Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Alex R. McQuade
Thursday, March 24, 2016, 3:04 PM

Some security officials are indicating that the Islamic State has trained at least 400 fighters to attack Europe in “deadly waves of attacks.” The Associated Press tells us that the terrorist group, responsible for this week’s brutal strike against Brussels, is allegedly “deploying interlocking terror cells like the ones that struck Brussels and Paris with orders to choose the time, place, and method for maximum chaos.”

While Belgium’s security apparatus investigates the backgrounds of the attackers behind Tuesday’s attacks, they are beginning to realize a common trend familiar to investigators in Paris and other European cities targeted by the Islamic State. The Washington Post shares that the attackers “used in the terrorist group’s signature attacks are largely men already well known to local law enforcement—not as religious radicals, but as criminals.” Furthermore, some U.S. and European terrorism experts are saying that the Islamic State appears to be discovering a ripe ground for recruiting within Europe’s street gangs and petty criminals, drawing waves of troubled young men and women from predominantly poor Muslim communities, just as other terrorist organizations have done in the Middle East for years.

The Economist provides two lessons immediately after the terrorist attack in Belgium. One, the Islamic State “remains resourceful enough to mount synchronized bombings in the heart of Europe.” The other lesson is that large cities in Europe and America will have to get used to this new long campaign of terror in which all are targets. This is the new normal.

The Wall Street Journal reports that authorities in Belgium have begun to trace a clear path between Tuesday’s assault and the terrorists behind the November 13 siege of Paris. The New York Times adds that the link between the two terror incidents raises “new alarms about Europe’s leaky defenses against a militant organization that has terrorized two European capitals with seeming impunity.”

Additionally, two of the suicide bombers were Belgian-born brothers with criminal pasts. Interested in why so many terrorists turn out to be brothers? You and many investigators and counterterrorism experts are alike. Check out the New York Times’ piece on why siblings unite to unleash terror here.

The manhunt in Belgium continues. Belgian police are hunting for a third man who was filmed with the two suicide bombers at Brussels’ airport. While Belgium hunts for the elusive accomplice, they are also wary that a second attacker suspected of taking part in the subway train bombing may be at large as well. More on that here and here.

The Guardian provides us an interactive map detailing the attackers’ connections between the Brussels and Paris attacks.

The New York Times reports that Belgian police uncovered a peroxide-based explosive known as triacetone triperoxide, or TATP, in the apartment of one of the suspected bombers. The Times writes that” when cooked, the white powdery substance is highly volatile and potent,” earning it the nickname “The Mother of Satan.” Additionally, just a few grams of TATP may blow off fingers, and concentrated pounds of it can be devastating. Although security officials have not yet determined the types of devices used in Tuesday’s bombings, if TATP was the primary ingredient, it would become the latest example of the chemical’s use in attacks across Europe.

Following the attacks in Brussels, Turkey issued a statement confirming that it had deported one of the suicide bombers last year. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan told reporters yesterday that Ibrahim El Bakraoui was deported from Turkey in June 2015 over suspicions he was trying to enter Syria to fight with an extremist group. Now, the Belgian and Dutch governments are under increased pressure to explain exactly why el Bakraoui was not more closely monitored despite Turkey’s warnings.

The BBC shares that Paris attacks suspect Salah Abdeslam changed his mind and will not fight extradition from Belgium to France. Previously, Abdeslam vowed not to go back to France, but now the suspected terrorists would like to “explain himself.” Reuters has more.

“If another example of the failure of European intelligence services to share and act on information about potential terrorists was needed, Wednesday’s identification of the bombers in the deadly Brussels attacks the day before certainly provides it.” That is what the New York Times’ Adam Nossiter is arguing. More on Europe’s intelligence problems here.

Following the attacks in Belgium, European justice and home affairs ministers will hold an emergency meeting in Brussels to in a show of solidarity. The Guardian shares that “no decisions are expected from the two-hour meeting, but ministers will call on the European parliament ‘as a matter of urgency’ to adopt an agreement on security forces’ use of airport passenger data, overriding rejections from privacy campaigners.”

President Obama indicated that the United States will not be changing its strategy against the Islamic State. The Washington Post reports that President Obama declared that defeating the Islamic State remains his top priority and vowed not to change course “simply because it’s political season. The Post has more.

Reuters tells us that the European Union deployed its foreign policy chief to Geneva yesterday to “breathe new life” on the Syrian peace talks. E.U. foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini spoke to negotiators on both sides of the debate. Bashar Ja’afari, head of the Syrian delegation, after his meeting with Mogherini, said that “he believed an impasse in the talks had been broken.” Yet, Reuters writes that he was told by the E.U. and U.N. that “accelerating a political transition in Syria—a major sticking point given fundamental disagreements between the warring parties over the fate of President Bashar al Assad—was the only way to defeat groups like the Islamic State.”

Meanwhile, Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Moscow yesterday for the first face-to-face U.S. meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin since he announced Russia’s pullback of forces in Syria earlier this month. The Wall Street Journal reports that Secretary Kerry “will seek to determine whether Mr. Putin is more amenable to removing Syrian President Bashar al Assad from power now that a fragile cease-fire has been declared on the ground and peace talks are progressing in Geneva between rebels and the Syrian government.”

Syrian government forces backed by Russian airstrikes have fought their way into Palmyra in the latest attempt to recapture the city from the Islamic State. The Syrian state-run news agency reported earlier today that troops reached the heart of Palmyra and that the fighting was concentrated near the archaeological sites near the south-western edge of the city. Palmyra has been under ISIS control since last year. The Guardian has more.

Speaking of retaking cities, the Iraqi military backed by U.S.-led coalition aircraft launched an operation to recapture the northern city of Mosul from Islamic State militants. The Associated Press reports that Iraqi forces also retook several villages on the outskirts of Mosul, but it was not immediately clear how long this offensive would take. However, some U.S. and Iraqi officials have doubts that the city can be retaken this year.

Over in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Houthi rebels have agreed to a ceasefire and a resumption of peace talks in April. The Wall Street Journal writes that the announcement raises “hopes for an end to a conflict that has killed thousands of people and sparked a humanitarian crisis.” Additionally, the Journal reports that the “talks would focus on five areas: withdrawal of militia and armed groups, handover of heavy weapons to the state, arrangements for interim security, restoration of state institutions, and creation of a special committee for prisoners and detainees.”

Earlier this week, the FBI obtained a postponement of a court hearing with Apple, in order to allow the government time to test a new method to extract data from the iPhone belonging to one of the San Bernardino attackers without the tech company’s help. The FBI says a third-party has demonstrated an initially credible method and agreed to help the FBI access the device. The BBC shares that Israel’s Cellebrite is that third-party helping the FBI. Although Cellebrite has declined to comment beyond confirming it is in fact working with the FBI, its website “states that one of its tools can extract and decode data from the iPhone 5C, the iPhone model in question.”

The New York Times reports that the United States indicted 7 Iranian computer specialists who worked for the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps charging that they were behind cyber attacks on dozens of American banks and a small dam in New York that began in 2011. The Times writes that “the indictment does not say that the attacks were directed by the Revolutionary Guards. But it referred to those who were charged as ‘experienced computer hackers’ who ‘performed work on behalf of the Iranian government, including the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.”

In other hacking news, a Chinese man has pleaded guilty to being involved in a plot to hack into systems containing sensitive U.S. military data. The BBC tells us that Su Bin is believed to have been part of a group that had targeted data relating to some fighter jets, cargo aircrafts, and weapons. Su was arrested in Canada in 2014 and faces five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

The Hill has the latest news coming from the National Security Agency. A pair of bipartisan lawmakers are expressing an alarm over a reported change at the NSA that would allow more federal agencies to directly access its signals intelligence. In a letter written by Representatives Ted Lieu (D-CA) and Blake Farenthold (R-TX), the lawmakers state “if media accounts are true, this radical policy shift by the NSA would be unconstitutional and dangerous. The proposed shift in the relationship between our intelligence agencies and the American people should not be done in secret. NSA’s mission has never been, and should never be, domestic policing or domestic anything.”

The RAND Corporation released a new report exploring U.S. policy options for managing relations with China over the cyberspace policy debate through the use of agreements and norms of behavior. Check out RAND’s report on “getting to yes with China in cyberspace” here.

North Korea allegedly tested a powerful new solid-fuel rocket engine. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attended the successful test and stated that it would help “strike great horror and terror into the hearts of the enemies,” according to North Korea’s state news agency. The Hermit Kingdom also released pictures of Kim at the test site but did not say when it had occurred. The Wall Street Journal comments that the newest test seems to be “the latest in a series of announcements that appear intended to portray progress in its development of an advanced nuclear-tipped missile that could threaten the U.S. mainland.” Earlier this month, North Korea threatened to level New York City with a nuclear warhead. Now it's threatening the same fate for the South Korean President’s office. The Washington Post has more.

Today, former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic was convicted of genocide and nine other counts of war crimes and sentenced to 40 years in jail by U.N. judges. Reuters writes that “the judges said Karadzic was criminally responsible for the siege of Sarajevo and had committed crimes against humanity in Bosnian towns. They said he intended to eliminate the Bosnian Muslim males in the town of Srebrenica, where 8,000 Muslims died in Europe’s worst war crime since World War Two.” The Guardian calls Karadzic’s trial “the most most important war crimes ruling in Europe since Nuremberg.”

During testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, senior Defense Department officials revealed that Americans have been killed by former detainees of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. The Associated Press shares that the announcement by Paul Lewis, the Pentagon’s special envoy for Guantanamo, triggered sharp criticism from Republicans in Congress to shutting the facility. The criticism from Republicans come just days after the Islamic State’s attacks against Belgium. The Hill reports that some lawmakers yesterday “suggested that the recent attacks in Europe might persuade U.S. allies to change their minds about the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.”

President Obama met with Argentine President Mauricio Macri yesterday, marking a turning point in the United States and Argentina’s bilateral relations. President Obama’s visit to the South American nation was the first by a sitting U.S. president in nearly two decades. The Wall Street Journal tells us that the visit “would allow the two countries to strengthen cooperation in the fight against drug trafficking, terror, and climate change.” Additionally, the leaders announced new trade and economic initiatives would be part of both countries’ efforts to “reset relations after years of antipathy.” Besides discussing diplomatic plans in Argentina, President Obama also danced the tango. Who needs ping-pong diplomacy when you can dance? Check out the President’s moves here.

Parting Shot: Internet trolls have transformed Tay, Microsoft’s fun millennial AI bot who wants to chat with you, into a genocidal maniac. Do we have to say more? Check out why Tay is taking a break from the Internet here.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Cody linked to the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s hearing on the Obama administration’s plan to close Guantanamo.

Timothy Edgar advocated for a “9/11-style commission” that could give sensible people in Europe something to be for, keeping the far right from setting the agenda.

Paul Rosenzweig told us who is helping the FBI crack the iPhone.

Stewart Baker issued the latest Steptoe Cyberlaw Podcast featuring an interview with Adam Segal

Ben released the newest issue of Rational Security, the “I Don’t Want People to Go Around Thinking I Have a Problem” Edition.

Ben also described the digital age’s very definition of “chutzpah.”

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