Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Elina Saxena
Wednesday, March 23, 2016, 3:06 PM

The manhunt continues in Belgium, following yesterday’s attacks in Brussels that left 31 dead and 270 injured. The Zaventem airport and much of the Brussels subway system are expected to remain closed until Thursday as “Belgium remains in a state of mourning and on the highest state of alert.” Responding to the attacks, Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel said that "we are determined, admittedly with a strong feeling of pain in our stomachs, but determined to act," adding that "we must turn the page on naivete, a form of carefreeness that our societies have known." Four U.S. nationals have been reported missing after the attacks.

Authorities have identified three suspects involved in the attacks, including the two brothers who detonated suicide bombs. The brothers, identified as Khalid and Ibrahim el-Bakraoui, had criminal records but had not been linked to terrorism until last week’s raids related to the Paris attacks. The two are believed to have had connections with Salah Abdeslam, the supposed mastermind of the Paris attacks, who was arrested last week. The Wall Street Journal reports that, “in the raid that lasted over 12 hours on Tuesday,” investigators searching the apartment of one of the brothers “found 15 kilograms (33 pounds) of TATP explosives, 150 liters (40 gallons) of acetone, 30 liters (8 gallons) of hydrogen peroxide, detonators and a suitcase filled with screws and bolts” as well as an Islamic State flag.

A third suspect, Najim Laachraoui, remains at large. According to the Washington Post, Laachraoui remains the “target of the manhunt and his DNA was found on at least one bomb used in the Paris attacks.” Laachraoui, a Belgian national born in Morocco, is said to have travelled to Syria and has been “described as a suspected Islamic State bombmaker” by one European security official.

The attacks in Brussels came when Belgian authorities most expected them, raising questions about the ability of Western security forces to combat the threat of terrorism. The Daily Beast tells us that “U.S. counterterrorism officials are frustrated and angry at Belgium’s inability to tackle ISIS terror cells that are successfully plotting murderous attacks on the West from inside the country’s tiny capital city.” As suggested by Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), “Belgium has been stepping up the amount of people they’re devoting to intelligence and law enforcement but they’re playing catch-up and we’re seeing the terrible results of that today."

According to the Soufan Group, “the recent attacks demonstrate again how much damage and chaos one relatively small group of trained and motivated people can inflict on a city well-equipped to counter the threat.” Suggesting that “the March 22 attacks were sudden in their execution, but a long time coming in their build-up,” TSG writes that “these cells operate as socio-criminal units; as difficult as it is for police to contain known gang activity, it is even more so with terrorist groups, which retreat further below the radar the closer they are to executing a plot.”

While “European security services are overwhelmed” in their efforts to combat rising threats, Dan Byman writes that “Europe has emerged as a key battleground” in the Islamic State’s fight against the West. Byman tells us that attacks such as those in Paris or Brussels “enable the group’s leaders to claim they are taking the fight to their enemies” and allow the group to portray success, despite major defeats incurred by the group on the ground in Iraq and Syria. Greg Jaffe of the Post tells us that the attacks “pose the worst kind of foreign policy dilemma for President Obama, pitting his instincts that he’s doing all he can to defeat the Islamic State against intense political pressure for him to do more.”

As the Geneva peace talks between Syrian regime and opposition forces proceeded into their second week, UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura responded to the attacks in Brussels, suggesting that “the tragedy in Brussels ... reminds us that ... we have no time to lose,” emphasizing the “need to extinguish the fire of war in Syria.” Talks have reached an impasse as the topic of a political transition remains contentious. Following the Assad regime’s refusal to discuss its political future, Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Moscow today in order to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss the prospects of a political transition in Syria. A State Department official told reporters that “if the cessation of hostilities is going to transform into a true transition for Syria, it is going to have to involve getting down to brass tacks on what that political transition looks like.” Kerry is also expected to discuss how to respond to violations of the fragile cessation of hostilities among other topics.

Meanwhile, the Syrian army is fast closing in on the ISIS controlled town of Palmyra. The Washington Post writes that “in the push on Palmyra, which started in earnest last week, Syrian government forces have been backed by intense Russian airstrikes,” and Reuters adds that “the Syrian army is trying to recapture Palmyra, which Islamic State seized in May, to open a road to the mostly IS-held eastern province of Deir al-Zor.”

Turning to Iraq, Defense Secretary Ash Carter acknowledged that the number of troops deployed in the country exceeded the official troop cap of 3,870. Speaking before the House Armed Services Committee, Carter stressed that temporarily deployed troops are counted differently and said that “people who are temporarily assigned — and this has been true for here and in Afghanistan for some time — they, under the caps, are counted differently.” A few months ago, Senator John McCain estimated that the number of troops deployed in Iraq was closer to 5,000.

Carter’s remarks came on the heels of the second U.S. combat death in Iraq over the weekend, a death that revealed the existence of a Marine fire base. The base, known as Fire Base Bell, is intended to target the Islamic State as Iraqi forces seek to retake Mosul. It was targeted by Islamc State rocketfire on Saturday, killing Marine Staff Sgt. Louis Cardin and wounding additional U.S. personnel. According to the Washington Post, “the Pentagon had planned to release the details of the Marines’ new position, a small outpost of berms, tents and four 155mm M777 howitzers, but did not because it was not fully operational, according to Army Col. Steve Warren.” The Post notes that “the creation of a U.S. outpost indicates a noteworthy development in a battle that is largely fought from the skies.”

During his visit to Afghanistan, Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr, the new U.S. Commander in Afghanistan, issued an apology for the U.S. bombing of Médecins Sans Frontières’ Kunduz hospital in October. The New York Times tells us that Nicholson’s “tone was a sharp contrast to that of General Nicholson’s predecessor, Gen. John F. Campbell, who had sent confusing messages after the attack and had stopped short of apologizing.” Nicholson traveled with his wife “to Kunduz on Tuesday to meet with local officials and families of victims of the attack,” which left 42 dead.

Elsewhere in the country, eight Islamic State militants were killed in a U.S. drone strike in eastern Nangarhar province. No civilians were killed in the strike that targeted a vehicle carrying ISIS militants.

A U.S. airstrike in Yemen killed dozens of militants in the Yemeni al Qaeda affiliate. The strike targeted an al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula training camp west of the port city of Mukalla on the country’s southern coast. Pentagon Spokesman Peter Cook issued a statement saying that “our initial assessment is that dozens of A.Q.A.P. fighters have been removed from the battlefield,” adding that the “strike deals a blow to A.Q.A.P.’s ability to use Yemen as a base for attacks that threaten U.S. persons, and it demonstrates our commitment to defeating Al Qaeda and denying it safe haven.”

In efforts to combat the violence that has gripped Israel for months, Israel has arrested some 1200 unauthorized Palestinian workers. According to the Times of Israel, the Israeli parliament “approved a tough new law to keep out illegal Palestinian workers, as part of measures aimed at tackling a surge in attacks against Israelis,” last week.

Agence France-Presse reports that Somali security forces “killed 65 Shebab Islamic insurgents who attacked coastal towns in the semi-autonomous Puntland area in the country's northeast.” That said, the AFP adds, “both the Somali authorities and the insurgents regularly report having inflicted significant losses on the other, claims that are often impossible to verify.”

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov accused the Ukrainian government “of dragging its feet on implementing last year's cease-fire agreement as Moscow sought to press its point in a new round of high-level diplomacy,” according to the Associated Press. While the cease-fire has largely held, “none of the political elements, including calling a local election, has been implemented” which, Lavrov told reporters, “is the main stumbling block to a peace settlement in the east.” Tensions between Russia and Ukraine remain high. Yesterday, a Russian court sentenced Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko to 22 years for her role in the deaths of two Russian journalists as Russian prosecutors argued that her actions were fueled by “political hatred.” Savchenko has been hailed as a hero by Ukrainians, who have protested the conviction.

Over in the South China Sea, “Taiwan flew international media to its largest island holding in the South China Sea in a bid to reinforce its territorial claims in the disputed and increasingly tense region,” AP reports. The trip sought to “show that Taiping is an island capable of sustaining human habitation, and not simply a "rock" as the Philippines claims in a case brought before the Permanent Court of Arbitration.”

In considering why “a third party went to the F.B.I. with claims of being able to unlock an iPhone,” the New York Times writes that, “for all the steps Apple has taken to encrypt customers’ communications and its rhetoric around customer privacy, security experts said the company was still doing less than many competitors to seal up its systems from hackers.” The Times adds that unlike other tech companies, which reward hackers for revealing security flaws, “when hackers do find flaws in Apple’s code, they have little incentive to turn them over to the company for fixing." Following the DOJ’s motion to postpone yesterday’s previously scheduled hearing, Politico writes that “latest legal gambit in its dispute with Apple could hamstring the FBI’s larger push to gain access to encrypted data.”

AP reports that a “three-judge federal appeals panel has partly dismissed an Idaho woman's lawsuit over the National Security Agency's bulk collection of phone records as moot.” The woman sued the government in 2013, claiming that the NSA's data collection violated the Fourth Amendment.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Carrie Cordero wrote that the attacks in Brussels highlight that something is going wrong with international efforts to counter terrorism.

Cody shared the Department of Justice’s motion to vacate yesterday’s CDCA hearing in the Apple case.

Susan and Ben asked what we should make of the aforementioned motion to postpone the court hearing as the FBI attempts to discover whether another way of hacking the San Bernardino exists.

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.