Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Cody M. Poplin, Elina Saxena
Friday, December 18, 2015, 3:24 PM

Editor’s Note: Lawfare’s Headlines and Commentary will be at the beach next week. We’ll be back in your inbox on Monday, December 28th. Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas!

In an address yesterday at the National Counterterrorism Center, President Barack Obama declared that the United States is “in a new phase of terrorism, including lone actors and small groups of terrorists.” He urged Americans not to “give into fear or change how we live our lives," suggesting that terrorists "cannot defeat us on the battlefield, but they can lead us to change in ways that would undermine what this country is all about." He also urged tolerance and compassion, noting that "our greatest allies in this fight are each other — Americans of all faiths and all backgrounds" and that “when we stay true to our values, nothing can beat us.” While he said that U.S. “intelligence and counterterrorism professionals do not have any specific and credible information about an attack on the homeland,” the president urged vigilance and added that U.S. counterterror officials were “constantly adapting, constantly improving, upping [their] game, getting better.”

Earlier this week, President Obama held an off-the-record session with columnists, during which he defended the Administration’s counterterrorism policy. In response to calls for the use of ground troops in the fight against terrorism, the president suggested “that sending significant ground forces back to the Middle East could conceivably result in the deaths of 100 American soldiers every month,” the New York Times writes. He also told the columnists that sending troops to Syria could lead to a slippery slope that would draw U.S. forces into other countries with strong terrorist presences such as Libya or Yemen. The Times has more on the president’s remarks.

Yesterday, the United Nations Security Council passed a U.S.-Russian joint-resolution aimed at curtailing the Islamic State’s funding. Highlighting potential cooperation between the United States and Russia, the resolution attempts to boost international monitoring efforts, prevent the sales of oil and antiquities, and curtail the group’s use of international banks. Foreign Policy tells us that the Islamic State has profited from “$500 million in black-market oil sales in Syria and Iraq, as well as between $500 million and $1 billion stolen from banks in territory under its control.” Despite these figures, the resolution’s effect could be limited due to the amount of revenue generated by the Islamic State’s “taxes,” or extortion, of local population in areas they control. According to Valerie Marcel of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London, ISIS relies on “territorial expansion to maintain their revenue.” She argues that “controlling territory is the bottom line” and that “as soon as they expand territory, their potential for taxes, theft, tolls, and oil revenue increases.”

In what may be another sign of Russian cooperation with the West, diplomats have suggested that Russia is “open to the removal of Syria's Bashar al-Assad” as part of a peace process to end the Syrian conflict. Reuters reports that “Western powers, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and others reluctantly agreed to allow Assad to remain in place during a transition period, a compromise that has opened the door to a shift on the part of Russia.” An unnamed Western diplomat said that the Russian decision enables a political solution which “will end up with Assad going.”

However, the recent expansion of Russian military operations in Syria casts a shadow on the notion of increased cooperation between Russia and the West. The expansion of Russian air defense systems has grounded U.S. air support missions in Northern Syria as the Obama administration is “scrambling to figure out what to do.” Bloomberg writes that “Moscow deployed an SA-17 advanced air defense system near the area and began ‘painting’ U.S. planes, targeting them with radar in what U.S. officials said was a direct and dangerous provocation.” Major Tim Smith of the Air Force Command Center said that “the increasing number of Russian-supplied advanced air defense systems in Syria, including SA-17s, is another example that Russia and the regime seek to complicate the global counter-Daesh coalition’s air campaign.” Elsewhere, CNN sheds light on Russia’s naval power in Syria.

Even so, leaders from some 20 countries are meeting in New York today in the latest efforts to discuss a political solution to end the Syrian conflict. The New York Times writes that it remains “unclear whether the major powers [can] put aside their rivalries and fulfill a key goal — a United Nations Security Council resolution endorsing a plan for resolving the conflict.” Discussions held in October and November provided an outline for the future of a political solution: “a cease-fire by January; followed by talks between the Syrian government and opposition parties, mediated by the United Nations; and elections in 18 months.”

The United States is pushing for a ceasefire that would enable peace talks to begin between the regime and opposition groups on or around January 1. A ceasefire would also better allow coalition forces to target the Islamic State. It remains to be seen whether or not Assad and his allies will be willing to hold discussions with groups that they have denounced as “terrorists.” Before Friday’s discussions began, Assad told Dutch media that only Russia and Iran would be able to devise a solution that could end Syria’s five year civil war. Politico suggests that Assad’s fate will be the focus of today’s discussions, but that “the question of bringing Assad to justice is off the table for now.” Meanwhile, the various countries involved in the discussions have expressed varying degrees of skepticism that any resolution can be agreed upon today.

American commandos have arrived in Syria and are working with Syrian Arab rebels in the northern part of the country to forge a partnership against the Islamic State, Defense Secretary Ash Carter has confirmed. Foreign Policy writes that “the confirmation of the Syrian mission comes on the heels of another planned deployment of up to 200 Special Operations forces to Iraq, who defense officials say will launch raids to target ISIS leadership.”

U.S.-backed Kurdish forces successfully repelled an ISIS attack on multiple fronts in Iraq yesterday. The Washington Post tells us that “American-led airstrikes killed at least 180 Islamic State fighters as local Kurdish forces­ scrambled to repel [...] at least four coordinated attacks by more than 300 heavily armed militants.” The attacks occurred near the ISIS-held Iraqi city of Mosul in what a U.S. military spokesman referred to as "the hardest punch Isil had thrown since this summer." The Wall Street Journal has more.

Defense Secretary Ash Carter made a stop in Afghanistan “to visit troops and get an update on the situation as Afghan forces square off against an array of threats.” During his visit, Carter suggested that the Islamic State is establishing “little nests” in Afghanistan. The American commander in charge of U.S. and coalition forces in Afghanistan, Gen. John F. Campbell, told reporters that the group is aiming to establish the Nangarhar Province as a base of operations. Campbell estimated that ISIS has between one and three thousand militants in the country.

The Islamic State has also launched an FM radio channel in the eastern part of the country that can be heard in the Nangarhar capital city of Jalalabad. Called “Voice of the Caliphate”---which is notably similar to Voice of America---local sources said that the station had been operating for the past month and broadcasts “propaganda in [the group’s] favor and against the state in order to turn the people against the government.” While one man asserted that the Afghan “people have become aware and they are not falling for it,” another maintained that the population is “so scared that they will listen to anything.”

Israel has killed a Palestinian attacker who attempted to drive his car into Israeli security personnel during a riot in the West Bank. Another Palestinian was killed at the Gaza border after attempting to breach the border fence between the Gaza Strip and Israel. A second attacker was arrested after trying to ram his car into Israeli forces at a separate West Bank checkpoint.

Meanwhile, Israel and Turkey are working to restore full diplomatic relations for the first time since the Mavi Marmara incident occurred five years ago. Tensions have been high between the two countries since "Israeli naval commandos rappelled onto the [Mavi Marmara’s] deck and killed nine activists after being met with violent resistance” in 2010. The ship was part of a flotilla carrying aid to Gaza. Not all in Israel are on board with the rapprochement, however. The Jerusalem Post tells us that some Israeli politicians “warn against paving the way for Turkish ‘foothold in Gaza.’”

Over in Turkey, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has vowed to “annihilate” Kurdish PKK militants. Turkey’s intensified efforts in recent days have left at least 25 Kurdish militants dead in the country’s southeast. Erdoğan declared that Turkish “security forces will continue this fight until it has been completely cleansed and a peaceful atmosphere established."

Russia’s defense ministry publicly opened the black box of the warplane that was shot down by Turkish forces last month, hoping to “confirm its assertions that the jet did not stray into Turkish airspace and was maliciously downed.” Officials discovered that the black box had sustained damage from the incident, and Reuters reports that experts will “try to analyze its contents over the weekend with the aid of special equipment before presenting their findings on Monday.”

A family friend of Syrian President Bashar al Assad announced that he will run for the vacant Lebanese presidency. Reuters writes that “Lebanese lawmaker Suleiman Franjieh announced his candidacy [...], voicing confidence in a power-sharing proposal that would put him in the top role and make Sunni Muslim politician Saad al-Hariri prime minister.” Sources suggest that the arrangement “could revive government institutions paralyzed by political rivalries that have been heightened by the war in neighboring Syria.”

Enrique Marquez, friend of the couple behind the San Bernardino massacre, was “charged with crimes including conspiring to support terrorists” after being arrested yesterday.

Elsewhere, federal authorities have charged 19-year-old Jalil Ibn Ameer Azis of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, with two counts of attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State. Azis used Twitter to promote ISIS propaganda and also tried to help others travel to Syria to fight for the group. Most troubling, prosecutors said that investigators found a “tactical-style backpack” with a high-capacity magazine loaded with ammunition, a modified kitchen knife, and a full face mask, suggesting he may have been “preparing to conduct or assist others in conducting an attack in the United States.” The Associated Press has more.

In New York, Mufid A. Elfgeeh, 31, pleaded guilty to attempting to recruit fighters to join ISIS. Reuters carries the story on Elfgeeh’s activities.

Breaking news out of the investigation into the Paris attacks today as French counterterrorism investigators have revealed that they believe the men suspected in the assault on the French capital used widely available encryption tools to orchestrate and execute their plan. Previously, investigators had confirmed that WhatsApp and Telegram, two free end-to-end encrypted messaging apps, were found on the suspects’ phones. This comes after FBI Director James Comey confirmed to the Senate last week that the individuals behind a May shooting in Garland, Texas had exchanged 109 encrypted messages with overseas terrorist the morning of the attack. The Post speculates that the latest revelation “could add fuel to calls in Congress” for service providers to create a backdoor for law enforcement to access and monitor encrypted communications.

While that may be indeed happen, Politico reports that the Obama administration does not appear likely to budge on encryption and its previously stated opposition to mandating backdoors.

While we’re discussing encrypted apps: Foreign Policy brings us the news that authorities in Brazil blocked access to WhatsApp for several hours yesterday. The service, which an estimated 93 percent of Brazilians use, was blocked after it failed to comply with a Brazilian court order to produce data in a criminal trial. The block was scheduled to last 48-hours as punishment for WhatsApp’s failure to comply, but an “appeals court quickly overturned the ban as disproportionate.” It is unclear if WhatsApp was unable to produce the data because it was encrypted, or if Facebook, which owns WhatsApp, chose not to turn over the data because it was on a server in another country.

The Guardian tells us that U.N. sponsored peace talks have been suspended after ceasefire violations from both sides of the conflict in Yemen. According to the British paper, the “Houthi rebel delegation says it will not resume talks to end eight-month conflict unless UN condemns government breach of truce.” Before that declaration, Yemeni warring sides "agreed to allow the resumption of aid deliveries to the besieged city of Taiz," the BBC reports.

Libya’s warring parties signed a deal to establish a unity government yesterday. While some members of the rival parliaments have denounced the deal as illegitimate, the Guardian writes that Britain expects to be “asked by the new Libyan government to deploy troops to train and advise the country’s fledgling force as it attempts to stabilise Libya and stem the advance of Islamic State, which has [established] a coastal base” in Sirte. Britain “hopes to send hundreds of troops” to the country. Also, after months of “in and out” U.S. assistance in the country, a team of U.S. commandos were ordered to leave almost immediately after landing earlier this week due to a miscommunication between the Libyan air force and army.

Indian authorities in New Delhi have arrested three alleged members of al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent. According to the Indian Express, two of the men arrested have identified Sanaul Haq, an Indian from Uttar Pradesh, as the leader of the group. Haq is apparently in Pakistan.

From the Tank: The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative at CSIS has released its newest edition, and it’s just in time for Christmas. What’s beneath the wrapping? A deep dive into the pending case between the Philippines and China before the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague regarding the latter’s claims in the South China Sea. It’s replete with audio, video, and maps that explain the legal claims of both countries and the Court’s potential rulings.

From the looks of the interview Chuck Hagel gave Dan De Luce of Foreign Policy, there are not too many people from the Obama administration he’d put on the nice list this year. De Luce summarizes the former Secretary of Defense’s remarks as suggesting “the Obama administration micromanaged the Pentagon, stabbed him in the back on the way out --- and still has no strategy to fix Syria.” But Hagel said he still holds President Obama in “high regard.” Read the full interview here.

Share Harris of the Daily Beast got his hands on a Pentagon memo describing one very serious problem: the military cannot afford to pay top cybersecurity “red team” operators and hackers to ensure that its networks are secure. The memo says that in the past three years, several senior red team members have left for better paying private sector jobs and the military’s remaining techies ‘“are not keeping pace” with sophisticated adversaries.” The Defense Department currently employs only one-third of the total number of red team operators it needs according to its own estimates.

According to the Washington Post, a measure included in the must-pass omnibus will strip the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board’s (PCLOB) of its ability to “conduct oversight of U.S. covert action programs.” The Post notes that the measure, titled “Clarification of Authority of Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board,” comes after House Intelligence Committee’s GOP members were incensed by an essay written by the board’s chairman, David Medine, calling for a “Drone Board” to review the U.S. government’s targeted killing program.

Yesterday, the Associated Press reported that General John F. Kelly, the commander of U.S. military’s Southern Command, planned to impose new restrictions on media access to the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay. The new rules would limit journalists to only one visit per quarter, lasting no more than a day. Reporters would also no longer be allowed to enter the two detention center camps that house the majority of the remaining detainees. Yet after the White House objected to the plan, McClatchy shares that General Kelly is now reconsidering the order, and instead “weighing a plan that might expand access.”

Parting Shot: This headline from Vice News sums up modern warfare surprisingly well: “A Ukrainian website is outing Russian soldiers, and Moscow wants Canada to stop it.”

Wait, there’s more. According to a new poll released by Public Policy Polling, 30 percent of Republicans and 19 percent of Democrats favor bombing Agrabah---yes, that’s right; they favor bombing the mythical setting of Disney’s 1993 hit Aladdin. That’s what we call “magic” carpet bombing, folks.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Ellen Scholl shared the latest edition of Hot Commodities, which features a review of what was accomplished in the Paris talks and a notes on Congress’s decision to lift the crude oil export ban.

Jack let us in on a little secret: “Congress is about to vote on an AUMF against ISIL, quietly and without debate.”

Arun Mohan Sukumar outlined the going dark debate in India and how the Wassenaar Arrangement may push India to break encryption.

Ben linked to the newest edition of Rational Security with special guest Will McCants on what ISIS must have thought of the Republican debate.

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