Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Alex R. McQuade
Monday, May 9, 2016, 5:19 PM

The United States’ war against the Islamic State is facing hurdles on and off the battlefield. The Washington Post reports that “chaos in Baghdad, the fraying of the ceasefire in Syria and political turmoil in Turkey are among some of the potential obstacles that have emerged in recent weeks to complicate the prospects for progress. Others include small setbacks for U.S.-allied forces in front lines in Northern Iraq and Syria, which have come as a reminder that strategy heavily reliant on local armed groups of varying proficiency who are often at odds with one another won’t always work.” The upside? Even facing all these hurdles, according to one U.S. official, "we're actually a little bit ahead of where we wanted to be," which if you're on the ground in Iraq or Syria, is a phrase that might give you pause.


At least 15 people were killed and scores more wounded in multiple attacks throughout Baghdad yesterday. The Wall Street Journal calls the attacks a “stark reminder of Iraq’s continuing instability amid a political crisis that is heaping pressure on Prime Minister Haider al Abadi." The Journal tells us that “a suicide bombing outside a funeral home in Abu Ghraib on the outskirts of the capital killed five people including two policemen” and “a further 10 people were killed and 35 were wounded by improvised explosive devices across the city.” There has been no claim of responsibility.

Amid the chaos unfolding in Iraq, the State Department requested an additional 25 heavily armed U.S. Marines for the U.S. embassy in Baghdad. CNN tells us that “concerns have risen since demonstrations occurred there last week in Baghdad’s ‘Green Zone,’ where the embassy is located.” CNN also shares that more demonstrations were expected for last Friday, but U.S. officials indicate that the area has remained peaceful.

The United States is struggling to convince some Iraqis that it is, indeed, not in secret cahoots with the Islamic State. The Associated Press writes that “despite spending more than $10 million on public outreach in Iraq last year, the U.S. government appears to have made little headway in dispelling such rumors.” Read more here.

The extended ceasefire around Aleppo has not stopped insurgents from fighting government forces in the area. Reuters reports that “Syrian government forces and their allies fought insurgents near Aleppo on Monday and jets carried out raids around a nearby town seized by Islamist rebels.” The news comes as the United States and Russia attempt to revive an almost-defunct peace process. Secretary of State John Kerry arrived in Paris today to participate in talks on the violent conflict in Syria. Secretary Kerry is set to meet with French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault alongside of representatives from Britain, Germany, Italy, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Jordan, Turkey, and the European Union.

Turkey has once again upped the ante in its offensive against the Islamic State. The Associated Press shares that “Turkish artillery has fired at the Islamic State group across the border in Syria, killing 55 militants and destroying three rocket launchers and three vehicles.” Turkey also struck PKK positions in northern Iraq, “hitting rebels’ shelters, ammunition depots, and weapons emplacements.” The AP writes that “the Turkish military strikes come as Turkey is facing twin threats from the PKK and IS, which have carried out six major suicide attacks in Turkey since July, killing some 200 people.”

An Islamic State affiliate in Egypt claimed credit for a drive-by shooting attack that killed eight police officers in a Cairo suburb. The Wall Street Journal reports that “four masked gunmen in a pickup truck blocked the path of a minibus carrying plainclothes officers as they patrolled the south Cairo suburb of Helwan” and then the gunmen “jumped off the truck and sprayed the minibus with bullets, killing all aboard including a ranking supervising officer before driving away.”

Meanwhile, the Islamic State threatened the lives of 11 Muslim imams and scholars in the West. The New York Times tells us that “the recent issue of the Islamic State’s online propaganda magazine , Dabiq, called them ‘obligatory targets,’ and it said that supporters should use any weapons on hand to ‘make an example of them.’” The threat has been deemed dangerous enough to prompt the FBI to contact those named in Dabiq to “assist them in taking proper steps to ensure their safety.” Read how Muslim scholars and imams in the West are fighting another front against the Islamic State through theology from the Times here.

Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri has urged rebels in Syria to unite or risk death. In an audio recording released online yesterday, Zawahiri told fighters in Syria, “We have to want the unity of the Mujahideen in Sham [Syria] so it will be liberated from the Russians and Western Crusaders. My brothers...the matter of unity is a matter of life or death of you.” According to Al Jazeera, Zawahiri “criticized the U.N.-backed political process to find a solution in Syria and praised al Nusra Front, an al Qaeda offshoot which controls most of Idlib province.” The Long War Journal has more on Zawahiri’s latest address here.

U.S. forces are now on the ground in Yemen supporting Arab forces that are battling al Qaeda. The Washington Post reports that “Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said U.S. personnel had been in the country for about two weeks, supporting Yemeni and Emirati forces that are fighting a pitched battle against militants near the southeastern port city of Mukalla.” The Pentagon said the deployment would be a short term affair. The Post also tells us that the U.S. military is providing “Emirati forces with medical, intelligence, and maritime support, and is flying surveillance and aerial refueling missions.” The small number of U.S. advisors on the ground in Yemen demonstrate a new American role in Yemen’s ongoing civil war.

Matthew Rosenberg and Joseph Goldstein of the New York Times analyze how the U.S. role in Afghanistan has turned into combat once again, but this time with a tragic error. They observe that the offensive to retake the city of Kunduz offers “the starkest example to date of a blurry line in Afghanistan and Iraq between the missions that American forces are supposed to be fulfilling - military training and advising - and combat. Mr. Obama has portrayed that combat role as over. But as the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Islamic State in Iraq have threatened the delicate stability he hoped to leave behind, American forces are increasingly being called on to fight.” Read more here.

Relatedly, some U.S. troops in Afghanistan seem to be confused of their mission. Reuters reports that “amid fierce fighting after the Taliban captured the northern Afghan city of Kunduz last year, U.S. special forces advisers repeatedly asked their commanders how far they were allowed to go to help local troops retake the city.” Apparently, they never received an answer. Reuters has more.

The Taliban attacked two police checkpoints on the outskirts of Lashkar Gah in Helmand province yesterday. Reuters shares that “the attack in the Babaji area of Lashkar Gah, during the early hours of the morning, set off a three-hour gun battle during which the Taliban said they overran two checkpoints, destroyed an armored personnel carrier and captured a large amount of equipment.” There were conflicting reports of casualties, with the Helmand police counting 14 Taliban fighters dead and another 22 wounded. The Taliban claimed that 15 police and a police commander were killed.

The Times reports that Afghan and American officials are seeing signs of a closer integration of the Haqqani Network and the leadership of the Taliban, a shift that is “changing the flow of the Afghan insurgency this year.” According to the officials, the Haqqanis are “calling the shots in the Taliban’s offensive,” including orchestrating a truck bomb attack in Kabul last month that killed 64 people. The Haqqani’s “signature brand of urban terrorist attacks” and “sophisticated international fund-raising networks” could herald an even deadlier year ahead. The integration of senior Haqqani fighters into the Taliban’s leadership may also complicate peace talks, as the United States considers the group a terrorist organization, while also raising tensions between Afghanistan and Pakistan, who American and Afghan officials accuse of sheltering the group.

The insurgent group publicly executed two women in northern Afghanistan, one of them in an apparent honor killing. The New York Times tells us that “the killings, which were thought to be unrelated, took place in recent months in northern Jowzjan Province, in predominantly Uzbek areas where Taliban presence has traditionally been weak except among ethnic Pashtuns.” Additionally, the Times shares that “in one of the cases, a pregnant 22-year-old woman named Rabia, a mother of two young children, was accused by her husband of adultery, tried and convicted by the Taliban on the spot, and then publicly shot three times.” Read more on the killings here.

Afghan officials hanged six Taliban prisoners over the weekend. The Washington Post writes that the execution “makes good on President Ashraf Ghani’s recent promise to deal harshly with insurgents, now that hopes for peace negotiations have evaporated.” According to the Post, “the six hanged were found guilty of crimes against ‘civilian national security’” and President Ghani “signed the order of execution in response to ‘repeated demands of the families of victims of terrorist attacks.’”

In Pakistan, a prominent journalist and human rights activist was murdered in Karachi. The BBC tells us that Khurram Zaki, editor “Let Us Build Pakistan,” a site that condemns sectarianism and is seen as promoting democratic and progressive ideas, was shot dead in a restaurant when suspects opened fire from motorbikes. A splinter group of the Pakistani Taliban claimed credit for the murder.

A Sufi Muslim leader in northern Bangladesh is the latest hacking attack victim in the country. The New York Times reports that Mohammad Shahidullah’s body was found in a pond about 25 miles away from his home with two deep wounds in his neck and throat. There has been no immediate claim of responsibility for Shahidullah’s death, but the Times shares that “several of the assaults have been claimed by the Islamic State or by a branch of al Qaeda.”

Iran tested a medium-range ballistic missile two weeks ago and didn’t tell anybody. According to Reuters, “Iran successfully tested a precision-guided medium-range ballistic missile two weeks ago, a military official said on Monday, as Tehran continues to bolster what it insists is a purely defensive arsenal.” The move comes despite new sanctions against Iran over other recent missile tests.

Some American foreign policy experts are suggesting that “Russia has delivered its response to President Obama’s decision this year to increase the deployment of heavy weapons, armored vehicles, and other equipment to NATO countries in Central and Eastern Europe.” According to the New York Times, “by sharply ramping up so-called intercepts of American ships and planes in Central and Eastern Europe, Russia is demonstrating its anger over the increased American military presence in a region it considers part of its backyard.”

Speaking of Russia, Middle Eastern leaders are turning their backs on President Obama and instead, talking to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Why you ask? Because the Russian military is seen “as willing to use power to affect the balance of power in the region,” and the United States is not. Check out that story from Politico here.

The DPRK had a grand show over the weekend with the main event featuring a thrilling three-hour speech by the Supreme Leader. In his remarks, North Korea’s leader Kim Jong Un stated that his country would only use nuclear weapons if North Korea’s sovereignty was infringed by others with nuclear arms. During the country's rare Congress of the ruling Workers’ Party on Saturday, Kim said that the North “will faithfully fulfill its obligation for non-proliferation and strive for global denuclearization.” Perhaps more significantly, Kim also announced a new five-year economic plan—a step that his father never took. While relatively light on specifics, the plan calls for more technological innovation in agriculture and factory production, as well as higher coal output.

Earlier today however, North Korea indicated that it would strengthen its defensive nuclear weapons capability. Reuters reports that the country’s ruling Workers’ Party adopted the new decision in defiance of U.N. resolutions. North Korea’s official state-run news agency KCNA cited the congress and said that “we will consistently take hold on the strategic line of simultaneously pushing forward the economic construction and the building of nuclear force and boost self-defensive nuclear force both in quality and quantity as long as the imperialists persist in their nuclear threat and arbitrary practices.” Satellite images of North Korea indicate that the country is preparing for another nuclear test. Read more on that report here.

Don’t miss the TimesSaturday profile of Admiral Harry B. Harris, Jr., the commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet.

Seven people have gone on trial in Belgium for suspicion of being linked to the Islamic State operatives who attacked Paris and Brussels. The BBC reports that “police broke up the cell when they raided a house in Verviers in eastern Belgium in January 2015. Although 16 suspects have been charged in connection with the cell, nine of them are on the run.” The trials began this morning in Brussels.

Meanwhile, the United Kingdom is debating whether to stay within the European Union. Earlier today, British Prime Minister David Cameron warned that a U.K. exit from the E.U. could put peace in Europe at risk. Britain’s spy chiefs agree and are also warning that leaving the E.U. would be a security risk. Politico reports that “former heads of MI5 and MI6 have warned that leaving the EU would undermine Britain’s ability to protect itself from terrorist threats.”

France plans to establish a dozen deradicalization centers across the country in an attempt to identify potential extremists and prevent them from joining jihadist organization. In the Journal, Nicole Hong outlines a new program in Minnesota—the first of its kind in the United Statesthat will attempt to understand why members of the Somali-American community in the state “became radicalized and propose a plan to turn each away from violent extremism.”

In Somalia, al Shabaab claimed credit for a suicide car bomb attack in Mogadishu that killed at least two police officers. Reuters tells us that the car bomb exploded just outside of Mogadishu’s traffic police headquarters and wounded three other police officers.

Twitter has barred intelligence agencies from utilizing Dataminr, a tool used to filter the social media platform’s postings. According to the Wall Street Journal, “the move, which hasn’t been publicly announced, was confirmed by a senior U.S. intelligence official and other people familiar with the matter. The service - which sends out alerts of unfolding terror attacks, political unrest, and other potentially important events - isn’t directly provided by Twitter, but instead by Dataminr Inc., a private company that mines public Twitter feeds for clients.” The barring represents that latest tension point between Silicon Valley and the federal government over privacy and security.

Senator Mike Rounds (R-SD) will introduce the Cyber Act of War Act of 2016 today, which will require the administration to adequately define what would constitute an act of war in cyberspace. In his piece in the Wall Street Journal, Senator Rounds writes, “America needs a clear and concise definition of when an attack in cyberspace constitutes an act of war.” You can read his full argument in the Journal here.

Parting Shot: The Washington Post’s Andrew Roth received a three-day press tour to travel with the Russian army in Syria. He went, despite a threat that it will be his last trip if he wrote poorly about Russia’s military, and shared his story of the 56 hours he spent with them. Check his piece out here.

ICYMI: This Weekend, on Lawfare

Alex McQuade shared The Week That Was, rounding up all of Lawfare’s content from last week.

Cody Poplin released the latest Lawfare Podcast featuring Juliette Kayyem on her new book Security Mom.

John Bellinger commented on the proposed legislation to micromanage the National Security Council and indicated that it raises constitutional and political concerns.

Paul Rosenzweig told us that the Intelligence Community thinks Harvard is wrong about encryption.

In Sunday’s Foreign Policy Essay, Carol Saivetz analyzed Russia’s pullout from Syria and pointed out that Moscow is more involved in Syria than it likes to admit.

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