Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Cody M. Poplin
Tuesday, December 15, 2015, 4:17 PM

Los Angeles public schools were shut down today and all students and faculty were sent home after police received what they considered a credible bomb threat against the school system. The New York Times reports that, according to the Los Angeles Police Department, the threat came in an email message sent to school board members. New York City officials confirmed they received a similar threat on Tuesday, but concluded it was a hoax. The email sent to the Los Angeles school board claimed that there were “32 jihadists friends” prepared to attack schools across the city with bombs, nerve gas, and rifles. Both emails were sent from, or routed through, IP addresses located in Frankfurt, Germany.

Some officials who have reviewed the emails suggested that elements of them did not appear credible, and a former Los Angeles police chief questioned the decision to close the nation’s second-largest school system. Charlie Beck, chief of the Los Angeles Police Department dismissed the criticism, saying that “it is very easy in hindsight to criticize a decision based on results that the decider could never have known.”

President Barack Obama made a rare appearance at the Pentagon yesterday, where he met with nearly three dozen defense officials and foreign policy advisers to discuss the ongoing campaign against the Islamic State. Speaking with reporters after the briefings, Mr. Obama said that the United States is hitting the group “harder than ever.” The president noted that ISIS had not gained an offensive victory since the summer, and that the U.S. had killed several key leaders through targeted airstrikes, which he said sent the message to ISIS militants, “you are next.” Yet despite the president's effort to reassure Americans of his strategy, writing in Foreign Policy, Paul McLeary suggests that Obama's Pentagon trip “highlights how little has changed in the ISIS fight.”

While at the Pentagon, Mr. Obama also announced that Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s long-planned trip to the Middle East this week will include a series of meetings “to work with our coalition partners on securing more military contributions to this fight.” That trip began today in Turkey, with Carter prodding Ankara and other allied nations to increase their military response to ISIS, saying “we’re looking to intensify and accelerate the defeat of ISIL.”

Coincidentally enough, Saudi Arabia announced a new Islamic alliance to fight terrorism that will share information and train, equip, and provide forces for the fight against the Islamic State. The 34-nation Islamic military coalition, which will include Egypt, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Malaysia, Pakistan, and several African nations, was welcomed by the United States, with Secretary Carter stating that he looked forward to “learning more about what Saudi Arabia has in mind.” The new coalition, according to a statement carried by Saudi state news, will have a joint operations center in Riyadh.

With Carter in the Middle East, Secretary of State John Kerry headed to Moscow to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov as part of the effort to coordinate a peaceful settlement to the Syrian civil war. Ever the optimist, Secretary Kerry said that “together the United States and Russia have an ability to make a significant difference.” The Washington Post suggests that the talks will reflect the “contradictory roles Moscow has played” as of late, with Kerry aiming to convey to Putin that the United States and Europe will maintain sanctions against Russia until it fully implements the agreement to end fighting in Ukraine. Elsewhere, Reuters writes that the majority of the talks with likely be dominated by discussions as to the list of opposition groups to invite to peace talks.

Yet while Kerry maintains that Russia is playing a “constructive” role,” U.S. officials tell the Wall Street Journal that Russia’s military tactics in the conflict differ so extensively from the United States’s that it may be impossible to operate together. The officials claim that Russia’s indiscriminate strikes are not just the consequence of outdated tactics or outmoded technology, but are deliberately calibrated to be painful for ordinary citizens in order to put pressure on them to stop backing rebel fighters. The Journal notes that the strategy “runs counter to a Western focus on winning ‘hearts and minds.’” And according to today’s Washington Post, Russian strikes have already brought a halt to aid entering Syria, destroying border crossings and highways, and paralyzing aid supply routes.

A new investigation by Reuters shows that the United States has “consistently overlooked killings and torture by Iraqi government-sponsored Shi’ite militias” operating in the country. It’s a long and important look into some of the worst excesses of Baghdad’s Popular Mobilization Forces, which include looting, abductions, torture, and murder.

A United Nations-sponsored ceasefire took hold in Yemen on Tuesday as peace talks designed to end the ongoing conflict began in Switzerland. Reuters shares that Army commanders and residents said the truce was holding, despite a few minor violations. The U.N. plans to use the ceasefire to deliver medicine and food to the country, where one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises festered for months.

As diplomats talk in Geneva, the New York Times explains that the Islamic State is gaining strength in Yemen, challenging historical rivals like al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula for jihadist primacy. Many of the Islamic State’s recent attacks in the country, which have been planned and executed in the country’s vast and ungoverned safe havens, have been “considered too extreme even by the country's branch of al Qaeda.” While AQAP remains the most potent miitary threat for now, ISIS is working double-time to peel off defectors and capture ground in the country.

The International Atomic Energy Agency, which released recently its report on the extent of the illicit Iranian nuclear program, will close its 12-year investigation into the program on Tuesday. The close of the investigation into Iran’s secret nuclear activities is “a key step toward normalizing Tehran’s international status.”

Kathleen Turner, writing in War on the Rocks, chronicles the rise of the female suicide bomber and why terrorist groups are turning to women attackers more and more.

Hasan R. Edmonds, a U.S. National Guardsman from Illinois, pleaded guilty yesterday to conspiring with his cousin, Jonas M. Edmonds, to join ISIS and plotting an attack on an American base, according to the Wall Street Journal. Last week, Jonas Edmonds pleaded guilty to conspiring to provide material support to the Islamic State and lying to federal authorities.

In Maryland, prosecutors have charged 30-year-old Mohamed Elshinawy with attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State as well. Mr. Elshinawy received at least $8,700 from ISIS operatives for an attack in the United States. The Times notes that the case against Mr. Elshinawy “appears to be one of the most serious because of the extent of his contacts with overseas militants.” One law enforcement official said that he “showed a level of tradecraft that we haven’t seen in many other cases.”

Following the revelation that one of the San Bernardino attackers had declared her support for violent jihad over social media before moving to the United States, the Wall Street Journal reports that the Department of Homeland Security is developing a plan to broaden its examination of social media posts and other open source data as part of its visa application process. At the same time, Politico covers a new push by House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte (R-VA) to prepare legislation that would close loopholes in the vetting of foreigners coming to the United States. The legislation in its current form would require in-person interviews with both the person applying for a visa and their U.S. citizen sponsor at each step in the vetting process, and require federal officials to review “open source” information, including social media accounts, related to the applicant.

Reuters brings us news that the Obama administration is expected to authorize the sale of two guided missile frigates to Taiwan before the end of the year. The sale would be the first time in four years that the United States has shipped arms to Taiwan. China opposes the weapons sales, and Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei said that the such sales are “an interference in China’s internal affairs, [and] damage the peaceful development of ties across the Taiwan Strait and Sino-U.S. ties.”

Just one week after testing a medium-range surface-to-surface ballistic missile, the Pakistani paper Dawn shares that Pakistan on Tuesday conducted a successful test of the Shaheen 1-A ballistic missile, which is capable of delivering warheads up to a range of 900 kilometers.

The Pentagon released a report to Congress today confirming, according to Reuters, that “Afghanistan’s overall security has deteriorated in the second half of 2015, with insurgents staging more effective attacks and Afghan forces suffered more casualties.” The report noted that there had been a 27 percent increase in casualties from January 1 to November 15 compared to the same time period one year before. Read the full report here.

At the same time, Afghanistan’s Tolo News discloses that peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban are expected to resume in the coming weeks, following an understanding reached last week in Islamabad among Pakistan, Afghanistan, the United States, and China.

The New York Times reports that General Robert B. Abrams, the head of the Army Forces Command at Fort Bragg, N.C., has ordered that Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl face a court-martial on charges of desertion and endangering troops. The charges stem from Bergdahl’s decision to leave his base in Afghanistan in 2009. Bergdahl now faces the possibility of a life sentence, which the Times notes is a “far more serious penalty than had been recommended by the Army’s investigating officer” who had previously testified that prison would be “inappropriate.”

In a letter sent on Monday, dozens of state and local elected officials from Kansas, including Reps. Lynn Jenkins (R-KS), Mike Pompeo (R-KS), Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS), Senator Jerry Moran (R-KS), Governor Sam Brownback (R), and the Mayor of Leavenworth Lisa Weakley, called on President Obama to consider the concerns of state residents before closing Guantanamo and transferring remaining detainees to their state. The letter says that “moving these terrorists to our community could jeopardize our families, schools, and downtown businesses, and make Leavenworth a target.”

Elsewhere, the Hill reports that the U.S. Senate narrowly approved Alissa Starzak to be the next general counsel of the Army on Monday. Starzak had been the center of some controversy for her role as one of two lead investigators in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA’s use of enhanced interrogation reports, also known as the Torture Report.

A new law set to be passed by the European Union would force companies to report privacy breaches to authorities or face sanctions, Reuters reports. The new law will replace a patchwork of 28 different regulations while giving E.U. authorities greater enforcement mechanisms. The potential fines could equal 4 or 5 percent of global revenues for any company that violates the law.

Parting Shot: Mark-1 Plumbing is a not a sponsor of the Islamic State or any other insurgent group fighting in Syria, so you can imagine the business owner’s shock when his old 2005 Ford F-250 ended up in a propaganda video, mounted with a 23 mm twin-barreled anti-aircraft gun and firing on Assad regime positions. After receiving thousands of threatening and angry calls, he’s now suing the dealership to which he sold the vehicle, and that in turn sold it without removing his company decals. The Post has more.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Julissa Milligan summarized Thursday morning’s military commissions testimony in the trial of the accused 9/11 conspirators.

Cody shared the a statement from Military Commissions Chief Prosecutor Mark Martins at the close of last week’s pre-trial hearings in the 9/11 case.

Cody also outlined The Week That Will Be, providing Lawfare’s weekly roundup of events and employment announcements.

Email the Roundup Team noteworthy law and security-related articles to include, and follow us on Twitter and Facebook for additional commentary on these issues. Sign up to receive Lawfare in your inbox. Visit our Events Calendar to learn about upcoming national security events, and check out relevant job openings on our Job Board.