Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Alex R. McQuade
Thursday, March 10, 2016, 2:30 PM

A recently defected Islamic State fighter has leaked thousands of documents that detail the bureaucracy and membership of the terror organization. According to NBC News, one of several media outlets that obtained the leaked documents, the group's recruitment forms include information pertaining to names, nicknames, birth dates, blood type, special skills, and even previous fighting experience. Sky News also adds that “nationals from at least 51 countries, including the UK, had to give up their most personal information as they joined the terror organization.”

Speaking of Islamic State leaks, a top chemical weapons specialist for the Islamic State in American custody provided information to military interrogators that resulted in two Allied airstrikes last week. The airstrikes targeted the terrorist group’s illicit weapons sites, including a weapons production facility and a tactical unit near Mosul, the Daily Beast writes. The New York Times reports that the captured detainee, an Iraqi identified as Sleiman Daoud al Afari, was detained a month ago by commandos with an elite American Special Operations force. The Times adds, “under interrogation, Mr. Afari told his captors how the group had weaponized sulfur mustard and loaded it into artillery shells.”

Earlier this week, U.S. officials believed that Abu Omar al Shishani, the Islamic State’s “Secretary of Defense,” was likely killed in an airstrike. However, the Syrian Observatory for Human rights said today that the military commander was badly wounded but still alive. Reuters tells us that the newswire has no way to independently verify the report from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. U.S. intelligence officials are still reviewing whether the strike killed al Shishani. 

Syrian opposition representatives said that there have been fewer breaches by the Assad government and its allies of a truce agreement in the last few days. The opposition’s comments arrive just days before the peace talks are set to continue in Geneva next week. Reuters reports that U.N. Envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, plans to launch “substantive peace talks on Monday, focusing on issues of Syria’s future governance, elections within 18 months, and a new constitution.” The opposition’s High Negotiations Committee has not confirmed its attendance in Geneva yet, but will make a decision is expected to make a decision soon.

Fears continue to rise surrounding a potential collapse of the Mosul dam and subsequent “catastrophic consequences” that would follow should the dam fail. CBS News writes that Iraq’s largest dam stole headlines recently “amid fears it could collapse due to neglect and lack of needed maintenance because of the ongoing fight between Iraqi forces and the Islamic State.” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, tweeted yesterday about the “chilling meeting” on the dam which could leave Mosul under 15 meters of water in only hours.

More today on yesterday's breaking news regarding U.S. special forces operations in Somalia: the Washington Post reports that U.S. Special Operations Forces conducted a joint helicopter raid with Somali forces against al Shabaab. According to Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, “the U.S. role in the raid was strictly in an advisory capacity and the U.S. forces did not accompany the Somali troops to the objective.” The mission is yet to be made public. Agence France-Presse writes that the raid comes just days after U.S. airstrikes targeted and killed over 150 al Shabaab militants in Somalia.

President Obama’s nominee to head U.S. Central Command stated yesterday that he would recommend extending the U.S. mission in Afghanistan if local forces continue to face difficulties against the Taliban and other militants. During his confirmation hearing on Capitol Hill, Army General Joseph Votel said that “the military may not be able to provide needed support to Afghan forces under a White House plan to halve the U.S. military footprint of 9,800 troops” by the time President Obama’s term ends next January.

Law enforcement forces in Pakistan claimed to have arrested 14 Taliban fighters during a raid in Quetta’s Pashtoonabad area. Pashtoonabad is located in the eastern part of Quetta and houses a large number of Afghan refugees. The arrest, if confirmed, could be a nod by Islamabad in support of peace talks with the Taliban, as Pakistan tries to force the Taliban to come to the table. Dawn reports that no further information was shared to the public.

Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps conducted a second successive day of missile tests today. The IRGC said that the two rockets fired hit targets over 850 miles away and were capable of striking Israel. The New York Times shares that it is not clear whether the latest activity by the Islamic Republic violates any provisions of the nuclear accord implemented earlier this year.

Speaking of the nuclear accord, yesterday, the “United States urged the U.N. atomic agency to continue to provide details on Iran’s compliance with a deal crimping its nuclear work amid Western concerns that the agency’s newest report is too light on specifics.” Read more from the Associated Press here.

Earlier this week, North Korea claimed to have developed a nuclear device capable of being placed on a ballistic missile. Even though the pictures of the device are “funny-looking,” the Washington Post notes that the claim is still very concerning. Take a look yourself.

In other North Korea news, the Hermit Kingdom popped two short-range ballistic missiles into the sea today in defiance of U.N. Security Council resolutions. In addition to the missile launches, Reuters reports that North Korea also announced that it has ended all agreements with South Korea on commercial exchange assets and that it would “liquidate” the South’s assets left behind on its territory. 

In the United States, a U.S. Air Force veteran was found guilty of attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State. The Washington Post reports that authorities are hailing the conviction as a “first-of-its-kind.” The New York Times shares that the veteran, Tairod Pugh, “is among dozens of people arrested by the authorities over the past two years on charges that they tried to travel to Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State or had plotted attacks on behalf of the organization in America.”

Senator Richard Burr (R-NC), Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, announced yesterday that a bill to provide law enforcement access to encrypted data could come as early as next week. The Hill reports that the long awaited bill "is expected to force companies to comply with court orders seeking locked communications." The Hill has more.

While Congress attempts to craft a bill that could force companies to comply with the government's requests for lawful access, the Wall Street Journal tells us that a new poll indicates that Americans are almost equally divided in their stance on the FBI vs Apple debate. The Journal writes “nearly half of those polled, 47% said they feared the government won’t go far enough, while 44% feared the government would go too far.”

USA Today reports that over the last decade, the U.S. military has deployed drones to spy over U.S. territory for non-military missions. However, the flights have been rare, and more importantly, lawful. According to a report by the Pentagon’s inspector general, “spy drones on non-military missions have occurred fewer than 20 times between 2006 and 2015 and always in compliance with existing laws.”

In the latest Guantanamo Bay news, Attorney General Loretta Lynch said that the Obama administration will not try to transfer prisoners from GTMO to the United States without a change in the law banning such transfers. The Hill shares that “the comments are perhaps the most explicit acknowledgement that the president’s goal of closing the detention facility will not be met while he is in office, given the overwhelming opposition in Congress.

Parting Shot: President Barack Obama sat down with the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg to talk about the his hardest decisions about America’s role in the world. Read the Atlantic’s “The Obama Doctrine,” here. It’s a long but worthwhile read, but for those strapped on time, here are the highlights on how President Obama thinks about foreign policy. The Atlantic’s James Bennet also reflects on the interview, saying that it “presents a far more illuminating view of what it takes for an American president to influence, let alone command, the course of world affairs.”

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

James Kraska and Raul Pedrozo argued that the U.S.-China arrangement for air-to-air encounters weakens international law.

Laura Dean shared the latest edition of Syria Displaced, Dispatch #9: Idomeni, “Warehouse of Souls.”

Ben linked us to Lisa Monaco’s address at the Council on Foreign Relations.

Robert Chesney described an increasingly prominent U.S. strategy to lower political, legal, and diplomatic tensions when deploying force abroad: acting “by, with, and through” partner forces on the ground. 

Robert also provided us an update on U.S. detention operations in Erbil.

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