Army Lt. General William Mayville Jr. speaks about the operations in Syria during a news conference at the Pentagon.
On Monday night, a US-led coalition launched air strikes in Syria against members of ISIS, the extremist Islamic group occupying territory in Iraq and Syria. As a "last-minute add-on," NBC reports, the United States also targeted a different terrorist group: a little-known outfit called Khorasan. This Al Qaeda affiliate gained some public attention earlier this month after US officials reported that the extremists were plotting to sneak bombs on to US airplanes. Last week, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper noted that the group "perhaps" posed as great a threat to the United States as ISIS. On Tuesday morning, Pentagon spokesman Rear Adm. John Kirby maintained that strikes on ISIS and Khorasan were "very successful." The US targeted Khorasan's "training camps, an explosives and munitions production facility, a communications building and command and control facilities," the Pentagon told the Washington Post.
News of these air strikes raised an obvious question: Who and what is Khorasan? The group is led by Muhsin al-Fadhli, a 33-year-old senior Al Qaeda operative who was privy to Osama bin Laden's 9/11 plans prior to the attacks, according to the New York Times. US officials have tracked Fadhli for years, and the State Department refers to him as a "senior facilitator and financier" for Al Qaeda. In 2012, the State Department was offering up to $7 million for information about his whereabouts. Born in Kuwait, he has operated in Chechnya, fighting Russian soldiers, according to the United Nations, and has been wanted in connection to Al Qaeda attacks in Saudi Arabia.
In a conference call with reporters after the air strikes, several senior administration officials, speaking on background, said that Khorasan had established a safe haven within the chaos of Syria to plot attacks against the United States and other Western nations. One official reported that this planning was "nearing the execution phase." A senior administration official also said that Khorasan—described as a band of experienced Al Qaeda veterans—was recruiting Westerners fighting in Syria for "external operations," and that Khorasan plotting had prompted the United States to beef up aviation security measures a few months ago. One administration official noted that President Obama had been contemplating strikes against Khorasan for months "separate and apart from the growing threat from ISIL."
On Monday, prior to the strikes, Brian Forst, a professor at American University and a counterterrorism expert, told Mother Jones, "If we can find al-Fadhli and take him out, Khorasan will be largely neutered." Brian Michael Jenkins, a senior terrorism expert with the RAND Corporation, contends that leaders can always be replaced, referring to both Al Qaeda and ISIS, which have cycled through different leaders. "It doesn't end their operations," Jenkins says. "It has a disruptive effect."
Khorasan, according to press reports, has about 50 jihadist fighters, mostly from Afghanistan and Pakistan. US officials told the AP earlier this month that the group was sent to Syria by Al Qaeda top dog Ayman al-Zawahari to link up with another Al Qaeda affiliated group, the Nusra Front, and "recruit Europeans and Americans whose passports allow them to board a US-bound airliner with less scrutiny from security officials."
Aki Peritz, a former counterterrorism analyst with the CIA, says, "It's much easier to recruit people—especially those with foreign passports—in Syria than in Pakistan for operations abroad." He adds, "Given that there are several thousand foreigners in Syria today, it's probably much easier for Al Qaeda to spot, assess, develop, recruit, and train willing individuals there than anywhere else in the world."
Jenkins compared the fighting in Syria and Iraq to a "talent show" that Khorasan was watching and judging, looking for recruits. Khorasan is "scarier" than ISIS, he argues, because it is focused primarily on attacking the West. Forst also notes that Khorasan focuses "more on the West than Syria," while ISIS is "focusing on Middle Eastern targets."
So does the Obama administration have the legal authority to hit Khorasan? Under the post-9/11 authorization provided by Congress in 2001, the president is allowed to use force against "those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001." And senior administration officials contend that this authorization covers Khorasan, given its connection to Al Qaeda.
In in a statement on Tuesday morning, Obama referred to Khorasan as "seasoned Al Qaeda operatives"—and he seemed to this group with ISIS, as he vowed to "do what's necessary to take the fight to this terrorist group." He added, "Once again, it must be clear to anyone who would plot against America and try to do Americans harm that we will not tolerate safe havens for terrorists who threaten our people." But as the president spoke, there was not sufficient public information to judge the nature and seriousness of the threat posed by a group most Americans had not yet heard of.
In June 2012, a Google supercomputer made an artificial-intelligence breakthrough: It learned that the internet loves cats. But here's the remarkable part: It had never been told what a cat looks like. Researchers working on the Google Brain project in the company's X lab fed 10 million random, unlabeled images from YouTube into their massive network and instructed it to recognize the basic elements of a picture and how they fit together. Left to their own devices, the Brain's 16,000 central processing units noticed that a lot of the images shared similar characteristics that it eventually recognized as a "cat." While the Brain's self-taught knack for kitty spotting was nowhere as good as a human's, it was nonetheless a major advance in the exploding field of deep learning.
The dream of a machine that can think and learn like a person has long been the holy grail of computer scientists, sci-fi fans, and futurists alike. Deep learning—algorithms inspired by the human brain and its ability to soak up massive amounts of information and make complex predictions—might be the closest thing yet. Right now, the technology is in its infancy: Much like a baby, the Google Brain taught itself how to recognize cats, but it's got a long way to go before it can figure out that you're sad because your tabby died. But it's just a matter of time. Its potential to revolutionize everything from social networking to surveillance has sent tech companies and defense and intelligence agencies on a deep-learning spending spree.
What really puts deep learning on the cutting edge of artificial intelligence (AI) is that its algorithms can analyze things like human behavior and then make sophisticated predictions. What if a social-networking site could figure out what you're wearing from your photos and then suggest a new dress? What if your insurance company could diagnose you as diabetic without consulting your doctor? What if a security camera could tell if the person next to you on the subway is carrying a bomb?
Microsoft rattled the gaming world this week when it announced it would spend $2.5 billion to acquire Minecraft, a wildly popular indie videogame. By buying the game, Microsoft hopes to tap into players' wallets. But what's less clear is whether Microsoft can win over gamers, some of whom are criticizing Microsoft for trying to buy its way to cool—and stifling creativity in the process.
Minecraft's premise is simple: Players are dropped into a world with LEGO-style blocks, and can then choose their own adventures—exploring, building new structures, or fighting monsters. The game has legions of devoted followers—including hardcore gamers, elementary school kids, and United Nations staffers who have asked citizens in developing countries to use the program to design better public spaces. Some gamers are earning a living off of Minecraft by uploading game videos to YouTube and taking a chunk of the ad revenue, and they're not shying away from slamming the deal.
Last week, President Barack Obama outlined his plan for expanding military action against ISIS, the murderous Islamic extremist group that controls territory in Iraq and Syria. His beefed-up campaign includes increased funding previously announced (up to $500 million) to train and arm supposedly moderate rebels in Syria who are fighting the dictatorial regime of Bashar al-Assad and also at times battling ISIS. For the past few years, Washington has assisted Syrian opposition forces deemed non-extremist—even though they might be fighting alongside Al Qaeda-affiliated rebels. But the effort has not been a great success, with hawks accusing the Obama administration of not doing enough, and administration officials skeptical about the moderate opposition's cohesion and military effectiveness and wary of doling out weapons that could fall into the wrong hands. In February, the leader of the moderate Free Syrian Army—who was the conduit for US aid to the rebels—was removed by his own council, partly because the FSA had been taking a beating from the regime and Islamist forces. Now Obama intends to boost the US effort to support these moderate fighters in Syria. But this move comes just weeks after the collapse of the Syrian Support Group, a US-based nonprofit backed by the State Department that boasted it delivered millions in dollars of nonlethal supplies to the FSA. According to former officials of the group, it shut down because of funding problems and divisions among rebel forces.
Working with the rebels in Syria will be a daunting task for the Obama administration. There are hundreds of anti-Assad militias, each with its own agenda. Some moderate bands have no interest in taking on ISIS. Some fighters shift allegiances between secular outfits and Islamic extremist groups. Neither the FSA nor the Syrian National Coalition, a political group representing the opposition, control or even coordinate all the various non-extremist fighters. And the dissolution of the Syrian Support Group in the United States—just at the time when Washington is ramping up its investment in the Syrian opposition—could be a troubling sign.
Tom Wolf, the Democratic candidate for Pennsylvania governor, promises that if he's elected he won't support a controversial bill that could force some abortion clinics in the state to close. Wolf's opponent, Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, has trailed in recent polls and is expected to back the bill in the slim chance it clears a vote.
"Tom Wolf would not sign this bill. This is just an attempt to make it more difficult for women to access reproductive health care," says Beth Melena, a spokeswoman for Wolf's campaign. Corbett's campaign did not respond to comment, but the bill's sponsor, Republican Rep. Bryan Cutler, says that he expects that Corbett would support it. The governor has backed other abortion restrictions in the past, defending a bill that would require women seeking abortions to first obtain ultrasounds by noting, "You just have to close your eyes."
The newer bill, introduced in February, would require doctors who perform abortions to get admitting privileges from a hospital which offers obstetrical or gynecological care less than 30 miles away from their clinic. Abortion rights supporters say the legislation is unnecessary because only 0.3 percent of abortions lead to major complications and abortion providers don't need admitting privileges to transfer sick patients to hospitals. They believe the bill will limit Pennsylvania women's access to safe and legal abortions, because not all doctors may work within 30 miles of a hospital and some religiously affiliated hospitals will not grant admitting privileges to doctors who perform abortions. The Pennsylvania bill has nearly identical language to the admitting-privileges requirement that passed last year in Texas. Since the passage of that requirement (and other abortion restrictions), many of the Lone Star State's 41 abortion clinics have closed.
Some Pennsylvania women say they already have trouble accessing clinics. This week, a woman was sentenced to prison for ordering abortion pills online for her 16-year-old daughter, who did not want to have the baby. The Bloomsburg Press Enterprise reported that she ordered the pills because the daughter did not have insurance to pay for a hospital abortion and there were no clinics nearby.
Fortunately for abortion rights advocates, people familiar with Pennsylvania's political scene say that the bill is doomed. "They did this before with one of those ultrasound bills and that died an ugly death too. As conservative as this Legislature can be, it seems to me to be seized by fits of common sense," says John Micek, editorial and opinions editor for PennLive and the Patriot-News.
The legislation hasn't gone to a vote yet and Cutler, who sponsored the bill, says that he doesn't expect it to before the Senate session ends on November 12. He says he will consider reintroducing it next year.