Prayer. Bombs. Walls. Over the decades, people have tried all of them to stanch the flow of lava from Hawaii’s volcanoes as it lumbered toward roads, homes and infrastructure.

Now Mauna Loa — the world’s largest active volcano — is erupting again, and lava is slowly approaching a major thoroughfare connecting the Big Island’s east and west sides. And once more, people are asking if anything can be done to stop or divert the flow.

“It comes up every time there’s an eruption and there’s lava heading towards habited areas or highways,” said Scott Rowland, a geologist at the University of Hawaii. “Some people say, ‘Build a wall’ or ‘Board up,’ and other people say, ‘No, don’t!”

Humans have rarely had much success stopping lava and, despite the world’s technological advances, doing so is still difficult and dependent on the force of the flow and the terrain. But many in Hawaii also question the wisdom of interfering with nature and Pele, the Hawaiian deity of volcanoes and fire.

Prayers to Pele

Attempts to divert lava have a long history in Hawaii.

In 1881, the governor of Hawaii Island declared a day of prayer to stop lava from Mauna Loa as it headed for Hilo. The lava kept coming.

According to the U.S. Geological Survey, Princess Regent Lili’uokalani and her department heads went to Hilo and considered ways to save the town. They developed plans to build barriers to divert the flow and place dynamite along a lava tube to drain the molten rock supply.

Princess Ruth Ke’elikōlani approached the flow, offered brandy and red scarves and chanted, asking Pele to stop the flow and go home. The flow stopped before the barriers were built.

More than 50 years later, Thomas A. Jaggar, the founder of the Hawaiian Volcano Observatory, asked U.S. Army Air Services to send planes to bomb a Mauna Loa vent to disrupt lava channels.

Lt. Col. George S. Patton, who later became famous as a general in Europe during World War II, directed planes to drop 20 272-kilogram demolition bombs, according to a National Park Service account of the campaign. The bombs each had 161 kilograms of TNT. The planes also dropped 20 smaller bombs that only had black powder charge.

Jagger said the bombing helped to “hasten the end of the flow,” but Howard Stearns, a U.S. Geological Survey geologist onboard the last bombing run, was doubtful. In his 1983 autobiography, he wrote: “I am sure it was a coincidence.”

According to the park service, geologists today also are doubtful the bombing stopped the lava flow, which didn’t end with the bombing. Instead, the flows waned over the next few days and didn’t change paths.


Local advises to go with the flow

Rowland said authorities could use a bulldozer to pile a big berm of broken rock in front of Daniel K. Inouye Highway. If the terrain is flat, then lava would pile up behind the wall. But the lava may flow over it, like it did when something similar was attempted in Kapoho town in 1960.

Rapidly moving lava flows, like those from Kilauea volcano in 2018, would be more difficult to stop, he said.

“It would have been really hard to build the walls fast enough for them. And they were heading towards groups of homes. And so you would perhaps be sacrificing some homes for others, which would just be a legal mess,” he said.

He said he believes most people in Hawaii wouldn’t want to build a wall to protect the highway because it would “mess with Pele.”

If lava crosses the highway, Rowland said officials could rebuild that section of the road like they did in 2018 when different routes were covered. There are no current plans to try to divert the flow, a county official said.

Thinking you should physically divert lava is a Western idea rooted in the notion that humans have to control everything, said Kealoha Pisciotta, a Native Hawaiian cultural practitioner. She said people need to adjust to the lava, not the other way around.

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The United States on Friday designated China, Iran and Russia, among others, as countries of particular concern under the Religious Freedom Act over severe violations, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said.

In a statement, Blinken said those designated as countries of particular concern, which also include North Korea and Myanmar, engaged in or tolerated severe violations of religious freedom.

Algeria, the Central African Republic, Comoros and Vietnam were placed on the watch list.

Several groups, including the Kremlin-aligned Wagner Group, a private paramilitary organization that is active in Syria, Africa and Ukraine, also were designated as entities of particular concern. The Wagner Group was designated over its activities in the Central African Republic, Blinken said.

“Around the world, governments and non-state actors harass, threaten, jail, and even kill individuals on account of their beliefs,” Blinken said in the statement. “The United States will not stand by in the face of these abuses.”

He added that Washington would welcome the opportunity to meet with all governments to outline concrete steps for removal from the lists.

Washington has increased pressure on Iran over the brutal crackdown on protesters. Women have waved and burned headscarves, which are mandatory under Iran’s conservative dress codes, during the demonstrations that mark one of the boldest challenges to the Islamic Republic since the 1979 revolution.

The United Nations says more than 300 people have been killed so far and 14,000 arrested in protests that began after the September 16 death in custody of 22-year-old Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini after she was detained for “inappropriate attire.”

U.N. experts also have called on majority Shiite Muslim Iran to stop persecution and harassment of religious minorities and to end the use of religion to curtail the exercise of fundamental rights.

The Baha’i community is among the most severely persecuted religious minorities in Iran, with a marked increase in arrests and targeting this year, part of what U.N. experts called a broader policy of targeting dissenting beliefs or religious practices, including Christian converts and atheists.

The United States has expressed grave concerns about human rights in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang, which is home to 10 million Uyghurs.

Rights groups and Western governments have long accused Beijing of abuses against the mainly Muslim ethnic minority, including forced labor in internment camps.

The United States has accused China of genocide. Beijing vigorously denies any abuses.

The other countries designated as countries of particular concern were Cuba, Eritrea, Nicaragua, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

The U.S. Religious Freedom Act of 1998 requires the president, who assigns the function to the secretary of state, to designate as countries of particular concern states that are deemed to violate religious freedom on a systematic and ongoing basis.

The act gives Blinken a range of policy responses, including sanctions or waivers, but they are not automatic.

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VOA White House correspondent Paris Huang spoke with John Kirby, National Security Council (NSC) Coordinator for Strategic Communications, on Friday about protests in China, the Chinese military, Taiwan, South Korea, and the Russian war in Ukraine.

The following transcript has been edited for clarity.

VOA: We’ll start with the protests happening in China right now, that the world is watching. So, the scale of the protests in China right now is something that we haven’t seen since the Tiananmen Square happened in 1989. The Chinese top security body, the Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, (is) already calling resolutely (for a) crackdown. We’re also seeing some local cities already using tear gas on the protesters, arresting people as well. So will the (U.S. President Joe) Biden administration make it clear to China that if there’s a mass crackdown on protesters, there will be consequences?

NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL COORDINATOR FOR STRATEGIC COMMUNICATIONS JOHN KIRBY: We’ve been very clear and consistent, very public about it, too. About the right of peaceful protest, about the fundamental right for citizens, no matter whether they live in a democracy or an autocracy, to be able to freely assemble without fear, without intimidation, certainly without violence, to protest, to make their voices heard on issues that matter to them. And we’ve, again, we’ve been very, very consistent.

VOA: We’re also seeing, for example, with Iran cracking down on protesters, there’s sanctions against some of the officials going on there. And Tiananmen Square, that I just mentioned, after that, United States and some Western countries imposed sanctions on China. So would the Biden administration let China know that there will be consequences if you crack down on the White Paper Revolution?

Kirby: We’re watching this very, very closely. I don’t have any announcements to make. We’re watching this very closely. And our expectations are the same there as they are elsewhere around the world, you talked about Iran, which is to stand up for the right of people to peacefully protest.

VOA: You mentioned during the last briefing Tuesday that the president is monitoring the protests right now. And, although we see (Chinese President) Xi Jinping seems to be consolidating the power after the 20th Party Congress … we’ve also seen some protesters calling (for) Xi Jinping to step down, which is unthinkable in the past few years. So what is the president’s assessment of the protests now that they’ve been going on for a week? And how will this change the dynamic between President Biden and Xi Jinping? Right now, Xi Jinping doesn’t seem so solid on his power within China.

Kirby: Well again, we’re watching and monitoring these developments closely. The president is certainly staying apprised and informed about the protest activity in China, as he is about widespread protest activity elsewhere around the world. So we’re watching this very, very closely.

VOA: By watching closely, we know the U.S. and China communication channel had been reopened. Have the U.S. officials had a chance to talk to the Chinese counterparts regarding the protests and the COVID restrictions?

Kirby: Certainly through our embassy in Moscow, Ambassador (Nicholas) Burns has and does routinely talk.

VOA: The embassy in Beijing?

KIRBY: I’m sorry?

VOA: Ambassador in Beijing.

Kirby: And our ambassador in Beijing has and does relay our concerns to the Chinese government. Certainly, he’s been relaying concerns about American citizens that are in China in the midst of these protests. So we have that channel open, and Ambassador (to China) Burns is never shy about expressing our concerns. But again, we’re watching this closely. We want everybody to be able to freely assemble, express their views peacefully.

VOA: Going down to the China military power report that was announced by the DOD (Department of Defense). You have a very deep military background and experience, so can you tell us what, from your point of view, what the major takeaway from this report? What are the (most alarming) elements in this 2022 report to set it apart from the 2021 report?

Kirby: Well I think it’s important to remember a couple of things. It’s an annual report required by Congress, that’s one. Two, it’s based on 2021 information and analysis, so there is a time gap between the time it’s published and the end of the information that’s being analyzed.

All that said, the report lays bare what we have been saying consistently now over the last two years — that China’s military continues to grow and develop the kinds of capabilities that they are, obviously, continue to show a willingness to use to coerce and intimidate neighbors and some of our allies and partners in the region. But also to try to deny access by the U.S. military into areas of the Indo-Pacific.

And so what we’re going to do, in addition to being open and honest about what we’re seeing in the analysis, and this report lays it all very clearly, growing ballistic missile capabilities, growing integration between air, naval, ground forces. Building more and more ships at a faster rate.

Well, again, in addition to laying all that out, you’ll see if you look at our national security strategy, which also very transparently indicates that China remains a security challenge. The preeminent security challenge to the rules-based order.

A, because they have expressed an interest in breaking down that rules-based order, and B, because this is a country, and again the China military report states it clearly, has the resources and the capabilities to be able to challenge that rules-based order. And that is not in concert with our national security interests. It is not in concert with the national security interests of our allies and partners, not just in the region but around the world.

I mean, yesterday we had (French) President (Emmanuel) Macron here for a state visit. France is an Indo-Pacific power. France shares our concerns about China’s burgeoning military capabilities and their intentions to use those capabilities to secure their ends in the Indo-Pacific. So, again, we’ve put it in the national security strategy. It’s in the national defense strategy. The China military report, though old, certainly reinforces the level of concern that we have over what China is doing in the region.

It is important, to your point about the channels of communication, for all those reasons, it is that much more important that we have channels of communication with the Chinese so that we can reduce the risk of miscalculation particularly in the security landscape. The president was grateful for the three-hour-plus meeting he was able to have with President Xi. These are two men that know each other very, very well. They’ve spoken half a dozen times before this face-to-face meeting in Bali a week or so ago, and they were both able to lay on the table their concerns about not only the bilateral relationship, probably the most consequential bilateral relationship in the world right now, but also their broader concerns in the region.

And the president was very forthright about the security concerns that we have and about trying to make sure that those channels of communication stay open, again, so we can reduce the risk of miscalculation.

VOA: Talking about the channel of communication, just a couple of days ago, some Russian and Chinese fighter jets entered South Korea’s defense zone, without notice, took them by surprise, and Japan also said they were surprised. I’m just wondering, has the United States, through the communication channels, known this beforehand, especially as we have troops there in South Korea?

Kirby: I don’t think that we had advance knowledge of these particular air missions. But you saw that the South Koreans responded appropriately with an intercept of their own. This is exactly why these kinds of incidents, which are aggressive and certainly unhelpful to security and stability, but these are exactly why these incidents are why it’s important to keep channels of communication open from — at least from a military to military level.

And so, in the wake of (U.S. House) Speaker (Nancy) Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan (in August), the Chinese military shut down some of those military channels of communication, and one of the outcomes of the meeting with President Xi was an agreement by both leaders to see if we can’t restart some of those venues, some of those vehicles for communication to include at the military level. And so, that was a positive outcome coming out of that.

President Xi, President Biden agreed to get their teams together to see if we can’t work on that, and I think the secretary of state (Antony Blinken) will be going to Beijing in the not-too-distant future to help move that process along.

VOA: Talking about what happened in South Korea, it seems like the Russians and Chinese are working together. What is your assessment on why are they doing this right now to United States allies?

Kirby:I think we need to be careful not to overstate. It’s not like there’s some grand alliance between Russia and China. In many ways, particularly in the military realm, it’s a partnership of convenience, not of deep trust and confidence or a strong set of shared principles and interests. They have exercised and operated together in the past. Certainly, we watch this as closely as we can. These are two countries who are not pursuing the same sort of shared interests, common interests that we do with our allies and partners in the region around the world. You’re talking about at least one of these partners, one of these countries, that has in an unprovoked way invaded a neighboring nation, Ukraine, and continues, as you and I speak here today, continues to attack civilian infrastructure and kill innocent Ukrainian people. So obviously we watch this closely.

VOA: In the military report, he also says that China continues its military pressure, but no sign of invading Taiwan immediately, which echoes what President Biden said in Bali. But with the protests in China right now, is it possible that we see China trying to divert that pressure outward by, you know, perhaps some military actions toward Taiwan. Does that change any calculation?

Kirby: I won’t speculate to Chinese intentions here. As I said, we stand up for peaceful protests. We don’t want to see any protesters intimidated, coerced or hurt in the simple process of freely assembling and stating their views. Separate and distinct from that, yes, President Biden had a chance to talk to President Xi about Ukraine.

We certainly would like to see China act in accordance with so much of the rest of the international community and overtly condemn what Mr. (Russian President Vladimir) Putin is doing in Ukraine and do nothing to normalize Mr. Putin’s behavior or his activities, particularly there on the European continent. China has choices that they have to make. They have to determine where they want to be here in terms of history and how history regards their own behavior with respect to Mr. Putin. I would add, I would say, that we have not seen China provide any material, tangible military support to Mr. Putin.

VOA: I’m going to jump to Iran and Afghanistan questions. President Biden said yesterday (Thursday) at the press conference said the U.S. seeks to hold accountable for those responsible for the human rights abuses. However, we see Iran is already saying it will not cooperate with the fact-finding mission of the U.N. Human Rights Commission. So, what will the U.S. do right now? And any updates on the U.S. move to expel Iran from the U.N. Commission on the Status of Women?

Kirby: We do not believe that Iran should be part of that commission, particularly concerning the way they’ve treated their own citizens particularly women, Iranian women. I don’t have an update for you on process there, at the U.N., but I can tell you that we are working this very, very hard with our allies and partners and our U.N. colleagues. and again, to not only hold the regime accountable, but to make it clear, the basic principle that we stand for, which is, again, peaceful protest.

VOA: On Afghanistan, we see that Chinese officials have met with the Taliban many times and have also criticized the U.S. policies. How do you see China-Taliban relations? Do you think that China is increasing its influence in Afghanistan and in the region?

Kirby: I won’t speak for Chinese foreign policy. We noted that they have met with Taliban figures. They should have to speak for why they’re doing that and what the intent is. It’s not clear that China has gone all in here in terms of supporting the Taliban.

Again, the Taliban has a choice. We’ve not recognized the Taliban in Afghanistan as the government. They say they want legitimacy. They say they want an opening up to the global economy. They say that they are willing to pursue reforms, social and economic, to earn that legitimacy, but that’s not what we’re seeing on the ground. We’re seeing them shut down access to education for young girls. We’re seeing a crackdown on civil and human rights, particularly with respect to women. And so look, if the Taliban really wants to be recognized and wants to be legitimate, then they’re going to have to act in legitimate ways. China can speak for their conversations and what they’re doing with the Taliban. What I can speak to is our approach to this and that has not changed.

VOA: The next question is related to USAGM. Taliban officials ordered to stop broadcasting out USAGM funded programs on FM and AM transmitters operated by radio and television in Afghanistan. We know that VOA is part of USAGM and we have been broadcasting to Afghanistan for years. What is your response to the Taliban’s decision to curb media freedom and ban our broadcast?

Kirby: Well again, this is a group that says they want legitimacy, and they want normal diplomatic relations with nations around the world, including the United States. Well, one of the things that we stand for in addition to peaceful protests is freedom of the press. And free, reliable, sustainable access by citizens to information and to news, and so this kind of declaration is absolutely contrary to those larger goals that we have not only there but around the world, and we’re going to continue to stand up for freedom of the press and for the right of citizens around the world to be able to access press and news and information.

VOA: President Biden yesterday (Dec. 2, 2022) at the joint conference with Macron, said he’s prepared to talk to President Putin if he decides to end the war. The U.S. and France will continue to support Ukraine. Macron also said he will not force Ukraine to make compromises with Russia, but with the new Republican U.S. Congress coming in and already saying that there’s no blank check to Ukraine, how will the Biden administration move forward to find a peaceful resolution for our solution for Ukraine when the resources might be running short soon?

Kirby: The president is not concerned about bipartisan support for Ukraine going forward. We have had and we expect to continue to have strong support from both sides of the aisle for the kinds of support that Ukraine needs, the kinds of funding support. In fact, we submitted a supplemental request for almost $40 billion, it’s now on the Hill right now. We’ve been talking to members of Congress about what’s in that package and why it’s important. $21 billion of it is dedicated to security assistance of some kind and to help DOD replenish their inventories as well.

And again, members of Congress from both sides of the aisle have been very, very supportive. We appreciate that. We do expect that that will continue. This argument of a blank check is driving a stake through a straw man. There’s never been a blank check. With every supplemental request, with every package of security assistance, we have been in open communication with members of Congress, from both sides of the aisle, about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.

And we share, certainly, concerns by members of Congress about accountability. That’s why we have taken measures in the last few months to make sure that we are increasing our ability to keep eyes on, and track as best we can, the material that’s going into Ukraine. It is a war, we need to remember that, but we share those concerns and we do not harbor concerns that there’s going to be some significant drying up of support for Ukraine going forward. The president said we’re going to support Ukraine for as long as it takes and he means that.

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The lava flowing from Hawaii’s Mauna Loa, which is the world’s largest active volcano and erupted this week, is edging closer to the Big Island’s main highway.

The U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory reported Friday that the main front of the lava flow was 5.2 kilometers away from the Daniel K. Inouye Highway, also known as Saddle Road, and could possibly reach it in a week.

But the USGS also said that because of the unpredictable nature of lava flows, it’s “difficult to estimate when or if the flow will impact” the highway, which is the island’s main east-west road.

If the main highway is cut off, Hawaii county officials say, traffic will be forced onto coastal roads, crowding them and adding hours onto a trip from Hilo, the largest city on the Big Island, to Kona, a tourist magnet, which takes just 90 minutes on the Daniel K. Inouye Highway.

Talmadge Magno, administrator of Hawaii County’s Civil Defense Agency, told reporters this week that if lava flows onto the highway it would likely take the federal government a few months to get it passable again once the flows halt.

After the eruption on Sunday, the lava initially moved quickly down steep slopes. Over the past day, it reached a flatter area and slowed significantly, moving at just 40 meters per hour. The sight has attracted visitors to the “once in a lifetime” spectacle.

The USGS says many variables influence exactly where the lava will move and at what speed. On flatter ground, lava flows spread out and “inflate” — creating individual lobes that can advance quickly and then stall.

Mauna Loa rises 4,169 meters above the Pacific Ocean, part of a chain of volcanoes that formed the islands of Hawaii. It last erupted in 1984.

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The brother of American Paul Whelan, who has been detained in Russia since 2018 after being convicted on espionage charges in 2020, says the former U.S. Marine telephoned his parents from Russia early Friday, the first contact in more than a week.

In a statement emailed to media outlets, David Whelan said that his brother said he was transferred to a prison hospital last week for a previously undisclosed treatment. During the call, Paul Whelan said he had been returned to his original prison facility.

Friday’s call was the first the family had heard from him since November 23.

“The call at least acts as a ‘proof of life’ even if nothing else has been explained: When Paul went there, why, why the calls stopped, why the US Embassy had to seek information about his whereabouts and the Russian authorities refused to respond,” said David Whelan.

Speaking on background to reporters Friday, a State Department spokesman said they could confirm Paul Whelan spoke to consular officers Friday and that Whelan had been transferred to a prison hospital Thanksgiving Day and returned to the IK-17 penal colony on Friday.

The spokesman also confirmed Whelan was able to call home Friday, and said the Embassy continues to press for timely updates on his condition.

“We’re grateful that we were able to establish that contact with him,” White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters Friday. “We prefer obviously that he not be in a penal colony … but it was reassuring to be able to hear his voice.”

The Biden administration has been trying for months to negotiate the release of Whelan, a former Marine and Michigan corporate executive, as well as American WNBA star Brittney Griner, convicted and jailed earlier this year.

Whelan and Griner “shouldn’t have to do one more day in Russia, and we’re working very, very hard to see that outcome take place,” Kirby said.

The Associated Press, quoting a Russian diplomat, reported this week Russia and the United States have repeatedly been on the verge of an agreement on a prisoner exchange. The diplomat indicated a deal is still possible before the year’s end.

Some information for this report was provided by the Associated Press and Reuters.

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First lady Jill Biden, who has broken with precedent by continuing to teach at a community college since moving into the White House, confided to a group of seventh graders this week that she was not always sure she would be able to handle both jobs.

Biden, who holds a doctoral degree, made the admission Thursday during a museum visit with her French counterpart Brigitte Macron, who was in Washington with President Emmanuel Macron for a state visit.

“Teaching is my passion, I teach English and I love it,” Biden said in response to a question from one of the school children at the Planet Word Museum, which is dedicated to language.

“I said to my husband: ‘I don’t want to give up teaching.’ And he said: ‘Oh I don’t know; do you think you can do both?’ I said, ‘I don’t know but I’m going to try.’ So, I [continue to] teach now at Northern Virginia Community College, I’m there two days a week and I still love it! Every day is an adventure, I just feel inspired to go to work every day.”

Asked by another of the school children whether her students treat her differently since her husband Joe Biden became president, the first lady explained that they now have to pass through a security check to make sure no one is carrying a weapon.

But “after a week or two, they don’t even remember I’m first lady. I’m their English teacher,” Biden said.

Macron, for her part, voiced a similar sentiment when one of the children asked her what it is like to be a first lady.

“We’re women, we had a life before [becoming] first lady, and we stay what we are,” she said, as Biden nodded in full agreement.

Macron confessed to being not entirely comfortable speaking in English but made a pitch for the value of poetry, which she described as “a universal language.” To make the point, she shared with the students a parable about two blind men begging for money.

“One holds up a piece of paper on which it is written ‘blind’ and no one gives him any money,” Macron said. “And the poetic one wrote: ‘The spring is arriving, and I will never see it,’ and everyone gives him money.”

Macron also took a student’s question about her wardrobe, jokingly describing her go-to designer Nicolas Ghesquière of Louis Vuitton as “the other man in my life.” She added that “he makes my job easier, otherwise I’m always in jeans and T-shirt.” Macron also shared with the audience that while she used to teach French, Latin and theater, she now teaches some adults looking for jobs in her country.

As for Biden, she shared with the students a recent writing assignment she had given her community college class, asking, “If a meteor was coming to the earth, what is the last song you want to hear and why?”

The first lady admitted to being unfamiliar with some of the children’s favorite tunes but lit up when one of the students mentioned “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston.

“We know that one,” Biden said.

As the visit wound down, Macron again apologized for her difficulty with English and read from a prepared note:

“Dear Jill: Thank you so much for planning such a visit, I’m really glad we’re able to share this moment together, because there’s a sense [of connection]; we both share a lifelong commitment to education, this really means a lot. We’re friends.”

She then extended her hand to Biden who took hold of the hand and responded, “We’re friends.”

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The United States was able to quickly confirm the death of the Islamic State’s leader in southern Syria this past October because it had his DNA and other biometric data on file from an encounter with him from long before he took the helm of the terror group.

U.S. officials are still refusing to share the true identity of the man known to most of the world only by his nom-de-guerre, Abu al-Hassan al-Hashimi al-Qurashi.

But a U.S. military official told VOA that Abu al-Hassan was one of the last of the group’s legacy leaders, around since its founding, and that with his death, leadership of IS has passed to a new generation.

“The ideology is non-constraining, so there is a new team of leaders,” the official said on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the intelligence.

IS’ new leader, Abu al-Hussein al-Husseini al-Qurashi, is “not from the original team,” the official added, warning that the group, despite its weakened state, has maintained its ability to prepare for leadership losses.

“As those [new] leaders are killed, there are people who are trained and ready to come behind them,” the official said.

That ability has been critical to IS’ survival, which has seen its forces whittled down from tens of thousands of fighters during the height of its self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq and Syria, to as few as 6,000 now.

U.S. and coalition efforts have likewise removed a series of key IS officials from the battlefield through a series of airstrikes and arrests. 

Since last February, when a U.S. special forces raid led to the death of IS leader Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurashi, also known as Hajji ‘Abdallah, at least six other senior IS officials have been killed or detained.

Just this past September, U.S. National Counterterrorism Center Director Christine Abizaid described Islamic State as being forced to go into survival mode due to “major talent loss.”

“Given that two ISIS leaders have been killed in less than one year, the organization is at a nadir,” Colin Clarke, director of research at the global intelligence firm The Soufan Group, told VOA, using an acronym for the terror group.

“It remains dangerous, but nowhere near as capable as it was even just two or three years ago,” he added.

The success of the U.S. and its partner forces in targeting and eliminating IS leaders across northern Syria may be one reason Abu al-Hassan took refuge in southern Syria, where the terror group is thought to have just a few hundred fighters.

Still, Abu al-Hassan’s presence in Daraa took many by surprise.

U.S. officials tell VOA the Free Syrian Army contacted them through an intermediary because while its leaders knew they were going after senior IS officials, they were unsure of whom had actually been killed.

And there are some doubts about whether IS will continue to use southern Syria as a refuge.

U.S. officials “haven’t seen a widespread movement” of IS to that part of the country, the senior military official told VOA. “This is perhaps an anomaly.”

U.S. officials also have warned that the core group, weakened as it may be, remains a serious long-term threat. They point to the thousands of IS fighters languishing in prisons across northeastern Syria and to the group’s ability to spread its ideology at displaced persons camps like al-Hol and al-Roj, described by some as a “breeding ground” for the next generation of jihadi fighters.

“ISIS is able to continue to recruit and replace its leaders,” said Myles Caggins, a senior fellow at the Washington-based New Lines Institute and a former spokesperson for the U.S.-led coalition, using another acronym for the terror group.

Caggins told VOA that while the effectiveness of many of the IS leaders “has diminished greatly” since the height of its self-proclaimed caliphate, it has not diminished the overall zeal of the group’s followers.

“We have seen ISIS members in West Africa, as well as in Southwest Asia, pledge allegiance to the new caliphate,” he said. “This is just a sign that the world must continue to pay attention.”

Other analysts echo the concerns.

Islamic State is “not based off of sort of a charismatic leadership model,” Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who specializes in jihadism, told VOA.

“It’s based off more of a legalistic leadership model meaning the leader itself doesn’t really matter,” Zelin said. “For them, it’s kind of irrelevant who it is so long as, you know, the central leadership in the Shura Council says that this is the guy and that he has the legitimate credentials, people will follow him.”

Others warn the new leadership should not be underestimated.

“Targeting leadership yields short-term benefits for counterterrorism and essentially manages the threat, but for a group like ISIS [it] will not be enough to end the threat, something the U.S. should have learned after nearly two decades targeting terrorist leaders in Iraq,” Katherine Zimmerman, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, told VOA via text.

“Killing off the so-called legacy leaders simply brings to power the next generation, who have learned the lessons of their predecessors and will carry the black flag forward,” she noted. 


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Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones filed for bankruptcy Friday, following a year in which juries ordered him and his company to pay nearly $1.5 billion in damages for spreading false claims that a 2012 elementary school shooting was a hoax.


A court filing in Houston, Texas indicated Jones filed for Chapter 11 protection from creditors with the U.S. bankruptcy court. The filing indicates Jones has between $1 million and $10 million in assets and between $1 billion and $10 billion in liabilities. The extent of Jones’ total personal wealth is unclear.


The filing comes less than two months after a jury in the northeastern U.S. state of Connecticut found Jones should pay $965 million to the families of eight people killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.   

In August, a jury in Texas ordered him to pay $50 million to the family of a child killed in the attack.

In both cases, relatives of the 20 children and six adults killed in the school shooting testified that they were threatened and harassed for years by followers of Jones’ online program who believed the lies he told.  


Jones was dismissive of both verdicts, and said the threats and harassment were never directly linked to him.

Some information for this report was provided by the Associated Press and Reuters. 

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