Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Alex R. McQuade, Cody M. Poplin
Monday, February 8, 2016, 4:03 PM

Over the weekend, North Korea launched a long-range rocket carrying what it claimed to be a satellite. The move by the hermit kingdom prompted renewed international condemnation just a few weeks after the country successfully carried out a nuclear bomb test. Reuters tells us that critics of this rocket program suggest that it is being used to test technology for a long-range missile, perhaps one that could carry a nuclear warhead.

The satellite launch may cause South Korea to overcome some of its hesitation about hosting a sophisticated American anti-missile system on its soil. The Washington Post informs us that on Sunday, a day after the test, South Korean and American military personnel said that they had agreed to start negotiations for the “earliest possible” deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD).

The Daily Beast writes that North Korea’s “satellite” launched Saturday, which is now circling the planet, is most likely a decoy. Interestingly enough, the “satellite” weighs about the same as a nuclear warhead. The Beast adds that even though the United States has issued several strongly worded statements of “condemnation,” it has thus far proven ineffective at preventing North Korea’s tests of illicit technology.

With tensions in the region mounting, the Guardian reports that the South Korean Navy fired warning shots at a North Korean patrol boat after the patrol boat crossed the disputed Yellow Sea border. The North Korean patrol boat retreated after five shots from naval guns.

Speaking of warning shots: According to Reuters, one of the most powerful Iranian-backed Shiite militias has warned that Sunni Arab forces sent to Iraq and Syria would “open the gates of hell.” The threat clearly targeted Sunni Arab countries, which in recent days have said they might consider deploying ground troops.

Regardless of the warning from the Shiite militias, the United Arab Emirates announced that its military is prepared to send ground troops to Syria to fight the Islamic State as part of an international coalition. The UAE’s decision comes days after Saudi Arabia revealed that it too was ready to combat the Islamic State.

On the ground, the Syrian army continues to advance toward the Turkish border. Reuters reports that the latest major offensive by the Syrian army, backed by Russia and Iran, amounts to one of the biggest shifts in momentum of the war since it began. The recent advances by the Syrian army near Aleppo, wherein Russian air strikes have reportedly hit villages and surrounding areas, have prompted tens of thousands of people to flee towards Turkey.

As a result, Turkey has sent aid trucks and ambulances across the Syrian border to help thousands of people who have fled Aleppo. Rebel-held areas in and around Aleppo are home to 350,000 people and despite the deluge of refugees from the area, aid workers are concerned that those areas could soon fall to the Syrian government forces.

With the Assad regime on the march, is the Islamic State on the ropes? At least, that is what the Post is saying. The terror group’s recent defeats on the battlefield, worsening money problems, desertions, and dwindling fighter pool all might be contributing to a decline, according to some analysts and monitors. As foreign fighters become disillusioned with life in Raqqa and other ISIS-hold outs, they are “desperately trying to flee,” according to activists in the country.

Adding to the Islamic State’s financial woes, the United States’ air strikes against its financial reserves have had a significant impact on the funds that the Islamic State collects from oil. These same strikes have forced the terror group to cut fighter salaries in half, according to the Treasury’s Assistant Secretary for Terrorist Financing, Daniel Glaser. Glaser also said that strikes had hit the Islamic State’s ability to “extract, refine, and transport oil from territory it controlled in Iraq and Syria.” Reuters has more on the story, highlighting that running a proto-caliphate doesn't’ seem to be a cheap endeavor.

Even so, militant groups from around the world continue to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State. United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Friday announced that 34 militant groups across the globe have pledged allegiance to al Baghdadi’s pseudo-state. The Associated Press reports that the U.N. head also added that the Islamic State poses “an unprecedented threat” given its ability to persuade groups in countries like the Philippines, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Libya, and Nigeria to ally with them.

The Daily Beast alleges that America’s war on ISIS is helping al Qaeda. The Beast writes that some American intelligence and defense officials are concerned the intense focus on defeating the Islamic State has blinded the United States to the resurgence of al Qaeda. While Islamic State targets continue to suffer from U.S. drone strikes, the U.S. air campaign has notably not targeted Jabhat al Nusra, al Qaeda’s deadly affiliate in Syria. In Syria, al Qaeda continues to thrive, realign itself with local forces, and reemerge as the enduring terror group of our time.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is calling upon the United States to choose between Turkey and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) as its partner against ISIS. The AP reports that President Erdogan blasted the United States stating, “how can we trust you? Is it me that is your partner or is it the terrorists in Kobani?” By terrorists, he means the PYD, which believes is funneling arms and cash to the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK). The PKK are designated as a terrorist group by both Turkey and the United States. Erdogan’s comments come after an Obama administration official visited Kobani last week. As Turkey’s hostility continues to grow, some U.S. officials are saying that it is undermining the campaign against ISIS. The Wall Street Journal has more on the complex relationship here.

Afghanistan expects to hold direct talks with the Taliban by the end of the month. Representatives from Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and the United States met on Saturday and agreed upon a road map toward peace talks with Afghan foreign ministry spokesman Ahmad Shakib Mostaghani stating that Afghanistan hopes to “put an end to the futile violence which is imposed on our people.”

Yet the hope of peace talks has not stopped the insurgent group from carrying out more attacks. The AP tells us that a Taliban suicide bomber struck a crowded market in eastern Afghanistan today, killing five civilians and wounding nine others. Aminullah Shariq, governor of Afghanistan’s Paktika province, said that the bomber missed a military target and decided to attack the market instead.

The group is also gaining new territory. The BBC reports that the key district of Sangin in Afghanistan’s southern province of Helmand is on the verge of being overrun by the Taliban. According to an unnamed Afghan army commander, most of the district has already been taken by the militants, even though Afghanistan’s government continues to assert that Sangin is secure. The BBC has more on that story here.

The AP reports that security video from Mogadishu airport “shows two men handing what looks like a laptop computer to the suspected suicide bomber after he passed through the security checkpoint.” A Somali government spokesman said that at least one of the men was an airport employee. Investigators believe that the laptop like device was the bomb that was used on a Daallo Airlines jet last Tuesday, creating a large hole in the fuselage and forcing the plane to make an emergency landing.

In a blog post on its website, Twitter announced on Friday that it had suspended more than 125,000 accounts for suspected terrorist activity since mid-2015, marking the first hard numbers released by the company related to its battle against extremist propaganda. In the post, Twitter also expanded on its strategy for countering extremist-related content on its platform and highlighted its willingness to cooperate with law enforcement where appropriate. The tech giant is currently facing a civil lawsuit in which a widow of an American killed in Jordan accuses the company of knowingly allowing the terrorist organization to spread propaganda on its network.

While Twitter works to take down accounts that promote terrorism, in the Wall Street Journal, Dan Frosch details how federal law enforcement officials are stepping up efforts to “identify budding terrorists via the Internet before they can carry out violence.” The approach “relies on informants, as well as undercover agents who monitor chat rooms and target suspects,” but the government’s actions have also raised questions about the lines between political and violent speech, and whether the actions of federal investigators amount to entrapment. The Journal has more, highlighting the case of Rahatul Khan.

On Friday, the Pentagon released 198 photographs from detainee abuse investigations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Charlie Savage of the New York Times reports that the photos “taken more than a decade ago during the Bush administration, consist largely of close-up views of scrapes and bruises on detainees’ bodies.” While the military released a small batch of photos, it continues to block the release of more than 1,800 other photos from the same investigations.

Parting Shot: Here’s something you don’t normally hear about the media’s depiction of terrorism: “‘Homegrown,’ Greg Barker’s new documentary on jihadist terrorism in the United States, beginning on HBO on Monday night, is a thoughtful, multidimensional exploration of a subject that often provokes hysteria.” That review from the New York Times’s Scott Shane.

ICYMI: This Weekend, on Lawfare

In this week’s Foreign Policy Essay, Marc Hecker discussed the difficulties a disunited Europe faces when confronting transnational terrorism.

Cody shared the latest Lawfare Podcast on “Defense Strategies for the Next President.”

Paul Rosenzweig commented on the “arbitrary detention” of Julian Assange.

John Bellinger flagged Gil Avriel’s new article in the Harvard National Security Law Journal on the need for new terminology to describe terrorist groups that become territory-holding organizations.

Herb Lin noted that a recent U.S. Army combat exercise in Hawaii downplayed the cyber threat.

Alex shared The Week That Was on Saturday, providing a roundup of Lawfare’s recent coverage.

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