social liberalization, imposing the clerical establishment's strict wahhabi interpretation of Islam at home and aggressively exporting it abroad.

Saudi Arabia's rulers made this bargain in part because they thought it would head off the growth of anti-government extremism in the Kingdom. And in part because, fearful of Iran's rise, it made sense to double down on extreme Islamic piety in the face of a nearby theocratic rival.

There are three things happening today that flow directly from all of this:

First, today's transnational jihadism was hugely inspired by Juhayman's attack – the first spectacular jihadist operation of its scale in the modern world – and by the ultra-conservative ideology that motivated it. Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia's funding of Wahhabism around the globe helped nurture much larger transnational jihad networks like Al-Qaeda (which arose out of later Saudi and US support for holy warriors in Afghanistan) and ISIS.

Second, Saudi Arabia is only now undoing the legacy of 1979: Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman, the de facto ruler of the kingdom, has framed his tightly controlled experiments in social liberalization as an attempt to put the country back on its pre-1979 course.

Lastly, it was a moment that crystallized the Iran-Saudi rivalry that continues to cut across the region today. As Wall Street Journal correspondent Yaroslav Trofimov, who quite literally wrote the book on the Siege of Mecca, explained to us, the one thing that the House of Saud, the clerics, and the Juhayman types could all agree on was that Iran, as a Shiite power, was a heretical danger that must be confronted. Now, forty years later, even as Saudi Arabia carefully liberalizes at home, the rivalry with Iran is as fierce and dangerous as ever.

​Words with Yaroslav Trofimov, author of The Siege of Mecca

To understand better how the legacy of the siege of Mecca is still with us today, we put some questions to Yaroslav Trofimov, chief foreign affairs correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, and author of the single best source out there on the subject, his magnificently written 2007 book The Siege of Mecca. He believes we are once again at a historical moment in Saudi Arabia, but wonders if the lessons of 1979 have been learned.

Read the whole interview here.

Graphic Truth

Gabrielle Debinski

In recent years, Republicans have come to dominate most of the state legislatures in the US. Ironically, it was during the Obama-era that the GOP made major headway in states that had long been considered safely blue. State legislatures are now redder than they've been in nearly a century, and in most parts of the country, one party holds all the levers of power (governorship and legislatures). For the first time since 1914, there's only one split legislature in the entire country: Minnesota. To be sure, some state races are bucking the trend: Kentucky and Louisiana, both deep-red states, recently elected Democratic governors. Here's a look at how Democratic and Republican control of state legislatures has evolved over the past four decades.

Growing Consensus on Cyberspace

Microsoft On The Issues

The Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace launched in 2018 with the commitment of signatories to stand up to cyber threats like election interference, attacks on critical infrastructure, and supply chain vulnerabilities. Last week, on the first anniversary of the call, the number of signatories has nearly tripled to more than 1,000 and now includes 74 nations; more than 350 international, civil society and public sector organizations; and more than 600 private sector entities. These commitments to the Paris Call from around the world demonstrate a widespread, global, multi-stakeholder consensus about acceptable behavior in cyberspace.

Read More at Microsoft On The Issues.

What We're Watching: A widening Bolivian divide

GZERO Media

Bolivia's polarizing interim president: After Bolivian president Evo Morales and his deputies were pushed out of office for rigging last month's presidential election, little-known opposition Senator Jeanine Añez took office as interim leader. Añez has promised to guide the country toward a "national consensus" ahead of new elections in January, but she's already risked deepening political divides. On day one, she lugged a giant bible into office, in a perceived swipe at Morales, who had elevated popular indigenous traditions that the ultra-conservative Ms. Añez once called "satanic." She's also abruptly reoriented the country's foreign ties toward Latin America's conservative governments. On her watch, at least eight pro-Morales protesters have been killed by the authorities. Morales himself, exiled in Mexico, says he's the victim of a coup and wants to run in the elections. Añez says he's barred, but his MAS political party still controls both houses of congress and has to be a partner for any smooth transition. Some compromise is necessary, but things don't seem to be going that way.


Impeachment and 2020 Democratic primaries: As the Trump impeachment process grinds on, a potential problem is emerging for some Democratic presidential candidates. If the House impeaches President Trump, there will be a trial in the Senate. If that trial is held in January/February, it will force Democratic senators to be in Washington rather than on the campaign trail engaging voters directly. That's potential bad news for presidential-hopeful Senators Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, and Cory Booker—and might be good news for rival candidates Joe Biden and Pete Buttigieg, who won't be chained to Washington. But do Republicans really want to help Biden beat Warren and Sanders, both of whom might be easier for Trump to beat? We'll be watching to see how Democrats in the House and Senate try to manage this problem.

US walks out on South Korea: Talks on the cost of basing US troops in South Korea ended abruptly Tuesday when the Americans walked out of the meeting, accusing Seoul of falling short of "fair and equitable burden sharing." Washington had demanded a five-fold yearly increase (to $5 billion) in Seoul's contribution to maintaining 28,500 American troops on the Korean peninsula. Earlier this year, Seoul agreed to pay $890 million, more than 40 percent of the day-to-day expenses of keeping US troops in the area. It also paid more than 90 percent of the hefty cost of relocating the US' main Korean base, and buys billions of dollars worth of US arms. Until now, US presidents have seen Washington's security commitments to Seoul — which date back to the 1950s when the Korean War ended without a peace treaty — as mutually beneficial: South Korea gets protection from the North, while the US gets to safeguard its security and economic interests in East Asia. Will President Trump's hardline approach to South Korea work? And will it set an enduring precedent? We're watching because similar talks on cost-sharing with Japan, Germany, and NATO are slated for next year.

What We're Ignoring

Dog days in Turkmenistan: Gurbanguly Berdymukhamedov, the eccentric autocrat who runs the gas-rich Central Asian nation of Turkmenistan, has long adored his country's renowned horse breeds (even when he's falling off of them.) But now he is pivoting to a different point on the mammalian map: dog. In particular, the Alabai, a hardy little sheepdog that has been part of Turkmenistan's traditionally nomadic society for thousands of years. Recently, he's been writing books and poems about the dogs, and now he plans to build a 50-foot tall statue of one in the capital as a symbol of national unity. We are ignoring this because we're spoiled by the last Turkmen president's penchant for building 25-story gold plated statues of himself that rotated to face the sun. Next to that, this pup stuff doesn't stack up.

Hard Numbers: The US locks up more kids than any other country

2,887: Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has now broken a century-old record to become the longest serving PM in Japan's history, at 2,887 days. It's a stunning feat for a premier who made a political comeback after quitting in 2007 due to a series of embarrassing scandals.


100: More than 100 Iranians have been killed by Iran's security forces in the days since a fuel price hike provoked nationwide protests. According to Amnesty International, Iran's supreme leader himself gave security personnel the green light to use force to crush protests.

100,000: The US has the highest rate of children in detention of any country. Uncle Sam currently has more than 100,000 in immigration-related custody alone, according to a new UN report. That's about a third of all children who are held in immigration detention centers worldwide.

3,769: The Amazon rainforest shrank by 3,769 square miles in the year ending this past July – that's an area about 12 times the size of New York City. It's the biggest annual loss in more than a decade, the strongest indicator to date that deforestation in the Amazon has surged since Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro came to power with a pledge to loosen environmental restrictions.

This edition of signal was written by Alex Kliment, Gabrielle Debinski, and Willis Sparks. The graphic was made by Paige Fusco. Spiritual counsel from the French commandos who smuggled a case of Sauvignon Blanc into Saudi Arabia while they planned the raid to retake the Grand Mosque.

Hi there,

In today's Signal we'll outline the arguments for a global approach to governing Big Tech, look at large-scale protests in Iran, worry about Chinese troops in Hong Kong, and track the return of a controversial political figure in Sri Lanka.

Send us your love/hate here, and follow us on Twitter and Instagram.

-Kevin and the Signalistas

The case for a global tech policeman

Kevin Allison

A few days ago, the New York Times published a bombshell report on the Chinese government's systematic oppression of Muslims in Western China. The story was about many things: human rights, geopolitics, Chinese society – but it was also about technology: Beijing's repression in Xinjiang province is powered in part by facial recognition, big data, and other advanced technologies.

It's a concrete example of a broader trend in global politics: technology is a double-edged sword with sharp political consequences. Artificial intelligence, for example, can help develop new medicines but it can also support surveillance states. Social media helps nourish democracy movements and entertains us with cat memes, but it also feeds ISIS and 4Chan.


There are geopolitical considerations at work here too: the US and China are slipping into a technology "Cold War" over technologies like AI and 5G that will shape both economic growth and the future of military power. Meanwhile, Europe is trying to lead a new regulatory front against Western tech giants that have run roughshod over users' privacy. The US, for its part, isn't sure what to do: calls for more regulation are getting louder, but policymakers are leery of hamstringing Silicon Valley with new restrictions right as the US steps up its tech competition with China.

It's a mess out there. To manage—and possibly avoid—a damaging split that could stop globalization in its tracks, Ian Bremmer, the founder of GZERO Media's parent company, Eurasia Group, called on Monday for a new approach to managing global tech competition.

His idea is to create two new global organizations:

First, a kind of global referee to assess the world's current progress in managing data and emerging technologies like AI. This would be modelled after the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the UN body that serves a similar function on the science of climate change.

Second, a World Data Organization (WDO) modelled on the World Trade Organization — a club of like-minded countries that believe in "online openness and transparency" that could set and enforce norms around data privacy and digital trade.

There are some clear benefits to this approach: a WDO would make the world safer helping countries develop shared norms on privacy, cybersecurity, and AI safety. And it would help preserve the kind of country-to-country collaboration that spurs positive technological innovation.

But there are also two big challenges: First, the Western countries that might form the core of these organizations actually hold very different views on the appropriate trade-offs between Silicon Valley profits and users' privacy. Consensus won't come easily.

Second, how would these bodies deal with China? Using WTO membership as an enticement to try to mould China's economy in a more "Western" direction led Beijing to embrace some market forces, but only up to a point. (And it did not convince the Chinese Communist party to liberalize politically). It's not clear that a WDO would be any more effective at getting China to reform. And yet, excluding China entirely might deepen the rifts that a new global platform is meant to address.

It's obvious that new approaches to managing global technology competition are needed. New global institutions are one potential solution. But we'd love to hear your ideas, too. You can write to us here.

Graphic Truth

Gabrielle Debinski

Increasingly violent anti-government protests in Hong Kong have dealt a major blow to the city's once booming economy. Tourism – an economic lifeline in that city – has dropped, and retailers are suffering from a sharp decline in sales. Now, six months since the unrest began, Hong Kong has recorded its first recession in a decade, meaning its economy has contracted for two consecutive quarters. Here's a look at how Hong Kong's quarterly gross domestic product (GDP) growth has fared during the past two years.

What We're Watching: Angry Iranians on the streets

GZERO Media

Tehran's Next Move: "We don't want an Islamic Republic, we don't want it," was the chant heard among some protesters in Tehran over the weekend after the government announced a 50 percent fuel price hike meant to fund broader support for the country's poor. Under crippling US sanctions, the country's economy has plummeted, unleashing a "tsunami" of unemployment. What started Friday as nationwide economic protests took on a political coloring, as protestors in some cities tore up the flag and chanted "down with [Supreme Leader] Khamenei." The unrest seems to be related, at least indirectly, to widespread demonstrations against Tehran-backed regimes in Iraq and Lebanon as well. Economically-motivated protests erupt in Iran every few years, but they tend to subside within weeks under harsh government crackdowns. So far, the authorities have shut down the internet to prevent protestors from using social media to organize rallies. But Iran's powerful Revolutionary Guards Corps has warned of more "decisive action" if the unrest continues.


China's army sweeping up Hong Kong? A central question hangs over the ongoing turmoil in Hong Kong: Will China's soldiers intervene? Elite troops of China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) are garrisoned in Hong Kong and the city's basic law says they can help maintain public order, but may not "interfere in local affairs." As the battle of wills between protesters and local police rages on, some observers saw ominous signs over the weekend: on Saturday, some of the PLA troops took to the streets with brooms and plastic buckets to help clean up the debris following demonstrations. PLA troops have left their garrisons in Hong Kong just twice in the past 22 years, and they would not have done so now without orders known at the highest levels of the Chinese government. Is this whistle-as-you-work cleaning brigade a warning from the mainland that the army's role can quickly expand?

Sri Lanka's new president: Former defense Secretary Gotabaya Rajapaksa was elected president of Sri Lanka on Sunday, soundly defeating a candidate from the current government. Rajapaksa's campaign focused on tax cuts to spur growth and tighter security, particularly after the Islamic State's horrific Easter bombings this spring. But Rajapaksa is a polarizing figure in a deeply divided society: as defense secretary he oversaw the military defeat of the Tamil separatist movement during a brutal civil war, and has faced allegations that he committed human rights violations during that time. He and his brother, former strongman president Mahinda Rajapaksa, also favor closer relations with China, a major and controversial new investor in the Sri Lankan economy. We're watching to see how the new government positions the country in an increasingly delicate dance between Beijing and its traditional allies in India.

What We're Ignoring

Meaningless elections in Belarus: To be honest, Sunday's parliamentary vote in Belarus didn't exactly have us on the edge of our seats. The last time general elections were held there, only two of the legislature's 110 seats went to figures opposed to President Alexander Lukashenko, who prides himself on being "Europe's last dictator." But this time around the result was even more ridiculous: precisely zero opposition figures were elected (the two from last time were barred from running). Lukashenko says his elections are fair, and we are of course ignoring that. More interesting is whether Lukashenko, who has run Belarus for a quarter of a century, provokes any kind of backlash when he stands for "reelection" next year, as he intends to do.

Hard Numbers: What does it cost to bribe someone important in Iraq?

13 billion: Building a single state-of-the-art US aircraft carrier costs about $13 billion, a figure that exceeds total military spending by countries like Poland, the Netherlands, or Pakistan. But as China's ability to hit seaborne targets improves, the Economist asks if carriers are "too big to fail." (Come for that, stay for the many strange Top Gun references in the piece.)


87.5: Iranian intelligence officers expensed 87.5 Euros worth of brib– we mean gifts – for a Kurdish commander whom they were cultivating in Iraq. That and many other details of Tehran's extensive cloak and dagger efforts to gain sway over Iraq's post-Hussein government feature in this extraordinary New York Times / Intercept report, based on hundreds of leaked Iranian cables.

2,280: Turkey says it is currently holding 2,280 members of the Islamic State, representing 30 different countries. About half of those are from Western European countries, and of those, 700 are children. Ankara says it will deport them all, creating a challenge for their home countries' legal systems.

200 million: Visa has paid $200 million to purchase a 20% stake in the Nigerian electronic payments company Interswitch. The deal makes Interswitch the first so-called unicorn (a startup company with a valuation of $1bn or more) to be completely homegrown in Africa.

This edition of Signal was written by Kevin Allison, Gabrielle Debinski, Alexander Kliment, and Willis Sparks. Graphics magic by Ari Winkleman and Gabriella Turrisi. Spiritual counsel from Leon Levy.

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