Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Alex R. McQuade
Tuesday, April 26, 2016, 3:22 PM

In the fight against the Islamic State, it appears that the United States and Iran are impeding one another. In recent months, Iraqi forces—backed by American airstrikes and advised by American officers—have been making progress in the Anbar Province and are slowly taking back territory from the Islamic State. However, the New York Times points out that “in Fallujah, a city in Sunni-dominated Anbar that has been in the hands of the Islamic State longer than any other in Iraq or Syria, civilians are starving as the Iraqi Army and militias lay siege to the city. And elsewhere in the province, Shiite militias supported by Iran are carrying out kidnappings and murders and restricting the movement of Sunni Arab civilians.”

Five rescue workers in Syria were killed overnight when airstrikes and a rocket attack targeted an opposition-held area west of Aleppo. Reuters reports that the rescue workers appeared to be deliberately targeted while they were at a center for the Syrian Civil Defence, known as the “White Helmets.”

The United States is concerned that rebel groups in Syria will seek more anti-aircraft missiles which could possibly fall into the hands of the Islamic State. The Daily Beast shares that “the missiles, known as man-portable air-defense systems, or MANPADs, have introduced an unpredictable and hard-to-defend element to the battlefield. U.S. officials have long resisted arming the rebels with MANPADs, fearing they’ll be obtained by Islamic militants in a country where the U.S. has little ability to control the flow of weapons.” Read more from the Beast here.

The Islamic State claimed responsibility for yesterday’s car bombing in a district south of Damascus. Reuters tells us that the blast “killed at least six people and possibly many more.” Initial reporting of the attack by different sources indicates alternative casualty numbers.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani indicated that Afghanistan would now step back from attempts to engage Taliban fighters in peace talks and instead will “execute” enemies of the state and prepare for an extended war. However, President Ghani is still open to talks with Taliban fighters who lay down their weapons. The Washington Post has more here.

Yesterday, President Ghani had called upon Pakistan to take military action against the Taliban. The New York Times reports that Ghani “warned that he would lodge a complaint with the United Nations Security Council if Pakistan refuses.” In a rare address to both houses of the Afghan parliament, President Ghani said, “I want to make it clear that we do not expect Pakistan to bring the Taliban to talks. If we do not see a change, despite our hopes and efforts for regional cooperation, we will be forced to turn to the U.N. Security Council and launch serious diplomatic efforts.”

As President Ghani calls for military action against the Taliban, the Afghan Taliban delegation actually arrived in Pakistan to meet with officials in regards to the peace process. Reuters tells us that “last month, the Taliban ruled out participating in what it called ‘futile’ talks sponsored by the four-power group of Pakistan, Afghanistan, the United States, and China as long as foreign forces remain in the country.” However, this time around, Kabul’s delegation refused to attend, citing the recent blast in Afghanistan’s capital that killed at least 64 people and injured hundreds more.

The Vice President of Afghanistan is looking forward to his trip to the United States where he will discuss his vision on how to best overcome the Taliban insurgents. The only problem with that is that Afghanistan’s vice president is not welcomed in the United States. The New York Times looks into why Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum is barred from entering the United States here.

Over in Pakistan, a prominent al Qaeda financier was arrested by Pakistani authorities. According to the Associated Press, “Abdur Rehamn Sindhi was detained during a raid by intelligence agencies in the southern port city of Karachi last week.” Pakistani police officer Muqaddas Haider indicated that a “joint team of police and intelligence agents” were questioning the suspect on what role he might have played in militant attacks in Pakistan in recent years. Sindhi has been on a United Nations sanctions list since 2012.

Earlier today, the United Nations Security Council called upon all parties involved with the Yemeni peace talks to create a “road map” for the implementation of interim security measures. The peace talks began in Kuwait earlier this month following an agreement for a “cessation of hostilities” in the war torn country. Read the rest of the statement from the Security Council here.

Yesterday, Yemeni forces and allies from the United Arab Emirates retook control of Yemen’s largest oil export terminal from al Qaeda. The successful operation comes just a day after security forces pushed back al Qaeda’s militants from their stronghold in al Mukalla. According to Reuters, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula was taking in about $2 million a day in taxes from the port.

Yesterday, Iran stated that it will seek a lawsuit against the United States at the International Court of Justice at the Hague to block the nearly $2 billion of Iranian assets from being distributed to victims of Iranian terrorist attacks. The New York Times writes that “distribution of impounded assets, which the United States Supreme Court validated in a decision last week, has enraged the Iranians and threatened to damage the improvement in relations created by the deal reached last July on Iran’s nuclear program.” The SCOTUS decision impacted more than 1,000 Americans including survivors of, and relatives of people killed in, terrorist attacks that the United States has attributed to Iran. The Times tells us that “the Iranians have denied responsibility for these attacks and have accused the United States of using them as an excuse to steal their money through the Supreme Court decision.”

The New Yorker features a piece highlighting Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif discuss the nuclear deal, U.S.-Iran relations, and other various sticking points between the two nations. Check that out here.

North Korea allegedly placed a new missile, capable of hitting U.S. military posts in Asia, on standby. The Hermit Kingdom may also be preparing for a fifth nuclear test. According to Fox News, “a government official in Seoul told South Korea’s Yonhap news agency that the South’s military had unspecified evidence indicating North Korea would likely soon launch a mid-range Musudan missile.” Fox also tells us that some analysts are indicating that a fifth nuclear test “could happen before North Korea holds a ruling Workers’ Party congress in early May so that leader Kim Jong Un can burnish his image at home and further cement his grip on power.”

However, yesterday, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told reporters that the United States does not really know whether North Korea tested a “boosted” nuclear device this year. Defense One tells us that a “boosted nuclear weapon is sometimes described as an intermediary point between a fission bomb and a much more destructive hydrogen bomb.”

Over in Africa, al Shabaab launched an attack against a Somali military base earlier today and killed five soldiers. The incident occurred in the northwestern town of Baidoa. Captain Aden Nur told Reuters that “al Shabaab militants attacked early in the morning. Five soldiers died and 12 others were wounded.” He added that six of the militants were killed during the fierce fighting.

As the al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab continues their assaults, the Islamic State has announced its “first camp of the Caliphate in Somalia.” The Long War Journal tells us that “the Islamic State touted a small training camp and announced its first attack in Somalia as part of its push to establish a presence in the country.” Al Shabaab fighters have ruthlessly pursued Islamic State supporters in Somalia, thwarting the Islamic State’s attempt to establish any sort of foothold in the area. The Long War Journal describes the video released earlier this month here.

In other news on the Islamic State’s first attack in Somalia, the IBT writes that “in an official statement circulated on social media, the extremist group said its fighters detonated an improvised explosive device targeting a military vehicle belonging to African Union peacekeeping forces on the outskirts of Mogadishu.” The explosion damaged the vehicle, but it was not clear if there were any casualties.

In the beginning of Barack Obama’s first term as president, he provided speeches in Germany and in Egypt outlining his vision of a “new dawn” in the Middle East. As he ended this week’s trip to the Middle East and Europe, President Obama delivered another address in Germany. This time however, the speech “was punctuated by little of the soaring eloquence that expressed Mr. Obama’s ambitious foreign policy aspirations.” The New York Times writes that “instead, the president, recognizing the limitations in realizing those aspirations, spoke in more measured tones as he gently urged allies to do more to defend themselves and solve their own problems.” In the same speech, President Obama “detailed his vision for a unified Europe and said both the U.S. and its partners must intensify efforts to battle Islamic State militants in Syria and Iraq.” The Wall Street Journal has more.

Additionally, President Obama stressed the need to monitor data in fighting terrorism. According to the New York Times, the President’s “message comes at a sensitive time, as cities like Brussels and Paris are still recovering from recent terrorist attacks. But his words are unlikely to slow down European efforts to expand people’s control over their digital lives.”

Meanwhile, Sweden is now on high alert after receiving intelligence about a possible attack on the capital by Islamic State militants. Reuters reports that Swedish security services were “investigating undisclosed information” and that newspaper Expressen “reported Swedish security police (SAPO) had received intelligence from Iraq that seven or eight Islamic State fighters had entered Sweden with the intention of attacking civilian targets.”

As Sweden prepares for a possible assault on its capital, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper warned just yesterday that the Islamic State is spreading throughout Europe and possesses clandestine cells throughout Britain, Germany, and Italy. These cells could be deployed to carry out attacks on civilians similar to the Paris and Brussels atrocities. The New York Times and the Hill have more.

A Canadian hostage was beheaded yesterday in the Philippines by the militant group Abu Sayyaf. The Wall Street Journal tells us that Canadian citizen John Ridsdel was taken hostage by Abu Sayyaf along with two other hostages last September. The militant group, known for taking hostages for ransom, “had demanded payment of 300 million pesos, of about $6.4 million, each for Mr. Ridsdel and two other hostages, one Canadian and one Norwegian.” The group threatened to kill one of the hostages if they did not receive the ransom money by 3 p.m. yesterday. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau announced Mr. Ridsdel’s death yesterday and stated that he was outraged by the news. For those unfamiliar with the extremist group, the New York Times provides an overview of Abu Sayyaf here.

Australia arrested a 16-year-old boy suspected of plotting a terrorist attack during the country’s veterans commemorations on Monday. The New York Times reports that the teenager was arrested on Sunday “after he was said to have tried to obtain a firearm.” The boy was charged with planning a terrorist act and if convicted could face a maximum penalty of life in prison.

The FBI is looking into expanding its hacking authority through revisions to Rule 41 that would allow magistrate judges to issue warrants for remote searches of computers whose locations are unknown. The possible expansion could allow the FBI to hack a suspect's computer no matter where it is located. The Financial Times reports that “federal prosecutors say the change is needed to keep pace with technology that lets computer users mask their identity and thwart the traditional process for obtaining search warrants. Magistrate judges can usually authorize searches only of property located within their geographic districts.”

The Wall Street Journal has the latest on blacklisted terrorist financiers. Apparently, “some terrorist financiers blacklisted by the U.S. government continue to raise money and attract followers on U.S.-based social media,” according to a new report by the Camstoll Group, a Los Angeles financial-intelligence firm. Read the report here.

Responding to a letter from members of the House Judiciary Committee, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said that he is considering some options to make the number of U.S. citizens whose personal data had been gathered by the NSA. NPR tells us that “Clapper was responding to a question about a letter sent last week from 14 members of the House Judiciary Committee. The letter, signed by six Republicans and eight Democrats, presses Clapper for information about a law that governs the data-mining program known as PRISM.” The lawmakers on the committee want at least a “rough estimate” of the numbers, and they may be getting it soon.

At the same event, Director Clapper blamed Edward Snowden for advancing encryption technology stating that “as a result of the Snowden revelations, the onset of commercial encryption has accelerated by seven years.” Additionally, he indicated that the shortened timeline has had “a profound effect on our ability to collect, particularly against terrorists.” The Intercept features more with the nation’s top spy here. NBC News adds that Clapper noted that “from our standpoint, it’s not a good thing.”

According to DNI Clapper, the missing 9/11 Commission Report’s 28 pages could be made public by June. The secret pages have garnered media attention in recent weeks following some suspicion that they may contain information linking Saudi Arabia to the terrorist attacks on 9/11.

Parting Shot: The U.S. government is hiring. Interested candidates should be knowledgeable in hacking computer networks successfully and also efficient in bomb defusing. Last March, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), announced that its Improv program was seeking research proposals that were creative for measures that “could threaten current military operations, equipment, or personnel.” Earlier this year, the Department of Defense announced the new “Hack the Pentagon” program designed to identify and resolve any security vulnerabilities within DOD’s universe. Think you have what it takes? See the article on the job announcement from Stars and Stripes.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Cody Poplin shared The Week That Will Be highlighting some events this week in DC and job announcements.

Benjamin Wittes provided an update on his e-Residency in Estonia, wherein he imagined how the Estonian digital ID card could be useful.

Ammar Abdulhamid examined what the failure of the Geneva talks mean in regards to the Syria peace process.

Herb Lin stated that the United States and South Korea should call out North Korea’s bluff because it may have diplomatic and political advantages.

Paul Rosenzweig linked to a case study featuring Delta Electroniks.

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