Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Alex R. McQuade
Friday, April 8, 2016, 3:48 PM

Islamic State fighters abducted at least 170 workers from a cement factory this week. The New York Times reports that “if confirmed, the kidnapping would punctuate the Islamic State’s penchant for brazen acts even in the face of recent defeats that have forced it to relinquish some territory seized in the five-year Syrian war.” It remains unclear exactly how many people had been taken and where they are being kept. Al Badia Cement is located near the town of Dumair, about 25 miles northeast of Damascus.

The Syrian peace talks will resume on Wednesday, April 13 and are intended to be a “concrete discussion leading to a ‘real beginning of a political transition.’” U.N. Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura said that between now and April 13, he plans to visit Damascus and Tehran, and possibly Amman and Beirut, and hold meetings with Turkish and Saudi authorities in Europe as part of the talks. Secretary of State John Kerry weighed in and indicated that next round of talks could determine whether a diplomatic resolution to the civil war is even possible.

For his part, Syrian President Bashar al Assad has shown no signs of his intention to cooperate. Reuters tells us that “as the Syria peace talks resume next week, President Bashar al Assad, backed militarily by Iran and Russia, shows no willingness to compromise, much less step aside to allow a transition Western powers claim is the solution to the conflict.” Assad has now increased his confidence after “Russian airstrikes have reversed the tide and enabled his army to recover lost ground from Sunni insurgents as well as the jihadis of the Islamic State.”

Russia and the United States are teaming up to draft a new constitution for Syria. Bloomberg reports that the effort by both nations is the “clearest sign yet of the two powers’ determination to broker a solution to a five-year civil war that has sent a wave of refugees toward Europe.” The United States and Russia have agreed to a target date in August to create a framework for the new constitution and the hopeful political transition.

The BBC reports that “Syrian rebels have seized control of the strategically important northern town of al Rai” from the Islamic State. The fall of al Rai is a boost for the rebel forces as they continue to push towards the recapture of Aleppo and secures an important supply line from Turkey.

Over in Libya, the number of Islamic State fighters has doubled in the past 12 to 18 months. According to NBC News, General David Rodriguez, the outgoing commander of AFRICOM, said that there are now between 4,000 and 6,000 Islamic State operatives in Libya. General Rodriguez also indicated that he suspects the United States will conduct airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Libya once the new U.N.-backed unity government takes control.

Yesterday, Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley cautioned that the United States is not winning the war against the Islamic State yet, despite some recent progress. The Hill shares that, during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, General Milley said that “there is progress. But progress is not yet winning. No one should think this is over. It is not. There’s a lot of work to be done.”  

As the turmoil continues to unfold in the Middle East, one U.S. senator is proposing providing emergency funds to countries to deal with the fallout from Syria’s civil war and the spread of the Islamic State. Military Times reports that Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) “did not specify an exact spending figure, but said that money is desperately needed to help deal with the security and refugee situations in places like Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt.” Senator Graham had said that he was “stunned at how things have deteriorated over there” after a recent congressional delegation visit to the region. The senator sees these emergency funds as a first step in creating a “Marshall Plan” for the Middle East.

U.S. federal prosecutors and counterterrorism officials are still debating what to do with Mohamad Jamal Khweis, a 26-year-old Virginia man who recently defected from ISIS to Kurdish forces in Iraq. Khweis, who is currently held by Kurdish authorities as the FBI, CIA, and Kurdish security continue their investigations, could face a long prison sentence if charged with material support. However, prosecutors could also strike a deal with Khweis, offering a plea bargain and enlisting him as a valuable ally in the information battle against the Islamic State. McClatchy has more on the ongoing debate.

The man likely to be the notorious “man in the hat” seen with the two suicide bombers who attacked Brussels airport last month was arrested today in Belgium. According to Reuters, Mohamed Abrini was arrested in Brussels earlier today adding that the 31-year-old Belgian was “more than likely” the “man in the hat” seen on the security footage from the airport.

Speaking of suspects, Salah Abdeslam will be extradited to France from Belgium in a few weeks. Reuters reports that the key suspect in November’s Paris attacks will be held in Belgium for additional questioning by investigators.

The New York Times describes one of Brussels attackers, Najim Laachraoui, as a “prized recruit” for the Islamic State. Laachraoui was “an educated European who radicalized all but invisibly, not in prison, but while in the classroom of good schools and university study groups.” His radicalization defies simple explanation. Read that story here.

In the wake of the terrorist attacks in Belgium and France, the United Kingdom has announced its intentions to form a counterterrorism hub in continental Europe. The Wall Street Journal shares that “the hub, with officials to be split between Belgium and Turkey, will be the country’s fifth, following similar counterterrorism hubs set up in the Middle East, North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia, according to a U.K. Foreign Office spokeswomen.” The move represents the latest attempt to bolster up defenses amid the recent attacks.

Meanwhile, the Senate passed several measures designed to strengthen airport security, making it the first legislative response since the attacks in Europe. The New York Times reports that “the measures strengthen airport employee vetting, increase use of teams that conduct covert operations to test security systems, and could double the number of visible special security teams that are used to deter threats.” The measures are expected to pass as early as next week.

American airstrikes reportedly killed at least 17 civilians in the southeastern Afghan province of Paktika. However, the New York Times shares that the local officials and elders reports of the civilian casualties “differ from official American and Afghan claims that only militants had been killed.” Allegedly a series of strikes hit a man named Hajji Rozuddin, a local elder, on his way to resolve a tribal dispute. Along with Rozuddin, his bodyguards and seven other people were killed in the first strike. The second strike killed those who gathered to pick up the bodies, and the third hit others who had gathered to see what had happened. Yet, Afghan and U.S. officials stress that only Taliban and al Qaeda targets had been killed in the strikes. The New York Times has more.

NATO is running out of time in Afghanistan, and Lt. Col. Jonathan Chung, the leader of a team of advisers training the Afghan army, knows it. Reuters tells us that “if Washington sticks to its schedule for withdrawing troops, by the time his tour ends in November, the NATO training mission in Afghanistan will be nearing its end, despite local forces struggling to fight in the Taliban insurgency alone.” However, Lt. Col. Chung says that there is still much work to be done.

According to the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, efforts to rebuild Afghanistan are in a “perilous state.” CNN reports that the inspector general’s “assessment has its doubters, but he paints a stark picture of security so shaky and roads so dangerous that inspector general staff take helicopters to the airport rather than drive. Contracting can be so shoddy, buildings crumble months after they’re built.” CNN has more on the grim report here.

A Reuters investigation breaks down all the ways the ongoing Saudi-Houthi war in Yemen has strengthened al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, writing that the group “now openly rules a mini-state with a war chest swollen by an estimated $100 million in looted bank deposits and revenue from running the country’s third largest port.” The newswire reports that in the city of Mukalla—al Qaeda’s de facto capital—AQAP fighters “have abolished taxes for local residents, operate speedboats manned by RPG-wielding fighters who impose fees on ship traffic, and make propaganda videos in which they boast about paving roads and stocking hospitals.”

Secretary of State John Kerry has called on Iran to stop its destabilizing behavior and work with its neighbors in the Middle East to end the wars in Yemen and Syria. The Washington Post reports that Secretary Kerry met with his counterparts in the Gulf Cooperation Council, who were all concerned about Iran. Despite the concern from regional allies that Tehran is “as dangerous as ever,” the New York Times tells us that Secretary Kerry insisted that “without nuclear fuel or the ability to produce more, Iran is far less of a threat that it was.”

North Korea “attempted” to test launch a ballistic missile from a submarine on Wednesday. Al Jazeera tells us that according to a website that monitors North Korea, “the submarine sailed towards the East Sea, also known as the Sea of Japan, prompting South Korean intelligence to track the vessel’s movement. But it turned back without firing the missile.” A South Korean admiral indicated that it seemed as though the North Korean submarine encountered a malfunction during the test and decided to end the test launch.

Despite reports of a ceasefire between the two sides in the Azerbaijan and Armenia conflict, violence has continued. Al Jazeera reports that “Azerbaijan says it will stop fighting Armenian-backed separatists over the breakaway Nagorno-Karabakh region after two days of clashes, but the other side denounced Baku’s gesture as hollow and said violence was continuing.” Allegedly, Azerbaijan claims that the separatists have violated the ceasefire 119 times in the last 24 hours.

“‘If you cut from the back of the neck, they die faster,’ said Rahila Amos, a Nigerian grandmother describing the meticulous instruction she received from Boko Haram to become a suicide bomber.” The New York Times has a piece on Boko Haram and how the militant group in West Africa is turning their female captives into terrorists. One officer described it as an “achilles heel” for African security forces, and even humanitarian aid groups are “rethinking how they distribute food, water, and other help,” worried that one of the women could be hiding a bomb.

President Obama is set to nominate Marine Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser to head U.S. Africa Command. The Wall Street Journal writes that Defense Secretary Ash Carter recommended Gen. Waldhauser to the post and the formal nomination by the President is expected to come within the next few weeks. If confirmed, Gen. Waldhauser would become the only Marine officer in one of the military’s top combatant command posts.

Apparently the new secret method that the FBI used to unlock the San Bernardino phone does not work on newer iPhone models. At a conference at Kenyon College in Ohio, Director Comey indicated that “we have a tool that works on a narrow slice of phones.” He added that the technique would not work on the iPhone 5s, 6, and 6s.

Yesterday, the White House denied reports that it had refused to support the Burr-Feinstein encryption bill. The Hill tells us that Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz stated “I saw that report and I don’t know what it’s based on. The idea that we are going to withhold support for a bill that’s not introduced yet is inaccurate.” You can read the draft of the bill, which mandates “technical assistance,” here.

President Obama hopes to leave behind a legacy in regards to drone strikes. The Hill reports that the President said he “hoped to leave behind a formalized process for conducting drone strikes and releasing information to the public, a peek into his aspirations to confront an issue over which he has been dogged by human rights advocates.” In his remarks at the University of Chicago yesterday, President Obama acknowledged there was not an “overarching structure” behind the drone program early in his term. The Hill has more.

Guantanamo Bay is hot on the campaign trail again. New York Times reporter Charlie Savage shares that Republican senatorial campaigns across the country are once more invoking an old formula: raising fears about Guantanamo Bay detainees and President Barack Obama’s plans to shutter the facility and relocate detainees to prisons located inside the United States. Lawfare highlighted the trend a few days ago, highlighting two new pieces of legislation introduced by Senators Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) and Mark Kirk (R-IL).

The Defense Intelligence Agency recently announced the appointment of a new deputy director. Melissa Drisko will assume the role in August. DIA Director Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart stated that Drisko was “the right choice as partner in leading this agency. She speaks truth to power, unbiased and unblemished—this is the mark of a true leader who is wholeheartedly committed to DIA and to serving our country.”

Parting Shot: One in three Iraqis think that the United States is secretly supporting the Islamic State. Check out the report here.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Nicholas Weaver commented on the FBI’s Firefox exploit.

Ben gave a shout out to Kenyon College.

Ellen Scholl released the latest Hot Commodities, highlighting some “spring (house) cleaning.”

Daniel Bethlehem responded to Jack Goldsmith’s piece on Obama’s embrace of Bush’s preemption doctrine.

Ben linked us to his speech at Kenyon College on privacy, sextorition, and going dark.

Tamara Wittes argued that the United States can’t save Egypt from itself.

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