10 Mind-Blowing Things That Happened This Week (10/20/17)
Keeping up with the news is hard. So hard, in fact, that we’ve decided to save you the hassle by rounding up the most significant, unusual, or just plain old mind-blowing stories each week.
The week that took us over the midpoint of October was a crazy busy one for geopolitics. Two independence movements crashed up against governments that definitely did not want them to leave, exciting new leaders took over two significant countries, and China laid out its plans for becoming the major player of the 21st century. Add to that a major scientific breakthrough, and it almost felt like this week was trying to cram in the rest of the year’s big news stories at once.
10 Somalia’s Biggest Terrorist Attack Ever Devastated Mogadishu
On Saturday, militants linked to the Al-Qaeda–affiliated Al-Shabaab drove two gigantic truck bombs into the center of the Somali capital, Mogadishu. They detonated them in two different districts, two hours apart, when the areas were at their busiest. The twin explosions killed a staggering number of people. At time of writing, over 320 are confirmed dead, and around 400 are unaccounted for.
With the death toll still creeping up, the twin bombings may yet turn out to be the deadliest terrorist attack since 9/11. They’re certainly the deadliest Somalia has ever seen. When such carnage is unprecedented even by the standards of one of the most conflict-prone states on Earth, you know you’re dealing with something uniquely horrible.
The attacks serve as a reminder that the disintegration of ISIS won’t mean the end of Islamist terrorism. They also have the potential to draw the US into yet another foreign war. The Trump administration made eliminating Al-Shabaab one of its priorities. With the bombings said to be revenge for a US raid conducted in August, it’s conceivable that Washington could now find itself sucked into yet another conflict with Islamist terrorists.
9 A Prominent Critic Of The Maltese Government Was Assassinated
The tiny island nation of Malta is home to fewer than half a million people. It’s part of the EU, is a functioning democracy, and, according to Transparency International, is less corrupt than other European countries like Greece, Hungary, and the Czech Republic.
All of which is what makes the sad tale of Daphne Caruana Galizia so troubling. A prominent Maltese journalist, she was a fierce critic of the incumbent government, known for helping to break the Panama Papers scandal which saw the PM, Joseph Muscat, forced to call a snap election. (His party was returned to power.) This week, she was assassinated when a block of Semtex exploded under the car she was driving. She left behind a grieving family.
Her murder was shocking not just for its brutality but for its ominous implications. Galizia had made powerful enemies among Malta’s elite, and her son has now accused the government of carrying out the murder. Muscat denies the charge, but it seems likely that whoever the culprits were, they have connections to Malta’s corridors of power.
8 Iraqi Forces Seized Kurdish Territory
In September, we told you Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region had voted for independence. The referendum was disputed by Baghdad because it included cities like Kirkuk, which ISIS had captured from Iraq and the Kurdish Peshmerga had captured from ISIS.
This week, the government of Iraqi PM al-Abadi finally gave his answer to Kurdish claims of independence, and it wasn’t “Sure, why not?” Tanks rolled into Kirkuk. The army that had whipped ISIS melted away with barely any resistance. In a matter of hours, the Peshmerga had been pushed back to its pre-2014 borders.
The quick defeat was a huge blow to the Kurdish government of President Barzani, who organized the referendum. Kirkuk is a vital oil city, and without it, an independent Kurdish state would struggle. There were worrying implications for the rest of the world, too. Supporting Iraqi forces were Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, expanding Tehran’s sway in the Middle East. This put the US—which supported the Iraqi army’s move on Kirkuk—in the odd position of being on the same side as Iran.
There was trouble for another fledgling independence movement elsewhere, too. After Catalan nationalists won a disputed referendum on October 1, Spain formally moved this week to suspend the region’s autonomy. The crisis continues.
7 ISIS Lost Control Of Their Syrian Capital
Back in June, a brutal series of battles resulted in ISIS being flushed out of their Iraqi capital of Mosul. At the time, we noted that they still had significant territory in Syria to make up for this loss. Well, now that territory is being chipped away, too. This week, their Syrian capital, Raqqa, fell to the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). The terrorist group is now on the run.
First, the good news: ISIS is now down to a handful of significant territories in Syria, and some of those, like Deir ez-Zor, are likely to fall to regime forces at any moment. They’ve nearly been completely flushed out of Iraq. Their dream of a great caliphate stretching across the Middle East to Europe now seems a laughable fantasy.
The bad news is that ISIS as a terrorist organization is far from finished. They have toeholds in Libya, Yemen, and Afghanistan and affiliates as far away as Nigeria and the Philippines. As we’ve seen before, major setbacks for ISIS in Iraq and Syria usually coincide with significant attacks being launched in the West. We can only pray this doesn’t happen.
6 We Saw Two Neutron Stars Collide For The First Time
Neutron stars are what happens to stars go supernova but lack the chutzpa to become black holes. Superdense lumps about 19 kilometers (12 mi) across, they are so compact that a teaspoon of their matter would weigh a billion tons. This week, we finally saw evidence of what happens when two of these freaks of nature smash into each other at high speed. The results were spectacular, to say the least.
According to neutron star expert Mansi Kasliwal, the amount of energy released by this week’s crash was “enough to outshine the 100 billion stars in our galaxy by about a billion-fold for the 50 or so seconds it took place.” In other words, a crazy amount of energy was released. And the craziest part? That wasn’t even the craziest part. It was how we knew where to watch for the blast that was truly groundbreaking.
Gravitational waves from the collision were detected by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO) back in August. Using the reading, we were able to pinpoint the region in which the crash took place. Considering that gravitational waves were only detected for the first time in 2016, this was all sorts of impressive.
5 Portugal’s Wildfire Death Toll Exceeded 100, Threatened To Topple Government
Since June, Portugal has been engulfed in a series of increasingly deadly wildfires which have laid waste to the Iberian nation’s countryside. Following the deaths of 64 people over the summer, another wildfire on Sunday killed a further 41. The staggering annual death toll is now so high that it threatens to bring down the entire government.
As a hot, dry nation, Portugal is no stranger to wildfires. But never before has the annual death toll come anywhere near 100. Silent protests have spread across the nation as people have blamed government incompetence and weak responses for contributing to the casualty figures. On Wednesday, the country’s interior minister resigned. Now the opposition is calling on Prime Minister Antonio Costa to do the same.
Costa is still relatively popular with the public, so his government is unlikely to collapse at this time. Nonetheless, the opposition has still tabled a no-confidence vote for next week.
4 Austria And New Zealand Elected Record-Breaking New Leaders
Austria’s Sebastian Kurz is the right-wing Emmanuel Macron. Like the centrist French leader, Kurz exploded onto the Austrian political scene with an audacious bid for the presidency, this time as head of the OVP party. Like Macron, he’s also shockingly young: 31 to Macron’s 39. And, like Macron, he delivered a stunning win in this year’s elections, placing first in Austria’s Sunday ballot. When he takes over as chancellor, he will be the youngest elected leader in the world.
Politically, Kurz is something new in Austrian politics. His policies on immigration, Islam, and tax breaks wouldn’t sound out of place coming from President Trump. Yet he’s also strongly pro-EU, a position that puts him a closer to Macron and Merkel, and has made a point of having 50-50 gender representation on his list of ministerial candidates. Kurz’s fans hope his new blend of left and right could be the shot in the arm Austria needs.
On the other side of the world, Jacinda Ardern was also breaking records. After her left-wing Labour Party finished a close second in New Zealand’s September elections, she has now gone into coalition with the nationalist New Zealand First Party, led by Winston Peters, to form a government. She will be the country’s youngest prime minister since 1856, and its youngest-ever female leader.
3 Kyrgyzstan Held its First (Mostly) Democratic Election
Central Asia got the raw deal among the post-Communist regions. While Eastern Europe mostly embraced democracy, Central Asia mostly embraced crackpot dictators. “Votes” held in places like Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan routinely return 98-percent victories for the rulers, only marginally less believable than the 89 percent Uzbekistan’s leaders pull down.
Yet, amid all this repression, there’s one country that has begun charting a semi-democratic course. On Sunday, Kyrgyzstan went to the polls to choose a new president. It was the first democratic election the country has ever held.
To be clear, this is democratic by Central Asian standards. The Kyrgyz government threw all its might behind their preferred candidate, even jailing one opposition leader. Media bias was rampant, and the ruling party went out of its way to inflame racial tensions—a big deal in a country where ethic riots killed hundreds in 2010.
Yet, as The Economist pointed out, it was still a real election that really did reflect the will of the people. Government pick Sooronbay Jeenbekov beat his outsider rival, Omurbek Babanov, to become leader. Hopefully when his term is up, Kyrgyzstan will decide democracy was worth it after all.
2 China Held Its 19th Party Congress
Right now, the 21st century is being shaped in an auditorium in Beijing. This week, China convened its 19th Party Congress, a five-yearly tradition that sees Communist Party members meet to decide the country’s future and possibly elect a new leader.
No one had the slightest doubt over who would be leading the country once the Congress was over, though. Xi Jinping now has a tighter grip over the nation than anyone since Chairman Mao. And he’s going to use that control to make China great again.
Xi openly wants China to be the new leader on the global stage. His extremely long opening speech to the congress was full of references to exporting the economically successful combination of communism and capitalism that has made China a superpower. Much as the US shaped the post-WWI 20th century, Xi clearly hopes to forge the 21st in Beijing’s image.
The party has responded by officially naming his philosophy Xi Jinping Thought. Since only Chairman Mao and Deng Xiaoping have previously been honored this way, this is a big deal.
1 We Discovered Russian Intelligence Had Manipulated US Protest Groups To Cause Division And Chaos
One was a BLM-affiliated group that helped arrange self-defense classes for black activists. One was a Texas secessionist group that organized anti-Islam protests in Houston. Yet another was a gun rights collective. There were pro- and anti–LGBT rights groups, immigration groups, and black rights groups with a total of over a million subscribers.
Sounds like a typical glimpse of the crazy melting pot that is the US, right? Not quite. This week, it was revealed that some of the most significant online activist and protest groups of the last few years were run not by ordinary Americans but by Russian intelligence. Their goal? To exacerbate tensions in American life to breaking point.
The respected Russian outlet RBC broke the revelations on Tuesday. Their reporting that showed some of the most active groups on all sides of the US political spectrum had been directly operated from Saint Petersburg. The Kremlin had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars boosting their presence. The biggest group of all, Blacktivist, had over 30,000 followers and organized anti-police marches in Baltimore. Ever wondered why the US has been so horribly divided of late? This is why.
What’s truly interesting about the revelations is that they don’t follow the Democrat Party line that Russia meddled to get Trump elected. The RBC report suggests Putin didn’t care who won; he just wanted to make American society collapse by widening its already wide divisions. Chillingly, the horribly charged climate of 2017 makes it look like he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.