Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Alex R. McQuade
Friday, March 25, 2016, 2:45 PM

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter announced today that a senior Islamic State operative was killed during a special operations raid in Syria. During a press conference, Secretary Carter and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Joseph Dunford indicated that the Islamic State’s finance minister identified as Haji Imam, also known as Abd al Rahman Mustafa al Qaduli, was killed and that the United States military had eliminated several other key Islamic State leaders this week. Some reports suggest that Imam was the Islamic State’s second-in-command, yet the Washington Post reports that the U.S. officials “stopped short of describing Imam as No.2 in the organization, saying that he held an array of important positions, but remained largely behind the scenes.”

A U.S. official confirmed today that at least 2 Americans were killed in the Brussels terrorist attacks. Earlier today, Secretary of State John Kerry spoke after a meeting with Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel and stated that the “United States is praying and grieving with you for the loved ones of those cruelly taken from us, including Americans, and for the many who were injured in these despicable attacks.” Kerry provided no further details, but a senior U.S. official stated that the families of the Americans killed in Tuesday’s attacks have been informed of their deaths.

During his visit, Secretary Kerry also defended Belgium’s counterterrorism efforts, which have been under intense criticism following Tuesday’s assault that killed 31 people and wounded 270 others. The Associated Press tells us that Secretary Kerry confirmed that several FBI agents are involved in the investigation into the terrorist attacks and stated that the “carping” about Belgium’s intelligence and counterterrorism shortcomings “is a little bit frantic and inappropriate.”

Meanwhile, Belgian police forces have arrested six people suspected of having links to the terror cell that coordinated Tuesday’s attacks. The arrests come a day after top Belgian security ministers offered to resign amid the criticism of the country's failure to foil the plot. Yesterday, Belgium’s justice and interior ministers acknowledged their departments miscommunications and other mistakes made prior to the suicide bombings.

Over in France, French security forces have arrested one person believed to have been plotting an attack in Paris. Law enforcement authorities have confirmed that the individual’s plot was in its “advanced stages.” The Guardian reports that French police “carried out raids in the Argenteuil suburb of Paris following the arrest of the man at 5:30pm on Thursday who was believed to be planning a terrorist attack.” Agence France Presse identified the man arrested as French national Reda Kriket. Police uncovered assault rifles and TATP, the Islamic State’s “explosive of choice,” in Kriket’s home during a raid on Thursday.

In Foreign Affairs, Will McCants and Christopher Meserole argue that jihadists pose a greater threat to France and Belgium than to the rest of Europe. Why? Because of French political culture. Check out that story here.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has called for a European “security union” that would address and face the threat of terrorism. On Wednesday, Juncker indicated the Europe needs to do a better job of coordinating responses to attacks and stated “we feel we need capital markets union, energy union, economic and monetary union, but we also think that we need a security union. We need everything that will allow us to achieve a security union.”

In other global counterterrorism news, Malaysia has arrested 15 people suspected of being linked with the Islamic State. The Wall Street Journal writes that Malaysian police chief Khalid Abu Bakar said in a statement that the suspects, among them an imam and a police officer, were arrested by a special task force between March 22 and March 24. Khalid reportedly said that the “members of the group had helped suspected Islamic State members enter neighboring countries and had financed Islamic State-affiliated groups in the southern Philippines.”

The Syrian peace talks were adjourned in Geneva after 10 days of no progress. U.N. envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura said that he was encouraged that there was “no drama, no walkouts” amid no visible signs of progress. The Associated Press writes that the ultimate goal for de Mistura is a plan for political transition in Syria and in the wake of the Brussels attacks, “de Mistura sought to focus international attention on the next-step, saying that to defeat ‘terrorism, you have to find a political solution in Syria.’”

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin is being urged to wield influence over Syrian President Bashar al Assad. The Guardian reports that “the Syrian government has left a first round of peace talks in Geneva with a warning that there is no hope of progress unless Vladimir Putin exerts influence on Bashar al Assad, adding that a ceasefire will collapse if planned reconvened talks on the target date of April 9 do not move quickly to the issue of a political transition.” Sounds like de Mistura will have to face some drama after all.

However, the BBC shares that the United States and Russia have agreed to aim for a draft of the new Syrian constitution by August. Secretary Kerry made the announcement of the agreement after meeting with Vladimir Putin yesterday.

Following the deadly blasts that rocked Belgium’s capital, the Islamic States released a video on social media yesterday calling on its followers to claim victory and wage jihad. Reuters tells us that the video featured the training of Belgian militants suspected of carrying out the November 13 Paris attacks. The video also features Donald Trump. Read the story here.

Yet, even with the Islamic State’s successful attack in Europe, the Washington Post reports that “on the battlefield in Iraq and Syria the group is a rapidly diminishing force.” The Post writes “in the latest setbacks for the militants on Thursday, Syrian government forces entered the outskirts of the historic town of Palmyra after a weeks-old offensive aided by Russian airstrikes, and U.S. airstrikes helped Iraqi forces overrun a string of Islamic State villages in northern Iraq that had been threatening a U.S. base nearby.”

In Afghanistan, Islamic State forces are also facing setbacks. According to Reuters, dozens of fighters loyal to the pseudo-state have relocated into Afghanistan’s eastern province of Kunar following an “intense campaign” by U.S. warplanes and Afghanistan forces. According to Kunar’s police chief, Hafiz Saeed, a local Islamic State leader, is believed to have been among those who fled from neighboring Nangarhar province.

The prospects of jump-starting peace talks between Afghanistan and the Taliban are becoming increasingly dim. The Associated Press shares that the dimming chances come “amid recent battlefield gains by the insurgents in Afghanistan, an embattled government in Kabul, and growing suspicions of Pakistan’s good intentions in facilitating such negotiations.”

David Headley, a Pakistani-American terrorist involved in the 2008 Mumbai attacks by Lashkar e Taiba, testified yesterday that Pakistan’s ISI paid him to carry out reconnaissance of targets in India. More on that story here.

The Associated Press reports that Pakistani security forces arrested an Indian intelligence officer for his involvement in “subversive activities” in Pakistan. Pakistan has alleged that the Indian intelligence officer was involved in acts of terrorism. The AP writes that “Pakistan’s foreign ministry said it summoned the Indian High Commissioner in Islamabad to lodge a protest over the Indian officer’s illegal entry into Pakistan. It said the man was involved in violence in Baluchistan province and the city of Karachi.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani arrived in Pakistan today marking a historic visit between the two nations. The Associated Press writes that the visit comes at a “time when Saudi Arabia is courting Islamabad to increase participation in a new Saudi-led military alliance of mostly Sunni nations, a coalition perceived by Tehran as an anti-Shiite block.” President Rouhani and Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif made a televised press conference after their meeting and announced that they wanted to forge a relationship built on economic development and shared interests and also privately signed several “memorandums of understanding” in fields such as health, diplomatic training, trade, and commerce.

While Iran and Pakistan work on diplomatic ties, the United States has imposed new sanctions against Iranian defense firms and units of Tehran’s elite Revolutionary Guard for their alleged roles in supporting Iran’s recent ballistic missile launches. The Wall Street Journal has more.

U.S. intelligence officers believe that North Korea “probably” miniaturized a nuclear warhead. According to CNN, “the assessment has yet to become a formal consensus view of the U.S. government. But it reveals just how far along many in the U.S. believe the reclusive country has come to gaining a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile that could potentially strike the United States.” The suspicion of a miniaturized nuclear warhead comes amid rising threats from the Hermit Kingdom and its recent nuclear weapons test and subsequent missile launches.

More than 800 Boko Haram hostages have been rescued by the Nigerian army in multiple villages across northeastern Nigeria. The Guardian shares that all of the hostages were rescued in Nigeria’s Borno state with 520 hostages recovered in Kusumma village and another 309 from 11 other villages under Boko Haram control.

On Capitol Hill, Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) is placing pressure on the Department of Justice to release a “contentious, secret legal opinion that is believed to be connected to cybersecurity law.” According to the Hill, Senator Wyden wrote a letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch stating, “I believe that this opinion is inconsistent with the public’s understanding of the law, and should be withdrawn. I also believe that this opinion should be declassified and released to the public, so that anyone who is a party to one of the agreements can consider whether their agreement should be revised or modified.” He also urged the Justice Department to comply with a pending Freedom of Information Act request.

Reuters tells us that senior U.S. and German officials have agreed to deepen their collaboration on a range of cyber issues, “including working to promote norms for responsible state behavior in cyberspace and expanding training in developing countries.” Both the United States and Germany announced their shared cyber goals in a joint statement following a two-day annual bilateral meeting on cyber issues.

In the latest FBI vs. Apple news, the Washington Post reports that the FBI is “cautiously” testing ways in which it can gain access to the infamous San Bernardino iPhone. The Post writes that “officials say the bureau is testing its new approach first on other devices to try to catch any errors that might end up erasing the data that investigators are trying to recover.” One official indicated the “caution is the rule of the land.” The FBI expects to try the solution proposed by the third party vendor, allegedly Israel’s Cellebrite, within the next few days.

Keeping up with the 2016 presidential election? The New York Times has issued a critique of all the 2016 presidential candidates’ counterterrorism responses to the Brussels attacks. Check that out here.

Parting Shot: And if you read one thing today, let it be this: John McCain’s salute to a Communist.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Ellen Scholl issued the latest update in Hot Commodities, the “dropping bombs in oil market terms” edition.

Elena Chachko commented on the Israeli Supreme Court debates on counterterrorism home demolitions.

Susan argued that the NSA is not the “going dark” solution, no matter what Richard Clarke thinks.

Dan Byman told us what the Brussels attacks signify about the state of ISIS and Europe today.

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.