Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Alex R. McQuade
Tuesday, April 5, 2016, 3:31 PM

Islamic State militants reportedly used mustard gas against Syrian military forces. Reuters reports that the Islamic State “attacked Syrian army troops with mustard gas in an offensive against a Syrian military airport in the eastern province of Deir al Zor that borders Iraq.” Syria’s state-run media did not disclose any casualties and Reuters could not independently verify the media reports.

Iraqi security forces killed 150 Islamic State fighters near Fallujah following a string of attacks across Iraq yesterday. According to the Wall Street Journal, “Islamic State forces used car bombs and heavy machine guns in hours-long assaults on two towns on the outskirts of militant-controlled Fallujah and the neighboring town of Hit in Anbar province.” Read more from the Journal here.

Although the Islamic State continues to lose ground in both Iraq and Syria, they are not losing the war, at least not according to the Daily Beast. The Beast writes that “either way, ISIS losses, even to regime forces, have spurred debate among defense officials about the degree to which the terror group is in jeopardy.” Read more on the Pentagon’s views here.

Meanwhile, rebel forces in Syria shot down a second Syrian warplane in less than a month. Reuters tells us that the rebels also captured the plane’s pilot in an area “near Aleppo where heavy fighting has erupted in recent days despite a cessation of hostilities agreement.” Additionally, Reuters writes that “the Syrian army said the jet was shot down with an anti-aircraft missile—the same type of weapon it says was used to shoot down a warplane in western Syria in March—but rebels accused Damascus of fabricating the claim, saying the plane was downed with anti-aircraft guns.” According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the pilot that was captured was still alive, and was taken to one of al Qaeda’s Nusra Front headquarters in the area.

In other news, U.N. Special Envoy to Syria Staffan de Mistura will travel to Moscow tomorrow to discuss the next round of peace talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The peace talks are expected to resume on April 11.

Experts from the FBI, the State Department, and the Department of Homeland Security met with their Belgian counterparts a month before the Brussels terrorist attacks. The New York Times writes that the meeting aimed to “correct gaps in Belgium’s widely criticized ability to track terrorist plots” and that “the half-dozen experts focused on long-term structural fixes to the Belgians’ failure to share intelligence effectively and to tighten porous borders, but not on providing information about suspected Islamic State operatives.” However, the recommendations would not have prevented the attacks from occurring in last month’s attack, according to the Times.

Meanwhile, French security forces are carrying out terrorist attack simulations in preparation for the 2016 European Championship soccer games. France’s Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve stated that “we want Euro 2016 to take place in the best conditions and that’s why we’re multiplying exercises to test the systems put in place to quickly intervene in a context where the threat is extremely high.” France 24 shares that the simulations mocked a mass shooting, an explosion, a hostage situation, and a chemical attack at one of the stadiums. Read more here.

A suicide bomber on a motorbike detonated his explosives near a busy bazaar in Afghanistan’s northern province of Parwan this morning. The blast killed at least 6 people. The Associated Press tells us that last night, a gun battle with the Taliban in the southern province of Uruzgan left at least 12 security forces dead. The AP has more on both attacks here.

An Afghan spy agency is recruiting villagers for militias to hold back Islamic State fighters in Afghanistan as the pseudo-state seeks to expand their foothold in the region. The Wall Street Journal shares that “the program, which one top official says the government hopes to roll out across the country and may later use against the Taliban, is President Ashraf Ghani’s riskiest attempt to defend rural villages—and also a part of his much larger counterinsurgency strategy.”

The U.S. Navy says that it has seized weapons from Iran likely bound for Houthi fighters in Yemen. In a statement yesterday, the military indicated that U.S. Navy ships in the Arabian Sea had intercepted and seized arms shipment headed towards Yemen. Reuters tells us that “the weapons seized last week by the warships Sirocco and Gravely were hidden on a small dhow and included 1,500 AK-47 rifles, 200 rocket-propelled grenade launchers, and 21 .50-caliber machine guns, according to a Navy statement.”

Yesterday, the crisis unfolding in the Nagorno-Karabakh region in Azerbaijan deepened as Armenian fighters exchanged fire with troops from Azerbaijan. According to the Wall Street Journal, “while Azerbaijan declared a unilateral ceasefire on Sunday, heavy shellfire could be heard on Monday afternoon near the northern part of the Line of Contact,” the boundary established by a 1994 truce ending a six year war between the two countries.

Yet, even with the unilateral ceasefire, Armenia’s president warned that any outbreak of violence in the Nagorno-Karabakh region risked resulting in an all out war. Reuters reports that Armenian President Serzh Sarksyan stated that “a further escalation of military action could lead to unpredictable and irreversible consequences, right up to a full-scale war.” Additionally, Reuters tells us that “a return to war would destabilize a region that is a crossroads for strategically -important oil and gas pipelines. It could also drag in the big regional powers, Russia and Turkey.”

The Washington Post provides an explanation of the crisis over Nagorno-Karabakh. You can read that report here.

Satellite images have shown “suspicious” activity at North Korea’s main nuclear site, Yongbyon. Reuters shares that “the report on the 38 North website said that in the past five weeks, exhaust plumes had been detected on two or three occasions from the thermal plant at Yongbyon’s Radiochemical Laboratory.” The report could not confirm if the activity at the nuclear site meant that North Korea was reprocessing additional plutonium. CNN has more on this report here.

The Pentagon confirmed that a U.S. drone strike in Somalia killed Hassan Ali Dhoore on Thursday of last week. Dhoore was allegedly part of the al Shabaab’s security and intelligence operations, and had planned attacks on Mogadishu.

Over in the South China Sea, Indonesia has destroyed 23 foreign fishing boats to send a message. The Wall Street Journal reports that Indonesia’s actions come “as worsening relations in the disputed South China Sea drive rival states to take tougher action to defend their maritime sovereignty.” The Journal tells us that “Indonesia’s Maritime and Fisheries Minister Susi Pudjiastuti said her agency sank 10 Malaysian and 13 Vietnamese boats that were caught fishing illegally in Indonesian waters, vowing to mete out the same punishment to any vessels found poaching, no matter their origin” adding that if the boat was from America, they would sink it too.

Vietnam is getting in on the action too, seizing a Chinese vessel for “intruding in its waters,” according to Vietnamese state media. According to the Associated Press, the ship was disguised as a fishing vessel, but was actually carrying 100,000 liters of diesel oil.

Agence France-Presse reports that the United States and the Philippines began major 11-day military exercises yesterday. As part of the exercises, 5,000 U.S. troops will join 4,000 Philippine soldiers in live-fire artillery drills and maritime security operations. As the exercises kicked off, Xinhua, the official Chinese news media agency, warned “outsiders” against interfering in what it called a “regional row.” The agency also said that the United States’ pivot to Asia “has featured no more than unscrupulous inconsistency between fear-mongering deeds and peace-loving words.”

Do you ever wonder who exactly would be in charge if a massive cyber attack struck the United States? The Pentagon does too. Military Times reports that “the Pentagon does not have a clear chain of command for responding to a massive cyber attack on domestic targets in the United States, according to the federal government’s principal watchdog.” Military Times writes that some DOD documents indicate that “U.S. Northern Command would have primary responsibility for supporting civilian agencies in such an event, other documents suggest U.S. Cyber Command should be leading the effort.” However, the Pentagon does not yet have any clear plans of how this coordination would play out.

Yesterday, Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC), head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, told reporters that a draft of the committee’s encryption bill is expected to circulate sometime this week. The Hill shares that “the measure—a response to concerns that criminals are increasingly using encrypted devices to hide from authorities—would require firms to comply with court orders seeking access to locked data.” The bipartisan bill, lead by Chairman Burr and Senator Dianne Feinstein, “will likely face considerable pushback from the privacy and tech community.”

The Central Intelligence Agency has formally withdrawn a controversial policy to destroy emails belonging to all but 22 top-level officials after an employee leaves office. The Hill shares that “after withdrawing its contentious proposal, the CIA needs to come up with a new plan for how to preserve or destroy officials’ email records.” The Hill has more here.

President Obama and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg met yesterday and discussed the Islamic State threat and Libya. Reuters tells us that both leaders indicated that “NATO could help Libya counter Islamic State militants as well as train and assist troops in Iraq, Jordan, and elsewhere that fight the insurgent group.” Additionally, President Obama supported NATO and stated that “NATO continues to be the linchpin, the cornerstone of our collective defense and U.S. security policy.” The remarks come as a strike back to GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump, who had charged that NATO is “obsolete,” too expensive and useless in regards to today’s terrorism threat. The Washington Post shares that Secretary-General Stoltenberg “vigorously insisted that counterterrorism cooperation was the basis of NATO’s participation in the war in Afghanistan, which he noted was its biggest-ever military operation, launched in response to the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks against the United States.”

Mossack Fonseca, the Panama law firm at the center of the massive data leak, kept clients who were subject to international sanctions. The BBC reports that the legal firm “worked with 33 individuals or companies who have been placed under sanctions by the U.S. Treasury, including companies based in Iran, Zimbabwe, and North Korea.” Additionally, the BBC writes that “Mossack Fonseca registers companies as offshore entities operated under its own name. This meant the identities of the real owners were hard to trace because they were kept out of public documents.”

Some of these offshore accounts were traced back to those who have close ties with Russian President Vladimir Putin. However, the Kremlin angrily responded to these claims and dismissed the allegations. The Washington Post tells us that Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov indicated that the allegations were “part of an international campaign to smear Russia and to distract from what he deemed the success of its military operations in Syria.” The Post reports that alongside of Putin, British Prime Minister David Cameron and Iceland’s Prime Minister Sergei Roldugin face criticism for alleged ties to the leaked documents. However, the leaked papers do not allege any law breaking, “but the possession of offshore accounts can prove politically embarrassing.”

Wondering how and why this all got started? The Daily Beast has a piece on how the anonymous leaker wants to “make these crimes public.”

The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald compares the Panama Papers leak to the Snowden revelations. He alleges that “the key revelation is not the illegality of the specific behavior in question but rather that light shined on how our political systems function and for whose benefit they work. That was true of the Snowden leak, and it’s true of the Panama Papers as well.”

The Department of Justice is now investigating the Panama Papers leaks. According to the Hill, DOJ is “investigating possible financial wrongdoing after a massive document leak known as the ‘Panama Papers’ made public information about offshore accounts of powerful people across the globe.” DOJ spokesman Peter Carr told reporters yesterday that “we are aware of the reports and are reviewing them. While we cannot comment on the specifics of these alleged documents, the U.S. Department of Justice takes very seriously all credible allegations of high level, foreign corruption that might have a link to the United States or the U.S. financial system.”

Lim Yong Nam, a Singapore man recently extradited from Indonesia to the United States in order to stand trial, plead guilty yesterday to charges of “furthering an illegal export conspiracy in which radio frequency modules made in the United States ended up in detonation systems of roadside bombs targeting coalition forces in Iraq.” Two other men who were part of the conspiracy plead guilty in 2013; an additional two remain at large. The Washington Post has more.

The Hill reports that the Senate “easily passed on an 87-0 vote a long-awaited measure that would strengthen federal law and provide damages for U.S. companies affected by the theft of corporate intellectual property.” In a statement of support for the measure, the Office of Management and Budget said that "the bill would establish a federal civil private cause of action for trade secret theft that would provide businesses with a more uniform, reliable, and predictable way to protect their valuable trade secrets anywhere in the country.” The Hill notes that under the new legislation, trade secrets includes “everything from customer lists, formulas, software codes, unique designs, industrial techniques and manufacturing processes.”

Parting Shot: The Afghan Taliban created an app for Android smartphones for propaganda purposes. Bloomberg Technology writes that the app’s development signals that “the militant group is becoming more adept at using Internet and wireless technologies to increase visibility.” According to Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed, the app “is part of our advanced technological efforts to make more global audience.” Read more on that report here. But, sadly, the app has since been taken off of the Google Play store. So don’t get any funny ideas.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Cody shared The Week That Will Be, highlighting all events in DC this week of possible interest to Lawfare readers.

Robert Loeb and Helen Klein analyzed the Al Razak vs. Obama district court case and questioned who decides when the war is over.

Cody flagged this week’s 9/11 military commission hearings’ abrupt cancellation.

Paul Rosenzweig told us that the era of combined cyber operations is upon us.

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.