Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Elina Saxena
Wednesday, May 11, 2016, 4:07 PM

ISIS claimed responsibility for a three separate car bombs that tore through Baghdad earlier today leaving at least 93 dead. The first bomb struck a marketplace in Sadr City, a predominantly Shia area, during the morning rush hour, killing over 60 people and injuring dozens more. Eyewitnesses reported that emergency responses were slow and that the number of casualties from the attack is expected to rise. The other two car bombs targeted police checkpoints in Kadhimiya, which houses a holy Shia site, and in Jamia. Reuters writes that “security has gradually improved in Baghdad, which was the target of daily bombings a decade ago, but violence against security forces and [Shia] Muslim civilians is still frequent.”

As Iraqi security forces prepare for the offensive against ISIS forces in Mosul, the Guardian writes that within both Iraqi and Kurdish forces, “there is a belief that what happens on the road to Mosul will not only define the course of the war but also shape the future of Iraq. And, despite the high stakes, planning for how to take things from here is increasingly clouded by suspicion and enmity.”

Reuters tells us that an “unlikely alliance between an offshoot of a leftist Kurdish organization and an Arab tribal militia in northern Iraq is a measure of the extent to which Islamic State has upended the regional order.” The head of the Arab tribal force said that "chaos sometimes produces unexpected things," adding that, “after Daesh (Islamic State), the political map of the region has changed. There is a new reality and we are part of it." Despite the budding partnership, the agendas of the two forces differ. Reuters writes that, “while the Arab militia wants to restore Baghdad's authority over this arid hinterland, the YBS is on a mission to establish its own model of society based on the philosophy of PKK leader Abdullah Ocalan.”

Secretary of State John Kerry said in an interview on Tuesday that Russia's version of a political solution in Syria "is not necessarily a workable equation," but he added that “we would not have gotten the initial ceasefire without Russia.” When asked about Russia’s cooperation in Syria, Kerry said that “if Russia is going to avoid a morass in Syria altogether, they actually need to find a political solution.” Earlier this week, the United States and Russia announced plans to work towards restoring the largely crumbling ceasefire which took hold in February.

Meanwhile, in Aleppo, rebel and government forces continue to exchange fire as the ceasefire in Aleppo brokered by the United States and Russia unravels, Agence France-Presse tells us. The destruction in Aleppo has left hundreds dead, and doctors in the city describe “immense pressure bearing down on medical professionals who work in Syria and, in particular, Aleppo, the country’s largest city before civil war decimated much of it.”

Elsewhere in the country, Islamic State militants are once again advancing towards Palmyra after Syrian government forces recaptured it from them several weeks ago, the Washington Post reports. The militant group “seized a strategically located but deserted rocket-launching site close to an air base less than 60 kilometers (40 miles) from Palmyra,” which threatens government supply routes. Just six days ago, Russian conductor Valery Gergiev led the Mariinsky Symphony Orchestra in concert at the city's Roman Theatre.

At a conference of Balkan military chiefs, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan claimed that Turkey has killed over 3000 Islamic State militants and suggested that “no other country is fighting Islamic State as Ankara is.” Meanwhile, Turkey is under fire for “committing serious human rights violations against Turkish civilians and Syrian refugees in recent months.” The Post writes that “Turkish security forces may have deliberately shot civilians, destroyed infrastructure, carried out arbitrary arrests and triggered a wave of displacement in an ongoing military campaign against ethnic Kurdish separatists in the country’s southeast.” A day after U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein expressed concern over Turkey’s refusal to allow a U.N. team to investigate claims, Turkey’s foreign ministry “dismissed [the] UN statement raising alarm over violence against civilians and alleged human rights abuses in predominantly Kurdish south-east Turkey and said it was welcome to visit the region.”

In Afghanistan, 15 Afghan policemen were killed when Taliban insurgents overran two checkpoints in Helmand province, Reuters reports. Security in the province has continued to worsen, with the provincial capital Lashkar Gah under increasing pressure. The province, as Reuters writes, “is one of the key battlegrounds for the Taliban, who launched a spring offensive last month, vowing to drive out the Western-backed government in Kabul and restore strict Islamic rule.”

Elsewhere in the country, U.S. and Afghan forces rescued the son of former Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani three years after his kidnapping by militants with ties to al Qaeda. Ali Haider Gilani was kidnapped in 2013 while campaigning for a seat in parliament in eastern Pakistan.

Secretary of State John Kerry responded to Iranian claims that the United States was preventing firms from engaging in trade and investment following the easing of sanctions that took place after the historic nuclear deal went into effect several months ago. Kerry stated that “Iran has a right to the benefits of the agreement they signed up to, and if people by confusion or misinterpretation or, in some cases, disinformation are being misled, it’s appropriate for us to try to clarify that.” Tensions between the United States and Iran have continued despite the deal.

In Yemen, a suicide bomber struck a convoy carrying the commander of the First Military Region, General Abdul-Rahman al-Halili, leaving at least three dead and a dozen wounded. While no group has claimed responsibility for the bombing, al Qaeda has orchestrated similar attacks in the past. Halili, who was injured in the attack, vowed to continue working to “uproot this malicious plant from our midst.”

Agence France-Presse reports that the warring sides in the Yemeni conflict have agreed to a prison swap with both sides promising to “free half of the prisoners and detainees held by both sides within 20 days.” The agreement is considered to be the “first breakthrough in peace talks which began in Kuwait on April 21.” Despite this potentially positive step in the Yemeni peace talks, the New York Times writes that “even if the negotiations somehow succeed, Yemenis scarred by the vicious fighting, past broken promises and deepening divisions say they fear that any truce would just be a prelude to an even uglier war, fought between regions, religious sects — even neighbors.”

The United States will not seek the death penalty in the case against Ahmed Abu Khattal, the alleged ringleader behind the Benghazi attacks. A spokesman for the Department of Justice said that “the department is committed to ensuring the defendant is held accountable for his alleged role in the terrorist attack on the U.S. Special Mission and annex in Benghazi that killed four Americans and seriously injured two others.” Foreign Policy writes that “the decision to forgo the death penalty is likely to prove divisive politically.”

The New York Times’ David Ignatius sat down with spy chief James Clapper. As Ignatius writes, Clapper “offered some surprisingly candid comments — starting with a frank endorsement of President Obama’s view that the United States can’t unilaterally fix the Middle East.” That interview here.

Over in the South China Sea, a U.S. warship passing within 12 nautical miles of the Fiery Cross Reef, China’s largest artificially built island, “prompted the Chinese military to scramble three fighter jets that monitored the destroyer, along with three Chinese ships, until the American vessel left the area.” Though the Pentagon maintains that the ship passed in innocent passage, the Chinese Foreign Ministry stated that the “American naval vessel threatened China’s sovereignty, security and interests, and it harmed the safety of the people and facilities in the island, damaging regional stability.”

A New York court case revealed the identity of al Qaeda’s explosives expert in Yemen: Anwar al Awlaki, the very same man who had been at the helm of al Qaeda’s English-language propaganda campaign before U.S. forces targeted him in a controversial drone strike. Scott Shane and Benjamin Weiser report for the Times that the new court filings “offer the most detailed account yet of a hidden side of Mr. Awlaki’s work inside Al Qaeda’s branch in Yemen — as a hands-on trainer who taught recruits how to make bombs, gave them money for missions and offered suggestions about how to carry out suicide attacks.”

The revelation comes from the sentencing memorandum in the case against Minh Quang Pham, a student of Awlaki’s, who could be sentenced to as many as 50 years in prison for plotting to attack London’s Heathrow Airport. Pham, who pled guilty to terrorism charges earlier this year, reportedly “used his college degrees in graphic design and animation to edit videos and photos for propaganda in Inspire magazine.” According to Pham, “Mr. Awlaki gave him 6,000 British pounds, about $10,000 at the time, which he directed him to use to attack Heathrow Airport near London.” Pham also shed light on Awlaki’s role in overseeing the publication of Inspire, al Qaeda’s English-language propaganda magazine.

A New Jersey man was sentenced to 15 years in prison after helping his brother travel to join the Islamic State. The man, who had planned to join his brother, pled guilty to charges of conspiracy to commit terrorism. According to the Associated Press, the defendant said that “he regretted not exerting more influence over his younger brother, whom prosecutors said was the more militant of the two.”

In Guantánamo Bay, a Kenyan detainee, Abdul Malik, went before the Periodic Review Board. Though never charged, Malik was linked to the 2002 Mombasa terror plots by a Pentagon intelligence profile and has been held since March 2007. Military-appointed representatives say that since his capture, “he has been a well-behaved prisoner, serving as a camp cook for other prisoners and reading Dale Carnegie management books in hopes of returning to his work as the owner of a diving and fishing business.”

Politico tells us that the government accidentally disclosed classified information in a February hearing for a 9/11 suspect. The material ended up on the computers belonging to the defense team, the prosecutors, and the military judge. According to Politico, the information in question is likely the “identity of one or more individuals involved in the CIA interrogation program for terrorism suspects,” and the defense lawyers have claimed that “the mishap led to a widespread ‘scrub’ of computer equipment used by a variety of personnel involved with the military commissions.”

Parting Shot: Your dose of optimism for the day: new findings by NASA’s Kepler telescope increased the number of known alien planets by over 60%. Astronomers announced that the telescope “discovered 1,284 new exoplanets, including nine rocky worlds that might be capable of supporting life as we know it.”

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Peter Margulies wrote that NSA officials appear to be taking James Madison's principles of checks and balances to heart.

Ashley Deeks discussed the constraints and structural limits that peer intelligence services of foreign states can put on the intelligence work of their counterparts.

Ammar Abdulhamid argued that Saudi Arabia should seek normalization with Israel in order to pave the road towards peace.

Cody shared the Senate Judiciary Committee's hearing on "Oversight and Reauthorization of the FISA Amendments Act: The Balance Between National Security, Privacy and Civil Liberties."

Aurel Sari took a look at the UK Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights's recent report on drones.

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