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Blackwater USA – Daily Brief

Coming Up This Week

  • The UN holds its annual General Assembly this week in New York. Naysaying presidents Xi of China, Putin of Russia, and Maduro of Venezuela won’t attend. The issues certain to get a lot of airtime include:
    • Iran’s troublemaking
    • India’s revocation of Kashmir’s special status
    • New voluntary carbon emissions reduction targets that around 60 countries will sign (the U.S. will abstain)
  • Afghanistan plans to hold its presidential election on Sep. 28th, after two delays earlier this year. Turnout will probably be low, given security concerns and widespread apathy, and we can likely expect new Taliban attacks before and during the vote.
  • Uber is set to lose its license in London—its largest market in Europe—on Sep. 25th, unless the local regulator saves the day with a last minute renewal. However, even if the license expires, Uber would probably still be allowed to operate during a long appeals process.

Hong Kong

  • There were new protests in Hong Kong this weekend. Demonstrators vandalized a subway station and defaced a Chinese flag, which may rile the dragon in Beijing.
  • Chief executive Carrie Lam says her government plans to open talks with protesters this week to try to end the demonstrations, but they’re still upset over police abuses that she hasn’t addressed.
  • There are new reports that undercover Hong Kong police posed as protesters before beating up and arresting their fellow demonstrators.

China

  • An excellent NYT article (pasted below) warns that China is increasingly cracking down on Islam and Muslims, which it sees as threats to central party power.

Iran

  • The U.S. sanctioned Iran’s central bank, and said it would send troops and equipment to Saudi Arabia to add pressure on Iran.
  • Pres. Trump celebrated that Iran’s economy is “going to hell,” but added that “all they have to do [to win relief] is stop with the terror.”
  • However, Iran may be heading in the opposite direction: Yemeni Houthi leaders ratted on Iran for reportedly pressing them into taking part in a follow-on attack on Saudi Arabia. (Of course, Houthi claims are notoriously unreliable, and it’s improbable that the Houthis would tattletale on their main ally just a week after falsely claiming an attack it carried out).
  • Reuters reports that U.S. crude oil traders don’t have enough tankers to support surging demand for U.S. oil to fill the supply gap caused by Iran’s attack on Saudi production.

Climate Change

  • The organizers of Friday’s coordinated climate change rallies estimated global turnout of around four million at thousands of separate events.
  • Many of the participants were schoolchildren, and New York City schools even excused their 1.1 million students from class to participate (somewhere between 60,000 and 250,000 of them did).

Ebola

  • The WHO accused Tanzania of covering up three possible Ebola cases by withholding information about them and shutting the WHO out of blood testing for the virus—perhaps to avoid scaring away precious tourist dollars.
  • One of the cases in question involved a 34-year-old doctor who likely contracted Ebola in Uganda, and then died on Sep. 8th in Dar Es Salaam—on the other side of the country. That’s scary because he could have come into contact with a hundreds of people on the journey.
  • Separately, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) accused the WHO of rationing Ebola vaccine doses by only vaccinating 50-1,000 people per day when it has the capacity to vaccinate 2,000-2,500 per day.

India

  • Pres. Trump and Indian PM Modi exchanged sweet diplomatic nothings at a 50,000-person rally in Houston that was probably the largest-ever reception of a foreign leader in the U.S.
  • However, the BBC points out that Modi “may face a frostier reception at the UN General Assembly,” where he’ll be criticized for bullying Kashmir.

Afghanistan / Pakistan

  • Afghan officials touted successful operations against the Taliban in Parwan, Ghazni, and Balkh—conveniently timed to make the ANSF look effective ahead of next weekend’s election.
  • Afghanistan’s Interior Minister says the ANP bear the brunt (70%) of casualties from Taliban and IS attacks, which must make it really hard to recruit new police. The ANP’s bad reputation as inept and corrupt can’t help with recruiting, either.
  • A new Gallup poll found that 47% of Afghan women—and a record-high 41% of all Afghans—would leave the country if they could.
  • Pakistani PM Khan met U.S. envoy for Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad yesterday, and they talked about U.S.-Taliban negotiations. Khan reiterated his offer to help with the peace process, which is on hold.
  • A nine-man Taliban delegation met China’s special representative for Afghanistan, and held meetings that were likely intended to irritate the U.S. by insinuating a rival China-brokered peace process.

U.S.

  • The NYT broke more details about the “whistleblower” story: the call in question was between Pres. Trump and Ukrainian Pres. Volodymyr Zelensky, and the issue is that Trump reportedly pressed Zelensky to investigate former VP Biden’s son Hunter for alleged ties to corrupt business activities in the Ukraine—at a time when the U.S. was withholding aid to the Ukraine, which could have added further pressure.

Migration

  • The LA Times had a good article on the plight of African migrants and refugees who aspired to asylum in the U.S., but got stuck in southern Mexico instead. It’s pasted below.

Somalia

  • New photos showed IS fighters training at the “Dawoud al Somali” training camp in Puntland—likely in the Bari mountains.
  • An Al Shabaab attack on the El Salin military base south of Mogadishu killed at least 20 Somali soldiers and led to Al Shabaab capturing the base—at least briefly: it sounds like reinforcements were able to retake it.

Libya

  • Meanwhile, a U.S. strike killed eight IS fighters near Murzuq, Libya on Sep. 19th. That would be the first known strike against IS in Libya in over a year (though AFRICOM has struck AQIM in Libya more recently).

A Crackdown on Islam Is Spreading Across China (NYT)

In China’s northwest, the government is stripping the most overt expressions of the Islamic faith from a picturesque valley where most residents are devout Muslims. The authorities have destroyed domes and minarets on mosques, including one in a small village near Linxia, a city known as “Little Mecca.”

Similar demolitions have been carried out in Inner Mongolia, Henan and Ningxia, the homeland of China’s largest Muslim ethnic minority, the Hui. In the southern province of Yunnan, three mosques were closed. From Beijing to Ningxia, officials have banned the public use of Arabic script.

This campaign represents the newest front in the Chinese Communist Party’s sweeping rollback of individual religious freedoms, after decades of relative openness that allowed more moderate forms of Islam to blossom. The harsh crackdown on Muslims that began with the Uighurs in Xinjiang is spreading to more regions and more groups.

It is driven by the party’s fear that adherence to the Muslim faith could turn into religious extremism and open defiance of its rule. Across China, the party is now imposing new restrictions on Islamic customs and practices, in line with a confidential party directive, parts of which have been seen by The New York Times.

The measures reflect the hard-line policies of China’s leader, Xi Jinping, who has sought to reassert the primacy of the Communist Party and its ideology in all walks of life.

The campaign has prompted concerns that the repression of Uighur Muslims in the western region of Xinjiang has begun to bleed into other parts of China, targeting Hui and other Muslims who have been better integrated than Uighurs into Chinese society. Last year, a top party official from Ningxia praised Xinjiang’s government during a visit there and pledged to increase cooperation between the two regions on security matters.

Haiyun Ma, a Hui Muslim professor at Frostburg State University in Maryland, said the crackdown was continuing a long history of animosity toward Islam in China that has alienated believers.

“The People’s Republic of China has become the world’s foremost purveyor of anti-Islamic ideology and hate,” he wrote in a recent essay for the Hudson Institute. “This, in turn, has translated into broad public support for the Beijing government’s intensifying oppression of Muslims in the Xinjiang region and elsewhere in the country.”

None of the new measures, so far, have approached the brutality of Xinjiang’s mass detentions and invasive surveillance of Uighurs. But they have already stirred anxiety among the Hui, who number more than 10 million.

“We are now backtracking again,” Cui Haoxin, a Hui Muslim poet who publishes under the name An Ran, said in an interview in Jinan, south of Beijing, where he lives.

To Mr. Cui, the methods of repression that are smothering Uighur society in Xinjiang now loom over all of China. “One day this model will not only target Muslims,” he said. “Everyone will be harmed by it.”

Islam has had followers in China for centuries. There are now 22 to 23 million Muslims, a tiny minority in a country of 1.4 billion. Among them, the Hui and the Uighurs make up the largest ethnic groups. Uighurs primarily live in Xinjiang, but the Hui live in enclaves scattered around the nation.

The restrictions they now face can be traced to 2015, when Mr. Xi first raised the issue of what he called the “Sinicization of Islam,” saying all faiths should be subordinate to Chinese culture and the Communist Party. Last year, Mr. Xi’s government issued a confidential directive that ordered local officials to prevent Islam from interfering with secular life and the state’s functions.

Critics of China’s policies who are outside the country provided excerpts from the directive to The Times. The directive, titled “Reinforcing and Improving Islam Work in the New Situation,” has not been made public. It was issued by the State Council, China’s cabinet, in April of last year and classified as confidential for 20 years.

The directive warns against the “Arabization” of Islamic places, fashions and rituals in China, singling out the influence of Saudi Arabia, the home of Islam’s holiest sites, as a cause for concern.

It prohibits the use of the Islamic financial system. It bars mosques or other private Islamic organizations from organizing kindergartens or after-school programs, and it forbids Arabic-language schools to teach religion or send students abroad to study.

The most visible aspect of the crackdown has been the targeting of mosques built with domes, minarets and other architectural details characteristic of Central Asia or the Arabic world.

Taken in isolation, some of these measures seem limited. Others seem capricious: some mosques with Arabic features have been left untouched, while others nearby have been altered or shut down.

But on a national scale, the trend is clear. Mr. Cui, the poet, calls it the harshest campaign against faith since the end of the Cultural Revolution, when so-called Red Guards unleashed by Mao Zedong destroyed mosques across the country.

In the state’s view, the spread of Islamic customs dangerously subverts social and political conformity.

In Ningxia, the provincial government banned public displays of Arabic script, even removing the word “halal” from the official seal it distributes to restaurants that follow Islamic customs for preparing food. The seals now use Chinese characters. That prohibition spread this summer to Beijing and elsewhere.

The authorities in several provinces have stopped distributing halal certificates for food, dairy and wheat producers and restaurants. Chinese state media have described this as an effort to curb a “pan-halal tendency” in which Islamic standards are being applied, in the government’s view, to too many types of foods or restaurants.

Ningxia and Gansu have also banned the traditional call to prayer. Around historical mosques there, prayer times are now announced with a grating claxon. One imam in Ningxia’s capital, Yinchuan, said the authorities had recently visited and warned him to make no public statements on religious matters.

The authorities have also targeted the mosques themselves. In Gansu, construction workers in Gazhuang, a village near Linxia, descended on a mosque in April, tearing off its golden dome. It has not yet reopened. Plainclothes policemen prevented two Times journalists from entering.

In the southern province of Yunnan, where there have long been Hui communities, the authorities last December padlocked mosques in three small villages that had been run without official permission. There were protests and brief scuffles with the police, to no avail. The county issued a statement accusing the mosques of holding illegal religious activities and classes.

In one of the villages, Huihuideng, Ma Jiwu carried his grandson outside the shuttered local mosque, which had operated inside a home.

Mr. Ma, wearing the distinctive skullcap that many Hui wear, said the imams there had ignored warnings to move their services to the village’s main mosque, where a Chinese flag hangs in the central courtyard and a large red banner exhorts worshipers, “Love your country, love your religion.”

“They did not listen,” Mr. Ma said.

Near the main mosque, a woman said the closing of the smaller one had stirred resentment, but also a feeling of resignation. She used a Chinese idiom for helplessness against a superior force, in this case the government: “The arm cannot twist the thigh.”

Xiong Kunxin, a professor of ethnic studies at Minzu University in Beijing, defended the government’s recent actions. He said that China’s far-reaching economic changes over the last 40 years had been accompanied by a loosening of restrictions on religious practice, but that the laxity had gone too far.

“Now China’s economic development has reached a certain height,” he said, “and suddenly problems related to religious and other affairs are being discovered.”

In the case of Islam, he cited the proliferation of mosques and the spread of “halal” practices into public life, saying they conflicted with the cultural values of the majority Han Chinese population.

Official statistics indicate that there are now more mosques in China than Buddhist temples: 35,000 compared to 33,500. In the last year, scores of mosques have been altered, closed or destroyed entirely, many of them in Xinjiang, according to officials and news reports.

The party asserts that it has the right to control all organized religion. Critics ascribe that to its fear that religious organizations could challenge its political power. In the past, the party’s repression has triggered violent responses.

In 1975, during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, the People’s Liberation Army surrounded Shadian, a mostly Hui Muslim town in Yunnan Province where residents had protested the closure of mosques. Clashes ensued, prompting a massive military intervention that razed the town and left more than 1,600 people dead.

The current pressure has also been met with unrest, though not on that scale. In August 2018 in Weizhou, a village in Ningxia, protests erupted when the authorities sent demolition workers to a newly built mosque. After a tense showdown that lasted several days, the local government promised to suspend the destruction and review the plans.

Nearly a year later, police officers still block the roads into the village, turning away foreigners, including diplomats and two Times journalists who tried to visit in May.

China claims that it allows freedom of religion, but emphasizes that the state must always come first. The Ningxia government, asked about its recent restrictions on Islam, said that China had rules on religious practice just like any other country.

Mosques that violate laws such as building codes will be closed, it said, and schools and universities will not permit religious activities.

“Arabic is a foreign language,” the government said about the restrictions on public signage, adding that they had been imposed “to make things convenient for the general public.”

In an interview, Mr. Ma, the Frostburg State scholar, said the current leadership viewed religion as “the major enemy the state faces.” He said senior officials had studied the role played by faith — particularly the Catholic Church in Poland — in the collapse of the Soviet Union and its dominion in Eastern Europe.

Believers have little recourse against the intensifying crackdown. Mr. Ma predicted that it would not relent soon, but that it would ultimately fail, as other campaigns against Muslims have.

“I really doubt they can eliminate religious faith,” he said. “That is impossible.”

African migrants stuck in southern Mexico, their American dream on hold (LA Times)

“Africa weeps. Free us.”

That’s the message handwritten in French and Spanish on a protest banner at a tent city here in the southernmost tip of Mexico.

The tents belong to some 250 African nationals who crossed jungles, forded rivers, sneaked across borders and dodged militias and thieves to get here in hopes of eventually reaching the United States. But now they are stuck, because Mexico has denied them the travel visas necessary to proceed north.

Mexican national guard troops and riot police keep close watch over the multi-hued camp, where mosquitoes swarm in puddles. Rain and a fetid stream provide cooking water and many complain of rashes, stomach cramps and other ailments.

“We are fed up,” said Diop Abou, 33, a native of the northwest African nation of Mauritania. “None of us want to be here in this miserable place.”

In the saga of migrants trying to reach the United States, the dominant narrative of late features Central Americans, who account for the vast majority of the 100,000 foreigners whom Mexico has deported this year under pressure from the Trump administration to prevent them from reaching the U.S. border.

But Mexico’s effort to accommodate Washington — and avoid tariffs that Trump threatened to impose — has also targeted thousands of other foreigners, including more than 1,000 Africans who have amassed in southern Mexico over the last several months.

The tent city was erected in protest more than a month ago at the entrance of Tapachula’s federal immigrant detention center, which is called Siglo 21, or 21st Century.

The lockup is reserved primarily for people awaiting deportation, mostly Central Americans.

Mexican authorities apprehended a record 4,779 migrants from Africa in the first seven months of this year — nearly four times the number detained during the same period in 2018 — but deported only two.

The difficulty is that many African countries have no embassies or consular representatives here, and some of the migrants possess no verifiable identification. And so the majority remain stranded.

Those interviewed here said they fled violence, persecution and poverty, ethnic and religious strife and political repression back in their homelands.

“The military comes after anyone who speaks English,” said Elvis Azo, 29, from Cameroon, a central African country facing both an insurgency among its English-speaking minority and attacks from the Boko Haram Islamist faction. “They burn houses. They kill people.”

Nearby, Sani, 33, said he was among more than a dozen people at the camp who had fled the West African nation of Ghana to escape systematic persecution of gay men.

“They are killing us,” said Sani, who lifted his shirt to reveal scars on his abdomen that he said were a result of being attacked with acid.

He said his family’s home was burned down, and he didn’t want his full name published because he feared for the safety of relatives in Ghana.

“I am a wanted man back home,” he said.

Jack Lume, 33, a tailor from Togo in West Africa, displayed a photograph on his cellphone of a memorial service. The body of a young man lay on white satin inside an open coffin surrounded by mourners.

“That’s my brother,” Lume said. “They killed him. Politics, politics. They kill people.”

The Africans embarked in search of what many call “the American dream” after hearing about migrants who reached the United States through Mexico.

Most flew to Brazil, Ecuador or other countries in South America and then moved overland in buses, boats and on foot. Still haunting many is the harrowing trek through the legendary Darien Gap, among the world’s most impenetrable rainforests, between Colombia and Panama.

“We were in the forest in Panama, and I was very frightened,” recalled Julia Kyala, a spirited 12-year-old who picked up bits of Spanish and Portuguese — complementing her native Lingala and French — as she accompanied her mother from the Democratic Republic of Congo.

“I was swept into a river, I thought I would drown,” she said. “My mother came to rescue me, but she was also taken by the current. Then a man came and helped get us out and saved us.”

Her mother, Dina Kyala Buna, 26, rinsed beans in a pot of water outside the family tent as her daughter recounted the perilous passage.

Brandishing his cellphone, a burly Ghanaian man scrolled to a photo of what appeared to be a dead woman, half naked, sprawled on the rocks of a rushing river.

“This is what we saw in the jungle in Panama — dead people!” declared Osman, 33, who also declined to give his surname for security reasons. “We saw bodies! Many bodies!”

Eventually the migrants made their way to Guatemala and boarded smugglers’ rafts of wood planks and inner tubes to cross the Suchiate River into Mexico.

They intend to seek asylum at the U.S. border — if they ever get there. Their pleas for visas to cross Mexico have grown increasingly desperate.

One Congolese woman, Kumba Nsakala Miguelita, 32, gave birth in Tapachula on Sept. 4 and, in a bid for high-level assistance, legally named her new son Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador Nsakala Miguelita.

Informed of his namesake, Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, who has repeatedly vowed to respect the “human rights” of migrants, told reporters he was “very proud,” adding: “Migrants suffer a lot.”

But the president hasn’t reversed a previous vow not to “give in” to the Africans’ demands.

“It’s very difficult here,” Nsakala said the other day, fighting back tears as she struggled to keep her newborn cool inside her blue plastic tent.

The following day, Mexican authorities removed Nsakala and her child from the protest site and took them to a government-run shelter.

The protest here has sparked periodic clashes with Mexican authorities, who view the Africans as illegal squatters. The migrants cook on open campfires and metal braziers with coal and firewood. Women often pool cash to make market runs for food. Leaky tents and a pink plastic tarpaulin offer scant shelter during daily tropical downpours.

Mexico has provided little aid beyond setting up some portable toilets and an on-site ambulance for medical treatment. A single trash can, buzzing with flies, serves much of the encampment. A vending machine provides soft drinks for 20 pesos, or about $1.

Authorities have offered the possibility of asylum in Mexico, but the Africans have refused, said Marcelo Ebrard, the Mexican foreign secretary.

“In essence, what these people want is for Mexico to allow them to proceed to the United States with no legal status, the equivalent of saying there is no border,” he told reporters this month.

Indeed, few seemed inclined to join the bulging queues in Mexico waiting for refugee status, a process that can drag on for months.

“We don’t want to be in Mexico,”Isaac Junior, 28, from Cameroon, said in English. “We don’t feel safe here. We don’t speak the language.”

Some have reached the United States. In May, June and July, the Border Patrol apprehended more than 1,100 African migrants along a single 210-mile stretch of border in south Texas — compared to fewer than 300 along the entire southwest border in fiscal year 2018.

Their chances of being allowed to remain in the United States are low.

Under a new Trump administration policy, U.S. officials will not consider asylum applications from non-Mexicans arriving at the southwest border unless they have already filed for protection — and been turned down — in one of the countries that they passed through to get there.

That rule could dash the hopes of both those stuck here and hundreds of other Africans amassed in Mexican border cities from Tijuana on the Pacific to Matamoros on the Gulf.

Among this new vanguard of the African diaspora, there is much confusion and misinformation about fast-evolving U.S. immigration policies. Yet all are determined to move on.

“We just want to get out of here, and arrive to a better place,” said Rubi Tmamba, 17, a slim, towering native of Congo who hopes to enroll in a university and study international relations. “If not the United States, then maybe Canada. But we have come this far in search of this dream. We are not going back now.”