Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Quinta Jurecic, Cody M. Poplin
Monday, August 24, 2015, 1:51 PM

Amid the usual surge of grim headlines, we begin our news roundup this Monday with an astonishing story of heroism in France. On Friday evening, one British man and three American citizens successfully subdued a heavily-armed gunman who entered a car on a high-speed French train. One of the Americans, Spencer Stone, is an Air Force servicemember and another, Alek Skarlatos, is a specialist in the National Guard. The New York Times describes their split-second efforts to bring down the gunman, which prevented what one French official said could easily have been “a terrible tragedy.” This morning, French President Francois Hollande awarded the four men the Legion of Honor, France’s highest award.

French authorities have identified the gunman as Ayoub El Khazzani, a 26-year-old Moroccan man known to Spanish, Belgian, French authorities as a possible security threat. According to Spanish officials, he had previously traveled to Syria and his Facebook page appears to display some affiliation to radical Islamist ideology, including a note in support of the gunmen who attacked the Charlie Hebdo newspaper and a kosher grocery. But according to his lawyer, El Khazzani has denied any connection to terrorist organizations and maintains that “what happened on the train was simply a botched robbery.” The Washington Post has more.

In light of the attempted shooting, the Times reports on Europe’s efforts to grapple with the new breed of security threat posed by radicalized foreign fighters returning from Middle Eastern battlefields who aim to attack civilians rather than government or military targets. The ease of cross-border movement for E.U. citizens within the European Union, combined with low security on international trains and the growing number of young Europeans traveling to Syria to train and fight alongside ISIS, makes for a worrying combination. The Times piece suggests the continent is woefully unprepared to address it.

The White House announced on Friday that a U.S. airstrike successfully killed ISIS’s second-in-command, Fadhil Ahmed al Hayali, also known as Hajji Mutazz. Hayali had been mistakenly announced to be dead in December, the Post writes. The Long War Journal considers what Hayali’s death may mean for the militant group.

The evidence continues to mount that ISIS is using chemical weapons in Syria. The Wall Street Journal tells us that preliminary field tests conducted by the United States appear to confirm reports that ISIS deployed a mustard agent against Peshmerga fighters. The Journal also writes that ISIS may have used mustard gas again in an attack near Aleppo. While it remains unclear where the group obtained the weapons, they may have come from caches left either from the Saddam Hussein regime or by the government of Syrian President Bashar al Assad.

On Sunday, ISIS fighters set off an explosion in an ancient temple in Palmyra, Syria, destroying the the Temple of Baalshamin, one of the most well-preserved monuments among the ruins in Palmyra and a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Times reminds us that destruction of the temple marks only one of many incidents in which ISIS has destroyed historically and archaeologically significant sites across the regions under its control.

The Post reports on the anti-corruption efforts of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi, whose constitutional shake-up goes hand-in-hand with a corruption reform package. Iraq has suffered severely from both graft and overspending, with up to $350 billion in government money having gone missing since 2003. Prime Minister Abadi’s ambitious program may be able to change this, but it may also put the prime minister at serious political risk.

While the cat’s away: as Iraqi security forces are stretched thin in the fight against ISIS, crime is soaring in the oil-rich southern city of Basra. The city, once a haven of law and order amidst the chaos of contemporary Iraq, has become a zone of “open warfare” as gangs and rival tribes compete for oil money. The Journal has the story.

And violence continues to expand northward as an explosive device killed two soldiers in southeastern Turkey, Reuters tells us. The sudden resurgence of Turkish military efforts against armed Kurdish groups has led to a wave of violence in the country’s southern regions.

The Daily Beast brings us news that, despite U.S.-Russia partnership against Islamic terrorism, the Kremlin may be funneling foreign fighters into Syria to collaborate with ISIS and other extremist groups. In other words, Russia is actively padding the ranks of the forces arrayed against Syrian President Assad, its declared ally. Why? “Better the terrorists go abroad and fight in Syria than blow things up in Russia,” the article explains.

In the Yemeni city of Aden, fighters belonging to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula launched a short-lived assault on a military base and the presidential palace before rapidly retreating. While the attack was unsuccessful, the Times notes that the presence of anti-government fighters in Aden is an embarrassment for the Yemeni government, which had trumpeted its control over the city after coalition forces seized Aden from Houthi rebels.

Elsewhere in Yemen, U.A.E. military forces successfully rescued a U.K. man held hostage by AQAP in the country’s south. The BBC tells us that the man’s abduction was one of “almost weekly” kidnappings that occurred last year, before almost all foreign workers left the country in light of the ongoing crisis.

Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid announced his support for the nuclear deal with Iran on Sunday, bolstering President Obama’s chances of successfully shepherding the agreement through Congress. The Post has the story, along with an updated whip count. And the Times details that one of President Obama’s strongest arguments for the Iran deal is also one of the main objections raised by opponents of the deal: while the deal secures stringent restrictions on Iranian nuclear enrichment, those same restrictions the president touts will lapse after 15 years.

On Saturday, Iran announced the completed development of a new surface-to-air-missile, bolstering its already impressive missile program. “If a country does not have power and independence,” President Hassan Rouhani announced upon the unveiling of the missile, “it cannot seek real peace.” Reuters has more.

The Los Angeles Times updates us on new Israeli reports that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu planned to attack Iran at three separate times between 2010 and 2012. Each time, the prime minister’s plan was vetoed by military chiefs who felt that a strike could cause too much damage to Israel politically and militarily.

An Egyptian court has sentenced Mohammed Badie, the leader of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, and 16 others to life in prison. According to the AP, the 17 men were accused of involvement in the killing of five police officers in 2013. 76 others were sentenced in absentia.

Suspected Boko Haram fighters ambushed the head of the Nigerian military on Saturday, the BBC reports, though General Tukur Burutai survived unscathed. Meanwhile, military officials from Nigeria, Chad, Niger, Benin, and Cameroon finalized plans to deploy joint forces against Boko Haram’s presence in the region. The force was originally set to begin operations on July 31st, but plans have been delayed despite the escalating violence.

Two car bombings killed over 20 people in Somalia on Saturday, Reuters writes. Al Shabaab claimed responsibility for the first bombing, which hit a military base in southern Somalia. No organization has yet declared its involvement in the second bombing, which targeted Mogadishu.

Kabul also suffered a car bombing this Saturday. The attack killed a dozen people, including three U.S. citizens employed by the military contractor DynCorp International. The Times tells us that the attack may be responsible for the greatest loss of U.S. life in Afghanistan this year, while Reuters reminds us that violence in Afghanistan has killed 5,000 civilians since January.

VOA News examines the “absurd game of diplomatic chicken” that has finally concluded between Pakistan and India. The regional rivals had been set to hold talks this Sunday and Monday, only to call off the meeting after days of back-and-forth. The problem? Indian and Pakistani officials could not agree on what the subject of the meeting would be: terrorism (as India wanted) or the territorial dispute over Kashmir (as Pakistan wanted).

Tensions remain high between the two Koreas days after forces exchanged fire across the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ). Diplomats have been conducting high-level talks since Saturday to defuse the situation, even as South Korean President Park Geun-hye demanded that Pyongyang apologize for recent landmine blasts and North Korea relocated its military forces to deploy along the border. The Journal reports on the tenuous situation of South Koreans living near the DMZ.

The Chinese economy continues to nose dive, with Monday bringing what the Journal describes as “the worst single-day loss in more than eight years” for Chinese stocks. Surprisingly, the day has already been dubbed “Black Monday” by usually optimistic state news agencies. At Financial Times, George Magnus writes that the hour of reckoning may finally be here for China’s model of growth—and, by extent, the Chinese Communist Party.

President Obama’s plans to move Guantanamo detainees to the continental United States continue to stir controversy. This time criticism comes from Senators Pat Roberts (R-KS) and Tim Scott (R-SC) in the Wall Street Journal, where both argue that “closing Guantanamo Bay isn’t taking the fight to the enemy; it’s bringing it home.” The two senators suggest that their respective home states “would live with a target on their back” if detainees were held there.

In Defense One, Daphne Eviatar of Human Rights First explores how the Obama administration has twisted itself into knots over the transfer of Guantanamo Bay detainee Tariq Ba Odah. Ba Odah, a Yemeni, was approved for transfer in 2009, but the Justice Department filed a petition last week to prevent the transfer of the “sickly, 75-pound detainee” who has participated in a hunger strike since 2007. As the Times reported earlier, for their part State Department officials have noted “the incongruity of sending diplomats to ask other countries to take detainees while also fighting to prolong their detention in court.”

With a deadline set for September 30th, according to Defense News, Congress is contemplating passing an unprecedented year-long continuing resolution (CR) for the Pentagon, a move that many in the defense industry claim would disrupt ongoing acquisition and sustainment plans. Should Congress proceed with a year-long CR, the Department of Defense would end up with $35 billion less than it requested.

In more uplifting DOD news, Defense One shares interviews with women veterans in Congress as they celebrate the graduation of the first women from the Army Ranger School.

Parting shot: The Guardian carries a stunning collection of photos from the frozen conflicts of the post-Soviet world in South Ossetia, Abkhazia, and Nagomo-Karabakh, where the consequences of the fall of the Soviet Union linger still.

ICYMI: This Weekend, on Lawfare

In the Foreign Policy Essay, Stephen Watt and Sean Mann responded to Gary Owen’s critique of their own glass-half-full reasoning on the future of Afghanistan.

Cody posted the Lawfare Podcast, this week featuring a panel discussion with Michael O’Hanlon, Ben Bernanke, and Mark Muro on “The Defense Economy and the Future of American Prosperity.”

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.