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News Brief: Afghan Blast, Moore Files Suit In Ala. Senate Election


And we are watching the death toll rise after a vicious attack this morning in the capital of Afghanistan.



Those are the sounds of anguish in Kabul. A suicide bomber detonated explosives at the gate of a building that housed a Shiite cultural center and an Iranian-owned news agency. An interior ministry official says dozens of people were killed and wounded, including women and children.

GREENE: NPR's Diaa Hadid is in Islamabad covering this.

Hi, Diaa.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Hi. Good morning.

GREENE: Good morning. So it sounds like this is becoming maybe deadlier than we first thought, as we're learning more here.

HADID: Right. The death toll does seem to be rising. You know, a local TV station, TOLO, put a live feed outside the hospital where many of the casualties were arriving. And you can see dozens of people milling around and cars arriving with more and more people. So far, local media say more than 40 people were killed.

GREENE: OK. And as Noel mentioned, it sounds like maybe the target here - Shiites and Iran.

HADID: Yeah. So I spoke to Aziz Tosol (ph) - he's a local journalist in Kabul. And he says that the news agency is Iranian owned and the Tebyan cultural center is a Shiite organization. And so that suggests that, yes, they were the targets. But the victims could have been from anywhere. Local media reported that most people killed in this blast were attending a panel discussion in the basement of the Shiite cultural center.

And on Twitter today, two - a local journalist put up two images of people identified as being killed. One was a journalist. Another was a young man who had just graduated from university.

GREENE: So has anyone claimed responsibility for doing this?

HADID: No, not so far. The Taliban in fact denied that they were responsible for this attack. But the fact that it seemed to be targeting Shiites suggests that the Islamic State may have been behind it. Since they emerged in Afghanistan two years ago, they have relentlessly targeted Shiites, mostly in mosques. And this might represent a widening of their targets.

GREENE: And this has been a very complicated problem for the world to be dealing with at this moment - Afghanistan. Right?

HADID: Yeah, yeah. And so even though, like, the U.N. immediately denounced these attacks. The Afghan president's office did as well, and so did NATO. But no matter how much they condemn them, many residents in Kabul feel that the Western-backed government can't protect them. And that's not just a human tragedy, that's an enormous political problem because it erodes the very legitimacy of this government at a time when it really needs to claim that.

GREENE: Which has been the argument of the U.S. and Western powers all along - that if they can prop up the Afghan government enough to take care and secure its own country, that that's the way they hope this will go. And this seems to be undermining that potentially.

HADID: It completely undermines it. And what I've found (ph) - the - everyone seems to be grappling with this problem of how to quell the rise of the Islamic State in Afghanistan. It's been done in the Middle East but at an enormous cost. The question is now, like, what will it take to put out the Islamic State in Afghanistan?

GREENE: NPR's Diaa Hadid speaking to us from Islamabad. Thanks so much, Diaa.

HADID: Thank you.


GREENE: And in Alabama, Roy Moore is back in the news. He is now going to court.

KING: That's right, David. He's trying to stop Alabama from certifying Democrat Doug Jones as the winner of the state's vacant Senate seat. Now, Moore filed a lawsuit last night. That's just a couple hours ahead of a meeting today that was supposed to certify the results. Jones, of course, won by about 20,000 votes. But it seems Moore will not concede. Here's Moore speaking on the night of the special election.


ROY MOORE: That's what we've got to do, is wait on God and let this process play out. I know it's late, but the votes are still coming in. And we're looking at that.

GREENE: We have Scott Detrow here. He's host of the NPR Politics podcast. Hey, Scott.


GREENE: So it sounds like Moore is not necessarily waiting on God and letting this process play out. He's doing something. He's going to court. What exactly is he arguing?

DETROW: So he's alleging voter fraud, voting irregularities. There's not much specific evidence - we should say - in this suit. One of the things that Moore cites is that there was higher turnout than expected. Well, given all the attention paid to this race, I think there's...

GREENE: Yeah, there was...

DETROW: ...A lot of reasons there was high turnout.

GREENE: ...A lot of massive implications, people thought.

DETROW: Yeah. And Jones defeated Moore by about 1.5 percent on election night. Absentee ballots have not really changed that. As you said, it's about a 20,000-vote lead right now.

GREENE: So is this that surprising after he refused to concede that night? I mean, we sort of thought he was going to keep this going in some way.

DETROW: Not really. Look at Moore's entire career. He was booted out of office twice, continues to comeback, continues to keep running for other offices. He's really by himself here. Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill is a Republican. He told the Associated Press last night he's seen no evidence of fraud. He said the lawsuit is not going to delay certification. And Doug Jones will be certified today at 1 p.m., and he will be sworn in by Vice President Mike Pence.

GREENE: And that was a Republican saying that...


GREENE: ...That he's not going to let this process do that much.

OK. So if Jones is sworn in, as we expect, does this change the dynamics of the GOP agenda next year, now that you have this seat turning to the Democrats?

DETROW: I think it does. I can't think of anything I've said more on Up First this year than, Republicans can only lose two votes, David, and still pass this bill.

GREENE: I have heard this before. That's right.

DETROW: We could just do it on repeat.


DETROW: But now it's only one vote. So think about this - Mike Pence has already cast six tiebreaking votes in the Senate in his first year of office. He could make John C. Calhoun nervous. He's the vice president who holds the record for the most tiebreaking votes, at 31. But that's everything from Betsy DeVos' confirmation to scaling back consumer financial protection bureau regulations to making it easier for states to block Planned Parenthood funding.

All of those votes are things that would have failed with just one vote different in the Senate. And that's what we're going to have next year. President Trump and other Republican leaders talking about big controversial things like changing - scaling back entitlements like Medicare - very hard to do with just a one-vote margin.

GREENE: So the calendar is turning to 2018. Are we just going to go right into political mode and the campaigning and the midterms will start?

DETROW: I mean, that's my plan. I don't know what your plan is.


DETROW: Yeah. I mean, the question is - is a Democrat winning in Alabama just a fluke of circumstances of Roy Moore, or is that a sign of much bigger things to come for Democrats next year?

GREENE: All right, NPR's Scott Detrow, who hosts the NPR Politics podcast.

GREENE: Thanks, Scott.

DETROW: Thank you, David.


GREENE: Let's talk politics in Russia now. Nobody is doubting that President Vladimir Putin will win another term in the country's upcoming presidential election.

KING: Despite that, one man keeps trying to upset Putin's plans to stay in power. That's opposition leader Alexei Navalny. On Monday, Navalny's registration to run for president was denied. And now his latest YouTube video appears to be blocked.

GREENE: All right, NPR Moscow correspondent Lucian Kim is with us.

Hi, Lucian.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: All right. So Alexei Navalny - for people who don't know - who is he? And is he a legitimate threat to Vladimir Putin?

KIM: Well, Alexei Navalny is a lawyer and an anti-corruption activist. And what's interesting about him is he probably wouldn't exist without the Internet. He has really successfully harnessed the Internet to bypass state media. Now he has several YouTube channels, and he has used them very effectively to talk to his supporters, to build a nationwide campaign network and also to collect donations.

Now as to the question if he's a threat, even independent opinion polls give him a pretty low ranking. One recent poll showed that 60 percent of Russians trust Putin, and only 2 percent say that about Navalny. And just, you know, anecdotally, I've met young Russians who haven't even heard of him and others, even who are quite liberal in their views, say they would never vote for him. I think the reason is because - not necessarily because they love Putin but because they really are afraid of whatever comes after him.

GREENE: Well, is the Kremlin worried at all about Navalny? And I guess another part of that question is - if they're not worried and if they look at these poll numbers and a lot of Russians don't know Navalny and don't seem to like him all that much on a big scale - why not just let him run? Couldn't this backfire if they kick him out of the race and let him draw more attention?

KIM: Well (laughter) - as always, it's really hard to know what they're thinking in the Kremlin. What's interesting is they actually did let Navalny run for Moscow mayor back in 2013. And he surprised everyone by getting almost a third of the vote.

The system here in Russia is called managed democracy. And Navalny is definitely not manageable. So you know, if they let him run, they allow a certain element of unpredictability. And they also give him some legitimacy as a real politician. So I think in the Kremlin, they'd prefer to have an election without any serious challengers.

GREENE: OK. So as you said, his real political power is through social media. What has happened to this YouTube video?

KIM: Well, as you mentioned - I mean, he's been denied registration because of a conviction, which Navalny says is trumped up. And yesterday, he put out a YouTube video. I think we have some of that.


ALEXEI NAVALNY: (Speaking Russian).

KIM: So what he's saying is that everyone who believes he should be allowed to run should boycott the March election and attend nationwide rallies on January 28. Now, interestingly enough, this YouTube video is unavailable. And we're still not exactly sure why, on whose initiative. But Navalny, true to form, has already defiantly tweeted. He tweeted - the video is blocked, but you know what to do. So yeah, it looks like he's really heading for a clash with the authorities in the coming year.

GREENE: And he has brought out protests in pretty sizable numbers before. Right? I mean, they haven't been insignificant.

KIM: Exactly. And this is sort of - there's a certain allergy in the Kremlin to these street protests. Putin himself has said, I'm ready for constructive opposition that comes up with a constructive program, but I don't like people going out and shouting on the streets.

GREENE: NPR's Lucian Kim in Moscow this morning - Lucian, thanks.

KIM: Great talking to you.

(SOUNDBITE OF DEEB'S "ROOFTOPS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Noel King is a host of Morning Edition and Up First.
David Greene is an award-winning journalist and New York Times best-selling author. He is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, the most listened-to radio news program in the United States, and also of NPR's popular morning news podcast, Up First.
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