Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Quinta Jurecic, Staley Smith
Wednesday, July 29, 2015, 3:09 PM

Reports indicate that longtime Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar is dead… yet again. The initial reports came from the Wall Street Journal, where three anonymous Afghan officials and two individuals “close to the Taliban” indicated that Omar has been dead for at least two years, reportedly from tuberculosis. As of this afternoon, the Afghan National Directorate of Security had confirmed the announcement, saying that "there is no doubt" that Omar died in Karachi in April 2013. The White House said that American officials found the reports "credible," but noted that intelligence agencies were still reviewing the information. Even so, the Times notes that Afghan spy agencies announced Omar's death in 2011 only to retract those claims later. For its part, the Taliban has vehemently denied the reports, stating that Omar is “very much alive.”

If true, Mullah Omar’s death would have wide-ranging effects across the region, raising questions as to the future of the Taliban, the battle that the Taliban and al Qaeda are currently fighting against ISIS, and the ongoing peace process between the Afghan government and the Taliban. (In fact, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani stated his appreciation for Omar’s written support of the peace talks only weeks ago---or, that is, a message of support supposedly written by Omar, who would already have been dead by that time if reports are correct.) The Pakistani newspaper Dawn tells us that talks are expected to resume this Friday, facilitated by Pakistani negotiators.

Yet while the second round of peace talks is set to progress, the Taliban has also made significant military advances in recent days, seizing territory across several provinces in northern Afghanistan. The Times reports that the Taliban offensive stretches to areas in the northeast that were previously centers of anti-Taliban resistance, and has endangered the government’s hold on the major city of Kunduz. According to Reuters, more than half of Kunduz Province is now under Taliban control.

In Pakistan, another extremist fighter has been reported killed: Pakistani authorities announced that Malik Ishaq, the leader of the extremist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, died in a firefight as members of the group attempted to free him from a police convoy. Ishaq’s release from prison in 2011 was widely seen within Pakistan as a symbol of the Pakistani justice system’s failure to punish anti-Shiite terrorists. The Times notes that some Pakistanis have been skeptical of the government’s account of Ishaq’s death, pointing to Pakistan’s “history of extrajudicial killings of militants by the security forces,” and the BBC describes concerns that the death may have been “staged” in order to avoid a second release of Ishaq by the weak court system.

USA Today brings us news of an Urdu-language ISIS “campaign plan” discovered in Pakistan’s tribal areas, which urges collaboration between the Taliban, al Qaeda, and ISIS and warns of preparations for a terrorist attack in India. The document’s authenticity has been confirmed by anonymous U.S. intelligence officials.

Turkey continues its newly inaugurated military campaign in Syria and Iraq. The Journal tells us that Turkish efforts to create a “buffer zone” along the Turkish-Syrian border are well under way, with a Turkish-backed Islamist coalition capturing a swath of territory in northwest Syria. Meanwhile, Turkish forces launched a wave of airstrikes against Kurdish militants in northern Iraq, Reuters writes. The Iraqi government severely criticized the strikes as a violation of Iraq’s territorial sovereignty.

Turkish involvement in the conflicts in Iraq and Syria poses a series of complicated questions for the United States. The AP reports that the Obama administration has long requested President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s help in battling ISIS, yet Turkey’s bombardment of Iraqi Kurds endangers the administration’s strategy of supporting local forces, such as the Kurds in Syria, in the ground war against ISIS. Though the Times suggests that Turkey’s offensive was influenced by the growing stretch of territory controlled by Syrian Kurds, Turkish efforts have so far concentrated on the Iraqi Kurdish P.K.K, and U.S. officials are “pressuring” Turkey not to begin attacking Kurdish forces in Syria. Nevertheless, attacks on the P.K.K. could endanger the U.S. alliance with Syrian Kurds---though the Times quotes a senior administration official as stating that Turkey is “within its rights” in bombing the P.K.K. in Iraq.

The Guardian points to U.S. and European suspicions of a possible covert alliance between ISIS and Turkish authorities. Intelligence obtained during the raid that killed ISIS leader Abu Sayyaf, including “hundreds of flash drives and documents,” contains information that may lead to traces of Turkish-ISIS collaboration. The alliance, if it exists, would likely have arisen from mutual opposition to Kurdish forces in Syria and Iraq.

At Defense One, Steven A. Cook of the Council on Foreign Relations considers the implications of Turkey’s entry into the “quagmire.” And Foreign Policy questions whether Turkey’s involvement means that the United States has “sold out” the Kurds.

A recent report indicates that fifty British citizens have been killed fighting for ISIS over the past three years. U.K. authorities have struggled to stem the flow of young British Muslims traveling to Syria and Iraq to fight alongside the extremist group. The Guardian has the story.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius visited Iran yesterday, continuing a series of visits to Tehran by European officials seeking to bolster ties with Iran in the wake of the nuclear deal. Meanwhile, while testifying at a hearing at the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Secretary of State John Kerry announced that Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps opposes the deal. Foreign Policy examines what Secretary Kerry’s statement tells us about the U.S. view of “one of the most opaque institutions in Iranian society.”

Secretary Kerry will continue to testify on Iran this morning before the Senate Committee on Armed Services. Watch the hearing live here.

Defense One announced earlier today that just two weeks after the Iran nuclear deal was solidified, Saudi Arabia is looking to buy 600 new Patriot missile interceptors. The move does not come as a surprise to many, and “the $5 billion-plus purchase is likely just the first of many more as America’s Middle Eastern allies arm themselves in response to the nuclear deal.”

A Libyan court has sentenced the son of Muammar Qaddafi to death, four years after the Arab Spring toppled the Qaddafi regime. Numerous other senior officials in the Qaddafi government have also been sentenced to execution. The Times writes, however, that “most Libyans are now so preoccupied with the country’s internal conflicts that they long ago stopped paying attention” to Qaddafi’s trial, in which the death penalty was essentially a foregone conclusion.

Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari is in Cameroon today for talks today on how to consolidate the regional coalition to combat the escalating regional threat posed by Boko Haram militants. The terrorist group has increased attacks in Cameroon recently, including an unprecedented series of five suicide bombings in the far north. Sahara Reporters writes that “the talks between the two leaders will focus on the full activation and deployment of the Multinational Joint Task Force against Boko Haram established under the auspices of the Lake Chad Basin Commission. They will also discuss further joint measures to curb terrorism, violent extremism and other cross-border crimes.”

The Washington Post updates us on recent offensive efforts by the Saudi coalition in Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition has taken control of areas north of the port city of Aden in an apparent effort to enlarge recent gains there against the Houthis.The Post notes that “The shift in momentum after the Saudi-led coalition failed to make headway appears to be due to the arrival since mid-July of hundreds of Yemeni fighters who had been secretly trained in Saudi Arabia. The contingent could help turn the tide in the war, which pits Shiite Houthi rebels from the north against largely Sunni forces aligned with exiled President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.”

U.S. Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin E. Dempsey, urged United Nations members to increase their commitments to U.N. global peacekeeping forces, “warning of what he called an unsustainable imbalance caused by too few contributors.” The New York Times reports that Gen. Dempsey “expressed concern about what he described as the growing risk of public indifference to the multiple wars and violent upheavals around the world.”

Yesterday, the Times reported that the United States Parole Commission announced that Jonathan Pollard, a former spy for Israel, will be granted parole and released on November 20th, after serving 30 years in federal prison. Pollard’s fate has been a source of tension between Israel and the United States and Israeli leaders have repeatedly called on the United States to release him over the past three decades.

The Ukrainian Army is looking for some help in the struggle against Russian-backed separatists in eastern Ukraine. Volunteer fighters have formed up to 40 battalions to help the weak regular army resist pro-Russian separatist. One member says, “Our mission is not only to kick out the occupiers, but also revenge. Moscow must burn.” While many are viewed as national heroes by Ukrainian citizens, the government is voicing concerns over some of the more worrisome groups fighting on the government’s behalf, which, according to Foreign Policy, range “from dressed-up criminal gangs to right wing true believers who are using religious symbolism to call for a “crusade” against Moscow.” President Petro Poroshenko is reportedly considering legislation that would grant him emergency powers to deal with the situation should it get out of hand. Reuters has the story.

A year after Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine, the U.N. Security Council is gearing up for a vote on the establishment of a criminal tribunal to investigate what happened to the flight. Yet as Deutsche Welle notes, the resolution will almost certainly be vetoed by Russia.

The BBC tells us that Amazon is now seeking a separate airspace for commercial delivery drones, located well below planes---presumably in an effort to assuage FAA concerns over the near-collisions between drones and other aircraft that have recently bedeviled commercial flights around the world. Also in drone news, Defense News reports on the U.S. military’s recent concerns over the next frontier in weaponized drone technology: drones as I.E.D.s.

The Journal examines Chinese efforts to “rewrite the rules of the global Internet.” The recent flagship Chinese national security law, which strengthens government control over the Internet, is only one of many projects to increase Chinese officials’ grip on cyberspace.

In Defense One, Dustin Volz asks, “What’s inside the Justice Department’s secret cybersecurity memo?” Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR), a longtime privacy hawk, is claiming that a classified DOJ memo written during the Bush administration contains critical information for the ongoing cybersecurity debate. In a recent statement, Wyden said the opinion “interprets common commercial service agreements” and “is inconsistent with the public’s understanding of the law.”

The Senate’s cybersecurity bill is once again in trouble. That’s the headline from the National Journal, which informs us that the Cybersecurity Information Sharing Act (CISA) is “falling prey to partisan fights that have nothing to do with the issue.” With time running short and questions about White House support and effectiveness, it looks like the bill may not be taken up until after the fall recess.

But CISA is not the only bill down. Senator Wyden has also derailed the annual Senate intelligence policy bill over concerns about a provision requiring social media companies to report “terrorist activity” to the federal government. According to the Hill, the senator objects to what he perceives as the provision’s stipulation that “Internet companies… police the speech of their users.”

Lt. Col. Kate Germano, an active duty Marine Officer, speaks of the performance double standard in Marine recruitment training for females and males. Colonel Germano, who was recently relieved of her command post at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, has argued for tougher standards and higher expectations for female recruits, or, in her words, a movement toward “radical change.” The New York Times has her story.

Parting shot: Has your personal information been exposed to hackers? Probably, the New York Times suggests. Take their interactive quiz to find out how many of your personal details have been compromised.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Carrie Cordero brought us news about summer’s unexpected discoveries in space.

Susan Landau explained the debate on the cybersecurity and encryption matters on display at the Aspen Security Forum.

Ben and Paul Rosenzweig announced a newLawfare Contest: Which unclassified databases in the U.S. would be worth it for the Chinese to hack? Submit your choice for a chance to win dinner on Lawfare!

Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of the Treasury Jack Lew, and Secretary of Energy Ernest Moniz provided testimony on the Iran nuclear deal yesterday before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs.

The White House responded to a petition to pardon Edward Snowden.

Cody informed us that the NSA will destroy Section 215 records after the 180-day transition period authorized under the USA Freedom Act.

In Episode #77 of the Steptoe Cyberlaw Podcast, Stewart Baker and Alan Cohn interviewed Bruce Andrew, Deputy Secretary of Commerce.

Bobby alerted us to yet another American citizen arrested for allegedly trying to plot an ISIS inspired attack.

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