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Some Taliban websites go offline amid broader tech crackdown

Five websites operated by the Taliban went offline Friday, as many tech companies move to limit the group’s digital reach following their takeover of Kabul, Afghanistan, on Sunday.

The websites were central to how the group relayed messages to people inside and outside Afghanistan, as the Taliban continue to exert control over the country. All five sites operated in various languages, including Pashto, Dari, Urdu, Arabic and English, which are all spoken by people in Afghanistan and neighboring regions.

It is unclear why the websites were unavailable, but public information about the websites shows they each used Cloudflare, a major internet services provider. The Washington Post first reported on the sites’ outages.

Cloudflare did not immediately respond to requests for comment. The company has been staunchly against censoring or taking down websites of its customers based on their content, but it has made some exceptions.

In 2017, Cloudflare dropped its protection of the Daily Stormer, a neo-Nazi website that was used to plan a violent rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that summer, causing the website to go offline. In 2019, Cloudflare likewise stopped serving the message board 8chan, following a shooting in El Paso, Texas, that killed 23 people after it was reported that the suspected killer posted a manifesto to 8chan explaining his intentions.

The downed websites come amid a growing crackdown from some tech companies on the Taliban. Throughout the week, the Taliban have used WhatsApp groups in Afghanistan to help relay messages about their government takeover. But some Taliban WhatsApp groups have recently disappeared, according to SITE, a private intelligence firm that tracks extremist groups.

As WhatsApp is end-to-end encrypted, the company cannot read the contents of users’ messages. But the company does ban Taliban accounts when made aware of them in accordance with U.S. sanctions laws, WhatsApp spokesperson Alison Bonny said. WhatsApp is owned by Facebook.

“We’re seeking more information from relevant U.S. authorities given the evolving situation in Afghanistan,” Bonny said.

The U.S. State Department’s list of designated foreign terrorist organizations does not include the Taliban in Afghanistan, but it does include the Taliban in Pakistan. The Afghan Taliban are on a list of sanctioned organizations under the Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.

Key members of the Afghan Taliban do continue to operate on Twitter, including one of the group’s main spokespeople, Suhail Shaheen, who has more than 377,000 followers.

Katie Rosborough, a Twitter spokesperson, said the company is committed to keeping people safe while still providing a platform for protected groups, like journalists and human rights workers, who use Twitter to share messages in countries like Afghanistan where the situation is “rapidly evolving.”

Twitter has rules against hate, abuse and the glorification of violence, she said, but she did not comment on the large Twitter accounts held by Taliban members. 

Facebook’s head of security, Nathaniel Gleicher, on Thursday unveiled new tools to help people in Afghanistan better secure their social media accounts amid reports that the Taliban have searched and seized phones looking for pictures of the Afghan army or recently collapsed Afghan government. Facebook had previously banned all Taliban content.

David Mortlock, an attorney who specializes in sanctions law and formerly served in the State Department during the Obama administration, said it’s possible that Cloudflare or another American company that has done business with the Taliban may have decided it’s not worth the trouble to continue working with the autocratic regime.

He said it’s also possible that tech companies are under pressure from the government.

“Treasury and State will often reach out to both U.S. and non-U.S. companies to invoke penalties or sanctions against those providing support to designated terrorist groups like the Taliban,” he wrote in a text message. “And it’s possible they are doing so now to limit the Taliban’s access to hosting services.”

The Treasury Department did not immediately respond to NBC News’ request for comment.

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Minnesota wildfire doubles in size, creates its own weather

A wildfire in northeastern Minnesota more than doubled in size Tuesday, growing to more than 19,000 acres, after it produced pyrocumulous clouds that generated lightning and even raindrops, fire officials said.

The Greenwood Fire’s growth, most of which happened Monday afternoon, prompted firefighters to leave McDougal Lake, about 80 miles south-southwest of Duluth, officials said. Authorities fear that structures might have been destroyed or damaged.

“We had crews embedded, and as this fire took off, it was quite an effort to communicate with forces on the ground so they could get out,” said federal fire incident spokesman Clark McCreedy.

The pullout was a success, and no injuries were reported. However, downed trees and necessary cleanup mean crews have been unable to assess damage around the lake, McCreedy said.

In addition to the firefighter pullout, 159 dwellings were evacuated Monday, according to an update from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Cabins, homes and recreational sites remain under threat, the group said.

Patrick Prochaska, a Minneapolis resident who built a cabin near McDougal Lake in 2012, told NBC affiliate KARE that he watched via security camera as flames mostly bypassed his property Monday, causing minor damage.

“I was feeling very scared,” he said. “At the same time, I could see that it was not doing anything to the house, and it was kind of reassuring.”

The fire in and north of Superior National Forest has mostly performed according to the weather, fire officials said. On Monday, with dry fuel on the ground and temperatures in the high 80s, it was an expanding inferno punctuated by strobes of lightning.

“The winds were drawn into the fire from all directions,” the incident’s fire behavior analyst, Michael Locke, said in a video update Tuesday. “It created what we call pyrocumulous clouds. And really high in the atmosphere … you’d see a thunderstorm, and in fact they went high enough to produce a few sprinkles of rain and even some lightning.”

Temperatures dipped into the mid-70s Tuesday, and the blaze mellowed. “The real story was cloud cover and cooler temperatures,” McCreedy said.

More of the same, and possibly rain, was in the forecast, giving officials hope that they might be able to close the book on an unusually active and dry fire season in Minnesota.

Experts have said climate change has set the stage for extreme weather, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere.

Firefighters — 426 were assigned to the Greenwood event — have been confronted with “prolonged, severe drought,” making parts of Minnesota look like the fire-prone West this summer, McCreedy said.

The Greenwood Fire, which was detected Aug. 15, is believed to have been sparked by lightning.

So far, firefighters have scored no containment, and areas including McDougal Lake, Sand Lake and the Highway 2 corridor have been under mandatory evacuation orders. The federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was closed Saturday “due to active and increasing fire activity, extreme drought, limited resources,” the National Forest Service said in a notice.

Officials set a goal of Sept. 1 for full containment.

“We’re probably going to get more of that moderating weather for the rest of the week,” McCreedy said. “That opens the door for fire crews to make progress on the ground.”

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Hiker survives grizzly bear attack at Denali National Park

A tourist from Indiana was attacked and injured by a grizzly bear at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska on Monday night, park officials said.

The 55-year-old tourist, whose name was not released, was hiking alone in dense fog in the Thoroughfare Pass area when a mother bear and multiple cubs charged him from nearby bushes, the National Park Service said in a statement Tuesday.

He had puncture wounds to a calf, his left ribs and his left shoulder, the agency said.

The victim used bear spray that might have cut the attack short, the park service indicated. He walked 1.5 miles to a visitor’s center where “medical personnel” vacationing at Denali treated him as a park bus driver called 911, it said.

The hiker was taken to a medical center near the park before he was transferred to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, about 120 miles away, park officials said. He was stabilized at the Fairbanks hospital, they said.

“Due to the apparent defensive nature of this attack, there are no plans to locate the bear involved,” the park service said. “Female bears with cubs are naturally defensive of their young, especially when surprised. There is no indication that this bear is unusually dangerous.”

Grizzly bears are federally protected as a threatened species in the lower 48 states. According to the National Wildlife Federation, fewer than 1,500 grizzlies are left in the lower 48, but they thrive, comparatively, in Alaska, where they have a population of about 31,000.

The backcountry area of the attack is closed for one week as a precaution, the park service said.

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House passes John Lewis voting rights bill, sends measure to Senate for tougher fight

House Democrats on Tuesday passed a sweeping voting rights bill named after Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the late civil rights icon.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was approved 219-212. All Republicans voted against the legislation.

The bill is part of congressional Democrats’ broader campaign to strengthen voting laws at the federal level to fight restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-led states, such as Texas and Georgia. However, it faces steep opposition in the Senate, where Democrats hold a wafer-thin majority.

The House returned from its recess this week to take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a resolution for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package, which includes funding for much of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. The procedural motion used to pass the multitrillion-dollar resolution paved the way for the House to vote on the voting rights bill, which was re-introduced last week by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.

The legislation would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal “preclearance” to change their voting laws, which directly addresses the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the preclearance system in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which civil rights advocates argue was successful in blocking proposed voting restrictions in states and localities with histories of racial discrimination.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement last week that Congress had “not only an ironclad Constitutional mandate, but a moral responsibility” to pass the bill.

Shortly before its passage, Pelosi said on the House floor that the bill would honor Lewis’ legacy.

“We should have the right to vote and shouldn’t be diminished by anyone. It is unpatriotic to undermine the ability of people who have a right to vote, who have access to the polls,” she said. “As John knew, this precious pillar of our democracy is under attack from one of the worst voter suppression campaigns since Jim Crow.”

It isn’t the first time House Democrats have tackled election law. In March, House Democrats passed the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that seeks to change campaign finance, voting and ethics laws.

The bill would expand access to the ballot box by creating automatic voter registration across the country by registering eligible voters whenever they interact with government agencies, restoring the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, expanding early voting and modernizing the country’s voting systems.

However, Senate Republicans filibustered the voting rights legislation in June, and the vote to advance an amended version of the For the People Act split along party lines 50-50, short of the 60 votes needed. All Democratic-aligned senators voted to begin debate, and Republicans unanimously voted to block the bill.

Passage of the voting measure was the final vote of the week for the House, whose members are leaving Washington and won’t return until Sept. 20.

Haley Talbot contributed.

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