Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Staley Smith, Quinta Jurecic
Monday, August 17, 2015, 3:06 PM

Yesterday, as many as 100 people were killed by Syrian government airstrikes on a market in a suburb of Damascus, the Washington Post reports. The suburb, Douma, has been under rebel control for much of the Syrian conflict. Reuters tells us the attack was one of the bloodiest in the four-year-long war and comes as the regime of Bashar al Assad seemingly continues to cede significant territory to rebel groups and the Islamic State. Reuters says that increasingly “analysts and Syrians speculate that Assad’s hold on power is slipping in a war that has killed more than 230,000 people and displaced millions.”

The United Nations humanitarian chief, Stephen O’Brien, said earlier today that he is “horrified” by the attacks on civilians taking place in Syria: "I am particularly appalled by reports of airstrikes yesterday, causing scores of civilian deaths and hundreds injured, right in the center of Douma," he said. O’Brien also condemned rebel groups for cutting off the water supply in Damascus, stating that it was unacceptable to "use access to water and other services as a weapon of war." Meanwhile, Western-backed coalition opposition groups are urging the international community to bring officials behind the massacres to the International Criminal Court.

Attacks have also increased recently inside the capital itself, a government stronghold that had long been largely isolated from the fighting elsewhere, and regime airstrikes in Damascus suburbs continued into today, Reuters reveals.

The New York Times announces that the United States will withdraw two Patriot missile-defense batteries from southern Turkey this fall, indicating that the Pentagon believes the risk of Syrian Army missile attacks has eased. The equipment will be sent back to the United States for “critical modernization upgrades” as officials begin to focus on higher-priority threats such as Iran and North Korea. The Times writes that Pentagon “never liked the Patriot mission,” which many in the Department of Defense viewed as an expensive symbolic gesture.  

Former Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki is coming under fire for the fall of Mosul to the Islamic State. An Iraqi parliamentary panel is calling for the former Prime Minister along with more than 30 other officials to face trial over June 2014 seizure of the northern Iraqi city. The latest accusations come as the current government continues a major campaign to combat corruption and mismanagement; the BBC has the story.

The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for a car bombing on Saturday that killed at least 11 people north of Baghdad. The attack came just two days after a truck bombing that killed 54 people at a farmers market in the same Shia-majority area outside of the capital. The Guardian brings us news that a series of bombings around the capital killed at least 9 and wounded 33 others. ISIS frequently targets Shia Muslims in crowded areas, fuelling sectarian tensions in the country. Baghdad has been largely quarantined from the violence that has enveloped other parts of the country, but ISIS has increased attacks in and around the capital in recent months.

The Wall Street Journal suggests that the sectarian power struggle poses a threat to Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s ambitious government reforms. The latest divide comes amid an increased presence of the Iranian-backed Popular Mobilization Forces, a Shia paramilitary group at the front of the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq. Iraqi citizens have taken to the streets in recent months to voice their grievances about power shortages “that left people sweltering in summer’s peak heat” and overall government mismanagement. Some are calling on Prime Minister Abadi to resign if he cannot manage “circumstances that are bigger than you.” One protester voiced a popular sentiment among Iraqis saying that “There are too many external influences playing in Iraq, and Iran is at the head of that. Abadi has to get rid of that.”

The AP informs us that American hostage Kayla Mueller was repeatedly raped by Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and was taken as his “wife.” Mueller was allegedly killed in Jordanian airstrikes against the militant group, though that claim has not been confirmed. Three Yazidi teenagers who were held with Mueller were able to relay this information to U.S. commandos after their escape. Her family says that Mueller had the opportunity to escape with the Yazidi girls but refused, fearing that her obvious Western appearance would put them at a higher risk of being captured.

The Times released a special report earlier today on “Jihad and Girl Power: How ISIS Lured 3 London Teenagers.” The in-depth story describes how the Islamic State “has proved adept at appealing to different female profiles, using girl-to-girl recruitment strategies, gendered imagery and iconic memes.”

More than 80 people have been killed in the past 24 hours in Yemen, the Daily Star reports. The majority of those killed were Houthi rebels, though pro-government forces also suffered setbacks in the clashes. Air strikes from the Saudi-led coalition have helped pro-government forces seize “several strategic locations in the city, including intelligence headquarters, a fortress from which the rebels had been shelling Taiz, as well as the highest peak overlooking the city.” The death toll in the Yemeni conflict has climbed to 4,300 since it began in March, according to figures from the United Nations. Of those, half are believed to be civilians. In addition, “80 percent of Yemen's 21 million people have been left in need of aid and protection.”

Senior Pakistani provincial minister Shuja Khanzada was killed in a bomb blast on Saturday. Khanzada, the home minister for Pakistan’s populous Punjab province, had been “at the forefront of the country’s fight against militants and banned sectarian groups,” the Times writes. The Wall Street Journal suggests that the group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, whose leader was recently killed while in police custody, may be behind the attack. At least 10 others were also killed in the bombing.

On Friday, the New York Times examined the Taliban’s recent “publicity push” in Afghanistan, with the group seeking to present itself as more moderate as it increasingly gains territory across the country. But the Daily Beast reminds us of the group’s violent practices and draws a connection to present-day ISIS tactics.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al Sisi has approved a controversial anti-terrorism law that would fine journalists a minimum of roughly $25,000 for contradicting official government reports on terrorism and security operations. The law also implements harsh sentences for those involved with groups deemed by the government to be “terrorist entities.” Al Jazeera has the story.

In Libya, ISIS fighters violently crushed a revolt by a Salafist group in the city of Sirte, the hometown of former Libyan leader Muammar Ghaddafi. As ISIS activities in Sirte raise concerns over the militant group’s presence in Libya, the AFP tells us that the Arab League will meet on Tuesday to discuss a Libyan request for international action against ISIS in Libya.

Recent reports of the death or disappearance of Abubakar Shekau, Boko Haram’s leader, have been greatly exaggerated. The BBC notes the release of an audio message this weekend that appears to be from Shekau, declaring that he remains in charge of the militant group despite statements to the contrary from Chadian President Idriss Deby last week.

Senator Jeff Flake (R-AZ) declared on Saturday that he will not throw his support behind the nuclear deal with Iran, a move that Politico suggests may end the Obama administration’s hopes for any shred of bipartisan support for the agreement. Flake had previously indicated that he might back the deal. Meanwhile, Ayatollah Khamenei continues to give little away in terms of his own support or opposition toward the deal, though the AP tells us that the Supreme Leader appears to be in favor of letting the Iranian parliament vote on the matter.

In an interview published this Sunday, German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier described the conflict in Ukraine as “explosive” and worried that “if both parties do not start to build on the peace process soon, a new military escalation could be triggered.” Politico has more. Minister Steinmeier’s concerns may have been prescient: Radio Free Europe writes that separatist and government forces clashed last night near Mariupol, in the heaviest fighting that the area has seen for months.

A bomb has exploded outside a Hindu shrine in central Bangkok this morning, killing at least 16 and injuring more than 80. The Guardian reports that the shrine is a popular tourist destination as well as a site of worship for Bangkok residents. No organization has yet claimed responsibility.

Despite threats from Pyongyang, U.S. and South Korean soldiers began annual military exercises simulating a North Korean invasion this morning. North Korea blared propaganda messages over the border into South Korea as the military excersies began. Washington and Seoul insist that the drill is entirely defensive in purpose, though North Korean officials declared that the exercise could cause an accidental attack and lead to “all-out” war. 

Residents of the Chinese port city of Tianjin are still reeling from a pair of deadly explosions last week, whose origin has not yet been ascertained. 114 people were killed and 70 remain missing. The Atlantic rounds up criticism of the government’s handling of the blasts that has surfaced even in state-run newspapers such as People’s Daily and Global Times, and the Guardian examines popular discontent over official secrecy and censorship on the matter.

The Obama administration is clamping down on Chinese government agents pressuring prominent expatriates to return to the country, the New York Times writes. The Chinese campaign, termed “Operation Fox Hunt,” aims to “persuade” individuals accused of bribery and corruption to return to China---often through harassment and threats to family members. With Chinese President Xi Jinping set to visit Washington next month, the U.S. government’s demands will likely escalate growing tensions between Chinese and U.S. officials.

One of the individuals targeted by “Operation Fox Hunt” is Ling Wancheng, the brother of a top Communist Party official who moved to the United States in 2014 and may prove to be a treasure trove of information for the U.S. government. The Journal reports on the intrigue behind China’s search for Ling.

Business Insider examines Russian and Chinese efforts to rethink the internet, writing that “Moscow and Beijing are pushing for global internet standards that better suit their geopolitical needs.” The two countries aim to adjust international structures for internet governance in order to strengthen the possibility for state control over the web. While their efforts aren’t likely to succeed any time soon, the story is nevertheless an interesting window into the difficulties faced by governments seeking simultaneously to clamp down on domestic dissent and reap the economic benefits of internet-connectedness.

This weekend, the New York Times brought us another story from the Snowden stockpile, which provides the details of telecommunications giant AT&T’s cooperation with NSA bulk surveillance practices. For details on what the story adds to our understanding of NSA’s activities, head over to Timothy Edgar’s post at Lawfare, also noted below. In short, Edgar argues that the real story is buried well into the article: the documents obtained by the Times seem to show that the NSA doesn’t have direct access to the “data transiting the internet backbone," as critics have suggested previously.

The Pentagon is planning to increase drone flights by 50% over the next four years, in the first major expansion of the flights since 2011. The Army, Special Operations Command, and government contractors will be marshalled to help the Air Force up drone capacity. According to the Journal, plans for new flights appear to be aimed at increasing the Pentagon’s surveillance capacity across the globe---but the Journal adds that the military also hopes to “grow the capacity for lethal airstrikes.”

A military judge has canceled a scheduled pretrial hearing for Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and the four co-conspirators being tried for the 9/11 attacks. According to Reuters, a conflict of interest on the part of defense counsel was responsible for the cancellation.

Survey teams from the Pentagon are examining possible sites to relocate Guantanamo detainees in advance of the camp’s closure. Last week, they visited Kansas’ Fort Leavenworth---despite Kansas Governor Sam Brownback’s vociferous opposition to relocating detainees there---and this week they’ll head over to a Navy brig in Charleston, South Carolina. Under current plans, at most 64 detainees of the remaining 116 would be transferred to the United States for continued detention, the Miami Herald reports.

Also in Guantanamo news, Reuters tells us that the Justice Department has blocked a request for release from a detainee suffering health problems from an eight-year hunger strike. Tariq Ba Odah, a Yemeni detainee, was initially cleared for release five years ago. Lawyers for Ba Odah described his situation as a “test case” for how the Obama administration will handle the transfer of the 52 detainees who have been cleared for release but remain at Guantanamo.

Parting shot: Continuing Lawfare’s coverage of animals’ often-testy relationship with drones, we now bring you the news that bears are stressed by nearby drone flights. Keep an eye out for the close-up photo of a bear startled by drones.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

On this week’s Lawfare Podcast, Carrie Cordero interviewed Mike Janke, co-founder of encrypted communications firm Silent Circle, on (naturally enough) encryption, going dark, and corporate social responsibility.

Clint Watts, writing the Foreign Policy Essay, examined the provocative question of whether the United States should negotiate with terrorists.

Timothy Edgar noted the New York Times story on AT&T and the NSA, offering some thoughts of his own on the paper’s true scoop.

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.