Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Elina Saxena
Wednesday, April 27, 2016, 2:58 PM

The BBC reports that up to $800 million dollars of the Islamic State’s cash have been destroyed by U.S. strikes after U.S. forces stepped up their efforts to target the group’s funding. According to General Peter E. Gersten, the deputy commander of the U.S. effort against ISIS, “the blow to the group's financing has contributed to a 90% jump in defections and a drop in new arrivals.” His claims were supported by recently obtained internal documents from the militant group that highlighted the effects of the group's dwindling funds on its ability to attract and retain fighters. CNN tells us that the number of foreign fighters joining the group has gone “from 1,500-2,000 per month a year ago to 200 per month today,” while ISIS “fighters, meanwhile, seem to be suffering low morale, in some case seeking doctors' notes to avoid serving on the frontlines.” According to State Department sources, the number of militants fighting for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria is at its lowest in two years. The Washington Post has more.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Pentagon officials will not disclose any information on the elusive “cyberweapons” being used against the Islamic State, “concerned that any clues could help the terror network avoid future attacks.” The Journal writes that “officials have said the tactics include actions like disrupting Islamic State’s ability to communicate, sowing confusion among its members, and steering militants toward certain tools that are easier for the U.S. government to intercept or track,” noting that the effect of these cyber efforts remain unclear.

The New York Times reports that five rescue workers "were killed in aerial attacks on their headquarters in northern Syria on Tuesday as violence escalated in the critical battlegrounds of Aleppo Province, where government and insurgent attacks have killed dozens in recent days." The recent attacks have resulted in a spike in civilian casualties, with both sides blaming the other for the escalation in violence.

Nearby, government forces repelled an attack from a coalition of insurgent groups in the western part of Aleppo. Meanwhile, Islamic State militants continue to advance on rebel positions in northern Syria, seizing five rebel-held villages near the country’s Turkish border. The Associated Press has the latest from Syria.

As the Syrian peace process flounders, Reuters tells us that the United Nations has not specified when the next round of peace talks will begin, noting that “U.N. Special Envoy Staffan de Mistura is struggling to keep the peace process alive after the main opposition High Negotiations Committee (HNC) left formal talks last week.” The HNC has said that it would not rejoin further talks until its demands were met, and the group has called for a meeting of countries, excluding Russia, in Paris, which would work to “put an end to the hostilities against the Syrian people and put pressure on the regime and its allies to abide by the international resolutions and put an end to their severe violations against the Syrian people.’’

Iraqi forces “renewed their offensive toward the Islamic State stronghold of Mosul” today. According to Voice of America, the Iraqi “offensive had stalled out for several weeks after Iraqi forces met stiff resistance after managing to retake just three out of an original target of eight villages from Islamic State fighters.” As Iraqi forces continue to fight ISIS militants in the country, CBS News tells us that “ISIS has lost around 40 percent of the territory it once controlled in Iraq” but warns that “the numbers don’t tell the whole story” as the fight against the group is far from over.

Political pressure pushed Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi yesterday to reshuffle his cabinet as protesters gathered around Baghdad’s Green Zone. Abadi’s recent efforts to change ministers in his cabinet have been impeded by chaos in the parliament. The Washington Post writes that the “political unrest has brought a new level of instability to a country that is facing multiple crises, including the fight against the Islamic State militant group and the struggling economy. The United Nations has warned that the upheaval would further embolden the militants.”

Parties to the Yemeni conflict agreed to a roadmap for peace talks in Kuwait yesterday. Reuters writes that “differences over the agenda had made it difficult for the two sides to start real negotiations to end the 13-month war that has killed more than 6,200 people, wounded more than 35,000 and displaced more than 2.5 million people.” Following yesterday’s agreement, officials have expressed confidence that the peace talks would move forward today.

Meanwhile, as Yemeni and Emirati forces continue their advance against local al Qaeda strongholds, Reuters reports that a suspected U.S. drone strike in southern Yemen killed an al Qaeda leader and five of his associates. Earlier this month, U.S. officials said that “they were considering a request from the United Arab Emirates request for air power, intelligence and logistics support,” and it is not clear whether U.S. forces are coordinating with the Emirati and Yemeni ground offensive.

Months after the United States struck a prominent Islamic State radio station in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, local residents claim that the signal returns from time to time. CNN takes us into the expansion of the Islamic State in Afghanistan and the local backlash against the militant group’s brutality. Due to sustained U.S. strikes against the group, according to one U.S. official in the country, “ISIS had a fairly significant presence in six or seven districts in Nangahar, now that's probably down to three or four, but they also seem to be growing more and more in (nearby) Kunar.”

Elsewhere in the country, Afghan forces are attempting to learn from past mistakes and shift their strategy as Taliban militants look towards Kunduz. Reuters writes that, “as part of a new strategy to go after the enemy rather than wait for militants to strike first, Afghan army commandos have carried out at least 10 operations against them around the city since mid-March, and more are planned.” Despite increased levels of confidence in the government’s ability to protect the city, local police express concern that "if the army doesn't clear the whole area, then the Taliban will come back." As Afghan forces enter the new fighting season, Foreign Policy adds that they “must get creative” and suggests that Kabul should be more selective in choosing battles over territory.

Over in Iran, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei accused the United States of undermining Iranian economic interests by dissuading businesses from engaging with Iran despite recently lifting sanctions against the country. According to a transcript of a speech he gave, the Ayatollah claimed that "on paper the United States allows foreign banks to deal with Iran, but in practice they create Iranophobia so no one does business with Iran."

Israeli security personnel shot and killed a Palestinian woman and her 16-year-old brother. According to police, the two were carrying weapons as they approached a checkpoint outside Jerusalem and did not respond to police requests to stop their advance, but the account has been questioned by a Palestinian bus driver who witnessed the incident. In the ongoing spate of violence that, since October, has killed 28 Israelis and "at least 193 Palestinians, 130 of whom Israel says were assailants,” Israeli police are on high alert during the Passover holiday.

The Wall Street Journal reports that the Scarborough Shoal is emerging as the latest flashpoint in the South China Sea after “the U.S. military about a month ago observed Chinese ships conducting survey work around a clump of rocks, sandbars and coral reefs known as the Scarborough Shoal.” The shoal is some 470 nautical miles from the Chinese coast and about 120 nautical miles from the Philippines, with whom the United States recently announced a series joint patrols. U.S. forces have flown three air patrols near the shoal this month, heightening tensions between the United States and China. Beijing has condemned U.S. patrols near the shoal, which it has referred to as China’s “inherent territory.”

Paris suspect Salah Abdeslam has been handed over to French authorities after being held in Belgium following his capture last month. The Washington Post tells us that, “although complete details of his role in the November attacks remain unclear, he is suspected to have been among the logistical planners of the Paris attacks, organizing the hotel rooms and rental cars that facilitated” November’s attacks in Paris. Abdeslam is expected to stand trial “in a case that could shed further light on Islamist militant recruitment and networks in Europe.” Discussing his client, Abdeslam’s lawyer in Belgium said that “he’s a little moron from Molenbeek involved in petty crimes; more of follower than a leader. He has the intelligence of an empty ashtray. He is the perfect example of the 'Grand Theft Auto' generation who thinks he lives in a video game.” The French lawyer who has agreed to defend Abdeslam described him as "falling apart" and suggested that he is ready to cooperate.

Turning to the homeland, the Post reports that “the FBI intends to tell the White House this week that its understanding of how a third party hacked the iPhone of a shooter in San Bernardino, Calif., is so limited that there’s no point in undertaking a government review of whether the tool should be shared with Apple.” Speaking at a cyber conference hosted by Georgetown University, FBI Director James Comey discussed the threshold determining whether government agencies disclose software flaws to software companies under the Vulnerability Equities Process and stated that “the threshold is: Are we aware of the vulnerability, or did we just buy a tool and don’t have sufficient knowledge of the vulnerability that would implicate the process?” Reuters tells us that the FBI reported a software vulnerability to Apple earlier this month as part of the Vulnerability Equities Process. The Journal has more on that story here.

Charlie Savage of the Times writes that “prosecutors have told an Iraqi refugee who is accused of traveling to Syria to help a terrorist organization that he faces evidence derived from the government’s warrantless surveillance program.” The disclosure “elevates the significance of the case by making the constitutionality of that program a central dispute.” The case once again poses questions about the constitutionality of both the FISA Amendments Act and the collection methods used for surveillance.

Finally, the Washington Post tells us that “Gen. David L. Goldfein has been nominated to become the new top officer in the Air Force, nearly 17 years after he survived being shot down in an F-16C fighter jet while flying a combat mission over Serbia.” Defense Secretary Ash Carter announced the nomination yesterday. General Goldfein awaits Senate confirmation.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Ben likened encryption to a living will.

Susan Landau considered how the FBI "workforce is not prepared—not for the investigations of today, and not for the future."

Emma Buchsbaum took a look at Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act as Congress begins the journey to reauthorize it.

Sarah Yerkes asked if Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's latest blunder could be the final nail in his coffin.

Yishai Schwartz summarized the implications of the Supreme Court's ruling in Bank Markazi v. Peterson.

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