Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Elina Saxena
Wednesday, April 13, 2016, 2:41 PM

Syrian peace talks resumed in Geneva today as President Bashar al Assad proceeded with parliamentary elections. The Guardian notes that the “polls are due to remain open until 7pm [in government-held areas] but are unlikely to produce any surprises in the 250-seat assembly or challenge the dominance of the Ba’ath party or loyal independents” in what most observers consider a sham election. While the elections appear to signal that Assad has no real intention to cede control of the country’s government, Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov suggested that “these elections held today are designed to play this role of not allowing a legal vacuum” ahead of a political transition. The Assad regime has continued to oppose any notion of a political transition, however, while the opposition has repeatedly denounced the elections.

Both the peace talks and the cessation of hostilities have also been threatened by the government forces’ advance on Aleppo. According to Foreign Policy, “the State Department blamed the Assad regime and its allies for the ‘vast majority’ of ceasefire violations and urged the army to be more careful not to attack legitimate Syrian rebels while fighting Nusra and ISIS.”

Even as the shaky cessation of hostilities holds, the United States is preparing for a plan B should fighting break out. The Wall Street Journal reports that the CIA and “its regional partners have drawn up plans to supply more-powerful weapons to moderate rebels in Syria fighting the Russia-backed regime in the event the country’s six-week-old truce collapses.” The plan would focus on “providing vetted rebel units with weapons systems that would help them in directing attacks against Syrian regime aircraft and artillery positions.”

The Islamic State released the latest edition of their English language magazine Dabiq, in which they published obituaries for the Brussels attackers and warned of future operations in Europe. The magazine claimed that “all preparations for the raids in Paris and Brussels started with” the El Bakraoui brothers, both of whom blew themselves up in the Brussels attacks, and added that “these two brothers gathered the weapons and the explosives.” Reuters has that story.

According to Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work, the United States is using "cyber bombs" against the Islamic State for the first time in a new coordinated effort to increase pressure on the group. It remains unclear precisely what a “cyber bomb” is, but the deputy defense secretary assures us that “those guys are under enormous pressure.” Yet despite the increasing military and financial pressure it faces, the Islamic State has continued to expand its reach across Europe, North Africa, and Asia, the New York Times reports.

Two American airstrikes hit an al Shabaab camp in southern Somalia, after an “imminent threat to U.S. personnel” in the country prompted the “self-defense” strikes. The strikes reportedly killed a dozen suspected Shabaab militants.

Just ahead of the two year anniversary of the kidnapping of over 270 Nigerian girls by Boko Haram militants, Unicef released a report detailing the militant group’s use of children. Since the Chibok kidnappings, Unicef writes that “thousands of other children have disappeared in Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria.” Those kidnapped have been “subjected to exploitation, abuse and recruitment by armed groups” and “have even been used to carry out suicide bombings.” The New York Times notes that Boko Haram has used 44 children in suicide attacks this year and notes that the Unicef report seeks to “quantify one of the most chilling elements of Boko Haram, an Islamist extremist group that has assaulted the Lake Chad region of Africa for years with thievery, beheadings, kidnappings and the torching of entire villages.” Boko Haram has also caused massive displacement in the region, displacing 60% more children in the last year alone.

A top Afghan defense official warned that al Qaeda is a "big threat" and is "very active" in Afghanistan. A senior American official also expressed concern about al Qaeda's presence in the country, suggesting that there could be more operatives than previously assumed. CNN adds that warnings of group's resurgence “come as Afghanistan faces perhaps the most significant summer fighting season in decades, with government security forces facing huge internal challenges, the Taliban both gaining ground and building links to al Qaeda, and ISIS increasing its footprint in the country." Concerns about al Qaeda’s presence in Afghanistan came a day after the Taliban announced the start of their spring offensive, which, in addition to promising “large-scale attacks,” also aims to target the threat posed by rival Islamic State militants.

A blast targeting army recruits in the Yemeni port city of Aden left four dead. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the suicide blast, with their Yemeni wing claiming to have “detonated an explosives device against government soldiers killing five and wounding seven others” in a statement on their website. The attack took place as the shaky U.N.-brokered truce continues to hold, despite alleged violations from both sides, between government and Houthi-allied factions.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter issued a formal notification to Egypt and Israel that the United States “is considering reconfiguring its mission in Sinai by increasing reliance on remote sensing technology so it can shift the number of troops from northern Sinai because of the growing threat there from ISIS,” according to CNN. The formal notification, which would impact the 700 troops stationed in the region, came after weeks of informal discussions.

Prosecutors raided the offices of Mossack Fonseca, the law firm at the heart of the Panama Papers leak, in efforts to uncover evidence of money laundering and financing terrorism. The Guardian reports that the raid “occurred on the eve of a meeting in Paris of senior officials from the world’s tax authorities, who are intent on analysing the documents as part of new global strategy to crack down on offenders.” The fourth largest offshore law firm in the world, Mossack Fonseca has cooperated with authorities and denied any wrongdoing, maintaining “that the only crime which can be taken from the leak was the computer hack itself.”

Spanish police arrested a man suspected of providing guns to one of the gunmen in last January’s Charlie Hebdo shooting. 27-year-old Antoine Denive was detained in a “joint Franco-Spanish raid on a house in Malaga, Madrid,” the BBC writes.

Following Monday’s arrest of two individuals connected with the Brussels attacks, the New York Times tells us that “the number of people charged in Belgium in connection with the assaults in Brussels, Paris or both” has surpassed 20. According to a prosecutor’s statement, “there were ‘indications’ that both were connected to the rental of an apartment in Etterbeek, a district of Brussels, used by at least two of the five people thought to have been directly involved” in the attacks on Brussels.

Elsewhere, the United States and the Philippines signed an agreement that would allow the former to build facilities at five Philippine bases. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter is in the Philippines today and, according to the Times, “is scheduled to observe the firing of a long-range missile system, one that could cover all the Philippines’ maritime claims in the South China Sea if needed, though the United States has not confirmed that the missiles will be deployed here.” As the two countries enjoy closer relations, analysts have asked how the recent agreement might shift the balance of power in the region.

Also in the region, “China is using its vast fishing fleet as the advance guard to press its expansive territorial claims in the South China Sea,” according to the Post. Chinese fishing vessels, often with the backing of coast guard ships, have prompted recent flare ups with Indonesia, Malaysia and Vietnam by approaching their waters. These fishing boats have become, what some call, the “front line” in “China’s long-running battle to expand its fishing grounds and simultaneously exert its maritime dominance.”

The Washington Post tells us that the FBI paid a one-time fee to the professional hackers who discovered a “previously unknown” flaw in Apple software which led to the creation of a piece of hardware enabling the FBI to crack the phone's four-digit PIN. The Bureau has still not decided whether or not to share the software flaw with Apple.

Didn’t think the 9/11 trials could get more complicated? In the latest from Guantánamo, Chief Defense Counsel Marine Brig. Gen. John Baker “issued an order forbidding his staff to sleep at the Camp Justice compound following a new health risk assessment on cancer-causing agents there.” Included in the list of health concerns were traces of mercury, formaldehyde, and arsenic in various parts of the facility. The Miami Herald has more.

GOP lawmakers continue to look for ways to tighten rules for Guantánamo transfers. Yesterday, Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) introduced new legislation that would require the Defense Secretary to certify that a detainee "no longer poses a continuing threat to the security of the United States, its citizens and its interests" before sending them to another country.” According to the Hill, the Secretary would need to consider “a detainee's involvement in planning or carrying out terrorists attacks, the host country, the detainee's support for terrorist groups or terrorists, and the likelihood that an individual will engage in another act of terrorism or reconnect with terrorists.”

Parting shot: According to Vox, the Guardian's analysis of some 70 million comments posted over a 15-year period revealed exactly what you would expect: “of all the abusive comments posted to the site, more of them are leveled at female journalists and journalists of color than at anyone else.” Vox suggests that the results of the Guardian's study are at the crux of a more broad culture war in which “the core question of identity is often polarized enough to spark massive debate.”

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Paul Rosenzweig noted the breadth of the Feinstein-Burr encryption bill.

Douglas Cantwell considered State Department Legal Advisor Brian Egan’s remarks as they relate to the “Unwilling or Unable” test.

Jack responded to Marty Lederman on the Obama administration's embrace of the Bush doctrine of preemption.

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