Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Elina Saxena
Wednesday, December 9, 2015, 6:30 PM

Iraqi forces captured a critical neighborhood of Ramadi yesterday. While officials expect to take the city within days, hundreds of civilians remain trapped in Ramadi and the Washington Post writes that areas of Ramadi that are “still under Islamic State control have been rigged with explosives and booby traps, potentially exposing civilians and Iraqi forces to lethal threats.” Reuters tells us that “thousands of civilians are effectively being held hostage inside by Islamic State militants who want to use them as human shields.” Residents remaining within the city say that ISIS militants have threatened civilians attempting to flee, claiming that the militant forces are growing increasingly paranoid as the Iraqi army closes in. Elsewhere in Iraq, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for a suicide attack outside of a Shia mosque in Baghdad that killed at least six people.

More than 100 leaders from Syrian opposition groups met in Riyadh “in an effort to form a unified front ahead of proposed peace negotiations with Syrian President Bashar Assad's government.” A delegate suggested that the first day of discussions would highlight political questions while the second would focus on "terrorism, a ceasefire, and reconstruction." Kurdish leaders involved in the conflict were not present and were not invited to the discussions. Opposition leaders are expected to begin negotiations with the Syrian government no later than January 1st.

Reuters reports that rebel fighters left the city of Homs with their families “on Wednesday under a rare local truce in Syria's nearly five-year conflict." The truce effectively ensure “government control over the city.” According to the agreement, the fighters and their families will be transferred either to Hama or Idlib provinces. Remarking on the truce, a U.N. mediator said that the "clear goal is to reach as soon as possible a nationwide ceasefire."

During a televised meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that Russian forces had hit ISIS targets in Raqqa with submarine launched missiles. He also presented the black box from the Su-24 fighter jet that was shot down by Turkish forces last month. The Associated Press provides us with updates on the latest from Russia as it attempts to uncover more information about the incident from the black box.

Hot on the heels of the crisis, Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to Moscow next week to meet with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov and Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss Ukraine and Syria.

The U.S. special envoy in charge of the coalition fighting against the Islamic State, Brett McGurk, claimed Wednesday that only 30% of Russian airstrikes in Syria are hitting ISIS targets. Addressing the U.S.-led effort against the group, he maintained that the coalition’s priority was to completely close off the border between Turkey and the territory controlled by the group.

Turkey is calling for increased levels of support to moderate rebel forces and for the creation of safe zones in northern Syria. Amid ongoing tension between Turkey and Iraq, Turkey is also defending its decision to deploy more troops to Iraq. Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu said that the additional deployment was not an act of aggression but rather one of solidarity with Iraq as both countries continue to fight the Islamic State. Turkey maintains that the additional troops are necessary to protect Turkish advisors assisting with a Baghdad-coordinated training mission near the city of Mosul. Meanwhile, the Wall Street Journal reports that “Iraq has moved closer to seeking help from the United Nations Security Council to evict Turkish forces.”

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Joseph Dunford said that the United States is expecting other countries to send special operations forces to Iraq. While NATO allies will not send ground forces to the area, the United States is looking to regional allies to contribute to the fight against ISIS.

Meanwhile, over at Foreign Affairs, Linda Robinson writes that the U.S. special operators in the "expeditionary force" announced by Defense Secretary Ash Carter "will be authorized to conduct raids in Iraq and Syria, and their activities will remedy one of the most critical gaps in the campaign to date—intelligence."

As an increasing number of powers join in the fight against the Islamic State, Anne Barnard of the New York Times reminds us of “how overwhelming firepower can fail to defeat a determined or ideologically driven guerrilla force in the absence of a coherent and well-executed strategy.” Without solutions to the underlying political problems, “powerful military responses can end up stoking the violence and opposition they seek to quell.”

From one front to another: Taliban forces launched an attack on the Kandahar Airfield yesterday evening, resulting in a daylong siege which left at least 37 civilians and one Afghan soldier dead. The militants, however, did not manage to breach the perimeter of the Kandahar military base, which houses some 2,000 U.S. troops. The attack comes just days after reports that Taliban leader Mullah Akhtar Mansoor had been injured in Pakistan, and a western official observed that the “level of ambition has been ratcheted up since Kunduz.” According to Stars and Stripes, the Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, stating that “five attackers killed scores of international and Afghan troops.” A spokesman for the group said that the gunmen were targeting foreign fighters.

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani was greeted by a warm welcome upon his arrival in Pakistan, a move that the New York Times writes “was a clear measure that Pakistan badly wants to mend” the relationship between the two countries. Arriving at the annual Heart of Asia conference, President Ghani “reiterated criticism that Pakistan had failed to deprive the Taliban of havens,” a major source of tension between the two countries.

More than two months after the American attack on the Médecins Sans Frontières facility in Kunduz, two servicemen “told Congress that American special forces called in an air strike on a hospital in Afghanistan because they believed the Taliban were using it as a command center.” In a letter to Defense Secretary Ash Carter, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-CA) wrote that the testimony raised the possibility that U.S. forces could have been manipulated by their Afghan partners into attacking the hospital.

In Yemen, at least 35 fighters from both warring parties were killed amid ongoing fighting over the port city of Mokha. Both pro-government forces and Houthi rebels are expected to begin a ceasefire on December 15 when U.N. talks to find a peaceful resolution are expected to begin. Elsewhere in the conflict, an Australian mercenary contracted by the Saudi-led coalition was reportedly killed along with six Colombian troops.

The New York Times reports that a neighbor and friend of the San Bernardino attackers, Enrique Marquez, bought the weapons used in the attack. Marquez bought the weapons legally in 2011 or 2012 and either gave or sold them to Syed Farook. New information in the investigation also confirms that the attackers reportedly discussed jihad and “martyrdom” before they met.

Following reports from the FBI that the couple behind the shooting had been radicalized for “quite some time,” the Associated Press notes that the attack underscores the difficulties inherent in identifying potential attackers. Elsewhere, the Wall Street Journal sheds light on the nature of the K-1 visa that female attacker Tashfeen Malik used to enter the United States. As questions continue around the question of visas, the Journal writes that “no amount of vetting will raise red flags if an individual has had a clean record up to the moment their application is being scrutinized.”

Meanwhile, the U.S. House of Representatives has voted 407-19 to require visas for travelers to the United States who have previously visited Iraq and Syria. Bloomberg tells us that the measure will “require passport-holders of the 38 countries to get a visa to enter the U.S. if they have recently visited Iraq or other countries with significant terrorist activity.”

In what appears to be a response to GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump’s remarks, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook said that “anything that tries to bolster the ISIL narrative that the United States is somehow at war with Islam is contrary to our values and contrary to our national security.” His remarks suggested that anti-Muslim rhetoric was not in the interest of national security. Despite the global outcry against Trump’s comments, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is still expected to meet with the presidential candidate later this month.

U.N. officials said that the U.S. campaign rhetoric aimed at Muslims was affecting efforts to resettle refugees. With over 40 governors speaking out against the refugee resettlement program, one official commented that “the rhetoric that is being used in the election campaign is putting an incredibly important resettlement program at risk.” Yesterday, the United Nations also urged “Jordan to allow the entry of thousands of Syrian refugees stuck in a northeast desert holding area adjoining the Syrian border.” Nearly 12,000 refugees are currently stranded in the region.

Foreign Policy tells us that ISIS now has its own app. The app is run by a closely-affiliated news agency which “includes video and text reports about life under the Islamic State, announcing battlefield victories and executions of the extremist group’s enemies.”

At the same time, in the Atlantic, Kathy Gilsinan explores the effect that ISIS has had on the process of radicalization. She writes that the group’s “social-media savvy can obscure the continuing importance of real-world connections in the radicalization process.” Contributing to that same discussion, the New York Times writes that Americans who follow ISIS’s messaging on social media have been able to develop independent identities within insular communities, something that could “make the group’s circles harder to penetrate and its supporters more difficult for law enforcement to track.”

Defense One explains the complicated and various paths to radicalization for people who join ISIS, sharing that a report from Quantum Communications has condensed the factors to nine categories.

Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) introduced a bill yesterday that would require social media companies to take down and report any terrorist activity on their networks. The Christian Science Monitor writes that “the move is already drawing sharp criticism from industry and civil liberties groups that say putting such requirements on firms such as Facebook, Twitter, Google would jeopardize consumers’ privacy and free speech and overload the government with useless information.”

The California senator has kicked it into overdrive in the last few days as the Paris attacks and shooting in San Bernardino have revived the encryption debate over whether or not technology companies should be required to turn over encrypted data to law enforcement officials. The Hill tells us that Senator Feinstein is also “vowing to lead the charge on legislation that would require companies to decrypt data under court order.”

Back in Europe, France is urging its E.U. partners to “speed up efforts to cut off extremist financing.” Since last month’s Paris attacks, France has pushed for more urgent initiatives to cut off terrorist financing across the block, including measures to “better track financial transfers, control prepaid bank cards, freeze assets and limit movements of cash and precious metals.” The Wall Street Journal has more on the French-led effort.

The third attacker in the Bataclan concert hall has been identified, the New York Times tells us. The man, identified as Foued Mohamed-Aggad, was a 23-year-old Frenchman who was "one of a group of young men from Strasbourg and its region, friends and brothers, who left for Syria at the end of 2013."

In an effort to speed up the implementation of the Iran deal, the Wall Street Journal reports that the United States “is helping Iran with an arrangement to send part of its nuclear fuel stockpile to the Central Asian nation of Kazakhstan.” Yet the United States is also considering how to respond to Iran’s recent launch of a ballistic missile in violation of other United Nations obligations. The test, if confirmed, would violate U.N. Security Council resolutions and could have a serious impact on the planned sanction reliefs. A letter signed by Senators Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) and Mark Kirk (R-IL) demanded the President take action against the alleged violations. Republicans are not the only ones upset though, as Representatives Ted Deutch (D-FL) and Joe Kennedy (D-MA) also wrote a letter to the president to express their “deep concern over Iran’s launch of a long-range ballistic missile.”

Nigerian refugees have accused Cameroonian troops of crossing the border into Nigeria, killing some 150 villagers, and burning down their homes. While it is unclear what exactly transpired, 643 refugees arrived in a refugee processing center after walking for days. Both countries face major threats from Boko Haram militants.

The United States has imposed new sanctions against North Korea over reports of additional weapons proliferation. The BBC writes that “the sanctions target the North Korean army's Strategic Rocket Force, as well as two banks and three shipping companies allegedly involved in arms trade.”

Speaking in London yesterday, U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch warned “that a planned European Union data protection law could undermine efforts to thwart terrorist attacks by restricting transatlantic information sharing,” Reuters writes. She also criticized the European Court of Justice’s decision to strike down the Safe Harbor agreement, which had allowed data transfer between Europe and the United States in what she called “a case based on inaccurate and outdated media reports.”

Australian police raided the purported home of Bitcoin creator Craig Steven Wright on Wednesday. Reuters reports that more than a dozen federal police officers searched the home, with several wearing shirt’s tagged “Computer Forensics.” The police referred all inquiries to the Australian Tax Office.

The Hill tells us that a final agreement on the Cyber Information Sharing Act “is imminent.”

The folks at War is Boring report that “realistic weapon testing has come under assault yet again,” this time as the Joint Program Office in charge of the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program has refused to proceed with a required cyber security test. The test is necessary to determine whether the F-35’s computer system is vulnerable to hackers, but the JPO has suggested that the test could damage the plane’s maintenance and logistics software. This raises the obvious question: isn’t that what the test is designed to stop in actual combat?

Our ambitious friends at Politico have launched a special report called “The Cyber Issue.” Check out the 10 or so stories covering everything from the NSA’s hunt for hackers to America’s secret arsenal of cyberweapons to “why politicians can’t handle cyber.”

An Ohio man was charged for using social media to solicit the killing of military personnel on behalf of the Islamic State. Voice of America tells us that “Terrence McNeil was arrested last month and faces as many as 75 years in prison if he is convicted.”

Pre-trial hearings in the military commissions 9/11 case commenced again yesterday with testimony considering the role of female guards at Guantanamo Bay. Defense attorneys have objected to the use of female guards in transporting detainees to and from court appearances due to a belief espoused by five detainees that they should not have close contact with unrelated females. Military Commissions Judge James Pohl issued a temporary order barring female guards from transporting detainees last January.

Parting Shot: It’s the ship of the future no more. Yesterday, the USS Zumwalt—the Navy’s stealth battleship—made its ocean debut. War is Boring has the video.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Aaron Zelin shared the Jihadology Podcast, which features a discussion with Lorenzo Vidino and Seamus Hughes on their new report ISIS in America: From Retweets to Raqqa.

Ben pondered how long before Trump’s anti-Muslim rhetoric makes his own buildings targets.

Nick Weaver offered his test for determining whether to support new surveillance authorities: What would Donald Trump do with them?

Finally, John Bellinger argued that Trump is a danger to our national security.

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