Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Cody M. Poplin
Monday, December 28, 2015, 3:12 PM

We return today to the news that Iraqi security forces have retaken most of Ramadi from Islamic State militants. Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, fell to ISIS in May. On Sunday, Iraqi military officials announced that they had cleared a central government compound in the city, and today the head of military operations in the city said that ISIS now controls only 30 percent of the city. The Washington Post describes a “celebratory atmosphere in Baghdad, where state television showed images of people dancing and setting of fireworks.” Even so, the days ahead will likely feature more difficult fighting as the government attempts to clear the remaining neighborhoods to which ISIS fighters have retreated.

Following a string of ISIS losses, big Baghdadi is back, or at least the Islamic State has released a fresh audio recording of a speech apparently delivered by the militant group’s leader and self-declared Caliph, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi. In the speech—his first in seven months the New York Times reportsBaghdadi discusses the rising pressure against the Islamic State, saying it is a worldwide attack by “disbelievers.” He calls on Muslims to fight on behalf of the group. You can read an English version of the speech, hosted by Pieter Van Ostaeyen, here

According to documents reviewed by Reuters, the Islamic State has sanctioned the harvesting of human organs. A U.S. government translation of a document seized in a raid of an Islamic State compound in May carries the official Fatwa, which says “the apostate’s life and organs don’t have to be respected and may be taken with impunity” even if removal of the organ will kill the individual. While the document does not prove that the Islamic State is engaging in organ harvesting or trafficking, Reuters notes that it provides religious justification for such activities. A separate Reuters report delves into the findings from other documents seized in the Abu Sayyaf raid, including that that Islamic State has set up a department to handle “war spoils,” which includes slaves, antiquities, and natural resources.

The Associated Press reports that the death of Zahran Alloush, the commander of the Army of Islam, is likely to “reshuffle the lineup of key players” ahead of planned peace talks in Geneva late next month. The Army of Islam is considered one of the most powerful groups fighting Syrian President Bashar al Assad. Although the Syrian government claimed responsibility for the attack, it is unclear whether the airstrike that killed Alloush was carried out by Russian or Syrian warplanes. The New York Times shares that the killing of Alloush has already led to the suspension of a truce that would have resulted in the removal of some fighters from the southern area of Damascus, complicating United Nations efforts for a larger ceasefire agreement.

In an interview on Russian television, a senior Russian officer said that the Russian air force has not killed any civilians in Syria, strongly rejecting an Amnesty International report that suggested Russian airstrikes had killed many civilians and that their targeting could amount to a war crime. The commander-in-chief of Russia’s Aerospace Forces, Viktor Bondarev, rejected the allegations, saying that “the Military Space Forces have never hit civilian targets in Syria” and “have never missed their targets, have never hit...so-called sensitive places: schools, hospitals, mosques.”

Last week, an airstrike in Damascus killed a prominent militant leader of Hezbollah named Samir Qantar. Yesterday, Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, warned that Israel should expect retaliation for the attack, saying that “we cannot forgive the shedding of our mujahideen blood by the Zionists” and that “Israelis should be justifiably worried.” For its part, Israel welcomed the news of Qantar’s death, but has not confirmed that it was behind the airstrike that killed him.

Are we losing Afghanistan? The Associated Press reports that a suicide car bomb attack near the Kabul international airport killed at least one and wounded 13 others this morning. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, which comes just one week after another suicide attack killed six U.S. soldiers north of Kabul. In a previously undisclosed transcript of a late-October meeting of the Afghan National Security Council, Afghan and American officials offered increasingly grim assessments of the threat from the Taliban, which the Post notes, is “showing a battle discipline and initiative far superior to the Afghan security forces.”

The Taliban controls almost 30 percent of districts in the country, more than any year since 2001 and about 7,000 members of the Afghan security forces have been killed this year alone. In the meeting, General John F. Campbell, the commander of U.S. and allied forces in Afghanistan, told Afghan leaders that he would “use more of my SOF and enablers to buy you more space and time.” The Post has more in a lengthy and excellent report by Sudarsan Raghavan.

But the Taliban isn’t the only threat in the country, the Associated Press points out. A brutal battle between the Islamic State and local militias is filtering out across Nangarhar province.

In the New York Times, Mark Mazzetti and Eric Schmitt explore the growing role of U.S. special operators around the world, noting that their increased involvement in conflicts from Afghanistan, to Syria, to Libya, to Cameroon reflects both President Barack Obama’s antipathy for putting “boots on the ground” and the need to “snuff out crises in numerous locations.”

China has passed a new anti-terrorism law authorizing the armed forces and paramilitary police to participate in counterterrorism operations abroad. Notably, while the law does require Internet companies to help authorities decrypt data, the new law does not require providers to hand over encryption keys to authorities or to store their data locally. The measure also restricts the rights of the media to report on terrorist attacks and the government’s response. Reuters has more on the law.

In a landmark agreement, South Korea and Japan have agreed to “irreversibly” resolve the issue of “comfort women”—a euphemism used in World War II for women, many of them Korean, “forced to work in Japan’s wartime brothels.” The issue has long clouded the relationship between the two neighbors. Under the new agreement, Japan has agreed to contribute $8.3 million to a fund to help survivors. The number of exploited women has long been a hot-button issue, with some activists claiming that there were as many as 200,000 Korean victims. However, only 238 Korean women ever came forward, and of them, only 46 survivors remain. Their average age is now 89. Reuters tells us that the question of what to do with the bronze statue that memorializes the comfort women, stationed across the street from the Japanese Embassy in Seoul, remains unanswered.

Following a Christmas Day attack in Nigeria that killed at least 14 people, Boko Haram fighters launched another attack on the northeastern city of Maiduguri, killing at least 50 people. A twin suicide bombing, also on Monday, killed at least 30 more people in the town of Madagali, roughly 150 kilometers southeast of Maiduguri. The two suicide bombers were both women, an increasingly common occurrence as jihadism becomes an equal opportunity challenge around the world.

After 18 days, authorities in the city of Geneva today lowered its terror alert level. A police statement said that “all the recent events considered as potential targets, be they diplomatic, religious or commercial, are now over.” Yet as the Swiss lower their terror alert, Reuters tells us that Austrian police announced on Saturday that a “friendly” intelligence service had warned European countries of a possible attack before the New Year. Countries across the continent have increased security measures, but police in Vienna said that investigations into the tip had “so far yielded no concrete results.”

Charles Levinson and David Rohde of Reuters report that over a number of years and a series of cases, the Pentagon has attempted to slow the transfer and release of detainees held at Guantanamo Bay, throwing up repeated bureaucratic obstacles and refusing to “provide photographs, complete medical records and other basic documentation to foreign governments willing to take detainees.” The Pentagon has denied any intentional effort to halt the transfers, but has invoked patient-privacy concerns to avoid releasing medical information and even the Geneva Conventions’ prohibition on using prisoners of war for “public curiosity” in order to block foreign delegations from taping interviews with detainees.

Parting Shot: So that you don’t end up like these people, heartbroken as your drone falls from the sky, Wired brings us a how-to guide to avoid immediately destroying that new drone you got over the holidays.

ICYMI: This Weekend, on Lawfare

Jack flagged his an Oona Hathaway’s op-ed in the Washington Post on the U.S. government’s broken pre-publication review process, which they argue does “pervasive and unjustifiable harms to freedom of speech.”

Ben shared his LOAC dream, noting that is how you know when you need a few days off.

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