Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Cody M. Poplin, Sebastian Brady
Wednesday, March 25, 2015, 1:29 PM

The forever war just got a little bit longer.

Yesterday, President Obama announced that he will slow the rate of withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. The Wall Street Journal explains that, while President Obama had previously planned to have just 5,600 troops in the country by the end of 2015, his new plan will leave 9,800 U.S. troops there through the end of this year. However, the President maintained that this shift does not alter his plan to only have 1,000 troops in the country when he leaves office in 2017.

This follows a request from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and reflects growing fears about stability in the country. In Afghanistan yesterday, gunmen killed at least 12 people on a highway west of Kabul, the Wall Street Journal reports. Although the attack took place in an area of Taliban influence, the Taliban denied involvement in the attack.

The fight also continues across the Durand Line: a day after a U.S. drone strike killed 13 militants affiliated with the Pakistani Taliban, a Pakistani missile strike killed 30 militants from Lashkar-e-Islam, a group that recently aligned itself with the Pakistani Taliban. Reuters has more.

In what has also been called a monumental counterterrorism setback, Houthi rebels in Yemen are now advancing toward Aden, the southern city where ousted President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi had been organizing resistance to the rebels. The New York Times reports that the Houthi forces, who are bolstered not only by Iran but also by Yemeni government forces loyal to former ruler Ali Abdullah Saleh, mounted an assault on the Al Anad air force base north of Aden. Houthi rebels seized the base, the Wall Street Journal reports, and then demanded the surrender of President Hadi while issuing a bounty for his capture. The capture of the base puts the rebels just 25 miles from Aden.

Reuters notes that residents of Aden are preparing for battle, with public employees heading home and armed men patrolling the streets. But President Hadi’s whereabouts are unknown, the Associated Press adds. He fled the presidential palace in Aden soon after the Houthis announced the capture of the Al Anad base, and hours later airstrikes began targeting the forces still guarding the palace. Reuters reports that, according to local residents, the rebels are now poised to take over the southern port of Aden.

Dozens of Yemenis have already been killed in fighting, according to Agence France-Presse, as the latest advance appears to hasten the country’s descent into civil war. Saudi Arabia, which views the Houthi uprising as the latest in a series of encroachments by Shiite Iran, is reportedly amassing heavy weaponry near its border with Yemen in preparation for further fighting, Reuters notes.

From a brewing civil war to an unending one: after four days of fighting, Syrian rebels succeeded in expelling pro-government forces from Busra Sham, a historic city near the Jordanian border. The AP explains that the assault on the southern town, which had been in pro-government hands for the duration of the Syrian civil war, reportedly included 10,000 rebels from various groups. Syrian rebels are also moving on a government-held city in northern Syria. The AP reports that rebels began shelling the outskirts of Idlib last night., while, according to activists, Syrian government helicopters attacked a nearby village with chlorine gas. Last week, according to opposition activists, the government also used poison gas in an attack on a nearby settlement.

Now that the assault by Iraqi forces and Shiite militias on Tikrit has stalled, the United States has begun sharing aerial intelligence on Tikrit with Iraq. The Wall Street Journal notes that, while the United States is still officially not working with the Iranian-backed militias, the information provided to the Iraqi forces will certainly be shared with those militias. But officials hope that the failure of the militia-led offensive to fully liberate Tikrit will strengthen the U.S.’s hand by forcing Iraq to request U.S. assistance rather than depend on Iranian-backed militias.

That hope may soon be borne out in the form of U.S. airstrikes on Tikrit. Earlier today, Iraqi President Fouad Massoum said that the U.S.-led coalition is expected to start carrying out strikes on ISIS positions in Tikrit soon, according to Reuters. Yesterday, U.S. officials said that the Obama administration is considering beginning airstrikes possibly as early as in the next several days, AFP notes.

Al Jazeera reveals that, after years of helping sustain the Assad regime in Syria, Hezbollah is planning a major offensive against ISIS and the al Nusra Front along Lebanon’s eastern border with Syria. Hezbollah previously conducted a similar assault in the region that forced the Sunni militias to retreat. The goal this time, according to one Hezbollah militant, is elimination: “No one is leaving alive. There will be no deals. Our people have made the decision to wipe them out completely."

Canada will continue its role in the U.S.-led coalition fighting the militant group. Earlier reports this week suggested that Canada was soon expected to announce an extension of its mission against ISIS. And yesterday, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper did just that, saying the Canadian mission would continue for another year and include airstrikes in Syria. The Wall Street Journal has more.

Australia is also taking action against the militant group, but this time, they’re working to seal their own borders. The Wall Street Journal reports that Australian counterterrorism forces have prevented 200 people suspected of supporting militant groups from leaving the country to join the group.

And while ISIS has recently taken to doxxing U.S. military members, they are facing pressure in the cyber arena too. The Times details efforts by cyber-vigilantes to combat the dissemination of ISIS propaganda online. The vigilantes, including some members of hacking groups like Anonymous, attempt to spam Twitter accounts of suspected ISIS supporters and report them to Twitter, which can then ban the account. While it remains unclear how effective this vigilantism is, a collection of the hacking groups recently posted a list of 9,200 Twitter accounts that have been purportedly shut down due to vigilante efforts.

Despite the variety of forces targeting ISIS, the group continues its heinous tactics. The Daily Beast reveals that ISIS is threatening to burn 21 Kurdish men alive during the Kurdish holiday of Newroz in an attempt to sap support for the Kurdish campaign against the militant group. The article notes, however, that the ploy may have backfired.

In Sirte, Libya, ISIS-affiliated militants killed 5 members of a group that backs the government ruling Tripoli in what appears to have been a suicide bombing, Reuters reports. ISIS’s Libyan affiliate also claims to have played a role in a series of suicide bombings in the eastern city of Benghazi that killed 12 people. The AP has more.

As military forces mount pressure on the group, Boko Haram has responded with even more brutality. Reuters reports that the militant group has kidnapped more than 400 women and children fleeing from the border town of Damasak.

With the deadline for a preliminary agreement on the Iranian nuclear deal approaching, Iran appears to be backing away from any deal that contains a formal framework, and is instead pressing for a general political agreement. The Times describes how U.S. negotiators, pressured to nail down specifics by a hostile political environment at home, are struggling to reach a substantive agreement.

But Iran has offered one specific provision it demands be included in any nuclear deal: the complete lifting of all sanctions against the country. Reuters reveals that both Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei have recently insisted on such a provision, though western negotiators reject that demand.

In the face of revelations yesterday that Israel has spied on the nuclear negotiations and has even tried to use the information to turn U.S. politicians against an Iran deal, Israel maintained its innocence, the Times reports.

The disclosures came as the Obama administration continued its pointed criticism of newly re-elected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. President Obama said that, after Prime Minister Netanyahu’s last-ditch lurch to the right before last week’s election, the prospects of peace between Israel and Palestine appear “very dim,” the Washington Post reports. He added,”What we can’t do is pretend there’s a possibility of something that’s not there …For the sake of our own credibility, I guess we have to be honest about this.”

But the Times notes that the harsh criticism levied at Netanyahu risks increasing support for the prime minister, especially because some Israeli analysts have characterized the criticism as part of a secret, long-planned move away from protecting Israel in international fora. At the same time, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Ron Dermer, is wining and dining Democratic politicians in Washington in an attempt to convince them that the recent blow-up in U.S.-Israeli relations will soon pass without serious damage. But, the Times adds, he is still pressing hard to turn members of Congress against any nuclear deal with Iran.

In the face of intense controversy in the United States, Prime Minister Netanyahu will reportedly receive permission from the Israeli President to form a new Israeli government. Reuters reports that the cabinet is likely to lean heavily to the right.

The complexities of the shadow conflict in Ukraine continue to vex policymakers. This time, Reuters brings news of a far-right pro-Ukrainian group, called the “Azov battalion,” that is preparing to defend against an attack from pro-Russian rebels in the city of Mariupol. The militia is known for its ultra-nationalist political agenda, which propagates slogans of white supremacy, racial purity, and the need for an authoritarian power, all under the banner of a black swastika on a yellow background. As the ceasefire tentatively holds, politicians have began to ask the uncomfortable question: what role with Azov play when the conflict ends?

Who knocked North Korea’s Internet offline following the Sony cyberattack? As the story unfolds, it is looking more and more likely that rogue vigilantes were behind the assault. While the United States was actively attacking the Hermit Kingdom’s servers just before the blackout, U.S. officials have said they were not responsible for the outage. And, Shane Harris notes that by bringing down the network, “there was no guarantee that the NSA would still be able to spy on all the same targets when it came back up,” making it unlikely the government knocked out the network.

The Pentagon will not have to divulge the intended method of execution for accused mastermind of the bombing of the USS Cole, Abd al Rahim al Nashiri. Prosecutors argued that such a request was premature because al Nashiri has not been convicted nor has he received a sentence. The Miami Herald notes that the military carried out its last execution in 1961 when it hanged an Army private for rape and attempted murder of a child.

In more Guantanamo news, the new Uruguayan government will no longer accept prisoners from the detention facility after opinion polls showed most Uruguayans were opposed to the transfers. BBC has more.

In Newsweek, Sami Yousafzai tells us how Taliban leaders are living a life of  luxury in Qatar.

Yesterday, the House Intelligence Committee introduced the Protecting Cyber Networks Act, a bipartisan bill that will grant legal immunity to firms who share cyberthreat data with the government. The Senate Intelligence Committee and the House Homeland Security Committee have both introduced their own versions of similar bills. The Post has a breakdown of the differences between the three.

Parting shot: The military’s new robotic “ghost ship”--an autonomous sub-hunting vessel--has moved one step closer to production, proving it can tail a sub without crashing into rocks, shoals, or other surface vessels.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

This week’s Steptoe Cyberlaw Podcast features an interview with Richard Bejtlich, the Chief Security Strategist at FireEye and a Fellow at Brookings.

Lawfare published its second of four excerpts from Jessica Stern and J.M. Berger’s new book, ISIS: The State of Terror.

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.