Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Elina Saxena, Cody M. Poplin
Friday, November 20, 2015, 4:21 PM

Gunmen stormed a luxury hotel in Mali this morning, leaving at least 20 dead after a prolonged hostage situation. The attackers entered the Radisson Blu Hotel in Bamako between 7:00 and 7:30 am local time, using a carjacked diplomatic SUV to drive past the hotel gate before releasing the driver and shooting security personnel. Sources claim that those able to recite verses from the Quran were released before the gunmen took over 100 hostages. The Wall Street Journal writes that “Malian soldiers fought their way to the seventh floor of the hotel in Bamako, where gunmen screaming Islamic chants had been holding” the hostages. Hours of after the assault began, a security official declared the siege over, with two attackers dead and another two in custody. CNN reports that a spokesman for U.S. Africa Command confirmed U.S. special forces participated in the operation to secure civillians. Al Qaeda-allied jihadist group Al Mourabitoun has claimed responsibility for the attack.

Reuters and BBC provide live updates on the latest from Mali.

Amid investigations into last Friday’s attack in Paris, the New York Times reports that Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the suspect killed in Wednesday's raids, had been planning an "elaborate campaign of terror across Europe" for 11 months. Today, Reuters shares that investigators located Abaaoud using the phone of Hasna Aitboulahcen, an accomplice killed in Wednesday’s raid. Thus far, French security services have searched 793 locations, holding 90 people for questioning and putting another 164 under house arrest. The Wall Street Journal writes that the attacks in Paris demonstrate that Europe is struggling to deal with radicalization among Muslim populations, as the internet make the radicalization process “as diffuse as ever.”

As fear of possible follow-on terrorist attacks spreads through Western states, security forces in Sweden and Italy have increased security around public buildings and pursued a heightened campaign against suspected militants. After raising the country’s terror threat assessment earlier this week, Swedish officials arrested “a man they believe has links to Islamic State and whom they have been hunting since Wednesday on suspicion of planning an attack.” With France and Belgium increasing their security, the New York Times covers the renewed debate in those countries regarding the proper balance between civil liberties and counterterrorism measures.

Meanwhile, a new Islamic State video threatening the White House surfaced yesterday. FBI Director James Comey was quick to say that the “F.B.I. has found no evidence that anyone in the United States was linked to the terrorist attacks in Paris or is planning similar attacks in this country.” Although some U.S. government officials, such as CIA Director John Brennan, blame the Snowden leaks for enabling terrorist plots to go undetected, the Washington Post writes that the answer as to whether and how much the those leaks have affected U.S. security remains unclear, noting that “even two years after the leaks it is difficult to discern the extent to which they prompted terrorist networks to change the way they communicate.”

France is pushing the United Nations to support its fight against ISIS, calling for the “United Nations Security Council to push all able states to join the fight against the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq after the militants claimed responsibility for downing a Russian plane over Egypt and attacks in Paris, Lebanon, Turkey, and Tunisia.” The French resolution faces an uphill battle, as Russian diplomats submitted a proposal calling on countries to coordinate military action with Syrian President Bashar al Assad.

Saudi Arabia has announced plans to host a conference in an attempt to unify the Syrian opposition and help them to project “one voice and one unified position.”

The Atlantic reports that the refugee crisis has prompted a black market for Syrian passports. Demand for the fake documents come from Syrian and non-Syrian refugees alike as they seek to leave their home countries for Europe.

The United States House of Representatives voted yesterday to approve legislation aimed at tightening screening measures for Syrian refugees. The Times writes that “the White House called the demands ‘untenable’ and said that the president would veto the bill if it reached his desk.”

Former Secretary of State and current presidential candidate Hillary Clinton laid out her plan for defeating the Islamic State yesterday in an address at the Council on Foreign Relations. The New York Times notes that “the urgency with which she spoke of the threat from the Islamic State ... most distinguished her approach from that of the president.” In her remarks, Defense One reports that Clinton “outlined a three-part plan to defeat ISIS, to disrupt and dismantle the networks that finance terrorism, and to harden U.S., European, and allied defenses against external and homegrown threats.”

Following Russian targeting of Turkmen villages in the northern part of Syria, Turkey’s Foreign Ministry has summoned the Russian ambassador, stating that “Russian actions do not constitute a fight against terrorism but amount to the bombing of civilian Turkmen.”

Highlighting the growing tensions between ISIS and local residents living under the group’s control, the Telegraph reports that a Syrian man shot an Islamic State judge and two guards dead after the judge ordered the man’s family to be beheaded. The man then killed himself to avoid ISIS’s retribution. The incident occurred in the Aleppo town of Manbij, where an anti-ISIS protest erupted following the judge’s assassination. This is the third anti-ISIS protest in the town since the Islamic State took control of the region last January.

Lebanese authorities have made a series of arrests in response to last week’s bombing in Beirut. An unnamed source said that “the latest raids in Beirut and northern city Tripoli dismantled ‘networks that were planning to carry out a series of similar operations, in more than one location.’”

Palestinian attackers killed at least five people yesterday. Two Israelis were stabbed to death in Tel Aviv. In the West Bank, an Israeli, a Palestinian, and an American 18-year-old were killed when a man opened fire into traffic before ramming his car into a group of pedestrians. Following one of the deadliest days since the violence began in mid-September, Israeli officials agreed to pursue a series of steps aimed at counteracting stabbings, stone-throwings, and vehicular attacks. The proposed measures would include the deployment of additional security personnel, limiting movement of Palestinians, and the possible construction of fences along highways where attacks have taken place.

The New York Times reports that Jonathan Pollard, a former Navy intelligence analyst convicted of spying for Israel, was released today after serving 30 years in prison. His release follows a request made by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when he met with President Obama earlier this month. The Times writes that “administration officials have been loath to appear to grant Mr. Pollard special consideration in the face of strong opposition by intelligence agencies that call his actions a grievous betrayal of national security.” The White House is unlikely to allow Pollard to depart the country for Israel as he has requested.

In Yemen, officials claimed that at least 19 Yemeni forces and 35 militants were killed in an attack in the eastern region of Hadramawt. The Islamic State’s branch in Yemen, which has targeted both sides of the ongoing civil conflict, claimed responsibility for the attack. Differing from Yemeni sources, the ISIS branch suggested that it had killed 50 Yemeni soldiers and had only lost one militant in the suicide bombing. Elsewhere in Yemen, three American captives held by Iran-backed Houthi rebels were released.

Voice of America reports that the Taliban has taken control of a remote district in Afghanistan’s northeastern province of Badakhshan. Officials told local media that “Afghan security forces have staged a ‘tactical’ retreat and taken positions in surrounding villages, awaiting reinforcements for a counteroffensive to retake the area.” The officials cited poor weather conditions that impeded reinforcement efforts.

Lawmakers are looking into whether “U.S. military officers skewed intelligence reports about Afghanistan” as policymakers question “the accuracy of the Pentagon’s assessments of the nation’s wars.” Foreign Policy writes that “the allegations of the Pentagon cooking the books about both Afghanistan and the Islamic State will be at the center of a new congressional probe led by the leaders of three of the most powerful committees on Capitol Hill.”

China is grappling with how to deal with terrorism and the Islamic State, in the days after the Islamic State released its latest English-language propaganda magazine, which featured a picture of an executed Chinese hostage. Beijing is considering legislation that would allow Chinese troops to be deployed abroad on counter-terrorism missions. According to the Washington Post, the Chinese Foreign Ministry released a statement that said that “the Chinese government will resolutely oppose all forms of terrorism, and resolutely strike at any violent terrorist criminal activities that defy the bottom lines of human culture.” Chinese officials have grown deeply concerned about terrorist threats posed by the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM), an Islamic separatist group, and fear that external radicalizing forces could prompt more violence. Chinese state officials have called on the international community to adopt a “united stance” and include China’s fight against ETIM as part of an international war on terrorism.

Chinese officials have acknowledged the killing “28 people suspected of taking part in an attack on a coal mine in the country’s turbulent western frontier” near Xinjiang. The New York Times writes that “violence has escalated in Xinjiang in recent years amid clashes between the government and Uighurs” as the Chinese government has restricted “freedoms for Uighurs amid concerns that some are using violence to achieve independence from China.” Chinese news sources suggested that participants in the attack on the coal mine had collaborated with radical organizations abroad but did not provide specifics.

U.S. counterintelligence chief Bill Evanina expressed skepticism that China has curbed economic espionage against United States entities, despite the agreement reached when Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Washington in September. Evanina said that he had seen “no indication” from the U.S. private sector “that anything has changed.”

China’s top admiral said that his country’s forces had shown “enormous restraint” in the face of what he considers to be American provocations in the South China Sea. The United States has repeatedly called for China to stop construction of artificial islands in the region, an issue that President Obama is expected to raise later this week during his trip to Asia. President Obama will also address the need to combat the Islamic State at this weekend’s ASEAN summit meeting in Malaysia.

Despite claims by Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari that Boko Haram is nearly defeated in Nigeria, two deadly attacks left dozens dead across the country in recent days. The group has not claimed responsibility for either attack, but officials suggest that with its “ability to mount large-scale attacks and abductions weakened, Boko Haram has turned to ‘soft targets’—markets, mosques, and other public spaces.”

Charlie Savage reports on recently disclosed documents revealing that the NSA created a "functional equivalent" to the bulk collection of Americans' internet metadata after the program was shut down in December 2011. Writing in Lawfare, Timothy Edgar said that the latest revelation “shows the complete incoherence of surveillance law.”

For decades, aspiring jihadists—including the Islamic State—and mad mobsters in post-Soviet states have scoured the globe for it, always turning up empty handed. But that hasn’t slowed them down nor silenced the hushed conversations in bazaars and brothels of its unique potency. What is it? Don’t miss this weekend’s recommended long read from the New York Times Magazine on the ultimate “doomsday scam,” red mercury.

Parting shot: If you’re flying first class, you might want to turn down a few of those complimentary martinis. That’s the lesson one Polish passenger learned on Thursday, when, after consuming several drinks, he jokingly told the cabin crew he’d brought a bomb on board, forcing the plane to make an emergency landing. Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov managed to find the upside: “A drunken Pole jabbering raised this kind of alert,” he said, “it was good training for us in case it’s real next time.”

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Paul Rosenzweig proposed a new way to compel social media providers to take down terrorist-related accounts: the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

Paul also linked to Senator Rand Paul’s (R-KY) amendment regarding Syrian refugees, which Paul says “speaks for itself.”

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