The World Today for July 25, 2016


Web of Wolves

What makes a terrorist?

Events over the weekend in Germany — as well as new revelations about the truck driver who killed 84 people in Nice earlier this month – suggest that radicalization is less straightforward than commonly imagined. The line between radical and madman is blurry, and where we draw it is influenced by prejudice. And the ways the internet has changed social relations and the dissemination of information may well be playing a broader and more complex role in the violence than has been widely understood.

It’s a web of wolves, and Germany is reeling.

On Sunday, a suicide bomber blew himself up outside a music festival in Ansbach, injuring 12 others, three of whom are in critical condition. The same day, a 21-year-old man attacked and killed a woman with a machete in Reutlingen, before he was run down by a motorist and arrested.

The two attacks came as Germany was still reeling from a mass shooting at a Munich shopping mall on Friday, in which a teenage gunman killed nine people and then himself, as well as an ax attack on a train in Wurzburg last Monday.

The attackers were all associated with Muslim countries. Sunday’s suicide bomber was a 27-year-old Syrian man who’d recently been denied asylum, while the machete attacker was a 21-year-old Syrian refugee. Friday’s shooter was an 18-year-old German-Iranian, and the ax attacker was 17-year-old Afghan migrant.

That commonality will no doubt give rise to louder protests over Chancellor Angela Merkel’s open embrace of refugees. But so far the investigations into their motives and radicalization – if that word applies – suggest that ethnicity and religion may be only indirectly related to their crimes. Moreover, their importance is often in the eye of the beholder.

“When mass killers show even minor hints of affinity for jihadist groups,” Max Fisher writes in the New York Times, “their actions are swiftly judged to be terrorism…. But when their source of inspiration appears to be right-wing extremism…they are often treated as disturbed loners.”

Thus, German authorities classified Friday’s incident as a “shooting rampage” rather than a terrorist attack. And Munich police chief Hubertus Andrae emphasized that the attacker was inspired by Anders Behring Breivik, the right-wing Norwegian terrorist who killed 77 people five years ago, rather than the so-called Islamic State (IS) or another jihadi group.

That’s an important factual distinction, of course. But the available information about how the teenage shooter became radical or simply violent shows a great deal of similarity with what we know about the Nice truck attacker.

Both the Munich shooter, identified as Ali David Sonboly, and Nice truck attacker Mohamed Lahouaiej Bouhlel appear to have “self-radicalized” with the aid of the internet, looking for an outlet or justification for what appear to be pre-existing psychological disorders.

In the case of Bouhlel, a tendency toward violence and narcissism spiraled first into a false Facebook identity as a salsa dancer named Javin Bensucon and then to a preoccupation with Orlando nightclub shooter Omar Mateen, according to a detailed profile in the New York Times.

Similarly, Sonboly received psychiatric care for “fears of contact with others” before developing an obsession with Norway’s Breivik and Germany’s worst school shooting and logging onto Facebook to lure victims to a local McDonald’s, Time reports.

It’s easy to jump to alarmist conclusions. But the similarities, as well as the sudden burst of violent incidents, suggest that the inescapable and potentially isolating nature of the internet is acting as a kind of force multiplier linking extreme ideas and the deranged.

On one hand, mass shootings, suicides and similar violence are believed to be contagious, due to the enormous attention they receive, multiplied many times over with the advent of social media. On the other, the internet itself creates more opportunities to become radicalized by connecting lone individuals with like-minded people and opening up an echo chamber for extreme viewpoints, according to a Rand Corporation study.


Deadly Return

The so-called Islamic State (IS) may be on the run in Iraq. But reports of its demise in Afghanistan appear to have been greatly exaggerated.

More than 80 people were killed and another 231 were injured in an attack by the terrorist group in Kabul on Saturday, in what was the deadliest terror strike to hit the beleaguered nation in some 15 years of civil war.

This follows President Ashraf Gilani’s claim that IS was defeated in Afghanistan this March. Instead of being wiped out in Afghanistan’s east, the attacks indicate “how far the group has gone beyond” those bases, a former Afghan diplomat in Pakistan told Bloomberg.

End of an Era?

Is it the end of an era, or the beginning of a one?

Yahoo’s board is reportedly set to announce a deal to sell the company to Verizon Communications for $4.8 billion on Monday. Depending on how you look at it, the sale illustrates how dramatically the one-time stock market darling has plummeted, or suggests there’s more value left in it than many believe.

At one time, Yahoo was valued at $125 billion – about 25 times the expected sale price. It was one of the last “independently operated pioneers of the web,” the New York Times points out. But its business was devastated by the meteoric rise of Google and Facebook.

The purchase will unite Yahoo with AOL, which Verizon bought for $4.4 billion last year. Together, the two companies account for more unique visitors than Google. But critics question whether Verizon can monetize those clicks.

“Treason” in Zimbabwe

Robert Mugabe’s days may be numbered.

Facing a power struggle rooted in economic turmoil and widespread protests from pastor Evan Mawarire’s This Flag movement, Mugabe last week came under attack from veterans of the country’s war for independence – who have been a “stalwart pillar of support” for Mugabe for decades, according to the Guardian. On Saturday, he responded by calling them traitors.

Reading between the lines, Reuters suggests that the “treasonous” statement was less a condemnation of Mugabe – who is frail and expected to step down soon – than a move to influence who will succeed him. Senior members of Mugabe’s political party want to see his wife, Grace Mugabe, take over, while veterans would prefer Vice President Emmerson Mnangagwa take charge.


Don’t Drink the Water

Don’t drink the water is a warning most Americans reserve for south of the border. But the discovery of the mind-altering chemical found in marijuana in the water supply has prompted a similar order in the tiny town of Hugo, Colorado (pop. 700).

Officials said they don’t know how much of the chemical, THC, is present in the water supply, and they’re not sure how it got there – although an investigation has revealed that at least one of the town’s wells has been tampered with, the Denver Post reported.

But they’re not taking any chances. Warning that THC can cause “psychotic symptoms such as hallucinations, paranoia, or delusional beliefs,” Colorado health officials warned residents not to drink, bathe in or cook with tap water – or even let pets drink it.

Others cautioned against excess alarm.

“It would take more product than any of us could afford to contaminate a city water supply to the extent that people would suffer any effects,” the Post quoted a Lincoln County health officer as saying.


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