Saturday, the 10th of March
Welcome back.

Kangaroo surveys have been in the news this week. No, really. So before we get to the Deep Dive (which has nothing to do with kangaroos btw), have a guess at how many 'roos you think there are.

(We've provided the answer at the bottom of the Wrap.)
A Russian double-agent has been attacked in London. Not only that, an American aircraft carrier is currently stationed off the coast of Vietnam. And cocaine use is sky-rocketing. You may well think you've travelled back in time to 1973. 

The attempt on Sergei and Yulia Skripal's lives this week certainly evoked hushed whispers of the Cold War. But this latest attack is more likely to be the continuation of an old conflict and possibly also an old grudge. Let's dive deeper into why someone used chemical weapons to carry out an attack in London.
Officials at the park where Sergei and Yulia Skripal were found unconscious. PHOTO: Reuters
An attempt in Salisbury
On an otherwise normal Wednesday afternoon in Salisbury someone released a nerve agent to kill a former Russian spy and his daughter. Sergei (66) and Yulia Skripal (33) were found unconscious next to a bench outside The Maltings supermarket. As the afternoon turned to evening the severity of the event became clear. The identificaiton of a nerve-gas attack sent the security services into a frenzy. Agents in hazmat suits scoured the area and Britain's counter-intelligence units began putting together a picture of why such a 'brazen and reckless' attack had taken place in Salisbury.

Much of the coverage has arrived at the conclusion that the attack was planned and executed by Russia's Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR). Working in tandem with the Federal Security Service (FSB) the SVR conducts Moscow's counter-intelligence and assassination program. It of course brings to mind the assassination of Alexander Litvinenko in 2006. Another former KGB operative (and outspoken critic of Russia's oligarchs), Litvinenko died a swift death from radiation poisoning after polonium-210 was slipped into his tea. 

The nerve-agent used in this particular attack is rarely found outside military arsenals; it is designed to inflict maximum damage. The compounds in it disable the enzymes that serve as the "off switch" for various bodily functions. So with everything "on" the victim vomits, froths at the mouth, convulses, sweats and defecates. If left untreated, muscles eventually stop responding; then comes paralysis and asphyxiation. Our readers may recall footage of Syrian children exhibiting these very same symptoms in the aftermath of the Assad regime's chemical weapons attack on Khan Shaykhun last year.

On the question of who perpetrated the attack, there are various theories. Was the incident gang-related? Or perhaps revenge exacted by a betrayed former colleague? Fingers have been pointed at 'Londongrad', the amorphous, shadowy underworld of Russian expats living in the city. The large and wealthy Russian minority which has strong links back to the old country has been glorified in documentaries, and is also now the subject of a hit drama, 'McMafia'. One thing seems certain - the answer to the mystery lies in Sergei's past.

Loose ends
Born in 1951, Sergei's impressive rise through military intelligence (where he achieved the rank of colonel) and the foreign ministry came to a violent halt when he was arrested in 2004. The authorities had cottoned onto the fact that he had spent years passing information to Britain's foreign intelligence service, MI-6. Sergei had disclosed the names of several Russian undercover assets in Europe in exchange for $100,000 deposited into a Spanish bank account.

Following his arrest he was sentenced to 13 years in a hard labour camp. But his time there was cut short by a spy-swap in 2010. On the tarmac of a Viennese airport Sergei and three others were exchanged for 10 spies who had been caught in the United States. Then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin issued a public and unambiguous threat to those who had been released; the traitors would get their comeuppance.

Last year Sergei's wife and son died under mysterious circumstances. Their deaths are now being reappraised by investigating authorities as possible assassinations. 

To add yet another layer of mystery to the affair, the British press has also reported that Sergei had struck up a relationship with the ex-spook Christopher Steele. Steele, readers may recall, is the ex-MI6 agent who compiled the infamous dossier containing allegations about the Kremlin having compromising information on Trump.

Diplomatic incidents
'Turning' a former or current intelligence official of another country is hard work. That it requires considerable effort and resources by Britain's security apparatus goes some of the way to explaining London's forceful response to this incident. But the other issue at stake is that this was a messy operation. The targets aren't dead (yet) and 21 bystanders had to be treated for injuries related to the nerve agent. The first-responder - DS Nick Bailey - was also hospitalised but is now stable. 'Collateral damage' may well be part of the moral calculus of such attacks (whether in the skies over Pakistan, the streets of Colombia or a Salisbury park bench), but this operation does appear to have been botched.

Despite the fact a chemical weapon has been used on British soil against an individual cooperating with British intelligence, the promise of a 'robust' response from the UK rings hollow. The Home Secretary Amber Rudd insists that those responsible will be caught, but history suggests that the culprits are likely to have departed the country by now.

Hired guns
One of the most interesting take-aways from this saga is Sergei's recent employment status; it appears he was contracting as a freelance spy. That idea doesn't sit easily with our Hollywood-endorsed notion of spies (think James Bond uttering the maxim, "for king and country"). It reveals a world in which multinational corporations have invaded the domain of the nation-state. The truth is that today the security apparatuses of most countries are augmented by the workforces of private contractors. Corporate employees like Sergei Skripal (or Edward Snowden, for that matter) engage in espionage and counterespionage in much the same way that mercenaries like Blackwater and the Wagner group fight the ground wars. 

In a world where security is just another service provided by competing multinationals with international workforces it is even more difficult to apportion blame.
Five Star Movement leader Luigi de Maio celebrates after the poll. PHOTO: AFP
The noises heard during any vote count will tell you all you need to know about the election: nervous excitement from the prospective winners and increasingly sullen tones from their opponents. So too in Italy, where last weekend a general sigh of exasperation echoed around the country and in Europe beyond. Italy's (at times bafflingly) complex political system is designed to prevent another 'Il Duce' returning to power; but has also churned through 63 different governments in the post-War era. Right now it has none.

The anti-establishment Five Star Movement took a stunning 33% of the total vote, just trailing a right-wing anti-immigrant coalition who ended with 37%. Italy is now cleanly split in two geographically: Rome and everywhere south of it has been captured by the Five Star Movement, while everyone else fights for the north. Matteo Renzi has resigned, his centre-left party in tatters. While the right-wing coalition led by League have extended the olive branch there are few obvious ways to reconcile their policy positions.

While there are some positives, like the election of Italy's first black senator, it is hard to escape the view that this election was decided on race. Anti-migrant violence continues to flare up across a country that has, along with Greece, carried the majority of trans-Mediterranean refugee arrivals. 
Soldiers on patrol walk by a looted and destroyed shop. PHOTO: AFP
Chaos in Kandy - The centre of Sri Lanka was wracked by an intense outburst of communal violence this week when Sinhalese Buddhists turned on their Muslim neighbours. The historic city of Kandy has been the site of violent riots and attacks. Mosques have been torched and Muslim shops set ablaze. During the week the government  set curfews, banned social media in the country and suspended the internet in Kandy to stop the spread of hate speech. The haste and severity of the government response hints at just how seriously it views the risk of communal unrest.

While the riots were triggered by the death of a Buddhist youth the reactionary violence has claimed at least three Muslim lives so far. The situation is precarious for minorities because an increasingly vocal group of Sinhalese Buddhists (the country's majority ethnic group and religion) insists that Sri Lanka is first and foremost their country. In the quiet years since the disastrous end to the civil war (fought against northern ethnic Tamils over 26 years) many commentators have pointed to Sri Lanka's Muslims as the next target. There are rising fears that those predictions are now materialising in the centre and east of the island.
New killings threaten to plunge another region of Kashmir into armed rebellion. PHOTO: EPA / EFE
  1. Tensions soared in south Kashmir after Indian security forces ambushed and killed six locals - two of whom were suspected militants
  2. US President Donald Trump signed steel and aluminium tariffs into law but kept the door open for limited exemptions from the punitive measure 
  3. In a surprising turn President Trump accepted North Korean leader Kim Jong-un's invitation for direct talks; the first such move in decades
  4. Broadcom's attempted hostile takeover of Qualcomm continues to plumb new depths and dredge up even more national security concerns
  5. Danish inventor Peter Madsen appeared in the first day of the murder trial in which he stands accused of dismembering a young journalist on his personal submarine
  6. Amazon announced a long-rumoured push into the retail banking sector; the company will offer accounts in partnership with JP Morgan
  7. The Russian air force dropped white phosphorous (a banned chemical weapon) over Eastern Ghouta during night raids, leading to the highest civilian death toll of the campaign
  8. Economic advisor Gary Cohn's departure from the White House left yet another hole in the Trump administration after Hope Hicks' resignation last week
  9. A UN tribunal paved the way for prosecutions by refusing an acquittal motion in the long-standing case of the assassination of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese PM
  10. Londoners rallied en masse to show their displeasure at the visit of the controversial Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman
Jupiter's fearsome storms up close. PHOTO: NASA
Under the covers - NASA has released never-seen-before images of Jupiter's stormy surface. But the spectacular images - captured by the spacecraft Juno - pale in comparison to the astounding scientific measurements of our largest planet. For instance, it is now known that the mosaic-like storms visible on the surface of the planet are active some three thousand kilometres below!

Earhart's remains - A new study posits that bones found on the remote Pacific island of Nikumaroro in 1940 belonged to the intrepid aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart. The extraordinary woman was attempting the first round-the-world flight in 1937 when she disappeared somewhere over the Pacific. While the bones have subsequently been lost, the study may put to rest one of the oldest unsolved mysteries of the 20th century.
Nowhere to go. PHOTO: AFP
Rohingya emergency - The plight of 700,000 Rohingya in sprawling Bangladeshi refugee camps continues to worsen. The monsoon season is approaching and local politicians have conceded that repatriation efforts are failing. That's no great surprise considering the United Nations released a report this week accusing the Myanmar government of continuing its campaign of ethnic cleansing. In a symbolic move the US Holocaust Museum rescinded an award given to national figurehead Aung San Suu Kyi.

This is an increasingly dire situation for the Rohingya who face bullets on one side of the border and starvation on the other. Yet the international response continues to lag. Halting aid efforts have been disrupted by fighting within the refugee camps and exploitation by Bangladeshi gangs. Also this week there were revelations that despite the genocidal violence the Australian government has maintained military ties with Myanmar. 
Your weekend long read... An extraordinarily detailed piece from Foreign Policy on the toxic legacy of Ba'athism in Iraq and Syria. A challenging and eye-opening read!

What we're watching... This week the inkl team was titillated by Tom Stern's 2017 docu-series 'The Toys That Made Us' (available on Netflix). It's a funny, nostalgic traipse through time that explores the fascinating origins and enduring legacy of the 20th century's biggest toys. We highly recommend it.

So, just how many Kangaroos are there? Well, probably more than you think.

A survey this week argued that there are roughly twice as many kangaroos in Australia as there are humans. In other words, 45 million. The population has roughly doubled since 2009, sparking debates about the role and ethics of kangaroo culling.