TIME

Why Japan Lacks Sympathy for the Hostages Held by ISIS

People in Tokyo watch news on the Japanese ISIS hostages, Jan. 23, 2015.
People in Tokyo watch news on the Japanese ISIS hostages, Jan. 23, 2015. Nicolas Datiche—Sipa

While the clock ticks down for two Japanese hostages held by ISIS, their countrymen think they've brought the problem on themselves

Japanese government officials continued to press for the release of two Japanese citizens being held by Islamist militants in Syria late Friday, even as a presumed deadline for paying the $200 million ransom expired.

The hostage drama has dominated the news cycle since ISIS released a video showing two Japanese men being threatened by a masked militant with a knife. But in very Japanese fashion, much of the anger has focused on the hostages themselves, who are seen by many as having acted recklessly. “The public thinks these guys put themselves in harm’s way, and that it is their problem — not the government’s or the taxpayers problem,” says Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University’s Tokyo campus.

Haruna Yukawa, 42, a failed businessman who hoped to re-invent himself as a private military contractor, was kidnapped in August after entering ISIS-controlled territory. Kenji Goto, 47, an experienced freelance journalist, was captured in October after entering Syria in what he told friends was a quest to free Yukawa, whom he had met there earlier.

MORE Mother of Japanese Journalist Held Captive by ISIS Pleads for His Release

In the video released Tuesday, the militant accuses Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of taking sides in the Mideast conflict by pledging $200 million in aid to countries fighting against ISIS, which controls vast territory in both Syria and Iraq. The militant said the hostages would be killed if an equal amount was not paid within 72 hours – a deadline that Japanese officials presume expired Friday afternoon.

Abe has stressed that the aid money—which he pledged during a six-day trip to the Middle East that was interrupted by the hostage crisis—is for humanitarian purposes only and said his government is doing all that it can to secure the hostage’s release. But he has vowed not to “give in” to terrorists, and most analysts believe he will not authorize payment of the ransom—either openly or otherwise.

Comments on Japanese-language social media have been largely unsympathetic toward the two hostages—particularly Yukawa, who told associates that he once tried to commit suicide by cutting off his genitals and later changed his given name to Haruna, typically used for women. Goto is given credit for at least attempting to help someone in need.

MORE Japanese War Reporter Was Abducted by ISIS After Trying to Save His Friend

“They needed to know the possible results before going to that region, especially now. They’re responsible,” said a Twitter post that was re-tweeted more than 1,000 times.

“Neither Mr. Goto nor Mr. Yukawa went to Syria upon request from the Japanese government,” says another. “Maybe I’m heartless, but we cannot give in to the Islamic State group’s terrorist acts.

Japan withdrew all its diplomats from Syria in March 2012 as the civil war escalated, and warned all Japanese citizens against traveling there. The lack of an embassy hasn’t helped Tokyo as it tries to sort through the myriad government, rebel and ISIS forces fighting in the region. The advisory was in effect when Yukawa and Goto entered the country last year.

This is not the first time that Japanese hostages in the Middle East have drawn condemnation from their countrymen, rather than sympathy. Three aid workers and peace activists were pilloried in the press and nascent social media after they were kidnapped in Iraq in 2004. The government refused demands that they withdraw Japanese peacekeepers from southern Iraq and the hostages were released unharmed a week later. Nonetheless, the criticism in Japan was so severe that the former hostages were forced to go into voluntary seclusion.

“The public thought that because those citizens were working independently, and making independent comments critical (of the Iraq War), they were disloyal troublemakers putting Japan into world news for all the wrong reasons,” says Marie Thorsten, professor of international politics and media studies at Doshisha University in Kyoto.

The stakes could be high for Abe, who just won a commanding victory in a snap election held in December. A staunch conservative and nationalist, Abe promised to focus on Japan’s flagging economy, but increasingly has pressed for bigger defense spending, the easing of long-standing restraints on Japan’s military and the promotion of a policy of “proactive contributions to peace” overseas.

“This is the first time the public has seen Abe’s “proactive pacifism” at work and this is deeply unsettling,” says Kingston. “Until now, Islamic extremism was something that happened to other countries. People may get cold feet about Japan assuming a higher profile on global stage.”

Read next: ISIS Say Countdown for Japan’s Hostages Has Begun

Listen to the most important stories of the day.

TIME energy

New King In Saudi Arabia, Same Old Oil Policy

Whether it is Abdullah or Salman, the Saudi royal family’s preeminent concern is to ensure the longevity of its petrol kingdom

The death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah made international headlines on January 22, raising questions about the future of the Middle East. News of his death briefly rattled the oil markets, but the media attention paid to the event outstrips the significance: it is business as usual in the Arabian Peninsula.

The outpouring of praise for King Abduallah was bizarre. The Washington Post labeled him a “reformer,” and The New York Times said he was a “force of moderation.” U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry took to Twitter to pay his respects. “King Abdullah was a man of wisdom & vision. US has lost a friend & Kingdom of #SaudiArabia, Middle East, and world has lost a revered leader,” he tweeted.

Sure, King Abdullah fought Al Qaeda and joined the World Trade Organization. But he also maintained an iron grip over his monarchy, a country in which women cannot legally drive and risk being beaten by religious police if they go out in public without facial covering.

So in many ways, King Abdullah was more of the same. And his successor, King Salman, will continue conservative geriatric leadership over his oil kingdom. This is evidenced by his speech earlier in the month, on behalf of the late King Abdullah, that Saudi Arabia will face the challenge posed by low oil prices with a “firm will.”

But in reality, the question of what happens to Oil Minister Ali Al-Naimi – and with him, Saudi oil policy – was in some ways much more important than which specific successor takes the throne. For now, Al-Naimi appears set to stay on according to the AP, at least through OPEC’s next meeting in June.

The Saudi government quickly assured the world that its oil policy will remain unchanged. The smooth succession and adherence to current policy calmed the oil markets, which saw prices retreat after briefly jumping by nearly 2 percent.

As a result, Saudi Arabia will continue its pursuit of market share – oil output will remain steady in the face of depressed prices.

The Saudi budget breaks even at somewhere around $63 per barrel, suggesting they will run a significant deficit this year. That is something the kingdom is willing to take on, given the $800 billion in cash reserves it has stashed away for a rainy day.

Will Plunging Oil Prices Crash The Stock Market?

When oil crashed in 2008 all hell was breaking loose. Lehman Brothers went up in smoke and stocks were in a nosedive. Oil has once again crashed -50% in only 6 months but equities haven’t followed – at least not yet! Will stocks hold up going forward? You might find it hard to believe just how much wealth could have been created last time this happened. If we learn from the past, this could be a second chance to make an absolute fortune.

The November 2014 decision to maintain output, followed by the collapse in oil prices, fueled some rather triumphalist speculation about how U.S. shale killed off OPEC. Yet the strategy Saudi Arabia laid out in November, which will be continued by King Salman, demonstrates full well Saudi Arabia’s influence over oil markets. As the only significant source of spare capacity in the world, it alone has the ability to voluntarily ramp up or down several million barrels of oil per day. For now, it is keeping the taps open, forcing a contraction from others.

And it has more staying power than U.S. shale producers. The number of active rigs in the U.S. fell by 209 between December and mid-January 2015. That is the fastest decline since data collection began by oil services firm Baker Hughes, dating back to 1987. Production cuts will eventually follow.

“Everyone tells us to cut. But I want to ask you, do we produce at higher cost or lower costs? Let’s produce the lower cost oil first and then produce the higher cost,” OPEC Secretary General Abdullah al-Badri said at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Saudi Arabia is willing to wait out low prices. That means that the pain for U.S. shale producers should continue, and will likely grow worse before it gets better.

Claudio Descalzi, the CEO of Italian oil giant Eni, called on OPEC to cut oil production in order bring supply and demand into balance. “What we need is stability… OPEC is like the central bank for oil which must give stability to the oil prices to be able to invest in a regular way,” he said in Davos, according to Reuters. Descalzi says that OPEC’s failure to cut production could lead to oil prices skyrocketing to $200 because many private oil companies will push off drilling.

But that is exactly what Saudi policy could be aiming for: maintain market share, force others to cut back production, and reap the rewards of higher prices once they do.

Saudi Arabia’s entire economy is based on oil. The government brings in 85 percent of its revenues from petroleum exports. Whether it is Abdullah or Salman, the Saudi royal family’s preeminent concern is to ensure the longevity of its petrol kingdom. For now, that means no change in its current oil strategy.

This post originally appeared on OilPrice.com.

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TIME Greece

Greek Elections Risk a ‘Game of Chicken’ With German and E.U. Lenders

The leader of Syriza party, Alexis Tsipras, listens to a question during a televised press conference on Jan. 23, 2015 at the Zappion Hall in Athens.
The leader of Syriza party, Alexis Tsipras, listens to a question during a televised press conference on Jan. 23, 2015 at the Zappion Hall in Athens. Louisa Gouliamaki—AFP/Getty Images

The likely victory of the radical left-wing Syriza party will set the stage for another confrontation over Greek debt and the future of Europe's single market

Last May, during a conference with his left-wing allies in Germany, the leader of Greece’s populist Syriza party offered a warning to German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “I regret that I will say it here in Berlin,” Alexis Tsipras told his comrades from the German fringe party known as Die Linke (The Left). “Merkel, who will listen to it, will be upset. But soon she will have to deal with a government of the Left in Greece.”

That message now seems prophetic. Not only is Syriza expected take the most votes in this weekend’s Greek parliamentary elections, but the core platform of its leader is set to pose a major challenge for the German Chancellor. Tsipras, the telegenic populist who, at 40, could soon become the first politician from the radical left to take power in Europe in a generation, has pledged to defy his country’s creditors, particularly Germany, by rejecting the austerity measures they have imposed on Greece as a condition for the 240-billion-euros ($278 billion) worth of bailouts it has received since 2010.

He has also asked Germany and other European donor nations to forgive a large chunk of Greece’s debt. One alternative would be for Greece to abandon the European Union’s common currency, the euro, and slam the door behind by declaring some form of bankruptcy. That prospect, known as the Greek exit, or “Grexit,” could be calamitous for the stability and long-term prosperity of the E.U. economy, in particular the German locomotive that drives it.

For one thing, it would pose the risk of a domino effect, as other debt-laden countries, notably Portugal, Spain and Italy, will start to consider bailing on the Eurozone as well, says Henning vom Stein, the head of the Brussels office for the Bertelsmann Foundation, a leading European think-tank. “It will not end at Greece,” he says. “The single market is the engine of the European Union,“ he adds, and if Greece leaves, the whole thing could start to unravel.

For Greece, however, that would also be a disaster. Abandoning the euro would isolate its economy and force it to return to its former currency, the drachma, which would then plunge in value. Even a partial default on its debt would also sever Greece’s access to more loans for years to come. “There is no scenario under which an exit would make sense for Greece,” says Henning Vöpel, a senior economist at the Hamburg Institute of International Economics. So raising the prospect of a Grexit “is not a credible threat,” he adds.

It is more like the start of a painful negotiation over what to do about the failing Greek economy. What seems clear to all sides is that something has to give. The debt burden of the Greek government is now at 177% of its GDP, the highest in Europe, while the austerity measures imposed on Greece by its European creditors have forced massive budget cuts on everything from medical care to pensions and road maintenance. More than a quarter of the population is now unemployed, and among Greek youth, the jobless rate is close to 60%.

The resulting social unrest has proven fertile ground for populist parties like Syriza, and the result will be clear in this weekend’s elections. Tsipras is already preparing for the day after. In an appeal published this month in the German daily Handelsballt, he asked the German public to help give Greece a “European New Deal” that would release the Greek people from the humiliating conditions of austerity. “Let me be frank,” he wrote, “Greece’s debt is currently unsustainable and will never be serviced, especially while Greece is being subjected to continuous fiscal water boarding.”

There have been signs that Europe is prepared to yield to some of Syriza’s demands. The one-trillion euro stimulus program that the European Central Bank (ECB) announced on Thursday could ultimately, for instance, allow the bank to buy back Greek bonds, giving the struggling economy an infusion of cash and easing its debt load. With that program, “The ECB has made this bargaining solution possible,” says Vöpel, the Hamburg economist, in an email to TIME.

But Europe’s wealthier nations are still a long way off from accepting Syriza’s core demand — a reduction in the principle value of Greek debt. At the World Economic Forum in Davos on Thursday, one of the more recalcitrant voices on this issue was Finnish Prime Minister Alexander Stubb: “It will be very difficult for us to forgive any loans,” he said during a panel discussion. At the same time, a Grexit would be still more difficult, he added: “We need to try to avoid the dirty exit at all costs.”

The key question now is how high those costs will be for Europe. Among the more affluent European nations, the rise of Eurosceptic parties, such as the National Front in France and the UKIP in the U.K., suggests that voters are already tired of bailing out their struggling neighbors, says Vöpel. So it will be hard for Merkel and her wealthy colleagues to convince their voters that, for the sake of European prosperity and solidarity, Greece needs yet another break.

Nor will it be easy for any Greek government to stay the course of austerity without causing a major public backlash. Already violent street protests have become the norm in Athens, often calling for Greece to throw off the strictures of its bailout program and go it alone. “There is quite a serious anti-German sentiment among the Greek population,” says Eleni Panagiotarea, a research fellow at the Eliamep think tank in Athens. “They feel they have been marginalized, and they really put the blame on Germany for imposing these very strict and harsh [loan] conditions.”

The Syriza campaign has played on those feelings, painting the country’s lenders as the source of Greece’s troubles since the global financial crisis began. But after the vote, the left-wing party will still need to compromise with the very institutions it has been demonizing, and the threat of a Grexit will be a useful tool. “They’re basically playing a game of chicken,” Panagiotarea says of the Syriza party. “Their logic is that these lending institutions will blink first, because they do not want to take the blame for a Grexit.”

On that score Syriza is probably right. The winner in a game of chicken is usually the one who has less to lose, and while the Greek economy has nearly reached rock bottom, Germany, like the rest of the E.U., cannot afford to risk an unraveling of the single market on which its economic growth depends. They would sooner preserve it by appeasing at least some of Syriza’s demands, or as the Finnish Prime Minister put it in Davos, “at any cost.”

TIME Middle East

Kurdish ISIS Recruits Threaten Identity and Security of Kurdish State

The Jaffar Mosque in the Daretu neighbourhood of Erbil where Imam Shawan preached before he left to join ISIS.
The Jaffar Mosque in the Daretu neighbourhood of Erbil where Imam Shawan preached before he left to join ISIS. Rebecca Collard

Some Kurdish Sunni Muslims prefer ISIS religious fanaticism to Kurdish nationalism

When Imam Shawan Kurdi disappeared in November, residents of his Daretu neighborhood of Erbil thought it was strange. The Friday before, Imam Shawan led prayers at the tiny Jaffer mosque but the next day, he, his wife and two daughters had vanished. Three days later, Kurdish intelligence confirmed that Imam Shawan had taken his family and two other young men from Daretu to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS). He is now in Mosul, the largest city under the control of ISIS.

Imam Shawan is among hundreds of mostly young Kurds to cross the frontlines and join ISIS, who have been in battle with Kurdish forces since June. The Kurds are losing young men to the extremists and in Erbil many talk about fathers and sons fighting on opposite sides. Like ISIS, Kurds are Sunni Muslims, but nationalism has long trumped religious identity here. Residents in Daretu aren’t keen to talk about how they lost one of their own to the militants, but when pressed, they say there were signs Imam Shawan was leaning to toward ISIS.

“He always talked about…how we had to do things the way they did in the time of the Prophet Mohammed,” says Mohammed Jamil, a 54-year-old resident of Daretu who prayed behind the Imam for a year.

Imam Shawan was paid by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the body that runs the semi-autonomous Kurdish territory of northern Iraq. Officials here began to worry their youth were being radicalized in Kurdish government-funded mosques and religious schools.

“One of my employees, his son joined ISIS, and he was a student in one of our schools,” says Salam Sidan, an advisor at the KRG’s Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs. Late last year Sidan’s ministry fired 80 government-paid religious teachers they felt weren’t “modern” enough for the job. “Some of the Imams and Mullahs were preaching that non-Muslims are infidels,” says Sidan. “It’s natural, in a place where you have 5 or 6 million people, you are going to have some voices calling the others infidels.”

Sidan stresses that the ministry is being diligent, ensuring new hires fit with the Kurds’ ideas of acceptance and tolerance. The ministry has no exact figures on how many Kurds have joined ISIS but Sidan’s estimates around one in 5,000, which would put the number as high as 1,000. Most of these men simply disappear, raising suspicions of family and neighbors. Some are never heard from again but others surface online. “You can’t hide anything with social media these days,” says Sidan. “Everything is on Facebook. And they post proudly that they joined ISIS.”

Some appear on social media encouraging their brethren to come join ISIS and threatening the Kurdish forces known as peshmerga. In one video, titled “A message to the Peshmerga,” a man who identifies himself as a Kurdish ISIS fighter promises attacks his own people. “By sword we will chop your heads and by Quran we will implement God’s rule, Sharia,” said the young man, standing with a motley crew of militants, a black ISIS flag flapping in the corner of the screen. He warns Kurds to stop supporting the “Crusader Coalition” referring to the US-led alliance that has been targeting ISIS in both Syria and Iraq.

The Kurdish ISIS fighters pose a serious threat to the security of the KRG. Kurdish speakers usually cruise through security checks with few questions and little searching. In November, a truck exploded in front of government buildings in Erbil. An ISIS-affiliated website posted a statement claiming the attack and saying it was carried out by a Kurdish recruit they called Abdel Rahman el-Kurdi and two others. “They were able to cross all these borders,” reads the statement. “And hit the heart of Erbil….We ask god to accept them as martyrs.”

But here they will not be accepted. Most families are ashamed that their kin have pointed weapons at fellow Kurds and intelligence officials have said those killed fighting with ISIS will not be allowed funerals in Kurdish territory.

Salar Salim contributed to this report

TIME Saudi Arabia

Know Right Now: Saudi Arabia Has a New King

King Salman is 79 years old

With the death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah came the crowning of King Salman.

Salman bin Abdulaziz, who was named crown prince in June 2012, was Abdullah’s third heir to the throne after two elder brothers died in late 2011 and mid-2012. As the new King of Saudi Arabia, home to 28 million people, he will also serve as Prime Minister and Defense Minister.

A longtime governor of the capital, Riyadh, Salman has a reputation as a progressive and practical prince similar in bearing to his late brother.

Find out more about who he is and what his policies are by watching today’s Know Right Now. Or read more about the King here.

TIME Saudi Arabia

King Abdullah’s Death Shows Saudi Arabia’s Declining Clout

King Abdullah, left, with then-Crown Prince Salman, right, in 2010.
King Abdullah, left, with then-Crown Prince Salman, right, in 2010. AP

The death of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah has momentarily grabbed the world’s attention, but the real story is that his kingdom matters less than it used to

Ten years ago, the death of a Saudi king would have sent shock waves through Washington. Today, as the Kingdom recovers from the death of King Abdullah yesterday, Saudis don’t carry the same clout. In part, that’s because the U.S. is much less dependent on Middle Eastern oil than it was a few years ago, as U.S. companies have reinvented the way oil and natural gas is produced. Hydraulic fracturing has opened access to liquid energy deposits locked inside once-impenetrable rock formations, and breakthroughs in horizontal drilling methods have made the technology more profitable.

By the end of this decade, the United States is expected to produce almost half the crude oil it consumes. More than 80% of its oil will come from North or South America. By 2020, the United States could become the world’s largest oil producer, and by 2035 the country could be almost entirely self-sufficient in energy. Relations with the Saudis are no longer a crucial feature of U.S. foreign policy, and the surge in global supply, which has helped force oil prices lower in recent months, ensures that others are less concerned with the Saudis as well.

In addition, outsiders are not worried that King Abdullah’s death will make the Kingdom unstable. Newly-crowned King Salman is plenty popular, and other key players—Crown Prince Muqrin, National Guard head Prince Miteab, and Interior Minister Mohammed bin Nayef—have pragmatic working relations with the new king and with one another. The succession process will appear uneventful from the outside, but Salman will spend the next several months consolidating his authority and building a stable balance of power among factions within the family and across the government.

Another reason the Saudis matter less: They’re now bogged down in the region. Saudi worries that Iran can make mischief even under harsh sanctions only raises fears should a deal be made with the West later this year over its nuclear program, which would ease those sanctions, Tehran would only become a more troublesome rival. But even if there is no deal and sanctions are tightened, Iran will probably become more aggressive to demonstrate its defiance, creating new headaches along Saudi borders.

How will the Saudis manage its local security worries? Along the border with violence-plagued Iraq, the Saudis are actually building a 600-mile wall complete with five layers of fencing, watch towers, night-vision cameras and radar. Terrorist violence in neighboring Yemen and the fall of its government this week add to the Saudi’s sense that their country is under siege. They’re building a wall along Yemen’ s border as well. Fights with ISIS and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula will demand attention and money.

King Salman is 79, and he’s been central to Saudi policymaking for 50 years. One day soon, we’ll see generational change in the Saudi leadership. When that happens, we might see a fresh approach to the Kingdom’s two biggest problems: Its inability to build a dynamic, modern economy to harness the energies of Saudi Arabia’s millions of young people and its growing marginalization as an international political and economic force.

That day has not yet come.

Foreign-affairs columnist Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group, a political-risk consultancy. His next book, Superpower: Three Choices for America’s Role in the World, will be published in May

TIME World

Israeli Barber Designs ‘Magic’ Hairy Yarmulke That is Basically a Toupée

Israeli hairdresser Shalom Koresh places a yarmulke, a skullcap made of hair samples, on a man's head in the city of Rehovot, Israel on Jan. 21, 2015.
Israeli hairdresser Shalom Koresh places a yarmulke, a skullcap made of hair samples, on a man's head in the city of Rehovot, Israel on Jan. 21, 2015. Dan Balilty—AP

Blends in with the wearer's hair

An Israeli barber has designed a hair-covered skullcap so that devout Jews can cover their heads without advertising their religion.

Shalom Koresh says he designed the “magic” yarmulke (also known as a kippa) to help Jews avoid trouble amid rising anti-Semitism in Europe. The yarmulke, which is designed to look just like hair on your head, has already attracted considerable interest in France and Belgium.

“This skullcap is washable, you can brush it, you can dye it,” Koresh told the Associated Press. “It was created so people could feel comfortable going to places where they are afraid to go, or places where they can’t wear it, and feel secure.”

While it’s not explicitly designed for this purpose, the “magic” yarmulke could have the added benefit of helping some men cover up signs of encroaching baldness, since it can be custom made to fit in exactly with hair color or texture.

The “Magic Kippa” is sold online. A synthetic hair kippa costs around $56, and a real-hair one costs around $91.

[AP]

 

 

TIME portfolio

The Best Pictures of the Week: Jan. 16 – Jan. 23

From escalating violence in eastern Ukraine and a thousands strong march in honor of Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma, Ala. to priests photographing Pope Francis in the Philippines and a surprising, glowing seascape in Hong Kong, TIME presents the best pictures of the week.

TIME Crime

Magnets Used to Plant Drugs Under Cars From Mexico

Smugglers target "Trusted Travelers"

SAN DIEGO — Drug smugglers are turning “trusted travelers” into unwitting mules by placing containers with powerful magnets under their cars in Mexico and then recovering the illegal cargo far from the view of border authorities in the United States.

One motorist spotted the containers while pumping gas after crossing into Southern California on Jan. 12 and thought it might be a bomb.

His call to police prompted an emergency response at the Chevron station, and then a shocker: 13.2 pounds of heroin were pulled from under the vehicle, according to a U.S. law enforcement official. San Diego police said the drugs were packed inside six magnetized cylinders.

The driver had just used a “trusted traveler” lane at the San Ysidro border crossing, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because some details of the case have not been made public.

Authorities have learned of at least three similar incidents in San Diego since then, all involving drivers enrolled in the enormously popular SENTRI program, which stands for Secure Electronic Network for Travelers Rapid Inspection. There were 12.6 million SENTRI vehicle crossings in fiscal 2013, more than double the 5.9 million four years earlier.

The program enables hundreds of thousands of people who pass extensive background checks to whiz past inspectors with less scrutiny. Signing up can reduce rush-hour wait times from more than two hours to less than 15 minutes at San Diego’s San Ysidro port of entry, the nation’s busiest crossing, where SENTRI users represented 40 percent of the 4.5 million vehicle crossings in fiscal 2013, the Government Accountability Office found.

But like other prescreening programs, there’s a potential downside: the traveler can become a target, and such cases can be tricky for investigators when people caught with drugs claim they were planted.

Using magnets under cars isn’t new, but this string of cases is unusual.

The main targets are people who park for hours in Mexico before returning to the U.S., authorities say. Smugglers track their movements on both sides of the border, figuring out their travel patterns and where they park. It takes only seconds to attach and remove the magnetized containers when no one is looking.

“It’s a concern for everyone, not as big a concern for me because I’m careful,” said Aldo Vereo, a SENTRI user and office assistant at the San Diego County Health and Human Services Agency who parks in a garage when home in Tijuana and varies his routes. “People should be worried because they go straight home and straight to work.”

“Trusted travelers” were issued windshield decals for years, but they are no longer needed to identify vehicles approaching the inspection booths. New stickers haven’t been issued since 2013, and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection agency says existing stickers can be removed.

Many haven’t heeded the call, which can make them a target. The Otay Mesa Chamber of Commerce in San Diego told newsletter readers last week that decals should go.

“It’s basically demonstrating that you are a SENTRI user,” said Alejandra Mier y Teran, the chamber’s executive director. “Criminals are savvy, and they know they are part of a program where they are not checked as much.”

CBP says frequent crossers also should vary their travel routines and keep a closer eye on their cars.

There have been 29 cases of motorists unwittingly carrying drugs under their cars in the San Diego area since U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement identified the trend in July 2011, including six drivers who made it past inspectors, said spokeswoman Lauren Mack.

Any driver who suspects something’s amiss under their car should immediately report it, to better show their innocence, authorities say.

Officer Matthew Tortorella, a San Diego police spokesman, said “it would be inappropriate” to make public more details about the Jan. 12 seizure, and CBP spokeswoman Jacqueline Wasiluk also declined to comment, calling it a local police investigation.

There have been three seizures since, all involving SENTRI drivers who were not charged:

—On Jan. 13, inspectors at the Otay Mesa border crossing found 35 pounds of marijuana in seven packages attached by powerful magnets to the bottom of a 2010 Kia Forte.

—On Tuesday, a driver alerted an inspector at Otay Mesa to a package under a 2010 Nissan Murano, and 8 pounds of methamphetamine were found in three packages underneath.

—On Wednesday, a dog at San Ysidro alerted inspectors to a 2000 Toyota Corolla with 18 pounds of marijuana underneath. That driver was enrolled in SENTRI but using a regular lane.

Pete Flores, CBP’s San Diego field office director, acknowledged that it’s unusual to have so many cases in fewer than two weeks.

“It’s a cat-and-mouse game,” Flores said. “Each change they make prompts a change from law enforcement, which in turn prompts them to again change their tactics.”

TIME Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia’s Billionaire King to Be Buried in Unmarked Grave

The body of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz is carried during his funeral at Imam Turki Bin Abdullah Grand Mosque, in Riyadh, Jan. 23, 2015.
The body of Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz is carried during his funeral at Imam Turki Bin Abdullah Grand Mosque, in Riyadh, Jan. 23, 2015. Faisal al Nasser—Reuters

While mourning will last for three days during which kingdom's flags will fly at half staff, businesses and shops will remain open

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — There will be no golden carriages.

The funeral of Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, whose death was announced early on Friday, is set to be a simple affair in line with the austere form of Islam practiced by one of the world’s wealthiest ruling families.

The body of the former custodian of Islam’s two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, will be bathed according to Islamic ritual. The late ruler, whose net worth has been estimated to stand at around $20 billion, will then be wrapped in two pieces of plain white cloth — the standard shroud for all Muslims.

According to tradition, nothing out of the ordinary will be done to King Abdullah’s body, and after it is prepared it will be taken to the Imam Turki Bin Abdullah Grand Mosque in the capital Riyadh for the funeral prayers at around 3:15 p.m. (7:15 a.m. ET).

Read the rest of the story from our partners at NBC News

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