Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Elina Saxena
Friday, April 15, 2016, 3:04 PM

Syria’s cessation of hostilities appears to be on the verge of collapse as government forces launched an attack on rebel positions north of Aleppo. The Washington Post writes that “a surge in fighting across Syria on Thursday signaled the apparent collapse of a landmark cease-fire that has been under mounting stress in recent days because of intensifying assaults by government forces and rebels.” Backed by Russian airstrikes, Syrian government attacks around Aleppo have been increasing in recent days, targeting rebel supply lines. Syrian media reported that government forces had seized the northern part of the Handarat Camp, which oversees supply lines into the city. Reuters adds that “fighting near Aleppo has been escalating for two weeks, mostly to the south of the city where government forces backed by Lebanon's Hezbollah and other militias have been waging fierce battles with rebels including Nusra Front fighters.”

The surge in violence across Syria continues to threaten the peace talks which resumed earlier this week in Geneva, but it is unclear how the uptick in violence near Aleppo will impact the talks as both sides continue to blame each other for ceasefire violations. Representatives of the Syrian government met with a UN special envoy Staffan de Mistura for the first time, proposing “amendments” to the list of fundamental principles guiding the discussions. One government representative called the meeting “constructive and fruitful.”  

Meanwhile, intense fighting between rebel forces and Islamic State militants has prompted a new wave of refugees attempting to flee the violence. As Syrian rebels, supported by U.S. airpower and Turkish artillery, attempt to regain the territory held by ISIS near the Turkish border, the intensified fighting has caused over 30,000 people to flee the area in the last 48 hours, the Wall Street Journal tells us. The exodus was largely caused after Islamic State militants “opened fire on communities that had sheltered them,” according to the Guardian. The Journal cites one American official who said that the rebel initiative to regain the territory is part of the U.S. strategy to isolate the Islamic State’s de facto capital, Raqqa.

After the announcement from earlier this week that U.S. forces were using “cyber bombs” to increase pressure on the Islamic State, CNN reports that the military has deployed a squadron of Marine Corps EA-6B Prowler aircraft “capable of attacking ISIS's ability to communicate closer to the front lines of the battle against the terrorist group.” CNN writes that “while the Pentagon won't spell out their mission specifically, the Prowlers could be used to jam cell phone signals and other devices used to trigger roadside bombs, or to interrupt radio broadcasts used to distribute ISIS propaganda.”

Over in Afghanistan, the United States has launched over 70 airstrikes against the Islamic State in the country since the Obama Administration granted U.S. forces the legal authority to target the militant group nearly three months ago. Military estimates have put the total number of Islamic State militants in Afghanistan between 1000 and 3000, but military spokesman Brig. Gen. Charles H. Cleveland told Pentagon officials yesterday that that number was closer to the lower estimate after U.S. operations against the group. Despite the apparent success against the group in Afghanistan, the Washington Post notes that “the strikes against the Islamic State in Nangahar have done little to improve security in other parts of the country” especially as the Taliban continues to pose a significant threat.

That said, just days after announcing their spring offensive, the Taliban launched a major offensive to retake the city of Kunduz, which the group seized briefly late last year before being pushed out by Afghan security forces. Reuters writes that “fighting broke out on Thursday in six districts in Kunduz province, a crucial northern stronghold close to the Tajikistan border, as well as around the provincial capital, with Afghan security forces battling militants through the night.”

Turning to Yemen, Yemeni forces backed by the Saudi-led coalition regained the city of Houta from al Qaeda militants. The local al Qaeda affiliate, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has taken advantage of the ongoing civil conflict to gain territory. Reuters reports that U.S. officials are considering supporting the United Arab Emirates push against the militant group, writing that “the UAE has asked for U.S. help on medical evacuation and combat search and rescue as part of a broad request for American air power, intelligence and logistics support.” Elsewhere in the country, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for a suicide bomb which struck Aden with no casualties.

As the conflicts in Syria and Yemen continue, Reuters tells us that officials from over 50 Muslim states “accused Iran on Friday of supporting terrorism and interfering in the internal affairs of regional states including Syria and Yemen." Leaders from 57 Muslim countries including Iran met in Turkey at a summit for the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC). An OIC communique states that “the Conference deplored Iran's interference in the internal affairs of the States of the region and other Member States including Bahrain, Yemen, Syria, and Somalia, and its continued support for terrorism.”

Turning to the South China Sea, Defense Secretary Ash Carter visited a U.S. carrier sailing in the region as part of his six day trip to India and the Philippines. Aboard the USS John C. Stennis, Carter said that “what's new is not an American carrier in this region” but rather “the context of tension which exists which we want to reduce.” Carter’s visit to the region came as U.S. forces finished up an eleven day training exercises with their Philippine counterparts. The two countries have also begun joint patrols in the region.

Concurrently, China’s defense ministry reported today that Gen. Fan Changlong, the country’s most senior commander, visited the South China Sea’s disputed Spratly Islands, the New York Times writes. The Times notes that “although the details made public about General Fan’s visit were sparse,” his visit to the area “appeared intended to show China’s determination to ward off any challenges to its claims over the islands, which are also the subject of claims by the Philippines, Malaysia, Vietnam, Brunei and Taiwan. China calls them the Nansha Islands.”

North Korea attempted to launch an intermediate-range ballistic missile “in defiance of U.N. sanctions and in an embarrassing setback for leader Kim Jong Un, drawing criticism from major ally China,” Reuters tells us. The country has continued to develop its missile program despite increasing UN sanctions, much to the displeasure of its neighbor China. A Chinese state media source wrote that “the firing of a mid-range ballistic missile on Friday by the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), though failed, marks the latest in a string of saber-rattling that, if unchecked, will lead the country to nowhere,” while a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry said that “we hope all parties can strictly respect the decisions of the Security Council and avoid taking any steps that could further worsen tensions.”

The Washington Post reported that the FBI has not found links to foreign terrorists on the recently-cracked iPhone from the San Bernardino case but is continuing to analyze the phone for other information which could further the ongoing investigation. The Post writes that “one cellphone forensics expert said that if the bureau hasn’t found anything significant by now, it is unlikely to find anything highly useful at this point.”

Despite previously rejecting plea deals, Adnan Farah, suspect in an ISIS-related Minnesota case, changed his plea to guilty. Farah told the court that “he was attracted to ISIS after he watched more than 100 of its propaganda videos, which showed children asking for help, ISIS handing out food aid to Muslims in Syria and jihadists fighting the Syrian government forces” and that he was “influenced by the videos and lectures of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American firebrand who preached jihad but also lectured on Islam.”

As counterterrorism operations expand in Europe in the wake of the Brussels attacks, British officials announced that they had arrested at least five people. While no details on their identities or charges have been revealed, the Post writes that a police official told reporters that the arrests were made “in coordination with French and Belgian security agencies.” The Post adds that “British media, citing police sources, have reported that at least two suspects linked to the Paris and Brussels attacks traveled last year to Birmingham in central Britain and took photographs of various sites, including a soccer stadium.”

Also from Britain, the Guardian tells us that British security officials have launched an effort to take down online material used by Islamic State recruiters in efforts to reduce the impact of ISIS recruiters online. According to figures released by British police today, Counter Terrorism Internet Referral Unit “is on course to remove 100,000 items, having already taken down 26,000 pieces of internet content in the first quarter of this year.” Despite their efforts, the figures suggest a massive increase in extremist material online.

Elsewhere in Europe, Belgian’s transportation minister stepped down after being accused of ignoring security lapses at the Zaventem airport on the eve of the attacks in Brussels. Minister Jacqueline Galant denied having seen a report of security lapses in Belgium's airports which had been identified by EU inspectors in 2015 but later resigned after government officials suggested that the report had been discussed. The BBC, citing Belgian media sources, notes that Galant’s “departure does not change the fact that the entire government's reputation on security appears to be in tatters.”

As Europe attempts to step up its security measures, the European Parliament approved a law which “would make the personal and credit-card data of all air travelers coming into and leaving the EU accessible to national police and intelligence services for up to five years.” According to the Wall Street Journal, the legislation, known as the Passenger Name Record, was initially proposed five years ago but was put on hold over privacy concerns. Under renewed pressure by several EU governments, a number of measures intended to bolster counterterrorism initiatives across the bloc have been proposed or approved by European lawmakers since the attacks in Paris and Brussels.

Microsoft filed a suit against the government over a federal statute which prohibits the company from telling customers when federal investigators obtained a warrant to their access private communications. According to the Post, Microsoft claims that the Justice Department is “abusing the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act, which allows authorities to obtain court orders requiring it to turn over customer files stored on its servers, while in some cases prohibiting the company from notifying the customer”  and suggests that “‘non-disclosure’ orders violate its constitutional right to free speech, as well as its customers’ protection against unreasonable searches.” The suit is not in relation to a specific case but “intended to challenge the legal process regarding secrecy orders,” writes the Times.  

CBS News tells us that the ACLU filed a lawsuit “claiming the Bureau of Prisons has wrongfully withheld documents related to a secret CIA prison in Afghanistan known interchangeably by its nickname, ‘The Salt Pit,’ and its code name, ‘COBALT.’” An earlier ACLU request for files relating to a 2002 inspection of COBALT, described in the 2014 Senate Intelligence Committee torture report, was denied by the Bureau of Prisons, which claimed that no files existed on the visit. After an appeal of that response was rejected, “Carl Takei, the attorney who filed the request, said it seems implausible that a domestic prison agency would send personnel to a war zone to inspect a detention site, and provide recommendations, but keep absolutely no record of the excursion.”

The Miami Herald reports that the Guantánamo parole board denied the prison’s oldest detainee release, citing his ‘past involvement in terrorist activities’ and ties to al Qaeda. Saifullah Paracha, a 68-year-old businessman from Pakistan, was detained in Bangkok in a sting orchestrated by the FBI in 2003. His lawyers suggest that their client "cannot show 'remorse' for things he maintains he never did." Declaring him too dangerous for release, the board pointed to Paracha’s “refusal to take responsibility for his involvement with al-Qaida,” his “refusal to distinguish between legitimate and nefarious business contacts,” and his role in “facilitating financial transactions and travel and developing media for al-Qaida.”

Parting Shot: Russian President Vladimir Putin answered Russian questions in the Q&A style, biannual "Direct Line." In the just under four hour Q&A, Putin answered questions about his romantic life, the Panama Papers, world leaders, and Syria among other topics. Foreign Policy has the highlights here

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Matthew Wein argued that U.S. tactics must adapt as ISIL evolves.

Stewart Baker posted the latest Steptoe Cyberlaw Podcast, which features an interview with Suzanne Spaulding of the DHS.

Paul Rosenzweig asked if encryption is driving everyone crazy.

Paul also noted President Obama’s announcement of the members of the Commission on Enhancing National Cybersecurity.

Daniel Severson told us that the French parliament is pushing forward with encryption legislation.

Ben shared the "There's Classified and then There's Classified Classified" edition of Rational Security.

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