World update: November 26 2018

As usual when I return from an extended break, we’ll be sticking to things that happened today or are particularly relevant rather than trying to recap everything that’s happened while I was gone.



ISIS has claimed responsibility for causing a riot earlier this month at a Tajik prison in Khujand in which potentially more than 50 people were killed:

What has been described as a “riot” apparently broke out near midnight on November 7 at a high-security prison in Khujand. Initial reports varied, as typically happens with breaking news events, with the casualty number ranging from 13 inmates to more than 25, before skyrocketing in the days that followed. According to Eurasianet, some independent media outlets had reported as many as 50 deaths.

In Brussels last week, Tajik Foreign Minister Sirojiddin Muhriddin told reporters that 21 inmates were killed during the incident. He said that “12 of the rioters had fought in Syria and Iraq alongside Islamic State militants” and that three others were in prison after convictions for membership in other, unspecified, extremist groups. According to RFE/RL’s reporting, Muhriddin also said that two other inmates were killed “while trying to help prison guards,” but provided no further explanation of that comment. Muhriddin also stated that two prison guards were killed and five others wounded.

Shortly after the incident, the Islamic State claimed responsibility, saying via its Amaq news agency that one of its fighters was responsible for the attack that sparked the riot. This claim is significant because it is the second time this year that the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for a violent incident in Tajikistan.

The first, of course, was the car attack that killed four cyclists over the summer, for which the Tajik government has insisted on blaming the Islamic Renaissance Party of Tajikistan despite all the signs that it was an ISIS attack.


A Taliban attack on a police convoy in Farah province late Sunday killed at least 22 police officers.

The Afghan government arrested Hazara militia commander Alipur over the weekend, which led to two days worth of massive protests–in which several protesters may have been killed–by a Hazara community already angry over what it perceives as a lack of government protection from ISIS and the Taliban. And so the government released him from custody on Monday. Like other Afghan warlords, Alipur has been accused of lawlessness and rights violations. But most recently he’s been battling the Taliban in central Afghanistan, defending the Hazara. The warlords make it impossible to create a stable nation in Afghanistan, but they’re also often the only thing hindering extremists.


It’s been ten years to the day since Lashkar-e-Taiba carried out its horrific four-day terror attack in Mumbai, and American University’s Stephen Tankel writes that, thanks in part to the Pakistani government, the group may now be stronger than ever:

I devoted several years of my life to researching this militant group’s evolution, and exploring the calculus behind Mumbai for my first book, Storming the World Stage: The Story of Lashkar-e-Taiba. The attacks derailed a fragile peace process between India and Pakistan, created fears that another attack of similar scale and lethality in India would trigger war between the two nuclear-armed powers, and ushered in a trend of active shooter sieges by other jihadist groups. The most notable legacy of the attacks, however, may be that the group has actually increased its presence and influence in Pakistan despite the widespread knowledge that it was responsible for killing 166 people, including six Americans. Bluntly speaking: Lashkar-e-Taiba got away with it. That fact says a lot about the group and about Pakistan.


Tensions are even higher than usual in Kashmir after a particularly violent week that ended with nine people killed in multiple clashes on Sunday, including a 15 year old civilian who was killed by Indian security forces.



Al-Shabab fighters killed at least 15 people, including a prominent Somali Sufi leader, in an attack on a religious center in Galkayo on Monday. The group accused the Sufi leader, Sheikh Abdiweli Ali Elmi Yare, of insulting the Prophet Muhammad, a charge he denied, and at any rate al-Shabab’s Wahhabism is inherently opposed to Sufism. Abdiweli’s organization has apparently taken in former pirates and the indigent, and so al-Shabab may also have seen it as a threat from a recruitment standpoint.



The Russian government says it’s preparing for new US nuclear missile deployments in Europe if the Trump administration really does withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces treaty as it’s said it will. It’s unclear that the US actually wants to deploy new nukes in Europe, and it’s especially unclear that it could get any European country to give it permission to do so. But Russia wants to keep the US in the INF, even though Russia has itself been violating the treaty, and so this is kind of an ominous but vague threat meant to influence the Trump administration’s thinking.


Latvian President Raimonds Vējonis has tapped KPV LV party leader Aldis Gobzems to serve as prime minister, provided he can form a government by December 10. He’s picking up the baton from New Conservative party boss Jānis Bordāns, who tried and failed to put together a majority coalition earlier this month. Latvian politics are a mess because voters returned a very indecisive result in October’s parliamentary election, so nobody has an obvious path to a majority.


OK, so if World War III breaks out this week it will most likely happen in the Sea of Azov. On Sunday, Russian FSB coast guard vessels fired upon and then seized three Ukrainian naval ships that it claims entered Russian territorial waters in the Black Sea. This was after the Russians had barred the Ukrainian vessels from entering the Kerch Strait, which links the Black Sea to the Sea of Azov. The Ukrainian government says that six of its sailors were wounded by the Russians (Russia says it was three) and Russia says it took 24 Ukrainian sailors captive on board the three seized vessels, which it has so far refused to release despite pressure from the West. Moscow insists that the seizure was “lawful” and that the Ukrainian ships ignored warning shots, while the Ukrainians say the Russians rammed their ships , unprovoked, to disable them.

In response to the incident, the Ukrainian government has imposed martial law for 30 days, beginning on Wednesday. NATO convened an emergency meeting to discuss the situation on Monday, and the United Nations Security Council was also supposed to discuss the issue. “Ukrainian nationalists” attacked the Russian consulate in Kharkiv with flares and eggs on Monday to protest the incident.

At the root of the incident is a dispute over the Sea of Azov, which is shared by Russia and Ukraine. It is only accessible via the Kerch Strait, over which Russia has constructed a massive bridge that is its only land connection to Crimea. Russia as we all know annexed Crimea in 2014 in a move that hasn’t been recognized by anybody apart from Russia and its dependent clients like Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. The bridge is low enough that it prevents large shipping vessels from passing through the strait, which means they can’t reach Ukraine’s two major Azov ports, and the Ukrainian government has accused Russia of building the bridge this way deliberately in what amounts to an act of economic warfare. Additionally, the Ukrainians allege that Russia has hassled commercial vessels that can get under the bridge. The Russians are, according to some analysts, very concerned about the security of the bridge and that may be driving some of their provocations in the strait.

You’re going to hear a lot of stuff about freedom of navigation and international law around this incident, but there are problems with that and not just because international law is meaningless in practical terms. Though it outlets onto the Black Sea, Azov is considered an internal sea, which means it’s not subject to international maritime law, and its ownership was spelled out in a 2003 treaty between Ukraine and Russia that stipulated it and the strait as jointly-held territorial waters. That treaty is the controlling legal document here, and both countries are claiming that the other one violated it. Ukraine has brought a case over Russian naval harassment to the Permanent Court of Arbitration, but that’s not going to be resolved in time to impact this crisis.

Russia’s goals with respect to Azov are twofold: it wants to protect and consolidate its control over Crimea (and weaken Kiev’s ability to combat separatists in eastern Ukraine), and it wants to disrupt Ukraine’s presidential election next year. On the latter point, at least, it’s already accomplished the mission. There’s some thought that the Russians would like to bait Ukraine into starting a war, but I’m not buying that and I don’t imagine that Ukraine will do so anyway. My joke above aside, nobody really wants to start World War III over Azov. Of course, nobody really wanted to start World War I over the murder of some badly-mustachioed Habsburg archduke, either, and yet it happened anyway. It’s likely things will cool off a bit, perhaps with the imposition of some new Western sanctions against Russia, but this low-level Ukraine-Russia conflict is going to continue indefinitely.


Well, both the European Union and the United Kingdom have officially signed off on their Brexit “divorce” agreement, and British Prime Minister Theresa May says she’s confident the measure will pass parliament on December 11, even though it’s hard to see how she could be. So far almost everybody seems to be lining up to say they’ll vote against the measure–Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Democratic Unionist Party, and both hardline factions (Leave and Remain) in May’s own Conservative Party. Some of these folks will probably come around out of fear of uncertainty and a possible “no deal” Brexit, and that seems to be May’s pitch heading into the vote–it’s my way or Armageddon, basically.

It could work, but May has a couple of new things working against her now. On Monday, Donald Trump started dunking on her, calling her deal “great for the EU” and questioning whether a UK-US free trade deal would even be possible under its terms. That will give hardline Tory Brexiters new ammunition as they attack May’s arrangement. She’s also dealing with the fallout of yet another capitulation, this one to Spain over Gibraltar. In return for Madrid’s promise not to veto the Brexit deal, May agreed over the weekend that the British territory would not necessarily be included in any future UK-EU trade deal. Spain will in turn use that concession to push for some kind of joint sovereignty over the enclave. Again, this concession is not going to make it easier for May to convince her own party to support her accord.



Among the many cool things Jair Bolsonaro is likely to do when he takes over as Brazil’s president, his plan to clear cut the Amazon rain forest to make room for ranches and soybean farms is likely to hasten the collapse of human civilization and potentially wipe out indigenous Amazonian communities. It will also be devastating for Brazilian farmers and ranchers, in case you were wondering if it was completely self-defeating.


Hundreds of Central American asylum seekers, frustrated that their cases aren’t being heard by US immigration officials, attempted to rush the US border at Tijuana on Sunday. This led to heartwarming scenes of US border guards tear gassing women and children. Truly we’ve made America great again. The migrants have now been surrounded by Mexican police and are being crammed into a facility that’s far too small to handle the estimated 5600 migrants currently in the city. Most are still refusing to return home, because however badly they might be brutalized by the US and Mexican governments it’s still preferable to the conditions they left.


The Trump administration released the Fourth National Climate Assessment during the Thanksgiving Friday news dump. The report predicts that climate change will generate hundreds of billions of dollars in losses for the US economy over the rest of this century and argues that only a global effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and to mitigate the impacts of the gases we’ve already belched out can alleviate the worst of the potential damage. Not to worry though. Donald Trump on Monday said he doesn’t believe the report. The report that his own administration produced. Cool.


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