Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Cody M. Poplin
Tuesday, September 1, 2015, 2:16 PM

We start today in Syria, where Islamic State forces have moved closer into central Damascus, displacing other Syrian rebels in their wake. According to the AFP, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reports that “this is the closest IS has ever been to the heart of Damascus.” A government military official confirmed the news, and celebrated the in-fighting among rebels group’s in the country’s capital.

Away from the country’s political heartland, the United Nations has used satellite imagery to confirm that ISIS militants have indeed destroyed the Temple of Baal in the ancient city of Palmyra. The temple building, which was nearly 2,000 years old, was the best preserved of the ruins at the site. Last week ISIS militants also destroyed another ancient building, the Temple of Baalshamin. Maamoun Abdulkarim, the director of Syria’s antiquities department, told New York Times, this is “a cultural battle, and everybody should participate in defending this heritage, this civilization.” The Washington Post provides a map of 9 more heritage sites in Iraq and Syria that are in danger of falling to the Islamic State.

The Long War Journal brings us evidence of the dueling brutality of the Islamic State and the Iranian-backed Shiite Popular Mobilization Forces. This time, ISIS militants in Anbar province have released a grisly execution video in which they burn alive four men accused of "spying." The video is clearly meant to mirror another snuff film released just days ago by the Shiite militias, showing a well-known commander, Abu Azrael (also called the “Angel of Death”), killing a Sunni man in similar fashion.  

The new image of violence by the Popular Mobilization Forces is just one more indicator of the complications the United States faces in attempting to combat the Islamic State. With so few credible partners on the ground, it has resorted to de facto alliances with groups that have questionable records on human rights, to put it lightly.  

Yet Shane Harris and Nancy A. Youssef of the Daily Beast report that retired Army general and former CIA Director David Petraeus suggests adding one more---al Qaeda. According to anonymous sources in the goverment, the former commander of U.S. forces in Iraq and Afghanistan has urged U.S. officials to “consider using so-called moderate members of al Qaeda’s Nusra Front to fight ISIS in Syria.” The move, designed to replicate the Anbar Awakening in Iraq, would be extremely controversial, and as Harris and Youssef note, incredibly ironic considering the United States began its war fourteen years in Afghanistan fighting against al Qaeda.

And while the United States is still floundering for a strategy, the United Kingdom just released its own public strategy to combat the Islamic State. Read that here.

Finally, don’t miss Will McCants’s profile of Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, which explores “how an introvert with a passion for religion and soccer” became the leader of the world’s most successful and violent insurgency.

A Turkish court has authorized the arrest of three journalists associated with Vice News on terrorism-related charges. The Wall Street Journal reports that the reporters were covering the ongoing Kurdish insurgency in the country’s southeast. For its part, Vice released a statement condemning the arrests and calling the charges “baseless and alarmingly false.” At the moment, it is unclear exactly what group the three reporters are charged with assisting, with some reports suggesting they were members of the PKK while others charged that they were supporters of ISIS.

In Yemen, two leaders of a loyalist militia were killed by unidentified gunman in the city of Aden on Monday. The two men, Rasheed Khaled Saif and Hamidi al Shutairi, were military leaders of the Popular Southern Resistance, a militant group backed by Saudi Arabia that helped fight the siege of Aden by Houthi rebels. Reuters has more on the ongoing chaos inside the country.

Al Monitor reports that King Salman of Saudi Arabia plans to push the White House to combat Iranian “mischief” as part of his official visit to Washington this week. Riyadh has signalled that it seeks support in managing regional conflicts in Yemen and Syria, as well as a tougher inspection regime and assurances that the United States will not hesitate to invoke snapback sanctions. The potential for a regional missile defense shield is also likely to be on the agenda.

In what is surely an inconveniently timed announcement for the Obama administration, Iranian nuclear chief Ali Akhbar Salehi signalled yesterday that his country will put together a 15-year plan to expand its nuclear capabilities with the goal of achieving commercialization of atomic capabilities as well as the construction of two more nuclear power plants. The Times of Israel has more.

Over the weekend, however, Iranian state media highlighted that Iranian citizens had painted over “Death to America” graffiti on the walls of what used to be the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The Jerusalem Post wonders if the event signalled the beginning of a “new era.” The nuclear deal is supported by a majority of Iranians, many of whom hope for greater diplomatic and economic relations between Iran and the United States.  

Finally, take a few moments to read this teaser on the “U.S. Commandos’ Shadow War Against Iran,” from Sean Naylor’s new book Relentless Strike: The Secret History of Joint Special Operations Command.

An Israeli raid in the Palestinian refugee camp of Jenin turned into an armed confrontation on Tuesday night, as Israeli soldiers clashed for hours with Palestinian gunmen. The Times writes that the clash was the most serious violence in the area in at least 18 months. 

Al Shabaab militants in Somalia attacked an African Union base early this morning, driving a car bomb into the base as gunmen dashed inside. Residents in the area said that dozens of soldiers had been killed, although ANISOM disputed these numbers, saying the base remained under its control.

Militants from Boko Haram have killed nearly 80 people in three separate village attacks in recent days, reports Al Jazeera. One attack occurred in Baanu village during a meeting with the parents of the 219 girls abducted last year. The girls have now been held by Boko Haram for over 500 days.

A suicide bomber in Pakistan’s northwest tribal region killed at least four people and wounded dozens more in an attack on Tuesday, Reuters shares. Both the Pakistani Taliban and the militant group Lashkar-e-Islam claimed responsibility for the attack.

Following pressure from U.S. National Security Adviser Susan Rice to clamp down on militants in the country, Pakistan’s national security adviser denied that the Haqqani Network, a key insurgent group in Afghanistan, is using his country as a base. According the Islamabad, 80 to 90 percent of the network’s “capacity” is in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, ToloNews reports that the Afghanistan National Security Directorate has arrested 30 militants associated with the Haqqani Network in relation to a recent attack in Kabul.

As China prepares for an enormous military parade to honor the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, Bloomberg reports that Beijing plans to announce a major overhaul of its armed forces, attempting to restructure it along the lines of a U.S.-style joint command over the next three decades. According to those familiar with the plan, it aims to shift China away from a land-based military with regional commands and towards a force structure that is capable of projecting force far from its coast.

The BBC shares that authorities in Bangkok have arrested a second foreign suspect in connection with the deadly bombing of a Buddhist shrine in August that killed 20 people. According to Thai police, the suspect carried a Chinese passport that identified him as Yusufu Mierali, 25, from Xinjiang province. While much of the information about the suspect remains unconfirmed, the information could shed some light on the motive behind the bombing---Thailand repatriated 100 Uighur Muslims from Xinjiang back to China in July of this year. The BBC notes that Thai police have issued 7 arrest warrants in recent days, suggesting that the attack could have been carried out by a more extensive network than previously thought.

In Ukraine, one officer was killed and more than 100 injured when a grenade exploded during a clash between police in Kiev and nationalist protesters who oppose measures to give greater powers to separatists in the eastern part of the country. Inside the country’s parliament, the measure won preliminary approval, with 265 of the 450 member parliament supporting it; however, the bill will ultimately need 300 votes in order to amend the constitution. Opposition parties have called the bill “capitulation to the Kremlin” and vowed its final defeat regardless of the implications for the ongoing peace talks.

Another day, another leak that the United States is weighing potential sanctions against another country for cyber attacks. This time, the Obama administration is “considering sanctions against both Russian and Chinese individuals and companies” for attacks targeting U.S. commercial targets. Yet Reuters confirms that no “final decision has been made,” stressing that new sanctions could further strain relations with Russia and “cast a pall” over Chinese President Xi Jinping’s visit in September.  

As the Obama administration weighs its response, Newsweek shares that China has allegedly hacked the computer system of Marion Bowman, a former FBI lawyer and counterintelligence official. Bowman serves as the chairman of the board of directors of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers.

William C. Bradford, the West Point professor behind a controversial recent national security law journal article, has resigned. The news comes after the journal behind its publication denounced the piece and on the heels of a Guardian report that showed he had inflated his academic credentials. The Atlantic has an overview of the article, which argued that U.S. legal scholars are assisting radical Islamists and are legally targetable under the laws of war.  Among the target list? Academics like Lawfare’s Bobby Chesney and Gabriella Blum, Ryan Goodman of Just Security, and Michael Walzer of Princeton, who---if you did not know---are all wielding their expertise in “the service of Islamists seeking to destroy Western Civilization and re-create the Caliphate.” Who knew?

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Ben cleared up the “standing” confusion rampant in media reports in Obama v. Klayman.

I linked to the final FISC order authorizing the extensions of the NSA’s collection of bulk telephony metadata under Section 215 of the Patriot Act.

Daniel Reisner continued his series reflecting on the UN Commission of Inquiry Gaza Report, this time exploring the target audience of the report.

Don’t know much about Wu Tien Lu-Shou v. United States? Eugene Kontorovick explains what the case means for the political question doctrine to non-traditional military operations such as anti-piracy.

Finally, Jack shared his thoughts on the “harmful public hand-wringing on possible sanctions against China for cyber theft.”

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