Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Alex R. McQuade
Monday, April 25, 2016, 4:40 PM

The United States is preparing to send an additional 250 military personnel to Syria, officially expanding the United States’ presence in the country to 300 soldiers. The Wall Street Journal reports that the additional troops will “help local forces fighting the Islamic State, significantly expanding the all American footprint in the war-ravaged country, according to U.S. officials.” The Washington Post features President Obama’s announcement of the new plan here. In his address, President Obama “emphasized that the new troops are ‘not going to be leading the fight on the ground,’ but they would work with local forces.”

While the United States will send additional troops to aid in the fight against the Islamic State, it will not be deploying any ground troops in Syria with the purpose of overthrowing the Bashar al Assad regime. Yesterday, President Obama stated that “it would be a mistake for the United States, or Great Britain, to send in ground troops and overthrow the Assad regime.” In the same interview with the BBC, President Obama also indicated that he did not believe that the Islamic State would be defeated within his last nine months in office.

Meanwhile, the United States acknowledged that dozens of civilian casualties in Iraq and Syria have occurred since the U.S.-led bombing campaign grew more aggressive last fall. According to USA Today, “the release of the findings of nine investigations shows that the military's prosecution of Islamic State targets by warplanes carries greater risks for civilians. From September 10, 2015 to February 2, 2016, nine airstrikes resulted in 31 civilian casualties, killing 20 people and wounding 11 more, according to U.S. Central Command. That compares with 21 killed and 17 wounded from the start of the war in August 2014 to September 2015.”

The United States has also opened another new line of combat against the Islamic State. According to the New York Times, the United States has directed “the military’s six-year-old Cyber Command for the first time to mount computer-network attacks that are now being used alongside more traditional weapons.” Additionally, the Times reports that “the effort reflects President Obama’s desire to bring many of the secret American cyber weapons that have been aimed elsewhere, notably at Iran, into the fight against the Islamic State - which has proved effective in using modern communications and encryption to recruit and carry out operations.”

Fighting erupted in Iraq over the weekend, but this time, the Islamic State was not a part of it. The Washington Post reports that “Kurdish troops and Iraqi Shiite forces exchanged mortar and machine-gun fire Sunday in a flare-up that killed at least 12 people and raised concerns about the state’s ability to control an array of armed militia groups as areas are freed from the Islamic State.” The fighting broke out in the ethnically and religiously mixed town of Tuz Khurmatu about 120 miles north of Baghdad. The Wall Street Journal has more on the violence here.

Reuters has the latest on a number of U.S. volunteers seeking adventure as they fight alongside of the Kurds against the Islamic State. One of the American fighters says “you can feel the explosions in your teeth. It’s kind of cool actually,” as he describes the offensives he’s participated in with the Kurdish fighters.

The Iraqi military is warning civilians against returning to Ramadi. Al Jazeera tells us that the military issued the warning after dozens of civilians were killed by mines apparently left by the Islamic State. Iraqi forces recaptured the town back in December and tens of thousands of residents have since moved back in the past two months.

Benoit Faucon and Margaret Coker of the Wall Street Journal shed some light on how the Islamic State became the world’s wealthiest terror group. They write that “documents reviewed by the Wall Street Journal describe the terror group’s construction of a multinational oil operation with help from officious terror-group executives obsessed with maximizing profits." Check out their piece here.

The Washington Post’s Joby Warrick highlights the base salary offered to Islamic State operatives: $50 a month. But the pseudo-state knows the struggles of having mouths to feed back at home. The Islamic State fighter apparently receives an additional $50 for each of his wives, and $35 for each of his children below the age of 15. Oh, and if the militant had any “female captives,” or sex slaves, he gets an extra $50. Read more from the Washington Post here.

Last week, the Syrian opposition’s High Negotiations Committee walked out of the U.N.-backed peace talks in Geneva. Now, the Syrian opposition coordinator Riad Hijab is defending his committee’s decision to walk out and even criticized U.N. Envoy Staffan de Mistura over the rise in violence. Reuters shares that “Hijab’s public criticism of de Mistura, who must be seen as neutral while trying to negotiate peace in Syria, highlights the tensions and fragility of a peace process which has limped on despite the opposition declaring a ‘pause’ in talks with nearly all of its delegation leaving in Geneva.” As de Mistura receives criticism from the Syrian opposition, he in turn is calling upon the United States, Russia, and other powers to save the fragile peace talks. The New York Times writes that de Mistura said that “a partial ceasefire that came into effect at the end of February was still in effect but ‘in great trouble if we don’t act quickly.’” He also added that a meeting of the International Syria Support Group was “urgently required.”

As the peace negotiations come to a standstill, the violence in Syria has ratcheted up. Reuters reports that “at least 60 people have been killed in three days of fighting in Syria’s northern city of Aleppo” and “seven children and 10 women were among those killed in a series of airstrikes by the government side and shelling attacks by insurgents since Friday.”

Elsewhere in the battle against ISIS: the Los Angeles Times reports that the Pentagon “shifted more than 100 U.S. soldiers from a desert camp near the Egypt-Israeli border in the Sinai Peninsula after a barrage of attacks from militants linked to the Islamic State.” The U.S. troops are part of “little-known” peacekeeping force that maintains the 1979 treaty between Egypt and Israel and were transferred about 300 miles south to a more secure area in the region. The LA Times writes that “the move comes as the Obama administration is considering whether to scale back the 700 U.S. troops in the Sinai and instead use remote sensors, cameras, and other technology to monitor the border.” General Joseph Dunford, the top U.S. military officer, made a trip to Egypt this weekend, underscoring the “growing concern about Islamic State-linked militants and ongoing efforts to address friction in the countries’ military partnership.” The Washington Post has more on that trip here.

And finally, a little further south, those battling ISIS's West African branch, Boko Haram, are facing similar challenges intelligence officers in Europe are struggling to overcome. The New York Times shares that “the military campaign by Nigeria and neighboring nations to combat the West African militant group Boko Haram has been hampered by a failure among those countries to share crucial intelligence - sometimes even within their own security services,” according to American and Western officials.

Yemeni troops backed by the United Arab Emirates retook the city of al Mukalla from al Qaeda militants this weekend. The New York Times reports that “hardly a shot was fired. By nightfall, the Qaeda militants had withdrawn from Al Mukalla in an apparently tactical retreat.” Additionally, the Times tells us that “thousands of fighters were said to be in the city and appeared ready for battle against the attacking force, which was backed by the United Arab Emirates. In mosques, the militants asked residents to support them as they confronted ‘the invaders,’ and they placed gas tankers in roads to use as defensive booby traps.” The loss of al Mukalla is a major blow to al Qaeda’s Yemeni branch. According to the Saudi-led coalition, more than 800 al Qaeda militants were killed in the offensive to retake al Mukalla from al Qaeda. Read that report from Reuters here.

“Once driven to near irrelevance by the rise of the Islamic State abroad and security crackdowns at home, al Qaeda in Yemen 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.” Earlier this month, Reuters issued a deep dive into AQAP’s own Raqqa: al Mukalla, and how Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen has made al Qaeda stronger and richer.

Amid the violence in al Mukalla, the United Nations-brokered Yemen peace talks are continuing in their fourth day, but they are making little progress. Al Jazeera shares that the U.N.-envoy to Yemen had to suspend the session due to “huge differences.” The delegations resumed the negotiations over the weekend, but an hour into the peace talks, “it was obvious for the U.N.-special envoy that the talks were going nowhere.”

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has called upon Pakistan to fight the Taliban rather than try to bring them into peace talks. According to the Associated Press, President Ghani delivered his remarks during an address to Afghanistan’s parliament just a week after the deadly Taliban assault on Kabul in which 64 people were killed and 340 others were injured. The AP writes that “Afghan officials have long accused Pakistan of turning a blind eye to the Taliban, the leadership of which is widely believed to be based in the Pakistani cities of Quetta and Peshawar, near the border.” During his address to parliament, President Ghani indicated that “there are ‘no good or bad terrorists, they are just terrorists,’” and said that “Pakistan must understand that and act against them.”

Kurdish Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) fighters are ready to escalate the war with Turkey due to Ankara's attempts to make the militant group surrender. The BBC reports that PKK leader Cemil Bayik said that “the Kurds will defend themselves to the end, so long as this is the Turkish approach - of course the PKK will escalate the war.” He also accused Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of “escalating this war.” However, an aide to President Erdogan ruled out any negotiations between Turkey and the PKK.

Russia is creating a new internal security force that will report directly to President Vladimir Putin. The new force, called the Russian Guard, will be headed by one of Vladimir Putin’s former bodyguards and was created via an executive order earlier this month. According to the Wall Street Journal, President Putin “said the security force is intended to tighten control over the arms trade in the country and streamline counterterrorism efforts.” However, Russian security experts suggested that with parliamentary elections set for September, the force will be capable of putting down mass protests, should they occur as they did in 2011.

The South China Morning Post reports that China will begin reclamation of the Scarborough Shoal off the coast of the Philippines later this year. China is also planning to install an airstrip on the islands in the contested waters of the South China Sea in order to “extend its air force’s reach” over the waters. More on that report here.

North Korea fired another missile over the weekend, this time from a submarine. CNN shares that test launch “sparked sharp condemnation and concern from officials around the globe.” As usual, North Korea claimed that "U.S. military action on the Korean peninsula justifies its aggressive pursuit of nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them.” While the DPRK claimed that the test was a "great success," the missile only traveled 30 km, according to a South Korean Defense Ministry official.

Meanwhile, North Korea’s Foreign Minister Ri Su Yong told the Associated Press over the weekend that North Korea“is ready to halt its nuclear tests if the United States suspends in annual military exercises with South Korea.” President Obama, however, dismissed the proposal, saying Pyongyang would “have to do better than that.”

For the second time this month, the Department of Justice has dropped a court case trying to force Apple to help federal authorities unlock an iPhone. The Wall Street Journal writes that the move has added “a new uncertainty to the government’s standoff with the technology company over encryption.” In a letter filed with a Brooklyn federal court last Friday, the government indicated that an individual, thought to be the owner of the phone, had come forward with the passcode for the long-locked iPhone in question. Read more from the Journal here.

The New York Times has the latest in a change of heart from two former national security officials in regards to privacy and encryption. Former CIA and NSA Director Michael Hayden and former DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff were once fierce advocates of utilizing the government’s spying capabilities to uncover sensitive intelligence data, but today, their jobs have changed and apparently, so too have their minds. Both men, now working for the corporate consulting firm founded by Mr. Chertoff, back Apple in its long fight with the FBI to keep their devices private and encrypted.

The executive branch will ask Congress to re-authorize two key surveillance programs next year. The problem? Congress has yet to receive an answer on the most important question regarding the programs authorized under Section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The two programs are PRISM and Upstream. The Intercept tells us that “PRISM collects hundreds of millions of internet communications of ‘targeted individuals’ from providers such as Facebook, Yahoo, and Skype. Upstream takes communications straight from the major U.S. internet backbones run by telecommunications companies such as AT&T and Verizon and harvests data that involves selectors related to foreign targets.” But the most important question that Congress has is: How much data are these two programs collecting on American citizens? The government hasn't answered yet. According to the Intercept, fourteen members of the House Judiciary Committee sent Director of National Intelligence James Clapper a letter last week requesting at least a rough estimate. Reuters has more on the lawmakers push here.

Republicans in the House of Representatives are set to take aim at the National Security Council. Member of the House Armed Services Committee have put forward a new proposal that would “restrain White House control over foreign policy planning, amid mounting complaints that the roles of the Pentagon and other national security agencies are being curtailed by West Wing micromanaging.” The Washington Post shares that “House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-TX) will offer an amendment as soon as this week to the annual defense policy bill that would slash the National Security Council staff to ‘well below’ its estimated current level of 400, give Congress more oversight over the council and subject the president’s national security adviser to the Senate confirmation process, according to committee aides.” Additionally, the new proposal will also elevate U.S. Cyber Command to a full combatant command. Among the top critics of the Obama administration’s “micromanaging” are none other than former Defense Secretaries Robert Gates and Leon Panetta, with Secretary Gates saying “it was that micromanagement that drove me crazy.”

The House Armed Services Committee “aims to make a slew of reforms to the Pentagon in areas such as command structure and health care,” according to the Hill. Additionally, the NDAA also seeks some assurances from the White House regarding the fight against the Islamic State and effectively prevents the president from closing the Guantanamo Bay detention facility.

A civil lawsuit filed by the ACLU against the CIA has received approval to move forward by a federal judge. The Guardian reports that “after hearing attorneys for the two contract psychologists who created the torture program post up against American Civil Liberties Union lawyers representing three victims of the program’s most brutal techniques, senior federal judge Justin L. Quackenbush said he could not dismiss the case.” The ACLU filed the lawsuit on behalf of Suleiman Abdullah Salim, a fisherman from Tanzania; Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud, a Libyan living in exile from Gaddafi’s regime; and Gul Rahman, an Afghan who died of hypothermia while undergoing enhanced interrogation. All three men were held for years and never accused of being members of al Qaeda. According to Hina Shamsi, the director of the ACLU’s national security project, “this has never happened before. There have been so many cases brought by torture victims, Iraq, Afghanistan, elsewhere, and not one of them has been able to go forward for shameful reasons. This is a very big deal for our clients.”

The Obama Administration will likely soon release at least part of the 28-page missing chapter of the 9/11 Commission Report. The documents have been thrown in the spotlight recently as they may reveal possible Saudi connections to the deadly terror attacks. The Associated Press tells us that “the documents, kept in a secure room in the basement of the Capitol, contain information from the joint congressional inquiry into ‘specific sources of foreign support for some of the Sept. 11 hijackers while they were in the United States.’”

A new drone command center has officially been set up on a U.S. aircraft carrier. The USS Carl Vinson, currently in San Diego, CA, is the first aircraft carrier ever installed with a drone command, marking "the start of a phased implementation of the MQ-XX system on an aircraft carrier,” according to Capt. Beau Duarte, the manager of the Unmanned Carrier Aviation program. According to United Press International, the program is set to provide high-endurance drones and unmanned aircraft that will replace today’s F/A-18E/Fs aircraft.

Parting Shot: Researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison are working on detection technology that if placed on drones could save thousands of lives each year by detecting terrorists’ improvised explosive devices and active landmines. According to emeritus professor of nuclear engineering and the UW-Madison Fusion Technology Lab’s Director Jerry Kulcinski, “the proven detection technology that also can detect chemical and nuclear weapons and drugs was successfully miniaturized and designed to fly on small unmanned aircraft” by the Fusion Technology Lab’s graduate students about five months ago. The Wisconsin State Journal has more on the new technology here.

ICYMI: This Weekend, on Lawfare

In Sunday’s Foreign Policy Essay, Dave Blair rethought drones as an analytical category for security policy.

Cody Poplin shared the latest Lawfare Podcast, featuring Benjamin Wittes and Cliff Kupchan’s conversation on the future of US-Russian relations and also Russia’s intervention in Syria.

Alex McQuade rounded up all of Lawfare’s content from last week in The Week That Was.

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