Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Cody M. Poplin, Sebastian Brady
Friday, May 1, 2015, 2:11 PM

Saudi-led airstrikes hit the Yemeni capital of Sanaa overnight, targeting a residential district and killing several civilians, according to residents. Reuters notes that the strikes, which also hit a military airbase near the capital, follow earlier attacks on an airport in Sanaa that may have closed off a crucial hub for humanitarian aid. The impact of that attack is especially worrying because, as the New York Times reports, the Yemeni civil war has created a humanitarian crisis, with at least 300,000 people forced from their homes. Yesterday, U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon noted that the fighting in Yemen is crippling aid efforts and, insofar as it has targeted civilian and U.N. facilities, is in violation of the laws of war. McClatchy has more.

Regardless, Houthi rebels mounted a fresh attack near the Saudi border last night. The Associated Press notes that, according to Saudi Arabia, the rebels killed three Saudi soldiers and suffered “dozens” of casualties themselves. The attack is the latest in a string of such border attacks following the beginning of Saudi-led airstrikes in Yemen more than a month ago.

As the conflict continues, the connection between Iran and the Houthis is becoming clearer. Agence France-Presse reports that, according to evidence cited in a classified U.N. report, Iran has been shipping arms to the Houthis since at least 2009. Moreover, Iran announced yesterday that two Iranian destroyers had arrived at the entrance to a strategic strait between Yemen and Djibouti. The move, ostensibly meant to protect Iranian commercial vessels, comes after an Iranian convoy allegedly carrying arms to the Houthi rebels turned back when U.S. ships approached. AFP has more.

Following the seizing of a Marshall Islands cargo ship earlier this week, the U.S. Navy has announced that it will protect American commercial vessels with destroyers in order to prevent harassment by Iranian ships as they pass through the Strait. The Times notes that U.S. officials took care to characterize the operation as “accompanying” vessels, rather than escorting, which would imply a greater role for U.S. warships. The Wall Street Journal notes that the move comes as U.S. officials try to insulate ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran from regional security concerns.

An Islamic State branch in Yemen has released a video depicting the executions of 14 Yemeni soldiers, Reuters reveals. While the group has previously claimed responsibility for attacks in the country and had already released a video showing militants training, this is the first execution video from inside Yemen the group has released.

And while ISIS’s main branch in Iraq and Syria has absorbed recent losses on the battlefield, the group’s recruitment of foreign fighters has not suffered. Nancy Youssef writes in the Daily Beast that, according to one U.S. official, the number of foreign fighters from Europe in the region has jumped from 5,000 to 8,000 in the last six months. “The recruitment channels continue unabated,” the official explained.

As the Iraqi government tries to roll back ISIS’s territorial gains in the country, Baghdad continues to be wracked by bombings. Yesterday, just after the director of the E.U. humanitarian aid department spoke of the deteriorating situation in Iraq and the rest of the world’s lack of attention to it, a series of car bombs rocked the capital, killing 21 people and wounding at least 65. The Times has more.

For the Social Science Research Council’s blog The Immanent Frame, Georgetown professor Alexander Thurston outlines the Islamic State’s intellectual genealogy, introducing ten thinkers who influenced ISIS and linking to one English-language source and one Arabic-language primary document for each. Thurston concludes, “analysts would do better to examine how ISIS’ peculiar religious genealogies have intersected with the tragic and complex politics of Iraq and Syria.”

Fresh congressional authorization for the United States’s fight against ISIS does not appear to be forthcoming. While a bipartisan group of lawmakers sent a formal letter to Speaker of the House John Boehner (R-OH) yesterday urging him to force action on President Obama’s proposed AUMF, the Washington Post writes that “the subject appears to be dying a quiet death.”

While the AUMF languishes in Congress, another ISIS-related legislative proposal has triggered fears in Iraq that the United States is seeking to break up the country. The Times reveals that language in the defense authorization bill released by the House Armed Services Committee proposing to directly arm Kurdish, local, and tribal forces in Iraq has stoked a “firestorm of Iraqi outrage.” That outrage comes as the progress of Iranian-backed militias fighting ISIS has provided support for the sentiment of some segments of Iraq’s Shiite majority that Iran is a more reliable partner.

In yet another sign that the Assad regime is facing increased pressure from Islamist rebels, Reuters reports that the Syrian army and Islamist rebels have engaged in fierce battles in Latakia, the government-held heartland of the Alawite community from which President Assad hails. The area, Reuters adds, is one of the most important government-held regions in the country.

In Congress, moves by critics of those negotiations are threatening to upset the Iran Review bill that has so far received bipartisan support. Senators Tom Cotton (R-AR) and Marco Rubio (R-FL) used a parliamentary procedure yesterday to force votes on two amendments to the bill---one that would require Iran to give up all its nuclear facilities before receiving any sanctions relief and one that would require Iran to recognize Israel---that jeopardize the bill’s prospects of passage, Politico reports. However, in the Post, Jennifer Rubin argues the amendments are unlikely to threaten the bill and we should see them for what they are---just another “obvious effort to raise senators’ visibility.”

In Pakistan, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif lauded the Pakistani military for defeating militants in North Waziristan, once considered the Pakistani Taliban’s main base. The AP notes that the army has pushed militants out of most of the region and have formed a plan to help the more than 80,000 people displaced by the fighting return home.

At the same time, NBC News reports that ISIS-linked fighters are capturing territory in northern Afghanistan. The advances by the militants, reportedly mostly from Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and the Caucuses, indicate that ISIS has spread its reach beyond the Middle East and North Africa. In doing so, locals say, the militants have exceeded the brutality employed by the Afghan Taliban, who they are oftentimes displacing.

Fighting appears to be intensifying in Mali, jeopardizing the peace deal and cease-fire reached between the government and northern rebels in March. The Times reports that the last week has seen armed factions in northern Mali fighting among themselves as well as with Malian soldiers and U.N. peacekeepers. The attacks have left nine soldiers, along with several civilians, dead.

Speaking before the Senate Armed Services Committee yesterday, NATO’s top commander said that Russia may be using a recent lull in fighting in eastern Ukraine to set up for a new military offensive in the region, Reuters writes. While noting that he could not predict Russia’s next move, General Philip Breedlove told the committee that Russia appeared to be building the capacity for another offensive and added, “In the past they have not wasted their effort." Indeed, U.S. officials have explained that the Russian force now on the border with Ukraine is the biggest it has been since October, and that it has deployed more air defense systems than at any time since August.

Patrick Tucker writes in DefenseOne that the Defense Department’s new cyber strategy, in conjunction with cybersecurity information-sharing legislation making its way through Congress, could lead the Pentagon to share Americans’ data with foreign militaries. The Cyber Information Sharing Act, one of the information-sharing bills currently in Congress, would protect U.S. companies that share data about their users with the government. In turn, the new cyber strategy, which was released last week, indicates that the U.S. will share critical threat information with allied foreign militaries. Some of that information, Tucker argues, could be the same data which the CISA is helping U.S. companies to share.

On the topic of Americans’ data, the Times reports that the USA Freedom Act, which would stop the NSA's bulk collection of telephony metadata, among other things, was overwhelmingly passed by the House Judiciary Committee and “was heading to almost certain passage in that chamber this month.” An identical bill has also been introduced in the Senate with bipartisan support. However, a series of hurdles in the Senate remain, where a fight is brewing between Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)---who has put forth a clean reauthorization of the program---and other members of his party who are adamant that the program must be curtailed.

Following revelations in the German media that it was the subject of industrial espionage, Airbus announced yesterday that it would file criminal complaints in the matter against persons unknown. AFP reports that a German paper alleged that U.S. spy agencies had, through the German intelligence agency BND, targeted Airbus and other companies for years, and that the German government had been aware of the practice.

U.S. and Qatar have entered talks to extend security assurances for the five Taliban members released from Guantanamo last year to gain the release of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, the Post reports. As part of the terms of the release, the Qatari government committed to surveilling the militants and preventing them from leaving the country for one year. The agreement expires at the end of May, though there are indications that Qatar is open to extending the agreement.

According to the Miami Herald, language inserted into the House Armed Services Committee draft 2016 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) would forbid the White House from cancelling its lease of the American naval base located at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Other restrictions continue to block the transfer of detainees to the United States.

A new AP-GFK poll released today finds broad swaths of the American public continue to strongly support the U.S. targeted killing program. The poll finds 60 percent of Americans favor the use of drones to “target and kill people belonging to terrorist groups like al-Qaida,” while only 13 percent oppose. Most strikingly, of those who “support” or “neither favor nor oppose” the targeted killing program, 86 percent believe it is acceptable for the United States to target and kill American citizens overseas who are members of terrorist groups.

Parting shot: Yesterday marked the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon. A new four-part series published in a Vietnamese military journal, and covered by Newsweek, looks at how Hanoi’s intelligence services were able to “neutralize virtually every spying operation mounted against it by the CIA.”

Weekend long-read: The latest edition of Newsweek carries a cover story that asks, “Can America Win a War?” Roving from Roman battles, to Vietnam, to the ongoing forever war, Jeff Stein and Jonathan Broder explore the limits of American power and the necessity of a new way of thinking about conflict.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Jennifer William and Yishai Schwartz brought us the latest news from the Middle East in the Middle East Ticker.

Jack outlined the disagreements between President Obama and Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif’s interpretation of what the Iran Deal will do, and noted that eventually one side will be proven wrong.

Finally, Ben shared this week’s episode of Rational Security, which tackles the New York Times’ decision to name senior CIA officers.

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.