Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Alex R. McQuade
Thursday, May 12, 2016, 4:59 PM

The slow march to Mosul moves onward, but key questions are surfacing about who will take the city, how the assault will be handled, and perhaps most surprisingly, what will happen to any potential ISIS detainees.

Charlie Savage, Michael Schmidt, and Eric Schmidt have the latest on the lack of a plan for Islamic State detainees in the New York Times. According to the trio of Times reporters, "William K. Lietzau, who oversaw detention policy at the Pentagon from 2010 until 2013, said there was “widespread” opposition in the upper levels of the Obama administration to conducting wartime detention. But the alternative, he said, could lead to war crimes if American-backed local fighters encounter more potential prisoners than they can handle." More from the Times here.

A second day of suicide bombings rocked Baghdad earlier today. The Washington Post reports that “a twin suicide bombing hit a police station in Baghdad’s westernmost suburb on Thursday, killing at least five policemen.” According to one police officer, two suicide bombers hit the station in the western suburb of Abu Ghraib at dawn. “The first bomber blew himself up at the station’s gate, followed by the second who detonated his explosives inside the building," the officer said. An additional 12 policemen were injured in the attack.

Today’s attack come just hours after nearly 100 people were killed in the Iraqi capital. The New York Times tells us that “three bombings in three different neighborhoods of Baghdad killed more than 90 people on Wednesday and wounded scores more. More from the Times here. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Islamic State claimed credit for the biggest attack and indicated that they were targeting Shiite fighters.

Airstrikes, a drop in oil prices, and counter-smuggling efforts by anti-ISIS coalition countries have cut the Islamic State’s oil revenues by half, dropping its income from oil to about $250 million USD per year. Assistant Secretary of the Treasury for Terrorist Financing Daniel Glaser told a think-tank audience that airstrikes, “along with the international price of oil, counter-smuggling efforts by Turkey, and difficulties the Islamic State has in transporting its oil across battle lines have combined to halve its own revenues.” Reuters has more.

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper is not sure that the Iraqi forces can retake Mosul from the Islamic State this year. During an interview with the Washington Post, Director Clapper said “they’ve lost a lot of territory. We’re killing a lot of their fighters. We will retake Mosul, but it will take a long time and be very messy. I don’t see that happening in this administration.” The Hill has more here.

Syrian government forces fought rebels north of Aleppo earlier today as the ceasefire extended in the war torn city expired. Reuters reports that “the fighting was focused around the rebel-held Handarat area which is important because it is near the last route into opposition-held areas of Aleppo.” According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least five insurgents were killed during the battle.

As fighting resumed around Aleppo, al Qaeda fighters and other “ultraconservative Sunni insurgents” captured a predominantly Alawite village in central Syria. The Associated Press tells us that “Ahrar al Sham, an ultraconservative Sunni Islamic militant group, led the assault on Zaara, along with the Nusra Front, al Qaeda’s Syrian franchise, which often fights alongside opposition factions.” The capture of the Alawite town sparked “new fears of sectarian violence as families from the village were reported missing by activists.”

“Turkey has officially refused to change its anti-terror laws to satisfy European Union demands as part of its efforts to secure visa-free travel to Europe for Turkish citizens, raising questions about the future of the E.U.’s migrant deal with Ankara.” The Associated Press shares that “the E.U. says Turkey must narrow its definition of ‘terrorist’ and ‘terrorist act’ to secure a visa waiver. The bloc is concerned that journalists and political dissenters could be targeted.”

German officials are looking into 40 tips about suspected Islamic State militants that may have entered the country posing as migrants. The Wall Street Journal tells us that “the BKA, Germany’s federal bureau of investigation, has received 369 tips since the start of the migrant crisis about possible members of terrorist organizations or radical Islamists being among the influx of new migrants last year, a spokeswoman said, adding that of those, 40 cases are now being investigated by federal and state authorities.”

The Islamic State’s attack on Brussels earlier this year could have been much worse, according to Belgian officials. The Wall Street Journal reports that “according to new details from interviews with people briefed on the investigation and a Belgian parliamentary inquiry that began this week, the carnage on March 22 was lessened by luck, solid police work during the days before the attacks, and disarray inside the terror cell caused by lack of an on-the-ground leader.” The Journal has more here.

The United States activated an $800 million missile defense shield in Romania today. According to Reuters, the United States sees the new shield “as vital to defend itself and Europe from so-called rogue states,” but Russia views it as a security threat, undermining its own nuclear deterrent. Earlier today, senior U.S. and NATO officials declared the ballistic missile defense site as operational, which is fully capable of shooting down missiles from countries such as Iran. Reuters also tells us that “when complete, the defensive umbrella will stretch from Greenland to the Azores. On Friday, the United States will break ground on a final site in Poland due to be ready by late 2018, completing the defense line first proposed almost a decade ago.”

Authorities in China claim to have “widespread support” in the international community for its decision not to have anything to do with a recent legal case regarding the South China Sea by the Philippines. Reuters reports that “China says it is fully within its rights not to participate in what it views as forced arbitration, and says the Philippines is using the case to directly undermine Chinese sovereignty.” China’s foreign ministry in recent weeks has claimed support for its operations in the South China Sea from countries such as Cambodia and Yemen. The remarks come as China has spun up its rhetoric ahead of the Hague’s decision expected in a few weeks.

China also is saying that repeated U.S. Navy patrols in the South China Sea are “forcing it to boost the defense capabilities of the islands it controls and may require it to launch more air and sea patrols.” According to a statement from China’s Defense Ministry, “the provocative actions by American military ships and planes lay bare the U.S. designs to seek gain by creating chaos in the region and again testify to the total correctness and utter necessity of China’s construction of defensive facilities on relevant islands.” The statement also indicated that China will continue to defend what it calls its national sovereignty and security. Read more from the Associated Press.

“There is no silver bullet that will stop terrorist use of the Internet.” So said Steven Crown, vice president and deputy general counsel of Microsoft, before a United Nations Security Council special meeting on countering terrorists’ ideology yesterday. The Wall Street Journal writes that Crown said that “technology companies face a daunting challenge in stopping terrorists from accessing online platforms, as they need to respect free-speech rights even as they try to eliminate hate messages.” The Journal tells us that during the meeting with the UN Security Council, Mr. Crown “pointed to the successful partnerships between tech companies and governments on cracking down on child-sex-abuse material globally as an example of how the tech industry can assist governments in pursuing shared goals.” The Journal has more.

The Kenyan government is prepared to expel hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Dadaab refugee camp. The New York Times shares that the move would almost certainly violate international law and endanger the people currently living in the camp. According to the Times, “for years, Kenya has threatened to shut down the Dadaab refugee camp, where hundreds of thousands of Somalis have been marooned for decades. A sea of tents and plastic shelters spread out across miles of desert near the border with Somalia, the camp has become essentially one of Kenya’s largest cities." To defend the decision, the Kenyan government said that terrorists were using the refugee camp as a hideout.

Earlier today, Secretary of State John Kerry tried to reassure European banks that they would not be penalized for conducting business with Iran. The Associated Press tells us that “at an unusual meeting in London, the top U.S. diplomat joined Britain’s top commerce official to challenge what Kerry called ‘misinterpretations or mere rumors’ about U.S. sanctions on Iran.” The meeting was an attempt to address Tehran’s grievances that businesses are staying away despite the nuclear agreement.

Ben Rhodes, the White House’s deputy national security advisor for strategic communications, is being pressed by House Republicans to testify before the House Oversight Committee regarding the Iran Deal. The request comes after Rhodes made controversial comments about the Obama administration’s marketing of the Iran nuclear deal in a New York Times Magazine profile. Read more on the controversy from the Hill.

FBI Director James Comey indicated yesterday that the number of Americans traveling to Iraq and Syria to fight for the Islamic State has decreased significantly since last summer. According to Director Comey, the FBI encountered between 6 and 10 Americans a month in 2014 and the first half of 2015 who traveled or tried to get to the Middle East to fight for the group; now the Bureau is seeing about one a month. Even so, Comey also indicated that encryption technology is providing a major boost for the terrorist group’s effort to radicalize people online. The Wall Street Journal shares that Comey said that “the increasing use of encrypted communications is compelling law enforcement’s efforts to protect national security,” calling the encryption technology a “huge feature of terrorist tradecraft.”

Meanwhile, Europe is battling an encryption problem of its own. Motherboard shares that “the head of Europe’s law enforcement body is saying that encryption is an issue in the vast majority of cases the agency sees.” Europol Chief Rob Wainwright tweeted earlier this week that the encryption problem gets in the way of 75% of all Europol cases.

Meanwhile, the Atlantic dives into the crime of "sextorition," following the release of a new report on the subject by Brookings. The report was authored by Lawfare's Ben Wittes, Cody Poplin, Quinta Jurecic, and Clara Spera. Read how sextortion should be punished here. Lawfare previews the report here.

Khalid Sheik Mohammed’s lawyers are asking the Department of Defense’s prosecutors and judges to step down, “accusing them of involvement in the secret destruction of evidence in the death-penalty case.” Attorney David Nevin says that the evidence “was destroyed under circumstances where we left with the impression, based on a ruling of the military judge, that the evidence would not be destroyed.” The Miami Herald reports that Nevin and co-counsel Marine Major Derek Poteet “said that defense lawyers were notified in February that the prosecution had - without notice to the defense - sought and got permission from Pohl to destroy something that the defense deemed ‘favorable evidence’ for the accused.” The Herald has more.

Four former detainees held at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq are asking a federal appeals court to revive their lawsuit against CACI Premier Technology Inc., "an Arlington based military contractor hired to conduct interrogations at the prison in Iraq." The former detainees claim to have been tortured at the notorious prison that gained national spotlight after leaked photos revealed how inmates were brutally treated by guards. According to the Associated Press, “the former detainees ... claim the company’s employees conspired to have soldiers torture them to soften them up for questioning. The plaintiffs say they were subjected to electrical shocks, sexual violence, and forced nudity.” The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals will hear arguments in Richmond on Thursday.

In the Washington Post, former Senator Bob Graham (D-FL) calls for the release of the missing 9/11 Commission Report’s 28 pages. The former co-chair of the Joint Inquiry Into the Terrorist Attacks of September 11, 2001 argues, “I strongly believe that American people deserve to know why this issue is so important.” Read more in the Post here.

Speaking of those missing pages, the Daily Beast tells us that they are just the beginning. According to the Beast, as the Obama administration prepares to release the missing 28 pages, a judge in Florida is “weighing whether to declassify portions of some 80,000 classified pages that could reveal far more about the hijackers’ Saudis connections and their activities in the weeks preceding to the worst attack on U.S. soil.”

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Benjamin Wittes, Cody Poplin, Quinta Jurecic, and Clara Spera released their report on sextortion and provided some solutions to the growing and global problem.

Cody Poplin featured Ben Wittes’ online webcast previewing the new sextortion reports.

Keiran Hardy and George Williams reviewed executive oversight of intelligence agencies in Australia as part of Lawfare’s mini-forum discussing chapters of Global Intelligence Oversight: Governing Security in the Twenty-First Century.

Daniel Weitzner provided a checklist for recognizing flaws in proposed “exceptional access” systems.

Julian Ku commented on the United States’ latest “freedom of navigation” operation in the South China Sea.

Stewart Baker issued the newest edition of the Steptoe Cyberlaw Podcast, featuring an interview with Orin Kerr.

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