Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Alex R. McQuade
Monday, May 16, 2016, 5:11 PM

President Obama has now been at war longer than any other American commander-in-chief. The New York Times writes that “if the United States remains in combat in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria until the end of Mr. Obama’s term--a near-certainty given the president’s recent announcement that he will send 250 additional Special Operations forces to Syria--he will leave behind an improbable legacy as the only president in American history to serve two complete terms with the nation at war.”

Al Qaeda’s future lies in Syria. So says al Qaeda’s top leadership in Pakistan who “secretly dispatched more than a dozen of its most seasoned veterans there.” According to the New York Times, “the operatives have been told to start the process of creating an alternate headquarters in Syria and lay the groundwork for possibly establishing an emirate through al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, to compete with the Islamic State, from which Nusra broke in 2013. This would be a significant shift for al Qaeda and its affiliates, which have resisted creating an emirate, or formal sovereign state, until they deem conditions on the ground are ready.” Al Qaeda’s decision to shift its focus to Syria likely foreshadows an escalation in the rivalry with the Islamic State.

Meanwhile, the Islamic State declared a “state of emergency” in its capital city of Raqqa and canceled fighters’ holidays in preparation for a possible international assault on the city. CNN reports that “U.S. military officials are closely watching social media and news reports that say ISIS believes it may soon come under siege in Raqqa.” The Telegraph shares that “over the past few weeks, the group has accelerated its drive to defend Raqqa, digging trenches alongside checkpoints and strengthening a network of underground bunkers.” Colonel Steve Warren, the spokesman for the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition, told reporters Friday that “we have seen this declaration of emergency in Raqqa, whatever that means. We know this enemy feels threatened, as they should.”

As the Islamic State prepares for the siege of its capital, the pseudo-state attacked a natural gas plant north of Baghdad over the weekend. The Wall Street Journal tells us that “a car bomb exploded at dawn at the gate of the state-owned plant, which produces gas for cooking and other purposes. Eight suicide bombers then entered the facility and clashed with security forces before blowing themselves up.” At least 12 people were killed, marking the “fifth straight day of attacks in Iraq by the extremist group that have left more than 120 people dead.”

Islamic State militants also overran a hospital complex in the Syrian city of Deir al Zour. The BBC reports that “activists say about 35 pro-government forces were killed and some medical staff taken hostage. More than 20 IS fighters were also reported killed.” The Islamic State controls nearly half of Deir al Zour and is seeking to claim the entire city.

In Yemen, the Islamic State claimed credit for another suicide bombing on Sunday that killed 25 people in Mukalla. According to the Guardian, the Islamic State apparently sought to target police recruits at a security compound. More from the Guardian here.

Despite the Islamic State’s brutal assaults in recent days, Brett McGurk, the White House’s special envoy in the fight against the Islamic State, states that the Islamic State “is shrinking so they are very much on the defensive.” Reuters shares that McGurk on Sunday indicated that the “Islamic State has not gained significant ground since it took the Iraqi city of Ramadi a year ago, which it then lost in December, as the U.S.-led coalition in Iraq and Syria has been helped by better intelligence and better equipped local forces.”

News broke last Friday that Hezbollah’s top military commander was killed in Syria by an explosion at Damascus airport on Thursday. The Wall Street Journal reports that “the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah has blamed Sunni insurgents for killing its top military commander in Syria and vowed to double down on fighting extremists there, raising fears of a surge in fighting in the coming days.” On Saturday, the group announced that their own investigation into Mustafa Badreddine’s death “found shelling from Sunni extremist groups operating in the area was behind the massive blast.” Tens of thousands of mourners attended Badreddine’s funeral in Beirut on Friday.

Yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Saudi Arabia’s King Salman in Jeddah to discuss the fragile truce in Syria. The meeting comes just before Kerry is set to talk with Russia, Iran, and other countries in Vienna on Tuesday. According to Reuters, “Kerry has said he hopes to strengthen a ‘cessation of hostilities’ agreement between Syrian government forces and rebels, which has been undermined by fighting in some areas, and to increase humanitarian aid deliveries to besieged areas.”

Reuters has a special report on how Russia allowed homegrown radicals to go and fight in Syria. Check out that story here.

In Afghanistan, Taliban militants have cut off the main highway linking Kabul with the country’s northern regions and neighboring countries for the past three days. The New York Times reports that “after the Taliban ambushed police forces guarding a stretch of the national Ring Road in Baghlan Province on Thursday, fighting continued through Saturday and appeared likely to last longer, according to officials in the area. The northern city of Mazar i Sharif was cut off, as were road connections to eight northern provinces.”

In other news, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani is closer to reaching a peace deal with warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The Washington Post tells us that Hekmatyar is the leader of the militant group Hezb i Islami, which “was a powerful force during Afghanistan’s civil war in the 1990s.” According to the Post, “Hematyar has been a thorn in the government’s side since the fall of the Taliban in 2001. But his group has been only marginally active in recent years. Its last major attack occurred in 2013, when a suicide bombing killed 15 people, including six U.S. soldiers” Some political analysts have suggested President Ghani’s peace plan with Hekmatyar could provide the blueprint for a far more complicated deal with Taliban fighters. The Washington Post has more.

The Turkish army’s influence is rising again. The Wall Street Journal reports that “after 13 years of being methodically marginalized during Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s tenure atop Turkish politics, the army is regaining its clout as the president sidelines his political rivals.” Additionally, the Journal writes that “the restoration of the Turkish army’s influence has resurrected concerns all the way up to the presidential palace that generals might try to topple Mr. Erdogan.” Read more on the Turkish army’s growing influence here.

Meanwhile, the Turkish military killed 22 PKK fighters in an operation near the Iranian border yesterday. The new offensive against PKK militants comes after eight Turkish soldiers and 22 Kurdish fighters were killed in clashes last week in Turkey. As the fighting between Turkish soldiers and Kurds continues, a new video surfaced online that allegedly depicts a PKK militant “downing a Cobra attack helicopter with a man-portable air-defense system--or MANPADS--in the mountains of southeastern Turkey.” The Washington Post writes that “arms observers said this is the first time they have seen PKK fighters successfully using MANPADS in their four-decade fight against the Turks.”

Leading foreign ministers from Europe and the Middle East met earlier today in Vienna under the joint chairmanship of the United States and Italy to discuss plans to bolster support for the United Nations-backed Libyan government. The Guardian tells us that Libya currently faces “deepening splits in the country over political legitimacy, oil resources, and the Islamic State” and that the West is "still desperate to find ways to strengthen the political authority of the Tripoli-based government since it will help create a single military Libyan force able both to defeat ISIS and tighten the control of refugees leaving the lawless coastland for Italy.”

Yet, as the West attempts to bolster the U.N.-backed government, the Islamic State in Libya continues to grow stronger. And now they are beginning to turn their sights on Tunisia. The Washington Post has more on how fragile Tunisia is struggling to contain the toxic fallout from the Arab Spring and neighboring Libya here.

Tens of thousands of soccer fans were evacuated from Manchester’s Old Trafford stadium on Sunday after a suspicious object was found in the stands. According to the New York Times, “sniffer dogs were dispatched, and bomb disposal experts carried out a controlled detonation of what was then described as an ‘incredibly lifelike explosive device.’” However, to the security officials’ embarrassment, the suspicious item was only a training device that had “accidentally been left by a private company following a training exercise involving search dogs.” Following the fiasco, an “urgent” inquiry has been demanded to find out how it had happened and who to hold responsible. The BBC has more.

While France is set to establish deradicalization centers throughout the country, the proposals are coming under increasing scrutiny as more information about the plan filters out. The Daily Beast shares that “Prime Minister Manuel Valls said last week that France will establish as many as 13 centers all over the country--picture an odd mix of halfway house, prison, and sleepover camp--where Islamist radicals or those who show signs of wanting to join the jihad in Syria and Iraq will be housed and ‘re-educated.’” The participants will be monitored at night for 10 months and also wear special uniforms. Yet some Muslim leaders and counterextremism experts have questioned the likely effectiveness of the camps, suggesting instead that they could become breeding grounds for further radicalization. It's also unclear under what standard someone will be determined to have radicalized. Read more on what one Muslim leader calls “France’s Guantanamo” from the Beast.

Israel does not like France’s plans to hold a Middle East peace conference. However, the Washington Post reports that “French officials said Sunday that they will continue to press ahead with the plans to host a multilateral Middle East peace conference later this year.” The Post writes that “French Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday to promote what diplomats are calling the ‘French Initiative,’ a still evolving and admittedly vague diplomatic project that seeks to bring global attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and find consensus among the international community on how to move forward with a two-state solution.” More from the Washington Post here.

Meanwhile, another Israeli was stabbed by a Palestinian in Jerusalem earlier today. The Associated Press reports that “Monday’s incident is the latest in eight months of Palestinian attacks, mostly stabbings, but also shooting and vehicular assaults, that have killed 28 Israelis and two Americans. About 200 Palestinians have been killed during the same time, most of them said by Israel to have been attackers while the rest were killed in clashes with Israeli forces.”According to police, the 20-year-old attacker was chased down and apprehended.

The United States, South Korea, and Japan will hold their first joint military drills next month focused on cooperating to “detect signs of missile launches from North Korea and trace missile trajectories.” The Associated Press shares that “the training follows the 2014 intelligence-gathering pact among the three countries designed to better cope with North Korea’s increasing nuclear and missile threats.” More from the AP here.

Yesterday, China accused the United States of distorting facts in a report on China’s defense policy and warned that it had “severely damaged” trust between the two nations. Agence France-Presse reports that “the Pentagon on Friday said Beijing had been building up military facilities on reefs and islets in a bid to assert its claims to the contested waters of the South China Sea.” Beijing hit back over the weekend “with a defense ministry spokesman saying the Pentagon report had ‘deliberately distorted China’s defense policies.’”

“You can hear the ice cracking, you know there’s a crisis coming.” United States intelligence officials are worried that Venezuela is on the brink of collapse. The Washington Post reports that “Venezuela, where clashes erupted this week between security forces and demonstrators protesting food shortages, power blackouts and political gridlocks, may be headed toward an all-out popular uprising that could lead to the overthrow of its government this year.”

Charlie Savage of the New York Times has the latest on a proposal in the Senate that would allow Guantanamo Bay detainees to plead guilty to criminal charges in civilian court via video-conference. According to the Times, “the Senate Armed Services Committee announced late Thursday that it had included the provision in the annual National Defense Authorization Act. The bill, which now goes to the full Senate, would also authorize detainees who pleaded guilty through remote teleconference to be transferred to other countries to serve their sentences.” The Times also writes that the new proposal “could open a new avenue to whittling down the prison’s remaining population.”

Army Chief of Staff General Mark Milley is in Africa this week for a high level meeting aimed at getting the continent’s “fledging militaries in shape to deal with growing terrorist threats.” However, the biggest question facing Gen. Milley was not how the United States could work with African militaries to contain the terror threats. Instead, the New York Times shares that “the question was whether the new focus on the ever-widening terrorist threat in Africa--not to mention the focus on the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, and the continuing war in Afghanistan--is taking away from the Army’s ability to fight a land war against a more traditional military adversary.” The Times has more here.

On Thursday, Brooklyn Magistrate Judge James Orenstein—yes, the same Judge Orenstein of Apple famerejected 15 of the Justice Department’s individual government applications for gag orders against technology service providers. According to the Wall Street Journal, the judge said that “federal agents should have to give a specific reason why customers of Facebook and other firms shouldn’t be told when government searches their data.” The Journal tells us that Judge Orenstein "denied 15 separate government applications for gag orders against service providers, writing in a ruling Thursday that they lacked enough information for him to judge whether the secrecy was warranted.”

The Intercept is releasing 9 years worth of SIDtoday, the internal newsletter for the NSA’s most important division: the Signals Intelligence Directorate. Leaked by Edward Snowden, the articles start beginning in 2003 and run through 2012.

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on Friday that the Obama administration need not release the unabridged version of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program. Politico writes that the unanimous three-judge panel ruled “that the Senate had not relinquished control over the report when it sent copies of the document to various executive branch agencies, like the CIA and the Justice Department. Therefore, those agencies were under no obligation to fulfill Freedom of Information Act requests for the full report.” Read more on the ruling from Politico.

Speaking of the Senate’s report, have you ever deleted a 6,700 page document before? The CIA feels your pain. Apparently, the Agency’s inspector general accidentally destroyed its only copy of the controversial Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s detention and interrogation program. The Hill tells us that “acting inspector general Christopher Sharpley uploaded the report to the office’s internal computer network and then destroyed the hard disk, apparently following standard protocol.” Shortly after, “someone else in the watchdog’s office reportedly misinterpreted instructions from the Justice Department not to open the file and deleted it from the server.” Yahoo News has more.

Parting Shot: Expecting to go through the lengthy security clearance process sometime soon? The Wall Street Journal has the latest on the federal government’s new plan to begin scanning applicants’ social media posts. According to the head of the ODNI’s National Counterintelligence and Security Center, “social media has become an integral--and very public--part of the fabric of most Americans’ daily lives. We cannot afford to ignore this important open source in our effort to safeguard our secrets--and our nation’s security.” Check out that story from the Journal 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 a conversation on Global Intelligence Oversight with Sam Rascoff and Zachary Goldman.

Herb Lin compared the Don’t Panic report and the ODNI’s response to the 1977 Woody Allen film “Annie Hall.”

In Sunday’s Foreign Policy Essay, Daniel Byman argued that the refugee crisis must be thought of as an integration crisis.

Paul Rosenzweig flagged his recent article with David Shedd and Cully Stimson of the Heritage Foundation entitled “Maintaining America’s Ability to Collect Foreign Intelligence: The Section 702 Program.”

John Bellinger provided some more thoughts on the proposed congressional restrictions on the National Security Council’s staff size.

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