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Morning news brief

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen travels to Atlanta today. She is expected to announce new financial sanctions against individuals and organizations involved in fentanyl trafficking.

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Street fentanyl kills more than 70,000 Americans a year. It also generates billions of dollars a year in black market profits. The Biden administration has been trying to disrupt the money side of international drug networks.

MARTIN: NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann is with us now to tell us more about this. Good morning, Brian.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Good morning, Michel.

MARTIN: So what's the background to this and what's new today?

MANN: Well, fentanyl sadly is a booming business for Mexican drug cartels and also for a lot of companies in China. Some of these are industrial chemical companies that allegedly make precursor fentanyl chemicals while also doing legitimate business around the world. So over the last year, the White House has been stepping up efforts to target those companies, pinch off the flow of drug profits. And the Treasury Department has already sanctioned a bunch of people and firms, and we expect Secretary Yellen to expand that sanctions list today.

MARTIN: Say more about the focus on the money, 'cause I think we usually think of drug interdiction as stopping the drugs before they cross the border. But I take it that's not really getting the job done?

MANN: Yeah, you know, law enforcement agencies, Michel, are already seizing a lot more fentanyl at the border and inside the U.S. But fentanyl is super easy and cheap to make. When cops capture a big batch of fentanyl pills - we see this on the news all the time - the cartels just churn out more. And that's seen as a relatively harmless cost of doing business. So the idea here is to try to inflict real pain and cause disruption of those fentanyl networks by seizing cash and assets and penalizing legitimate companies that are supporting this drug trade. I spoke about this a couple of weeks ago with White House drug czar Dr. Rahul Gupta.

RAHUL GUPTA: How do we address the commerce of illicit drug supply? This all comes back to the money piece to focus on whether it's sanctions, whether it's money laundering efforts that are happening, anti-money laundering efforts.

MANN: And again, what we expect to hear from Yellen today is another tightening of those screws, squeezing this money side of the fentanyl black market just a little harder.

MARTIN: I guess the obvious question is, why do they think this will work? Or are we seeing any evidence that this might work?

MANN: We're not seeing that evidence yet. The Biden administration says they are getting better at this, at finding and seizing fentanyl profits. Here's Assistant Treasury Secretary Wally Adeyemo speaking last October.

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WALLY ADEYEMO: We freeze and disrupt the operating capital criminals need to manufacture and transport these illicit substances. We stop or recover the proceeds from drug sales either through the U.S. financial system or through those partner countries that are willing to work with us.

MANN: But, you know, Michel, laying out that strategy is one thing and actually doing it is a lot harder. One challenge we're hearing about is crypto. A report issued by a Congressional committee in April of this year found Chinese gangs getting really good at using cryptocurrencies to hide and transfer fentanyl profits. Chinese criminal gangs, some allegedly with ties to the Communist Party, have emerged as global players at laundering fentanyl money. They've at created what the U.S. Justice Department describes as an underground banking system where money transfers are really hard to detect. And one more thing is that drug policy experts tell NPR that Mexican cartels and many Chinese companies appear to be operating with at least some protection from their national governments. So the Biden administration is moving hard on this. They think this is part of the solution to the fentanyl crisis, but no huge gains so far.

MARTIN: Brian Mann is NPR's addiction correspondent. Brian, thank you.

MANN: Thank you, Michel.

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MARTIN: Israel and the Lebanese militant and political group Hezbollah are ratcheting up the war of words and firepower on the border.

FADEL: The Israeli military says it's approved plans for an offensive in Lebanon if diplomatic efforts fail to stop the conflict, which is contained for now, for the most part, with the trading of fire across the Israeli and Lebanese border. And in Lebanon, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah had stark warnings for Israel if they followed through.

MARTIN: To hear more about what's going on here, we're joined by NPR's Jane Arraf from Beirut. Jane, hello.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: So, Jane, Nasrallah spoke for more than an hour yesterday. What was the main point?

ARRAF: Well, he speaks fairly regularly. But these were his hardest hitting remarks since the war in Gaza began last October, not just in rhetoric, but in what he was laying out. He said Hezbollah did not want to go to war, but he warned there was a possibility that that's what the current fighting could slide into. We have to remember the Lebanese state is extremely weak, and Hezbollah was created with the help of Iran largely to fight Israel after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. Nasrallah said his group is much better armed now. And as an example, he noted drone footage released this week with detailed images of potential targets in Haifa, Israel's major port city.

MARTIN: Jane, say more about that drone footage. And what's been the reaction so far in Israel?

ARRAF: Well, Hezbollah said the video was taken by an Iranian-made surveillance drone. It's nine minutes long and set to music. It shows high-resolution images of the port of Haifa and even individual vessels. And there are maps showing other potential target cities. Nasrallah last night said that was just a small part of what he called hours of surveillance footage they had from Israel. He gloated that with all of Israel's air defenses, the drone was able to slip through them. And he said that if there were war, Hezbollah would fight with what he said were no rules. As for reaction, Israel's foreign minister dismissed Nasrallah's remarks, saying that if it came to war, Hezbollah would be destroyed and Lebanon severely hit.

MARTIN: Now, Nasrallah didn't limit his remarks only to Israel. He also widened out to the Mediterranean region and specifically threatened Cyprus. What was that about?

ARRAF: Nasrallah said Cyprus, part of the European Union, was hosting Israeli military training in its mountains, which are much like the mountains of Lebanon, and that Israeli fighter jets were using Cypriot air bases.

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HASSAN NASRALLAH: (Non-English language spoken).

ARRAF: He said this made Cyprus part of the war. Israeli officials have acknowledged in the past Israeli military training in Cyprus. Cyprus, after the speech, said it was not involved in military operations and that it was playing a humanitarian role. But Nasrallah also made a wider point about the Mediterranean Sea. Here he is with interpretation from Iranian state TV.

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NASRALLAH: (Through interpreter) If they open a war in Lebanon, the situation in the Mediterranean Sea would become completely different - all of the coastline, all of the ships.

ARRAF: And Israel also has interest in a gas field off the coast of Lebanon.

MARTIN: So how are things likely to play out now?

ARRAF: Analysts point out that speeches like this one on both sides are meant to act as a deterrent to escalation, and that the likelihood of that nightmare scenario Nasrallah laid out remains low but not impossible. As has been the case since October, though, Hezbollah has made clear that until the conflict in Gaza is solved, its conflict with Israel won't be either.

MARTIN: That is NPR's Jane Arraf in Beirut. Jane, thank you.

ARRAF: Thank you.

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MARTIN: Now, I need to tell you that this next story is one that may be upsetting to hear. It involves suicide, but it's also something parents should probably pay attention to if their kids are online.

FADEL: This is about sextortion, a form of online blackmail that is targeting a rapidly growing number of children in the U.S. Many of the cybercriminals are based abroad.

MARTIN: Particularly in Nigeria, where NPR's Emmanuel Akinwotu joins us now from Lagos. Hello, Emmanuel.

MARTIN: Particularly in Nigeria, where NPR's Emmanuel Akinwotu joins us now from Lagos. Hello, Emmanuel.

EMMANUEL AKINWOTU, BYLINE: Hi, Michel.

MARTIN: OK, so even though Leila just told us a little bit, some people may not know what sextortion is, so why don't you just start by explaining it?

AKINWOTU: Well, it's a form of online extortion where people blackmail targets either for money or other demands. And the perpetrators typically use fake profiles, or AI-generated profiles even, on social media. They present as potential love interests to extort explicit pictures. And then they demand money, essentially, and threaten to share those pictures. Actually, even when the money is paid, the criminals demand more. And tragically, this is having fatal consequences. You know, thousands of children have been targeted in the U.S. in the last few years, and dozens have died, like 17-year-old Jordan DeMay.

MARTIN: Can you tell us more about Jordan?

AKINWOTU: Jordan was a popular high school senior in Michigan. He was just about to graduate, and he wanted to be an athlete. I spoke to Jordan's mother, Jennifer DeMay Buta, and she told me about the day he died in March 2022.

JENNIFER DEMAY BUTA: I got up for work and had seen that Jordan sent me a text message at 3:41 in the morning. It just said, Mother, I love you. I texted him back. He did not respond.

AKINWOTU: He was later found dead by suicide. Initially, Jennifer was confused, but then she received a transcript of the last messages that he'd sent on Instagram. What happened was there was a group of young men based here in Lagos who pretended to be a girl based in the U.S. and had begun messaging Jordan. Then they threatened to release the pictures of him that they'd gotten unless he sent them money. He sent them about $300, but then they wanted more. The tragic thing about the transcript is it shows how desperate he was just before he died. He told them that he was going to kill himself, and they told him to just do it then. This all happened, actually, within the space of just six hours before he died.

MARTIN: That's just awful. But, Emmanuel, why - what's the Nigeria connection here? Why is it there? And are the authorities there doing anything about it?

AKINWOTU: Well, unfortunately, there's this long history of online scams committed from here in Nigeria. You know, this is a big, complicated issue. Clearly it's a major problem, but not just for victims in the U.S., also in Nigeria, too. And it plays out in really complicated, brutal ways, especially for young men that are targeted by police. At the same time, the rise of sextortion attacks in the U.S. committed from here is a big concern. And it's partly why the director of the FBI, Chris Ray, came to Nigeria last week. He told me, actually, he's the first FBI director to visit here and that this issue was at the forefront of his talks with law enforcement agencies and President Bola Tinubu.

CHRISTOPHER WRAY: We're talking about kids between 10 and 17 years old, typically, but we've even seen victims as young as 7 years old. And one of the things that makes this crime so heartbreaking and difficult to detect is the victims are afraid and embarrassed.

AKINWOTU: The perpetrators in this case were two brothers from Lagos who've been extradited to the U.S., have pled guilty to child sexploitation charges and now they're awaiting sentencing.

MARTIN: That's Emmanuel Akinwotu in Lagos. Emmanuel, thank you.

AKINWOTU: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: And if you or someone you know may be considering suicide or is in crisis, call or text 988 to reach the suicide and crisis lifeline.

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MARTIN: And we have an update on a story we reported on earlier this week. During his visit to Pyongyang, Russian President Vladimir Putin signed a pact with North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un to give all available military help if either is attacked. It's unclear how the agreement will affect Russia's war in Ukraine, but there have been growing concerns of weapon sales between the two nations, an allegation both sides have denied. Putin is now in Vietnam, where he's looking to boost economic ties with the Communist-led government in Hanoi. Vietnam has so far avoided condemning Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
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