Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Alex R. McQuade, Cody M. Poplin
Wednesday, March 9, 2016, 3:00 PM

Defense officials confirmed today that an Islamic State detainee, who is a specialist in chemical weapons, is currently being questioned by American forces about the pseudo-state’s plans to use the banned substances in Iraq and Syria. The New York Times tells us that the military described the detainee as a “significant” Islamic State operative. The operative was captured last month by an elite American Special Operations detachment and has provided his captors with information regarding how the Islamic State weaponizes mustard gas.

U.S. military officials believe that Abu Omar al Shishani, the Islamic State’s “Secretary of Defense,” was likley killed in a series of airstrikes in Syria yesterday. The Washington Post reports that U.S. military officials are still “assessing the results” of the operation, but that they are confident al Shishani, otherwise known as Omar the Chechen, was among twelve Islamic State fighters killed by the strikes. If confirmed, al Shishani’s death would signify a significant blow to terrorist group’s operational leadership. Read up on al Shishani’s history here.

Stars and Stripes reports that the Pentagon does not have a plan for long-term detention of captured Islamic State fighters. During a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday, U.S. Special Operations Commander General Joseph Votel told members of Congress that he did not know where long-term prisoners would be held and that the issue was a “policy decision that I think is being debated.”

The United Nations envoy for Syria is set to hold “substantive” peace talks with Syrian government officials and opposition members no later than next Monday. Preparations for the continuation of the Syrian peace talks began earlier this week in Geneva. The talks come after a cessation of hostilities in Syria that took effect last week. However, even though there has been at least a temporary halt in fighting, the BBC wonders if the Syrian conflict is a new kind of world war.

Following Turkey’s decision to strike a deal with the European Union on refugees, the United Nations and human rights groups have warned that the potential deal between the E.U. and Turkey might be illegal. U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi told the European Parliament, “I am deeply concerned about any arrangement that would involve the blanket return of anyone from one country to another without spelling out the refugee protection safeguards under international law.” Reuters tells us that the potential deal between the E.U and Turkey would provide Ankara with more money to keep refugees in Turkey, faster visa-free travel for Turks, and an acceleration of Turkey’s long-stalled E.U. membership talks.

An American citizen was killed yesterday when a Palestinian attacker went on a stabbing rampage in a town near Tel Aviv. The New York Times tells us that the American was identified as 28-year-old Taylor Force. Force was an MBA candidate at Vanderbilt University and a U.S. Army veteran.

Vice President Biden arrived in Israel yesterday aiming to mend relations between the Obama administration and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after what the Washington Post calls “a very public and deeply partisan spat over the Iran nuclear deal.” The Post also writes that the Vice President’s mission is, in part, an attempt to “advance long-running talks between the White House and the Prime Minister’s Office over a new multibillion-dollar, 10-year military aid package.”

President Obama is also seeking to pave the way for a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians even after he leaves office. The New York Times reports that the White House is contemplating whether the president should lay down outlines of an agreement through either a U.N. Security Council resolution or in a presidential speech. However, the potential peace deal would likely become an issue that President Obama’s successor would pursue. The whisperings of the potential resolution have already set off alaram bells in Mr. Netanyahu's cabinet, according to the Times.

For the first time since Yemen’s civil war began last year, Yemen’s Houthi rebels are conducting peace talks directly with Saudi Arabia. According to the New York Times, the United Nations has previously sponsored several attempts at peace to halt the fighting that has killed more than 3,000 people, but all resulted in failure. Houthi representatives traveled to Saudi Arabia this week to discuss prisoner exchanges and a de-escalation of the fighting.

Yesterday, Iran conducted several ballistic missile tests aimed to show Iran’s “deterrent power” and “all-out readiness to counter any threat,” according to Iran’s official news agency. The Wall Street Journal reports that an Obama administration official said that the missile launches were “inconsistent” with a United Nations Security Council Resolution restricting Iran’s missile activity but that they were not a violation of last year’s nuclear agreement. The Journal has more here.

Following Iran’s missile tests, the Obama administration is facing pressure from Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill. Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Bob Corker (R-TN) called for the United States and the United Nations to show that the missile tests will have “swift and immediate consequences.” Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD), a top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, also called for a forceful response adding, “The Administration should act swiftly to raise these concerns at the United Nations and take action to hold all parties involved responsible for their actions, including, if necessary, unilateral action.”

Following the Taliban’s announcement that it would not participate in peace talks aimed at ending the fifteen year insurgency in Afghanistan, Pakistan has assured the international community that it would still support the planned peace process. However, the anticipated peace talks have not tempered the Taliban’s attacks. Today, the insurgent group assaulted a police headquarters and intelligence agency office in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. According to the Associated Press, at least three police officers were killed along with seven of the attackers.

Defense News reports that the latest Pak-US Strategic Dialogue held this week delivered little substance. Although the relationship is improving slightly, key differences remain, most notably regarding the growth of Pakistan’s nuclear program. Read the latest on the Pak-US Strategic Dialogue here.

The annual U.S.-South Korean joint military exercise Key Resolve-Foal Eagle began this week, but with a new wrinkle: this year’s exercises include a hypothetical decapitation strike against senior North Korean leaders, including Kim Jong Un. While neither the South Korean Defense Ministry nor the Pentagon have confirmed the rumors that the decapitation strike has been included as part of training, the AP shares that the news has already caused Pyongyang to ratchet up the rhetoric another notch.

Today, the Hermit Kingdom’s Korean Central News Agency once again boasted that the country’s scientists have succeeded in making a nuclear warhead small enough to fit onto a ballistic missile. According to state media, Kim Jong Un visited nuclear scientists today in order to announce the “tremendous” achievement. North Korean news outlets also released photos of Kim posing with the miniaturized warheads, but experts noted that curiously, neither the North Korean leader nor the scientists with him were wearing radiation suits for protection—suggesting that the warheads were actually only models.

Just days after a devastating series of U.S. airstrikes killed 150 al Shabaab militants operating in Somalia, U.S. special forces descended into the country last night in an attemptaccording to the AP— to “capture a high-profile target.” The nighttime raid ended in a fierce firefight that reportedly killed more than 10 militants. Somali intelligence sources reported that the primary target of the operation was killed during the gun battle. In its report, the AP notes that recent U.S. operations “are some of the most aggressive military actions in Somalia since a U.S. military intervention in the early 1990s.” Elsewhere, the AP carries more background on the strikes, while the Wall Street Journal notes that the intensity and “scope of U.S. attacks reflect fears of al Shabaab resilience.”

According to the Associated Press, “France’s lower house of Parliament has approved a measure aiming to give prison sentences to technology company executives who refuse to give data to investigators in terrorism-related cases.” The bill, which would dole out a fine of up to 350,000 Euros and a five-year prison sentence, passed the lower chamber by a vote of 474 to 32. It will now be debated in the Senate. The AP notes that during debate, French lawmakers referred to Apple’s refusal to provide access to an iPhone in the San Bernardino case. In Lawfare, Daniel Severson provided an overview of the bill and how the debate unfolded.

Benjamin Weiser of the New York Times brings us another vignette into the future of violence, reporting that Cheng Le was sentenced to 16 years in prison yesterday on charges “including that he tried to obtain the highly toxic poison ricin to be resold for use as a weapon.” Le was arrested in December 2014 during an FBI sting operation after attempting to purchase ricin from an undercover agent. Le allegedly asked the operative to disguise the ricin as medicine and noted that he would be “trying out new methods in the future” in order to make dispersal “more efficient.”

No surprises here: yesterday, Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS) introduced a resolution rejecting the Obama administration’s recently released plan to close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. The Hill tells us that the resolution was cosponsored by Senators Tim Scott (R-SC), Cory Gardner (R-CO), Jerry Moran (R-KS), and Roy Blunt (R-MO).

Republicans are not the only ones wary of the president’s plan, however. The Associated Press reports that Indonesian security officials have said they would find a way to “ensure” that Riduan Isamuddin, also known as Hambali, does not return to Indonesia. Hambali is accused of heading Jemaah Islamiyah, an al Qaeda-affiliate that operated out of Southeast Asia.

At the detention facility itself, Saifullah Paracha, the oldest detainee at Guantanamo Bay, had his first Periodic Review Board hearing. Paracha is a 68-year-old former businessman from Pakistan who, while never officially charged, is suspected of providing financial and other assistance to senior al Qaeda leaders. His son, Uzair Paracha is currently serving a 30-year sentence in the United States for trying to help an al Qaeda operative travel to the United States. The Associated Press has more.

Parting Shot: Micro-drones capable of being launched from flare dispensers of moving F-16s and F/A-18 fighter jets? That's the latest from the Strategic Capabilities Office, the Pentagon’s shop tasked with figuring out how to best counter growing strategic threats from Russia and China. Check out a video obtained by the Washington Post on the mini drones here.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Stewart Baker released the latest Steptoe Cyberlaw Podcast, which features an interview with Jim Lewis and Alan Cohn.

Nancy Okail and Mai El-Sadany described the crackdown against civil society occurring in Egypt.

Dan Byman commented on the shifting U.S. interests in the Middle East.

Cody flagged the new GTMO recidivism report from the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

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