Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Alex R. McQuade
Thursday, May 19, 2016, 3:11 PM

Baghdad is in trouble. Following a deadly week of Islamic State attacks in Baghdad, the United States is now urging Iraq not to pull back troops from the front lines against the terrorist group in order to protect the capital. The Iraqi capital city has once again become familiar with deadly bombings with at least one occurring every day over the past week. At least 200 people are now dead. Even as violence escalates in the city, the U.S. military is advising the Iraqis not to recall troops from the front lines to come and protect the city. Even if Iraq were to bolster its security forces in the capital city, it is very “difficult to predict and prevent the sort of insurgency-style, lone-wolf attacks that the Islamic State has started wielding to spread fear in Baghdad,” according to Colonel Steve Warren, the spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State.

Need to catch up on what is happening in Iraq? Check out this New York Times map chronicling the latest violence here.

Baghdad is not the only city facing an uptick in violent ISIS attacks though. It appears the terrorist group used chemical weapons against police officers in an abandoned town near Kirkuk in northern Iraq. TIME obtained a police report that indicated the Islamic State fired rockets containing toxic chemicals on the town of Bashir. According to TIME, “the attack is the most recent in a series of alleged chemical attacks by ISIS in both Iraq and Syria. The assault also illustrates the immense difficulty ahead for Iraq’s rival armed forces as they attempt to reclaim and hold territory previously occupied by ISIS.”

Over in Syria, forces loyal to President Bashar al Assad and allies have recaptured a town southeast of Damascus from rebels. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights called the town’s recapture “one of the most significant government advances this year, after its forces took territory in northwestern and central Syria.” Hezbollah is also getting in on the action in the region. Reuters tells us that “the fighting began early on Thursday when government forces and Hezbollah fighters captured the town of Deir al Asafir, and then seized a number of other areas nearby, closing off a pocket of rebel control in Eastern Ghouta.” Read more from Reuters here.

Speaking of Assad's allies in the fight: “Despite pledging to withdraw the majority of its forces from Syria in March, the Russian military remains firmly entrenched throughout the country and is even continuing to expand in some areas.” The Pentagon told reporters yesterday that “Russian capabilities are ‘almost identical ‘ to what they were before President Vladimir Putin’s announcement that his country’s forces would soon be returning home.” The spokesman for the campaign against the Islamic State, Col. Warren, added that the United States is also closely monitoring the Russian’s build-up of a new operating base near the ancient city of Palmyra, which he says “gives the Russians ‘a foothold for a more enduring presence’ in the region.”

“Jihadi militants in Syria including al Qaeda are mobilizing again for all-out war against President Bashar al Assad, taking advantage of the collapse of peace talks to eclipse nationalist rival insurgents that signed on to a faltering truce.” Reuters has the latest on al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate’s resurgence and expansion here

Yesterday, Secretary of State John Kerry met with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al Sissi to discuss Egypt’s proposal for resuming peace talks between Israel and Palestine. According to the Washington Post, the meeting comes after al Sissi offered to to warm up Egyptian-Israeli relations if the Israelis would resume negotiations to settle the conflict with the Palestinians. However, the initial details of President Sissi’s plans were vague. Egypt is the latest country to offer a plan for renewing Israeli-Palestinian talks after a French initiative was denied by Israel earlier this week.

Remember that helicopter crash in Turkey last week? And remember that video of an alleged PKK fighter using a MANPAD? Earlier today, Turkey’s military said that the helicopter that crashed killing 8 soldiers and 2 pilots may have been shot down by Kurdish militants with a ground-to-air missile. Reuters reports that “if confirmed, it would be the first known usage in recent years of such weaponry by PKK militants.” Reuters has more on the crash here.

Chinese fighter jets conducted “a potentially unsafe maneuver” in the South China Sea, acccording to U.S. defense officials. The Wall Street Journal tells us that on Tuesday “two Chinese jet fighters intercepted an American reconnaissance aircraft flying over the South China Sea.” As tensions increase between Washington and Beijing over the disputed waters, “if a final U.S. review of the incident deems the Chinese maneuver unsafe, it would mark the first such dangerous mid air encounters between U.S. and Chinese aircraft over the sea since 2004.” Meanwhile, Beijing has demanded an end to United States surveillance near China following the interception of the spy plane. More from Reuters.

While tensions remain high up above  the contested waters of the South China Sea, more may soon be happening below the surface too. The Daily Beast shares that “China’s about to join an exclusive club for nuclear powers. After decades of development, 2016 could be the year the Chinese navy finally sends its ballistic-missile submarines to sea for the first time for operational patrols with live, nuclear-tipped rockets.” Read more on China’s nuclear subs here.

France is delaying its approval of NATO taking command of the newly U.S.-built European missile defense system, the Wall Street Journal reports. While France has indicated that their concerns stem from whether NATO’s command and control of the missile-defense system would work, the United States and the Alliance “believe that if NATO doesn’t use its July summit in Warsaw to take control of the missile-defense system and declare it operational, Russia will declare that the alliance is bending to its will.” France wants to first ensure that the defensive system is truly under NATO’s control, and not the control of the United States.

Two years after their initial capture by Boko Haram, one of the missing Chibok school girls has been found alive in Nigeria. The BBC reports that “Amina Ali Nkeki was found carrying a baby by an army-backed vigilante group on Tuesday in the huge Sambisa Forest, close to the border with Cameroon.” 218 girls still remain missing.

Google’s new messaging app will offer end-to-end encryption. The new app, Allo, will use the same encryption features that WhatsApp uses, “but unlike iMessage, WhatsApp, and other competitors, Google’s new offering does not feature encryption by default; users have to deliberately switch into ‘incognito’ mode.” The Hill has more on Google’s new app here.

Yesterday, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said that officials were seeing signs of attempted cyber attacks against the 2016 presidential campaigns. Clapper did not indicate whether the intrusions were successful or whether they were the product of foreign or domestic hackers. DNI Clapper added that he anticipates as the attack to intensify, saying "we’ll probably have more of those [attempts]."

The House of Representatives approved its version of the National Defense Authorization Act of 2017 yesterday, defying a veto threat from the White House. The $610.5 billion bill “put the House Republican majority at odds with the White House on key national security issues, including Pentagon funding, detainee policy, the U.S. military base network, and how to fight the Islamic State extremist group.” The bill now travels to the Senate.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Treasury Department placed sanctions on three Islamic State branches and on individuals who allegedly provided the terrorist organization financial support. The Wall Street Journal reports that the Treasury put “sanctions on six people who allegedly have provided financing or other support to an array of terrorist groups, including al Qaeda's Yemen branch, Islamic State, and al Nusra Front.” The State Department announced that it had named Islamic State branches in Yemen, Libya, and Saudi Arabia as terrorists.

84 men and women around the United States have been charged with having connections to the Islamic State. Check out the Washington Post’s infographic on the Islamic State’s inroads into America here. In the Los Angeles Times, Seamus Hughes explores how we can keep ISIS from successfully radicalizing Americans. 

EgyptAir Flight MS804 went missing over the Mediterranean Sea earlier this morning. The jetliner was carrying 66 people from Paris to Cairo when it “abruptly swerved, vanished from radar, and plunged into the Mediterranean” shortly before it was scheduled to land. The flight's disappearnce marks the second aviation disaster for Egypt in the past year and immediately triggered “fears and speculation about the safety and security of Egyptian air travel.” Egypt confirmed the plane’s wreckage had been found off the coast of the Greek island of Karpathos, saying that the cause of the crash was most likely terrorism. The Guardian provides a live feed of the latest news here.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Robert Chesney and Steve Slick called for paper submissions for the “Bobby R. Iman Award” for student scholarship on intelligence.

Tamara Wittes shared her recent comments to Senate Foreign Relations Committee on the war in Syria.

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