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BLACKWATER USA | DAILY BRIEF


Iran was testing out a new anti-ship missile during a training exercise in the Gulf of Oman, and apparently it works: one missile struck a support ship that was lingering too close to a practice target it had just moved, killing nineteen sailors.

  • Iran was relatively quick to admit its latest own-goal, after facing criticism for initially sowing confusion about the Jan. 8th incident in which it accidentally downed a Ukrainian passenger jet.

Afghanistan

  • A former Farah police chief and patriarch of an influential Afghan family, Gen. Abdul Jalil Bakhtawar, joined the Taliban yesterday in an elaborate ceremony. His son remains the governor of Farah, and awkwardly tried to downplay his dad’s decision to switch sides.

  • The National Directorate of Security (NDS) says it arrested key Islamic State (IS) leaders in Kabul last Wednesday, including the former head of IS in Afghanistan, Abu Omar Khorasani, and the group’s spy chief and public relations officer. Apparently their compatriots confessed in NDS custody and ratted out their leaders. (I thought Khorasani was demoted as the head of IS-Khorasan last year, but Afghan media and the NDS seem to be saying he’s the current leader; in any case, it sounds like he’s a big catch.).

  • Four bomb blasts struck Kabul in rapid succession today, injuring four civilians. No group has claimed the incident, but I would guess it wasn’t the Taliban, since the Taliban has largely refrained from major attacks in Kabul since signing the Feb. 29th peace deal (although that hasn’t stopped it from targeting the ANSF elsewhere in the country). I’d guess IS is a more likely culprit.

Venezuela

  • The WSJ had a great article about how Cuban spycraft foiled last week’s sloppy coup / invasion attempt in Venezuela: apparently Cuban agents so effectively infiltrated the group that the Venezuelan military had ample time to prepare a response—and this betrayal may cause other Venezuelan opposition figures to think twice about further attempts to oust Pres. Maduro. Article pasted below.

Hong Kong

  • Protesters revived their anti-government demonstrations in Hong Kong, leading to confrontations with riot police in shopping malls yesterday.

China

  • At least nine lawsuits—include eight potential class action suits—have been filed against China in U.S. courts, alleging that China didn’t do enough to stop (or altogether concealed) the spread of COVID-19. Analysts say the suits don’t have great prospects, since it’s really hard to sue a foreign government.

Libya

  • The LNA claimed to have killed Mohamed Hendawy, a Syrian fighter leading the second corps of the Turkish-backed National Syrian Army in Libya.

  • Separately, the LNA had a different story about the weekend death of GNA Chief of General Intelligence Abdel Qader al-Tohamy: while the GNA says Tohamy died of a heart attack, the LNA says he was abducted by Tripoli’s Al Nawasi militias and tortured to death.

Sahel

  • Gunmen on motorbikes killed at least 20 people across several villages in the Tillaberi region of western Niger, near the border with Mali.

  • In addition, three Chadian UN peacekeepers were killed and four more wounded in an attack by a roadside bomb in Kidal, northern Mali yesterday. No specific group has claimed that attack yet. IS and AQ-affiliated jihadists have killed a combined 170 government soldiers in the region in the last six months.

DRC

  • The corruption trial for Pres. Tshisekedi’s Chief of Staff, Vital Kamerhe, is due to start today. Kamerhe was touted as Tshisekedi’s anointed successor for 2023, but this case could foil his political ambitions (then again, this is DRC we’re talking about—perhaps a corruption conviction for stealing over $50 million would actually elevate his chances at the presidency).

Mexico

  • At least 25 bodies were found in mass graves in Jalisco, Mexico—probably victims of gang violence between the local Jalisco New Generation Cartel and its rivals.

How Pandemics End (NYT)

An infectious outbreak can conclude in more ways than one, historians say. But for whom does it end, and who gets to decide?

According to historians, pandemics typically have two types of endings: the medical, which occurs when the incidence and death rates plummet, and the social, when the epidemic of fear about the disease wanes.

“When people ask, ‘When will this end?,’ they are asking about the social ending,” said Dr. Jeremy Greene, a historian of medicine at Johns Hopkins.

In other words, an end can occur not because a disease has been vanquished but because people grow tired of panic mode and learn to live with a disease. Allan Brandt, a Harvard historian, said something similar was happening with Covid-19: “As we have seen in the debate about opening the economy, many questions about the so-called end are determined not by medical and public health data but by sociopolitical processes.”

Endings “are very, very messy,” said Dora Vargha, a historian at the University of Exeter. “Looking back, we have a weak narrative. For whom does the epidemic end, and who gets to say?”

In the path of fear

An epidemic of fear can occur even without an epidemic of illness. Dr. Susan Murray, of the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin, saw that firsthand in 2014 when she was a fellow at a rural hospital in Ireland.

In the preceding months, more than 11,000 people in West Africa had died from Ebola, a terrifying viral disease that was highly infectious and often fatal. The epidemic seemed to be waning, and no cases had occurred in Ireland, but the public fear was palpable.

“On the street and on the wards, people are anxious,” Dr. Murray recalled recently in an article in The New England Journal of Medicine. “Having the wrong color skin is enough to earn you the side-eye from your fellow passengers on the bus or train. Cough once, and you will find them shuffling away from you.”

The Dublin hospital workers were warned to prepare for the worst. They were terrified, and worried that they lacked protective equipment. When a young man arrived in the emergency room from a country with Ebola patients, no one wanted to go near him; nurses hid, and doctors threatened to leave the hospital.

Dr. Murray alone dared treat him, she wrote, but his cancer was so advanced that all she could offer was comfort care. A few days later, tests confirmed that the man did not have Ebola; he died an hour later. Three days afterward, the World Health Organization declared the Ebola epidemic over.

Dr. Murray wrote: “If we are not prepared to fight fear and ignorance as actively and as thoughtfully as we fight any other virus, it is possible that fear can do terrible harm to vulnerable people, even in places that never see a single case of infection during an outbreak. And a fear epidemic can have far worse consequences when complicated by issues of race, privilege, and language.”

Bubonic plague has struck several times in the past 2,000 years, killing millions of people and altering the course of history. Each epidemic amplified the fear that came with the next outbreak.

The disease is caused by a strain of bacteria, Yersinia pestis, that lives on fleas that live on rats. But bubonic plague, which became known as the Black Death, also can be passed from infected person to infected person through respiratory droplets, so it cannot be eradicated simply by killing rats.

Historians describe three great waves of plague, said Mary Fissell, a historian at Johns Hopkins: the Plague of Justinian, in the sixth century; the medieval epidemic, in the 14th century; and a pandemic that struck in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The medieval pandemic began in 1331 in China. The illness, along with a civil war that was raging at the time, killed half the population of China. From there, the plague moved along trade routes to Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. In the years between 1347 and 1351, it killed at least a third of the European population. Half of the population of Siena, Italy, died.

“It is impossible for the human tongue to recount the awful truth,” wrote the 14th-century chronicler Agnolo di Tura. “Indeed, one who did not see such horribleness can be called blessed.” The infected, he wrote, “swell beneath the armpits and in their groins, and fall over while talking.” The dead were buried in pits, in piles.

In Florence, wrote Giovanni Boccaccio, “No more respect was accorded to dead people than would nowadays be accorded to dead goats.” Some hid in their homes. Others refused to accept the threat. Their way of coping, Boccaccio wrote, was to “drink heavily, enjoy life to the full, go round singing and merrymaking, and gratify all of one’s cravings when the opportunity emerged, and shrug the whole thing off as one enormous joke.”

That pandemic ended, but the plague recurred. One of the worst outbreaks began in China in 1855 and spread worldwide, killing more than 12 million in India alone. Health authorities in Bombay burned whole neighborhoods trying to rid them of the plague. “Nobody knew if it made a difference,” the Yale historian Frank Snowden said.

It is not clear what made the bubonic plague die down. Some scholars have argued that cold weather killed the disease-carrying fleas, but that would not have interrupted the spread by the respiratory route, Dr. Snowden noted.

Or perhaps it was a change in the rats. By the 19th century, the plague was being carried not by black rats but by brown rats, which are stronger and more vicious and more likely to live apart from humans.

“You certainly wouldn’t want one for a pet,” Dr. Snowden said.

Another hypothesis is that the bacterium evolved to be less deadly. Or maybe actions by humans, such as the burning of villages, helped quell the epidemic.

The plague never really went away. In the United States, infections are endemic among prairie dogs in the Southwest and can be transmitted to people. Dr. Snowden said that one of his friends became infected after a stay at a hotel in New Mexico. The previous occupant of his room had a dog, which had fleas that carried the microbe.

Such cases are rare, and can now be successfully treated with antibiotics, but any report of a case of the plague stirs up fear.

One disease that actually ended

Among the diseases to have achieved a medical end is smallpox. But it is exceptional for several reasons: There is an effective vaccine, which gives lifelong protection; the virus, Variola minor, has no animal host, so eliminating the disease in humans meant total elimination; and its symptoms are so unusual that infection is obvious, allowing for effective quarantines and contact tracing.

But while it still raged, smallpox was horrific. Epidemic after epidemic swept the world, for at least 3,000 years. Individuals infected with the virus developed a fever, then a rash that turned into pus-filled spots, which became encrusted and fell off, leaving scars. The disease killed three out of 10 of its victims, often after immense suffering.

In 1633, an epidemic among Native Americans “disrupted all the native communities in the northeast and certainly facilitated English settlement in Massachusetts,” said Harvard historian Dr. David S. Jones. William Bradford, leader of the Plymouth colony, wrote an account of the disease in Native Americans, saying the broken pustules would effectively glue a patient’s skin to the mat he lay on, only to be torn off. Bradford wrote: “When they turn them, a whole side will flay off at once as it were, and they will be all of a gore blood, most fearful to behold.”

The last person to contract smallpox naturally was Ali Maow Maalin, a hospital cook in Somalia, in 1977. He recovered, only to die of malaria in 2013.

Forgotten influenzas

The 1918 flu is held up today as the example of the ravages of a pandemic and the value of quarantines and social distancing. Before it ended, the flu killed 50 million to 100 million people worldwide. It preyed on young to middle-aged adults — orphaning children, depriving families of breadwinners, killing troops in the midst of World War I.

In the autumn of 1918, William Vaughan, a prominent doctor, was dispatched to Camp Devens near Boston to report on a flu that was raging there. He saw “hundreds of stalwart young men in the uniform of their country, coming into the wards of the hospital in groups of ten or more,” he wrote. “They are placed on the cots until every bed is full, yet others crowd in. Their faces soon wear a bluish cast, a distressing cough brings up blood stained sputum. In the morning the dead bodies are stacked up in the morgue like cord wood.”

The virus, he wrote, “demonstrated the inferiority of human inventions in the destruction of human life.”

After sweeping through the world, that flu faded away, evolving into a variant of the more benign flu that comes around every year.

“Maybe it was like a fire that, having burned the available and easily accessible wood, burns down,” Dr. Snowden said.

It ended socially, too. World War I was over; people were ready for a fresh start, a new era, and eager to put the nightmare of disease and war behind them. Until recently, the 1918 flu was largely forgotten.

Other flu pandemics followed, none so bad but all nonetheless sobering. In the Hong Kong flu of 1968, one million people died worldwide, including 100,000 in the United States, mostly people older than 65. That virus still circulates as a seasonal flu, and its initial path of destruction — and the fear that went with it — is rarely recalled.

How will Covid-19 end?

Will that happen with Covid-19?

One possibility, historians say, is that the coronavirus pandemic could end socially before it ends medically. People may grow so tired of the restrictions that they declare the pandemic over, even as the virus continues to smolder in the population and before a vaccine or effective treatment is found.

“I think there is this sort of social psychological issue of exhaustion and frustration,” the Yale historian Naomi Rogers said. “We may be in a moment when people are just saying: ‘That’s enough. I deserve to be able to return to my regular life.’”

It is happening already; in some states, governors have lifted restrictions, allowing hair salons, nail salons and gyms to reopen, in defiance of warnings by public health officials that such steps are premature. As the economic catastrophe wreaked by the lockdowns grows, more and more people may be ready to say “enough.”

“There is this sort of conflict now,” Dr. Rogers said. Public health officials have a medical end in sight, but some members of the public see a social end.

“Who gets to claim the end?” Dr. Rogers said. “If you push back against the notion of its ending, what are you pushing back against? What are you claiming when you say, ‘No, it is not ending.’”

The challenge, Dr. Brandt said, is that there will be no sudden victory. Trying to define the end of the epidemic “will be a long and difficult process.”

How Cuba’s Spies Keep Winning: They’ve infiltrated another attempt to unseat Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro. (WSJ)

The failed landing on a rugged stretch of Venezuelan coastline last week by a band of mercenaries hoping to unseat Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro is another tragedy for the beleaguered nation.

The predawn mission was meant to capitalize on the element of surprise. But the irregular soldiers were immediately confronted by Venezuelan troops because their operation had been thoroughly penetrated by Cuban-backed Venezuelan intelligence. Some were killed in the fighting and more may have been executed. Among the captured are two Americans.

The debacle is demoralizing for an enslaved nation suffering dire privation and brutal repression. It is also an opportunity to reflect on Cuba’s asymmetric-warfare capabilities and the sophistication of its intelligence apparatus, which over more than a half-century has run circles around the U.S. Beyond the killing, the fiasco will deepen suspicion and distrust among the members of the opposition—particularly of “friends” who claim to have broken with the dictatorship.

The U.S. government has said it had no “direct involvement” in the seaborne operation. Jordan Goudreau, a former Green Beret who was the ring leader of the plot, did receive some interest in his services from advisers to U.S.-backed interim Venezuelan President Juan Guaidó. But Mr. Guaidó’s communications team has put out a statement insisting that the interim president never agreed to launching the operation.

Mr. Goudreau, who heads the U.S.-based security firm Silvercorp, apparently planned to provoke a military uprising, detain Mr. Maduro, and put him on a plane to the U.S.

There is near universal agreement that it was a reckless endeavor. Yet it is only the latest in a string of desperate attempts to try to bring down the dictatorship. And while the methods have varied, the common denominator in all the quashed uprisings has been how effectively Cuban-led intelligence has disrupted the plans. In some cases the plots may even have originated with state-security agents, who recruited eager patriots and mercenaries and set them up to be killed. This also reinforces a sense of futility among would-be rebels.

Whether it’s inside the military or among the ranks of the opposition, many Venezuelans now conclude that Cuban moles are everywhere and it’s too risky to put confidence in anyone. This is key to Havana’s control strategy in Venezuela. It is also standard practice on the island.

The struggle to liberate Venezuela is a proxy war between the U.S. and Cuba, which is backed by its allies Russia, Iran and China. The conflict drags on because Cuba has the edge where it matters.

When it comes to traditional military capabilities, the U.S. soars above its adversaries. But Havana dominates in deception, human intelligence and propaganda. It’s been that way from the early days of the Cuban dictatorship. “The Cubans were underestimated for more than a quarter of a century,” former CIA Cuba analyst Brian Latell wrote in his 2012 book, “Castro’s Secrets.” The U.S. thought it was dealing with “bush-league amateurs” until Florentino Aspillaga Lombard, a highly decorated Cuban agent, defected in 1987. That’s when the U.S. began to understand that Castro’s Cuba had “developed a foreign intelligence service that quickly rose into the ranks of the half dozen best in the world.” Moreover, “in some covert specialties, particularly in running double agents and counterintelligence,” over decades, Mr. Latell wrote, “Cuba’s achievements have been unparalleled.”

It’s a mistake to think this is only about people like high-ranking Pentagon intelligence analyst Ana Belén Montes, who was exposed as a Cuban spy in 2001 after some 16 years working for the enemy. Cuba has myriad ways of spreading disinformation, combating critics, and widening its influence. Return access to the island for journalists and academics, for example, is denied when there is unfavorable coverage, which is presumably why yours truly cannot get a visa.

Blackmail is another method of manipulation. I have twice interviewed a Cuban defector who told me it was his job in Cuba to retrieve videocassettes from hidden cameras in hotel rooms and official residences where visiting dignitaries were staying. The goal was to capture on film compromising behavior that could be used to extort political favors or, for example, force a resignation. With heavy political and diplomatic traffic to the island from Europe and Washington, it’s a safe bet that at least a few have been compromised in this way.

The Guaidó team now says it balked at the Goudreau plan in part because it did not trust former Venezuelan General Cliver Alcalá, whose brother is Mr. Maduro’s ambassador to Tehran but who claimed to have switched sides. Mr. Alcalá was taken into custody in the U.S. on drug-trafficking charges in March. But that he got close to the Guaidó team in the first place is another credit to Cuba’s intel network—most likely in this case with a lot of help from Iran.

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