Today's Headlines and Commentary

Today's Headlines and Commentary

By Alex R. McQuade, Cody M. Poplin
Monday, January 25, 2016, 1:54 PM

Twenty-five people were killed in a suicide bombing that shook Cameroon’s Far North region on Monday. The attack, which has been named the most deadly in a series of assaults connected to Boko Haram, occurred when a pair of bombers blew themselves up at the Bodo central market; other suicide attackers struck the town’s main entryways. Reuters reports that there was no immediate claim of responsibility.

Turning to Syria: the New York Times shares that the United States has relied heavily on Saudi Arabia’s money to support the Syrian rebel-training mission. Under the deal between the two countries — whose spy agencies share a decades-long relationship — the Saudis contribute weapons and large sums of money, while the CIA leads the effort to train the Syrian rebels directly on the ground. It’s a relationship of mutual trust built on mutual interest, but one increasingly strained as the United States attempts rapprochement with Iran.

The Islamic State continues to intensify its siege against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s last stronghold in eastern Syria, according to the Washington Post. The extremist group, which has suffered a series of defeats elsewhere in the country, has unleashed waves of suicide bombers and other attacks in its latest push to seize the city of Deir al-Zour. The siege has raised concerns in the United Nations that the Islamic State’s year-long blockade of the city could result in mounting deaths from starvation.

The Associated Press tells us that Russia’s military has no plans to set up another airbase in Syria. The statement from Russia’s defense ministry follows media reports stating that Russia may be preparing to build another base in Qamishli in northeastern Syria.

Base 2.0 or no base 2.0, Assad’s regime forces aided by Russian airstrikes continue to advance, most recently seizing control of a rebel stronghold in Syria’s northwestern province of Latakia. The advances in the area put the regime within striking distance of neighboring Idlib province, the only territory in Syria entirely under rebel control, the Wall Street Journal reports. This strategic gain strengthens Assad’s hand just before the peace talks that were set to occur in Geneva this week.

However, Syrian peace talks were stalled today as no one knew who would represent President Assad’s opponents, according to Reuters. International disagreement over who should be invited from the opposition once again held up talks set to begin today. Reuters also shares that diplomacy has yielded little progress so far in Syria’s five-year-old civil war, which has killed more than 250,000 people and has driven more than 10 million from their homes.

Vice President Joe Biden visited Turkey this weekend in the Obama administration’s latest effort to reduce rising tensions between Turkey and Iraq and also to coordinate a military plan to take back Mosul from the Islamic State, the Wall Street Journal shares. Vice President Biden stated that the United States and Turkey are prepared to seek a military solution against the Islamic State if a diplomatic agreement in Syria proves impossible, according to the BBC.

However, Turkey and the United States disagree on the status of the Syrian Kurdish forces who have become a key ally in the United States’ strategy to defeat the Islamic State, the Post reports. While both country’s leaders praised the United States and Turkey’s alliance, Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoglu called the Syrian Kurds, the People’s Protection Units (YPG) who ally with the United States, a terrorist organization. Vice President Biden never mentioned the Syrian Kurds and only referenced Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers Party, known as the PKK, which the United States also calls a terrorist organization.

On Sunday, the Islamic State released a new video allegedly showing footage of the men who attacked Paris in November while they were in Syria and Iraq. The video depicts the Paris attackers carrying out executions, including beheadings. The Times describes the video here. If the identities of the men in the video are confirmed, it would be the first publicly confirmed piece of evidence that the Islamic State ordered the attack in Paris that killed 130 people and left hundreds of others injured. In the video, the Islamic State also threatens to attack Britain.

According to the Agence France-Presse, Europol issued a report today indicating that the Islamic State has developed new combat style capabilities to carry out a massive terrorist attack in Europe. The agency warned that ISIS is planning “large-scale” attacks throughout Europe similar to the one in Paris.

A Jewish man in France was targeted by an Islamic State-inspired attacker in an attempted beheading. Benjamin Amsellem, a teacher at a Jewish school in Marseille, defended himself against the machete wielding teenage fanatic using his Torah. The Times reports that this incident was the third knife attack since October in Marseille, where France’s second largest Jewish community resides. The attacks have left French Jews “deeply unnerved.”

Malaysian police arrested seven people believed to be linked to the Islamic State. Last week, Malaysian officials arrested a suspect whom they believe was planning a suicide attack. The seven suspects, all of whom are Malaysian nationals ranging from 26 to 50 years old, were detained as a result of information obtained from earlier counterterrorism operations, according to the Wall Street Journal.

The New York Times reports that newly disclosed documents suggest that Iranian officials knew far more about CIA consultant Robert Levinson than they initially stated. In late 2011, a top Iranian diplomat acknowledged that Iran was holding Levinson and would release him only if the United States helped delay a criticizing statement on Iran’s nuclear activities. However, Iranian officials stressed during the nuclear negotiations talks that they did not know Levinson’s whereabouts. Levinson disappeared in Iran in 2007.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is in Italy today leading a 120-member delegation of business leaders and ministers at the start of his first official visit to Europe. Reuters writes that the Iranian leader is “seeking to sign multi-billion dollar contracts to help modernize Iran’s economy.” After two days in Rome, the delegation will head to France. Italian officials have indicated that Italian companies are likely to sign deals worth up to $18.4 billion USD this week. During his visit to Europe, Rouhani will meet with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, French President Francois Hollande, and Pope Francis. Reuters has more on the steel and energy deals at the ready.

At an unofficial forum in Qatar this weekend, the political wing of the Afghan Taliban met with activists and former government officials, outlining their preconditions for peace talks. According to a statement released on their website, Voice of Jihad, the Taliban will not consider peace until U.N. and U.S. sanctions against its senior officials are lifted and foreign troops are withdrawn from Afghanistan. In addition, the Taliban demanded the “release of prisoners.” The Long War Journal explains that future negotiations will likely be used by the Taliban to “achieve its tactical goals” while offering few to any real concessions. In a separate statement released three days ago, the Taliban defined peace as one among believers under the “Islamic system.”

Spencer Ackerman of the Guardian shares the story of the first drone strike authorized in the Obama presidency, covering the experience of Faheem Qureshi, a 14-year-old whose home in Pakistan was hit in an errant drone strike. Qureshi, who lost his right eye and several family members in the strike, calls the drone campaign in his home of North Waziristan “an act of tyranny.” Read the rest from the Guardian.

The New York Times reports that the Pentagon has “asked the American Psychological Association to reconsider its ban on the involvement of psychologists in national security interrogations at the Guantanamo Bay prison and other facilities.” According to the Times, a spokeswoman for the Association said that APA and Pentagon officials planned to meet soon to discuss the organization’s proposed policies.

In case you missed it as “Snowzilla” approached, last Wednesday the American Civil Liberties Union “announced a new, bipartisan campaign to introduce privacy bills in 16 states and the District of Columbia.” The ACLU has determined that, due to gridlock in federal Washington, a state-by-state approach is “the most effective” way to push nationwide changes. The bills, according to the Washington Post, will include “proposals that do things like require a warrant before law enforcement agencies can gain access to emails, provide checks on location-tracking technology, or create new rules about the use of student information.”

Parting Shot: 300,000 commercial and hobby drones have been registered in the FAA’s new drone registration system. For those concerned about their potential for harm, the Remote Control project hosted by the Oxford Research Group provides cold comfort. Check out their new report on the known use of drones by non-state actors, potential countermeasures, and how we should think about the future of remote-piloted violence.

ICYMI: This Weekend, on Lawfare

Susan shared a Lawfare link roundup for those of you snowbound on the East Coast. Take a look and catch up on anything you’ve missed this year.

Paul Rosenzweig also provided a less uplifting news roundup, illustrating that “we can’t do cybersecurity. Period.”

Cody posted the latest Lawfare Podcast on “Ashley’s War” and the Role of Women on the Special Ops Battlefield.

Charles Kels wrote on “contractors in the ‘kill chain,’” exploring the “nexus of LOAC and procurement law.

In this week’s Foreign Policy Essay, Afshon Ostovar argued that the Middle East has entered a “Cold War of its own,” and that “options for mitigating the conflict are few and far between.”

Naz Modirzadeh offered a critique of “the U.N. Secretary-General’s Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism.”

Herb Lin highlighted a new article in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences entitled “Private algorithms for the protected in social network search,” which he suggests provides “a proof of concept” for “facilitating searches for bad guys with minimal harm to the privacy of the good guys.”

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