Al Qaeda leaders discussed a plan in 2010 to arrange a peace deal with the government of Mauritania, according to documents seized by U.S. Navy Seals when they raided Osama bin Laden's Pakistani hideout in 2011 and made public by the U.S. government on Tuesday.
The plan suggested that al Qaeda's North African affiliate, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), would promise "not to carry out any military activity in Mauritania", initially for a year, with the possibility of renewal.
In return, the proposal says, Mauritanian authorities would release all al Qaeda prisoners, commit not to attack AQIM, and pay it 10 to 20 million euros ($11 million-$22 million) a year to "prevent the kidnapping of tourists".
Senior U.S. intelligence officials familiar with the documents said they had no evidence that any such deal was ever done, or that the militant group had contacted anyone in Mauritania to make the proposal.
El Housseine Ould Nagi, legal counsel to Mauritania's president, denied that his government had had anything to do with such a deal.
"We have always been against paying ransoms and indirect financing of terrorism. Consequently, there has never been a secret accord between us and those people," he said.
Unlike its neighbors Mali and Algeria, Mauritania has enjoyed relative freedom from AQIM attacks in past years, especially since 2011. It has also faced international criticism for freeing jihadist prisoners, such as a former spokesman for the AQIM-linked group Ansar Dine. Others have escaped in opaque circumstances.
However, Mauritania also hosts a regional security body known as the Group of Five Sahel and is working with Western allies France and the United States to counter a growing Islamist insurgency in the region.
Olga Bogorad, an independent security analyst specializing in Islamist groups, said it was possible that Mauritania was playing a double game:
"On one side, it has a deal with AQIM and enjoys no terror attacks on its soil ... and on the other, it participates in counter-terrorism efforts to avoid criticism and probably to get support."
AQIM, a spinoff of what was originally an Algerian-based Salafist militant group, made its first public appearance in January 2007 and rose to prominence mainly through its involvement in kidnapping Westerners for ransom in countries in the Sahel region including Mauritania, Niger and Mali.
In July 2012, the head of the U.S. military's Africa Command described AQIM as al Qaeda's wealthiest affiliate.
The al Qaeda document also says that a "truce" with Mauritania would allow AQIM to "put the cadres in safe rear bases" that it said would be available there while enabling the group to focus on Algeria.
(Reporting by Mark Hosenball in Washington, additional reporting by Kissima Diagana in Nouakchott and Emma Farge in Dakar; Editing by Kevin Liffey)
"The View" panelists clashed over the role mental health plays in mass shootings in the wake of yet another at a Christian elementary school in Tennessee.
A shooter killed three children and three adults Monday at Nashville's private Covenant School, and co-host Sara Haines said gun manufacturers profit handsomely from the sale of the expensive and highly efficient AR-15 rifles used in the great majority of massacres.
"The NRA is funded by these millions and D.C. is funded by the NRA," Haines said. "No one wants to talk about that conversation because it would be a reduction in profit, so I think the two conversations, you're making a good point, would be agreeing that during that time there was an AR-15 assault rifle ban gun deaths did go down."
Co-host Sunny Hostin pointed out that gun deaths went down by 40 percent in that period, which Haines agreed was a huge number, but said gun safety advocates should concede that firearms weren't the only factor in mass killings.
"The conversation needs to come from both sides because I do think mental health is a big problem," Haines said. "I think it's harder to wrap your head around how we solve that, but I do think these assault weapons, the majority of people believe, need to go away."
Hostin and co-host Joy Behar disagreed, saying that other countries had problems with mental illness but not gun violence.
"I'm really sorry, but I have so many mentally ill people in my family," Hostin said. "They are more likely to be the victims of crime than be criminals. That is a fact, and it has been studied in this country for over 60 years. So I'm so sick of people conveniently saying this is a mental health issue or you can't look at this issue without mental health."
Conservative co-host Alyssa Farah Griffin interrupted to ask whether Hostin believed the Nashville shooter was of sound mind.
"That is not the point," Hostin said, over Griffin's objections. "The point is, if she did not have access to those weapons, those three 9-year-olds would be in school today."
Charles III has visited Germany 40 times before but the monarch will never have seen anything like Wednesday's welcoming ceremony for his first foreign trip as king at Berlin's Brandenburg Gate.
Spectators lined the sides of the square in front of the Gate, waving German and British flags as a military band marched towards their position ahead of the royals' arrival.
The well-known monument served as backdrop for the first time for the military honors accorded to visiting dignitaries when they visit Germany.
The Gate is the country's most powerful symbol of unity after years of postwar division. For over three decades it stood just behind the Wall which divided the capitalist West from the communist East Germany.
The British monarch, accompanied by Queen Consort Camilla, was greeted by German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the landmark to cheers from well-wishers, who had been standing in the cold for hours to catch a glimpse of the royal pair.
Juergen Edelmann, 52, was among those who had arrived hours ahead of the ceremony to ensure he got one of the 1,500 available spots on the square.
"It's very special to have the honor to welcome a king to Germany," said Edelmann, who works in communications at a hotel, describing the British monarch as a "friend".
The entry queue brought Edelmann together with Nico Beetz, 20, who had travelled about 100 kilometers (62 miles) from Prenzlau to Berlin for the spectacle.
"You simply must seize the opportunity. It's not often that a king comes to Berlin or Germany where you can see him so close up."
Anja Wieting, 50, who works at a clothing store, took several days off to drive five hours to Berlin with her daughter Lili, 18, for the spectacle.
"It's the visit of the king in Germany. We want to celebrate it, regardless of how long the queue is," she said, adding that she finds "big ceremonies and state visits by royals great".
Silvelin Fiebig, 65, accompanied by her daughter Stefanie, 39, may make the effort to see the king more than once.
Charles has a planned visit close to the retired kindergarten teacher's home in rural Brandenburg on Thursday.
"I'm already thinking about whether I should go," she said.
At the airport, the royal couple received a stately welcome.
Standing at the top of the aeroplane stairs, they were given a 21-gun salute and a military plane flypast.
In the visit heavy with symbolism, the color of Camilla's dress drew the immediate comment from rolling news channel's NTV presenter who called it a "European blue".
Over millennia, humans have observed and been inspired by beautiful displays of light bands dancing across dark night skies. Today, we call these lights the aurora: the aurora borealis in the northern hemisphere, and the aurora australis in the south.
Nowadays, we understand auroras are caused by charged particles from Earth’s magnetosphere and the solar wind colliding with other particles in Earth’s upper atmosphere. Those collisions excite the atmospheric particles, which then release light as they “relax” back to their unexcited state.
The colour of the light corresponds to the release of discrete chunks of energy by the atmospheric particles, and is also an indicator of how much energy was absorbed in the initial collision.
The frequency and intensity of auroral displays is related to activity on the Sun, which follows an 11-year cycle. Currently, we are approaching the next maximum, which is expected in 2025.
Fox Fires, a short film inspired by the Finnish folk tale of the aurora borealis.
In the 17th century, scientific explanations for what caused the aurora began to surface. Possible explanations included air from Earth’s atmosphere rising out of Earth’s shadow to become sunlit (Galileo in 1619) and light reflections from high-altitude ice crystals (Rene Descartes and others).
In 1716, English astronomer Edmund Halley was the first to suggest a possible connection with Earth’s magnetic field. In 1731, a French philosopher named Jean-Jacques d'Ortous de Mairan noted a coincidence between the number of sunspots and aurora. He proposed that the aurora was connected with the Sun’s atmosphere.
It was here that the connection between activity on the Sun was linked with auroras here on Earth, giving rise to the areas of science now called “heliophysics” and “space weather”.
Earth’s magnetic field as a particle trap
The most common source of aurora is particles traveling within Earth’s magnetosphere, the region of space occupied by Earth’s natural magnetic field.
Images of Earth’s magnetosphere typically show how the magnetic field “bubble” protects Earth from space radiation and repels most disturbances in the solar wind. However, what is not normally highlighted is the fact that Earth’s magnetic field contains its own population of electrically charged particles (or “plasma”).
Model representation of Earth’s magnetic field interacting with the solar wind.
The magnetosphere is composed of charged particles that have escaped from Earth’s upper atmosphere and charged particles that have entered from the solar wind. Both types of particles are trapped in Earth’s magnetic field.
The motions of electrically charged particles are controlled by electric and magnetic fields. Charged particles gyrate around magnetic field lines, so when viewed at large scales magnetic field lines act as “pipelines” for charged particles in a plasma.
The Earth’s magnetic field is similar to a standard “dipole” magnetic field, with field lines bunching together near the poles. This bunching up of field lines actually alters the particle trajectories, effectively turning them around to go back the way they came, in a process called “magnetic mirroring”.
‘Magnetic mirroring’ makes charged particles bounce back and forth between the poles.
Earth’s magnetosphere in a turbulent solar wind
During quiet and stable conditions, most particles in the magnetosphere stay trapped, happily bouncing between the south and north magnetic poles out in space. However, if a disturbance in the solar wind (such as a coronal mass ejection) gives the magnetosphere a “whack”, it becomes disturbed.
The trapped particles are accelerated and the magnetic field “pipelines” suddenly change. Particles that were happily bouncing between north and south now have their bouncing location moved to lower altitudes, where Earth’s atmosphere becomes more dense.
As a result, the charged particles are now likely to collide with atmospheric particles as they reach the polar regions. This is called “particle precipitation”. Then, when each collision occurs, energy is transferred to the atmospheric particles, exciting them. Once they relax, they emit the light that forms the beautiful aurora we see.
Aurora appearing, disappearing, brightening and forming structures like curtains, swirls, picket fences and traveling waves are all visual representations of the invisible, ever-changing dynamics in Earth’s magnetosphere as it interacts with the solar wind.
As these videos show, aurora comes in all sorts of colours.
The most common are the greens and reds, which are both emitted by oxygen in the upper atmosphere. Green auroras correspond to altitudes close to 100 km, whereas the red auroras are higher up, above 200 km.
Blue colors are emitted by nitrogen – which can also emit some reds. A range of pinks, purples and even white light are also possible due to a mixture of these emissions.
The aurora is more brilliant in photographs because camera sensors are more sensitive than the human eye. Specifically, our eyes are less sensitive to color at night. However, if the aurora is bright enough it can be quite a sight for the naked eye.
The severity of the space weather event typically controls the range of locations where the aurora is visible. The strongest events are the most rare.
So, if you’re interested in hunting auroras, keep an eye on your local space weather forecasts (US, Australia, UK, South Africa and Europe). There are also numerous space weather experts on social media and even aurora-hunting citizen science projects (such as Aurorasaurus) that you can contribute towards!
A rare sighting of the aurora australis from central Australia, with Uluru in the foreground.
Get outside and witness one of nature’s true natural beauties – aurora, Earth’s gateway to the heavens.