Nabbing Nashiri

American intelligence believes top Qaeda field commander Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri was actively plotting terrorist attacks against U.S. targets in the Persian Gulf and elsewhere--attacks that U.S. officials hope have been foiled as a result of Nashiri's recent arrest near the gulf region. Nashiri is undergoing interrogation by CIA specialists at an undisclosed location. Word leaked more than a week ago that a Qaeda big shot had been captured. But U.S. officials kept his name under wraps for several days to exploit evidence gathered during his arrest. Bush administration officials believe that he can provide an intelligence windfall.

According to intelligence sources, Nashiri's role as Al Qaeda's operational chief in the Persian Gulf region made him one of the best-connected Qaeda members still on the loose. U.S. officials say he was involved in the August 1998 bombings of U.S. Embassies in Africa, and the October 2000 bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen. In the embassy attacks, Nashiri allegedly helped train the bombers, one of whom was his cousin. U.S. officials say that Nashiri was the chief planner of the Cole attack, leaving Yemen a few days before the bombing. Visiting Yemen before the attack, Nashiri came into contact with Ahmed Al-Hada, father-in-law of 9-11 hijacker Khalid Almihdhar, intelligence sources say. (Al-Hada ran a Qaeda safe house used to relay phone calls to and from the Qaeda high command in Afghanistan.) Officials believe that in Yemen, Nashiri also encountered Ramzi bin al-Shibh, a fixer for the 9-11 hijack cell in Hamburg, Germany, who was recently captured in Pakistan. U.S. officials say they do not believe that Nashiri was involved in the 9-11 attacks. But his co-plotters in the Cole attack included Khallad, a notorious one-legged terrorist, and Qaed Senyan al-Harithi, Al Qaeda's alleged chief in Yemen, who was recently killed by a missile fired from a CIA-operated Predator drone. Since the Cole attack, intelligence sources say, Nashiri has commuted between Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

U.S. officials indicated that they were very pleased at the extent to which the once recalcitrant Yemeni government is now aggressively going after the terrorists in its midst. Antiterrorism experts were also heartened by the arrest in Indonesia of Imam Samudra, an alleged plotter of the Bali nightclub bombings. But officials still acknowledge that Al Qaeda is likely to remain a major threat until Osama bin Laden himself is finally captured or killed.


Poll Power

Thousands took to the streets of Caracas last week to protest--yet again--the government of President Hugo Chavez. Opposition forces have collected 2 million signatures for a petition to schedule a so-called consultative referendum next month on whether Chavez should step down. Although a defeat wouldn't legally oblige him to leave office, his opponents hope it would bring enough pressure to make him quit. Chavez has rejected the initiative, buying time by citing a provision in the country's 1999 Constitution that says a "binding" vote can take place only halfway through his term, which won't be until next August. Only then--were he to lose the vote--would Chavez have to hold a new general election.

What opposition figures are neglecting is that a referendum loss won't necessarily spell the end for Chavez. There would be nothing to stop him from running for president again. And although his popularity has plummeted over the past 12 months, Chavez still enjoys the support of an estimated 25 to 30 percent of voters. No opposition figure can currently match those numbers, and the Constitution that Chavez and his allies drafted three years ago doesn't provide for a second-round runoff if no candidate wins a majority of the ballots. That means the so far splintered and leaderless opposition forces would have to rally around a single, anybody-but-Chavez nominee--an unlikely prospect. The opposition could also tinker with the Constitution to bring Chavez down by writing an amendment that would introduce the runoff-vote mechanism. But any change to the country's political charter can't take effect until voters approve it through--you guessed it--a referendum. One way or the other, Venezuelans may be trooping to the polls on a regular basis in the coming months.


Mixed Messages

Washington recently announced plans to spend $15 million to improve America's image in the Muslim world. How about allotting some cash to better educate Americans about Muslims in their own country? In 2001, hate crimes against those perceived to be Arabs or Muslims (even some Hindus and Sikhs) in the United States increased by an astounding 1,700 percent--soaring from just 28 incidents in 2000 to 481 last year. And those were just the reported infractions. (Studies show that roughly 75 percent of hate crimes go unreported.)

The FBI says it's doing its best to make sure this doesn't happen again. Working with groups like the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) over the past year, the FBI has improved ties to Muslim communities. It has also provided security at local mosques, Islamic organizations and schools when called upon by community leaders.

But the government is somewhat schizophrenic, says the ADC's Hussein Ibish. While the FBI is reaching out, the Immigration and Naturalization Service has imposed harsh conditions on travelers from the Middle East; all temporary visitors from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan and Libya are now subject to mandatory fingerprinting and must check in with local authorities once a year. The Justice Department as a whole has bred resentment with its detention of more than 1,200 suspects, mostly Arab men, in the months following 9-11. Such "mixed messages" are causing "rampant distrust" among Arab-Americans and Muslims, says Ibish. That's probably not the smartest way to fight crime--hate or otherwise.


Just Missing the Boat

Figuring out where the Prestige, a single-hull oil tanker that sank Nov. 19 off the northwest coast of Spain, originated from isn't easy. The tanker was captained by a Greek, crewed by Filipinos and Romanians, owned by a Liberian-registered company, chartered by a Swiss-based Russian commodities trader and flew the Bahamian flag. Pinpointing what caused it to sink--and who's responsible--is even tougher. Fingers are pointing all over, but there is one thing that everybody agrees on: it could have been avoided. "The frustrating thing," says Michael Voogel, secretary of Paris MOU, an international shipping operation in the Netherlands, "is that we have the laws on paper that could have prevented this, but they don't come into effect until July." In 1999, when the Maltese oil tanker Erika split near Brittany and washed 20,000 tons of oil along the French coast, the European Union called for a number of stiff regulations, ultimately passing measures for increased, rigorous inspections of older vessels, additional monitoring of EU waters, even a "blacklist" of suspected substandard vessels. The Erika measures, which take effect in July 2003, will make Western Europe home to some of the world's toughest maritime laws. One measure eventually bans single-hull tankers from EU ports--starting in 2005. Therein lies part of the tragedy of the Prestige oil spill: it's a result of bad timing. As mandated by international law, the 26-year-old Prestige would have been permanently retired in '05 before it turned 30. And if the ship had sunk just one year later than it did, the money available for cleanup from the International Fund for Compensation for Oil Pollution Damage--which will be forking over up to $180 million--would have been 50 percent more.

IRAN: Spreading Free Speech

For the last two weeks, university campuses in Iran have been alive with the sound of student protests calling for change. Much to the concern of the government, that dissent is now spreading to the rest of the populace. Approximately 4,000 Tehran residents gathered last Friday to express their dissatisfaction with the current regime, chanting "Free political prisoners" and "Revolution is the people's will." They had convened to mark the anniversary of the assassination of Dariush Forouhar and his wife, Parvaneh Eskandari, political activists who were mysteriously slain in 1998.

Earlier on Friday, tens of thousands of government supporters had also turned out to hear Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Hoseini Khamenei for Friday prayers. Inevitably, the two groups clashed on Friday afternoon. Hundreds of plainclothes Basij, an Islamic militia linked with conservatives in the Iranian government, set upon protesters, beating anyone who got in their way. Smaller antigovernment protests were held in Shiraz and Mashhad--and were also disrupted by the Basij.

As the protests continue and expand, the government is getting more nervous. The student protests could well turn into a "widespread populist movement," says Hadi Semati, a political-science professor at Tehran University. "If this happens, the current regime will feel threatened and crack down hard." Until then, it looks as if Iranians will remain determined to be heard.


Close to A Cure

In the developing world, cervical cancer caused by human papillomavirus (HPV)--a sexually transmitted disease that causes genital warts in both sexes--terrorizes women who don't have the benefit of regular Pap-smear testing; the disease kills more than 200,000 every year. So the development of a vaccine against HPV--the culmination of two decades of research, announced last week in The New England Journal of Medicine--is a major advance.

For the vaccine to fulfill its promise, the next five years may be just as crucial as the last 20. Merck plans to bring it to market by 2007. The pharmaceutical giant will need to conduct more tests to ensure ironclad safety. It will also have to formulate a version of the vaccine that can ward off multiple strains of HPV. (The version revealed last week protects against only one type.) It will have to persuade men as well as women to get immunized. And it will have to do it all without pushing the price of the vaccine past the limits of developing countries, where the need is greatest since screening isn't as common. "I don't want to throw a wet blanket on the enthusiasm," says gynecologic oncologist Charles Levenback, "but women still need to get Pap smears." For those who can't, though, a vaccine could be a lifesaver.


Long nights and low temperatures mean one thing to the British public: 'tis the season of the telenovel. The tradition, kept dutifully since the smashing success of the BBC's "Pride and Prejudice" in 1995, is to stick lavish productions of classic European novels on screen. This year's offerings: "Daniel Deronda"--George Eliot's tale of drawing-room anti-Semitism--and Boris Pasternak's Russian Revolution epic "Dr. Zhivago."

Snobs usually shudder at the thought of sticking the European Greats on television, arguing that it crushes subtlety and mangles sentiment. But the truth is that 19th-century novels and the small screen are as perfectly paired as "Pride and Prejudice's" Lizzie Bennett and Mr. Darcy. In their time, Europe's novelists aimed to wrestle the huge social currents of the day into the drawing room--preferably with bosoms heaving. Charles Dickens and Emile Zola would show us prisons, orphanages and glittering pinnacles of society within the space of a few pages. Today, good television--aided by the channel changer--similarly allows us to flip from the plight of Afghan orphans to "The West Wing" with a single click.

Curled on our sofas with our cocoa, we are far better positioned to follow "The Forsyte Saga" or "David Copperfield" than we would be in some dark and drafty movie theater. Television is simply far better suited to the kinder, gentler pace of earlier eras. Nineteenth-century heroes required huge hunks of time to make love or fortunes. A universe like Jane Austen's--where a carriage ride, a sideways glance or a cup of tea can make or break a reputation, or even a heart--needs the intimacy of that most cozily domestic of all modern art forms, the television script. The lush new version of "Dr. Zhivago" reportedly has more sex, and less Russian Revolution, than the 1965 movie. Good. The living room is certainly more suited to lovemaking than to facing off with the Cossacks.


Showers Solved

Ever been caught umbrella-less in an unexpected afternoon rain shower? Thanks to a simple mathematical formula developed by scientists in Israel at the Weizmann Center's Department of Physics and Complex Systems, the days of meteorological uncertainty may be over. According to Prof. Gregory Falkovich, who created the formula with graduate students, the algorithm combines new theoretical work by the Weizmann team with older, fairly established, physical principles. By plugging a few easily measurable variables into the formula, Falkovich says, forecasters may soon be able to more accurately predict rain a few days in advance and "within 15 to 20 minutes and miles of its fall" (present estimates are usually in hours and counties). In the future, the theorem may also help scientists to better manage rainfall, a potentially significant development for countries like Israel that rely heavily upon rain to augment water supplies. While secondary applications like this are farther off, forecasters can't wait to get their hands on the theorem, and anything else that will bring more precision to the uncertain task of weather prediction.


A Terrible Beauty

Founded in 1863 as part of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, the Mutter Museum was created as an educational service for practicing physicians. Its collection of bottled fetuses, skulls, wax replicas of diseased bodies and Siamese-twin body casts was meant to give doctors a look at what they might face in the examining room and the operating theater. Today the museum serves the public. And a new book, "Mutter Museum," collects the work of a group of photographers, including Rosamond Purcell, William Wegman and Joel-Peter Witkin, who have traveled to the Mutter repeatedly to photograph its contents. The results, sometimes ghastly, sometimes heartbreaking, are mysteriously mesmerizing, and together they comprise--as museum exhibits and as photographs--a terrible beauty. The Mutter's curator, Gretchen Worden, wants people to look boldly at what's in the museum. "In the Mutter Museum, sometimes the objects seem to be looking at you," she writes in the introduction to the photo book. "And, sometimes, the objects seem to be you." This museum of human life gone haywire will revise and enlarge your idea of what it is to be human. Look at your own risk.