Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Alex R. McQuade
Monday, February 29, 2016, 4:02 PM

Pentagon leaders announced today that the United States is waging cyber attacks against the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Reuters also reports that newly deployed commandos are carrying out secret ground missions against the terrorist group. According to Defense Secretary Ash Carter, the cyber attacks are designed to prevent the Islamic State from commanding its forces and that “the methods we’re using are new. Some of them will be surprising.”

The Islamic State carried out two major attacks in Baghdad on Sunday that killed dozens of people. The Washington Post reports that the attacks on a market and on security forces on the city’s outskirts demonstrates the Islamic State’s ongoing ability to disrupt Iraq’s capital even as it loses ground. The first attack involved six car bombs in Baghdad’s western neighborhood of Abu Ghraib. Later in the day, two suicide bombers struck a market in the largely Shiite district of Sadr City. USA Today tells us that at least 59 people were killed in the double suicide bombing and more than 95 others were injured.

Elsewhere in the region, Kurdish officials and the U.S.-led coalition are working together to verify reports that the Islamic State used chemical weapons against Kurdish forces in Iraq’s northern area of Sinjar. According to Voice of America, “dozens of Peshmerga as well as civilians reported suffering from nausea and vomiting after homemade Islamic State rockets hit the area” on February 25. If the Islamic State’s use of chemical weapons is confirmed, this attack would be the pseudo-state’s eighth chemical weapons attack on Kurdish forces.

In other news, Islamic State militants allegedly “melted away” in the strategic Syrian city of Shaddadi giving the Syrian rebels a key victory in the fight against the terrorist group. The Military Times quotes Army Col. Christopher Garver, a U.S. Defense Department spokesman in Baghdad, saying “We expected a tougher fight inside the city.” The Military Times also writes that the capture of the Shaddadi was the biggest victory to date for the Syrian rebel forces.

In Iraq, the U.S. Embassy Baghdad has issued a security warning to U.S. citizens in Iraq in regards to the possible collapse of the Mosul Dam. The warning informs that the “Embassy would be extremely limited in its abilities to assist in the event of a crisis” such as the dam collapse. You can read the rest of the warning here.

The Syrian “cessation of hostilities” took into effect Saturday, but has not stopped Russia from resuming airstrikes on towns and villages in the north and other alleged artillery fire across some front lines, as the Washington Post reports. The Post writes that the “violence came on only the second day of a planned two-week cessation of hostilities” which further dimmed light on the hope that the agreement may lead to a wider peace effort. Syrian opposition officials warned that the attacks by Russia threaten to collapse the U.S.-Russian deal for a two-week cessation of hostilities and endanger future peace talks. Reuters tells us that the Syrian opposition sent a letter to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stating that “violations would undermine international efforts to guarantee the continuation of the truce and lead to the collapse of the U.N.-adopted political process.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that he welcomed the efforts to achieve a long-term ceasefire in Syria. According to the New York Times, Netanyahu also mentioned that Israel would continue to defend its interests in their neighboring nation, including preventing advanced weapon transfer from Syria to Hezbollah and blocking Iranian-backed attacks against Israel from Syrian territory. The Times also writes that Israel has repeatedly declined to take sides in the Syrian conflict and has avoided stepping into the conflict.

Reuters reports that one Afghan policeman was killed and another 30 were detained during a joint operation between Afghan troops and U.S. forces in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. The police officers were suspected of supporting the Taliban following multiple insider attacks against Afghan police officers in recent months. Helmand’s police chief Abdul Rahman told Reuters that the Afghan “army and U.S. advisers suspected the police of providing weapons and ammunition to the Taliban and that they had planned a surrender to the insurgents.”

Over in neighboring Pakistan, former police officer Mumtaz Qadri was hanged for the assassination of former Governor Salman Taseer in 2011. Qadri was on guard duty for the governor when he shot and killed him for percieved blasphemy. The Associated Press has more on the story.

In Yemen, a U.S.-backed Arab military coalition bombed a busy market north of Sana’a on Saturday. The blast killed at least 30 people. The New York Times reports that the death toll was among the highest from a single bombing in recent months and was likely to trigger calls for an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia, which leads the fighting coalition.

Saudi Arabia’s police announced yesterday that a member of the Kingdom’s anti-terrorism force has been murdered and that six of the officials relatives are wanted in connection with his death. The Associated Press indicates that according to Saudi reports, Sgt. Badr Hamdi al-Rashidi was a member of Saudi Arabia’s Special Emergency Force in the Kingdom’s Qassim region and that the six relatives wanted for his murder took advantage of family links with the official to lure him into a remote area to kill him.

Elsewhere in Turkey, top officials in Ankara are moving to build a better homeland security system designed to preemptively strike potential terrorists. Turkey’s plan comes after the country suffered three large scale terrorist attacks since last October. Defense News tells us that Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu signified that a new “security approach and mechanism” would be devised, especially for Turkey’s capital.

Yesterday, suicide bombers belonging to al Shabaab struck two popular restaurants in Mogadishu killing at least 20 people and injuring at least 60 others. The New York Times described witnesses' reports that a car bomb exploded outside the restaurant across from the Hotel Baidoa around 5pm. After the first car bombing, a second suicide bomber detonated his explosives in another nearby restaurant. The Times also writes that analysts have been warning for months that al Shabaab is posed to make a comeback, and it seems as though their warnings are now coming true.

Over in North Korea, American student Otto Warmbier, who was detained in the hermit kingdom in January, appeared in a government-arranged news conference in Pyongyang and apologized for his alleged “anti-state crime” of “trying to steal a political banner.” The New York Times writes that in his appearance, Warmbier stated, “I made the worst mistake of my life” as he sobbed and plead for his release. North Korea is under the belief that Warmbier was instructed to commit his “crime” by an Ohio church, a secretive university organization, and the CIA.

Speaking of North Korea, China is on high alert for any angry responses from the hermit kingdom to the newly proposed United Nations sanctions. The U.N. sanctions come after North Korea successfully tested a nuclear weapon and launched a space satellite into orbit. The Associated Press reports that a Chinese diplomat, who visited Washington last week with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, called for the United States to also provide incentives to Pyongyang such as offering progress on a permanent peace agreement between the North and South in order to return to negotiations.

Elsewhere in the disputed waters of the South China Sea, the Marine Corps Times tells us that the U.S. government is closely monitoring Chinese military activity on the heavily disputed islands and territory. During an event here at Brookings, Marine Commandant General Robert Neller stated, “Just like they pay attention to what we do, we’re playing very close attention to what they do.” You can watch last week’s event here.

The Hill has the latest developments in the FBI vs. Apple dispute. According to Apple’s chief lawyer, the FBI’s effort to compel Apple to unlock one of the San Bernardino attackers’ iPhone will weaken security for all devices. In his written testimony to be given to the House Judiciary Committee, Apple General Counsel Bruce Sewell states that “We can all agree this is not about access to just one iPhone.” The Hill has more.

The Air Force announced that their Cyberspace Vulnerability Assessment/Hunter (CVA/H) cyber weapon platform is now fully operational. The CVA/H is the second cyber weapon to go online in just over a month. According to C4ISR & Networks, the CVA/H weapon system “enables execution of vulnerability assessments, adversary threat detection, and compliance evaluations.” The new cyber capabilities come as the Department of Defense continues its efforts to train offensive and defensive teams that will comprise U.S. Cyber Command operations.

Defense One shares that bipartisan members of the House of Representatives questioned the Obama administration’s new federal entity to conduct background investigations and criticized the plan for failing to make essential changes. According to a some members of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, the newly proposed National Background Investigative Bureau “appears to ignore some of the most fundamental problems with the security clearance system,” as Defense One writes. Defenders of the proposal stressed that the overhaul provides more security for sensitive data and signals a significant change. However, some committee members were not sold on it with Representative John Mica (R-FL) openly laughing and stating “We’ll be back here in 2017, I guaran-damn-tee it.”

The Wall Street Journal reports that U.S. Air Force veteran Tairod Pugh will head to a Brooklyn federal court this week as one of the first suspected Islamic State supporters in the country to go to trial. According to the Journal, Pugh is among the 80-plus Americans who have been arrested since early 2014 on charges related to the terrorist group. Pugh has pleaded not guilty to charges of attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State as well as obstruction of justice. He faces a maximum of 35 years in prison if convicted.

The Washington Post tells us that former CIA and NSA Director Michael Hayden “believes there is a legitimate possibility” that the U.S. military would refuse to follow orders given by a potential President Donald Trump. The Post writes that Hayden also stated that he “would be incredibly concerned if a President Trump governed in a way that was consistent with the language that candidate Trump expressed during the campaign.” Watch the provocative claim General Hayden made on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher,” here.

While General Hayden contemplates a Trump presidency, you can take a look at the Military Times interactive coverage of all the current presidential candidates’ stances on the military. An outline of the candidates’ plans may be found here.

Parting Shot: Many are aware that the president receives the Presidential Daily Brief each morning, with the most accurate and timely intelligence assessments of the day. But have you ever wondered about the PDB’s history? Foreign Affairs provides a detailed account of the PDB’s origins, creation, and presentation to its most valuable customer.

ICYMI: This Weekend, on Lawfare

Elina Saxena highlighted the national security topics covered during the 10th Republican Presidential Debate.

Cody issued the latest edition of the Lawfare Podcast, focusing on how to solve the encryption challenge.

Paul Rosenzweig flagged Norway’s intelligence branch’s threat assessment, which places Russia and the Arctic as the top items of concern.

Stewart Baker provided us some questions that he would ask Tim Cook if he were under oath.

Ammar Abdulhamid asked whether Syria is President Obama’s fault.

John Mueller and Mark Stewart argued that since 9/11, terrorism’s incidence and “seeming importance” has been multiplied by conflating it with insurgency.

Herb Lin provided his thoughts on setting precedents in the Apple vs. FBI dispute.

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