Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Elina Saxena
Wednesday, April 20, 2016, 2:08 PM

The ceasefire in Syria has all but crumbled after government forces assaulted a rebel-held town and left dozens dead. The town of Maarat al-Noaman has been protesting against the al Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front for weeks, but the New York Times writes that it “became a scene of carnage, as government warplanes attacked the town’s marketplace, killing dozens of people, according to residents and rescue workers.” The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights expects that casualties will rise, the Washington Post tells us.

According to Reuters, State Department spokesman John Kirby stated that “we still believe the cessation is still in place, that it is still largely holding and it is important to keep it in place,” while the main opposition group, the High Negotiations Committee, called the attacks a “dangerous escalation” which reinforced their decision yesterday to suspend the peace talks in Geneva.

Elsewhere in the country, ISIS militants are gaining ground in Deir al Zor, taking control of the city’s industrial district. ISIS forces have pushed back government and allied troops and have captured nearly the entire province.

As U.S. forces ramp up efforts to crush the Islamic State, the Pentagon has approved strikes that risk a higher number of civilian casualties. Earlier rules required airstrikes that had a risk of civilian casualties to be approved by headquarters of U.S. Central Command, but the Pentagon has since delegated the responsibility to Army Lt. Gen. Sean MacFarland, the ISIS war chief.

The death toll from yesterday’s bombing in Kabul has risen to 64 with 347 wounded. The attack, claimed by the Taliban, targeted Afghanistan’s “main training ground for an Afghan intelligence unit tasked with protecting senior officials,” according to the Washington Post. In addition to demonstrating the Taliban’s ability to carry out coordinated attacks despite the increasing pressure it has faced from security forces across the country, the Post writes that the attacks “represented a direct strike against the Western-aided government as it takes the lead role in the fight against the Islamist militants.” The Soufan Group adds that “with continued attacks in places like Kunduz, the Taliban will seek to destabilize the fragile national government by striking in the heart of the government’s power.”

Turning to Libya, U.S. officials are imposing sanctions against Khalifa al Ghweil, the leader of a self-declared Tripoli government, in efforts to support the U.N.-brokered unity government by putting pressure on rival governments. The New York Times notes that the arrival of the unity government “leaves Libya in the unusual position of having three rival governments — two in Tripoli, and one in the east — and the unity administration has struggled to impose its authority since its leaders landed in Tripoli three weeks ago.” Meanwhile, as many as 500 migrants are feared dead after their vessel sank in the Mediterranean off of the Libyan coast.

Amid rising tensions between Washington and Riyadh, President Obama landed in Saudi Arabia and met with King Salman today. Earlier this week, President Obama expressed support for the release of a 28-page intelligence component of a congressional report which suggests a Saudi connection to the 9/11 attacks. Tensions between the United States and Saudi Arabia have been steadily rising in recent years, as U.S. officials have repeatedly alluded that the royal kingdom was not doing its part to maintain regional security.

Reuters released a special report on how Yemen’s guerrilla war is testing the spending ambitions of the Saudi military. Reuters writes that despite “tens of billions” that the kingdom has spent on U.S. weapons, “its intervention in neighbouring Yemen has not gone smoothly” as Saudi forces “often appeared unprepared and prone to mistakes.”

Osama Krayem, a Swedish national facing charges in the Brussels bombings, has also been charged in connection with the Paris attacks. The Guardian reports that Krayem was charged earlier this month with the "terrorist murders" in Brussels, but prosecutors have cited additional evidence connecting him to the Paris attacks, suggesting that he was present at locations used in their planning. Meanwhile, Belgian officials are on alert as they warn that the threat of another attack on the country is “serious and possible.” The Wall Street Journal writes that, according to officials, “recent intelligence suggests Islamic State fighters were returning to Europe from Syria with the aim of mounting attacks.”

Police in Spain arrested a Moroccan national with suspected ties to ISIS. The suspect was arrested in the popular resort island of Mallorca, where police said he had been residing and spreading ISIS recruitment messages online. According to a statement from the Spanish Interior Minister, the suspect “tried, both online and in person, to convince vulnerable targets (to fight for ISIS).”

Israeli security forces have arrested six West Bank settlers who were part of a Jewish terror group. According to the BBC, “the settlers carried out violence against Palestinians last year including an assault and an attempt to set fire to a home.” The six were allegedly inspired by an arson attack in Duma which killed three members of a Palestinian family and were linked to another group of Jewish extremists who had recently been apprehended. The Washington Post writes that the wave of violence which has gripped Israel for six months may be subsiding. Remarking on the violence, a father of a Palestinian attacker who was killed by security personnel said that “it achieved nothing.”

According to the Times, Judge Thomas Hogan of the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court “rejected a legal challenge to rules permitting F.B.I. agents, when working on domestic criminal cases, to search emails written by Americans that the government has intercepted without a warrant in the name of gathering foreign intelligence.” His 80-page opinion, issued in November, was made public yesterday. In it, he ruled that “backdoor searches” by the F.B.I. were in line with the Constitution and the FISA Amendment Act. Judge Hogan also criticized the F.B.I. and the N.S.A. over deviations from legal limits in their surveillance activities. The judge was “extremely concerned” that the latter agency held data that it was supposed to delete, the Hill tells us. Politico has more.

F.B.I. Assistant Director for Science and Technology Amy Hess defended the Bureau’s decision to use a third party to access the data on the San Bernardino phone at a Congressional hearing on encryption yesterday. In her remarks, Hess suggested that the F.B.I. “had come to rely on private sector partners to keep up with changes in technology” amid lawmakers’ concerns over the agency’s use of third-party hackers, the Times writes. Lawmakers also heard from various Silicon Valley executives and other law enforcement officials.

In related news, F.B.I. investigators revealed that, after discovering that no ISIS-related contacts had been found on the San Bernardino iPhone, the data found on the phone was valuable to their investigations. CNN writes that, according to officials, “the F.B.I. views that information as valuable to the probe, possibilities it couldn't discount without getting into the phone.” Officials also suggested that the data on the phone is new to the investigation efforts and is still being analyzed.

The Associated Press writes that the family of Steven Sotloff, a journalist beheaded by ISIS in 2014, is suing the Syrian government in a U.S. court for providing support to the ISIS militants responsible for his death. The suit argues that "Syria's material support for (ISIS) caused the abduction and murder of Steven Sotloff."

Eric X. Li, writing in Foreign Affairs, tells us that the American presidential elections could have a significant influence on the two competing schools of thought guiding Chinese perceptions about American politics. With those “who usually pontificate on the nature of democracy and about what kind of U.S. president would be better for China are at a loss to explain the Trump phenomenon to the Chinese public.” Li suggests that, “depending on the eventual outcome of the election and its long-term impact, the Trump phenomenon may change how the Chinese think about democracy.”

Meanwhile, CSIS takes a closer look at China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning. In considering how the carrier stacks up, CSIS concludes that "global combat missions remain outside of the Liaoning’s reach given its current operational status, and the status and number of the Liaoning’s potential fleet escorts;" however, the ship nevertheless “commands a degree of political utility as a tool of naval diplomacy through various operations, regional and global."

As the Obama administration considers how to move forward with its plans to shut down the detention facility at Guantánamo Bay, NBC News tells us that up to 60 of the remaining prisoners could be transferred to Colorado’s “supermax” facility which would be “at least as secure, far harsher – and much colder – than ‘Gitmo.’”

In the latest Guantánamo glitch, the Miami Herald reports that “a U.S. military advocate for a Guantánamo 'forever prisoner' is asking for a parole-board do-over, saying prison camp guards mistakenly delivered the Yemeni captive to the wrong lockup at the U.S. Navy base in an episode that so rattled the captive he blew his hearing.” The prisoner, Moath al Alwi, apparently arrived to his hearing “in a very agitated and upset state.” His military advocate wrote that “understandably, in his view it was unfathomable that he would be brought to the wrong location for the most important day of his GTMO life.”

Parting Shot: Reporters Without Borders released their 2016 World Press Freedom Index which revealed “deep and disturbing decline” in press freedom around the world, according to the Post. While “press freedom eroded in two-thirds of the 180 countries tracked since last year, resulting in a roughly 3.7 percent decline in press freedom,” Eritrean and North Korean press freedom was ranked least free, and press freedom in Finland and the Netherlands was ranked most free.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Dave Aitel explained the folly of "naming and shaming" Iran.

Peter Margulies took a look at executive power and the Supreme Court's argument on the president's immigration plan.

Ben and Jack reminded us about the Hoover Book Soiree on April 26.

Cody linked to the House Energy and Commerce Committee Hearing on Encryption and Law Enforcement.

Adam Klein published the second in a series of posts about how and when wars against terrorists groups end.

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