Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Cody M. Poplin
Wednesday, January 6, 2016, 6:40 PM

After detection devices around the world picked up a 5.1 seismic event along North Korea’s northeast coast late Tuesday night, North Korea declared that it had tested its first ever hydrogen bomb. However, the White House said today that there was no evidence to support the Hermit Kingdom's assertion that its fourth nuclear test since 2006 actually tested a hydrogen bomb, which would be a first for the country. Instead, the seismic event more likely resulted from the test of a less powerful atomic warhead. White House Spokesman Josh Earnest said that the initial data was “not consistent with North Korea claims of a successful hydrogen bomb test.” The executive secretary of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty suggested that the seismic reading from the test appeared to be “slightly down” compared to the level produced following the DPRK’s last nuclear test in 2013. Even so, the Washington Post reports that “data from the blast will be carefully scrutinized for any hints of technological advances in its nuclear program.”

The test has drawn criticism from around the world, including from China and Russia. And Reuters reports that the United Nations Security Council will begin working on significant new measures against the country, which could mean a new round of sanctions against Pyongyang. According to the Wall Street Journal, the test was likely designed to push North Korea back into the diplomatic spotlight, forcing Washington to take it more seriously at the negotiating table. A statement on North Korean state media said “there can neither be suspended nuclear development nor nuclear dismantlement on the part of the DPRK unless the U.S. has rolled back its vicious hostile policy toward the former.”

Vox provides North Korea’s official hydrogen bomb statement, and as they say, “it’s a doozy.”

From one hotspot to another: concerned that the Saudi-Iran feud threatens to undermine Iraq’s political integrity and ability to combat ISIS, Baghdad has “dispatched its foreign minister to Tehran on Wednesday with an offer to mediate” between the two parties. The Administration of Haider al Abadi is worried that renewed sectarian tensions could unravel its fight against the Islamic State, forcing the country into an impossible balancing act between the United States, Iran, and Sunni Tribal fighters battling ISIS. A spokesman for Iraq’s prime minister said Tuesday that “the rise of sectarian tensions creates a fertile environment for the growth of ISIS.” Yet while the tensions between Sunni Saudi Arabia and Shiite Iran complicate relations inside Iraq, one Sunni tribal leader in Anbar province told the New York Times, “the problem between Iran and Saudi will not affect us,” and continued by saying that “we have given tens of martyrs not for Iran or Saudi, but for our country, for the city of Ramadi.”

In a letter to the United Nations, Iran has expressed its “regrets” over the assault on Saudi Arabia’s embassy in Tehran. The letter went on to say that “Iran will take necessary measures to prevent similar occurrences.”

The New York Times provides an excellent graphic of the complex Sunni-Shiite religious divide that is mapped onto the political divisions in the Middle East.

The Washington Post brings us news of a new “deadly offensive against security forces” in the Haditha district of Iraq, some 90 miles northwest of Ramadi, as Islamic State militants launched a series of car bomb attacks and unleashed the “the most violent attacks” seen yet in the area, according to one Iraqi army captain. Security forces and local media reported that between two dozen and 60 Iraqi forces had been killed in the fighting (the Post notes that the discrepancy between those two numbers could not immediately be reconciled).

U.S. Army Colonel Steve Warren announced yesterday that ISIS has lost roughly one-third of the territory it once controlled in Iraq and Syria. According to his estimate, the group has lost about 40 percent of its territory in Iraq and around 20 percent in Syria. Yet Agence France-Presse noted that those estimates appeared optimistic compared to the figure of 14 percent provided by IHS Jane's.

The Wall Street Journal reports that “U.K. officials are racing to identify a British-accented militant featured in Islamic State’s latest propaganda video.” The militant appeared in a short video released on Sunday, which depicts the executions of five hostages who the man accuses of being spies for the British government. According to the Journal, police have focused in on a London man named Siddhartha Dhar as the main suspect. Dhar, labelled the “New Jihadi John” by some, is a Muslim convert in his early 30s and father of four who was a bouncy castle salesman in suburban London before leaving for Syria in 2014. He fled the United Kingdom after being arrested on suspicions of encouraging terrorism.

A new document obtained by the Associated Press reveals that the Obama administration’s “best case scenario for political transition in Syria does not foresee Bashar Assad stepping down as the country’s leader before March 2017,” a timeline that the AP notes would outlast Obama’s own presidency by at least two months. If Assad were to actually leave in March 2017, he would have stayed an additional five years after President Obama first called for him to relinquish power in Syria. The document also plans elections for a new president and parliament in August 2017. Syria, in the interim, would be run by a transitional governing body, but the AP does not share whether the document itself outlines who would actually make up that transitional government.

In a nod to the increasing importance of special operations forces, President Obama will nominate General Joseph Votel, the current head of U.S. Special Operations Command, to become the head of U.S. Central Command and oversee the missions in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan. According to the Wall Street Journal, the nomination of General Votel “reflects Mr. Obama’s long-held inclination to counter extremist movements like the group calling itself the Islamic State with small, highly capable forces like Delta and SEAL teams, rather than large ground units like those used in wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

Tragic news out of Afghanistan today where we are reminded that U.S. forces remain very much in a hostile environment, even if they are not engaged in “combat.” The Associated Press reports that one U.S. special forces member was killed yesterday and two others wounded while fighting near the city of Marjah, in southern Helmand province. According to U.S. Army Col. Mike Lawhorn, the special forces were advising Afghan security forces during a battle. In the Daily Beast, Nancy Youssef writes that the event remains oddly “shrouded in mystery—with the Pentagon refusing to explain their mission in an increasingly secretive conflict.”

Elsewhere in the country, the Taliban reportedly captured two districts from the Islamic State in Nangarhar province, with Afghan police confirming that “hundreds of Taliban insurgents mounted a big attack on IS bases earlier this week.” Local media in Pakistan reported that the fighting had killed more than 150 militants, most of whom were ISIS-affiliated fighters.

In Kabul, the third suicide attack in two days rocked the city when a bomber detonated his vest near a police checkpoint. However, Afghan Tolo News shares that no casualties were reported.

Last month, a cyber attack knocked part of the Ukranian power grid offline, leading to blackouts in parts of western Ukraine and leaving almost 700,000 homes without power. Today, Shane Harris of the Daily Beast reports that U.S. intelligence agencies are investigating whether the attack was the work of Russian hackers, with computer security experts from the CIA, NSA, and Department of Homeland Security all examining samples of malware taken from the networks of the power grid in question. If attributed to hackers, Harris writes that the hack would be “the first documented case of a cyber attack on an electrical power facility that led to a loss of electricity."

According to the New York Times, the FBI has issued a public appeal for any information on what the two San Bernardino shooters did between 12:59 pm and 1:17 pm in the afternoon following the deadly killing spree at a holiday party. Investigators have accounted for all but those 18 minutes between the time the husband and wife attacked the party to when they were killed by police. David Bowdich, the FBI agent running the investigation, said that investigators “want to know if they stopped at any residence, business that we don’t already know about.” Bowdich also announced that at this point in the investigation, they “do not see any indication of a foreign-directed terrorist act.” Instead, he suggested that the shooting “seems to be an inspired terrorist attack.”

Yesterday, a tearful Barack Obama announced a series of executive actions designed to expand background checks for gun purchases, allocate more funding for gun law enforcement, and increase research for effective ways to counter gun violence. The New York Times carries more on the president’s announcement as well as a roundup of reactions to the measures.

Parting Shot: What is the word for the “Russian Federation” in Ukrainian? Well, if you happened to ask Google Translate this week, you would have been told the word for “Mordor,” which the Post reminds us is the “grim, volcanic region in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.” Adding to the confusion, “Russian” translated to “occupant” and Russia’s top diplomat, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, became “grustnaya loshadka” or the “sad little horse.” Google solved the problem late yesterday, and it remains unclear whether the mistranslations were the result of a hack or whether someone at Google was trying to send a message to Moscow.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Quinta Jurecic explored Obama’s legacy in law, transparency, and the politics of anguish.

Alex Loomis walked us through the Department of Justice’s amicus brief in Weinstein v. Islamic Republic of Iran, a case that asks whether country-code top-level domains are the property of those countries’ foreign governments.

John Bellinger explained several of the U.S. government’s concerns with the pending aggression amendments to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.

Finally, Ben updated us on his application for Estonian digital residency.

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.