Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Elina Saxena, Quinta Jurecic
Thursday, September 10, 2015, 1:43 PM

The Islamic State is now ransoming two foreign hostages kidnapped in Syria, one Norwegian and one Chinese citizen. CNN reports that pictures posted in the latest issue of the group’s online magazine, Dabiq, appeared to show the two hostages wearing yellow prison outfits along with a description of the hostages as “for sale.” On that note, the New York Times examines the difficult tightrope Beijing must walk now that ISIS has captured its first Chinese citizen. Might this lead the Chinese government to rethink its hands-off approach to ISIS and other extremist groups abroad?

Meanwhile, Al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri has criticized the Islamic State for drawing away jihadists from other militant groups. Despite his rebuke, however, Zawahiri did not reject the possibility of collaboration in “killing the crusaders and secularists and Shiites even though I don’t recognize the legitimacy of their state”--because “the matter is bigger than that.” How gracious of him.

Politico discusses the troubles facing the Pentagon's plan to raise a rebel army in Syria. One year following congressional authorization of a $500 million program to train and equip Syrians to fight the Islamic State, the meager 54 fighters yielded by the program are either dead, captured, or missing. In examining the failure, critics point to the requirement that trainees pledge to fight the Islamic State exclusively, which may have significantly limited the recruitment pool.

Shane Harris of the Daily Beast highlights the politicizing of intelligence reports, as intelligence analysts say that their reports on the Islamic State and al-Qaeda in Syria were altered by senior officials, so as to present a rosier picture of U.S. success in the mission against ISIS. These complaints--raised by more than 50 analysts at the U.S. military's Central Command--echo concerns raised over “cherry-picked intelligence about Iraq’s supposed weapons program in 2002 and 2003.”

But news of this alleged cherry-picking doesn’t seem to have affected General Martin Dempsey’s view of anti-ISIS efforts. The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff stated yesterday that ISIS’s future is “increasingly dim”... despite what he referred to as the current “tactical stalemate.”

General Dempsey also described the conflict with ISIS as both long-term and requiring significant international cooperation. Australia seems to agree. In light of the Australian government's recent decision to begin airstrikes against ISIS targets in Syria, the country's Foreign Minister Julie Bishop suggested that Australia could be involved in the fight against ISIS for "years” to come.

The Irish Times explores the various efforts that have been made to assess challenges faced by the West and its allies in the online fight against the Islamic State. Data analysts studying the spread of information online are now hoping to use this information to help counter the spread of extremism.

The Guardian reports that more terror related arrests have been made this past year in the United Kingdom than in any other 12 month period---a 31% increase compared to the previous year. This period also held a record number of arrests for women, and the number of arrests of persons between the ages of 18 and 20 more than doubled. Meanwhile, the Somali-American community in Minneapolis also continues to struggle with the problem of radicalization, and the Times examines a controversial new mentoring initiative that aims to dissuade young people from extremism.

More Russian transport planes have been spotted flying to Syria, fueling suspicions that Moscow is preparing to fly combat missions to support its long-time ally President Bashar al-Assad. According to Foreign Policy, officials reported that “at least four Russian Condor cargo planes and several naval ships have delivered an array of military equipment and hardware in recent days.” These shipments are said to be carrying air traffic control towers, ground equipment for servicing aircraft, housing units, two tank landing ships, and dozens of armored vehicles. Following the closure of Bulgarian airspace to Russian cargo planes, Iran has announced its decision to open its airspace to Russian transport flights bound for Syria.

Adding to these concerns, the AP reports on the arrival of Russian troops in Syria, with Lebanese sources alleging that Russian forces have begun to cooperate with Assad’s forces in military operations. The Russian soldiers bound for Syria are from the 810th Marine Brigade, better known for their role in Russia’s takeover of Crimea 18 months ago.

According to the Times, Russia continues to claim that the Russian military’s presence is “part of a longstanding agreement to provide military aid to the country.” A spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry explained that any “further measures to intensify counterterrorism efforts” would rest “solely on the basis of international law and the Russian legislation.”

Russia isn’t the only foreign actor boosting its presence in Syria. The Guardian reports that the United Kingdom is finalizing a new strategy for Syria that will include military strikes and a stronger diplomatic push to bring the war to an end. British Prime Minister David Cameron told Parliament, “Assad has to go, ISIL has to go. Some of that will require not just spending money, not just aid, not just diplomacy but it will on occasion require hard military force.” The BBC notes that the opposition Labor party also plans to support airstrikes in Syria.

And of the more Islamist variety, militants affiliated with the al Nusra Front seized the Syrian government’s last army air base in Idlib province, effectively booting the Assad regime from the northwestern part of the country. Idlib is the second of Syria’s 14 provinces to fall completely out of Syrian army control.

Last week, photographs of a Syrian boy drowned on the coast of Turkey sparked an international outcry for supporting refugees. Now, ISIS is using the same photographs to suggest that those abandoning the caliphate deserved their fate. The Guardian has the story.

Washington has announced its decision to take in more refugees, says the Post, while French opinion polls increasingly favor the intake of refugees from war-torn regions. Echoing this wave of support for refugee intake, Australia also pledged to take in 12,000 refugees from Iraq and Syria, focusing on women, children, and families "who are members of persecuted minorities." Yet not everyone is in favor of letting refugees seek shelter within their borders: the Hungarian military has been conducting exercises near the Serbian border with military officials alluding to the role of the army in securing the country’s borders. The Times has more.

Four years after shutting its doors, the Israeli embassy in Egypt has reopened, the Times tells us. The return of Israeli diplomats to Cairo may be a sign of the Israeli government’s willingness to strengthen ties with the government of President Abdel Fattah al Sisi, now that the tumult that forced the embassy to close appears to have receded.

Yet the chaos in Egypt is far from over. The AP reports that U.S. peacekeepers in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula will receive an increased level of protection in the wake of violence caused by the ISIS affiliate Sinai Province.

Violence in Yemen has become so destructive that Yemenis are now fleeing to… Somalia. Defense One notes that the Somaliland government has expressed concern over the fragile country’s ability to take in refugees. Meanwhile, Reuters writes that Saudi air strikes have targeted Houthi political leaders in Sanaa, and the Journal raises concerns that al-Qaeda may be benefiting from the Iran-Saudi proxy war raging within Yemen.

Defense One's Molly O'Toole also discusses Hillary Clinton’s remarks yesterday at the Brookings Institution. The presidential candidate and former Secretary of State not only strongly endorsed the nuclear agreement with Iran, but went further in setting forward a tough “whole-of-region” approach aimed at countering Iranian influence.

Now that the Obama administration has racked up 42 Senators in favor of the nuclear deal, the game has changed, and the Journal reports on the G.O.P.’s struggle to stop the deal from going through. While some House Republicans are now attempting to delay the vote on the deal, on the grounds that the White House has failed to abide by the requirements stipulated in the original legislation mandating a congressional vote on the matter, The Hill tells us that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has rejected this strategy. The AP reports that any Republican efforts to block the vote are unlikely to succeed.

Whatever the outcome of the vote in Congress, no love will be lost between the United States and Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. The Ayatollah maintained yesterday that the United States is “Satan” and suggested that Iran will not negotiate with the United States beyond the Iran deal. In remarks made on his Twitter account and personal website, went on to say that Israel will not exist in 25 years.The Times has more.

The Wall Street Journal discusses the U.S. government's plan to monitor Iran's compliance with the agreement beyond the International Atomic Energy Agency’s enforcement. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper expressed confidence in the devised monitoring program's ability to detect any cheating on Iran's part.

Director Clapper also explained the impact that Edward Snowden’s leak had on a critical intelligence program known as MYSTIC. Run by the NSA, the program was reported to have recorded all cell phone conversations in Afghanistan and was shut down by the Afghan government following Snowden’s revelations.

Voice of America reports that the Islamic State is running private prisons in Afghanistan’s Achin district, which saw heavy fighting between ISIS and the local Taliban earlier this year. The district’s governor claimed that most of the prisoners being held were Afghan officials, while local residents suggest that up to 300 Afghans have been imprisoned by ISIS.

The New York Times explains how Afghans have come to consider American commander Gen. John F. Campbell as a critical part of Afghanistan’s defense. In the absence of an Afghan Minister of Defense, one Western diplomat suggested that General Campbell is effectively “running the war” against the Taliban---even though the U.S. combat role has supposedly ended. Even President Ashraf Ghani has thrown his support behind Campbell, in an apparent acknowledgement that the war with the Taliban is not going well for Afghan forces.

Just one example of the war not going well: Afghan officials report that 65 villages in Afghanistan’s Badakhashan province have fallen to the Taliban over the past two days.

Human Rights Watch released a report yesterday accusing the Sudanese government of sponsoring a campaign of rape and mass killing in the Darfur region. The accusations recall the atrocities committed in Darfur in the early 2000s, for which Sudanese President Omar al Bashir is wanted before the International Criminal Court. The Times has the story.

China will soon hold three days of live-fire drills in the Taiwan strait, just as Taiwan finishes up its own military drills. On that note, Reuters takes a look at China’s “mood of rising nationalism and confidence” with regards to its military--bad news for the country’s jittery neighbors.

The Russian military has reportedly begun construction of a military base near the Ukrainian border, indicating the continuation of a standoff between Moscow and Kiev. The facility is expected to house 3,500 troops, contain hangars for rockets and artillery, and will be equipped with a swimming pool and barber shop. Despite Russian denial of its forces in Ukraine, the United States has accused Russia of sending forces into the country to aid pro-Russian separatist groups.

The Washington Post reports on a group of Russian-speaking hackers that is using commercial satellites to steal data from U.S. agencies. The group, known to some as Turla, targets governments and companies around the world and uses poor security on older satellites to access sensitive information.

Over at Defense One, Alex Grigsby of the Council on Foreign Relations takes a look at the new “rules of cyberspace”--that is, according to the U.N.’s Group of Governmental Experts on Information Security. The group’s report, which was released last month, contains some innovative proposals for emerging norms in cyberspace.

Microsoft continues to fight a search warrant demanding the release of company emails stored in Ireland, Reuters tells us. The company has asked the Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit to block the warrant, on the grounds that the warrant would create precedent for foreign countries to seize U.S. emails housed within the United States. But in court, the Justice Department’s lawyer indicated his understanding that such an action is currently the “international norm.” The Journal has more.

Parting Shot: “We can neither confirm nor deny…” We’ve all heard the phrase--called the “Glomar response”--a thousand times. Now we learn that the Glomar Explorer, the ship for which the response was named, has been sold for scrap. Check out this great Radiolab deep dive on the Glomar Explorer and the origins of the “perfect non-denial denial,” in honor of the Explorer’s ignominious end.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Ben reviewed Scott Shane’s new book Objective Troy, on “the strange death and stranger life” of Anwar al-Awlaki.

Cody posted Hillary Clinton’s remarks regarding the Iran nuclear deal.

Ashley Deeks explored the legal justifications supporting the French, English, and Australian decisions to commence airstrike operations in Syria, citing principles of self-defense against imminent attack by non-state actors.

Carrie Cordero explains why hackers target major universities. With over 40 colleges and universities affected within the last three years, Carrie describes how factors relating to university budgets, retention of data and research, and the lack of accountability make universities popular targets.

Explaining how bulk surveillance works, Nicholas Weaver sheds light on how the NSA system enables isolation of items of interest, follows threads, and aids retroactive analysis.

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