Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Alex R. McQuade
Tuesday, March 22, 2016, 4:11 PM

The Islamic State once again struck the heart of Europe earlier today, this time in Brussels, killing 30 people and wounding 230 others when explosions rocked Zaventem Airport and a busy metro train. The coordinated attacks have triggered heightened security in the Belgian capital and come just days after Belgian security officials arrested Salah Abdeslam, one of the alleged Paris attackers. While under questioning, Abdeslam told investigators that he was planning more attacks. You can keep up with the live updates coming from Belgium here.

Meanwhile, as Belgium increases security throughout the streets of Brussels, Belgian security officials are seeking the public’s help to locate Najim Laachraoui. Laachraoui, 24, is believed to have been an accomplice of Salah Abdeslam and played a critical role in an Islamic State network responsible for recruiting men to train and fight in Syria. It is unclear whether he or Abdeslam were involved in today’s assault.

In other headlines, the FBI abruptly cancelled its court hearing with Apple set to begin today. Last night, the Department of Justice said that it might no longer need Apple’s help in unlocking an iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino attackers. The New York Times reports that the government says in a new court filing that an outside party has demonstrated a way for the FBI to potentially unlock the iPhone. The Wall Street Journal adds that the government still has to test the method, but if that method is successful, “it should eliminate the need for the assistance from Apple.” You can read the full court filing from DOJ here. Lawfare’s Susan Hennessey and Ben Wittes outline why this might mean something… or nothing at all.

Speaking of the ongoing encryption debate between Apple and the FBI, Amnesty International has issued a report deeming encryption as an “important enabler of human rights.” NBC News has more on the new report.

Over on Capitol Hill, a bipartisan group of senators have started circulating draft legislation that would provide federal judges clear authority to order technology companies to assist law enforcement officials in accessing encrypted data. Reuters shares that the proposal, created by Senators Richard Burr (R-NC) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), “does not spell out how companies must provide access or the circumstances under which they could be ordered to help,” but leaves judges with broader powers.

As the Syrian peace talks continue on in Geneva, pressure is mounting on the Syrian government to start discussing President Bashar al Assad’s future. However, the Syrian government has simply refused to address the topic. The head of the Syrian government’s delegation, Bashar Ja’afari, said that the fate of Assad will play no part in the peace talks and that Assad’s future had nothing to do with the ongoing negotiations. The U.N. envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura, has categorized Syria’s political transition as the “mother of all issues,” and warned that the Syrian government’s refusal to discuss Assad’s future may lead to further deterioration on the ground. The Guardian has more on the peace talks.

As the Syrian government refuses to think about life without Assad, Russia has issued a warning that it will take matters into its own hands in regards to violations of the cessation of hostilities. The Washington Post reports that the Russia’s Defense Ministry stated that the country’s military would be ready to strike as early as today against groups that it deemed violated the “cessation of hostilities” enacted earlier this month. However, Russia will not bomb any party if the United States agrees to discuss a Russian proposal for how to maintain peace in Syria.

The New York Times tells us that the Pentagon has acknowledged that it had established a small Marine base in northern Iraq. The disclosure of the base follows an Islamic State rocket attack that killed one Marine and wounded several others last week. Although the Obama administration has continually contended that the U.S. military is not conducting ground operations in Iraq, the Times points out that the Marine “outpost has long-range artillery that can help Iraqi forces as they try to reclaim land from the Islamic State.” Still, the Marine base was attacked again yesterday by a small group of fighters. However, according to Colonel Steve Warren, U.S. spokesman in Iraq, the outpost was kept a secret because the Pentagon wanted to give the Marines a chance to “become fully operational” and “ready to fight.”

However, the secrecy did not stop Islamic State militants from attacking the base with rocket fire and killing a U.S. Marine last week. The Daily Beast delves into how the pseudo-state knew just where to hit the Marines in Iraq. You can read that story here.

In other Islamic State news, the terrorist organization killed 26 Syrian naval commandos on the outskirts of Palmyra yesterday as government forces tried to recapture the ancient city from the extremists. The Wall Street Journal reports that the Islamic State claimed responsibility for killing the Syrian commandos and, via Twitter, said that a truck bomb killed them and wounded around 70 others. The Islamic State also warned the Syrian government and Russian forces about future “dark days” ahead.

Turkey is still trying to cope with “one of the biggest and bloodiest terrorist waves in its history” after a string of terrorist attacks rocked the country during the last few months. Following Saturday’s suicide bombing that killed three Israeli citizens and an Iranian, the fourth suicide attack in Turkey this year, President Erdogan stated that “Turkey has recently been facing one of the biggest and bloodiest terrorist waves in its history...our state is fighting terrorist organizations and the forces behind them with everything as its disposal—its soldiers, police, village guards, and its intelligence.” Two of the attacks in Istanbul have been blamed on the Islamic State, while the other two attacks in Ankara have been claimed by Kurdish militants.

As Turkey uses all its forces to combat terrorism, the Associated Press reports that Turkish-state run media announced yesterday that Turkish police forces are searching for three suspected Islamic State militants who are allegedly planning to carry out a “sensational” act within the country. According to the Anadolu Agency, the three suspects are believed to be members of a local cell linked to the Islamic State and all police departments have been ordered to arrest them.

Yesterday, President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro stood side-by-side during a press conference where the two leaders declared a “new day” of openness between the United States and Cuba. However, the New York Times writes that “old grievances and disputes over human rights marred a groundbreaking meeting and underscored lingering impediments to a historic thaw.” During the joint press conference, the two leaders traded criticism of each other’s countries in a frank and somewhat awkward exchange. Additionally, President Castro demanded that President Obama hand back Guantanamo Bay and end the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba.

Reuters reports that the U.N. Security Council agreed to China’s request to remove sanctions on four ships the United Nations has blacklisted for ties to Pyongyang’s arms trade. Last week, China asked the U.S. for assistance in removing the ships from the U.N. sanctions list. The ships were removed from the blacklist after China had secured assurances that the vessels would not use North Korean crews. The blacklist and sanctions come in response to North Korea’s recent nuclear weapon test, satellite launch, and subsequent ballistic missile tests.

With all of North Korea’s recent test operations in the last few weeks, the country is likely to test more. However, the Daily Beast contends that the next North Korean test could potentially kill. Read more on how Kim Jung Un could make a dangerously wrong move here.

Following the announcement that the United States will now occupy military bases in the Philippines, the Washington Post provides a look at the bases in the South China Sea which do not make China very happy.

The European Union’s military mission in Mali’s headquarters was attacked by unidentified assailants yesterday. No casualties were reported, but the headquarters was still “securing the area.” The New York Times reports that the U.S. Embassy Bamako warned American citizens to avoid the area and shelter in place until further notice and also stated that the complex was in “duck and cover status.”

The Department of Justice has decided not to prosecute a former high-ranking U.S. diplomat who was under investigation by the FBI on suspicion of providing secrets to the Pakistani government. According to the Washington Post, Robin L. Raphel was at the center of a counterintelligence investigation made public in 2014 after agents raided her Washington home. Although the FBI agents discovered classified information at Raphel’s home, the materials were many years old.

Politico has the latest Supreme Court news. Earlier today, SCOTUS announced its first deadlock since Justice Antonin Scalia’s unexpected death last month. The 4-4 ruling split a dispute over an obscure protection to spouses of applicants for bank loans. The equally divided decision only fuels the crusade Republicans are heading in Congress: not to fill Justice Scalia’s seat until the next president is sworn in.

Parting Shot: “Is labeling the horrors inflicted by Islamic State on ethnic and religious minorities “genocide” the prelude to stepped up U.S. action to put a halt to it? Or is it a substitute for such action?” The Wall Street Journal’s William McGurn outlines why labeling the Islamic State’s actions “genocide” won’t stop the genocide. He argues, “what the people feeling the bloody edge of Islamic State’s sword need is not someone to characterize the slaughter but someone to put a stop to it.” Read more from the Journal here.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Cody shared the Week That Will Be, providing us links to upcoming events in DC and some employment announcements.

Robert Chesney and Steve Vladeck examined whether there was a coherent middle ground in the Apple vs. FBI All Writs Act dispute.

Paul Rosenzweig stated that the Department of Homeland Security’s National Protection and Programs Directorate should take a more operational role in cyber protection of government and civilian networks and should merge with its physical protection functions.

Herb Lin commented on the spinning of the FBI’s motion to postpone its court confrontation with Apple.

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