Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Cody M. Poplin, Benjamin Bissell
Thursday, November 6, 2014, 4:16 PM

Yesterday, President Obama announced that he plans to seek new Congressional authorization for the ongoing military campaign against the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The New York Times quotes President Obama saying, “the world needs to know we are united behind this effort and that the men and women of our military deserve our clear and unified support.” There was no sign as to whether or not he will push Congress to modify the existing 2001 and 2002 authorizations to use military force as part of the process. The Associated Press has more on the president’s remarks, while Foreign Policy looks at five Republicans likely to play a major role in national security discussions in the Senate.

War Report: the New York Times reports that the momentum of ISIS appears to have been blunted in recent weeks, and that the days of “rapid gains for the jihadists may be coming to a close in Iraq.” Analysts note that the international air campaign is playing a role, but also that other factors outside Western control are also having an effect, including sectarian and political demographics, uprisings from overrun communities, and damage to the group’s financial base in Syria. The strikes may be important in one other key and often unconsidered way - they’re boosting the morale of fighters on the ground. According to Major General Hamad Namis al Jibouri, a police chief in Salahuddin Province, Iraq, the strikes “have...raised the spirits of the groups on the ground that are fighting ISIS.”

That statement accords with another from the Chancellor of the Kurdistan Region Security Council, Masrour Barzani, who said that “the morale of the Peshmerga forces is high” as the group continues to “regain control of areas that had been under ISIS control.” However, Barzani criticized Baghdad, calling for more immediate military assistance. You can read the rest of his analysis in Asharq al Awsat.

Still, that fairly upbeat news comes as Colum Lynch writes that, according to a new draft UN assessment, ISIS’s campaign is likely to continue fueling global jihad even if the group’s success is reversed in the coming months. The report continues, suggesting that “the ISIL brand may even supplant that of Al-Qaida, reinvigorating a movement that has seen its core weakened.”

And, the Wall Street Journal reports that amongst the many crises in Iraq, another one is brewing in Iraq’s fledgling economy, where widening deficits and growing war costs are threatening the country’s ability to push back ISIS.

In Syria, the United States once again launched air strikes against the Khorasan group, a faction of the al Nusra Front, on Wednesday night. Officials said that they believe the leader of the group, Muhsin al Fadhli, was still alive and did not comment on whether or not he was targeted. However, Fox News reports that the airstrikes are believed to have killed a former French intelligence officer turned al Qaeda bomb maker named David Drugeon. (War on the Rocks nevertheless this week compiled some other reporting, that casts doubt on whether, in fact, Drugeon once worked as a spook, or as an agent recruited by the French.) In a statement, Centcom emphasized that “these strikes were not in response to the Nusrah Front’s clashes with the Syrian moderate opposition,” but were instead directed at elements specifically targeting the West. Reuters has more on the strikes, which took place near Sarmada in Idlib province.

In light of the recent strikes against Khorsan, Kate Brannan asks, “why can’t the Pentagon kill the Islamic State’s top commanders?”

The strikes also targeted Ahrar al Sham, a group that is part of the Islamic Front. In what may be evidence of the widening scope of the United State’s aerial mission in Syria, these were the first strikes against the group. The New York Times writes that expanding the campaign could further strain relations with members of the Western-backed opposition, as Washington comes under fire for targeting groups that many Syrians view as essential allies for fighting Assad.

Finally, the Wall Street Journal brings us news that last month, US President Barack Obama secretly wrote a letter to Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The missive described the shared interests between the two countries in countering the Islamic State and urged progress in nuclear talks.

In a surprise trip to the Kabul, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg vowed that the alliance would “continue supporting” Afghanistan after foreign combat troops withdraw this year. NATO has agreed to fund the Afghan national forces by $4.1 billion annually and to proceed with training and other support in order to forestall a “still-potent” Taliban. The Washington Post has more on his visit and the Western alliance’s role in the country’s security.

DefenseOne reports that amid a continuing drawdown in NATO forces in the country, 2014 has been a “shaky” one for Afghanistan. One top US official, Lt. Gen. Joseph Anderson, said yesterday that the current casualty rate among the Afghan army and police is “unsustainable.” Gen. Anderson noted that the Afghan National Security Forces have taken 4,634 casualties this year versus 4,350 killed in action last year, a rise of 6.5%.

Separately, Gen. Anderson said that Pakistan’s ongoing military activities in North Waziristan, named Operation Zarb-i-Azb, have helped to disrupt the Haqqani network’s ability to attack targets in Afghan territory.

The New York Times tells us that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah as Sisi has appointed Fayza Abul Naga as a national security advisor. The choice is controversial because Naga is the official who two years ago “spearheaded” criminal trials against nonprofit groups accusing them of being part of a US conspiracy to destabilize Egypt. The paper quotes analysts who say that her appointment illustrates the Sisi regime’s “persistent disregard” for the Egypt-US alliance.

Elsewhere in Egypt, a train traveling in the Nile Delta region north of Cairo was bombed last night. According to the New York Times, the blast killed four people, among those two policemen, and wounded nine.

Tensions continue to escalate in Jerusalem: two more instances of vehicular attacks in the disputed city and surrounding environs were reported yesterday. The first occurred in the city’s center and killed police Chief Inspector Jidaan Assad; Hamas militants claimed responsibility for the attack. The attacker was later shot and killed when he attempted to assault other soldiers in the area. The second incident took place in the West Bank, where a Palestinian driving a van ran into three Israeli soldiers, wounding them. Yediot Achronot now reports that the attacker, who initially escaped, has turned himself in and characterized the crash as just a hit-and-run. Regardless, the spate of violence and religious outrage in the city has some analysts suspecting a third Intifada may be looming. According to a recent poll reported by Yediot, about half of Palestinians think there will be an armed confrontation with Israel in the near future.

Reuters reports that intelligence officials in New Delhi are alarmed over decrypted communications between Indian Mujahideen and al Qaeda that appear to show the two groups working to launch “major attacks” in the subcontinent. The officials said they uncovered plans that included kidnapping foreign targets and causing constant violence in India, much like jihadist groups are doing in Syria and Iraq.

According to the AFP, Ukrainian Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk said yesterday that the central government would cut financial assistance to pro-Russia separatist regions until “terrorists clear out of there.” However, he did say Kiev would spare “ordinary people” by continuing to provide gas and electricity supplies.

Reuters reports that Russia will skip an important 2016 nuclear security summit in Chicago. Moscow’s decision to avoid the meeting is said to be based on its doubt of the “value” of the summit and its belief that the views of states that disagree with the meeting’s organizers would be “ignored.” The Kremlin remarked that it would instead focus its energies on a similar conference in 2016 to be held under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The Russian-US relationship does not look like it is going to get better anytime soon: the Wall Street Journal writes that US prosecutors launched a money-laundering investigation of Russian billionaire Gennady Timchenko, considered to be a member of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s inner circle. Specifically, they are examining whether or not Timchenko transferred funds “linked to allegedly corrupt deals” in Russia through the US.

The Associated Press has an exclusive report alleging that Myanmar’s security forces are profiting from the exodus of Rohingya Muslims from the country, which they are also accused of abetting. The report asserts that the security forces are “extracting payments” from those fleeing and are even “going so far” as to escort Rohingyas out on boats to areas where transnational criminal networks “wait” to abduct them.

In the New York Times, Matthew Rosenberg writes that because of Xinjiang’s Uighur unrest, Afghanistan has a unique opportunity to develop its political and economic relationship with Beijing.

Also at the Times, Dennis C. Blair alleges that if Japan and the US “dawdle” over the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, China will move to “fill the vacuum.”

In an editorial, Elizabeth Rosenberg and Zachary K. Goldman urge US officials not to “wreck” the current round of nuclear negotiations with Iran by pushing for new, “self-defeating” sanctions aimed at compelling Tehran’s total “capitulation.”

A former “forever prisoner” at Guantanamo, the Kuwaiti-born Fawzi al Odah, was sent home yesterday. After spending nearly 13 years at the remote Navy base without being charged with a crime, a US government parole board downgraded al Odah’s dangerousness and allowed him to repatriate. The Miami Herald has more on his detention and release. The Herald also reports that on Wednesday, a military judge agreed to probe a Guantanamo policy that disallows ex-CIA prisoners from using Skype.

At the National Journal, Dustin Volz alleges that the FBI is trying to “quietly” expand its hacking powers by changing Rule 41 of the federal rules of criminal procedure, which regulates how judges can approve search warrants. Specifically, the government has asked to change the rule to allow judges to issue electronic surveillance searches of computer content, regardless of the devices’ physical location.

The Detroit Free Press reports on the opening of Klayman v. Obama, asserting that a trio of conservative judges “sounded skeptical” of a challenge to the NSA’s bulk telephone data collection methods.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Wells linked us to the chief prosecutor’s statement on this week’s hearing in al-Nashiri, which began yesterday and is ongoing today. You can find Lawfare contributor Matt Danzer’s digests here.

Wells also provided us with a detailed recap of arguments in yesterday’s Klayman v. Obama proceedings.

Tapping into yesterday’s election euphoria, Ben asks, “so what does the new Republican majority mean for national security issues in Congress?”

Writing on a story we covered a few days ago, Bobby looks in to the Washington Post’s report that the DIA has scaled back plans for its own clandestine service agency.

Bobby also covers the president’s statement regarding a new ISIS AUMF and asks, “will the 2001 AUMF be amended along the way?”

Don’t miss this week’s Steptoe Cyberlaw Podcast, which features an interview with John Lunch, Chief of Computer Crime and Intellectual Property Section at the DOJ’s Criminal Divison.

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