Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Cody M. Poplin, Rishabh Bhandari
Monday, June 13, 2016, 3:49 PM

Information continues to flow in today as law enforcement and intelligence officials release new details about the horrific mass shooting that took place in Orlando just over 24 hours ago. According to media and police reports, gunfire erupted around 2 am in a crowded Orlando nightclub on Sunday. The 3-hour attack on a gay nightclub, carried out by 29-year-old Omar Mateen, claimed 49 victims and wounded another 53. According to law enforcement officials, Mateen called 911 and pledged allegiance to the Islamic State as a gun-battle with the police unfolded. He was later killed in a shootout after police breached a wall in the nightclub.

Police have now identified all but one of the victims. 43 people remain in the hospital.

The son of Afghan immigrants to the United States, Mateen was a “known quantity” to the FBI and had twice been interviewed on suspicions that he was connected to terrorism, yet neither investigation produced actionable leads. In 2013, Mateen was questioned when he made comments to co-workers suggesting he had terrorist ties. He was questioned again the next year for possible connections to Moner Mohammad Abusalha, an American who became a suicide bomber in Syria. And while his ex-wife described him to reporters as abusive and not particularly religious, in 2011 and 2012, Mateen twice embarked on pilgrimages to Muslim holy sites in Saudi Arabia. Mateen worked as a security guard with the security firm G4S, and purchased two weapons in the week preceding the attack. U.S. officials briefed on the investigation reported today that he cased Walt Disney World while he was searching for targets.

Speaking from the White House yesterday, President Barack Obama called the latest ISIS-linked attack in the United States “an act of terror and an act of hate.” In addition to being the worst act of terrorism on American soil since September 11, 2001, the attack is also the largest mass shooting in U.S. history and the deadliest attack on a gay target in the nation's history.

The Islamic State quickly claimed credit for the assault on social media calling Mateen “an Islamic State fighter.” However, Rita Katz of the SITE Intelligence group has noted that the claim was not accompanied by the same overwhelming media output that followed the Paris attacks, possibly suggesting that Mr. Mateen was inspired by, but not directed by the group’s leaders in Iraq and Syria. On the other hand, eyewitnesses to the shooting told reporters that in his phone calls with 911 dispatchers, Mateen demanded an end to U.S. airstrikes against ISIS. Rukmini Callimachi of the New York Times highlights that these demands are identical to those made by the Paris attackers when they called police from inside the Bataclan in November.

Complicating Mateen’s pledge of allegiance to Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, FBI Director James Comey also noted today that Mateen’s phone call with 911 operators contained several incongruous statements in which he pledged allegiance to ISIS, but also to the Boston Marathon bombers, who were not affiliated with the Islamic State, and with a suicide bomber who fought for the al Nusra Front, a group currently in conflict with ISIS. Mateen’s father, who himself previously expressed support for the Afghan Taliban, suggested that his son had become incensed after seeing two men kissing. Comey confirmed that the FBI is also looking into anti-gay bigotry as a potential motive.

While it remains unclear the extent to which Mateen collaborated with ISIS commanders in Iraq and Syria, the New York Times reports that for ISIS, it doesn’t really matter. The group has made “influencing distant attackers” to carry out mass murder “a core part” of its strategy. The attack follows a recent message from the group’s spokesman, Abu Muhammad al Adnani, calling upon Muslims living in the West to execute attacks in their homelands instead of coming to Syria because “the smallest action you do in their heartland is better and more enduring to us that what you would if you were with us.” Whether Mateen was particularly religious may also not matter, because as Dan Byman writes, “Orlando may be another variant” of the “Islamicization of radicalism,” wherein “Islam is used by an individual already on the edge of violence to justify his action and give him status to at least one audience.”

The Wall Street Journal has live updates on the investigation.

Related:

From the Syrian theater: the Wall Street Journal discloses a friendly-fire incident in late May when a U.S. airstrike hit the Pentagon-backed Mutasim Brigade, killing ten men. The airstrikes had been launched while the Mutasim fighters were clashing with the Islamic State in northern Syria and marked a severe setback for the United States at a time when the Pentagon is deepening its support for Arab allies in the fight against the Islamic State.

The Los Angeles Times shares that so far this year, the U.S. military air campaign has targeted and killed more than 120 Islamic State leaders, commanders, propagandists, recruiters and other high-value targets.

Reuters’ Isabel Coles and Stephen Kalin report from Baghdad that the Iraqi government is investigating allegations that Sunni men fleeing from the Islamic State stronghold of Fallujah have been executed at the hands of Shiite militia groups. Iraq’s defense minister said four military personnel were arrested after video footage emerged of them abusing refugees from Fallujah. The city has been under siege over the past few weeks as Iraqi security forces and Shiite militia groups look to secure a major victory against the Islamic State.

While Baghdad investigates past violations, AFP tells us that Iraq’s security forces have carved out a safe corridor for 4,000 Fallujah citizens to escape in the past 24 hours. The news comes less than a week after CNN detailed the immense dangers Fallujah residents faced as the fighting moved inside the city. But Karl Schembri, a spokesman for the Norwegian Refugee Council, said the successful evacuation would put a further strain on existing humanitarian resources. He cited the lack of safe drinking water as a particular problem and called for the international community to earmark an additional $10 million over the next six months if 35,000 more citizens flee Fallujah. The NRC estimates roughly 45,000 civilians remain trapped in Fallujah.

In Libya over the weekend, forces aligned with the country’s internationally backed government continued to advance into Sirte, ISIS’s only remaining stronghold in the country. According to the Journal, militias backing the government have seized about 80 percent of the city, pushing deeper into its center on Sunday, and seizing its port. Their advance is backed by special forces from the United States, France, and the United Kingdom.

A powerful bomb exploded on Sunday night outside the headquarters of the Lebanese Blom bank in Beirut. While no casualties have been reported, Al Jazeera reports that the country’s financial sector is rife with speculation that the attack is linked to Hezbollah. The organization has lambasted both the Lebanese government and Beirut’s banking community for implementing U.S. legislation mandating banks take certain measures to target Hezbollah’s finances. After Obama signed the Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act in January, Hezbollah warned that any voluntary compliance by Lebanese regulators would create a rift between “a large segment of the Lebanese population and the banks.” Reuters has more on an attack that could stoke sectarian tensions in the country.

According to Reuters, Obama may delay a decision on whether the U.S. military’s footprint in Afghanistan should contract until after a key NATO summit that Warsaw will host on July 8-9. A decision had previously been expected either before or at the summit with some sources speculating that the U.S. troop levels could fall from 9,800 troops to 5,500 soldiers. A U.S. diplomat told Reuters that a postponement might encourage NATO allies to keep their troops in Afghanistan. On the condition of anonymity, the source said, “We have been moderately, pleasantly surprised at the willingness to stay at current levels of most other allies, and some willingness to consider increasing.” The news comes on the heels of Obama’s decision last week to approve U.S. generals’ requests to deploy limited offensive airstrikes against the Taliban and permit U.S. soldiers to accompany conventional Afghan troops on select missions. The Journal has more.

But while the United States may still reduce the number of U.S. troops that are in Afghanistan, Reuters understands that Washington will ask its NATO partners to maintain funding for Afghan forces at current level of roughly $5 billion annually until at least 2020. Major General Skip Davis told reporters in Kabul that “there is a strong agreement, certainly from the chiefs of defense, that the support of Afghanistan...needs to continue.” He added that the country’s ongoing struggle to quell the Taliban insurgency is “a big signal that the Afghan army and police need some more time.”

Dhaka’s recent crackdown of Islamic extremism continues as the country’s police arrested 119 alleged militants on Monday. Reuters estimates that roughly 8,000 criminal suspects have been arrested over the past week as the Bengali government looks to respond after a wave of targeted killings of minority and liberal activists. Since early last year, militants have killed more than 30 people including atheist bloggers, liberal professors, gay rights campaigners, and foreign aid workers. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for 21 attacks since September while Al Qaeda has claimed the bulk of the rest. But the main opposition party has openly complained that the government has been using counterterrorism as a pretext to also suppress political dissent. Joseph Allchin contextualizes the rise of extremism in Bangladesh for Foreign Affairs.

Beyond the subcontinent, the Washington Post reports of growing concerns in Albania that the Islamic State could secure a foothold in the small Balkan nation of 2.8 million people. A NATO member and close U.S. ally, Albania has witnessed a sharp uptick in ultra-conservative mosques in recent years, many of which have been funded by Islamic organizations in Turkey and the Persian Gulf. Albanian officials have cited the country’s poverty and stubbornly high youth unemployment rates as the primary catalysts for the Islamic State’s growing reputation within the country’s young Muslim communities. At a time when the country’s infrastructural and educational needs are so immediate, Albanian officials urged Turkey and other nations to fund schools and roads rather than mosques and madrassas.

Richard Ledgett, the deputy director of the National Security Agency, said at a public conference that the NSA would not have been able to hack the iPhone 5c that was at the center of a publicized tussle between Apple and the FBI after the terrorist attack in San Bernadino, California last year. A number of high-profile industry experts such as Richard Clark and the ACLU chief technologist Chris Soghoian had speculated the FBI chose not to solicit the NSA’s help in hopes of forcing the judiciary to eventually pave a path for the intelligence community’s ultimate goal of mandating encryption backdoors. Ledgett said the 5c is not a device that the NSA targets in part because the phone is not often used by terrorists. The Hill has more.

In an interview with the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television network, as CNN fills us in, CIA Director John Brennan claimed that the 28 redacted pages of the 2002 congressional report on the 9/11 attacks will soon be made public and they will prove that the Saudi government had no involvement in the operation. The Saudi government has pushed for the section to be declassified as rumors have long persisted that the redacted pages would reveal damning links between the Saudi government, its wealthy citizens, and the financing of terrorist operations.

The Associated Press reveals that a U.S. government review board denied a Kenyan prisoner’s bid to be released from the U.S. detention base in Guantanamo Bay after nine years in custody. The man, Abdul Malik, is a suspected member of AQAP and operative in two terrorist plots in Kenya, yet he has not been charged with a crime. The board deemed him “ a significant threat” to the U.S., adding that his “total lack of candor regarding his pre-detention activities, the lack of a plan for his future should he be transferred, and no information provided regarding the available family support should he be transferred” were all further justifications of his ongoing detention. There are 80 prisoners still in Guantanamo including 30 who have been approved for release. Several of those are expected to begin in the coming weeks.

Key officials in the Obama administration tell Reuters that the president will not pursue an executive order to close down the military prison in Guantanamo. Against the backdrop of an oft-hostile Congress, an executive order represented the best opportunity for the White House to fulfill one of Obama’s most famous campaign pledges. But the administration neither could generate a strong legal argument nor a politically palatable sales pitch for such an action. The decision, which has not been officially announced, also comes less than a week after the Washington Post revealed that at least 12 Guantanamo detainees released from the prison have launched attacks against U.S. or allied forces in Afghanistan that have killed roughly six Americans.

ICYMI: This Weekend, on Lawfare

Daniel Byman suggested five tips academics should follow to ensure their scholarship’s salience during the policymaking process.

Rishabh Bhandari compiled The Week That Was, summarizing all of Lawfare’s output from last week.

The Lawfare Podcast featured Ben Wittes’ interview of Suzanne Spaulding, a high level Department of Homeland Security official, on DHS’s role in maintaining both the U.S. government and the private sector’s cybersecurity.

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