Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Cody M. Poplin
Monday, May 18, 2015, 1:42 PM

This weekend, American special forces executed a raid against an Islamic State compound in eastern Syria, killing Abu Sayyaf and between 12 and 40 other militants, reports the New York Times. Sayyaf, a mid-level leader in the organization was known as ISIS’s “emir of oil and gas.” During the raid, U.S. forces also captured Sayyaf’s wife, Umm Sayyaf, and freed an 18-year-old Yazidi women who had been held as a slave. According to the Pentagon, the two-dozen Delta Force commandos returned unharmed.

The Times notes that the success of the nighttime raid deep inside Syria “illustrates not only the effectiveness of the Delta Force, but of improving American intelligence on shadowy Islamic State leaders.” According to Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, the raid dealt a “significant blow” to the organization, as Sayyaf directed the “illicit oil, gas, and financial operations” that raised funds for the group’s march of terror.

However, it seems Abu Sayyaf, who some suggested could easily be replaced, may not have been the most important objective. Instead, officials pointed to the building and the trove of intelligence located inside it. The Times quotes one an anonymous defense official as saying, “the objective was the building,” while the Wall Street Journal reports that the commandos “came away with a treasure trove of materials” that could help explain a great deal about the operations of the terrorist organization, where it gets its financing, and who should be targeted in the future. The documents included laptops, phones, documents, hard drives, DVDs, CDs, and SIM cards.

At the time of writing, it remains unclear what will be done with Umm Sayyaf, who, according to Secretary Carter, is suspected of playing an important role in the group’s activities and “may have been complicit in what appears to have been enslavement.” A senior American official said that the United States would question her, but as she is an Iraqi citizen, it is likely officials there will request custody of her. The Daily Beast reports that she is currently being interrogated by the FBI’s High-Value Detainee Interrogation Team. Over the weekend, Lawfare’s John Bellinger explored some of the domestic and international law questions raised by the raid and Umm Sayyaf's interrogation and detention.

The Daily Beast also reports that a jittery ISIS imposed a widespread curfew following the raid. According to anti-ISIS Syrian political activists, the raid sparked panic and confusion among ISIS fighters, with one activist tweeting “horror and fear prevails among fighters hours after the storm operation carried out by the international coalition forces.” A senior administration official said that reaction was another goal of the raid, to signal to ISIS fighters that “we will find you, and kill you.”

Even so, as the V-22 Ospreys swooped into Deir Ez Zor in Syria with Delta commandos, ISIS fighters were sweeping up the last of the Iraqi security forces in Ramadi, the important capital of Anbar Province. The success of ISIS fighters in Ramadi gives the group its most significant victory so far this year. According to the New York Times, the last Iraqi forces fled the capital on Sunday, leaving the city completely in the control of the Islamic State. And, as they advanced, ISIS fighters displayed their infamous brutality, seizing the military headquarters along with a large store of weapons, while executing as many as 500 people loyal to the government. The Long War Journal shares unconfirmed reports and photos that suggest Iraqi security forces are in complete disarray and fleeing from Habbaniyah and other areas.

On Sunday afternoon, the Anbar Provincial Council met in Baghdad and formally requested that Prime Minister Haider al Abadi send Shiite fighters to rescue the province. The coalition had previously resisted sending Shiite reinforcements due to worries that the move could inflame sectarian tensions in the largely Sunni province. However, the Times reports that the United States informed the Council that America would continue its airstrikes in support of ground operations as long as the Shiite militias remained under the control of Prime Minister Abadi, and not Iran.

In Yemen on Sunday, the ten-nation Saudi-led coalition resumed airstrikes against Houthi rebels after a five-day humanitarian ceasefire ended. The Times shares that residents of the city of Aden reported strikes hitting Houthi held neighborhoods. International aid agencies and the United Nations had called for an extension of the ceasefire, noting that the five days had not been nearly enough time to stem the humanitarian crisis on the ground. In response, Yemen’s Foreign Minister Reyad Yassin Abdulla said that Saudi Arabia had resumed airstrikes because the Houthi rebels and its allies had violated the truce and that the coalition is not considering any new ceasefire.

In Politico, Michael Crowley and Nahal Toosi write that a buried line in a recent Camp David statement may signal the first American support for a new Arab “rapid reaction” military force. The statement referred to an Arab League plan that would create a force between 20,000 and 40,000 troops and would be modeled on the NATO quick-response force of 30,000 soldiers. However, analysts noted the complications with such a force, which would likely require significant American funding and training.

An Egyptian court sentenced ousted President Mohammed Morsi to death Saturday for breaking out of prison during the nation’s 2011 uprising. The decision is now subject to review by the Grand Mufti, Egypt’s highest religious authority, and a final verdict won't be delivered until June 2. Mr. Morsi was one of 106 members and leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood sentenced to death on Saturday. The Wall Street Journal has more.

Reuters reports that according the military officials, the Nigerian military destroyed 10 Boko Haram camps over the weekend, isolating the militant group to its final hideout in the country’s remote northeast.

While success may be on the horizon against Boko Haram, Afghan forces are struggling the keep the Taliban at bay as losses mount in the deadliest fighting season in more than a decade. Heavy clashes have been reported in at least 10 of the country’s provinces and Afghan soldiers have experienced 70 percent more casualties than in the same period last year. The Wall Street Journal reports.

Meanwhile, a U.S. drone strike in northwest Pakistan has reportedly killed at least four militants as Pakistani forces prepared for another “anti-Taliban offensive.” Reuters writes that the “heavily forested ravines of the Shawal Valley are on the the last major strongholds of the Taliban in North Waziristan.”

While Moscow continues to deny direct Russian involvement in the ongoing Ukrainian civil war, the Guardian reveals that a Ukrainian military spokesman said on Sunday government forces had captured two Russian soldiers and were transporting them back to Kiev for questioning. A video purportedly of one of the men shows him lying in a hospital bed, before he introduces himself as Sgt. Alexander Alexandrov of the Russian special forces and admits that he was operating in the area with a group of 14 men.

Following Seymour Hersh’s recent article on the subject, the gold-rush for credit in the Osama bin Laden raid is on (again). This time, according to a Bild am Sonntag report, information leading to the raid of bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad came from a German BND informant inside Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence agency. An American source was quoted as saying the German intelligence agency’s tip was of “fundamental importance.” However, Agence France-Presse reports that the German newspaper insists that the CIA ultimately found bin Laden’s exact location by tracking one of his couriers. Some in Germany questioned the report's authenticity, as it was published just as the agency is facing heavy criticism in a spy scandal.

Poland is set to release $250,000 USD to two Guantanamo Bay captives allegedly tortured by the CIA in a secret facility in the country, reports the Miami Herald. While the European Court of Human Rights set a Saturday deadline, it remains unclear how Poland can make payments to the detainees, Abu Zubaydah and Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, both of whom have been held in Guantanamo since 2006. Al Nashiri is currently on trial for orchestrating the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole.

On Friday, a federal jury in Boston sentenced Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to death for his role in the bombing of the Boston Marathon in 2013. Tsarnaev will become the 62nd federal inmate on death row, according to the Washington Post. The ruling, writes the New York Times, has unsettled the city that Tsarnaev sought to tear apart. Indeed, in Politico, Austin Sarat asks, “will Tsarnaev’s death sentence be America’s last?”

Khaled al Fawwaz, a 52-year-old Saudi national, has been sentenced to life in prison for his participation in the al Qaeda conspiracy that led to the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.

Politico details the hefty to-do list on the U.S. Senate’s plate this week --- a list that makes it all the more likely that the developing stalemate over extending or reforming Section 215 of the Patriot Act will ultimately prove a hurdle too high for the leadership to clear by the end of the week.

The Obama administration announced today that it will ban the federal provision of certain types of “military-style equipment” to local police departments while restricting the availability of others. President Obama accepted a task force’s recommendations to impose new restrictions on items such as wheeled armored vehicles, pyrotechnics, and battering rams and riot gear. The New York Times has more.

Parting Shot: A warrant filed by the FBI alleges that a security researcher was able to hack the in-flight entertainment system of a United Airlines flight, overwrite the code on the plane’s thrust management computer, and then issue a climb command that made the plane change course while aboard. Wired has more on the steady creep into a world of many-to-many threats.

ICYMI: This Weekend, on Lawfare

In this week’s Foreign Policy Essay, Brookings Senior Fellow Bruce Riedel asks, “where is al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri?”

For the Lawfare Book Review, Matthew Sprinkel reviewed Living Weapons: Biological Warfare and International Security by Gregory Koblentz.

Episode #123 of the Lawfare Podcast featured an interview with Andrew March, Associate Professor of Political Science at Yale University, on the Islamic law of war.

As news broke that the United States special forces had executed  a raid of an ISIL compound in Syria, killing ISIL leader Abu Sayyaf and capturing his wife, John Bellinger explored some of the domestic and international law questions raised by the raid.

Finally, Alan Rozenshtein reviewed @War: The Rise of the Military-Internet Complex by Shane Harris and Cyber Operations and the Use of Force in International Law by Marco Roscini for the Lawfare Book Review.

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