Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Alex R. McQuade
Thursday, April 21, 2016, 3:58 PM

Russia has started to move artillery to areas in northern Syria where Syrian government forces have begun to group up, potentially in preparation for a return to fighting. The Wall Street Journal reports that the moves have increased the United States’ concern that Syria and Russia may be preparing for a return to full-scale fighting as the “cessation of hostilities” falters. The potential return to full-scale fighting will throw a wrench into the peace negotiations in Geneva aimed at ending the 5 year civil war. Reuters has more on Russia’s military equipment move here.

The BBC shares that “relief agencies evacuated 500 wounded people from four besieged Syrian towns, in what has been described as the largest such operation so far in the five-year conflict.” Half of the people evacuated were brought out of towns blockaded by pro-government forces while the other half from towns besieged by rebels. The BBC has more.

Meanwhile, the Guardian tells us that the British parliament unanimously declared that the Islamic State’s actions against Yazidis and Christians qualify as genocide. The British parliament joins the United States Congress, the U.S. administration, the European parliament, and the Council of Europe in declaring the Islamic State’s genocide. However, the Guardian writes that “the Foreign Office directed ministers and parliamentary aids to abstain, saying it was wrong for the government to prejudge the issue or act as a jury on a case that may yet be referred to the international criminal court.”

Tuesday’s blast in Kabul now ranks amongst the deadliest strikes on the Afghan capital since the Taliban insurgency began in 2001. According to the Washington Post, the Taliban’s attack indicates that the insurgent group “could be acquiring more powerful explosives.” Additionally, the New York Times writes “questions have been raised about how the insurgents managed to take large amounts of explosives into the city, detonating a bomb behind the walls of an elite force that is supposed to protect the government’s top officials.”

The Guardian reports that “drones are firing more weapons than conventional warplanes for the first time in Afghanistan and the ratio is rising, previously unreported U.S. Air Force data for 2015 show, underlining how reliant the military has become on unmanned aircraft.” The new numbers may provide clues to the U.S. military’s strategy as it considers withdrawing more troops from the region.

China is eyeing a deeper military bond with Afghanistan which may include counterterrorism intelligence cooperation and joint drills, according to Reuters. While China is jointly working with both Pakistan and the United States to broker peace negotiations between Afghanistan and the Taliban, it is actively looking to play a “huge” role in helping to rebuild Afghanistan amidst the deadly insurgency.

Over in Pakistan, 7 police officers guarding a polio vaccination campaign were shot and killed in two separate attacks in a suburb of Karachi. The New York Times tells us that there has been no initial claim of responsibility, but police officials were investigating whether the attacks were connected to the immunization campaign.

President Obama met with Gulf Leaders in Saudi Arabia yesterday seeking to “steady what have become rocky relationships and to reassure unsettled allies.” The Wall Street Journal shares that President Obama “aimed to use his 28-hour visit to address a wide range of concerns voiced by frustrated allies, including opposition to the Iran nuclear deal and qualms about U.S. policy in Syria. With just nine months left in office, this trip may be the president’s last chance to secure his foreign policy legacy in the region.”

Hamas has claimed responsibility for its deadly bomb attack on a Jerusalem bus earlier this week. The Washington Post reports that “Hamas said 19-year-old Abdel Hamid Abu Srour carried out the bombing, which has raised fears that a new round of violence could include suicide attacks and bus bombings - hallmarks of the violent Palestinian intifada, or uprising, in the early 2000s.”

Meanwhile, Al Jazeera tells us that a top Israeli military leaders issued a warning to the Lebanese group Hezbollah, indicating that a war between the two enemies would be “devastating” for Lebanon. According to Major General Yair Golan, Israel’s deputy chief of staff, Hezbollah has developed capabilities that present an “unprecedented” threat to Israel.

Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled in a 6-to-2 decision that Congress acted constitutionally when it passed a law making it easier for plaintiffs to recover damages from Iran awarded as part of a civil suit filed by the families of victims killed in the 1983 Marine Corps barracks bombing in Lebanon. At issue was a 2012 federal law, the Iran Threat Reduction and Syrian Human Rights Act, which specified assets of the Iranian central bank that could satisfy the plaintiff's judgements, which amounted to nearly $2 billion in frozen Iranian funds. NPR has more on that story here, while Matt Ford of the Atlantic breaks down the implications of the ruling. You can read the full opinion here.

The German federal constitutional court “ruled that critical antiterrorism laws were partly unconstitutional and demanded tighter control of surveillance.” The New York Times reports that the 6-to-2 ruling “reflected a familiar desire to balance public safety against violations of privacy and the safeguarding of intelligence data - a characteristically German concern, forged by the experience of Nazi and Communist rule.” However, the court’s ruling also interfered with the increasing public fear of more terrorist attacks on European soil. The Times writes that “the ruling may inhibit further the sharing of intelligence, which has already proved deeply inadequate in Europe and has been exploited by terrorist networks.”

President Obama will convene with European leaders next Monday to discuss terrorism. The counterterrorism strategy session held in Germany will include German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande, British Prime Minister David Cameron, and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. The Hill has more.

The Wall Street Journal tells us that the Belgian government announced that some 200 Belgian fighters are still in Syria fighting for the Islamic State and could be returning to Europe soon to carry out terrorist attacks. Belgium's Interior Minister Jan Jambon earlier today said that “from Belgium, there are a lot of Syria fighters, about 200 are still in Syria. We know these people are possibly coming back.” His comments come just one month after the terrorist attack on the Belgian capital that left 32 people dead and injured hundreds more.

Yesterday, Russia accused the United States of intimidation for sailing a naval destroyer close to Russia’s border in the Baltics and also warned that their military would respond with all “necessary measures” to any future incidents. Reuters shares that Moscow’s ambassador to NATO, after a meeting with NATO envoys and Russia in nearly two years, “said the April 11 maritime incident showed there could be no improvement in ties until the U.S.-led alliance withdrew from Russia’s borders.”

Eric Schmitt of the New York Times reports that Russian attack submarines are increasingly on the prowl in the waters off the coasts of Scandinavia and Scotland, the Mediterranean Sea and the North Atlantic. According to Admiral Mark Ferguson, the United States Navy’s top commander in Europe, the number of Russian submarine patrols has risen 50 percent in the last year. Defense Department officials are using the renewed Russian patrols to underscore the need for more ships, planes, and subs as the Pentagon has requested $8.1 billion over the next five years for “undersea capabilities,” including the procurement of nine new Virginia-class attack submarines. However, the Times notes that “there is hardly parity between the Russian and American submarine fleets.” There’s even more on NATO’s anti-submarine strategy in the Times, including the renewed importance of the GIUK (Greenland, Iceland, United Kingdom) Gap.

Details of this year’s National Defense Authorization Act are starting to trickle out of the House of Representatives and Politico has the scoop. The bottom line? There’s a lot to like if you are a contractor who builds jets and ships or if you oppose cuts to the Army or Marine Corps. The bill also “instructs the Pentagon to study restarting production of F-22 fighters,” suggesting the Congress may believe that a previous decision to cut the number of F-22s was a mistake.

Chinese President Xi Jinping is now the “commander in chief” of China’s Joint Operations Command Center, providing him a more direct role over the country’s powerful armed forces. The Associated Press describes President Xi’s move as “displaying both his strong personal authority and China’s determination to defend its interests” and “bolsters his status as China’s most powerful leader in decades and comes at a time when Beijing is becoming increasingly bold in its territorial assertions, despite a growing pushback from Washington and others.”

Speaking of some pushback, during his visit to Vietnam, Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken questioned China’s intentions and urged it to follow international law. The Associated Press reports that Mr. Blinken stated, “the United States and Vietnam share an interest in maintaining peace and stability in the region. So does China. But its massive land reclamation project in the South China Sea and increasing militarization of these outposts fuel regional tension and raise serious questions about China’s intentions.”

Despite these tensions, it appears both the United States and China have stronger cooperation and stand united in their opposition to North Korea’s nuclear tests. According to the Washington Post, Sung Kim, the U.S. government’s top envoy for North Korea, “told reporters in Beijing that China took as much part in drafting the U.N. Security Council’s March resolution as Washington or the Security Council did.” Kim also told reporters that both countries “remain united in our firm opposition to North Korea’s provocative and irresponsible behavior.”

While China and the United States enjoy strong cooperation, North Korea appears to be continuing with its nuclear ambitions. Reuters reports that “satellite images show that North Korea may have resumed tunnel excavation at its main nuclear site, similar to activity seen before the country’s most recent nuclear test in January.” The website 38 North, run by the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies, indicated that the tunneling activity could be carried out as part of preparations for another nuclear test.

Boko Haram and the Islamic State have begun to collaborate more closely, according to U.S. military personnel. The New York Times writes that the increased coordination between the two deadly terrorist organizations raises new alarms that the groups may be working together to attack American allies in North and Central Africa. The Times shares that, yesterday, Brig. Gen. Donald Bolduc, commander of the U.S. military’s Special Operations in Africa, had “cited a weapons convoy believed to be from Islamic State fighters in Libya that was headed for the Lake Chad region, an area devastated by Boko Haram.” Boko Haram pledged allegiance to the Islamic State last year.

Major technology firms are aligning together to oppose the encryption bill that would require them to aid the government in decrypting customer data. The Hill reports that the “coalition that includes Apple, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and Twitter blasted the legislation as ‘unworkable’ in a letter sent Tuesday to the bill’s backers, Senators Richard Burr (R-NC) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA).” The Hill also tells us that the letter, signed by the coalition calling itself ‘Reform Government Surveillance,’ states that the “bill would weaken the very defenses we need to protect us from people who want to cause economic and physical harm.”

The Intercept delves into the questions of “lawful” hacking and what rules should apply to government hackers. Check that piece out here.

Meanwhile, the United States is wary to reopening the data pact agreed earlier this year with the European Union. Recently, E.U. privacy watchdogs have raised concerns over elements within the deal. Reuters tells us that “the E.U.-U.S. Privacy Shield was agreed in February after two years of talks and will help companies move Europeans’ data to the United States without setting up complex legal contracts to comply with strict E.U. data transfer rules.”

The Guardian reports that Britain’s intelligence agencies have secretly been collecting personal data since the late 1990s. Additionally, the personal data collected belong to people who are “unlikely to be of intelligence or security interest.” According to the Guardian, “disclosure of internal MI5, MI6, and GCHQ documents reveals the agencies’ growing reliance on amassing data as a prime source of intelligence even as they concede that such ‘intrusive’ practices can invade the privacy of individuals.” To make matters even more controversial, the Financial Times shares that senior British politicians have known about the secret data collection for at least 15 years and, in some cases, signed off on the agencies’ access to the personal information.

In an effort to speed up the war court proceedings, the Obama administration is proposing to hold parts of the Guantanamo trials by video feed. The move would allow war court judges to outsource some of the legal decisions to secondary military judges. The Pentagon has already submitted its request for a Skype court session to Congress for approval. The Miami Herald has more.

Parting Shot: Boko Haram is offering loans to young entrepreneurs. But there is a catch. The beneficiaries either have to join the terror group or risk being killed if they fail to pay the loan when it's due. The other catch? The Nigerian military says that the payment program is programmed to fail. Read more of Boko Haram’s latest business deal from CNN here.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Nicholas Weaver debuted his series Nick Asks the NSA with a question about Signaling System 7 (SS7).

Helen Klein updated us on the nine Yemeni Guantanamo detainees transferred to Saudi Arabia.

Cody flagged three FISC opinions released by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Yishai Schwartz commented on the Supreme Court’s decision on the Bank Markazi v. Peterson case.

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.