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France rebuilds ties with Africa, while America plans to tease China

27-7-2022 |

Fresh - freshly squeezed news from the international press. We prepare it 3 times a week.

Politico:  Playing with the swastika. Inside a teenage terrorist network

When Lukas F. walks onto the site of an abandoned army barracks in the summer of 2021 as part of his training to be a terrorist, he is 16 years old, a slender boy with dark hair.

The site is about 45 minutes from the center of Potsdam, a city just southwest of Berlin, Germany. Once it was used by the Wehrmacht, Germany’s regular armed forces during World War II; later by the Soviets. There are lakes close by, popular with swimmers.

A roar of thunder echoes across the yard, a fireball flashes. First one bomb goes off, then a second.

Lukas F. films the explosions on his mobile phone. Months before, he set up a group for young neo-Nazis from multiple countries who think they are fighting a “race war.”

In their online chat, Lukas F. — a pseudonym used to protect his identity as a minor — describes these bombs as a test for the group.

Lukas F. is part of a network of young people from all over the world, teenagers who exchange far-right ideas, Nazi propaganda and videos of attacks and, in the process, egg one another on to the point where some of them come to believe they must take up arms against the liberal order.

There are dozens of groups like this, linked in an international network stretching from the west coast of the U.S., to Western Europe and the remotest corners of the Baltic states.

The groups give themselves martial names, inspired by the propaganda of the National Socialists. The most prominent among them in terms of membership calls itself the Feuerkrieg, or Fire War, Division (FKD). Lukas F. from Potsdam, now 17 years old, is not just a follower: he set up his own group, closely tied into the network and called it Totenwaffen, or Death Weapons.

Reporters from Welt am Sonntag, POLITICO and Insider spent more than a year investigating the inner workings of this far-right terrorist network. Using fake identities, they gained access to about two dozen of its chat groups, spoke with insiders and secured more than 98,000 messages, including photographs and videos. In the process, they also uncovered death lists, death threats against politicians and journalists, and instructions on how to make bombs and use 3D-printers to produce weapons parts.

How it all started

According to sources in his circle, Lukas F. was born in Belarus. His mother is Belarusian, his father a Kazakh of German origin. The family moved to Potsdam when Lukas F. was a toddler; later, two more sons were born.

At the age of 15, Lukas F. went on a school trip to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp. The aim of such visits was to teach children about Nazi atrocities and the dangers of Nazi ideology. But, as his brother later tells the reporters, for Lukas F. the concentration camp visit was a turning point.

When he got home, he changed the desktop image on his computer to a swastika.

To understand what may be going on in the heads of young people like Lukas F., we need to cast our minds back a few years and to the other side of the Atlantic, to the US State of Colorado, home of James Mason, now 69. Mason joined an American Nazi party when he was just 14 years old. Two years later, he was making plans to murder his headteacher, although in the end he did not carry them out. In the network of which Lukas F. is a member, Mason’s book, Siege, is considered a must-read. For many young far-right extremists, it is more important even than Hitler’s Mein Kampf.

In his book, Mason calls for liberal society to be plunged into civil war. This does not require the creation of mass organisations, he writes: it just needs individual assassins or tiny cells to carry out attacks on infrastructure, politicians or members of minorities. This will result in chaos and prepare the ground for a far-right revolution.

Mason and his ideas have gained many followers in the last few years: groups, cells and individuals, in Europe, Canada and the U.S.

The list of attacks linked to this ideology is growing by the year. It includes the mass-shooting at the Olympia shopping centre in Munich in 2016 and the 2019 attack on a synagogue and a kebab shop in Halle.

The attackers are lionized as heroes in the network chats, and their victim counts are turned into a contest, with the one who kills the most being declared the winner.

A network for young terrorists

In the summer of 2020, a few months after his visit to Sachsenhausen, Lukas F. leaves the Potsdam secondary school and begins an apprenticeship. In November 2020 he sets up a chat group on the Telegram messenger service and calls it Totenwaffen. Its members include a few like-minded individuals whom he met on the Discord and Roblox gaming platforms. Lukas F. becomes the group leader – its Führer.

Between November 2020 and May 2021, nearly 100 users post messages to the Totenwaffen group. They come from many different countries, including Estonia, France and the U.S., and chat with each other in English.

Group members praise the far-right terrorist who shot dead 51 people in two mosques in the New Zealand city of Christchurch in 2019: “Tarrant is a legend.”

They venerate Anders Breivik, the far-right terrorist who murdered 77 people in Oslo and on the holiday island of Utøya in 2011. One of them calls him a “saint.” 

In a message posted in December 2020, Lukas F. makes it clear how far he himself is prepared to go: “I bet sometime I get so mad that I will place a bomb on the next location where Jewgela will do her speech.” He later clarifies that “Jewgela” refers to Angela Merkel, an anti-Semitic play on her first name.

An example to all the boys

To understand how this network of teenage terrorists works, we need look no further than Estonia.

In late 2018 a young boy living on the Estonian island of Saaremaa sets up a far-right group. He calls it Feuerkrieg Division and gives himself the alias “Commander.” He is just 11 years old. The group grows, with members all over the world.

These members, mostly teenagers and young men, chat about their murder fantasies, often in detail. The Feuerkrieg Division has been proven to be behind a long list of planned and attempted attacks worldwide:

  • U.S., 2019: Conor Climo, 23, is arrested in Las Vegas for plotting attacks on a synagogue and a gay bar. He is sentenced to two years in prison.
  • U.K., 2019: Police arrest Paul Dunleavy, 16, after he tries to procure a gun. He has been planning terrorist attacks. He is sentenced to five years and six months in prison.
  • U.S., 2019: Jarett William Smith, a soldier from Kansas, is arrested for planning an attack on a news station. He is sentenced to 30 months in prison.
  • Lithuania, 2019: Gediminas Berzinskas, 20, is arrested in Vilnius after trying to blow up an office building. He is sentenced to two years and four months in prison.
  • U.K., 2019: Luke Hunter, 21, incites terrorist attacks. He is sentenced to four years and two months in prison.
  • Germany, 2020: In the district of Cham special forces arrest Fabian D, a 22-year-old electrician, at his place of work, for trying to build an assault rifle for use in an attack, he is sentenced to two years in prison.

All these young men were members of the Feuerkrieg Division, which has been classified as a serious threat by security forces worldwide. In the U.K. it was classified as a terrorist group in 2020, and other countries have followed suit. It also featured in the latest annual report of the German Federal Agency for Internal Security.

The Feuerkrieg Division is Lukas F.’s main source of inspiration. He frequently refers to it in the Totenwaffen chat group. In March 2021, for example, he writes that the group needs its own logo and that it should be based on the Feuerkrieg Division one — a skull.

For the state authorities this is not a battle on equal terms. Groups disappear, only to pop up again. Group names and aliases are re-used. The connections between group members are less the product of rigid organisation than of shared ideology.

The strength of the network lies in the fact that it is not a fixed group but simply a loose collection of individuals who can be based anywhere in the world. All they need is a computer, a mobile phone and a bedroom. And all they have in common is their ideology and their hatred: hatred of Jews, hatred of politicians, hatred of journalists.

According to the European law enforcement agency, Europol, it is this shift from a clear hierarchy to a loose collection of individuals that makes it so difficult to prosecute these groups: “In these complex situations we have to deal with individuals, since one or two individuals acting on their own initiative can pose a real threat.”

Miro Dittrich is an expert in far-right terrorism at the Center for Monitoring, Analysis and Strategy in Berlin, which systematically monitors far-right communications on Telegram. He said it took years for the authorities to start taking digital spaces seriously and that, even now, there is a lack of law enforcement.

This has allowed a far-right terrorist sub-culture to develop there unhindered — a sub-culture easily accessed by minors.

Lucas F. was arrested in June this year. He is credited with putting up anti-Semitic posters around the city, making bombs and constantly agitating hundreds of teenagers around the world. His group has also been involved in an umbrella terrorist organisation called “Iron Order”, which described itself as a "National Socialist coalition". The initiator of the ”Iron Order” was the Feuerkrieg Division.

Lucas is now in prison somewhere in Märkisch-Oderland. The state security service has classified him as dangerous, someone who poses a real threat to the public. Officials are still investigating. They suspect him of having been preparing a “serious act of violence against the state”: a terrorist attack, in other words.

But the story is not over. In recent months a new band of far-right teenagers has formed in Brandenburg. Their base is an abandoned house to which they have acquired access. They greet each other by forming the fingers of their right hands into an L and shouting, “Free L”: Freedom for Lukas.

CNN: By the way, how much is the viruse? Wuhan market recognised as source of pandemic

In June, the World Health Organization recommended that scientists continue to research all possible origins of the Covid-19 pandemic, including a lab leak.

Two newly published studies take totally different approaches but arrive at the same conclusion: The Huanan Seafood Market in Wuhan, China, was most likely the epicenter for the coronavirus.

The studies were posted online as preprints in February but have now undergone peer review and were published Tuesday in the journal Science.

In one, scientists from around the world used mapping tools and social media reports to do a spatial and environmental analysis. They suggest that although the "exact circumstances remain obscure," the virus was probably present in live animals sold at the market in late 2019. The animals were held close together and could easily have exchanged germs. However, the study does not determine which animals may have been sick.

The researchers determined that the earliest Covid-19 cases were centered at the market among vendors who sold these live animals or people who shopped there. They believe that there were two separate viruses circulating in the animals that spilled over into people.

"All eight COVID-19 cases detected prior to 20 December were from the western side of the market, where mammal species were also sold," the study says. The proximity to five stalls that sold live or recently butchered animals was predictive of human cases.

The "extraordinary" pattern that emerged from mapping these cases was very clear, said another co-author, Michael Worobey, department head of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Arizona.

The researchers mapped the earliest cases that had no connection to the market, Worobey noted, and those people lived or worked in close proximity to the market.

"This is an indication that the virus started spreading in people who worked at the market but then started that spread ... into the surrounding local community as vendors went into local shops, infected people who worked in those shops," Worobey said.

The other study takes a molecular approach and seems to determine when the first coronavirus infections crossed from animals to humans.

The earliest version of the coronavirus, this research shows, probably came in different forms that the scientists call A and B. The lineages were the result of at least two cross-species transmission events into humans.

The researchers suggest that the first animal-to-human transmission probably happened around November 18, 2019, and it came from lineage B. They found the lineage B type only in people who had a direct connection to the Huanan market.

The authors believe that lineage A was introduced into humans from an animal within weeks or even days of the infection from lineage B. Lineage A was found in samples from humans who lived or stayed close to the market.

"These findings indicate that it is unlikely that SARS-CoV-2 circulated widely in humans prior to November 2019 and define the narrow window between when SARS-CoV-2 first jumped into humans and when the first cases of COVID-19 were reported," the study says. "As with other coronaviruses, SARS-CoV-2 emergence likely resulted from multiple zoonotic events."

The likelihood that such a virus would emerge from two different events is low, acknowledged co-author Joel Wertheim, an associate adjunct professor of medicine at the University of California, San Diego.

"Now, I realize it sounds like I just said that a once-in-a-generation event happened twice in short succession, and pandemics are indeed rare, but once all the conditions are in place -- that is a zoonotic virus capable of both human infection and human transmission that is in close proximity to humans -- the barriers to spillover have been lowered such that multiple introductions, we believe, should actually be expected," Wertheim said.

Study co-author Kristian Andersen, a professor in the Department of Immunology and Microbiology at Scripps Research, said the studies don't definitively disprove the lab leak theory but are extremely persuasive, so much so that he changed his mind about the virus' origins.

"The raw ingredients for a zoonotic virus with pandemic potential are still lurking in the wild," Joel Wertheim said. He believes the world needs to do a much better job doing surveillance and monitoring animals and other potential threats to human health.

Andersen said that although we can't prevent outbreaks, collaboration between the world's scientists could be key to the difference between a disease with a small impact and one that kills millions.

"The big question we need to ask ourselves is -- the next time this happens, because it will happen -- how do we go from detecting that outbreak early and preventing that outbreak so it doesn't become a pandemic?"

France24: Macron builds African ties

French President Emmanuel Macron on Tuesday declared his country would support Africa's need for security as he embarked on a three-nation tour aimed at renewing France's relations with the continent.

Touching on a long-standing grievance in France's former African colonies, Macron also announced French archives on its colonial era in Cameroon would be opened up so that historians could "shed light" on "painful moments".

In a speech in the Cameroonian capital Yaounde, Macron promised France "will not relinquish the security of the African continent", where a jihadist campaign in the Sahel is now shaking countries to the south.

"France remains resolutely committed to the security of the continent, acting in support and at the request of our African partners," Macron told a gathering of French expatriates.

France is reconfiguring its posture in the Sahel after falling out with the military junta in Mali, the epicentre of a bloody 10-year-old jihadist campaign in the region.

After a pullout from Mali that is expected to be completed in the coming weeks, France's Barkhane anti-jihadist force will have around 2,500 troops in the Sahel, just under half of the deployment at its peak, say French officers.

The force will also make a tactical shift, acting more in a support role for local forces than in taking the lead, they say.

He met on Tuesday with Cameroon's 89-year-old president, Paul Biya, an iron-fisted ruler who has been in power since 1982.

Emmanuel Macron and Cameroon's President Paul Biya
Ludovic Marin, AFP

In his speech, Macron said the reconfigured mission will extend "beyond the Sahel, to the Gulf of Guinea and second-layer countries which now have to face terrorist groups which are expanding and shaking up the whole region".

The jihadist insurgency began in northern Mali in 2012 and hit neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso in 2015.

Across the region, thousands of people have been killed and more than two million have fled their homes.

Macron also pledged French support for countries fighting jihadists in the Lake Chad region, where an older insurgency launched by Nigeria's Boko Haram is also raging.

Macron, 44, is the first French president born after the colonial era and has repeatedly said he will turn the light on dark episodes during colonial rule.

Last year, France returned more than a dozen artefacts looted from Benin by colonial forces, soothing a source of friction between Paris and its former possession.

Macron's swing through central and western Africa is his first trip to the continent since he was re-elected in April.

France has followed with concern the emergence of Russia, China and others in seeking footholds in an area it still considers part of its sphere of influence.

The tour "will show the commitment of the president in the process of renewing the relationship with the African continent", a French presidential official, who asked not to be named, said ahead of the trip.

It will signal that the African continent is a "political priority" of his presidency, the official said.

Macron on Tuesday also hit out at "nonsense" that he said had been doing the rounds as a result of the Ukraine war.

"We are being attacked by certain people who maintain that European sanctions (against Russia) are the cause of the world food crisis, including in Africa.

"This is completely false. It's just that food, like energy, have become Russian weapons of war," he said.

Macron hit out at "the hypocrisy, particularly on the African continent" that denied the Ukraine conflict was a war.

AP: On a knife edge - securing the US speaker in Taiwan

U.S. officials say they have little fear that China would attack Nancy Pelosi’s plane if she flies to Taiwan. But the U.S. House speaker would be entering one of the world’s hottest spots where a mishap, misstep or misunderstanding could endanger her safety. So the Pentagon is developing plans for any contingency.

The U.S. House speaker Nancy Pelosi
Photo: Nathan Howard/Getty Images

Officials told The Associated Press that if Pelosi goes to Taiwan — still an uncertainty — the military would increase its movement of forces and assets in the Indo-Pacific region.

They declined to provide details, but said that fighter jets, ships, surveillance assets and other military systems would likely be used to provide overlapping rings of protection for her flight to Taiwan and any time on the ground there.

Any foreign travel by a senior U.S. leader requires additional security. But officials said this week that a visit to Taiwan by Pelosi — she would be the highest-ranking U.S. elected official to visit Taiwan since 1997 — would go beyond the usual safety precautions for trips to less risky destinations.

China considers self-ruling Taiwan its own territory and has raised the prospect of annexing it by force. The U.S. maintains informal relations and defense ties with Taiwan even as it recognizes Beijing as the government of China.

The trip is being considered at a time when China has escalated what the U.S. and its allies in the Pacific describe as risky one-on-one confrontations with other militaries to assert its sweeping territorial claims. The incidents have included dangerously close fly-bys that force other pilots to swerve to avoid collisions, or harassment or obstruction of air and ship crews, including with blinding lasers or water cannon.

Dozens of such maneuvers have occurred this year alone, Ely Ratner, U.S. assistant defense secretary, said Tuesday at a South China Sea forum by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. China denies the incidents.

The U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive security issues, described the need to create buffer zones around the speaker and her plane. The U.S. already has substantial forces spread across the region, so any increased security could largely be handled by assets already in place.

The military would also have to be prepared for any incident — even an accident either in the air or on the ground.

They said the U.S. would need to have rescue capabilities nearby and suggested that could include helicopters on ships already in the area.

U.S. officials have said the administration doubts that China would take direct action against Pelosi herself or try to sabotage the visit. But they don’t rule out the possibility that China could escalate provocative overflights of military aircraft in or near Taiwanese airspace and naval patrols in the Taiwan Strait should the trip take place. And they don’t preclude Chinese actions elsewhere in the region as a show of strength.

The biggest risk during Pelosi’s trip is of some Chinese show of force “gone awry, or some type of accident that comes out of a demonstration of provocative action,” said Mark Cozad, acting associate director of the International Security and Defense Policy Center at the Rand Corp.

On Monday, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian said Beijing had repeatedly expressed its “solemn position” over a potential Pelosi visit. He told reporters that China is prepared to “take firm and strong measures to defend national sovereignty and territorial integrity.

Picked and squeezed for you: Irina Iakovleva