Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Sebastian Brady
Friday, February 27, 2015, 3:11 PM

The number of Assyrian Christians kidnapped by the Islamic State continues to rise. The New York Times reports that, according to one local Assyrian leader, 287 people have now been captured by the militant group, and dozens of villages in northeastern Syria have been emptied of residents. Other counts put the number captured nearer 350. Across the border in Iraq, ISIS is carrying out similar campaigns of violence targeted at ethnic and religious minorities. Reuters reports that human rights NGOs are describing the group’s actions as genocide. According to the Times, the U.N. high commissioner for refugees exhorted European countries to accept more refugees to deter them from attempting the dangerous trip across the Mediterranean.

Yesterday, the U.S.-led coalition carried out five airstrikes in the region of northeastern Syria where the Assyrian captives are believed to be held, the Wall Street Journal notes. ISIS continues to battle Kurdish forces in the area, which the coalition has supported with 33 airstrikes over the past five days. Under the cover of overwhelming air power, the Kurds have succeeded in driving ISIS out of Tel Hamis, a town in northeast Syria, Reuters adds, and have forced the group into retreat in various areas throughout the region.

This retreat may limit the financial viability of the Islamic State going forward. According to a report by international investigators with the Financial Action Task Force, the group must continue to expand its territory in order to fund its activities, Reuters reveals. At the same time, ISIS is experiencing increased infighting within its ranks. Asharq Al-Awsat reports that, according to Kurdish military sources, ISIS militants have even taken to firing mortars at one another in Iraq. Other sources reveal deep divisions over the group’s treatment of prisoners and its decision to burn Jordanian pilot Moaz Al-Kasasbeh to death.

As details continue to surface about the identity of ‘Jihadi John’, the brutal executioner who has appeared in several ISIS propaganda videos, questions are emerging over potential failures by British intelligence agencies. The Washington Post describes Mohammed Emwazi as a Kuwaiti-born Londoner with long-standing ties to extremist groups known to British security services.

These security services are now under increased scrutiny for their role in tracking Emwazi before his travel to Syria to join ISIS. The Associated Press reveals that Emwazi was known to British intelligence agencies for several years. He was briefly detained in Tanzania in 2009, and court documents from 2011 list Emwazi as part of a group suspected of aiding al-Shabaab militants in Somalia. The Times explains how the case draws out the fundamental difficulty facing intelligence agencies trying to prevent Westerners from joining the fight in the Middle East: “Given important constitutional and legal protections, how do counterterrorism and police officials draw the line when they find enough evidence to suspect someone, but do not have enough to prosecute them, or even to keep them under legal surveillance?”

As Yemen continues to descend toward civil war, the leader of the Houthi rebels who deposed Yemen’s president in January is blaming Saudi Arabia for supporting armed opposition groups and seeking to destabilize the country. The Times notes that the Houthi leader’s remarks come as the deposed president, Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, declared himself the legitimate ruler of Yemen yesterday from his sanctuary in Aden, where Saudi Arabia and Qatar have sent their ambassadors in a show of support.

Yemen’s descent into violent chaos has sapped the energy from Yemeni activists who just four short years ago were pushing out an entrenched autocrat and electing a new leader. The Post details how the young activists who helped drive the popular uprising are becoming increasingly disillusioned with Yemen’s prospects for democracy.

Russian-backed separatists and the Ukrainian military continue to pull back heavy weapons from the front in eastern Ukraine. The AP reports that the separatists have moved rocket launchers to positions 70 km from the front line, in accordance with a ceasefire agreement, and Ukrainian forces have begun withdrawing anti-tank guns. But, the AP notes, these weapons are only a small portion of those available to both sides, and troops with small arms continue to maintain positions on the front line.

Despite the drawback, sporadic fighting continues. After going two days without combat casualties, the Ukrainian military announced today that three soldiers were killed in clashes with separatists. Moreover, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko expressed concern that, even if the truce holds, Russia will continue to threaten Ukraine. Reuters has more.

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper concurred. According to the Wall Street Journal, he predicted that the rebels would attempt to take Mariupol and noted that responding to the crisis by arming the Ukrainian military would probably provoke Russia. While the Obama administration continues to deliberate on that decision, the United States will send about 800 military advisers to Ukraine, where they will be joined by 75 U.K. troops; the Economist argues that this move is too little and too late to impact the conflict.

For its part, China expressed support for Russian interests in the Ukrainian conflict. Reuters reports that, in an uncommonly frank show of support for Russia, the Chinese ambassador to Belgium told the West to “abandon the zero-sum mentality, and take the real security concerns of Russia into consideration."

In other China news, the country may soon have a legal framework for conducting counterterrorism operations abroad. Reuters reveals that the Chinese parliament is close to passing a bill that would authorize the military to send troops to carry out foreign counterterrorism missions, so long as China receives the go-ahead from the “relevant country.”

China has also removed several leading U.S. firms from the list of companies whose products can be purchased by state officials. The Post reports that the move is part of the fallout from the Snowden NSA revelations, but can also be viewed as the latest move in a widening cyberwar between China and the United States.

In Pakistan, two militants facing trial for the massacre of 10 foreigners have escaped prison. Reuters reveals that the two militants, along with two other prisoners who were shot during the escape, tunnelled their way out of the prison.

The Obama administration will send national security adviser Susan Rice to address the annual AIPAC conference next week, despite her recent sharp comments over Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned address to the U.S. Congress, the Wall Street Journal reports. Prime Minister Netanyahu’s main opponent in upcoming March elections echoed Rice’s comments. According to the Wall Street Journal, opposition leader Isaac Herzog blamed the Prime Minister for damaging U.S.-Israeli ties and called on him to cancel the speech.

The underlying cause of the diplomatic fracas, a potential nuclear deal with Iran, appears to be moving forward. The Wall Street Journal reports that EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini said Thursday that the seven countries participating in talks are nearing an agreement. In a Politico op-ed, William J. Perry, Sean O’Keefe, Adm. James Stavridis, and Joe E. Reeder argue that the current negotiations are perhaps the best chance to prevent Iran from gaining a nuclear weapon and so should not be torpedoed by American partisan bickering. In the Times, Brookings scholar Robert Einhorn argues that, while a deal that eliminates Iran’s enrichment capability is probably no longer possible, such a deal is not necessary to maintain the security of both the United States and its allies in the Middle East.

The Senate Judiciary Committee has approved the nomination of Loretta Lynch as attorney general; her nomination now moves to the full Senate. The Times notes that Lynch needed two votes from Republicans and received three. Republicans who voted against her nomination cited her support for President Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration.

The fight over President Obama’s executive action continues to threaten the funding of the Department of Homeland Security, which will run out of money at midnight without a new funding bill. Over at Foreign Policy, John Hudson writes that the current looming shutdown is all the more palatable for some politicians who question the purpose of DHS anyway.

U.S. and Cuban officials met today to discuss restoring diplomatic relations. Reuters reports that the talks, the first since an initial round in January, continue to be dogged by Cuba’s insistence that the United States remove it from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism.

Thursday at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, a U.S. military court held a closed session to discuss whether the influence commanders are exerting over proceedings make a fair trial impossible. The session was part of ongoing pre-trial proceedings in the case of alleged USS Cole bomber Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri. Reuters has more.

Back on U.S. soil, cases involving two other alleged al Qaeda militants moved forward. The Times describes the two days of testimony Abid Nasser, accused of planning a bomb attack in London, presented on his own behalf in New York. Nasser started strong, the Times notes, but began to falter at the end of the second day. Also in New York, Khaled al-Fawwaz, another accused al Qaeda operative, was convicted of four counts of conspiracy for his role as a lieutenant of Osama bin Laden. The Times remarks that the successful conviction may serve to bolster the Obama administration’s long-standing argument that alleged terrorists can be successfully tried in civilian courts.

In its efforts to maintain national cybersecurity, the Pentagon has been soliciting ideas from Silicon Valley start-ups. In December several high-ranking Defense Department officials traveled to the tech hub to meet with individuals from various innovative tech firms, many of which have little experience working on military projects. The Times explains that the visit is part of an initiative by the Pentagon to maintain its military advantage in a rapidly-evolving world.

In a House Armed Services Committee hearing yesterday (which featured testimony from Lawfare’s own Ben Wittes and Bobby Chesney), the ranking Democrat expressed little hope that Congress would pass an AUMF. According to the Hill, Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.) said “Unfortunately, I am skeptical that Congress will find the will to overcome our internal divisions, both between parties and internal to them, to authorize this action.”

Parting Shot: The New Yorker asks, ‘Did the FBI encourage the three would-be jihadis arrested in Brooklyn this week?’

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Ben and Bobby testified before the House Armed Services Committee yesterday on the ISIS AUMF. Cody posted video of their testimony alongside Gen. Jack Keane, and Ben and Bobby both posted copies of their prepared testimony.

Paul Rosenzweig discussed the tension between transparency and secrecy that undergirds contemporary national security reporting, and criticized the Intercept for its unconscionable leaks.

Paul also noted the difficulties in establishing an effective cyber arms control regime.

Ashley Deeks and Ben expanded on the import of the intelligence community’s lack of neutral operating principles, which Ben described in his recently “declassified” NSA Constitution Day speech.

Cody showed us Col. James Pohl’s abatement order in the Guantanamo case of the 9/11 defendants.

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