Update 1, Friday, February 7, 12:45 PM EST: An airliner from the Ukraine was forced to make an emergency landing in Turkey due to a hijacking attempt, AFP reports. Turkish officials told CNN that a passenger, believed to be of Ukrainian nationality, "said that there was a bomb on board" and wanted the plane to land in Sochi. AFP says that he was "brandishing a detonator."
Update 2, Friday, February 7, 4:30 PM EST: The AFP reports that the man, born in 1969, was "apparently drunk" and only said that he was brandishing a detonator. According to Istanbul's governor, the man did not have a gun or explosives. Ukrainian security services reportedly said, "The man will answer for his hooligan behavior."
This week, Americans nervously descend upon Sochi, Russia, to cheer on their favorite athletes in the 2014 Winter Olympic Games. Members of the US team who have already arrived in the city say that with an estimated 100,000 security force members protecting the games, they feel safe. But US officials said on Tuesday that they are tracking "specific threats" to the games. And counterterrorism experts argue that the terrorism risk in Sochi is largely unprecedented, due to recent threats from active terrorist groups. They fear that attacks could take place outside of the secured perimeter surrounding the event sites, particularly on public transportation or at checkpoints. While the Daily Beast notes that terrorism coverage could overshadow the successes of US athletes—and give terrorists free publicity—experts say that it's warranted. "This is a very serious threat. It's not overblown," says Victor Asal, a terrorism expert at the University of Albany. He adds that if he knew people who were planning a trip to Sochi, he'd tell them, "Don't go." Without further ado, here's everything you need to know:
Who are these terrorists, and what do they want?
The main threat to the Olympic games is the Caucasus Emirate, a loose network of Islamist terrorist groups that is located between the Black and Caspian seas in Russia. The Caucasus Emirate, established in 2007, aims to establish Shariah law in the region, but it only has suspected ties with Al Qaeda. The terrorist network is a partly an outgrowth of the First and Second Chechen wars, conflicts that began when Russia invaded Chechnya. "The human rights abuses committed by the Russians in the invasion of Chechnya were really extraordinary, and the violence has come from these grievances," Asal says. Initially, the group's aims were nationalistic—secession from the Russian federation—but now, there is a growing jihadist component.
The group's self-appointed leader is Doku Umarov, nicknamed "Russia's bin Laden" (photo below). He's seen only rarely, and Ramzan Kadyrov, the president of Chechnya, recently claimed that Umarov is dead. (He's said this many times before, so terrorist experts aren't convinced.) As of this month, that report has not been confirmed by the Russian government or the US State Department. While the network's primary target is Russia, Umarov has also issued threats against the United States and Israel in the past, according to the US State Department.
When has the Caucasus Emirate carried out attacks before?
Terrorists affiliated with the Caucasus Emirate are believed to have carried out about two terrorist attacks per year since 2008, killing hundreds of civilians. Here are some of their more notable attacks:
June 2008: A Caucasus Emirate militia group claimed responsibility for a suicide bomb attack that killed 14 and injured dozens in Vladikavkaz, less than 500 miles from Sochi.
October 2013: A woman associated with Islamic militants bombed a bus in Volgograd, about 600 miles from Sochi, killing at least six. (It has been suspected that she was associated with the Caucasus Emirate, but not confirmed.)
December 2013: A subgroup of the Caucasus Emirate claimed responsibility for a suicide attack on a train station, also in Volgograd, killing at least 16. The group also claimed responsibility for bombing a trolley bus in the same city 24 hours later, killing 18. (On Wednesday, Russia state media reported that Russian police had killed a suspected mastermind of the December Volgograd attacks.)
Have the Caucasus Emirate explicitly said they want to target the Olympic games?
Yes. In July 2013, Umarov published a video urging rebels to "do their utmost to derail" the Olympics. He characterized the games as "satanic dances on the bones of our ancestors." Late last month, a subgroup of the Caucasus Emirate posted a video (below) showing men they said were the bombers responsible for the December attack on Volgograd, and threatened to give Russia a "present" at the Olympics.
Who are the "Black Widows" I'm hearing about?
An alleged "black widow" suicide bomber Whitehotpix/ZUMA
"Black Widows" refers to women who have committed suicide attacks, reportedly to avenge spouses or family members killed by the Russian military. According to NPR, Russian police have been circulating fliers over the last few weeks, searching for suspected female terrorists—including a 22-year-old wife who police say was recently spotted in central Sochi. While women have successfully pulled off terrorist attacks associated with the Caucasus Emirate, some experts say the threat has been overstated, because just as many, if not more, men are committing attacks.
Can these terrorists really pull off an attack on the Olympic sites?
Counterterrorism experts say that it would be very difficult, given the security lockdown known as "the ring of steel"—an area about 60 miles long and 25 miles deep around the Olympic sites. Putin has militarized the areas surrounding the games, with 100,000 police and members of the armed forces on hand, including special-ops forces to guard the mountains outside of Sochi. Only vehicles that are registered in Sochi are being allowed through the city's checkpoint, and that's after they've been searched. Drones are being deployed to survey the sites from the air, and the government will be snooping on tourists' electronic devices. (On Tuesday, the Boston Globe reported that some of these security measures could be overstated, noting that a reporter's bag wasn't searched.)
What about outside of the ring of steel?
Experts say the risk is high. "The checkpoint has to stop somewhere, and if bombers get anywhere close to a checkpoint, it could have the same political effect in the media as getting into the Olympics themselves," says Aki Peritz, a senior policy adviser for Third Way and a former CIA counterterrorism analyst. He notes that transportation to and from Sochi is particularly vulnerable, considering the attacks on buses and roadways by the Caucasus Emirate in the past. Daniel Treisman, a Russian politics expert at the University of California-Los Angeles, agrees: "The network will seek to stage attacks in order to demonstrate their capabilities. It is possible [a subgroup] could succeed. But I think they are much more likely to succeed somewhere outside Sochi than inside the security area."
The State Department warns that while Americans aren't being targeted specifically in Russia, "there is a general risk of U.S. citizens becoming victims of indiscriminate terrorist attacks." The British government has been more explicit about the potential threat, putting out a map recommending that tourists avoid many areas outside of Sochi (bottom far left):
The United Kingdom's Sochi advisory map
What weapons might be used?
Counterterrorism experts say that suicide bombers are likely the biggest threat. "I think anyone who is going to be attacking the Olympics is going to have to assume that they're going to be dead. It's a suicide mission however you look at it," says Asal, from the University of Alabany. However, in 2012, Russian security forces claimed that they'd found a number of sophisticated arms that they believed were planning to be used in an attack on Sochi—including "grenades, portable surface-to-air missiles, explosives, rifles and other weapons," NPR reported. Gordon Hahn, a counterterrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, also toldForeign Policy to not rule out the possibility that regional terrorists have obtained chemical weapons from Syria.
How does this threat compare to those posed to Olympics in the past?
According to the New York Times, US officials haven't been this concerned about security at the Olympics since the 2004 Summer Games in Athens. The paper notes however, that "the Greeks were far more receptive to help from American law enforcement and intelligence officials, who ultimately played a significant role in the security for the Games." Treisman, from UCLA, says the most recent case that is comparable would be the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, which occurred at a time when the terrorist Basque separatist organization ETA was still active. Peritz, from Third Way, jokes that "it would be safer if we had the Olympics in North Korea. At least they don’t have an active terrorist group blowing things up." (The most recent deadly terrorist attack on the Olympics was orchestrated by an American at the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics.)
What is the United States doing about all this? The United States has stationed two warships, which can launch helicopters into Sochi in case an evacuation is needed, in the nearby Black Sea. The United States is also stationing at least two dozen FBI agents in the area and may be sharing sophisticated counterbomb equipment with Russian authorities. US athletes have also been warned not to wear their uniforms outside of the secured perimeter. Several US congressmen, including House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) have expressed anger that Russia is not cooperating fully with US security efforts.
Is anyone actually staying home? Several US athletes have said they are asking their families to stay home from the Olympics because of security concerns, including speed skaterTucker Fredricks, Minnesota Wild ice hockey defenseman Ryan Suter, and Wild forward Zach Parise.
Who says it's safe?
Some US athletes who have arrived in Sochi already told ABC News on Monday that they feel safe there. ""We've had a lot of fun, and I don't anticipate us being in any more harm's way than going down the mountain in a bobsled at 85 miles per hour," said US bobsledder Dallas Robinson. And last month, President Obama confirmed that he felt the games were secure, noting that "the Russian authorities understand the stakes here." However, he will not be attending with the first family.
The US abortion rate fell by 13 percent from 2008 to 2011, according to a new study.
The study, released by the Guttmacher Institute, a pro-abortion-rights think tank, concluded that nearly 1.1 million abortions took place in the United States in 2011, some 700,000 fewer than in 2008. That's the equivalent of 16.9 abortions per 1,000 women between 15 and 44. During the same time, the number of abortion providers fell by 4 percent and the number of abortion clinics fell by 1 percent.
"The national abortion rate appears to have resumed its long-term decline," conclude researchers Rachel K. Jones and Jenna Jerman. The rate of abortions in the United State has decreased almost every year since 1981, when, according to Guttmacher spokeswoman Rebecca Wind, there were 29.3 abortions per 1,000 women. The decline halted from 2005 to 2008. As of 2011, the abortion rate not only began to drop again, it also hit its lowest point since 1973.
The authors did not investigate the reasons for the decline. However, since rates of abortion fell consistently across almost all states, and the time period covered by the study predates the surge of state-level anti-abortion laws, the overall decline is likely not the product of new restrictions, the study notes. A few states, however, may have experienced declines related to new restrictions. Missouri's abortion rate dropped 17 percent between 2008 and 2010, the authors note, perhaps reflecting the impact of a 2009 state law requiring women to seek in-person counseling before getting an abortion. Still, Jones and Jerman write, "It is crucial to note that abortion rates decreased by larger-than-average amounts in several states that did not implement any new restrictions between 2008 and 2010, such as Illinois (18%) and Oregon (15%)."
The increased use of contraceptives is thought to have played a role by reducing the number of unintended pregnancies—in particular among women living in poor economic circumstances who may have used birth control more consistently during the recession and the sluggish recovery period that followed.
Declines in abortions were steepest in Midwest and Western states, and all but six states—Alaska, Maryland, Montana, New Hampshire, West Virginia, and Wyoming, some of which had lower-than-average abortion rates to begin with—experienced decreased rates of abortion.
The loss of providers and facilities which performed abortions may have also had something to do with the drop in abortions. Jones and Jerman also surveyed the accessibility of abortion providers, finding that 38 percent of reproductive-aged women lived in a county without an abortion clinic—some 90 percent of all counties. Abortions induced by medication accounted for nearly 25 percent of all nonhospital abortions in 2011, up from 17 percent in 2008.
Jones and Jerman note that while the drop in abortion providers and facilities—4 percent and 1 percent, respectively—may seem negligible, the caseloads of different facilities can vary widely. Abortion clinics, for example, account for only 19 percent of the facilities that offer abortions, but provide 63 percent of abortions.
Nearly 50 abortion clinics closed from 2008 to 2011—and the drop in clinics was more pronounced than that for other types of facilities that offer abortions. Arkansas, Idaho, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Vermont each lost one clinic. "While these states lost only one clinic each, they had few to begin with, so the loss of even one may have affected access to services," the authors write. "The closure of a clinic may have contributed to the larger-than-average declines in abortion incidence in Kansas and Oklahoma."
As of 2011, North Dakota, Mississippi, and South Dakota had only one abortion clinic each.
This month, McDonald's announced that it plans to start transitioning to sustainable beef by 2016, with the goal of eventually making all of its burgers from sustainable meat. But the fast-food chain has yet to specify what, exactly, it means by "sustainable." The company is working with the Global Roundtable for Sustainable Beef, a stakeholder group that includes Walmart and the World Wildlife Fund, to come up with a definition, and expects to announce further details of its plans in the spring. But food experts say that unless McDonald's stops purchasing cows that are fed antibiotics to ward off disease in overcrowded feed lots, the promise will be an empty one. It's not an unattainable goal—other chains that buy antibiotic-free beef, including Chipotle and Shake Shack, say they've been able to do so without significantly raising costs. But McDonald's isn't on board yet.
When Mother Jones asked McDonald's whether it plans to cease using antibiotic-fed beef, a spokesman said, "McDonald's will continue to rely on the sound science derived from this group of expert advisers including academia, suppliers, animal health and welfare experts, and the FDA, as we continue to review our policy." According to Hal Hamilton, founder of the Sustainable Food Laboratory, who is helping McDonald's develop its sustainability plan, the company "definitely cares about antibiotics and other feed additives, and they would like to achieve a system that avoids things that worry consumers, but I don't think they've made any specific policies."
Food experts say that could be a problem. "You can't have sustainable production if you're using antibiotics other than very, very occasionally, and only when there's a diagnosed clinical disease," says Dr. David Wallinga, the founder of Healthy Food Action, a network of health professionals. "In the case of cattle, they shouldn't be in feed at all." McDonald's has a written policy that aims to reduce antibiotic use, but the policy has been criticized for having major loopholes—such as allowing farmers to feed cows antibiotics for disease prevention, rather than merely treatment. (The McDonald's spokesman says, "We take seriously our ethical responsibility to treat sick animals, using antibiotics to treat, prevent, and control disease in food-producing animals.")
Last December, the Food and Drug Administration ruled that "it is important to use these drugs only when medically necessary," given that 80 percent of antibiotics in the United States go to livestock farms, and overuse of these drugs poses a demonstrated threat to public health. For example, some women have been afflicted by antibiotic-resistant urinary tract infections that have been linked to overuse of antibiotics in poultry. But sustainability experts say the FDA's new guidance is weak, since not only does it allow antibiotics to be used for prevention, but the recommendations are voluntary.
"The government kind of punted on this issue when it announced voluntary standards," says journalist Michael Pollan, noting that it's hard for the government to tackle two big industries at the same time—Big Agriculture and Big Pharma. "But if McDonald's committed to getting rid of antibiotics, that would be a huge deal, it would change the industry."
Industry experts say that it's definitely possible for McDonald's to make this change. When Chipotle switched to sustainable, antibiotic-free beef, it increased prices by only about 25 to 50 cents per burrito. (The price of antibiotic-free pork is a bit higher.) "Our customers are willing to pay a little more for food they recognize as being better," says Chipotle spokesman Chris Arnold. He notes that Chipotle does have some trouble getting the antibiotic-free supply to meet its demand, but adds: "Having more companies use this kind of meat would likely result in faster changes within the supply system, and that could be a good thing." Shake Shack, which has been serving antibiotic-free beef since the chain opened, says it only costs 15 to 20 percent more than regular beef. The costs are higher, spokesman Edwin Bragg says, but notes that McDonald's could change that. "If a restaurant company of McDonald's size could do this on a large scale, [it] could change the paradigm."
And Pollan says that this change needs to come sooner, rather than later: "I think it's just hitting us. We're now dealing with infectious microbes that are resistant to most antibiotics we have. We're already paying a price and it's going to get worse."
Lately, fitness-minded Americans have started wearing sporty wrist-band devices that track tons of data: Weight, mile splits, steps taken per day, sleep quality, sexual activity, calories burned—sometimes, even GPS location. People use this data to keep track of their health, and are able send the information to various websites and apps. But this sensitive, personal data could end up in the hands of corporations looking to target these users with advertising, get credit ratings, or determine insurance rates. In other words, that device could start spying on you—and the Federal Trade Commission is worried.
"Health data from [a woman's] connected device, may be collected and then sold to data brokers and other companies she does not know exist," Jessica Rich, director of the Bureau for Consumer Protection at the Federal Trade Commission, said in a speech on Tuesday for Data Privacy Day. "These companies could use her information to market other products and services to her; make decisions about her eligibility for credit, employment, or insurance; and share with yet other companies. And many of these companies may not maintain reasonable safeguards to protect the data they maintain about her."
Several major US-based fitness device companies contacted by Mother Jones—Fitbit, Garmin, and Nike—say they don't sell personally identifiable information collected from fitness devices. But privacy advocates warn that the policies of these firms could allow them to sell data, if they ever choose to do so.
A hospital in Afghanistan's Parwan province, which cost US taxpayers almost $600,000, is so ill-equipped, hospital staff are washing newborn infants using untreated river water, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) reported on Wednesday. SIGAR's visit, which was conducted in November 2013 (photos here), also found mold and mildew throughout the hospital; a lack of furniture and equipment; a serious risk for earthquake damage; and only enough electricity to operate three light bulbs in the entire facility.
In 2009, a local Afghan contractor, Shafi Hakimi Construction Company, was commissioned to build Salang Hospital as part of a Department of Defense-funded reconstruction program. When a US Forces-Afghanistan (USFOR-A) task force first inspected the hospital when it was under construction in 2012, they determined it had major problems and residents of Salang district wouldn't have adequate healthcare until they were fixed. In November 2012, the contractor was paid in full. But when SIGAR inspected a year later, it found "the deficiencies identified by the task force had not been corrected."
NBC News, which recently visited the facility, observed "desperate" hospital staff attempting to administer dental care to a 12-year-old girl—even though they only had access to six pieces of rusty dental equipment. As NBC described it: "The girl was shivering with fear, and began crying after the doctor gave her a shot in her gums. Another man held her still as Sarwy swiftly tilted her head back, opened her mouth and yanked out one of her teeth with a pair of pliers."
Hospital staff told SIGAR that they are paying about $18 a month of their own money to a neighbor, in order to get enough electricity to operate the three light-bulbs in the hospital. Additionally, SIGAR found that the contractor built the hospital two stories high, instead of one, without authorization from US officials or further study. "The hospital does not serve the medical needs of the people of Salang district as intended and may be a danger to its patients and staff because of the potential for the structure’s collapse in an earthquake," the report reads.
This account differs sharply with a press release put out by US Forces-Afghanistan yesterday, which argued that despite the SIGAR report, "the facility is currently providing improved medical services" and noted that, "local ministry officials are currently in the process of hiring a surgeon and other staff and have installed a solar power generation unit." John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, told NBC, "either no one from USFOR-A has actually visited this facility recently or USFOR-A is living in an alternate reality."
Mother Jones has reached out to US Forces-Afghanistan to find out when they last visited the facility. According to a January 21 US Army document obtained by Mother Jones, US forces have been unable to conduct a physical re-inspection of the hospital since the SIGAR notified them of their findings on January 3, due to "reduced combat forces [and] threats in the area."