The Cook Political Report's Amy Walter discusses why President Biden's popular policies haven't translated to popularity among voters.
Guest Host: Allison Aubrey
The Egyptian military says wreckage has been found from a passenger airliner that crashed yesterday on its way from Paris to Cairo. The cause of the Egypt Air accident is under investigation. Another bloody week in Baghdad as ISIS continues to target civilians in the Iraqi capital. Beijing warns the U.S. to stop surveillance after Chinese jets intercepted a U.S. spy plane over the South China Sea. Russia is under fire over allegations of state-sponsored doping by dozens of its Olympic athletes. And in Nigeria, authorities say two schoolgirls captured by Boko Haram have been found. A panel of journalists joins guest host Allison Aubrey for analysis of the week’s top international news stories.
- Edward Luce Chief U.S. columnist and commentator, Financial Times; author of "Time to Start Thinking: America in the Age of Descent"
- Mary Beth Sheridan Deputy foreign editor, The Washington Post
- Shane Harris Senior correspondent, The Daily Beast; Future of War fellow, New America; author, "At War: The Rise of the Military-Internet Complex" and "The Watchers: The Rise of America's Surveillance State"
- Declan Walsh Cairo bureau chief, The New York Times, covering the war in Syria
MS. ALLISON AUBREYThanks for joining us. I'm Allison Aubrey of NPR News sitting in for Diane Rehm. Officials announce the discovery of debris from the EgyptAir plane that crashed yesterday in the Mediterranean Sea. The U.S. considers sending troops to Libya. And a second Nigerian schoolgirl, captured by Boko Haram, returns home.
MS. ALLISON AUBREYHere to discuss this week's top international stories on the Friday News Roundup, Edward Luce of The Financial Times, Mary Beth Sheridan of The Washington Post and Shane Harris of The Daily Beast. Welcome to the program all of you.
MR. SHANE HARRISGood morning.
MS. MARY BETH SHERIDANThank you.
MR. EDWARD LUCEGood morning.
AUBREYWe want to hear from you out there, too, so give us a call, 800-433-8850, or send us an email to email@example.com. But first, to give us the latest on the EgyptAir crash is Declan Walsh, Cairo bureau chief for the New York Times. He is on the line from Cairo. Thanks so much for joining us.
MR. DECLAN WALSHMy pleasure.
AUBREYDeclan, first, what is the latest? Have we learned anything new in the last few hours here?
WALSHWell, earlier on today, the Egyptian authorities announced that they had found the first wreckage from the plane. Last night, there had been something of a false sighting. The airline, EgyptAir, saying that it had found wreckage and then later going back and saying that had been a mistake. But today, we have the Egyptian search and rescue boats have found luggage from the airplane. They have found some body parts and they have located the area where they believe most of the wreckage is found.
AUBREYAnd can you tell us why we're hearing from some that terrorism is more likely than mechanical or human failure?
WALSHWell, that's largely circumstantial. It goes back to the fact, of course, that terrorism is blamed for the downing of the Russian airliner that crashed into the Sinai desert in October, killing 224 people. And the Islamic State claimed responsibility for that attack and the British and Russian governments, well, not naming Islamic State, they said they believed that terrorist were responsible and eventually, after some hesitation, the Egyptian government agreed.
WALSHSo there is obviously, in the last six or seven months, a track record of Islamists or rather militant attacks that have succeeded in Egypt and that's why a lot of the focus, I think, is on terrorism for this crash. That said, all the authorities both in Egypt and in France have cautioned that there is very little proof yet to point to a terrorist attack, other than circumstantial evidence at this point.
AUBREYAnd tell us what you make of the official Egyptian response to this. It's somewhat different, I'm gathering, than with past tragedies, is it not?
WALSHThat's right. There was a lot of criticism of the Egyptian authorities after the EgyptAir or rather after the Metrojet, the Russian passenger attack in October and the Egyptians were -- seemed to have been rather secretive and defensive. And as I said, they had denied the idea that Islamists were behind or rather that a bomb had been behind that attack until practically every other country was talking about it.
WALSHAnd this time, certainly, the government has been more open, has made, I think, a conscious effort to be more transparent. There was quite a lot of information coming out yesterday from the airline, EgyptAir, which is a big airline, and yesterday, also the minister of civil aviation gave a press conference where he tried to address questions at some length. And earlier on today, we had the president, President Sisi has announced the formation of a commission of inquiry and has offered his condolences to the families of the victims, which, of course, was seen as, at the very least, effectively an admission -- an official confirmation that everybody on board was believed to have died.
AUBREYAnd Declan, this tragedy comes at a difficult time for Egypt. You wrote just this morning that Egypt was poised for a comeback of sorts.
WALSHThat's right. It's been an extremely difficult number of months for the Egyptian government, for Egyptians in general and there's been a series of different crisis, if you like, going back to last summer when we had a number of -- eight Mexican tourists who were accidentally killed by the Egyptian military in the desert. Then, there was the Russian air crash in October that killed over 200 people and part from the human tragedy of that, it also dealt an absolutely crippling blow to the country's tourism business, which had already been on its knees and that crisis has exacerbated into this year.
WALSHThey currently have dropped by about 30 percent since November. That has had a lot of negative impact on ordinary people. Inflation now is very high and there's quite a growing amount of disgruntlement with President Sisi's government and then on top of that, they're are...
AUBREYSo really tough time times there.
WALSHVery tough times.
AUBREYDeclan Walsh is the Cairo bureau chief for the New York Times. Declan, thank you for being with us.
AUBREYNow, in recent days, Egypt has been in the news for another reason, 152 protesters were arrested and sentenced to jail. Edward Luce, tell us why.
LUCEWell, the Egyptian government, last month, agreed to hand back two contested islands that it had -- had been under its control to Saudi Arabia. There was a dispute over sovereignty of the islands -- in exchanged for a Saudi aid package and this prompted very large street demonstrations against the el-Sisi government. Mass arrests, as is that's government's want, very heavy-handed Draconian response to these protests and a sentence this week of several hundred of these protesters to between two and five years in jail.
LUCESo for a number of charges ranging from treason to disturbing the peace. So this is, you know, a latest example of a government that feels -- a regime that feels very brittle, that doesn't have -- command popular support and that is creating a lot of what it fears by the heavy-handed response to any, even very mild, form of protests against it.
AUBREYAnd Shane Harris of The Daily Beast, is this a change for the government? I mean, why the extreme reaction?
HARRISYeah, the Al-Sisi government has cracked down on dissent and protesters. I think, you know, he feels quite paranoid and under threat and on the ropes from this. And you see that in the, as Ed was saying, the really Draconian reaction. Putting this in the context, too, of the EgyptAir crash, I mean, this could not come at a worse time for people in Egypt. And we had a piece by a colleague of mine, Nancy Yousseff today, writing about how, you know, people have already been struggling.
HARRISThere's already been this, you know, especially for the youth in Egypt who very much want democracy, who have been protesting against the government and being pushed down, now this crash comes. The threat of the specter of terrorism, which they're all hoping it's not terrorism, this is really just sort of a -- it's at a terrible moment in a confluence of events. And, you know, it's very interesting to see the government being as transparent as it is with this information.
HARRISI think that's a reflection of the fact that it knows the world is watching right now.
AUBREYMary Beth Sheridan of The Washington Post, two girls kidnapped by Boko Haram from the Chibok region of Nigeria were reportedly found this week. Tell us, remind us the story of these girls.
SHERIDANWell, there was a mass kidnapping of over 200 girls at a school in Chibok that was two years ago. They were taken away by al-Shabaab, which is an Islamist militant group, spirited away and the group threatened to sell them, marry them off, et cetera. And this just became a global sensation. And what's amazing is thousands and thousands of girls and women have actually been taken captive by al-Shabaab.
SHERIDANBrutally treated. You know, my colleague Kevin Sieff recently did a story about some of the women -- actually, many of the women are now being freed. Not most of the Chibok girls, but many are being freed as the army has steadily been pushing back Boko Haram in Nigeria -- I think I said al-Shabaab before. It's actually Boko Haram, sorry. But anyway, but these poor women are telling tales of just horrible sexual abuse. And what's quite frightening is that some of them have kind of been brainwashed and are feared to be -- some of them have been used in suicide bombings and so on.
SHERIDANBut at any rate, the Chibok girls, in particular, those -- most of them are still missing, most of the ones who -- those 218 who had been detained for now, you know, more than two years. So the first of that group was found on Tuesday of this week and then a second girl was found. It turned out she was not part of that 218, but she indeed had been at that school, but she was captured in a different incident when she was on vacation in her home town.
AUBREYSo sort of bittersweet. The homecoming was a little bit bittersweet. As she was coming home, she was, of course, surrounded by many family members and friends who still have girls -- still have these girls missing.
SHERIDANAbsolutely. And, you know, one of the sad things that we're seeing, too, is that these women and girls are now being freed from the areas where Boko Haram is being pushed back and the reception is quite mixed because many people accuse them of having somehow collaborated, even though these women, in many cases, were really treated as sex slaves and were terribly abused.
AUBREYAnd Edward Luce, the inability to rescue these other girls has been a real political embarrassment for Nigerian leaders, is that right?
LUCEYes. So Mohammadu Buhari, the president of Nigeria, was elected last year on the promise of making up for the incompetence of his predecessor, Good Luck Jonathan, you know, who had been unable to do anything about these almost 300 missing girls. And he, as a former military man and as somebody who'd had military experience -- I'm sorry, previous presidential experience in Nigeria, made a very credible case that he would get the army under control, notoriously corrupt Nigerian military, and retrieve these girls.
LUCEAnd so it's got -- the longer this has gone on without any retrievals, without any rescue operations, the more embarrassing and politically damaging it's been to him. This is, as Mary Beth said, it's only two girls, possibly only one of the original school girls. So it's by no means a big success yet, but it's presumably a lot better than none.
AUBREYAnd when these women return home, the victims of kidnapping return home, they are often shunned, is that right, Shane Harris?
HARRISYeah. In fact, there was one account of a -- the main girl we've been talking about that I found so striking was that her mother was crying, you know, in relief to see her, but at the same time almost looked at her like she was sort of, you know, foreign and exotic and the girl had to come up to her and, like, comfort her own mother and to say this is a good thing that I'm home. I'm, basically, still the same person. It was almost as if she didn't recognize who was in front of her. It was quite striking.
AUBREYStay with us. More of our Friday News Roundup after a short break. I'm Allison Aubrey of NPR News sitting in for Diane Rehm.
AUBREYWelcome back. I'm Allison Aubrey of NPR News sitting in for Diane Rehm. So, Mary Beth Sheridan, it has been a horrific few weeks for residents of Baghdad. ISIS has taken responsibility for a wave of bombings targeting civilians. Is there a strategy behind these bombings?
SHERIDANThat's a good question. You'd think that Baghdad had almost seen it all, but there were over 150 people killed this past week in these terrible bombings. I talked this morning to our bureau chief, Loveday Morris, who's been writing about this from Baghdad. And the feeling is ISIS really is suffering in a big way. I mean, they've lost 40 percent of their territory in Iraq. They've lost a lot of leaders. They're struggling to pay their own sort of foot soldiers. And so, indeed, they are in some ways seemingly shifting tactics.
SHERIDANAnd I think one of the ideas here is that they're hoping to hit the government in an area that it feels it must protect and maybe try to push the government to pull some of its soldiers back from the offensive against ISIS's self-proclaimed caliphate, because the government forces have been actually making some decent progress.
AUBREYYeah. And, Shane, the U.S. has urged the Iraqi government not to pull troops from the ISIS front to reinforce Baghdad. What is the Iraqi government doing?
HARRISRight. Well, the fear is that they'll pull back from the front where they're making some gains against ISIS and where the U.S. wants those troops to be positioned for bigger offenses in Fallujah and ultimately in Mosul and that they'll pull back into Baghdad. And that's the wrong way, right? So don't sort of give in to these bombings and sort of retreat back to the city. We need you out there in the field. And what's interesting, I was talking to a U.S. intelligence official about this question of motive, and they pin this very much as sort of a desperate PR attempt...
HARRIS...on the part of ISIS, saying that they're on the ropes, they're losing ground, and when they do this, they lash out and they try and get social media attention, and really trying I think to sort of put out this message and maybe even bolster the Iraqis of, as bad as this is, don't give in to this trick and sort of fall back. They want you to do that. You need to stay out there, ready to fight these bigger battles.
AUBREYEdward Luce, we're hearing that al-Qaida is planning to challenge ISIS in Syria. Explain what's going on there.
LUCEWell, they've been very much eclipsed by ISIS, not just in Syria but elsewhere, including Afghanistan, which of course was, you know, one of their original strongholds. So Ayman al-Zawahiri, the head of al-Qaida, based in Pakistan, has announced that there will be a diversion of al-Qaida leaders to join al-Nusra, it's branch in Syria, and a declaration of an emirate, not a caliphate as ISIS has declared. And there's a theological dispute there...
LUCE...between al-Qaida and ISIS over whether ISIS has the authority to declare a caliphate. That's a global capital for Muslims, whereas an emirate is a more modest jurisdiction, if you like. So clearly, the real story here is a branding war with ISIS. I mean, ISIS is winning that war. Groups like Boko Haram, in fact, have switched their loyal -- allegiance from al-Qaida to ISIS and other Islamist groups around the world have done the same. And this is an attempt to say, oh, look at us. We're still here.
LUCEThe danger from the al-Nusra point of view is that they've had a very different strategy to ISIS on the ground in Syria. Namely, they've tried to work with non-Islamist groups. They haven't gone round beheading apostates. They've -- they haven't gone round sort of destroying antiquities in the same way that, you know, ISIS has been doing. And this move, this declaration of an emirate, might well alienate some of those groups that al-Nusra is working with. So that's the sort of shift-on-the-ground impact.
AUBREYOn Monday there were reports of an agreement to arm the new Libyan government. Why? Tell us what's happening there, Shane.
HARRISYeah, well, Libya has become a new hot-bed for ISIS. I mean, there are some, I think, 5,000 is the latest number that are going there. U.S. officials and European officials are very concerned that this is a powder keg waiting to go. And Libya, of course, is an unstable country. It's divided between two governments we support, one that the U.N. recognizes. What I sense in this decision to -- basically, it's lifting an arms embargo that was in place against Gadhafi so that weapons and small arms can go in -- is almost a sense on the U.S. of not repeating maybe what are now seen as mistakes in Syria. Like, let's go in and let's arm people now so they can stop this spread of ISIS.
HARRISThere was a terrific report out this week by Human Rights Watch actually looking at what's happening in Sirte, which is one of these cities that ISIS has taken over, and just the devastation of the civilian population there. It's becoming extremely desperate in Libya. And I think that this arming is seen as basically trying to give the people there a fighting chance. And we do, after all, support that government and we want them to succeed.
AUBREYMary Beth Sheridan of The Washington Post, Secretary of State John Kerry called the plan to arm -- to help arm Libya a delicate balance. Talk about this a little bit.
SHERIDANWell, I think that there are legitimate concerns about how much the government that's been sort of -- the unity government put together essentially with U.N. help, how much they control -- can they control these arms? Can they keep them from flowing to ISIS or other groups? One piece of this plan was to figure out arming and training for a presidential guard. And one of the problems right now is there actually is no presidential guard.
AUBREYAh. A problem.
SHERIDANThe situation is just so deeply fragmented between not only all kinds of militias, jihadist groups, et cetera, there's a big split between the west of the country and the east. So the goal is to try and really focus on a government that can gradually draw together a lot of the non-radical groups. But it's tough work.
AUBREYHow important is defeating terrorist groups in Libya to a global security?
LUCEWell, on a number of fronts it's very important. I mean, the -- Libya has, of course, since the EU-Turkey deal, sort of stemmed the flow of migrants from Turkey to Greece and to take some back, has become the new sort of main conduit for refugees into Europe. So that's one factor. Another is, of course, as Shane mentioned, it's really ISIS's second emerging base, after Syria. A third is, to make up for what was a neglectful, if not incompetent international approach following the overthrow of Gadhafi, that has led to this chaos.
LUCEThree -- there were no fewer than three governments still claiming to be the government of Libya. This new U.N.-sponsored Government of National Accord is the one that will be internationally recognized. But it is chaotic there on the ground. And when you get chaos, when you get a power vacuum, you get exploitation by terrorist groups. So there are many multiple levels where, you know, it's in the international interest to stabilize Libya. The one other thing that's worth mentioning is Joseph Dunford, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff...
LUCE...said this week that U.S. military advisors might be going into Libya on a, you know, on a larger scale. And I think that's very significant. As Shane says, it's to prevent another Syria in the making.
AUBREYMary Beth Sheridan.
SHERIDANYeah. I would also just add to what Edward said. There's, I think, growing fears that the chaos in Libya could destabilize Tunisia, which is its neighbor.
AUBREYA surrounding country, yeah.
SHERIDANAnd it's the only country really to emerge from those Arab Spring uprisings with a, admittedly very fragile, but what's been an okay democracy up till now. But increasingly you see the fighting spilling over and it's really a dangerous thing.
AUBREYI'm going to open the phones now. Carl of Land of the Ozarks, Mo., you're on the air.
CARLHey. Yeah. Thanks for taking my call. My question is a little convoluted and it might be -- sound like it's, you know, crying over spilled milk. But this situation that is going on in Iraq specifically, but really all over the Mid-East, it seems to -- the point seems to get lost that we created most of this by a poor foreign policy, even as far back as supporting the Shah of Iran and then ignoring the Islamic fundamentalist movement way back in the '70s. And I'm just wondering, is this just the paradigm in America where we do whatever we want to do and then we kind of ignore our culpability for actually creating these situations?
AUBREYCarl, thanks very much for that question. Shane Harris.
HARRISWell, I think this actually is going to feature in the political debates probably as well with -- I mean, Donald Trump has made the argument, as have others -- but he's the Republican front-runner now -- that the entrance into Iraq in 2003 was the greatest foreign policy mistake the U.S. has made in generations. And that he would say that this has set off many of the consequences that you're seeing. I think President Obama has generally taken the tack that there are conflicts here that are so far entrenched that there's very little that we can actually do about it.
HARRISI think this is a central question that is hotly debated actually in American policy as, what is ultimately the culpability of the United States for some of these conflicts? What is our ability to influence their outcomes? I mean, I don't have a great answer for that. I'm not sure anyone does. But that is sort of one of the big, central questions of our role in that region.
AUBREYEdward Luce, I want to move on to something I know you want to talk about. The Pentagon says Chinese jets intercepted a U.S. spy plane over the South China Sea this week. What happened? And why is this significant?
LUCEWell, it's significant because there's clearly heightening tension there over China's military installations on some of these coral reefs that it claims in the South China Sea, but also -- and of course there are freedom-of-navigation navel -- U.S. Navel patrols going through very close to these coral reefs, these shoals, and there are continual American surveillance flights as well.
LUCEThere's two reasons why it's particularly significant. One, is Obama is going to the region on Sunday. President Obama will be arriving in Vietnam on Sunday for his first visit to that country. And there is talk that the Cam Ranh Naval Base be opened up again, after, what is it, more than 40 years, to U.S. Naval visits. And this is a very neuralgic subject to the Chinese. Vietnam is to China a little bit -- this analogy has been made -- as Cuba is to the United States. It's next door. Any sense that the Americans are deepening military ties -- as they have been with the Philippines and a number of other regional claimants to the South China Sea -- is a hyper-sensitive subject to Beijing. That's one reason.
LUCEAnd another reason is that it's redolent of the spy plane collision in 2001...
LUCE...in the early days of the George Bush administration, where, again, similar to the incident this week when Chinese jets flew very close to the spy plane and collided with it and one of the jets went down, in fact. And there was then a 10-day standoff with 24 American Air Servicemen on Hainan Island that was between the Bush administration and the Chinese government, that was, you know, the closest it came to any kind of conflict with China than America has in the last 20, 30 years. So it, you know, it's a hair-trigger situation. It's very, very tense. And Obama's visit is coming in the middle of this.
AUBREYAnd we have a call from Spencer in Princeton, N.J., who has a question about what China is doing in the South China Sea. Spencer, you're on the air.
SPENCERHi. I would just like to ask about the emerging alliance between Russia and China. Both of them did the same tactic. Russia did something in the Baltic Sea, flying a jet really close to one of our Navy vessels. Is this kind of an aggression tactic new? And is it part of the, what we call like the hybrid warfare used by Russia in several fields now?
HARRISI think that there is something maybe to the hybrid warfare aspect. I mean, look, Vladimir Putin has been muscular and aggressive and provocative, more so than we've seen Russia be recently. I'm not sure how much of this is coordinated with Beijing. But, you know, these kinds of provocations and these brush ups in international waters, and we had the Russian fighter buzzing a U.S. Naval ship, as you mentioned, these are not unheard of. But they come at a moment of particularly heightened tensions between the U.S. and Russia -- especially, particularly over what's going on in Syria.
HARRISThe reason these things -- people in the military, in particular, are very nervous, is because the chance for an accident or an inadvertent collision or something is very, very high in moments like these. And that they really, as Ed said, it's a hair-trigger that can turn sort of a, you know, a bit of a standoff and kind of a, you know, a bit of a school-yard kind of gamesmanship as I see it, and just seems like it's an international incident very quickly.
AUBREYI'm Allison Aubrey of NPR News. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." If you'd like to join us, give us a call, 800-433-8850. Or send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. We have a call from Barbara in Parsons, Kan. Barbara, you're on the air.
BARBARAYes. I object to the media mincing words about groups like Boko Haram. They are not Islam. They don't represent the Muslim religion. They are a perversion of what many good Muslims believe. These young girls have been kidnapped because they're being educated, not just to become sex slaves. And...
AUBREYEdward -- oh, thank you very much for the call. Edward Luce.
LUCEWe're not adjudicators of theology. And I don't think anybody's claiming here that Boko Haram or any of these other groups are true Islam or not true Islam, any more than you'd claim the Ku Klux Klan is true Christian. And so I don't -- I think that's a misunderstanding of what we're saying. These are terrorist groups which are no doubt perversions of Islam. But we're not claiming to be theological experts.
AUBREYMary Beth Sheridan.
SHERIDANI would just add that they're going beyond kidnapping girls who are seeking education. They really have subjected just extraordinary numbers of women in areas that they've conquered in the past few years to really what is clearly kind of a slavery. And they've been extraordinarily abusive, including forced marriages and that kind of thing.
AUBREYGot it. Shane Harris, this week in China also marked the 50th anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution. How was it marked in China?
HARRISWell, it's interesting. You had the state media coming out and calling it a total failure and insisting we're not going to go back to that again. This is not the first time that, you know, that statement -- they have done that and sort of tried to put the Cultural Revolution behind them. But there's this sort of far left kind of nostalgia that is brewing right now for those days. And I think that it concerns the government greatly. So on the occasion of the 50th anniversary, it was, you know, it was I guess somewhat muted in general in China. But to have official state media coming out and trying to decisively say, no, we're never going back again, it will never happen, I think reflects that anxiety over sort of some people kind of longing for those old days.
AUBREYGot it. Mary Beth Sheridan.
SHERIDANYeah. It's also interesting though that the official media kind of tried to move on quite quickly. I think they don't want to dwell on that period. They don't really want to...
AUBREYThey don't want to give people a chance to be nostalgic.
SHERIDANWell, and I -- but I also think they don't want to really discredit Mao. I think they want to kind of, let's leave that behind us and look forward.
LUCEMary Beth's right. Mao is still 70 percent good, 30 percent bad.
LUCEThat's the official line. But, I mean, I think the key thing here is he launched the Cultural Revolution 50 years ago as an attack on the Communist Party, as an attack on stable government, which had marginalized him after the great leap forward. And so, you know, celebrating what was essentially anarchy is the last thing Xi Jinping -- who's nervous of his legitimacy, aware there are a lot of protests going on over a lot of issues -- the last thing you want to do is license this kind of grassroots political rebellion. It's a very clear sort of self-preservation instinct to call the Cultural Revolution a complete mistake.
AUBREYWe have a call from Hushang in Norman, Okla. Hushang, you're on the air.
HUSHANGHi. Thank you. I just wanted to mention that I think down the road we are going to -- it's not a matter of if, it's a matter of when -- when something nasty is going to happen because of the Saudi and the Gulf States funding of these extremist groups all around the neighborhood as a lever against Iran and regimes like that. And I hope the U.S. government is keeping a close eye on the money that's being transferred around to prop up these little Wahabi, Salafi groups all around the world. Just, that was my comment.
AUBREYSure. So Saudi-backed funding of jihadist groups, Shane.
HARRISSure. Yeah. It's something that the U.S. tracks quite closely and is -- it's actually become a political hot topic lately with this question of whether 28 pages from the Congressional inquiry into 9/11 on possibly Saudi funding are going to be declassified, which I think they will be.
AUBREYComing up, your calls and questions. Stay with us. We'll be right back. I'm Allison Aubrey of NPR News sitting in for Diane Rehm.
AUBREYWelcome back to the Friday news roundup. I'm Allison Aubrey of NPR News, sitting in for Diane Rehm. We have an email here from Taylor in Houston, Texas. He says one clarification that should be made regarding the bombings based on what we were discussing during the first hour, he says the plan originated in Paris and not Egypt. So it is the security at Charles de Gaulle Airport that should be called into question, not of Northern Africa, as a panel suggested. Any thoughts there?
HARRISWell, it also depends on where else the plane was in its routes. I think it stopped in Tunis at one point, and I mean, the theory about how the bomb got aboard the Russian Metrojet in the Sinai is that somebody who had access to the plane, maybe on the tarmac, may have put a device somewhere in the cargo hold or near a fuel line. So the question is where in all its various stops could someone have had access to it.
HARRISThat said, when the plane lands in Paris, one would hope that it undergoes some sort of screening and, you know, in the cargo and the passenger holds. And if somebody -- if this were a bomb and got on through the passenger system, as in getting past airline screening in de Gaulle, then that's absolutely, 100 percent on the Paris officials.
AUBREYGot it. Edward?
LUCEI mean, so far the piece of this still pretty nonexistent puzzle that I think is most interesting and lends itself most to the fear this might be a terrorist attack is that we know that the Greek air traffic control authorities were for 10 minutes before this plane disappeared, for 10 minutes trying to talk to the cockpit and not hearing anything back. And that would be inconsistent with just a sudden mechanical failure.
AUBREYMary Beth Sheridan?
SHERIDANYeah, I think that clearly ISIS is active now in so many places. It's targeted Paris, obviously, it's targeted Brussels, raising questions about the safety features at the Brussels airport. So I think there's any number of things that could have happened in this case.
AUBREYSure. In Afghanistan, there are reports of a U.S. drone strike that killed an al-Qaeda commander. Who was he, and how big of a blow is this to the terror group, Shane?
HARRISYeah, he's the al-Qaeda commander there, and there were five others killed along with him. It's one of these strikes that I'm not sure how much of a dent this ultimately makes. Do you know what I mean? There have been lots of drone strikes. This was one conducted by the military, so they acknowledged it. You know, but sure there has been a constant kind of, you know, campaign both by Afghan forces and U.S. forces there against al-Qaeda, they don't want alliances with the Taliban. This is sort of an ongoing feature, I think, of that campaign and ultimately doesn't make a huge difference.
HARRISMore significant, I think, is what we talked about earlier, al-Qaeda trying to branch out into Syria. That's a much more kind of telling development, I think.
AUBREYMary Beth Sheridan?
SHERIDANI think what is interesting about what we know about this drone strike is that, you know, a couple years ago, as the U.S. was drawing down its forces in Afghanistan, the thought was that al-Qaeda was down to a bunch of -- a couple dozen old dudes who were, you know, married to Afghans, living in the mountains. They were dangerous but not too bad.
AUBREYThis is not the case.
SHERIDANYou know, a few weeks ago, the U.S. discovered a whole new al-Qaeda training camp. So now we're talking about 150 to 300, not a couple dozen, and there's a lot of worry on the part of the Afghans and the U.S. that these guys are working more closely with the Taliban. So it seems to be still not a threat on the scale of ISIS but more than we thought.
AUBREYEdward Luce, it's been 15 years since the 9/11 attacks. How big of a presence does al-Qaeda have in Afghanistan, and are they joining forces with Taliban fighters?
LUCEYeah, well, as Mary Beth said, it's 200, 300. It's nothing like the kinds of recruits ISIS has been getting. There's it's numbering more in the thousands. And as Mary Beth said, they are cooperating with the Taliban. They're still hand in glove with them. They also tend to be of Arab origin, as opposed to a lot of the ISIS recruits, which are Pashtuns, local Afghans who've been defecting from Taliban.
LUCESo there is something, you know, with very, very different, local, specific conditions, something like the mess of various Islamist groups on the ground in Afghanistan that you're seeing in Syria. It's not as complicated, but it's getting more so.
AUBREYWe have a call from John in Dearborn, Michigan. John, you're on the air.
JOHNYes, I hear earlier with you that only two girls had been released by Boko Haram or had been found who had been kidnapped by Boko Haram. Now yesterday I heard a news report on NPR that 100 girls had been released through an assault on a Boko Haram stronghold by military in Nigeria. Is that not something your panel's aware of?
AUBREYMary Beth Sheridan?
SHERIDANYeah, you know, there's been all kinds of reports out of Nigeria, and oftentimes the government's presented rather rosy predictions of what would happen. The truth is the Nigerian military, though, has been pushing back Boko Haram. They have rescued many, many women and girls. But of the 218 Chibok girls who were -- who've been held for two years, actually only one that we know of has been rescued.
LUCEYeah, that's correct. I think there's a confusion between the Chibok girls in particular and the more general kidnappings and imprisonments that Boko Haram have done on a larger scale in Northern Nigeria.
AUBREYGot it. I wanted to move back to something we were talking about just before the break. Shane Harris, we're talking about Saudi Arabia. The Saudis are bracing for the release of these classified 28 pages, as they've come to be known. Is that right?
HARRISYeah, that's right. They've said on record since 2003, excuse me, that they want them released. I think that they knew that they wouldn't be released when they said that. But yes, I mean, and the Saudis through their various representatives in Washington have in the past couple of weeks been laying the groundwork for kind of the counterargument for what's believed to be in those pages. And so when they come out, I think you're going to see a pretty vocal pushback and people arguing kind of point by point everything that's in those pages and trying to take them apart.
HARRISThey're still secret, but so much of what's in them has leaked out that we generally know what they're going to say. So there'll be a very strong rebuttal, and the Saudis are getting ready for that already.
AUBREYAnd this leads to a question by a caller, Montaz (PH) on St. Louis, Missouri. Montaz, you're on the air.
MONTAZHey, this is Montaz Lalani (PH) from St. Louis, Missouri. Yes, previous caller said about American should monitor the money movement of Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia and Wahhabis, they are the cause of all terrorism, but America is turning a blind eye to it because if they confront Saudi Arabia, America's going to lose a lot, and that's why they are not doing anything because Saudi Arabia's a country which discriminates everybody there, and they promote this terrorism everywhere around the world.
LUCEWell, I mean, there is a case to be made that yes, the Saudi sort of funneled to madrasas, to Salafi/Wahhabi influence, madrasas all over the world, not just in the Middle East, has been the sort of building -- the platform from which support for Jihadis has flourished, and that's been an acute dilemma for the United States since way before 9/11 that still hasn't really been resolved. I think, you know, it is worth noting that President Obama has expressed publicly his frustration with this, and clearly inadvertently therefore betrayed some of his impotence in being able to do much about it because, you know, there are other considerations at stake here, and Saudi Arabia is not just a big oil exporter, but it's a counterbalance against Iran and so forth.
LUCESo the caller -- I think the caller is probably right, but I don't see -- I don't see a big change in U.S. policy towards Saudi Arabia or indeed any dramatic internal reforms within Saudi Arabia in the near future.
AUBREYAnd Shane Harris, but the -- our relationship with Saudi Arabia is a little strained, as you just mentioned.
HARRISOh yeah, definitely that's right. I mean, certainly maybe at the working level between our military and intelligence services it's better, but, you know, at the level of the leaders' leader, as I was saying, you know, President Obama has betrayed a lot of his frustration, I think. And that is markedly different from how President Bush behaved towards the Saudis. In fact when President Bush was leaving office, and Obama was coming in, it's been reported he actually tried to convey and impress upon the incoming president that maintaining the Saudi alliance was one of the most important things to U.S. national security. I think Obama probably took a bit more of a nuanced view of that.
HARRISBut certainly that alliance is still there, and this issue of money going to fundamentalist and funneling it to terrorist groups, that is very much part of the central critique of the people who were trying to get those 28 pages released, and I think it's one reason why the Saudis are also fearful of this is not just for what they're going to say, but it is going to in a very prominent way once again bring up this whole debate of is Saudi Arabia really our friend, or are they working against our interests.
AUBREYGot it. We have a website comment from Barlenon. Out of the three topics in the show summary, two involve Islamic terrorism, and the third looks like probable Islamic terrorism. What does the long-term trend look like, more of the same? Mary Beth Sheridan?
SHERIDANYou know, it's -- you raise an interesting point. I mean, let's just look at Iraq. You see that ISIS is being pushed back in what was its so-called caliphate, and yet it still has the power to unleash terrible violence in Baghdad. And I think what ultimately you're looking at here is, well, the U.S. can genuinely say that strides are being made against shrinking the size of the caliphate. Unless some of the grievances on the ground are really dealt with, ISIS is still going to have support and will strike out in some fashion, and that is the Sunnis, who are a minority, of course, in Iraq, face a government dominated by Shiites that has been very discriminatory against them and so on.
SHERIDANAnd so a really tricky long-term thing is unless you find a way for those two major groups to coexist in some peaceful fashion, there are going to be Sunnis who resort to violence because that's what they see as their only outlet.
LUCEYeah, I think that's absolutely spot-on, but the -- sort of there are two problems here. One is territory controlled by Islamist groups, and another is terrorism. And the sort of tradeoff between the two is they lose territory, they resort more to terrorism. It's I think -- you know, terrorism will always be with us. I don't think anybody would be bold enough to predict that will be eliminated. But you can quite clearly foresee the day when territory held by terrorist groups will no longer happen, you know, and I think that's -- you know, that's the game at the moment.
AUBREYSure, we have an email here from Dave in Mulberry, Florida. He says the Egyptians are reluctant to say the plane was downed by terrorists because they want tourists to visit Egypt, and this is a big negative in the PR campaign to increase tourism in Egypt. We were just talking with Declan about how Egypt is sort of poised for a comeback. Shane Harris?
HARRISWhat was interesting was the Egyptian aviation minister was one of the first people to come out and say it looks more like terrorism than a mechanical failure. Now the subsequent statements that have been coming from President el-Sisi that have been issued in the past 36 hours or so are a bit more measured and saying we're still investigating the cause of this. But I was struck by how quickly they were kind of going there with no real evidence precisely because this is the last thing that Egypt wants when this is absolutely, as Declan said, their tourism economy has been crippled to now have your national airline, you know, being targeted successfully by terrorists.
LUCEI mean, there is one theory, I don't know how substantiated this is, that because the flight originated in Paris, and now Sharm el-Sheikh, that the Egyptians are keen to say, yes, this is terrorism, and it didn't originate on our soil.
AUBREYI'm Allison Aubrey of NPR News. You're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. I want to take a call now from Janice in Evansville, Indiana. Janice, you're on the air.
JANICEHi, thank you.
JANICEThank you. Right after 9/11, I thought it would have been a good idea just to pull our interests out of the Middle East. I know we get a lot of oil there, and we need the Panama Canal -- or not the Panama, the Suez Canal, but if we shifted our oil interests to South America, which needed the money, needed the stability, we may not have been in agreement with their politics, but it's not the political quagmire that the Middle East is. I don't know how they would have reacted to not getting oil money from us anymore. But it seems to me it would've been a practical solution that no one ever thought of.
HARRISWell, I think that would have been a pretty drastic solution, actually, and, you know, we have military and strategic interests in there, as well. But look, I do think that it is fair to say if you broad arc of the Obamas administration's foreign policy in the Middle East over the past eight years that the president believes that we overestimate all the time our ability to influence in the region, that we should be looking for ways to not eject from the region but disentangle ourselves from many of these conflicts and leave many of the decisions on how to govern these areas to governments that are there and trying to make them more responsible.
HARRISBut I think that the idea of us simply pulling out, you know, as good as that might feel as a solution to it, I think would ultimately create vastly more problems than it would solve, at least in the short term. This is -- if this is to be a real pullback, it's going to have to be something that happens over a generation. I don't think you can just do it at once.
AUBREYMary Beth Sheridan, a generational pullback, you couldn't do it at once?
SHERIDANYeah, I agree with that, and I think that what's interesting is you look at a place like Syria, and I think the Obama administration is often quite criticized for not taking more action at key moments. And it's certainly a very delicate balance, but the U.S. has the ability to be influential, and so the idea clearly one thing is sending hundreds of thousands of troops, another thing is being able to use other, you know, elements of U.S. power.
SHERIDANSo I think the idea of pulling out completely would indeed contribute to potentially a very chaotic situation.
AUBREYWe have a call from Nabil in Orlando, Florida. Nabil, you're on the air.
NABILHey, thanks for taking my call. You know, someone told me a long time ago there's a price and a consequence to pay for everything. And it just puzzles me that a country as smart and great as America and the people in it just can't understand the root for every problem. Al-Qaeda was born in Afghanistan after the Russian invasion. ISIS was born in Iraq after the U.S. invasion, two superpowers. And when this kind of stuff happens, and people understand that after the 9/11 report, it wasn't just the Saudis that were implicated, in that report, Israel was implicated, also.
NABILTheir intelligence agency, they knew about what happened. And there was 250 agents, Israeli agents, that were arrested after 9/11, not one Saudi one. So let's be fair and put the blame around. That's the first point. The second point, if you really wanted to solve this, you would simply go back to the Middle East, and you would make sure that the reasons why ISIS was funded in the first place for people like Saudi Arabia for example was because of the strong Shiite presence that was overwhelming the Sunni presence in Iraq, which is one of the reasons they brought in these thugs from around the world to protect Sunni interests.
NABILThat's why it happened, and the spread of Shi'ism in Iran, which was going to destabilize the Middle East. That's...
AUBREYThank you very much, Nabil, for your comments. This idea that ISIS born out of the U.S. invasion in Iraq, Edward?
LUCEWell, I mean, it clearly was partly a consequence, or maybe mostly a consequence of that, the de-Ba'athification, the de-mobilization of the Iraqi Army, the throwing of hundreds -- of tens of thousands of Iraqis onto the streets who were armed in many cases, giving them no hope, no way to feed their families, is obviously a way of creating deep resentment and armed response eventually to that.
LUCESo the second was the Shiite government of al-Maliki. You know, it was very sectarian, excluded all the Saudis. The Americans did very little to stop that. So that was a problem. But I just want to take one issue with the caller. You know, even if the United States was not involved at all, it was a sort of a complete withdrawal of any ties with the Middle East, there would still be hundreds of thousands of refugees coming out of Syria, destabilizing America's close allies in Europe, and there would still be a need on a humanitarian level and on many other levels, the security of your allies, the stability of your allies, for the United States to address this in some form.
LUCESo I think it's a complete canard, the idea that America can have no involvement in the Middle East. It can avoid wars of choice that create horrible unintended consequences, and it should do, but being not involved altogether is a complete sort of fantasy, I think.
AUBREYWith the minute we have left, I want to squeeze in one more topic here. Russian and American investigators are looking into allegations of state-sponsored doping among Russian athletes going back to the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi. Shane, talk about this.
HARRISYeah, there's this astonishing revelations of this just industrial-scale, state-sponsored doping of Russian competitive athletes, which was quite surprising even though people knew there was doping going on in sport and especially coming out of Russia. U.S. investigators now will look for any kind of links to the American banking system, anything that happened in here that involves, you know, our systems or that they could actually be indictable, and we'll investigate it.
HARRISA lot of legal barriers you have to get over to do that, but wow, that is a signal of how, you know, seriously the U.S. is reacting to this really scandalous revelation.
AUBREYWell, we are out of time. Thank you to my panelists for this great conversation, and thank you for listening. I'm Allison Aubrey of NPR News, sitting in for Diane Rehm.
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