Of Threats and Bounties

On December 23 - the same day the US carried out an apparent drone strike in the al-Baydha governorate of Yemen, apparently targeting 'Abd al-Rauf al-Dhahab - AQAP released a 43 minute video.

The video, which is one of the more polished videos I've seen AQAP release, is basically a catalog of perceived US and western crimes against Islam, ranging from allegations of torture in Guantanamo to the Danish cartoons, Terry Jones, and more recently the "Innocence of Muslims" video. 

Three top al-Qaeda figures - Qasim al-Raymi, Said al-Shihri and Ibrahim Rubaysh - are all featured in the 43 minute video.

At first view the video appears to be a standard - if polished - piece of AQAP propaganda.  But yesterday, there was a 41 second addendum linked to the video and it is this snippet that is causing a great deal of concern.

In the 41 second video AQAP makes two announcements.  First, they say that the organization is placing a bounty of 3,000 grams of gold on the US ambassador to Yemen.  Second, the video offers 5 million Yemeni riyals to anyone who kills a US soldier in Yemen.

Given that the original video included a translated segment of a New York Times article, talking about Benghazi and the killing of the US ambassador to Libya yesterday's threats and bounties have attracted a lot of attention.  For one example, see the Associated Press story here.

But since the threats and bounties weren't announced in the original video are we even certain that this is AQAP?  Particularly since there is a strange story that the US somehow deleted the bounty announcements from the original video.  Another theory goes that the video being released on December 23 is what prompted the 4 apparent US drones strikes this week in Yemen.

I'm not sure I have a good answer to any of these questions, but I have looked at both video clips - the 43 minute one and the 41 second one, and here is what I've come up with.

Both carry the al-Malahim logo, which by itself doesn't prove much as this would be fairly easy to throw up on any video.  The first, longer video is quite clearly an AQAP production, featuring AQAP leaders alive and dead (Anwar al-Awlaki even makes an appearance), but the second one - the one with the bounties - is less clear.  It is only a voice and, at least the version I saw, text of the two announcements in both Arabic and English. 

And that means that really the only thing we have to go on is the voice - the text itself seems like something AQAP might plausibly say, but again that in itself isn't much in the way of proof. 

I've listened to both videos and, to me, the narrator sounds the same in both.  But like much when studying AQAP that isn't a whole lot to go on. 

I don't think we'll know for certain whether or not this was AQAP until either the bounty addendum is given its own banner ad on a forum (the clip I saw was not hosted on a forum).  And I'm curious if any other forum watchers have come across the bounty video.  I've seen it referenced but I haven't seen the banner ad put up by site administrators.

The other confirmation would be a second statement put out by AQAP confirming the bounties.  The group has periodically done this in the past both to confirm or to deny that they were responsible for a particular act or statement.  However, the group has been - at least for it - relatively reserved in releasing material over the past 6 months.  (This doesn't mean AQAP hasn't been active on the ground, just that its online presence has receded a bit.)

Either way, the bounty addendum clip and the stories about the US erasing it from the original are all a bit strange.  Unfortunately, I think we're all going to have to wait a bit for the picture to settle. That is not satisfying, but it is honest. 

Related Articles

Major study: Drug overdoses over a 38-year period reveal hidden trends

It's just the current cycle that involves opiates, but methamphetamine, cocaine, and others have caused the trajectory of overdoses to head the same direction

From the study: http://science.sciencemag.org/content/361/6408/eaau1184
Surprising Science
  • It appears that overdoses are increasing exponentially, no matter the drug itself
  • If the study bears out, it means that even reducing opiates will not slow the trajectory.
  • The causes of these trends remain obscure, but near the end of the write-up about the study, a hint might be apparent
Keep reading Show less

Why "nuclear pasta" is the strongest material in the universe

Through computationally intensive computer simulations, researchers have discovered that "nuclear pasta," found in the crusts of neutron stars, is the strongest material in the universe.

Accretion disk surrounding a neutron star. Credit: NASA
Surprising Science
  • The strongest material in the universe may be the whimsically named "nuclear pasta."
  • You can find this substance in the crust of neutron stars.
  • This amazing material is super-dense, and is 10 billion times harder to break than steel.

Superman is known as the "Man of Steel" for his strength and indestructibility. But the discovery of a new material that's 10 billion times harder to break than steel begs the question—is it time for a new superhero known as "Nuclear Pasta"? That's the name of the substance that a team of researchers thinks is the strongest known material in the universe.

Unlike humans, when stars reach a certain age, they do not just wither and die, but they explode, collapsing into a mass of neurons. The resulting space entity, known as a neutron star, is incredibly dense. So much so that previous research showed that the surface of a such a star would feature amazingly strong material. The new research, which involved the largest-ever computer simulations of a neutron star's crust, proposes that "nuclear pasta," the material just under the surface, is actually stronger.

The competition between forces from protons and neutrons inside a neutron star create super-dense shapes that look like long cylinders or flat planes, referred to as "spaghetti" and "lasagna," respectively. That's also where we get the overall name of nuclear pasta.

Caplan & Horowitz/arXiv

Diagrams illustrating the different types of so-called nuclear pasta.

The researchers' computer simulations needed 2 million hours of processor time before completion, which would be, according to a press release from McGill University, "the equivalent of 250 years on a laptop with a single good GPU." Fortunately, the researchers had access to a supercomputer, although it still took a couple of years. The scientists' simulations consisted of stretching and deforming the nuclear pasta to see how it behaved and what it would take to break it.

While they were able to discover just how strong nuclear pasta seems to be, no one is holding their breath that we'll be sending out missions to mine this substance any time soon. Instead, the discovery has other significant applications.

One of the study's co-authors, Matthew Caplan, a postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University, said the neutron stars would be "a hundred trillion times denser than anything on earth." Understanding what's inside them would be valuable for astronomers because now only the outer layer of such starts can be observed.

"A lot of interesting physics is going on here under extreme conditions and so understanding the physical properties of a neutron star is a way for scientists to test their theories and models," Caplan added. "With this result, many problems need to be revisited. How large a mountain can you build on a neutron star before the crust breaks and it collapses? What will it look like? And most importantly, how can astronomers observe it?"

Another possibility worth studying is that, due to its instability, nuclear pasta might generate gravitational waves. It may be possible to observe them at some point here on Earth by utilizing very sensitive equipment.

The team of scientists also included A. S. Schneider from California Institute of Technology and C. J. Horowitz from Indiana University.

Check out the study "The elasticity of nuclear pasta," published in Physical Review Letters.

How a huge, underwater wall could save melting Antarctic glaciers

Scientists think constructing a miles-long wall along an ice shelf in Antarctica could help protect the world's largest glacier from melting.

Image: NASA
Surprising Science
  • Rising ocean levels are a serious threat to coastal regions around the globe.
  • Scientists have proposed large-scale geoengineering projects that would prevent ice shelves from melting.
  • The most successful solution proposed would be a miles-long, incredibly tall underwater wall at the edge of the ice shelves.

The world's oceans will rise significantly over the next century if the massive ice shelves connected to Antarctica begin to fail as a result of global warming.

To prevent or hold off such a catastrophe, a team of scientists recently proposed a radical plan: build underwater walls that would either support the ice or protect it from warm waters.

In a paper published in The Cryosphere, Michael Wolovick and John Moore from Princeton and the Beijing Normal University, respectively, outlined several "targeted geoengineering" solutions that could help prevent the melting of western Antarctica's Florida-sized Thwaites Glacier, whose melting waters are projected to be the largest source of sea-level rise in the foreseeable future.

An "unthinkable" engineering project

"If [glacial geoengineering] works there then we would expect it to work on less challenging glaciers as well," the authors wrote in the study.

One approach involves using sand or gravel to build artificial mounds on the seafloor that would help support the glacier and hopefully allow it to regrow. In another strategy, an underwater wall would be built to prevent warm waters from eating away at the glacier's base.

The most effective design, according to the team's computer simulations, would be a miles-long and very tall wall, or "artificial sill," that serves as a "continuous barrier" across the length of the glacier, providing it both physical support and protection from warm waters. Although the study authors suggested this option is currently beyond any engineering feat humans have attempted, it was shown to be the most effective solution in preventing the glacier from collapsing.

Source: Wolovick et al.

An example of the proposed geoengineering project. By blocking off the warm water that would otherwise eat away at the glacier's base, further sea level rise might be preventable.

But other, more feasible options could also be effective. For example, building a smaller wall that blocks about 50% of warm water from reaching the glacier would have about a 70% chance of preventing a runaway collapse, while constructing a series of isolated, 1,000-foot-tall columns on the seafloor as supports had about a 30% chance of success.

Still, the authors note that the frigid waters of the Antarctica present unprecedently challenging conditions for such an ambitious geoengineering project. They were also sure to caution that their encouraging results shouldn't be seen as reasons to neglect other measures that would cut global emissions or otherwise combat climate change.

"There are dishonest elements of society that will try to use our research to argue against the necessity of emissions' reductions. Our research does not in any way support that interpretation," they wrote.

"The more carbon we emit, the less likely it becomes that the ice sheets will survive in the long term at anything close to their present volume."

A 2015 report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine illustrates the potentially devastating effects of ice-shelf melting in western Antarctica.

"As the oceans and atmosphere warm, melting of ice shelves in key areas around the edges of the Antarctic ice sheet could trigger a runaway collapse process known as Marine Ice Sheet Instability. If this were to occur, the collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) could potentially contribute 2 to 4 meters (6.5 to 13 feet) of global sea level rise within just a few centuries."