On April 15, two bombs exploded at the finish line of the Boston Marathon, killing three people and injuring 264. After several days with a city on edge and police on the hunt, brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev allegedly took the life of a police officer before leading authorities on a chase through the outskirts of the city. The older brother, Tamerlan, was killed and Dzhokhar was nabbed the next day hiding underneath the tarp of a boat. As more is revealed about the family, their ties to the Caucasus region, and the brothers' extremist views, officials are delving into how they fell through the national security cracks and whether they had outside help in staging the attack. Russia tipped off U.S. authorities to Tamerlan Tsarnaev in 2011, but FBI officials likely regarded the tip with some suspicion as Moscow has been known to target human rights activists and political opponents. They cleared him after an interview process but still had tabs on him as he left the country for the Caucasus region in 2012.
An update on the case from ABC News:
Accused Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev may have been in touch with suspected militants before and during his visit last year to southern Russia, according to a U.S. official and sources in the region.
American officials are investigating whether Tsarnaev had been in contact over the internet with a man named William Plotnikov, a Russian-Canadian and a fellow boxer, who had converted to Islam and joined the militant insurgency in the North Caucasus. Authorities also want to know what Tsarnaev was doing with a known militant recruiter in the region named Mansur Mukhamed Nidal with whom Tsarnaev was repeatedly seen leaving a controversial mosque in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan.
The new leads come as the FBI's investigation into the deadly April 15 bombing at the Boston Marathon continues to expand and follows the discovery of female DNA on one of the bombs, according to government sources. The sources said it is unclear whether the DNA was from a victim of the attack, from someone who handled components of the bomb before it was assembled or from a possible co-conspirator of the suspected Tsarnaev brothers.
In addition to identifying the woman in question, people briefed on the case said the FBI reportedly is now seeking information on almost a dozen persons of interest.
"Often during my days of house arrest it felt as though I were no longer a part of the real world. There was the house which was my world, there was the world of others who also were not free but who were together in prison as a community, and there was the world of the free; each was a different planet pursuing its own separate course in an indifferent universe. What the Nobel Peace Prize did was to draw me once again into the world of other human beings outside the isolated area in which I lived, to restore a sense of reality to me." -- Aung San Suu Kyi, Burmese democracy leader
"At this time, I have within myself a great trust [in God], because I know - all of us know - that the Gospel's word of truth is the strength of the Church: it is her life. The Gospel purifies and renews: it bears fruit wherever the community of believers hears and welcomes the grace of God in truth and lives in charity. This is my faith, this is my joy." -- Pope Benedict XVI's farewell address
"We have now been through nearly a decade of war. We have endured a long and painful recession. And sometimes in the midst of these storms, the future that we are trying to build for our nation - a future of lasting peace and long-term prosperity may seem beyond our reach. But this milestone should serve as a reminder to all Americans that the future is ours to shape if we move forward with confidence and commitment." -- President Obama at the end of the Iraq War
Relive some of the key addresses from this young century here.
NBA player Jason Collins stole headlines both in the U.S. and outside the county by coming out as gay in the most recent issue of Sports Illustrated:
I'm a 34-year-old NBA center. I'm black. And I'm gay.
I didn't set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport. But since I am, I'm happy to start the conversation. I wish I wasn't the kid in the classroom raising his hand and saying, "I'm different." If I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I'm raising my hand.
My journey of self-discovery and self-acknowledgement began in my hometown of Los Angeles and has taken me through two state high school championships, the NCAA Final Four and the Elite Eight, and nine playoffs in 12 NBA seasons.
...No one wants to live in fear. I've always been scared of saying the wrong thing. I don't sleep well. I never have. But each time I tell another person, I feel stronger and sleep a little more soundly. It takes an enormous amount of energy to guard such a big secret. I've endured years of misery and gone to enormous lengths to live a lie. I was certain that my world would fall apart if anyone knew. And yet when I acknowledged my sexuality I felt whole for the first time. I still had the same sense of humor, I still had the same mannerisms and my friends still had my back.
This may have been just a sports story but came during a time of greater debate in the U.S. about same-sex marriage and other issues of gay rights. Former President Bill Clinton issued a statement supporting Collins, and President Obama called Collins and gave a lengthy statement praising the basketball player.
"For I think a lot of young people out there who, you know, are, you know, gay or lesbian who are struggling with these issues to see a role model like that, who's unafraid, I think it's a great thing. And I think America should be proud that this is just one more step in this ongoing recognition that we treat everybody fairly. And everybody's part of a family. And we judge people on the basis of their character and their performance, and not their sexual orientation. So I'm very proud of him," Obama said at a press conference.
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Pope Francis has made clear that he wants to reform many things at the Holy See, but the Vatican is cautioning that expectations shouldn't get too high too soon. From the AP:
Monsignor Angelo Becciu, under-secretary of the Vatican secretariat of state, said it was "absolutely premature to put forward any hypothesis" about the reform and that Francis was still in a "listening" and discerning phase.
Cardinals who elected Francis pope in March insisted that fixing the Curia, as the Vatican bureaucracy is known, was a top concern. They want the Vatican, which is known for its slow pace and aloof attitude, to be more efficient and responsive to the needs of church leaders in the field.
Leaks of papal documents last year exposed the Curia as a dysfunctional Italian family business full of petty turf battles, political intrigues and corrupt business practices.
In his first major act as pope, Francis on April 13 named eight cardinals from around the globe to advise him on running the church and carrying out the reform, which includes a rewriting of the main Vatican legislation outlining the work of the various Vatican departments and offices. They aren't due to meet until October, though Francis is in touch with them.
The appointment of the "Group of Eight," as the cardinals have been dubbed, was a major initiative that showed that Francis was responding both to the calls for reform and for a greater voice in Vatican decision-making from church leaders on the ground.
Becciu acknowledged in an interview with the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano that Francis' decision to appoint the advisers was enormously significant.
"Let's not forget that their primary job is to help the pontiff govern the universal church," Becciu said. "I don't want the curiosity over the Roman Curia to put in second place the profoundness of the pope's gesture."
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In Asia news, tensions between North and South Korea remain unnervingly high but at least most of the South Koreans who were stranded at a joint industrial facility along the border have finally been able to return home. From the AP:
The Unification Ministry in Seoul said 43 South Koreans began departing from Kaesong late Monday night and arrived in the South just past midnight after officials arranged vehicles to carry them across the border.
But it wasn't immediately known when the wage negotiations would take place and the remaining seven South Koreans would return home.
The departure of the last South Koreans would empty out the jointly run complex, located just across the border in the North Korean town of Kaesong, for the first time since it opened in 2004 and possibly lead to the permanent closure of the last symbol of inter-Korean cooperation.
Amid high tensions, North Korea suspended operations at Kaesong in early April, withdrawing all of its 53,000 workers and barring South Korean factory managers and trucks with supplies from entering the complex. It was the most significant action taken by North Korea as it sought to show its anger over South Korean-U.S. military drills and U.N. sanctions imposed over Pyongyang's February nuclear test, its third.
North Korea's saber-rattling has escalated to a fever pitch with the joint military exercises that just wrapped up. From the BBC:
"Foal Eagle" involved around 10,000 US troops and their South Korean counterparts. The drills were thought to include ground, air, naval, expeditionary and special operations training exercises.
"The drill is over but the South Korean and US militaries will continue to watch out for potential provocations by the North, including a missile launch," South Korea's defence ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok told reporters.
...As part of the exercise, and amid a series of threats from Pyongyang, the US flew two B-2 stealth bombers, and two B-52 nuclear capable bombers, over South Korea, prompting an angry response from the North.
On Monday, North Korea's Rodong Sinmun newspaper described the military drills as "attack rehearsals" that were "driving the situation of the Korean Peninsula to a nuclear war".
Somalia's militant Islamist insurgent group Al-Shabaab continues to suffer from infighting, and recently the terror group's second-in-command reached out to al-Qaeda, with whom they joined forces in 2008, for some guidance:
"If we are afraid of foreign players stealing the outcomes of jihad, today we are witnessing a reality that indicates that an internal deviation could lead to losing the profits of our effort in vain," Ibrahim al-Afghani said in an open letter released April 6th on a number of jihadist websites.
He said he felt compelled to write the missive, titled "An Open Letter to Our Amir Sheikh Ayman al-Zawahiri", "on behalf of the silent majority" of al-Shabaab fighters.
Al-Afghani, whose real name is Ibrahim Haji Jama Meeaad and is also known as Abu Bakr al-Zaylai, is considered one of the founders of al-Shabaab and one of its only leaders trained in Afghan al-Qaeda camps in the 1990s. Until now, he avoided making public statements and preferred keeping a low-profile and working behind the scenes.
In the letter, al-Afghani paints a bleak picture of al-Shabaab and rebukes its leader Ahmed Abdi Godane, also known as Mukhtar Abu Zubayr. He said al-Shabaab's current situation is "getting worse and nothing is visible on the horizon", calling on al-Zawahiri to intervene in order to find solutions to the rifts affecting the militants.
"Now, this is no time to wait or an occasion to be patient," he said in his 15-page letter. "We are walking in a dark tunnel and we do not know what is hiding for us in it, except for God the sovereign and wise."
The jihadist said the Somali group is losing ground both in terms of occupied land and in support from the Somali people.
President Barack Obama sets off for Mexico and Costa Rica this week to talk economic and security affairs with Latin American leaders in a changing political environment. More on this new backdrop from the L.A. Times:
The government of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto is said to be wary of the level of U.S. involvement in security affairs that characterized the administration of his predecessor, Felipe Calderon. As a result, the Mexican government is expected to narrow U.S. involvement in its attorney general's office and Interior Ministry, the agencies that oversee police and intelligence, current and former U.S. and Mexican officials say.
Instead, Peña Nieto and officials from his Institutional Revolutionary Party, or PRI, want to concentrate U.S. participation in less sensitive but potentially profitable areas such as the economy.
Privately, the shifts have led to a large degree of concern in Washington about what the day-to-day working relationship will look like.
Publicly, the Obama administration has welcomed a broader agenda.
"We don't want to define this relationship with Mexico ... in the context of security or counter-narcotics trafficking," U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry said April 19 in Washington, with his Mexican counterpart, Jose Antonio Meade, at his side.
"We want to define it much larger in the context of our citizens' economic needs and our capacity to do more on the economic frontier. I am convinced we're going to grow that relationship."
Peña Nieto has vowed to retool Felipe Calderon's six-year bloody war on drug cartels, criticizing the strategy of going after and dismantling the main cartels and promising to pour security resources into the towns where citizens have been most affected by the cartel violence. Mexico is still under a State Department travel warning.
(White House photo)
The "state of war" declaration North Korea made against the South on Friday wasn't surprising in terms of the saber-rattling of the regime of young Kim Jong-un. Observers fear that the impetuous moves of this upstart ruler, punctuated by a nuclear test this year, will prove unpredictable for the international community who are used to responding to Pyongyang in much the same way -- sanctions, carrot-and-stick, incentives to restart six-party talks, six-party talks failing, etc.
An update on the latest out of the North:
A top North Korean decision-making body issued a pointed warning Sunday, saying that nuclear weapons are "the nation's life" and will not be traded even for "billions of dollars."
The comments came in a statement released after North Korean leader Kim Jong Un presided over the plenary meeting of the central committee of the ruling Workers' Party. The meeting, which set a "new strategic line" calling for building both a stronger economy and nuclear arsenal, comes amid a series of near-daily threats from Pyongyang in recent weeks, including a vow to launch nuclear strikes on the United States and a warning Saturday that the Korean Peninsula was in a "state of war."
...North Korea's nuclear weapons are a "treasure" not to be traded for "billions of dollars," the statement said. They "are neither a political bargaining chip nor a thing for economic dealings to be presented to the place of dialogue or be put on the table of negotiations aimed at forcing (Pyongyang) to disarm itself," it said.
North Korea's "nuclear armed forces represent the nation's life, which can never be abandoned as long as the imperialists and nuclear threats exist on earth," the statement said.
North Korea has called the U.S. nuclear arsenal a threat to its existence since the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, leaving the peninsula still technically at war. Pyongyang justifies its own nuclear pursuit in large part on that perceived U.S. threat.
Egyptians remember well the reign of Hosni Muburak and the punishment that came with insulting the longtime authoritarian. After his ouster in the Arab Spring, Egyptians are wondering what kind of government they got in return for their sacrifice in Tahrir Square. Consider this story from The Guardian:
The Middle East's most popular TV satirist was issued with an arrest warrant and questioned by Egypt's top prosecutor for allegedly insulting Islam and the Egyptian president.
Bassem Youssef, who is known as Egypt's Jon Stewart, turned himself in after the prosecutor general issued an arrest warrant for him on Saturday. He was released on bail of 15,000 Egyptian pounds (£1,500) after being questioned for three hours.
It is the latest in a series of arrests of opposition activists, lawyers and politicians this week - and according to Egypt's foremost human rights campaigner, it heralds the most serious affront to free speech since associates of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood assumed power last year. "This is the crackdown," said Heba Morayef, director of Human Rights Watch in Egypt.
Youssef rose to prominence after the country's 2011 uprising. His show has more than 30 million viewers across the Middle East and he has been sued several times by private individuals. But this is the first time that the prosecutor general, Talaat Abdallah, has followed up one of the complaints with legal action - a symbolic gesture that suggests President Mohamed Morsi's Islamist-led regime is now prepared to take a more authoritarian stance against its critics.
There are battles still being fought and yet to be fought in the Arab Spring revolutions. Here's a primer on the post-Arab Spring landscape.
Pope Francis celebrated his first Easter as pontiff today, with the traditional Urbi et Orbi message to those gathered in St. Peter's Square. On Good Friday, marking the Way of the Cross at Rome's Colosseum, the pope reminded all that evil in the world must be answered by good. From Vatican News:
I do not wish to add too many words. One word should suffice this evening, that is the Cross itself. The Cross is the word through which God has responded to evil in the world. Sometimes it may seem as though God does not react to evil, as if he is silent. And yet, God has spoken, he has replied, and his answer is the Cross of Christ: a word which is love, mercy, forgiveness. It is also reveals a judgment, namely that God, in judging us, loves us. Remember this: God, in judging us, loves us. If I embrace his love then I am saved, if I refuse it, then I am condemned, not by him, but my own self, because God never condemns, he only loves and saves. Dear brothers and sisters, the word of the Cross is also the answer which Christians offer in the face of evil, the evil that continues to work in us and around us. Christians must respond to evil with good, taking the Cross upon themselves as Jesus did. This evening we have heard the witness given by our Lebanese brothers and sisters: they composed these beautiful prayers and meditations. We extend our heartfelt gratitude to them for this work and for the witness they offer. We were able to see this when Pope Benedict visited Lebanon: we saw the beauty and the strong bond of communion joining Christians together in that land and the friendship of our Muslim brothers and sisters and so many others. That occasion was a sign to the Middle East and to the whole world: a sign of hope.
We now continue this Via Crucis in our daily lives. Let us walk together along the Way of the Cross and let us do so carrying in our hearts this word of love and forgiveness. Let us go forward waiting for the Resurrection of Jesus, who loves us so much. He is all love.