Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Cody M. Poplin, Sebastian Brady
Wednesday, February 25, 2015, 3:50 PM

ISIS has kidnapped scores of people from Assyrian Christian villages during raids in northeastern Syria. Reuters reports that, according to accounts by Syrian Christian activists, 150 people were kidnapped; the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights earlier placed that number at 90. ISIS’s Libyan affiliate recently executed 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians, raising fears over the fate of the captured Assyrian Christians. The raids in northeastern Syria come as ISIS also advances in Iraq’s Anbar province. The Long War Journal describes a series of assaults on Iraqi settlements by the group, including one, documented in a jihadi-produced video, that resulted in the seizure of a large weapons cache.

Some analysts have suggested that these moves are merely an attempt to project the image of power while being hit hard in both Iraq and Syria. ISIS faces significant pressure from Syrian Kurds, who, Reuters reports, succeeded in blocking a major ISIS supply line from Mosul to Raqqa during an assault in northeastern Syria. And in Iraq, the United States continues to send large shipments of weapons and other military equipment while training and supplying Iraqi security forces. However, the mission in Iraq has been complicated by the Pentagon’s release last week of details regarding an upcoming offensive to retake Mosul. Foreign Policy explains that the unusual release has been criticized roundly by Iraqi officials, who say it implied that the United States was leading the assault, of which they were unaware, and by U.S. politicians, who argue that it telegraphed too much of the battle plan to ISIS.

But as ISIS faces opposition in both Iraq and Syria, its supply of Western adherents continues unabated. The New York Times describes the all-too-common path of one bright, driven young woman from Britain to ISIS’s “capital” of Raqqa in Syria, where she married a jihadi and now recruits other young British women. British authorities are investigating what role she may have played in the disappearance of three young British girls who are suspected of travelling from London to Syria to join ISIS.

ISIS also continues to diversify its sources of funding. The Washington Post writes that the group has, according to art crime experts and archaeologists in Britain, smuggled nearly 100 artifacts into Britain and sold them to fund its activities.

Several days after saying that ISIS could not be defeated without a stable political situation, President Barack Obama has renewed his call for the resignation of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The Wall Street Journal reports that, in a meeting yesterday with the Emir of Qatar, President Obama reiterated that President Assad has lost all credibility and should step down. Also on Tuesday, in a new report, Human Rights Watch reiterated that the Assad regime has dropped barrel bombs on hundreds of sites over the past year, according to the Times. The report comes a year after the U.N. Security Council specifically condemned the use of barrel bombs, which are prohibited under international law.

President Assad nonetheless found an audience with several French lawmakers earlier today. Reuters reports that he met with four French parliamentarians in Damascus without approval by the French parliament’s foreign affairs committee. The French Foreign Ministry said it did not support the meeting, which Syrian state-run media described as focused on the challenge of terrorism. Though France closed its Syrian embassy and claimed that the Assad regime was no longer legitimate in 2012, there are whispers in corners of Europe that it is time to drop opposition to and begin cooperating with President Assad.

For their part, U.S. politicians are busy debating the draft AUMF put forth by the Obama administration. Testifying before the Senate Appropriations Committee Tuesday, Secretary of State John Kerry shed some light on what, exactly, the draft’s cryptic language banning “enduring offensive ground combat operations” means to the administration. The Hill reports that Secretary Kerry explained that “weeks and weeks of combat” would qualify as enduring, while overnight operations or rescue attempts would not. Kerry also claimed that there is "no real need" to repeal or even revisit the 2001 AUMF. And while politicians continue to wrangle over statutory authority for the campaign against ISIS, the U.S. public appears to be warming up to it. The Pew Research Center released the results of a poll yesterday showing that nearly two-thirds of the public supports the campaign, up from just over half in October in 2014.

As the United States debates what, if any, new authorization it will give to President Obama, a reported plan to unilaterally invade Iraq has rocked Australian politics. According to the Post, a leading Australian newspaper released a report suggesting that Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott considered launching a unilateral invasion of Iraq in November. According to the report, it was only when Australian military officials told Mr. Abbott that invading Iraq without the United States or NATO would be disastrous that the plan was shelved. Mr. Abbott’s government has denied the report, saying there was never a “formal” proposal.

The threat posed by ISIS in Afghanistan has spurred the creation of irregular, non-state militias pledging to battle any attempt by ISIS to gain a foothold in the country. The Post describes how veterans of the fights against the Taliban and even the Soviets are joining such groups while official Afghan forces struggle to fill the void left by the withdrawal of U.S. and NATO forces. The Afghan government has promised to disband these militias, whose increasing presence is raising fears of a return of the pro-government militias that fought brutally and outside of the law after the 2001 invasion.

This news comes as the Associated Press reports that unidentified gunmen in southern Afghanistan have kidnapped 30 members of the Hazara ethnic minority. The kidnapping is the latest in a series of attacks against the Shiite community in Afghanistan.

Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that peace in Afghanistan must include power-sharing with the Taliban and a rejection of Indian influence. In an uncommon admission by a Pakistani official, ex-President Musharraf also acknowledged that Pakistan and India had been engaging in a proxy war in Afghanistan, and said that Pakistan’s conflict with India justifies its support of the Afghan Taliban.

The United Nations has released a report saying that while torture in Afghanistan’s detention centers is in decline, it is still a widespread problem throughout the country. 35 percent of prisoners interviewed by the United Nations said they had experienced torture or another form of ill-treatment. The Guardian has more.

In Yemen, recently ousted leader Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi is attempting to regain the presidency he was forced out of in January. The Wall Street Journal notes that, after Houthi rebels took control of the capital of Sana’a in northern Yemen, President Hadi secretly fled to southern Yemen, where he has begun courting southern tribes and political parties while planning an attempt to reinstate himself as president. An aide to the president claimed that Saudi Arabia has given its full support to his campaign.

Hadi’s efforts are complicated by the Houthi rebels’ continued military success. Earlier today, the rebels took control of a special forces army base manned by troops that were trained by the United States and were supposed to be an elite counterterrorism unit. Reuters covers the Houthi assault, and also reveals that U.N. investigators suspect that former President Ali Abdullah Saleh amassed as much as $60 billion during his three decades of rule.

The entry of the Chadian army into the fight against Boko Haram appears to be turning the war’s tide. The Wall Street Journal explains that Boko Haram’s obstruction of Chadian trade routes pushed the country to send its military into the fray, which has encouraged nearby countries to do the same. The result has been a reversal of Boko Haram’s success. The progress comes before a planned multi-lateral offensive by countries in the region, most of whom are currently participating in training exercises sponsored by the U.S. military. Reuters has more on these ‘Flintlock’ exercises.

Ukraine’s military said earlier today that, for the first time in weeks, it had gone 24 hours without losing a soldier in the fight against Russian-backed separatists, Reuters notes. While the report raised hopes that a ceasefire agreement was taking hold, the Daily Beast reports that the separatists have plans to continue seizing land, including the port city of Mariupol. In its efforts to hamstring Ukraine’s efforts to combat the militants, Russia is threatening to cut off natural gas shipments to Ukraine, which could disastrously impact European states dependent on fuel shipped through Ukraine. Foreign Policy’s Keith Johnson describes the power play.

Ukraine, however, may soon be bolstered by weapons from the United Arab Emirates, the Wall Street Journal notes. As the Obama administration continues to ponder whether to supply the Ukrainian military with arms, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko announced in Abu Dhabi yesterday that his country would purchase arms from the Middle Eastern nation. But, writing in DefenseOne, Derek Chollet argues that Ukraine needs much more than just arms in its fight against the separatists; it needs a comprehensive reform of its military.

While the United States demurs on the decision to arm Ukraine in its fight against Russian proxies, U.S. weaponry nonetheless appeared on Russia’s borders earlier today. In an Estonian Independence Day celebration, U.S. military vehicles joined a parade in the border city of Narva. The Post has more.

Officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency met with their Iranian counterparts in Brussels on Tuesday, concluding that their conversations had led to a “better understanding” but conceding that there was little movement toward a breakthrough in resolving the U.N. organization’s questions regarding the past nature of the Iranian nuclear program. At the same time, Defense News reports that Russia has offered Iran a new advanced surface-to-air missile. Russia had broken off a previous 2010 arrangement to provide the missiles to Iran. A U.N. resolution from that same year bans the supply, sale, or transfer of missiles or missile systems to Iran. And, Iran finally put that replica of a U.S. aircraft carrier to use, targeting it with more than a dozen speedboats during a large-scale naval drill. The Times has more on the nationally televised show of force. However, there was no indication that the Revolutionary Guard managed to sink the defenseless mock-up.

Back in the United States, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest denied a recent report that the deal taking shape with Iran would only restrict its program for 10 years, saying “that does not reflect the accurate negotiation position of the United States and our international partners.” Yesterday, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State John Kerry cautioned Congress that “Anybody running around right now, jumping in to say, ‘Well we don’t like the deal,’ or this or that, doesn’t know what the deal is.” The Times carries more on the Secretary’s remarks.

And, with all this talk about the length of the agreement, Ilan Goldenberg reminds us that the real key to an agreement with Iran is the length of the window of vulnerability it creates.

On Monday, a U.S. federal court ruled that the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority were liable for a series of terrorist attacks that killed and injured several Americans from 2002 to 2004. Now, the Post reports, Palestinian officials have promised to appeal the ruling and will continue to pursue an International Criminal Court investigation into possible war crimes committed by Israel during last year’s war in Gaza.

The State Department and the FBI are offering a $3 million reward for information leading to the arrest or conviction of cyber thief Evgeniy Bogachev, Reuters reports. The reward for Bogachev, a Russian national who allegedly masterminded a computer attack network that stole over $100 million dollars from online bank accounts, is the highest reward offered yet for a cyber criminal.

In Guantanamo proceedings yesterday, the defense for Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, who allegedly helped conduct the USS Cole bombing in 2000, argued that Pentagon officials knew that a recent order directing GITMO judges to remain on base for the duration of their trials might constitute unlawful meddling. The Miami Herald covers the proceedings.

The recent release of the summary of the ‘Torture Report’ has substantially changed the dynamics of Guantanamo proceedings. NPR describes how defendants who were previously barred from disclosing details of the abuse they were subjected to can now discuss such matters in proceedings. This freedom lends credence to the defendants’ cases, says one defense lawyer.

According to the Guardian, the Chicago police department runs an unofficial interrogation center that lawyers say amounts to a domestic “black site”. Accounts of police practices inside the off-the-books facility include beatings, the shackling of detainees for hours at a time, the denial of access for attorneys, and secret renditions conducted without an official record. In a statement, the Chicago police department maintained that the facility operates within the bounds of the law.

In response to revelations Friday that U.S. and British intelligence agencies hacked into Gemalto, one of the world’s largest SIM card manufacturers, the company admitted that these agencies may have breached its network several years ago but maintained that they could not have compromised the encryption that it builds into its cards. The Wall Street Journal reports that the company also said it would not take legal action because of difficulties in legally proving the agencies’ culpability.

Bard College’s Center for the Study of the Drone has an in-depth look at the global infrastructure that allows drones to conduct intelligence and lethal operations around the world. And while drones have certainly changed intelligence gathering and counterinsurgency, in a report by RAND, Lynn E. Davis, Michael J. McNerney, and Daniel Byman argue that they are not actually transforming warfare.

The judge in the trial of alleged Boston Bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has rejected a request from the defense to bar demonstrators from congregating outside the courthouse, the Guardian notes. The defense argued that the presence of the protesters, who believe that the Boston bombing was a government plot, might prejudice jurors against Tsarnaev. Jury selection in the trial is ongoing.

Parting Shot: Defense One details the military’s fight against ISIS on the Dark Web.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Herb Lin dissected the ongoing debate over encryption and backdoors, suggesting that what really matters is time scale - or the time it takes to figure out a NOBUS key.

Ben and fellow Brookings scholar Michael O’Hanlon answered questions about the AUMF via webcast yesterday. Cody posted the video.

Carrie Cordero continued Lawfares current discussion on the difference between U.S. and international surveillance law.

Jack described his recent essay on the issues surrounding the U.S. plan to relinquish control of the internet’s domain name system.

Email the Roundup Team noteworthy law and security-related articles to include, and follow us on Twitter and Facebook for additional commentary on these issues. Sign up to receive Lawfare in your inbox. Visit our Events Calendar to learn about upcoming national security events, and check out relevant job openings on our Job Board.