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Thursday, February 26, 2015

'Jihadi John' identified as London-raised college grad

'Jihadi John' identified as London-raised college grad
 

AP Photo
CAGE research director, Asim Qureshi talks during a press conference held by the CAGE human rights charity in London, Thursday, Feb. 26, 2015. A British-accented militant who has appeared in beheading videos released by the Islamic State group in Syria bears “striking similarities” to a man who grew up in London, a Muslim lobbying group said Thursday. Mohammed Emwazi has been identified by news organizations as the masked militant more commonly known as “Jihadi John.” London-based CAGE, which works with Muslims in conflict with British intelligence services, said Thursday its research director, Asim Qureshi, saw strong similarities, but because of the hood worn by the militant, “there was no way he could be 100 percent certain.”
  
LONDON (AP) -- The world knows him as "Jihadi John," the masked, knife-wielding militant in videos showing Western hostages being beheaded by the Islamic State group. On Thursday he was identified as a London-raised university graduate known to British intelligence for more than five years.

The British-accented militant from the chilling videos is Mohammed Emwazi, a man in his mid-20s who was born in Kuwait and raised in a modest, mixed-income area of west London.

No one answered the door at the brick row house where Emwazi's family is said to have lived. Neighbors in the area of public housing projects either declined comment or said they didn't know the family.

British anti-terror officials wouldn't confirm the man's identity, citing a "live counterterrorism investigation." But a well-placed Western official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to speak publicly, confirmed he is Emwazi.

One man who knew Emwazi portrayed him as compassionate, a description completely at odds with the cruelty attributed to him.

"The Mohammed that I knew was extremely kind, extremely gentle, extremely soft-spoken, was the most humble young person that I knew," said Asim Qureshi of CAGE, a London-based advocacy group that counsels Muslims in conflict with British intelligence services.

Qureshi noted strong similarities between the man in the beheading videos and Emwazi, who he first met in 2009. But, "I can't be 100 percent certain."

"The guy's got a hood on his head. It's very, very difficult," Qureshi said, adding that his last contact with Emwazi was in January 2012.

Asked whether it was helpful or hurtful to have the jihadi publicly identified, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said that investigators over the last several months "have found it to their advantage to not talk publicly about the details or progress of that investigation." He didn't confirm the identity of the suspect.

The Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence at King's College London, which closely tracks fighters in Syria, said it believed the identification was correct.

"Jihadi John" appeared in a video released in August showing the slaying of American journalist James Foley, denouncing the West before the killing. Former captives identified him as one of a group of British militants that prisoners had nicknamed "The Beatles."

A man with similar stature and voice was also featured in videos of the killings of American journalist Steven Sotloff, Britons David Haines and Alan Hemming, and U.S. aid worker Abdul-Rahman Kassig.

The Washington Post and the BBC, which first identified the masked man in the video as Emwazi, said he was born in Kuwait, grew up in west London and studied computer programming at the University of Westminster. The university confirmed that a student of that name graduated in 2009.

"If these allegations are true, we are shocked and sickened by the news," the university said in a statement.

The news outlets said Emwazi was known to British authorities before he traveled to Syria in 2012, and Qureshi said Emwazi had accused British intelligence agents of harassing him.

Emwazi first contacted CAGE in 2009, Qureshi said. He had traveled to Tanzania with two other men after leaving university, but was deported and questioned in Amsterdam by British and Dutch intelligence services, who suspected him of attempting to join al-Shabaab militants in Somalia.

The following year, Emwazi accused the British intelligence services of preventing him from traveling to Kuwait, where he planned to work and marry.

CAGE quoted an email Emwazi had sent saying, "I had a job waiting for me and marriage to get started. But now I feel like a prisoner, only not in a cage, in London."

Qureshi accused British authorities of alienating and radicalizing young British Muslims with heavy-handed policies.

"When we treat people as if they are outsiders, they will inevitably feel like outsiders, and they will look for belonging elsewhere," he said.

Congregants leaving a mosque in the west London neighborhood where Emwazi is believed to have lived said they didn't know Emwazi and didn't believe he had worshipped there.

Neighbor Janine Kintenda, 47, who said she'd lived in the area for 16 years, was shocked at the news.
"Oh my God," she said, lifting her hand to her mouth. "This is bad. This is bad."

Shiraz Maher of the King's College radicalization center said he was investigating whether Emwazi was among a group of young west Londoners who traveled to Syria in about 2012.

Many of them are now dead, including Mohammad el-Araj, Ibrahim al-Mazwagi and Choukri Ellekhlifi, all killed in 2013.

Maher said it appears that Emwazi survived, and has become one of the most prominent members of the Islamic State group, a fighter whose confidence and Western accent are calculated to strike fear into viewers of the group's grisly videos.

Maher said Emwazi's background was similar to that of other British jihadis, and disproved the idea "that these guys are all impoverished, that they're coming from deprived backgrounds."

"They are by and large upwardly mobile people, well educated," he said.

The daughter of British aid worker Haines, who was killed in September, told ITV News that identifying the masked man was "a good step."

"But I think all the families will feel closure and relief once there's a bullet between his eyes," Bethany Haines said.

Sotloff's family said they felt "relieved" and "take comfort" after Emwazi's identity was revealed, and hope he will be caught and sent to prison.

"We want to sit in a courtroom, watch him sentenced and see him sent to a super-max prison where he will spend the rest of his life in isolation," family spokesman Barak Barfi told the BBC.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Experts: Insanity case as in 'American Sniper' hard to win

Experts: Insanity case as in 'American Sniper' hard to win 
 

AP Photo
Former Marine Cpl. Eddie Ray Routh stands during his capital murder trial at the Erath County, Donald R. Jones Justice Center in Stephenville Texas, on Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2015. Routh, 27, of Lancaster, is charged with the 2013 deaths of Chris Kyle and his friend Chad Littlefield at a shooting range near Glen Rose, Texas.
  
STEPHENVILLE, Texas (AP) -- The former Marine convicted of killing "American Sniper" author Chris Kyle and another man was hospitalized multiple times for psychiatric treatment and was prescribed medication to treat schizophrenia. He spoke of pig-human hybrids and the apocalypse and was described by Kyle himself as "straight-up nuts."

But jurors found the insanity defense for Eddie Ray Routh failed to meet the legal threshold: a mental illness so severe he didn't know right from wrong. His case illustrates the difficulty of succeeding with such a defense at a time when a Colorado court is preparing to hear similar arguments in the trial over a movie theater shooting in which 12 people were killed.

"The insanity defense is very rare, and it's even rarer that a defendant wins it," said George Dix, a law professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

He said when a brutal crime is committed it's difficult to convince a jury the person accused doesn't "deserve the condemnation that comes from a finding of guilty." He added, "And here, we've got him causing the death of an American hero."

Kyle, a former Navy SEAL sniper, volunteered with veterans facing mental health problems after he left the military. A blockbuster film based on his memoir about his four tours in Iraq contributed to intense interest in the case.

Legal experts say a defense attorney's task to convince a jury that a client is legally insane is even more difficult in cases like that of Routh, who confessed to killing the men, apologized to the family and fled from police.

"If someone is admitting that they committed the murder, it's a pretty tough burden to get a jury to say, `Let's excuse him anyway,'" said Dallas defense attorney Michael Snipes.

Kyle and his friend, Chad Littlefield, were killed after taking Routh to a shooting range on Feb. 2, 2013. Routh's mother had asked Kyle if he could help her son, who she said had suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after serving in Iraq and Haiti.

But the focus of the trial was not PTSD. Routh's attorneys said he suffered from schizophrenia and was having a psychotic episode at the time of the shootings, and noted that Kyle described Routh as "straight-up nuts" in a text message to Littlefield as they drove to the range.

Prosecutors painted the 27-year-old as a troubled drug user who nonetheless knew right from wrong.

A psychologist testifying for prosecutors said Routh was not legally insane but had a paranoid disorder made worse by his use of alcohol and marijuana. In contrast, a psychiatrist testifying for the defense said Routh had schizophrenia and had described seeing neighbors and friends turning into pig-human hybrids.

Snipes said that ultimately, experts cancel each other out in the minds of jurors, who instead look at the defendant's actions.

Juror Barrett Hutchinson told ABC's "Good Morning America" they were not convinced by the claim that Routh was having a psychotic episode. "He knew the consequences of pulling the trigger," Hutchinson said.

The defense plans an appeal, but Routh's attorney J. Warren St. John said he's not yet ready to discuss specifics.

The jury had three options: find Routh guilty of capital murder, find him not guilty or find him not guilty by reason of insanity. With the conviction, Routh received an automatic sentence of life in prison without parole.

Under a finding of not guilty by reason of insanity, Routh would have faced up to life in a state mental hospital. Experts say he would have had the possibility of release only if the state could no longer establish that he had a severe mental illness and was likely to harm another person if he didn't receive inpatient treatment.

But jurors couldn't be told the potential consequences of that finding, a stipulation St. John called a hurdle. 
Houston defense attorney George Parnham, who was not involved in the case, said it lets jurors assume such a verdict could mean the defendant "will ride down the elevator" with them.

Parnham represented Andrea Yates, the Houston-area woman convicted of drowning her five young children before being retried and found not guilty by reason of insanity. Yates is now in a minimum security state mental hospital.

He said that for the retrial, the defense focused less on mental health records and experts and more on getting jurors to see into the mind of the woman who Parnham said drowned her children because she thought that if she didn't they would be taken by Satan.

In Colorado, jurors are now being selected to hear the case against James Holmes, who has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity to killing 12 people and injuring 70 in a 2012 attack at a suburban Denver theater.

As in Texas, Colorado law defines insanity as the inability to tell right from wrong - specifically because of a mental disease or defect. But Colorado is one of only a few states that puts the burden of proving sanity on the prosecution. Once a judge allows someone to plead not guilty by reason of insanity, prosecutors must convince the jury the defendant was sane.

AP: Trayvon Martin's mother says killer got away with murder

AP: Trayvon Martin's mother says killer got away with murder 

AP Photo
Sybrina Fulton, mother of Trayvon Martin, speaks with the Associated Press in Miami, Wednesday, Feb. 25, 2015. The U.S. Justice Department said Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2015, that George Zimmerman, the former neighborhood watch volunteer will not face federal charges in the shooting death of unarmed 17-year-old Martin. Zimmerman was acquitted in 2013 of second-degree murder.
  
MIAMI (AP) -- The mother of Trayvon Martin says she's disappointed that federal prosecutors decided not to charge a neighborhood watch volunteer with a hate crime for killing her son three years ago.

Speaking with The Associated Press on Wednesday before the third anniversary of her 17-year-old son's death, Sybrina Fulton says she still believes George Zimmerman got away with murder.

"He took a life, carelessly and recklessly, and he shouldn't deserve to have his entire life walking around on the street free. I just believe that he should be held accountable for what he's done," Fulton said.

Zimmerman claimed he shot the unarmed teenager in self-defense after confronting Martin while volunteering for his neighborhood watch group. A jury acquitted him of second-degree murder the next year.

The case sparked a national conversation about race, bias and crime in part because Zimmerman, who identifies himself as Hispanic, was not immediately arrested after shooting Martin, who is black.

The U.S. Justice Department announced Tuesday that it found insufficient evidence to establish that Zimmerman willfully deprived Martin of his civil rights or killed him because of his race.

"The Justice Department is the top of the line here," Fulton said. "But what they found just wasn't enough."

Zimmerman, for his part, is relieved the case is closed, according to his attorney, Don West.

"This cloud he was under has been lifted," West told the AP, adding that he finds it misleading to suggest that charges weren't filed only because the legal standard for federal hate crime is so tough to meet.

"There simply was never any compelling evidence that this was a federal hate crime. Race played no role in it whatsoever," West said.

The February 2012 confrontation began after Zimmerman spotted Martin walking through the neighborhood, returning to his father's home after buying candy and a soft drink at a convenience store.

Zimmerman called 911 to report a suspicious person, and got out of his car to follow Martin despite being warned by the dispatcher not to. Zimmerman did not testify at his trial, but he told investigators he feared for his life as Martin straddled him and punched him during the ensuing fight.

Wearing a T-shirt bearing a black-and-white image of her son in a hoodie, Fulton said she still longs for Zimmerman to be held responsible.

"I want to see people held accountable for what they're doing. It's just upsetting to know that a person can shoot and kill someone and justify it," Fulton said.

Fulton now channels her grief into work with The Trayvon Martin Foundation, which reaches out to other families who have lost children to violence, awards scholarships and collects school supplies for poor students.

She's also watching to see how the Justice Department handles other high-profile killings of unarmed blacks. Decisions are pending on whether to charge police in New York and Ferguson, Missouri with depriving the victims of their civil rights by using excessive force in the course of duty.

"What we want is accountability, we want somebody to be arrested, we want somebody to go to jail, of course," Fulton said. "But ... we have grand juries and special grand juries; they're making a decision to not even arrest a person."

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Justice Dept.: No federal charges in Trayvon Martin death

Justice Dept.: No federal charges in Trayvon Martin death 
 

AP Photo
FILE - This Jan. 10, 2015 booking file photo provided by the Seminole County Public Affairs shows George Zimmerman. The U.S. Justice Department said Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2015, that the former neighborhood watch volunteer will not face federal charges in the shooting death of unarmed 17-year-old Trayvon Martin. Zimmerman was acquitted in 2013 of second-degree murder.

MIAMI (AP) -- George Zimmerman, the former neighborhood watch volunteer who fatally shot Trayvon Martin in a 2012 confrontation with the teenager, will not face federal charges, the Justice Department said Tuesday.

The decision, announced in the waning days of Attorney General Eric Holder's tenure, resolves a case that focused public attention on self-defense laws and became a flashpoint in the national conversation about race two years before the Ferguson, Missouri, police shooting.

Zimmerman has maintained that he acted in self-defense when he shot the 17-year-old Martin during a confrontation inside a gated community in Sanford, Florida, just outside Orlando. Martin, who was black, was unarmed when he was killed. Zimmerman identifies himself as Hispanic.

Once Zimmerman was acquitted of second-degree murder by a state jury in July 2013, Martin's family turned to the federal investigation in final hopes that he would be held accountable for the shooting.

That probe focused on whether Zimmerman could be charged with a federal hate crime in the killing and whether he willfully deprived Martin of his civil rights, a difficult legal standard to meet. Federal investigators, who independently conducted dozens of interviews, ultimately determined there was insufficient evidence to prove Zimmerman killed the teenager on account of his race.

"Our decision not to pursue federal charges does not condone the shooting that resulted in the death of Trayvon Martin and is based solely on the high legal standard applicable to these cases," Vanita Gupta, the Justice Department's top civil rights lawyer, said in a statement announcing the decision.

Zimmerman's attorney, Don West, was on a flight and couldn't immediately comment on the decision. A call to Zimmerman's cellphone went directly to voicemail.

Martin's parents were too distraught after their meeting in Miami with Justice Department officials to speak with reporters, said their attorney Ben Crump, who called the decision a "bitter pill to swallow" even though it was expected.

"What they told his family and I was that because Trayvon wasn't able to tell us his version of events, there was a lack of evidence to bring the charges. That's the tragedy," Crump said.

The February 2012 confrontation began after Zimmerman observed Martin while driving in his neighborhood. Zimmerman called police and got out of his car and approached Martin, who was returning from a store while visiting his father and his father's fiancee at the same townhome complex where Zimmerman lived.

Prosecutors contended that Zimmerman was profiling Martin and perceived him as someone suspicious in the neighborhood; Zimmerman did not testify at his trial, but he earlier told investigators that he feared for his life as Martin straddled him and punched him during the fight.

Federal investigators said they examined the case under multiple civil-rights provisions, including ones that make it illegal to use force against someone based on their race and another that criminalizes race-based interference with a person's federally protected housing rights. They said they conducted roughly 75 witness interviews, examined police reports and reviewed all of the evidence gathered during the state prosecution.

Tamara Rice Lave, a professor of the University of Miami's School of Law, said the Justice Department conclusion was not surprising because there was no direct or circumstantial evidence that Zimmerman's actions were motivated by race.

In a 911 call, as he followed Martin through their Sanford neighborhood, Zimmerman said the teenager "looks black."

"But he doesn't say the things that would make you think it was motivated by race," Lave said. "He doesn't call him the N-word."

Black leaders in Sanford, where Martin was shot, also said they weren't surprised by the decision.
"I was expecting this to happen," said Turner Clayton, a former local leader of the NAACP.


Truck stalls on track before fiery train crash, 28 injured

Truck stalls on track before fiery train crash, 28 injured 
 

AP Photo
A firefighter climbs into the wreck of a Metrolink passenger train that derailed, Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2015, in Oxnard, Calif. Three cars of the Metrolink train tumbled onto their sides, injuring dozens of people in agricultural country 65 miles northwest of Los Angeles. Metrolink spokesman Scott Johnson told the Los Angeles Times that at least 30 people were injured.

OXNARD, Calif. (AP) -- A commuter train bound for Los Angeles derailed before dawn Tuesday in a fiery collision with a pickup truck abandoned by its driver after it got stuck on the tracks.

There was a loud boom and the screech of brakes before three of the train's five cars toppled over, injuring 28 people, four critically.

"It seemed like an eternity while we were flying around the train. Everything was flying," said passenger Joel Bingham. "A brush of death definitely came over me."

Lives were likely saved by passenger cars designed to absorb a crash that were purchased after a deadly collision a decade ago, Metrolink officials said. The four passenger cars remained largely intact as did the locomotive.

Police found the disoriented driver of the demolished Ford F-450 pickup truck about a mile or two from the crossing, said Jason Benites, an assistant chief of the Oxnard Police Department.

The driver, Jose Alejandro Sanchez Ramirez, 54, of Yuma, Arizona, was arrested on suspicion of felony hit-and-run, Benites said at an afternoon news conference.

Sanchez Ramirez was hauling a trailer to deliver produce and told police he tried to turn right at an intersection but turned prematurely onto the tracks and got stuck. He was hospitalized for observation.

The crossing has been the scene of many collisions over the years.

The train, the first of the morning on the Ventura route, had just left its second stop of Oxnard on its way to downtown Los Angeles, about 65 miles away, when it struck the truck around 5:45 a.m. There were 48 passengers aboard and three crew members, who were all injured.

The engineer saw the abandoned vehicle and hit the brakes, but there wasn't enough time to stop, Oxnard Fire Battalion Chief Sergio Martinez said.

Bingham said the lights went out when the train fell over. He was banged up from head to toe but managed to find an escape for himself and others where the train was resting above an indentation in the ground.

"I was just shaking," he said. "I opened the window and told everybody, `Come to my voice.'"

Firefighters set up red, yellow and green tarps to categorize people according to their injuries. Many of the 23 people who weren't injured stood nearby wrapped in white blankets.

Others were taken to several nearby hospitals and treated for a variety of ailments.

"Patients have complained of dizziness, of headaches, of lower back pain, of pains related to being bumped, thrown, hit and so forth," said Dr. Bryan Wong, chief medical officer at Ventura County Medical Center.

One patient described how he had been working on his laptop and a moment later there was a sudden jerking motion that happened so quickly he wasn't able to grab hold of anything, Wong said. He was violently tossed against a wall of the train.

The train typically would be accelerating out of the Oxnard station past verdant farm fields at about 55 mph, Metrolink spokesman Scott Johnson said. With braking, he estimated it would have hit the truck at between 40 mph and 55 mph.

The train was pushed by a locomotive in the rear, allowing trains to change direction without having to turn around or swap engines. It's a configuration that has been criticized for putting passengers in a vulnerable position in a crash.

After such a crash killed 11 people and injured 180 others in Glendale in 2005, Metrolink invested heavily to buy passenger cars with collapsible bumpers and other features to absorb impact.

Metrolink spokesman Jeff Lustgarten said the Oxnard crash showed the technology worked.

"Safe to say it would have been much worse without it," he said.

The city of Oxnard has wanted to build a $30 million bridge over the crossing for 10 years, but is only at the environmental review stage, said Darren Kettle, executive director of the Ventura County Transportation Commission.

There have been six accidents at the crossing in the past seven years, including one in which a driver accidently turned onto the tracks in 2010 and was struck by a Metrolink train and injured, according to federal railroad accident reports. Two people were killed at the crossing last year when a car struck an Amtrak train.

The driver said he turned onto the tracks before the crossing arm came down, which occurs 29 seconds before a train arrives. It wasn't clear how long his truck was stuck before the train hit it.

The accident on Tuesday happened on the same line as Metrolink's worst disaster when 25 people were killed Sept. 12, 2008. A commuter train engineer was texting and ran a red light, striking a Union Pacific freight train head-on in the San Fernando Valley community of Chatsworth. More than 100 people were hurt in what was one of the worst railroad accidents in U.S. history.

The National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Railroad Administration were sending investigators to the Tuesday crash in Oxnard.

The tracks, which are also used by Amtrak and freight trains were shut down.

Sydney Mitchell: Best High School Girl Photo-Bodine High School of International Affairs

Sydney Mitchell: Best High School Girl Photo-Bodine High School of International Affairs


































Sydney Mitchell Best High School Female Photo of the Month

From Van Stone: International and USA Fashion and Beauty Collection

Up and coming hot female high school model, Sydney Mitchell wowed the crowd because she is a star in two or more categories. Girls Basketball and Girls Amateur Modeling Just for Fun.

Sydney Mitchell, who is a young positive Black American Female, can impress if it is her desire by any talented outfits, custom makeup, killer jewelry and amazing modeling skills of the younger and older generation.

Watch for Sydney Mitchell from Philadelphia, PA -USA.


Monday, February 23, 2015

Impasse in Senate on Homeland budget bill as shutdown looms

Impasse in Senate on Homeland budget bill as shutdown looms

AP Photo
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, joined by the department employees, during a news conference in Washington, Monday, Feb. 23, 2015. A partial shutdown of the Homeland Security Department loomed at week’s end, but no solution was in sight as senators returned to the Capitol from a week-long recess Monday to confront an impasse over the issue.
  
WASHINGTON (AP) -- President Barack Obama warned Monday that states will feel the pain of a Homeland Security Department shutdown if Congress can't break an impasse by week's end. But on Capitol Hill, no solution was in sight.

"It will have a direct impact on your economy, and it will have a direct impact on America's national security," Obama told the nation's governors as they visited the White House as part of their annual conference. With tens of thousands of workers in line to be furloughed if the agency shuts down at midnight Friday, and many more forced to work without pay, the president cast the standoff in starkly economic terms.

"These are folks who, if they don't have a paycheck, are not going to be able to spend that money in your states," the president said. "And as governors, you know that we can't afford to play politics with our national security."

The president's words appeared to have little impact on Capitol Hill, where Senate Republicans lined up a fourth procedural vote on House-passed legislation that funds the Homeland Security Department through the Sept. 30 end of the budget year, while also rolling back Obama's executive actions granting work permits to millions of immigrants in this country illegally.

The outcome of Monday evening's vote was expected to be the same as three other attempts earlier this month, when Senate Democrats lined up to block the legislation from advancing. Democrats say they won't agree to the bill unless the GOP-written immigration provisions are removed.

The stalemate on Capitol Hill also appeared unchanged by a federal judge's ruling last week that said Obama's executive actions exceeded his authority and put them on hold just as the first wave of immigrants, tens of thousands brought here illegally as children, were to begin applying for work permits and deportation deferrals.

The Obama administration on Monday asked U.S. District Judge Andrew Hanen in Brownsville, Texas, to put his ruling on hold and filed a notice of appeal of his ruling to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans.

The legal developments increased calls from a few Republican senators to pass a "clean" Homeland Security bill without the contested language on immigration.

"I hope my House colleagues will understand that our best bet is to challenge this in court, that if we don't fund the Department of Homeland Security, we'll get blamed as a party," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Sunday on ABC's "This Week."

But House Republicans said they had no interest in revisiting the issue after passing a $39.7 billion bill last month that funds the department through Sept. 30, the end of the budget year, while also undoing Obama's actions on immigration. Instead, they insisted that the Senate must act.

"A federal judge has confirmed that what we've done is the right thing," conservative Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio said Monday. "I hope that the U.S. Senate can see the light and do the right thing."

A short-term extension of current funding levels remained possible, but lawmakers had only a few days to come up with even that partial solution before the agency's funding expires.

A Homeland Security shutdown would result in some 30,000 administrative and other workers getting furloughed. Some 200,000 others would fall into essential categories and stay on the job at agencies like the Border Patrol, Secret Service and Transportation Security Administration, though mostly without drawing a paycheck until the situation is resolved.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson argued over the weekend that the furloughs could harm the U.S. response to terrorist threats and warnings, such as the one late Saturday on Minnesota's Mall of America. Some 80 percent of Federal Emergency Management Agency workers would be furloughed even as that agency contends with two months of devastating snowfall and cold from New England to the Mountain States, Johnson said.

But some Republicans have argued that because the large majority of agency staff would keep working, albeit without getting paid, the harmful impacts of a shutdown were being exaggerated.


Sunday, February 22, 2015

Somalia extremists urge attacks on US shopping malls

Somalia extremists urge attacks on US shopping malls 

AP Photo
A Sunday, Feb. 22, 2015 photo shows the exterior of the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn. A video released late Saturday, Feb. 21, 2015, purported to be by Somalia’s al-Qaida-linked rebels, urges Muslims to attack shopping malls in North America, Britain and other Western countries, specifically mentioning the Mall of America in Minnesota, the West Edmonton Mall in Canada, and the Westfield Mall in Stratford, England.
  
JOHANNESBURG (AP) -- A video purported to be by Somalia's al-Qaida-linked rebel group al-Shabab urged Muslims to attack shopping malls in the U.S., Canada, Britain and other Western countries.

The threat came in the final minutes of a more than hourlong video in which the extremists also warned Kenya of more attacks like the September 2013 assault on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi in which 67 people were killed. The video included footage from major news organizations showing the assault on the mall and said it was in reprisal for alleged abuses by Kenyan troops against Muslims in Somalia.

The masked narrator concluded by calling on Muslims to attack shopping malls, specifically naming the Mall of America in Minnesota, as well as the West Edmonton Mall in Canada and the Westfield mall in Stratford, England.

The authenticity of the video could not be immediately verified by The Associated Press.

The narrator, his face wrapped in a black-and-white kaffiyeh-type scarf and wearing a camouflage jacket, spoke with a British accent and appeared to be of Somali origin.

"What if such an attack were to occur in the Mall of America in Minnesota? Or the West Edmonton Mall in Canada? Or in London's Oxford Street?" the man said, then called for Britain's Westfield mall to be targeted.

Speaking on morning talk shows in the U.S., Department of Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson called the video "the new phase" of the global terrorist threat and warned the public to be vigilant.

"These groups are relying more and more on independent actors to become inspired, drawn to the cause and they'll attack on their own," Johnson said, speaking on CNN's "State of the Union."

"I am very concerned about serious potential threats of independent actors here in the United States. We've seen this now in Europe, we've seen this in Canada."

Asked about the specific threat against the Mall of America, Johnson said: "Any time a terrorist organization calls for an attack on a specific place we've got to take that seriously. What we're telling the public is you've got to be vigilant. ... There will be enhanced security there that will be apparent, but public vigilance, public awareness and public caution in situations like this is particularly important. It's the environment we're in."

The Mall of America, one of the nation's largest, located in Bloomington, Minnesota, said in a statement that it was "aware of a threatening video which includes a mention and images of the mall," and said extra security had been put in place

Shoppers seemed undeterred Sunday by the threat.

"I'm more afraid of the cold today than any terrorists," said Mary Lamminen, of St. Paul.

David Modrynski said he talked with his wife and son about whether to visit the mall after hearing about the video. "But we can't stop living our lives because somebody says they're going to do something," Modrynski said.

While al-Shabab has carried out attacks in neighboring Kenya, Uganda and Djibouti, which all have troops fighting the extremists as part of the multinational African Union force, the al-Qaida affiliate has never operated outside East Africa and the Horn of Africa.

Minnesota, home to the largest Somali population in the U.S., has been the target of terror recruiters in the past. Since 2007, more than 22 young Somali men from Minnesota have traveled to Somalia to join al-Shabab, and a handful of Minnesota residents have also traveled to Syria to fight with militant groups within the last year, authorities say. At least one Minnesotan has died while fighting for the Islamic State group.

On Thursday, a 19-year-old Minneapolis man who was stopped at a New York City airport in November as he and three others were allegedly attempting to travel to Syria was indicted on charges associated with supporting the Islamic State group.

Last week U.S. Attorney Andy Luger led a Minnesota delegation, including law enforcement officials and Somali community leaders, to a White House summit on countering extremism and radicalization. In his remarks, Vice President Joe Biden held up Minneapolis, Boston and Los Angeles as examples of communities moving ahead with programs to counter extremism locally.

In Kenya, the government dismissed the al-Shabab video.

"They're using propaganda to legitimize what cannot be legitimized. When you lead a group to go and attack a shopping mall and kill innocent shoppers that cannot be legitimized, those were not soldiers," Interior Ministry spokesman Mwenda Njoka said.

"Muslims also died in the Westgate attack. It's in our interest to ensure Somalia is stabilized because the instability affects us. The video is cheap propaganda trying to re-write history and to get more support from those support them."

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Chicago-area imam charged with sex abuse at Islamic school

Chicago-area imam charged with sex abuse at Islamic school 

AP Photo
The undated booking photo provided by the Elgin Police Department shows Mohammad Abdullah Saleem, 75, of Gilberts, Ill. Saleem, the longtime head of the Institute of Islamic Education in Elgin, Ill. was arrested Sunday, Feb. 15, 2015, and charged with sexually abusing a 23-year-old woman who worked at the school. Saleem is due to appear in Cook County bond court on Tuesday, Feb. 17 in Rolling Meadows, Ill.


CHICAGO (AP) -- The longtime head of a suburban Chicago Islamic school has been charged with sexually assaulting a woman who worked there, and a civil suit filed Tuesday accuses him of abusing that employee and three teenage students. The legal actions shed light on an issue that even many Muslims say is too often pushed into the shadows within their communities.

Mohammad Abdullah Saleem, 75 - who founded the Institute of Islamic Education and is regarded as a leading Islamic scholar, or imam, in the United States - is charged with felony criminal sexual abuse. 

Prosecutors said he abused the 23-year-old woman, an administrative assistant at the Elgin school, in a series of escalating incidents over months.

The civil suit accuses Saleem of abusing that employee, as well as three female students at the school as far back as the 1980s. The lawyer in that case, Steven Denny, said Saleem took advantage of both the trust accorded to him as a religious leader and of the tendency of Muslims to remain silent on matters of sex and sexual abuse.

"This place was ripe for abuse," Denny told a news conference.

It took special courage, he added, for his clients to come forward within a culture that discourages even casual contact - never mind explicit sexual contact.

The suit says a fifth person was abused when he was 11 by a male staffer at the school, not Saleem. It accuses the school of failing to protect children, many of whom lived on campus. It asks for more than $1.5 million in compensation, saying the victims are psychologically scarred.

Defense attorney Thomas Glasgow said he talked to his client about the Elgin charges and that Saleem "categorically denies the allegations." He hadn't had a chance to speak to him about the lawsuit. No one answered the phone Tuesday at the school, which has students from grades six through 12 and is 25 miles northwest of Chicago.

Saleem, of Gilberts, was arrested Sunday, Elgin police said. Authorities started investigating after the woman contacted them in December.

During a Tuesday bond hearing, prosecutors alleged that a month after the woman started working at the school in 2012, Saleem started removing the religious veil from her face and came into her office to hug her. Over several months, prosecutors said, he would hug her and squeeze her buttocks and breasts over her clothes.

Last April, prosecutors say Saleem locked the door of the woman's office, lifted her dress, forced her to sit on top of him, massaged her and held her down when she tried to get up. Prosecutors say they collected evidence.

The lawsuit says that when one female student told a teacher Saleem touched her inappropriately, she was told, "Saleem is an old man and old people do things like that - so just forget it."

Saleem's bond was set at $250,000 and he was ordered to have no contact with the accuser, her family or anyone under age 18. Glasgow said he expected Saleem to post bond later Tuesday. Saleem, who also had to surrender his passport, is due in court again March 10.

At Denny's news conference, a statement from the 23-year-old woman called on Muslims to speak up about sexual abuse. She said, "I will no longer stay silent."

The chairman of the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater America, to which the school belongs, says he examined the facility's bylaws and found they granted Saleem almost absolute decision-making power. In light of Saleem's arrest, Mohammed Kaiseruddin said Islamic schools nationwide should rework their bylaws to allow greater oversight.

Nadiah Mohajir, director of HEART Women and Girls, which raises awareness about sexual abuse in the Muslim community, called Saleem's arrest "a wake-up call" that presented an opportunity to address a topic that's been taboo for too long.

"The shame and stigma surrounding sexual abuse is even higher in Muslim communities, with its emphasis on purity and modesty," she said.

Kaiseruddin said the matter illustrated that Muslims were not immune to a problem that has plagued the Roman Catholic Church.

"We found out that Muslims are burdened by the same (issue) other faiths are burdened with," he said.


Friday, February 13, 2015

Alabama's stand against gay marriage crumbles

Alabama's stand against gay marriage crumbles
 

AP Photo
Milton Persinger, left, and Robert Povilat, both of Mobile, Ala., get married at Government Plaza as the Rev. Sandy O'Steen from Cornerstone Metropolitan Community Church officiates. They were the first same-sex couple to get married in Mobile, Ala., Thursday Feb. 12, 2015.

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) -- Alabama's stand against gay marriage crumbled Friday as judges in most counties sided with federal courts rather than their own chief justice, a Republican who once called homosexuality an inherent evil.

Many counties in the Bible Belt state reversed course and began issuing the licenses to same-sex couples after the latest strongly worded order from U.S. District Judge Callie Granade. She said Thursday that a judge could no longer deny marriage licenses to gays and lesbians, reiterating her ruling striking down the state's ban on same-sex marriage.

"These numbers represent a seismic shift in favor of equality and justice. Resistance to happy, loving and committed same-sex couples getting married is quickly crumbling throughout the state," said Fred Sainz, a top spokesman for the Human Rights Campaign, which has been lobbying to expand gay rights nationwide.

Granade's ruling enabling gays to get licenses went into effect Monday after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to intervene. But even then, Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore said county judges were not bound by her decision.

"It's my duty to speak up when I see the jurisdiction of our courts being intruded by unlawful federal authority," Moore insisted in an interview with The Associated Press later Monday.

About 20 of Alabama's counties allowed gays and lesbians to wed on Monday. By Friday that number had jumped to at least 47, the Human Rights Campaign said. Other counties said they would revisit the decision next week.

Granade's ruling made Alabama the 37th state where gays and lesbians can legally wed. It also continued her family legacy of bringing sweeping change to a place where many people didn't yet welcome it.

Her grandfather was Richard Rives, a federal appellate judge whose rulings helped desegregate the South despite resistance to the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

"Judge Rives, my grandfather, really is my personal hero," Granade said during her 2001 Senate confirmation hearing. She denied then that "judicial activism" describes what her grandfather did - or what she might do.

"The issues on which he more or less broke with precedent were ones which really flew in the face of the Constitution," she said. "I think a judge will always be correct if the decisions that he or she makes are consistent with the plain language of the Constitution."

While many Republican politicians in Alabama criticized her ruling last month and tried to link her to Obama administration policies, Granade was appointed to the federal bench by President George W. Bush.

Granade could have stayed her decision pending a final U.S. Supreme Court ruling, as federal judges in Mississippi and Arkansas did. Instead, she rejected Alabama's argument that keeping gays and lesbians from marrying benefits the state's children. And after Moore urged judges this week to ignore her ruling, she reiterated that they are bound by the U.S. Constitution to treat all couples equally.

Lee County's probate judge, Bill English, said Friday that Granade's order "makes it clear" he had to open his courthouse doors.

Moore's stand against federal authority surprised no one in Alabama, where the 68-year-old jurist who twice ran for governor burnished his conservative image a decade ago with a losing fight to keep his Ten Commandments statue inside the Alabama Judicial Building.

While Moore again appeared on the losing side Friday, a longtime supporter said the 81 percent of Alabama voters who chose to ban gay marriage in 2006 would appreciate his stand.

"I think this lady judge is scaring the daylights out of these people," Orange Beach businessman Dean Young said. "The people are very thankful that Judge Moore is standing up."

Thursday, February 12, 2015

CBS' Bob Simon remembered as master storyteller

CBS' Bob Simon remembered as master storyteller 

AP Photo
FILE - In this Feb, 1, 2010 file photo, journalist Bob Simon attends the premiere screening of "Faces of America With Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr." at Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York. CBS says Simon was killed in a car crash on Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015, in Manhattan. Police say a town car in which he was a passenger hit another car. He was 73.
  
NEW YORK (AP) -- Bob Simon was kidnapped in Iraq, beaten in Belfast and held at gunpoint in Romania during a nearly 50-year career at CBS News. His bravery made the mundane way he died - in the back seat of a car on Manhattan's West Side Highway Wednesday night - seem all the more tragic.

Simon's work outlives him, and not just on reputation. A story he was working on with his producer, daughter Tanya Simon, about searching for an Ebola cure, is scheduled to air on "60 Minutes" this weekend. 

The newsmagazine will have a full tribute to Simon on Feb. 22.

He died at age 73.

Simon was a foreign correspondent in the heyday of CBS News and broadcast news in general. He was one of the last to leave Vietnam following the fall of Saigon in 1973, and reported on conflicts in Northern Ireland, Nigeria, Portugal, Cyprus, Argentina, India, Romania, Bosnia and, most indelibly, the Middle East.

He often said he was better known in Israel when he was stationed there than he was in the U.S., something he may have wished was untrue. A story in the late 1980s that showed Israeli soldiers beating Palestinian boys during the Intifada earned him so many threats that he needed to hire security for his home.

During the first Gulf War in 1991, he was taken by Iraqi forces near the Kuwait-Saudi border. He and three colleagues were held and beaten severely for six weeks, after which he said he hoped his interrogators "die soon and painfully."

While he was held, one of his New York colleagues prepared an obituary reel - kind of a reverse psychology, hoping it would never be used. Following his release and return to New York, it was handed to him. It took Simon months to watch.

"When you look at your obit, it sort of reminds you how close you came to being dead," he said.

Jeffrey Fager, then a young producer at CBS News and now executive producer of "60 Minutes," said he was always eager to hear Simon's take on a story, even if many others covered it. Simon would usually notice something others hadn't, he said.

Simon had the hardware, including some 27 Emmy Awards. His impact may be better felt in the words of younger correspondents who followed his path. Anderson Cooper nearly broke down speaking about his death on CNN Wednesday night, saying he felt intimidated walking the same hallways with Simon.

"When I try to write really well, I listen for Bob's voice," said NBC News correspondent Richard Engel, in an email from Iraq Thursday. "Sometimes I can just hear it - the ups and downs, the simple phrase to button up a complex thought - but then when I think I've got it, it's gone too quickly, just like Bob.

"He was a brilliant writer and journalist who had the amazing ability to be brave, intelligent and witty all at the same time and make it look effortless," Engel said. "He was the gold standard. Without him, our profession is diminished."

Simon joined "60 Minutes II" in 1999 and the Sunday night broadcast in 2005. He carved out a new niche with a willingness to travel the world for all manner of stories, given a freedom and budget increasingly rare in the realm of broadcast news today. He found a symphony in the Congo, hunted for jaguars in Brazil, visited monks on a mountaintop in Greece.

The jaguar story displayed his subtle wit: "It was good to be in a car," he said, as the camera showed a crocodile-like creature lurking in a swamp.

"You can tell the difference when a reporter can't wait to get out there and cover a story and one who goes out reluctantly or would rather stay home," Fager said. "You're born with this. You're born with desire and a curiosity about the world. And he was born with an extra gift, with an ability to tell a story that sets him apart."

One of his favorite stories, from 2011, was a visit with the Orthodox Christian monks on Greece's Athos - a place where newspapers, computers, televisions and - for the past 1,000 years, women - are not allowed. 

After two years of cajoling, he was permitted to bring the first camera crew there in 30 years. With graceful language, Simon captures the rhythm of the place: "On a typical day -and every day is a typical day," he explained the never-deviating routine. One bearded monk, he said, "could have risen from a Rembrandt."

This past Sunday, he profiled "Selma" filmmaker Ava DuVernay. The story had personal touches - DuVernay's father watched the march in Selma that her daughter recreated for the movie - and hit on serious issues like the lack of diversity in Hollywood.

"We think of him as a foreign correspondent, but he could do everything well," Fager said. "He was a brilliant thinker and he could go into any kind of situation and tell it in a way you haven't heard before. I just think he was a master story-teller."


Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Local Counties Declare ‘Code Blue’ Weather Advisories

Local Counties Declare ‘Code Blue’ Weather Advisories

(Photo illustration by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

CAMDEN, NJ (CBS) – Officials in several area counties have declared Code Blue advisories in advance of the frigid weather.

NEW JERSEY
Burlington County - A Code Blue begins at 6:00 p.m. Thursday, February 12, 2015 through 10:00 a.m. Tuesday, February 17, 2015.

For full story go to:  http://philadelphia.cbslocal.com/

Were 3 slain for their religion or their parking space?

Were 3 slain for their religion or their parking space?

AP Photo
A makeshift memorial appears on display, Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015, at the University of North Carolina School of Dentistry in Chapel Hill, N.C., in remembrance of Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, Yusor Mohammad, 21, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19, who were killed on Tuesday. Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, has been charged with three counts of first-degree murder in the case.
  
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. (AP) -- Police are trying to determine whether hate played any role in the killing of three Muslims, a crime they said was sparked by a neighbor's long-simmering anger over parking and noise inside their condominium complex.

Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, describes himself as a "gun toting" atheist. Neighbors say he always seemed angry and confrontational. His ex-wife said he was obsessed with the shooting-rampage movie "Falling Down," and showed "no compassion at all" for other people.

His current wife, Karen Hicks, said he "champions the rights of others" and said the killings "had nothing do with religion or the victims' faith." Later Wednesday, she issued another statement, saying she's divorcing him.

Hicks appeared in court Wednesday on charges of first-degree murder in the deaths Tuesday of Deah Shaddy Barakat, 23, his wife Yusor Mohammad, 21, and her sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, 19. He pleaded indigence and was appointed a public defender.

Officers were summoned by a neighbor who called 911 reporting five to 10 shots and the sound of people screaming.

The women's father, Mohammad Abu-Salha, said police told him each was shot in the head inside the couple's apartment, and that he, for one, is convinced it was a hate crime.

"The media here bombards the American citizen with Islamic, Islamic, Islamic terrorism and makes people here scared of us and hate us and want us out. So if somebody has any conflict with you, and they already hate you, you get a bullet in the head," said Abu-Salha, who is a psychiatrist.

The killings are fueling outrage among people who blame anti-Muslim rhetoric for hate crimes. A Muslim advocacy organization pressed authorities to investigate possible religious bias. Many posted social media updates with the hashtags (hash)MuslimLivesMatter.

"We understand the concerns about the possibility that this was hate-motivated, and we will exhaust every lead to determine if that is the case," Chapel Hill police Chief Chris Blue said in an email.

Chapel Hill Police asked the FBI for help in their probe, and Ripley Rand, the U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of North Carolina, said his office was monitoring the investigation. But Rand said the crime "appears at this point to have been an isolated incident."

About 2,000 people attended a candlelight vigil for the victims in the heart of UNC's campus Wednesday evening. Several people who knew them spoke about their selflessness as friends and recounted kindnesses that they had extended to others through the years.

Barakat and Mohammad were newlyweds who helped the homeless and raised funds to help Syrian refugees in Turkey this summer. They met while running the Muslim Student Association at N.C. State before he began pursuing an advanced degree in dentistry at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Mohammad planned to join her husband in dentistry school in the fall.

Abu-Salha was visiting them Tuesday from Raleigh, where she was majoring in design at N.C. State.

"This was like the power couple of our community," said Ali Sajjad, 21, the association's current president.

Many of the condominiums in the complex are rented or owned by students and recent graduates at UNC, whose campus is about three miles away.

Hicks had less success: Unemployed and driving a 15-year-old car, his wife said he's been studying to become a paralegal.

Hicks, a Second Amendment rights advocate with a concealed weapons permit, often complained about both Christians and Muslims on his Facebook page. "Some call me a gun toting Liberal, others call me an open-minded Conservative," Hicks wrote.

Imad Ahmad, who lived in the condo where his friends were killed until Barakat and Mohammed were married in December, said Hicks complained about once a month that the two men were parking in a visitor's space as well as their assigned spot.

"He would come over to the door. Knock on the door and then have a gun on his hip saying `you guys need to not park here,'" said Ahmad, a graduate student in chemistry at UNC-Chapel Hill. "He did it again after they got married."

Both Hicks and his neighbors complained to the property managers, who apparently didn't intervene. "They told us to call the police if the guy came and harassed us again," Ahmad said.

"This man was frustrated day in and day out about not being able to park where he wanted to," said Karen Hicks' attorney, Robert Maitland.

The killings were "related to long-standing parking disputes my husband had with various neighbors regardless of their race, religion or creed," Karen Hicks said.

Police have not said how Hicks got inside the condominium, but on Wednesday afternoon there were no visible signs of damage to the door, which was affixed with orange stickers warning of biohazardous material inside. A wooden placard bearing Arabic script that translates to "Thanks to God" hung over their doorbell.

A woman who lives near the scene described Hicks as short-tempered. "Anytime that I saw him or saw interaction with him or friends or anyone in the parking lot or myself, he was angry," Samantha Maness said of Hicks. "He was very angry, anytime I saw him."

Hicks' ex-wife, Cynthia Hurley, said that before they divorced about 17 years ago, his favorite movie was "Falling Down," the 1993 Michael Douglas film about a divorced unemployed engineer who goes on a shooting rampage.

"That always freaked me out," Hurley said. "He watched it incessantly. He thought it was hilarious. He had no compassion at all," she said.

A probable cause hearing is scheduled for March 4. Police said Hicks was cooperating.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

AP Exclusive: 20,000 foreign fighters flock to Syria, Iraq

AP Exclusive: 20,000 foreign fighters flock to Syria, Iraq 

AP Photo
FILE - In this Jan. 30, 2015 file photo, a Syrian Kurdish sniper looks at the rubble in the Syrian city of Ain al-Arab, also known as Kobani. Foreign fighters are streaming in unprecedented numbers to Syria and Iraq to battle for the Islamic State or other U.S. foes, including at least 3,400 from Western nations and 150 Americans, U.S. intelligence officials conclude. In all, more than 20,000 fighters have traveled to Syria from more than 90 countries, top intelligence officials will tell Congress this week.
  
WASHINGTON (AP) -- Foreign fighters are streaming into Syria and Iraq in unprecedented numbers to join the Islamic State or other extremist groups, including at least 3,400 from Western nations among 20,000 from around the world, U.S. intelligence officials say in an updated estimate of a top terrorism concern.

Intelligence agencies now believe that as many as 150 Americans have tried and some have succeeded in reaching in the Syrian war zone, officials told the House Homeland Security Committee in testimony prepared for delivery on Wednesday. Some of those Americans were arrested en route, some died in the area and a small number are still fighting with extremists.

The testimony and other data were obtained Tuesday by The Associated Press.

Nick Rasmussen, chief of the National Counterterrorism Center, said the rate of foreign fighter travel to Syria is without precedent, far exceeding the rate of foreigners who went to wage jihad in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen or Somalia at any other point in the past 20 years.

U.S. officials fear that some of the foreign fighters will return undetected to their homes in Europe or the U.S. to mount terrorist attacks. At least one of the men responsible for the attack on a satirical magazine in Paris had spent time with Islamic extremists in Yemen.

Meanwhile, the White House circulated a proposal Tuesday that would have Congress authorize the U.S. military to fight Islamic State terrorists over the next three years. A formal request for legislation is expected on Wednesday.

Also at the White House, President Barack Obama praised Kayla Jean Mueller, the young American whose death was confirmed Tuesday. Mueller died while in Islamic State hands, though the group blamed a Jordanian airstrike, and Obama said, "No matter how long it takes, the United States will find and bring to justice the terrorists who are responsible for Kayla's captivity and death."

As for foreign fighters, officials acknowledge it has been hard to track the Americans and Europeans who have made it to Syria, where the Islamic State group is the dominant force trying to overthrow the government of President Bashar Assad. The U.S. Embassy in Syria is closed, and the CIA has no permanent presence on the ground.

"Once in Syria, it is very difficult to discern what happens there," according to Wednesday's prepared testimony of Michael Steinbach, the FBI's assistant director for counterterrorism. "This lack of clarity remains troubling."

The estimate of 20,000 fighters, from 90 countries, is up from 19,000, Rasmussen will tell the House committee, according to prepared testimony. The number of Americans or U.S. residents who have gone or tried to go is up to 150 from 50 a year ago and 100 in the fall.

Rep. Michael McCaul, the Texas Republican who chairs the committee, said in his prepared remarks that the Syrian war had created "the largest convergence of Islamist terrorists in world history." Sustained bombing by a U.S.-led coalition has not stopped the inflow, he noted.

McCaul's committee staff compiled from public sources a list of 18 U.S. citizens or residents who joined or attempted to join the Islamic State group, and 18 others who tried to or succeeded in joining other violent Islamic groups. The list includes three Chicago teens and three Denver teens who were radicalized and recruited online and were arrested after attempting to travel to Syria to join Islamic State fighters. It also includes Douglas McAuthur McCain, 33, a Californian who died in August while fighting with the Islamic State group near Aleppo.

U.S. intelligence officials do not make public their estimate of how many Americans currently are fighting in Syria and Iraq. In September, FBI director James Comey said it was "about a dozen."

Francis X. Taylor, who heads the Homeland Security Department's intelligence office, said in his prepared testimony for the hearing that "we are unaware of any specific, credible, imminent threat to the homeland."

However, he said, the department is concerned that Americans who join violent extremist groups in Syria "could gain combat skills, violent extremist connections and possibly become persuaded to conduct organized or `lone-wolf' style attacks that target U.S. and Western interests. We also have become increasingly aware of the possibility that Syria could emerge as a base of operations for al-Qaida's international agenda, which could include attacks against the homeland."

Taylor said the U.S. is trying to instruct other governments on how best to track foreign fighters, including "how they can compare airline manifests and reservation data against terrorist watch lists and other intelligence about terrorist travel." He said the U.S. outpaces other countries in that effort.

The intelligence officials also discussed the possibility of homegrown attacks inspired by the Islamic State or al-Qaida but not directly connected to the groups. Rasmussen of the counterterrorism center appeared to downplay that threat, saying it "will remain at its current level resulting in fewer than 10 uncoordinated and unsophisticated plots annually from a pool of up to a few hundred individuals, most of whom are known to the (intelligence agencies) and law enforcement."

McCaul said he fears the Obama administration is blind to the looming dangers of homegrown radicalism of the kind that led to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing.

"We have no lead agency in charge of countering domestic radicalization and no line item for it in the budgets of key departments and agencies," he said. "I am also concerned that the few programs we do have in place are far too small to confront a challenge that has grown so quickly."

Arizona mountain town mourns for American woman held by IS

Arizona mountain town mourns for American woman held by IS  

AP Photo
Laura Spaeth looks at a memorial honoring American hostage Kayla Mueller on the corner of courthouse plaza in Prescott, Ariz., Tuesday, Feb. 10, 2015. Islamic State group reported Friday that Muller, whose 18-month captivity had largely been kept secret in an effort to save her, had died in a recent Jordanian airstrike targeting the militants. On Tuesday her parents and U.S. officials confirmed she was dead, although officials said they could not confirm how she died.

PRESCOTT, Ariz. (AP) -- The small Arizona town where Kayla Jean Mueller grew up gathered in grief Tuesday upon learning that the 26-year-old aid worker who traveled the world on a quest to help others had died while in the hands of Islamic State militants.

A memorial of flowers and handwritten notes took shape on the courthouse plaza in Prescott near a sign calling on people to pray for her.

In Washington, President Barack Obama pledged to bring Mueller's captors to justice "no matter how long it takes."

Muller's 18-month captivity had largely been kept secret in an effort to save her. The Islamic State group claimed Friday that she had died in a recent Jordanian airstrike targeting the militants.

On Tuesday, her parents and U.S. officials confirmed her death. The Pentagon said U.S. officials don't know how or when she died but are certain it was not in the Jordanian airstrike.

"What a fine, fine woman and a tribute to Prescott," said 15-year resident Tina Nemeth. "It's just so sad, it really is, and everyone feels exactly the same. It's a shock it hit Prescott. We're not that big of a town."

The former territorial capital of Arizona has only recently begun to recover from a devastating 2013 wildfire that claimed the lives of 19 members of an elite firefighting squad. Stickers featuring the fire crew's logo and bearing the number "19" are still fixed to vehicles all around town.

The mountain town of 40,000 people resembles a relic of the Old West in many ways, with its colorful downtown saloons and a dirt road leading out of town to where Mueller's family lives. Its picturesque downtown courthouse lawn is recognizable to outsiders who still recall it as the site of the dramatic martial-arts fight scene in the 1971 film "Billy Jack."

On Tuesday, that lawn was crammed with members of the media gathered to hear an emotional, often tearful tribute from Mueller's family and friends.

"All these stories about Kayla, she sounds so extraordinary," said the Rev. Kathleen Day, who heads the United Christian Ministry at Northern Arizona University, where Mueller attended college.

"What was so extraordinary about Kayla was she did ordinary things to extraordinary measures," Day continued. "She gave people food. She gave people water." She even befriended her captors, the reverend added, at one point trying to teach them origami.

And she wrote passionately about conditions in war-torn Syria, where she had gone to help refugees.

"Every human being should act. They should stop this violence," Day said, quoting one of Mueller's blog posts.

Her aunt Lori Lyon said Mueller accomplished more in her 26 years than most people do in a lifetime, adding that her death had "touched the heart of the world."

From Jordan, government spokesman Mohammed al-Momani offered his country's condolences.

The White House said Obama had spoken with Mueller's parents and offered his prayers. The president said Mueller "epitomized all that is good in our world."

Arizona Sen. John McCain hailed Mueller's humanitarian work in a speech from the Senate floor.

"After graduating from Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff in 2009, Kayla committed her life to helping people in need around the world - first in India, then Israel and the Palestinian territories and back home in Prescott, where she volunteered at an HIV/AIDS clinic and a women's shelter," he said.

As a high school student in Prescott, McCain noted, Mueller was recognized as a leader and received the President's Award for Academic Excellence, as well as other honors.

Mueller is the fourth American to die while being held by Islamic State militants. Three others - journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and aid worker Peter Kassig - were beheaded by the group.

Journalist Austin Tice disappeared in August 2012 while covering Syria's civil war. It's not clear what entity is holding him, but it is not believed to be the Islamic State group or the Syrian government, his family has said.

Mueller was taken hostage in August 2013 while leaving a hospital in Syria.

In each case, their captors demanded huge ransoms, which the United States has refused to pay, saying doing so would only encourage more kidnappings. Obama defended that policy Tuesday in an interview with BuzzFeed News, although he said explaining it to victims' families is "as tough as anything I do."

He also said a military operation last summer to recover Mueller and others failed when rescuers arrived only "a day or two" after the group had been moved.

Islamic State said last week that Mueller was killed in a recent airstrike Jordan launched as retaliation for the militant group's gruesome killing of one of its pilots, who was burned to death.

Jordan denied that, and on Tuesday a Pentagon spokesman, Navy Rear Adm. John Kirby, said there was "no doubt" Islamic State killed Mueller. He said officials have not learned yet how she died.

Her parents released a letter that their daughter had written them while in captivity. In the undated letter, Mueller said she was "in a safe location, completely unharmed."

"I am also fighting from my side in the ways I am able + I have a lot of fight left inside of me," she wrote. "I am not breaking down + I will not give in no matter how long it takes."

Monday, February 9, 2015

Ohio girl, 11, charged with murder in death of 2-month-old

Ohio girl, 11, charged with murder in death of 2-month-old 

CLEVELAND (AP) -- An 11-year-old girl from a Cleveland suburb has been charged with murder in the beating of a 2-month-old who was staying overnight with the girl and her mother to give the baby's mom a break.

Wickliffe police Chief Randy Ice said at a news conference Monday that the 11-year-old, her mother and the baby girl, Zuri Whitehead of Cleveland, were on a couch downstairs when the mother fell asleep at about 3 a.m. Friday. The mother was awakened less than an hour later by her daughter, who was holding the badly injured infant. Ice said the 11-year-old took the infant upstairs. When she returned downstairs, the infant was bleeding and her head was badly swollen, he said.

The 11-year-old's mother immediately called 911, Ice said. Zuri was flown to a children's trauma center in Cleveland, where she died.

The mother of the 11-year-old and Zuri's mother, Trina Whitehead, had known each other for five or six years but weren't related, Ice said. Trina Whitehead has three other children and had the girl's mother keep Zuri overnight to give her a break.

The Associated Press is not naming the 11-tear-old or her mother because of the girl's age.

Neither Ice nor a Lake County juvenile court official could recall a murder suspect being that young. Court administrator Chris Simon said 13 is the youngest age that children are typically detained at the county's juvenile detention center, where the girl is being held. Juvenile Judge Karen Lawson entered a not guilty plea for the girl at a detention hearing Monday and ordered that she undergo a competency hearing.

FBI crime statistics show there were 20 children age 12 and under in the U.S. who were accused of murder during 2012, the most recent year for which statistics were available.

The girl cannot be tried as an adult. A child must be at least 14 years old in Ohio to be turned over to adult court. An 11-year-old can, however, be sentenced to a state Department of Youth Services facility until age 21.

The middle school the girl attends had called police about the girl on one occasion for a non-violent incident, Ice said. The girl and her mother have been questioned.

The girl did not show any remorse, Ice said. "I'm not sure she appreciated the gravity of what she did," he said.

The girl's public defender declined to comment on Monday.

Ice is considering counseling for the officers who responded to the scene.

"We're having a hard time getting (our) heads around this," he said. "You don't see stuff like this."

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