Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Elina Saxena, Cody M. Poplin
Friday, September 11, 2015, 3:23 PM

Today marks the 14th anniversary of 9/11, and before we dive into the latest news, we pause to remember those lost fourteen years ago, and to say thank you to all those who work daily to craft thoughtful security solutions. We are grateful, and we remember.

President Obama celebrated a major victory yesterday, as Senate Democrats blocked a resolution of disapproval on the Iran nuclear deal. Even so, the New York Times reports that challenges remain, as the president must now decide how to navigate enforcing the remaining economic sanctions on the country. Despite the deal’s easing of sanctions for Iran's restricting its nuclear development, Obama has promised to maintain sanctions that target Tehran’s support for terrorism and its human rights abuses. Some in Congress have called for even more terrorism related sanctions, while another proposal would officially designate the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps a foreign terrorist organization. Others plan to extend the existing nuclear sanctions, allowing President Obama to waive them, but signalling that Iran is not trusted and that punitive measures could quickly be reapplied. The Times also provides answers to questions regarding the next steps required for bringing the deal into effect.

Council on Foreign Relations Fellow Philip Gordon reflects on how the deal "is on the cusp of changing history" given its potential impact on U.S.-Iran relations, optimistically comparing the deal to Nixon’s 1972 visit to China. Politico also carries a report detailing Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's campaign to win favor for the deal among House Democrats.

Foreign Policy discusses Republican reaction to the deal and how the battle over its implementation will be an important factor in shaping the Republican response. According to the Washington Post, House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) has promised that House Republicans plan to “use every tool at our disposal to stop, slow and delay this agreement from being fully implemented,” foreshadowing a potential lawsuit against President Obama, in which Republicans allege that he did not hold up his end of the bargain under the Iran Nuclear Agreement Review Act because “secret-side deals” with the IAEA are still outstanding.

In other Iran related news, the U.S. military has once (that’s twice this week) revised the number of American soldiers killed in Iraq by Iran. Lawmakers had previously said that roughly 500 U.S. troops were killed by Iran; the Pentagon has now confirmed that number, saying that while 196 troops were killed by Iranian IEDs, another 300 were killed by other types of “Iranian activities.” Defense One has more.

As videos of Russian troops training in their Syrian naval base in Tartous surface, the Washington Post asks why Russian forces are in Syria and looks at Russia’s historic support for the Assad regime. The build up is troubling, if only because Defense One reports that NATO was “caught surprised” by Russia’s actions due to a dearth of intelligence that left officials with no clear idea about the motives or composition of the Russian forces.

And despite Russia’s active history of backing Assad, Al Jazeera questions why Moscow is taking a more assertive stance now, after over four years of conflict in Syria. According to a Fox News report, the escalated Russian presence followed soon after a secret meeting between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iran’s Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, where they discussed a joint military plan for Syria. Experts claim that Russia’s determination to ensure the survival of the regime combined with its interest in fighting ISIS have pushed Russia to ramp up efforts.

Russia also called on other global powers to support the Syrian army with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov insisting that ISIS cannot be defeated exclusively by airstrikes; instead, he maintains that cooperation with Assad’s forces is the best hope in the fight against the Islamic State. Lavrov continues to deny rumours of the increase in troop presence, stating that any cargo shipments are part of traditional aid. As Putin moves further from pursuing a diplomatic solution in Syria, U.S. officials are scrambling to develop a response to the buildup of Russian forces and equipment in Latakia.

On the gound, the BBC reports that the United States has discovered at least four incidents where the Islamic State has used mustard agents in Iraq and Syria. Officials have suggested that the group is manufacturing its own mustard agent in a chemical weapons research cell, claiming that the mustard agent was used in powder form packed into traditional explosives. In related news, Russia has relaxed its objections to a United Nations probe seeking to determine the perpetrator of chemical weapons attacks in Syria.

Amid concerns from the Council of Europe's human rights commissioner over the indiscriminate use of force, Reuters outlines the dramatic escalation of violence in Turkey as urban attacks by Kurdish militants ricochet throughout the southwest and Turkish fighters continue bombing PKK targets in Iraq. The Financial Times also highlights growing concerns that urban violence in the country could become the norm in light of recent attacks. FT discusses the growing rift between Turkish political leadership too, as the opposition People's Democratic party, or HDP, comes under attack from President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who claims that the party is “in league with terrorists.”

The Wall Street Journal discusses how China’s vulnerability is highlighted by Islamic State's kidnapping of a Chinese hostage. With an increasing number of Chinese expats and tourists being kidnapped and with ISIS’ unpredictable treatment of hostages, the Chinese government is at an impasse regarding its response.

Yesterday, British ambassador to the UN Matthew Rycroft defended the August drone strike which killed two British citizens, citing the "collective self-defence of Iraq" in light of the Islamic State’s ongoing operations in Iraq as justification for the controversial strike.

The United States is set to take in 10,000 Syrian refugees over the next year as Europe continues to face challenges in dealing with the influx of displaced persons from the region. Over the weekend, Germany alone admitted 20,000 migrants and is expected to grant entry to as many as 800,000 over the course of the year. Eying the Hungarian border fence, Macedonia is considering one it its own, designed to keep migrants from entering the country. Citing the need for "some kind of physical defense to reduce illegal border crossings," Macedonia's Foreign Minister said that the country is will use either a border fence or soldiers.

UN aid workers describe the poverty and hardship that faces Syrian refugees in the Middle east, with the Guardian reporting that Syrian refugees in neighboring Jordan and Lebanon are considering returning to their war-torn country as opposed to enduring the destitute conditions.

In light of recent evidence pointing to the politicization of intelligence reports by senior officials, the Associated Press describes Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s message to senior intelligence officers demanding unaltered and accurate reports. With senators investigating the allegations of doctored ISIS related intelligence reports, the Guardian suggests that Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has been involved “in frequent and unusual contact with a military intelligence officer at the center of a growing scandal over rosy portrayals of the war against the Islamic State.”

Care for a wake-up call? In Politico, terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman argues that 14 years after 9/11, U.S. counterterrorism efforts are failing, citing the spread of the Islamic State as well as the increase in high-casualty terrorist attacks in recent years as evidence.

Foreign Policy sheds light on the difficulties in the U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, pointing to concerns over the Wahhabism that continues to grip the state and fuel extremism. In an interview with Quartz, Reza Aslan explains that ISIS is engaged in a "war of imagination," contributing to the difficulty faced by states attempting to defeat the group through conventional weapons and warfare.

The Pentagon announced plans to increase troop deployment to the Sinai Peninsula as the region is increasingly threatened by the Islamic State. The troops will join the traditionally lightly armed Multinational Force and Observers who have become increasingly threatened by ISIS attacks.

In an interview with Al Jazeera, former President of Afghanistan Hamid Karzai claimed that al Qaeda in Afghanistan is a myth and expressed doubt about their existence in the past as well as their participation in the 9/11 attacks. But as Karzai doubts, Afghanistan burns. Following the fall of 65 villages in the Raghistan district and the reported collapse of the district to the Taliban, Afghan media outlet Tolo News reports that Afghan airstrikes have pushed the Taliban forces from the district bazar, killing 30 militants in the process.

And, the Washington Post reports that some officials now fear that the CIA missed an opportunity to identify Warren Wainstein, a western hostage being held by al Qaeda in Pakistan, before he was eventually killed in a drone strike earlier this year. The CIA is currently conducting an internal review of Weinstein’s death, including whether everything possible was done to find him. One grainy drone feed appears to show a heavily guarded figure, but U.S. officials have emphasized that the drone footage is so inconclusive that even now it is not clear whether the individual was even a hostage.

In a decision that took over a year to write, an Indian judge has found 12 defendants guilty of murder and criminal conspiracy for their involvement in the 2006 bombings of seven Mumbai commuter trains. The attacks killed 188 people and wounded over 800 others.

Yesterday, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence hosted a star-studded spy panel for a discussion on “worldwide cyber threats,” in which almost every director of a major intelligence agency made news. Director of National Intelligence James Clapper told the committee that the lack of “both the substance and the mindset of deterrence” has created a permissive environment for cyberattacks, an environment that can only be changed by raising the penalty for those attacks. Clapper also expressed concern that the future of cyberattacks against the United States is likely to entail changing data to undermine its integrity in an attempt to misdirect the efforts of the United States. For his part, NSA Director Adm. Michael Rogers said that cyberattacks by Iranian hackers had decreased significantly since negotiations over a nuclear deal intensified last year.

Elsewhere, the National Journal covers what it calls “the FBI’s charm offensive on encryption,” noting that FBI Director James Comey attempted to downplay the idea of a new “crypto-war.” In his testimony, Comey said that wars are fought by people of differing values, but that the “FBI is not an alien force imposed on the American people.” Comey also tacked a new course on encryption and backdoors, challenging that he had never heard anybody say companies that maintain a key to read emails and send ads (Google and Yahoo! come to mind) were “fundamentally insecure and fatally flawed from a security perspective.” In an interview with the Washington Post, Chris Soghoian responded to Comey, saying that the Chinese breach of Gmail in 2010 was case in point of the insecurity of a third-party key.

The Washington Post reports that the Department of Justice has charged a 20-year-old Florida man with the distribution of information relating to explosives, destructive devices, and weapons of mass destruction in relation to a plot encouraging an attack on a September 11th memorial event in Kansas City, Missouri. Authorities say that Joshua Ryne Goldberg of Jacksonville posed as an Australian jihadist, telling an FBI informant, “hopefully there will be some jihad on the anniversary of 9/11.” Goldberg also sent over bomb-making instruction manuals and helped select the site for the proposed attack. If convicted, Goldberg faces up to 20 years in prison.

The Daily Beast carries a round-up of the more than 66 cases of Americans suspected of supporting ISIS from inside the United States, placing them into five distinct categories: the lone wolves, the brides, the financiers, the fanboys, and the recruiters. The article also carries a helpful map displaying exactly where the ISIS hotspots are located.

The U.S. government has moved to block the release of 116 pages of lawyers’ notes that provide a detailed account of the alleged torture endured by Guantánamo Bay detainee Abu Zubaydah while under CIA custody. This decision appears to contradict the relaxing of classification rules that permitted the release of information on the conditions of torture following the U.S. Senate report on CIA torture in December.

Defense One’s Molly O’Toole reports that even members of Congress who want to close Guantanamo Bay are objecting to plans to move the base back to their districts, putting yet another hurdle in front of President Obama’s long stated objective of shuttering the detention facility.

Parting shot: The Air Force is attempting to boost the morale of drone pilots with memes. That puzzler here at the Post.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Alex Ely provided an overview of the Second Circuit oral argument in the Microsoft-Ireland case.

Cody linked to the HSPCI hearing on worldwide cyber threats.

Joanna Harrington kicked off Lawfare’s joint series with Intercross and EJIL:Talk! with a post on the interplay between international human rights law and international humanitarian law.

Aaron Y. Zelin shared a translation of an article from Shaykh Abu Qatadah al-Filistini on “The Importance of Jihadi Media.”

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