Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Alex R. McQuade
Friday, March 18, 2016, 3:29 PM

Salah Abdeslam, the most wanted fugitive behind the Islamic State’s terrorist attacks in Paris last November, was arrested today after a shootout with police in Brussels. Media reports indicate that Abdeslam was wounded during the shootout with Belgian security forces in Brussels’ Molenbeek area. Earlier this week, Abdeslam’s fingerprints were found in a Brussels apartment raided by Belgian police forces, aiding Belgium and France’s efforts to zero in on the fugitive. Watch the live feed from the operation in Brussels here.

Russian President Vladimir Putin called his country’s military operations in Syria a success. The New York Times writes that Russia’s declaration of success is premised on its upper hand on the battlefield returned to the Syrian government and the fact that President Bashar al Assad is ready to make compromises necessary for a peaceful solution. During President Putin’s remarks—his first extensive comments on the conflict since he ordered Russian forces to withdraw from Syria earlier this week—he indicated that Russian troops would remain engaged in what he called “the fight against terrorism” and that Russia could return to the region if needed. In fact, Russian troops allegedly can re-deploy to Syria within hours. The Wall Street Journal quotes President Putin saying, “If it is needed, Russia is capable of boosting its numbers of its presence in Syria literally in a few hours, depending on the situation, and use the full power of our capabilities.” Furthermore, the Journal tells us that Russia plans to continue providing military aid and intelligence to the Syrian government.

As talks aimed at ending the five year civil war in Syria continue in Geneva, the Economist analyzes the chances that the peace talks will succeed. The Economist tells us that the “overarching question is whether Syria can be put back together under some federal structure that allows the regime or its successor to hold on to an Alawite enclave that runs along to coast from Latakia down to Damascus; gives the Kurds the territory they call Rojava; and leaves the rest of the country to Syria’s Sunnis.” Read the rest from the Economist here.

The New York Times shares that Hassan Aboud, a feared Islamic State commander who led the jihadist group’s ranks in a series of battles in Syria, died on Wednesday. Aboud succumbed to wounds sustained during a battle near Aleppo two weeks ago, according to a former aid and one of Aboud’s townspeople. The Times writes that “Mr. Aboud was admired by jihadists but despised by many Syrian rebels and activists, who accused him of betrayal and of organizing an assassination campaign against rebel leaders with whom he had collaborated before publicly defecting to the Islamic State in 2014.”

The American Islamic State fighter who surrendered to Kurdish forces earlier this week has announced that he made “a bad decision” by joining the terrorist group. The Washington Post tells us that Mohamad Khweis, a 26 year old from Virginia, said that “his life under the Islamic State in Mosul was a ‘very strict’ regimen of prayer, eating, and eight hours of daily instruction in religion and sharia law, and he soon came to realize, ‘I didn’t really support their ideology.’” Khweis made his remarks during a “heavily edited” interview with Kurdistan 24. Check it out here.

Today, European Union leaders struck an agreement with Turkey regarding the illegal migration flows to Europe. Reuters reports that E.U. leaders approved the “controversial deal” with Turkey to halt the refugees illegally entering Europe in return for financial and political rewards. Reuters adds that “the accord aims to close the main route over which a million migrants and refugees poured across the Aegean Sea to Greece before marching north to Germany and Sweden in the last year.” However, doubts remain on whether this deal is workable and even legal. Additionally, the BBC shares that “under the scheme, migrants arriving in Greece after midnight Sunday will be sent back to Turkey if their asylum claim is rejected.”

A bomb planted by Kurdish militants killed a police officer in southeast Turkey today and another explosive device was defused outside of a government building. Reuters indicates that Turkey has been on high alert ever since a suicide bombing killed 37 people in Ankara over the weekend. According to Turkish security officials, the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) is believed to be behind the bomb attack. The defused explosive device was found inside of a vehicle in the town of Hani. State authorities believe that the 330 pounds of explosives were set to detonate during events to mark an anniversary of a World War I battlefield victory. Reuters shares that the heightened alerts have caused Germany to shut down its diplomatic missions and schools in Turkey while the United States and European embassies warned citizens to be vigilant.

Over in France, French lawmakers and first responders have re-enacted the November 13 terrorist attacks that rocked the streets of Paris leaving 130 people dead. The Associated Press reports that the re-enactment and investigation is aimed to prevent future tragedies and shed light on what happened when the terrorists began their siege.

Saudi Arabia announced that its military coalition will scale back operations against rebels in Yemen. However, a Saudi military spokesman indicated that the coalition would continue to provide air support to Yemeni forces. The news comes as two representatives of Yemen’s Houthi rebels attended a secret peace talk in Saudi Arabia which resulted in “a reduction of tensions on the border and an exchange of prisoners,” as Al Jazeera reports.

Reuters shares that Iran will likely evade any new sanctions by the United Nations. However, the U.N. Security Council may issue a reprimand for Iran’s recent ballistic missile tests that some Western countries believe were missiles that could carry a nuclear warhead. Diplomats from Britain, France, Germany, China, Russia, and the United States have agreed that Iran’s recent ballistic missiles tests do not violate any provisions in last summer’s nuclear accord. Yet, as Reuters tells us, a Security Council resolution “calls upon” Iran to stop activity including missile launches for up to eight years.

The United States has noticed an increase in Chinese activity around an island near the Philippines, possibly indicating China’s intentions to reclaim more territory in the South China Sea. Reuters reports that China seized the island nearly four years ago from the Philippines. Additionally, Admiral John Richardson, head of U.S. naval operations, expressed his concern that “an international court ruling expected in the coming weeks on a case brought by the Philippines against China over its South China Sea claims could be a trigger for Beijing to declare an exclusion zone in the busy trade route.” Richardson told Reuters that the United States is weighing responses to such a move.

The Wall Street Journal sheds light on increasing concerns over China’s plan to recycle nuclear fuel. U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, in Beijing for talks, said yesterday that “China’s plans to build a nuclear-recycling facility present challenges to global efforts to control the spread of potentially dangerous materials.” China plans to process spent nuclear fuel into plutonium that potentially could be used in weapons and only heightens the risk of nuclear proliferation. The Journal has more.

Speaking of increased concerns, North Korea fired another ballistic missile today. Reuters reports that the missile “appeared to be a medium-range missile fired from a road-mobile launcher.” If true, it would be North Korea’s first test of a missile capable of reaching Japan since 2014. The Wall Street Journal shares that “the missile was launched from an area northwest of Pyongyang at 5:55am local time and flew about 500 miles before crashing off the Korean Peninsula’s eastern coast.” Additionally, North Korea might have launched another missile as well. The New York Times tells us that shortly after the initial launch, another projectile appeared on radar and was believed to have been fired from the same site. The projectile is thought to have been another missile, but analysts said that they still need more time to be sure. The moves by the Hermit Kingdom come after the United States imposed a new list of heavy sanctions against the country and after Kim Jong Un threatened that North Korea could level New York City with a nuclear warhead.

Cameroon soldiers killed 20 Boko Haram militants on Wednesday during a raid in northern Nigeria. According to a spokesman from Cameroon’s Defense Ministry, 12 hostages were freed and munitions and armored vehicles were seized during the operation.

In the latest developments in the feud between Apple and the FBI, the New York Times tells us that, if the FBI wins its court fight to force Apple to help unlock an iPhone, some Apple engineers might “balk at the work, while others may even quit their high-paying jobs rather than undermine the security of the software they have already created.” The Times has more on the possible resistance.

Over on the Hill, the Senate Intelligence Committee leaders will soon release a draft of the long awaited bill which would provide law enforcement access to encrypted data. The Hill writes that the bill “is expected to force companies to comply with court orders seeking locked communications” and is “intended to prevent terrorist and criminals from using encryption to hide their communications from law enforcement.”

The National Security Agency is not interested in you. Yesterday, the NSA’s internal civil liberties watchdog insisted that the secret agency has no interest in spying on Americans. Rebecca Richards, a NSA privacy and civil liberties officer, stated that “our employees are trained to not look for U.S. persons. We’re not interested in those U.S. persons. We’re trying to look away from those.” The Hill has more.

The Hill also reports that the Department of Homeland Security has begun sharing cyber threat data with federal agencies and private companies in accordance with a cybersecurity bill passed last year. DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson called the new measure the “if you see something, say something” of cybersecurity during his remarks yesterday at the National Cybersecurity and Communications Integration Center.

A former German intelligence employee admitted that he started spying for the United States and Russia “because he felt under appreciated and not sufficiently challenged in his job.” The Guardian tells us that triple agent Markus Reichel was sentenced to eight years in prison on Thursday for “passing more than 200 secret documents to the CIA, as well as trying to hand over three documents to Russian intelligence.” Reichel allegedly felt as though no one trusted him with anything during his time at the German intelligence agency. He did not feel that way while working with the CIA though and said that “I would be lying if I said that I didn’t like that.”

The FBI announced that Faisal Mohammad, 18, likely self radicalized and drew inspiration from terrorist propaganda before stabbing four students at the University of California last year. NBC News reports that investigators found pro-ISIS propaganda on his laptop and evidence that the teenager visited extremist websites in the weeks leading up to his attack. Allegedly, Mohammad appeared to have been upset by  “a study group snub” before he carried out the attack.

Mufid Elfgeeh, a New York state resident, was sentenced to 22 ½ years in prison for trying to recruit fighters to join the Islamic State. Reuters tells us that the sentence is the longest prison term handed to an American citizen convicted of supporting the Islamic State.

Air Force Lieutenant General John Hesterman has been fired from his top job at the Pentagon after an investigation revealed an “unprofessional relationship” with a female Lieutenant Colonel. Hesterman was removed from his post as the Air Force Assistant Vice-Chief of Staff and shortly submitted his retirement papers. ABC News has more.

In other news, President Obama plans to nominate the first female combatant commander. The president will nominate Air Force General Lori Robinson for commander of U.S. North Command. General Robinson is currently the head of Pacific Air Forces. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter described Robinson as having “very good managerial experience” and that he has “seen her when she basically did the budget for the Joint Chiefs in years past.”

Over on Capitol Hill, some U.S. Senators are introducing a bill to improve Washington’s efforts to counter propaganda and disinformation spread by China and Russia. The Countering Information Warfare Act of 2016 comes “amid growing calls in Congress and in many European capitals to do more to fight foreign disinformation campaigns,” as Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty reports.

Parting Shot: Still wondering what should become of the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay once it is closed? Two professors have put forth a plan to transform the prison into a ocean research lab and “peace park.” Bet you weren’t thinking of that. Read more on GTMO’s potential green future here and here.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Julian Ku asked whether we could get past the freedom of navigation operation debate.

Jack Goldsmith flagged the danger to Scalia’s legacy with the Republican’s Garland strategy.

Asher Susser highlighted the view from Israel on the civil war in Syria.

Stewart Baker released the latest edition of the Steptoe Cyberlaw Podcast featuring an interview with Robin Weisman and Peter Van Valkenburgh.

Timothy Edgar argued that the Apple vs. FBI debate shows that lawyers and the tech world speak different languages on privacy.

Paul Rosenzweig commented on international cyber norms and featured a new book entitled International Cyber Norms: Legal, Policy, and Industry Perspectives.

Paul also told us that if we are planning to travel to Europe this summer, our trip may be harder than we thought.

Email the Roundup Team noteworthy law and security-related articles to include, and follow us on Twitter and Facebook for additional commentary on these issues. Sign up to receive Lawfare in your inbox. Visit our Events Calendar to learn about upcoming national security events, and check out relevant job openings on our Job Board.