It’s Nearly Impossible to Stop Terrorists from Using Trucks as Weapons


Nice, Berlin, London and now Stockholm. Over the past year, terrorist attacks using vehicles have become a sad fact of life in Europe. Such attacks are obviously appealing to would-be mass murderers: In most European nations, a truck is far easier to acquire than a firearm or explosives, and sometimes even deadlier. Groups such as ISIS and al-Qaeda have taken note, specifically suggesting that a car could be a good weapon to harm civilians.

For authorities, the attacks represent a major problem. Guns and explosives can be banned, but motor vehicles are vital for many city-dwellers. So how do you protect a city from an attack like this? There is one commonly used solution, but it’s far from perfect.

Since the 1990s, many cities in North America and Europe have been installing physical obstacles designed to stop vehicles driving close to the site of a likely terror target. These measures actually predated the rise of the modern vehicle attack — instead, they were largely designed to tackle car bombs, like those used to attack U.S. embassies in East Africa in 1998.

When they were first installed in Washington, they were often crude: huge concrete blocks known as “jersey barriers” placed around monuments and government buildings. They served a purpose but didn’t look great. As the headline on a story by Benjamin Forgey, The Washington Post’s architecture critic at the time, put it in 1998, “Does safe have to mean ugly?”

Since then, a number of developments have made these obstacles more subtle. Permanent protective bollards, sleeker in design, are believed to have prevented a number of terrorist attacks: One example is the 2007 Glasgow Airport attack, where a car filled with propane canisters was blocked from driving into the terminal by bollards, likely preventing serious injury to civilians.

In the United States, crash- and attack-resistant bollards are now installed outside “military and governmental buildings and domestic structures and areas of higher security levels,” according to the National Institute of Building Sciences. Similar measures are taken in countries like Britain, where many bollards and barriers are designed to stop a seven-ton truck traveling at 50 mph.

The design of these obstacles is often thoughtfully integrated into their environment. These days, they are often disguised as flower pots, decorative walls or even sculptures — the artful bronze bollards outside New York City’s Financial District are an obvious example. Bollards that slide into the ground, hidden from view until needed, are also common. The aim is to provide security without making a city feel like a fortress.

However, while these obstacles have proliferated outside government buildings and other high-profile areas, they have left other areas exposed.

Jon Coaffee, a professor of Urban Geography at the University of Warwick in England who studies the impact of terrorism on urban areas, says that in U.S. cities like Boston, he can easily see where “so-called hostile vehicle mitigation measures” had been installed. “Equally there are many potential targets that are undefended,” Coaffee wrote in an email. “The key question raised by the Stockholm incident, as was raised recently in London, is can we or should we seek to secure all crowded locations in a city?”

Groups such as ISIS have exploited this, encouraging attacks on so-called “soft targets” that are at best weakly protected. The attack in Nice, France, took place upon a beachfront promenade; in Berlin, it was a Christmas Market; in Stockholm, a shopping center. Even in the London attack, which targeted the (well-protected) center of Britain’s political world at Westminster Palace, most of the carnage took place on the adjacent bridge.

The abundance of soft targets means that protecting them all is difficult, if not impossible. After the attack in Germany, Berlin Police Chief Klaus Kandt told reporters that bollards and other obstacles could not completely prevent an attack. “There are an almost unlimited number of soft targets, that’s simply the fact, so there are many possibilities to kill people with a truck,” he said.

However, the Berlin attack highlighted another way legislation may help. The 40-ton Scania PRT truck used in the attack is thought to have deployed its brakes when the attack occurred, thanks to an advanced emergency braking system now mandated by the European Union on heavier trucks. German government officials have said that the technology may have “saved lives,” Süddeutsche Zeitung reported in December.

The Washington Post

Family of FBI Agent Missing in Iran Asks Trump for Answers

Washington- This week marks the 10th anniversary of the disappearance of former FBI agent Robert Levinson on the Iranian island of Kish. Acknowledging the anniversary Thursday, both the FBI and the White House released statements that pledged to do more to find the missing American.

“Bob went missing in Iran,” FBI Director James B. Comey said. “Ten years is an inhumane amount of time to ask a family to wait for word of their loved one. Our ability to reunite Bob with his family is dependent on this shared commitment and we continue to call on the Iranian government to provide assistance.”

White House press secretary Sean Spicer said that the Trump administration remained “unwavering” in its commitment to finding Levinson and getting him home. “We want him back, and we will spare no effort to achieve that goal,” Spicer said.

President Trump is a frequent critic of Iran and has said that he would “guarantee” US citizens held by the country would be released. In 2015, as his electoral campaign began to gain momentum, he claimed that Levinson would be released before he even took office, along with the then-jailed Washington Post reporter Jason Rezaian, former Marine Amir Hekmati and Christian pastor Saeed Abedini.

“If I win the presidency, I guarantee you that those four prisoners are back in our country before I ever take office,” Trump said at an event on Capitol Hill on Sept. 10, 2015. “I guarantee that.”

However, while the three other US citizens were released in 2016, the location of Levinson remains a mystery. It is not definitively known who is holding him or whether he is alive. And the details of why he was in Iran at the time of his disappearance remain unclear.

Levinson, who turns 69 Friday, was working as a private investigator in 2007 when he disappeared. Levinson, a Florida native, had been a 28-year veteran of the Drug Enforcement Administration and the FBI, with vast experience of Russian crime networks but little experience with Iran, before retiring to work privately. Originally, the State Department said that he had been traveling to Kish, an Iranian resort island and free-trade zone, to set up an interview for a project involving a book and a documentary, when he disappeared March 9, 2007.

It was only years later that more details about Levinson’s work at the time of his trip to Kish became publicly known. In 2013, the Associated Press revealed that Levinson had been working on an unapproved intelligence mission for the CIA. The private investigator had been hoping to recruit a source who could give details of alleged corruption among Iranian elites, the New York Timeslater reported, in an apparent bid to renew his contract with the agency.

Levinson’s family received a proof-of-life video in 2010 that they released publicly the next year. The 57-second video showed an emotional and gaunt Levinson pleading for US authorities to help, but offered few clues about who was holding him or why. “Please help me get home,” Levinson, wearing an orange jumpsuit, says in the video.

Iranian leaders have repeatedly denied any knowledge of what happened to Levinson on Kish. During interviews with US outlets, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has said he did not know where the American was and that he would work with the United States to find him. “He is an American who has disappeared,” Rouhani told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour in 2013. “We have no news of him.”

The Washington Post

There’s a New Push to Make Obama President Again. This Time, of France.


Paris – In just a couple of months, French voters will go to the polls to elect their next president. It’s already turning into a divisive campaign, with the onetime conservative front-runner François Fillon deeply wounded by a corruption scandal and facing stiff competition from both the far right Marine Le Pen and the upstart “radical centrist” Emmanuel Macron.

In the face of all this, some French voters are apparently hoping another candidate could come in and clean up the mess. The problem, however, is that their proposed president isn’t actually French.

In fact, he used to be the president of the United States.

Over the past week, posters with the slogan “Obama17″ have been plastered around Paris. A website of the same name is urging French voters to sign a petition promising to vote for Barack Obama should he enter the French race. The website says that it is hoping to collect 1 million signatures before March 15 in a bid to convince the former U.S. president to run.

“The French are ready to make radical choices,” a statement on the website reads in French. “That is good because we have a radical idea to propose to them.”

Obama would be a good president for France, the website continues, as he has “the best résumé in the world for the job.” But France’s own domestic political concerns also appeared to be a big issue in the campaign. “At a time when France is about to vote massively for the far right, we can give a lesson in democracy to the planet by electing a foreigner as French president,” the website reads.

According to NPR, this isn’t the first petition launched to request an Obama presidency. At least two similar petitions were launched last year, though this appears to be the most successful so far — one organizer told the Verge on Friday that the group had collected 30,000 signatures.

However, Obama’s chances at winning the French election may be slim. While polls suggest he is widely viewed positively in France — a Pew Global Research poll from last year found that 84 percent of the French had confidence that Obama would do the right thing in global affairs — Obama is not a French citizen and could not run in the French election until he became one.

Additionally, the former U.S. president does not speak French, though his wife, Michelle, has studied the language.

In interviews with media outlets, the organizers of Obama17 have admitted that their task isn’t entirely serious. “It’s definitely a joke,” one unnamed co-creator of the website told NPR. “But it could make people think a little bit about what we could do differently in French politics.”

Though there is also no indication at the moment that Obama would consider running for office in France, other former U.S. presidents have eyed it.

In 2012, Bill Clinton suggested that he might be able to run for election in two foreign countries: Ireland, because of his Irish family heritage, and France, because he was born in Arkansas, which is part of the Louisiana Purchase, which meant he could immediately apply for naturalization. However, as Foreign Policy later pointed out, France changed its laws on naturalization in 2006, making Clinton’s quest for the Elysee Palace just as unlikely as Obama’s.

The Washington Post

The Surprisingly Cutthroat Race to Build the World’s Fastest Elevator

The Surprisingly Cutthroat Race to Build the World’s Fastest Elevator

SHANGHAI —Elevator rides are not usually worth documenting. But when you step into the elevator at Shanghai Tower, people often pull out their cameras.

As the doors close, a screen at the elevator’s front lights up to show you the car’s location as it rises toward the building’s newly opened observation deck. A neatly dressed attendant informs passengers that the elevator has now reached a top speed of 18 meters per second, approximately 40 mph.

“This is really fast,” one passenger said during a recent packed ride up the tower.

It is, in fact, the fastest elevator in the world.

At a ceremony in Tokyo in early December, the Shanghai Tower elevators and the company that made them, Mitsubishi Electric, were officially awarded the title by Guinness World Records. Yet many passengers may not even experience the top speed. To do so, you have to travel in a souped-up elevator car with a Mitsubishi technician who can flick a switch, making the speedometer on the screen turn red: 20.5 meters per second (45.8 mph).

China is experiencing an elevator boom. Over the past decade, the vast majority of elevators installed around the world have been placed in China, where rapid urbanization has met with a desire for ambitious “super-tall” skyscrapers. It has been estimated that by 2020, 40 percent of all elevators will be in China.

And when it comes to speed, the rest of the world can’t keep up.

The Burj Khalifa in Dubai is the only skyscraper in the world taller than Shanghai Tower, but its elevators go barely half the speed. The fastest elevator in the West, installed at 1 World Trade Center in Manhattan, runs at a paltry 23 mph. The Shanghai Tower’s elevator goes even faster than the Twilight Zone Tower of Terror, a Disney haunted-elevator amusement-park ride that hurls thrill-seekers at 39 mph.

But China’s vast elevator market is slowing. As it slows, elevator companies are becoming more cutthroat — at every level.

Companies such as Mitsubishi are in competition for huge contracts with companies from all over the world. Another Japanese elevator company, Hitachi, came close to winning the Shanghai Tower contract. It was awarded one in Guangzhou instead and then announced plans to beat Mitsubishi’s speed with its own 44.7-mph elevators.

In the end, Mitsubishi installed new hardware on one of the elevators in Shanghai Tower, snatching the record back from Hitachi shortly after it was lost. Mitsubishi representatives said that the demands of the client, a consortium with links to the Shanghai municipal government, had prompted the decision.

The race for speed

The world’s first safety elevator was installed by the American company Otis in 1857 in a hotel in New York City. It traveled five floors at a speed of less than half a mile per hour.

According to Lee Gray, an associate professor of architecture at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, speeds improved as elevators moved from potentially explosive steam engines to more-efficient hydraulic systems and on to electric traction systems. Visiting Europeans were soon unnerved by the speed of the elevators across the Atlantic.

“The Brits would visit the United States and they would say, ‘God, why is it going so fast?’ ” Gray said.

For much of the 20th century, the fastest elevators were installed in American cities. Then the speed race moved to Asia.

Why Japanese firms have dominated high-speed elevators is a matter of debate. Some have reasoned that it is because of the technology shared with high-speed “bullet” trains, which Hitachi and Toshiba also make. Others have suggested that it may be because Japanese consumers are notorious for insisting upon smooth elevator rides. (Comfort and noise issues with ultrafast elevators are considerable; the elevators in Pan Am Building in New York were infamous for “howling.”)

What is certain is that these elevators can cost fantastic amounts of money. They need to be tested in enormous, custom-built towers. They have to be pressurized to make their rapid ascent comfortable. According to Mitsubishi, 40 people worked exclusively on the Shanghai Tower elevators.

Mitsubishi and Hitachi would not say how much their elevators cost, but Jim Fortune, an American elevator consultant, estimated each installation at up to $3 million.

It would be hard for any elevator company to make any profit on installing these showstopper elevators, Fortune suggested: “It’s all for . . . bragging rights or to get that maintenance contract.”

Many in the elevator industry say that while the technology is impressive, faster speeds do not serve a real purpose. But high speeds may be valuable as marketing tools, turning elevators into unlikely tourist attractions. And in an industry with its ups and downs, publicity can be important.

China’s elevator gold rush

The elevator industry may have never been as unforgiving as it is now.

Why? China.

Over the past two decades, China has rapidly urbanized. To boost urban density, hundreds of thousands of elevators and escalators have been installed each year. There are now more than 4 million units in the country — more than four times the number in the United States. Just over a decade ago, there were barely 700,000.

Analysts say China accounts for 60 to 80 percent of new installations globally each year. No one else compares. The second-largest elevator market, India, is less than one-tenth the size.

The rest of the world may not have noticed, but those in the elevator world say it has been a boom like no other.

“I’ve lived in an incredibly historic time for China, for our industry, in this country,” said Bill Johnson, head of the Finnish firm Kone’s China division since 2004. “I feel very fortunate, very lucky.”

But there is also a feeling that the glory days of the market are over — and that record-setting elevators such as those installed in Shanghai Tower may mark the end of an era.

China’s economic growth has slowed dramatically over recent years, dropping from more than 10 percent to 6.7 percent in the most recent quarter. A growing corporate debt problem and a much-feared real estate bubble — not to mention a potential trade war with the new U.S. administration — add even more risk.

As demand for new elevators falls, major international firms have more manufacturing capacity than they can use. Meanwhile, low-end Chinese manufacturers are fighting their high-end international rivals for an increasingly small number of projects.

“It’s a brawl,” Johnson said. “There’s no question about that.”

According to the Shanghai Elevator Trade Association, around 5 percent of smaller domestic elevator companies have already gone out of business. Even for international companies, it has been difficult. In September, Kone announced that it expected the market for new orders to drop by 5 to 10 percent over the next year. Its shares immediately fell by 3.5 percent. American giant Otis has admitted to dropping prices to stay competitive, eating into its profit margin.

For Japanese firms such as Mitsubishi and Hitachi, the Chinese market is especially vital. These companies lack the international footprint many of their American and European peers have. And while they came to prominence during Japan’s own elevator boom in the late 20th century, they now face a stagnating economy and a shrinking population at home.

Going down

Hitachi is still smarting over Mitsubishi’s surprise speed-record victory. When it won the contract for the elevators at Guangzhou’s CTF Finance Tower, Hitachi released a video showing its executives proudly proclaiming that they would take the record.

“I get tears in my eyes,” Akihito Ando, a Hitachi sales supervisor, said in the video.

If they don’t, when will the record next be beaten? Mitsubishi says that it has no plans to break its own record at present. Toshiba, which until recently held the record with the Taipei 101 Tower, said that it’s not focusing on ultrahigh-speed elevators anymore.

“The competition for speed is over,” said Yoshinori Inoue, a communications representative for Toshiba.

But there could yet be new challengers. Hyundai, a South Korean elevator manufacturer, has plans to begin testing 50 mph elevators. Canny Elevator, a Chinese company based just outside Shanghai, is building a 3,100-foot test tower that it says will be the tallest in the world.

How much further the record can be pushed is unclear. One recent study suggested that 51.4 mph would probably be the limit before passengers get sick. Traveling down quickly is even more difficult: Go too fast and the body thinks it’s falling. Elevators in both the Shanghai Tower and the CTF Finance Tower go down at 22.3 mph, close to the limit.

Most importantly, even the most advanced elevator still needs a big building to go in. Right now it’s unclear where such buildings will be. While many say that India could one day be the next China, Rizk Maidi, an analyst with German bank Berenberg, doubts it will ever be as ambitious.

“I don’t think we’ll see a repeat of the Chinese boom,” he said.

(The Washington Post)

Arab Spring Costs Middle East Economies $614 Billion

middle east

Washington- The uprisings that became known as the Arab Spring were sparked in December 2010, when a young Tunisian fruit seller set himself on fire in response to harassment from police officers. Within months, huge protests had spread throughout the Arab world, taking down autocratic governments in four countries but also sparking horrific civil wars and giving fuel to religious and sectarian extremism in the region.

Now a new report from the United Nations suggests that the turmoil in the years since 2010 has left a heavy economic imprint in the Arab region — in particular, leading to a net loss of $613.8 billion in economic activity, or about 6 percent of gross domestic product from 2011 to 2015.

The lengthy report, published by the U.N. Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia on Thursday, used estimates of growth made before 2011 to help understand this loss. It is the first report of its kind to be made by a major economic body, and although it focuses only on the economic situation, it provides a rare quantification of the cost of the Arab Spring for the region’s inhabitants.

The commission noted that it was not just the conflict and political turmoil in the region that hurt its economic situation — low oil prices have also led to a sharp decline in export revenue for many Arab economies over the past year. But conflict is noted as one of the largest drivers of the economic loss. The crisis in Syria, now in its sixth year, is estimated to have caused GDP and capital losses of $259 billion since 2011, according to estimates from another U.N. group, the National Agenda for the Future of Syria.

The report points to some glimmers of hope, noting, for example, that in other regions, conflict and regime change has eventually had a long-term positive effect on countries. But political transitions in the Arab world have not largely not helped economic growth, the report finds, in part because there have not been reforms that addressed the issues that led to the Arab Spring unrest.

The conflicts have also had huge social implications, including large-scale population displacement and rising unemployment in countries that underwent conflict or those that have received refugees because of conflicts in neighboring countries. The situation is especially difficult for women, who tend to participate in the labor market at a far lesser extent than men in Arab countries.

The report also cites data from Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, finding that Arab countries are perceived as some of the most corrupt on the planet — and despite the role of corruption in sparking protests in 2010 and 2011, corruption is actually perceived to have increased in many Arab countries over the past five years.

The U.N. economic commission lists a number of policy recommendations in its report to help repair the situation, including the “key” aspect of financing reconstruction through domestic resources and foreign assistance. Mohamed el Moctar Mohamed el Hacene, the commission’s economic development director, told Reuters that the oil downturn may force some countries to put in place “economic reforms leading to real diversification.”

But the country would need more support from the international community if it was to truly recover. “We have seen in Latin America, Eastern Europe and the Balkans the support they got in order to recover after conflict,” Hacene said. “We have not seen so far such support occurring for the Arab region.”

Japan has Accepted only Six Syrian Refugees. Meet one of Them.


TOKYO — It sounds like a sadly familiar story. A plan for the family to stick out the war in Syria while the children finish their education — but then a missile strikes their home.

Jamal, 24, remembers running to the basement after the first explosion and hearing the horrifying sounds above. His younger sister went into shock, prompting his terrified mother to slap her. Like so many other Syrians, they decided they had to leave.

But Jamal and his sister and mother didn’t follow other Syrians to Europe or North America. Instead, after a brief stay in Egypt, they flew to Japan in October 2013. The next year, they were granted refugee status.

In their new home, that makes them an oddity. According to recent figures from the Japanese Ministry of Justice, as of 2015, only six Syrians have been accepted as refugees in the country. Jamal’s family — who asked not to be fully identified, because of concerns about relatives in Syria — make up half that number.

The situation isn’t much better for refugees from other nations. Last year, Japan received a record 7,586 applications for refugee status. Just 27 were granted.

This unusual situation has helped make Jamal’s a sought-after voice. He’s frequently interviewed by Japanese reporters and gives lectures to students about his experiences. “I always start my presentations talking about Syria,” he said recently over coffee in the suburbs of Tokyo, “because most Japanese people think that it is just a desert or something.”

To be fair, back in Syria there was a lot Jamal didn’t know about Japan, either. His closest interaction with Japanese culture came through anime, which he watched online with Arabic subtitles.

Jamal’s family had planned to head to Sweden, where a cousin was living. But the Swedish visa was denied, and an uncle who was married to a Japanese woman helped them get to Japan instead.

Tokyo was overwhelming. Jamal’s family didn’t speak the language or understand the culture. Tensions soon boiled over in his uncle’s house, so they moved out. Not yet able to work legally, Jamal found sketchy, sometimes dangerous demolition jobs. After a nail went through his foot, he got tetanus and spent a week in the hospital.

“It was the worst period in my life,” he said. Later, he worked 15 hours a day, six days a week, at a burger chain. By then he was legally able to work, but it was still grueling; the commute took an additional hour and a half.

He eventually found a job teaching English to kindergarten-age children. After the family’s refugee status was approved, he began taking full-time language lessons, and he now speaks Japanese at a conversational level. He has made friends through soccer, playing for two local clubs. Like his Japanese teammates, Jamal heads out to the izakayas for post-match beer and food — though the beer is alcohol-free and he avoids pork because of his faith. He attends Friday prayer at Tokyo Camii, the largest mosque in Japan.

Japan isn’t used to outsiders. Less than 2 percent of the population was born in a foreign country.

As the Syrian crisis got worse, Tokyo stepped up its donations to UNHCR, the United Nations’ refugee agency. In 2014, it gave $181.6 million, making it the second-largest donor after the United States.

But it balked at taking in refugees. Last year, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters that the country needed to look after its own. While other wealthy nations have resettled thousands of Syrians from refugee camps in the Middle East, Japan has not offered a single resettlement place.

Only a small number of Syrians are in the country — around 500, according to the Japan Association for Refugees, one of a handful of groups that work with refugees in the country. Most arrange temporary visitor visas through friends and acquaintances to allow entry to the country. Some visitors apply for refugee status, though the vast majority of the requests are denied.

This has put Japan at odds with the U.N. refugee agency, which generally considers all Syrians to be eligible for refugee status. In a recent interview, Yasuhiro Hishida, assistant to the director of Japan’s Refugee Status Recognition Office, noted that almost all Syrians are allowed to temporarily stay in Japan for humanitarian reasons, even if they are not granted refugee status.

Jamal could not explain why his family was the exception.

He said he understands Japan’s apprehension about refugees, to an extent. Friends who have ended up in Germany have told him about dangerous Syrians they’ve met in the country. “If you are at home,” he said, “and somebody knocks your door and says, ‘I want to come in,’ you wouldn’t let him come, right? You need to know him.”

But Japan should still do more than it’s doing now, Jamal said. “If, for example, they accepted all the Syrians who are living here — 500 or so — it wouldn’t have such a big impact, because they are separated in each prefecture.”

Yet a recent survey conducted by Ipsos MORI found that just 18 percent of Japanese believed that refugee integration could be a success, while 46 percent disagreed.

A small step

Jamal said that the polite nature of Japanese society shields him from verbal or physical abuse. In comments on YouTube videos of his media appearances or lectures, however, Japanese users accuse him, sometimes in unprintably vulgar terms, of being a terrorist or stealing taxpayers’ money.

Even so, that same Ipsos MORI poll found that 37 percent of the respondents said they didn’t know how Japan should respond to refugees, by far the largest proportion of any of the 22 countries polled.

“It seems that people see it as a fire on the other side of the shore, so to speak,” said Hidenori Sakanaka, a former head of the Tokyo Immigration Bureau. “There are no huge voices over here saying we should accept refugees or not in Japan.”

Sakanaka now runs the Japan Immigration Policy Institute, a rare pro-immigration voice in Japan. He has argued that Japan should accept 10 million immigrants over the next 50 years, with perhaps as many as 500,000 refugees. That position puts him at the fringes of mainstream debate in Japan. Yet Sakanaka said he does see a shift in that debate. He pointed to the announcement by Abe’s government in May that it would allow 150 Syrian students to continue their education in Japan. These Syrians will not be considered refugees, but they may be able to apply for refugee status once they arrive.

“It’s an embarrassingly small number, but at the same time it’s one outstanding step,” he said.

Jamal hopes to return to his studies next year and wants to find a career as a translator. His aim is to become fluent in three languages. His sister attends Japanese high school and speaks the language fluently, while his mother has been working at Uniqlo and has learned enough of the language to get by. Jamal’s father has been able to join them, although he has not received refugee status.

While his parents bitterly miss Syria, Jamal said he can’t imagine leaving Japan. “I’ve started here, so I can’t go start from zero again in another country,” he said. “I’ll build my future here.”

The Washington Post