Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commenary

By Rishabh Bhandari, Cody M. Poplin
Friday, June 17, 2016, 3:15 PM

New details about Omar Mateen capture a life of violent outbursts that culminated in the tragedy of Orlando. The Wall Street Journal meticulously interviews a number of people who knew Mateen in the years and months before the Orlando slaughter in a profile that reveals his repeatedly disturbing tendencies. Though Mateen had not committed a crime before the shooting, the Journal concludes that “his record was replete with incidents that troubled those around him.” The New Yorker’s Margaret Talbot adds that in instances of mass killings, the pattern of terrorism and violence often begins with domestic violence at home, citing Mateen, the Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and the Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho as examples.

CIA Director John Brennan yesterday said that the Agency has found “no sign” that Mateen was in contact with the Islamic State or any other terrorist group.

As more information about the shooting becomes public, commentators and former officials are sorting through what can be done to prevent another attack. In Politico, Garrett M. Graff argues that attacks such as Orlando and the Boston Marathon bombing are indicators that our law enforcement and intelligence communities are understaffed. Though the FBI knew about future terrorists such as Tsarnaev, Mateen, and the Fort Hood shooter Nidal Hasan, the Bureau is overstretched. Graff points out that while the FBI is currently investigating roughly 1,000 domestic cases related to the Islamic State, the Bureau only has the resources to thoroughly scrutinize about 50 cases.

Yet while manpower resources are strained, Defense One’s Patrick Tucker takes a look at how the Department of Defense is developing a new suite of technological tools to fight lone wolf attacks. The Pentagon’s in-house innovation hub, Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), recently launched a program which aims to develop digital tools that can better help law enforcement and intelligence operatives analyze and measure the success of information propaganda from terrorist groups such as the Islamic State. Michael Lumpkin, the head of a partner program at the State Department, said the U.S. government must utilize cutting-edge technologies and big data to combat the rise of lone wolf attacks because they have become a preferred strategy for the Islamic State in recent years. A Congressional Research Service report on Islamic radicalization that came out a day after the Orlando massacre notes that five attacks on U.S. soil have been conducted by people who reportedly supported the Islamic State since May 2015.

But there is no panacea according to Rosa Brooks, who writing in Foreign Policy, forces us to grapple with 10 uncomfortable facts about terrorism that political leaders don’t want to admit. She warns that despite what some presidential candidates may be spouting, it is not possible for any society to “win a war against terrorism” in part because borders are porous and every country already has its angry young men waiting to be radicalized through the Internet.

More than 50 State Department officials signed an internal dissent cable recording their criticism of the White House’s handling of the Syria crisis. The memo calls for the U.S. government to conduct airstrikes against Syrian President Bashar al Assad’s regime, a necessary step in their eyes for the resolution to the ongoing Syrian civil war. According to the memo, the diplomats call for “a judicious use of stand-off and air weapons, which would undergird and drive a more focused and hard-nosed U.S.-led diplomatic process.” They warn that without the deployment of U.S. forces, Assad will have no incentive to negotiate with the moderate opposition and contribute to a successful peace deal. For more on the dissent cable, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal have you covered.

And if you need a glimpse into what’s behind the dissent cable, Declan Walsh offers a kaleidoscopic look into the destruction and human suffering that he saw as a journalist covering the Syrian crisis for the Times.

Reuters reports that Russian airstrikes hit forces battling Islamic State militants including rebels that had been trained and backed by the United States near the Iraq-Syria border. One senior U.S. official pledged that the United States would ask Russia for an explanation, and added that “Russia’s latest actions raise serious concerns about Russian intentions.”

Across the border, Iraqi security forces retook key parts of the Islamic State-stronghold of Fallujah and commanders said they were closing in on a total victory. The city, which is of symbolic importance to Sunni Iraqis, was the first major city that the Islamic State seized roughly two years ago and its recapture would provide a much-needed shot in the arm for Iraq’s embattled Prime Minister Haider al Abadi. The Post covers the assault here. But international humanitarian groups are concerned that Fallujah’s civilians will be caught in the crossfire between the Islamic State and Iraqi forces. Roughly 40,000 civilians remain in the city and many of those escaping have reportedly been abused or killed at the hands of Shiite militias that view the men fleeing from the city as former members of the Islamic State. Al Jazeera offers insight into the civilians’ plight here.

Yaya Fanusie and Landon Heid write in Forbes that while U.S. and global efforts to delink terrorist groups such as the Islamic State from the global financial system have been a powerful counterterrorism tool, more work needs to be done. They identify Yemen and Libya as two nations where the Islamic State’s financial footprint persists and additional regulatory and global action is needed.

A member of the British Parliament and a rising star in Labour party politics, Jo Cox, was assassinated yesterday in an attack that shocked the nation. According to the Post, Cox’s suspected killer is a white supremacist who had longstanding ties to neo-Nazi organizations in the United States. Her death comes at a politically heated moment as British voters ready for a referendum next week on whether the country should leave the European Union. Questions of identity and immigration have colored the debate and Cox was an eloquent advocate for Britain remaining in the European Union. Journalists and politicians in Britain have linked the attack with Cox’s position and the fiercely anti-immigrant rhetoric of the far-right.

Yesterday CIA Director John Brennan gave a bleak assessment of the United States’ ongoing war against the Islamic State when he testified in front of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Although the Islamic State has suffered a string of defeats in Syria and Iraq, Brennan said the organization remained a “formidable, resilient” adversary that will likely resort to guerilla attacks across the West as its losses on the conventional battlefield pile up. According to estimates provided to the Daily Beast, the Islamic State has lost 45 percent of its territory in Iraq and between 20 and 30 percent of its territory in Syria since fighting intensified this spring. But Brennan explained that the Islamic State’s capacity to annex other terrorist groups across Africa and the Middle East dilutes these setbacks. “The group would have to suffer even heavier losses of territory, manpower, and money for its terrorist capacity to decline significantly,” he said.” The Denver Post has more on the possibility that foreign Islamic State fighters may return home to launch domestic strikes.

The Journal has some preliminary details about President Barack Obama’s plan to give the U.S. military more responsibility in the drone campaigns around the world. According to officials briefed on the plan, “the revamp stops short of giving the U.S. military’s Joint Special Operations Command full control of the drone wars,” and “the CIA will keep its drone fleet and continue to run its covert targeted killing program in the tribal areas of Pakistan.” Likewise in Yemen, the CIA will continue to fly drones, “but under the White House compromise, JSOC will assume control of CIA aircraft midflight and launch the missiles to take out the targets.” The plan puts JSOC firmly in control of drone programs in Libya, Somalia, Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan.

As part of the shakeup, Greg Miller of the Washington Post, reports that “the pace of the CIA’s drone campaign has plunged this year” as the Obama administration attempted to “shift responsibility for lethal counterterrorism operations to the Pentagon.” So far this year, the CIA has carried out at most seven strikes. Yet in Lawfare, Bobby Chesney warns us not to overread the change in administration of the drone program, noting that the CIA and JSOC rely a great deal on one another, and that “what gets overlooked is the degree to which this is not just a matter of independent institutional evolution, but also integration and cooperation on missions of just this kind.” In this new model, the CIA “seems to remain a central component.”

The news of the plan comes as the AP informs us that the commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, U.S. Army General John Nicholson, has submitted his 3-month strategy assessment to the president.

A shoal too far. Retired U.S. Navy Admiral Dennis Blair said yesterday that if China began dredging the disputed Scarborough Shoal, Beijing would risk a military conflict with the United States, one that the United States would “win because the military situation is set up that way.” The shoal is also claimed by the Philippines, which has filed suit against China before an international court at the Hague. The court is set to decide the case this month, but Beijing has said it will reject the court’s ruling. In an effort to rally international support for its position, Chinese state media announced this week that almost 60 country’s support its boycott of the international tribunal. A Wall Street Journal investigation undermines those claims, however, with the Journal reporting that only 8 countries---Afghanistan, Gambia, Kenya, Niger, Sudan, Togo, Vanuatu, and Lesotho---have publicly supported China’s position, while at least five on its list have denied supporting Beijing. With tensions in the region rising in anticipation of the tribunal’s ruling, the U.S. Navy dispatched four E/A-18G Growler fighters and 120 support personnel to the Philippines on Thursday. The forces will help train Filipino troops and patrol the country’s airspace and sea lanes.

U.S. officials are searching for a former Guantanamo Bay detainee who they believe has disappeared in Brazil. The former detainee, Syrian national Jihad Ahmed Mustafa Dhiab, was transferred to Uruguay in 2014, but U.S. officials think he has crossed into Brazil. Dhiab previously complained that he received insufficient financial support after his transfer. U.S. law enforcement are coordinating with officials in Brazil and Uruguay to find Dhiab. The Post has more.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

General John Allen and Michael O’Hanlon called on the United States to execute a holistic campaign to not only defeat the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq but also its affiliates and global network that includes lone wolves within the homeland.

Kenneth Anderson reviewed Linda Fowler’s Watchdogs on the Hill: The Decline of Congressional Oversight of Foreign Relations, a book that traces the diminution of Congressional scrutiny over major U.S. foreign policy operations.

Bobby Chesney examined what role the CIA will play as the Pentagon increasingly takes the lead on drone strike operations.

Paul Rosenzweig alerted Lawfare readers to a cybersecurity conference that took place at Columbia University yesterday and the questions he hoped the experts would discuss both at the summit but also in a forthcoming publication.

Amy Zegart posed a series of questions we should ask as the investigation into the Orlando massacre unfolds.

Ben Wittes and the Rational Security gang asked how we could have stopped Mateen from carrying out his heinous attack in the latest episode of Rational Security.

Stewart Baker posted the latest edition of the Steptoe Cyberlaw Podcast, “the Europocrisy Prize Edition.”

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