Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Alex R. McQuade
Tuesday, May 3, 2016, 5:02 PM

A United States Navy SEAL was killed today after Islamic State militants broke through the front line of Kurdish peshmerga forces in northern Iraq. The Washington Post writes that the incident highlights “the evolving nature of the Pentagon’s mission in Iraq and how American troops are serving closer than ever to the front lines.” Reuters tells us that the SEAL is the “third American to be killed in direct combat since a U.S.-led coalition launched a campaign in 2014 to ‘degrade and destroy’ Islamic State and is a measure of its deepening involvement in the conflict.” NBC News reports that the incident took place near Irbil, Iraq and that the serviceman was killed by direct enemy fire 2 to 3 miles behind the Peshmerga front lines.

U.S. forces are getting closer to the front lines of the fight against the Islamic State, and as another sign of this fact, the Washington Post highlights a U.S. outpost less than 10 miles from the front lines of the push towards Mosul. According to the Post, “the new firebase is part of a creeping U.S. buildup in Iraq since troops first returned to the country with a contingent of 275 advisers, described at the time by the Pentagon as a temporary measure to help get ‘eyes on the ground.’” However, two years later, those 275 troops have ballooned into 4,087 soldiers and they are moving closer and closer to the front lines. Read more from the Post here.

The dividend of that buildup? The United States is increasing the number of airstrikes against Islamic State militants in Syria as American military personnel on the ground are gathering better intelligence on what targets to hit. Secretary Carter vowed on Monday to step up strikes further as more targets become known. The Wall Street Journal reports that, according to Secretary Carter, “an increase in airstrikes already has begun and will continue, in part thanks to a recently announced increase in U.S. troops on the ground.”

Speaking of airstrikes, more than 35 airstrikes slammed the Islamic State’s de-facto capital of Raqqa last night. Reuters shares that the strikes killed at least 13 people and wounded many more around Raqqa. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, it was unclear if the planes were Russian or belonged to the U.S.-backed coalition, but at least five members of the Islamic State were killed.

Russia and the United States have agreed to coordinate new steps in the Syrian peace process aimed at ending the unrest in the country. The news comes as the Syrian military has agreed to an extended limited ceasefire around Damascus for another 48 hours. But the ceasefire does not include Aleppo, which has seen the resumption of full on war in recent weeks. Negotiations to apply the ceasefire to Aleppo remain ongoing. More on those talks from the New York Times here.

Another hospital in Aleppo was attacked today. The Washington Post reports that “a Syrian rebel assault on government-held parts of Aleppo killed as many as 19 people, in attacks that included a deadly rocket strike on a hospital even as diplomats struggled to find ways to quell the fighting.” The Associated Press has more on how Aleppo is being dragged deeper and deeper into chaos.

A tale of two cities: “Damascus is shielded from the worst of Syria’s turmoil and violence, yet filled with those who have suffered from it - the displaced, the bereaved, those seeking to flee - and so everything, even the candy, is laced with a layer of skepticism.” Declan Walsh, of the New York Times, describes life in Damascus amid the conflict. Read more on his account on the streets of Syria’s capital here.

Following the news of protesters storming the Iraqi parliament over the weekend, Foreign Policy asks if Baghdad is where Iraq’s most important battle is taking place. Foreign Policy writes that the “most consequential fight for the country’s future may be playing out in Baghdad’s Green Zone, not with bullets and bombs, but amid an unanswered cry for political reform to a deeply dysfunctional and sectarian state.” Michael Weiss and Abdulla Hawez of the Daily Beast feature a story on how Moqtada al Sadr could take down Iraq’s government here.

According to the Daily Beast, a French national who is suspected of coordinating that November Paris terrorist attacks has been promoted to a top position in the Islamic State’s foreign intelligence wing. The Beast writes that “Abu Suleyman al Firansi, the nom de guerre of this rising star in terrorist ranks, is believed to be the first West European ever to attain such an elite rank in ISIS - an indication of the emphasis the group is putting on attacks in the West and its reliance on people with European backgrounds to spearhead them.”

In other European counterterrorism news, British Prime Minister David Cameron is expected to announce new anti-extremism powers, including powers to ban organizations, close down premises, and gag individuals. The Guardian reports that “the legislation follows publication of the government’s counter-extremism strategy which also promised a full investigation into the application of Sharia law in the U.K.” Britain’s Home Office is set to appoint a chair for the new program shortly.

The Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) attacked a military outpost in southeastern Turkey yesterday. According to Reuters, “the attack was launched in the Semdinli district of Hakkari province, which borders Iraq and Iran.” The clash between PKK militants and Turkish soldiers left two soldiers and five PKK militants dead.

Meanwhile, as Turkey continues to fend off PKK terrorists, Ankara battles another group in the country that is increasingly labeled as terrorists: journalists. Read more on the crackdown in Turkey’s Kurdish southeast that turned journalists into terrorist fighters from the Guardian here.

Afghan security forces are attempting to break the Taliban’s hold on a highway through Afghanistan's Oruzgan province. The New York Times writes that the capture of the crucial highway will “ease the insurgents’ intensifying siege of an important provincial capital.” The Times also tells us that “while most of the public and urgent security concerns in the south have been focused on the fighting in Helmand Province in recent months, the insurgency has also been slowly choking the city of Tirin Kot, the provincial capital of Oruzgan.” The Taliban’s highway closure has raised food prices in the city and other surrounding districts and has increased fears that the militant group may take control of the city.

The United States has told Pakistan that it will have to finance the purchase of American F-16 fighter jets itself. Reuters tells us that last February, the U.S. government “approved the sale to Pakistan of up to eight F-16 fighter jets built by Lockheed Martin Corp, as well as radar and other equipment in a deal valued at $699 million.” However, some members of Congress have changed their minds. Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Bob Corker (R-TN) said he would use his power as chairman “to bar use of any U.S. funds for the deal to send a message to Pakistan that it needed to do more in the war against militants.”

Meanwhile in Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei issued a warning to the United States military to stay out of the Persian Gulf. Yesterday, the supreme leader warned, “What are you doing here? Go back to the Bay of Pigs. Go and hold exercises there. What are you doing in the Persian Gulf? The Persian Gulf is our home.” According to the Hill, “the comments came as the U.S. Navy extended the deployment of an aircraft carrier to the region in support of the war against the Islamic State.” The Hill has more on the latest Iran warning.

North Korea is set to hold its first congress in 36 years later this week. Leader Kim Jong Un will preside over the meeting, but what exactly the congress will entail remains shrouded in secrecy. However, the Associated Press shares that “North Korea’s advances toward becoming a truly credible nuclear power are sure to be touted along with claims of economic advances in the face of the toughest global sanctions it has been hit with in decades.” Also, the Hermit Kingdom undoubtedly wants to steal headlines around the world. South Korea fears that its northern neighbor could conduct a nuclear test before or even during the rare congress.

South Korea issued a warning that North Korea may be planning to capture South Korean citizens abroad or conduct “terrorist acts.” According to the South’s Unification Ministry, which handles issues related to North Korea, “all measures of precaution were in place for the safety of South Koreans abroad including an order to beef up security at diplomatic missions.”

Islamic State-linked hackers have threatened members of the U.S. military once again. This time, the hackers alleged that they intend to release the photographs and addresses of drone pilots linked to Islamic State missions. The Air Force Times tells us that “over the weekend, hackers with the ‘Islamic State Hacking Division’ published a list of about 70 names they say are U.S. military personnel tied to the death of their once-famed leader, Junaid Hussain, also known as Abu Hussain al Britani.”

The United States’ Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court did not deny a single government request in 2015, according to the Justice Department. Reuters reports that “the court received 1,457 requests last year on behalf of the National Security Agency and the Federal Bureau of Investigation for authority to intercept communications, including email and phone calls, according to a Justice Department memo sent to leaders of relevant congressional committees.” Read more from Reuters here.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization will have a new supreme commander later this week. Today, United States Army General Curtis Scaparrotti was installed as the head of U.S. European Command and will become NATO’s supreme allied commander Europe during a separate ceremony tomorrow in Belgium. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter described General Scaparrotti as a “proven warrior-diplomat and a soldiers’ general.” The Associated Press has more.

Looks like some Senators are not inclined to adopt a House of Representatives proposal that would subject the president’s national security advisor to Senate confirmation. According to the Washington Post, “Senate Republicans and Democrats are concerned about the size of the NSC staff and what they argue is the outsize clout wielded by the powerful team inside the White House. But neither they nor Senate Democrats want to change the way the national security advisor is picked.” Some GOP members of Congress and several former Defense secretaries have complained that the National Security Council, headed by the national security advisor, has “ballooned out of control.”

Down in Florida, a man appeared before a federal judge in Miami yesterday on charges that he attempted to use weapons of mass destruction at a synagogue in the town of Aventura. Reuters shares that “James Medina, 40, of Hollywood, Florida, was arrested on Friday as a result of an undercover operation after he tried to use an explosive that law enforcement had made inoperable. The Federal Bureau of Investigation began watching Medina after he began expressing anti-Semitic views and a wish to attack a synagogue in conversation. They launched an investigation in late March.” Originally, Medina planned a shooting spree in the synagogue and intended to die during the attack. Investigators said that he also wanted to leave a clue at the attack scene so that it would be attributed to the Islamic State.

According to Bloomberg, WhatsApp has been “blocked in Brazil for the second time in less than six months for failing to turn over data in a criminal investigation.” A Brazilian judge issued an order to block the app for 72 hours. WhatsApp issued a statement saying, “after cooperating to the full extent of our ability with the local courts, we are disappointed a judge in Sergipe decided yet again to order the block of WhatsApp in Brazil. This decision punishes more than 100 million Brazilians who rely on our service to communicate, run their businesses, and more, in order to force us to turn over information we repeatedly said we don’t have.”

Yesterday, a federal judge in California issued a blow to Twitter’s drive to release more details on the surveillance orders it receives from the U.S. government. Politico reports that “U.S. District Court Judge Yvonne Rogers said the government has the power to prohibit the release of classified information, barring claims Twitter made in a lawsuit filed two years ago challenging as unconstitutional the limits federal officials have placed on publication of some statistics about surveillance demands.” Yet Twitter’s fight is not over. The judge’s order essentially invited Twitter to re-file its case, “incorporating a claim that the government has not ‘properly classified’ the statistics issue.”

During an exclusive interview with CNN last night, President Obama defended his approach to fighting terrorism and said that “the next president would most likely follow his lead rather than his predecessor’s.” President Obama told Peter Bergen during the interview that “the kinds of Special Forces and intelligence-gathering that we saw in the bin Laden raid is going to be, more often than not, the tool of choice for a president in dealing with that kind of threat.” Read more on President Obama’s interview on the future of counterterrorism from CNN here.

Army Colonel Judge James Pohl said that he will lift his order banning female guards from having physical contact with the five defendants in the 9/11 case being held at Guantanamo Bay. The Associated Press reports that Judge Pohl “also said he would keep the ban in place for six more months” due to what he calls “‘inappropriate’ public criticism of his ban by Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Marine Corps Gen. Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, during an October appearance before Congress.” The AP has more here.

Parting Shot: Remember the iconic photo taken at Iwo Jima of the United States Marines raising the American flag? Well, one of the Marines may have been misidentified. USA Today tells us that the Marine Corps is investigating whether one of the men in the photo was mistakenly identified. Some amateur historians allege that “the man identified as Franklin Sousley, was actually Harold Henry Schultz of Detroit, who passed away in 1995.” The historians “maintain that Sousley was in the photo, but was incorrectly identified as John Bradley, a Navy corpsman. If true, the mix up could prove Bradley was not actually present for the photo.” Read more from USA Today.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Cody Poplin shared The Week That Will Be, highlighting events in DC and job announcements that may be of interest to Lawfare readers

Peter Margulies commented on CENTCOM’s report on the Kunduz hospital attack, which he says “painstakingly detailed a parade of errors.”

Benjamin Wittes linked to the April 14th lunch event “Using Data to Secure Networks: Optimizing Individual Privacy While Achieving Security.”

Jack Goldsmith and Ben Wittes invited us to the next Hoover Book Soiree featuring H. Jefferson Powell on his new book Targeting Americans: The Constitutionality of the U.S. Drone War.

Jack also flagged a report of an “Internet of things-style surveillance network.”

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