Situation Report By Foreign Policy: Today & Yesterday – A Hollywood Script

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Yesterday:

Situation Report: A new Europe; more ISIS recruits said to be active; fighting near Mosul; Syrian forces push further south; Russian commandos in Syria; and lots more
 
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SITUATION REPORT
 
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Thursday, March 24, 2016
 
 

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

European threat picture growing. European intelligence services have been knocked back on their heels after the attacks in Brussels that killed 31 and injured about 300 more this week, and are scrambling to understand the size of the Islamist terrorist networks active in their cities.

One of the key outstanding questions is, who is the man in the white jacket? Grainy CCTV footage from the Brussels airport shows a man in a white jacket walking alongside two men thought to be the suicide bombers. FP’s Elias Groll and Dan De Luce write that the mysterious figure points to a larger network linking the attack in Belgium with November’s slaughter in Paris. “The network has deep roots in Muslim neighborhoods in Belgium as well as the Islamic State’s bastion in eastern Syria. But events this week underscored how Belgian and other Western authorities are still struggling to get a handle on the full extent of the group’s tentacles in Europe, amid fears that another attack may be launched before security services can roll up the group’s cell.”

More suspects. The latest reports Thursday reveal that Belgian authorities are looking for a second attacker who may have taken part in the subway bombing and may still be at large. What’s more, the main suspect in the Paris attacks, Salah Abdeslam, appeared in court in Brussels on Thursday morning. His lawyer said Abdeslam is not fighting extradition to France, which wants to put him up on terrorism charges for the Nov. 13 rampage in Paris that left 130 dead.

Pool of recruits. The Islamic State has long fished in the deep waters of Europe’s street gangs and small-time criminals, pulling in scores of troubled young men and women from predominantly poor Muslim neighborhoods. “Some recruits have scant knowledge of Islam but, attracted by the group’s violent ideology, they become skilled and eager accomplices in carrying out acts of extraordinary cruelty.”

Intelligence officials from Europe and Iraq are now saying that the Islamic State has trained at least 400 people to participate in terrorist attacks on the continent. Many of the units are helmed by French-speaking terrorists with North African backgrounds who have gained battlefield experience in Syria and Libya. An Iraqi intelligence official said a new cell from the terrorist group’s external action wing has already crossed the Turkish border, bound for Europe. The ringleader of the November 2015 Paris attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, reportedly claimed to have traveled back to Europe with some 90 foreign fighters, but the claim hasn’t been confirmed.

Mosul on my mind. Iraqi officials made the dramatic announcement Thursday that the fight for the ISIS-held city of Mosul has begun, interrupting Iraqi television broadcasts to show patriotic clips and wave the Iraqi flag. Big, if true. But there’s little indication that the recapture of several villages near Makhmour, about 50 miles south of Mosul, represents the start of the long and likely bloody campaign to retake the city from the terrorist organization, which has held it since June, 2014.

For starters, reports indicate that there are only about 2,000 to 3,000 Iraqi forces in place at a new Iraqi operations center near Makhmour, far short of the 12 brigades, or 24,000 troops, widely estimated to be needed to even begin the Mosul operation. The move comes less than a week after a U.S. Marine on a previously undisclosed mission was killed when two Katyusha rockets launched by Islamic State fighters slammed into the outpost where he was based in the country’s north. As many as 200 Marines have been posted at the firebase.

Brussels traffic. Watch this stunning graphic of what happened to flight patterns coming into Brussels just before — and after — Monday’s terrorist attack

Thanks for clicking on through this morning as we work through another week of SitRep. As always, if you have any thoughts, announcements, tips, or national  security-related events to share, please pass them along to SitRep HQ. Best way is to send them to: paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.

Syria

The commander of Russian ground forces in Syria says that Russian special operations forces are still active in the country despite the pullback of some forces announced by Russian President Vladimir Putin, Tass reports. Colonel General Alexander Dvornikov said the commandos are on doing reconnaissance on targets for the remaining Russian warplanes in Syria, helping to direct airstrikes, training Syrian forces and “fulfilling other special tasks.”

The Assad regime has managed to claw its way within seven miles of the ancient city of Palmyra, which is still being held by the Islamic State. Russian planes have backed up Assad’s ground forces with a barrage of airstrikes, which locals say are indiscriminate and have killed many civilians. The recently agreed-to cessation of hostilities does not cover offensives against the Islamic State or the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front. Since ISIS captured Palmyra in May of 2015, the jihadist group has destroyed and looted archaeological sites and artifacts from the city, murdered a prominent archaeologist working there, and terrorized the local population.

The Syrian opposition’s top negotiator for the international peace talks in Geneva has made some eyebrow-raising claims about the presence of North Korean troops in the middle of Syria’s civil war. The Asaad Al-Zoubi says Pyongyang has dispatched two units named Chalma-1 and Chalma-2 to Syria to fight on behalf of the Assad regime. Syria has relatively close relations with North Korea, despite its global isolation, but evidence for the presence of North Korean troops in Syria is thus far sorely lacking.

Russia

A BBC investigative report claims that a Russian “troll factory” faked a video which purports to show an American soldier shooting a Koran with a Saiga 410K semi-automatic shotgun. The video shows a man in desert camouflage speaking accented English. It was originally posted to a gun forum and then quickly circulated by accounts and on forums associated with professional Russian trolls — people paid to write anti-Western, pro-Russian comments on social media. The BBC believes it may have located the man in the video through geotagged instagram pics near a troll factory firm in St. Petersburg.

Russia says it doubled the number of submarine combat patrols last year, according to Vice Admiral Alexander Fedotenkov, deputy commander-in-chief of the Russian navy. The Diplomat notes that Fedotenkov’s claims jive with comments made by NATO Allied Maritime Command chief Vice Admiral Clive Johnstone last month noting that Russian submarine activity had recently reached Cold War levels.

China

The open source sleuths at IHS Jane’s have spotted the presence of new anti-ship missiles on Woody Island in the South China Sea. Images posted to the Chinese microblog Weibo appear to show YJ-62 anti-ship cruise missile deployed to the disputed island, which has also been claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan. Over the course of the past few months, China has deployed a number of military assets to islands in the South China Sea, including fighter jets and surface-to-air missile batteries on Woody Island and high frequency radars on Cuarteron Reef. The U.S. has criticized China for its alleged “militarization” of the South China Sea.

China continues work on its first overseas base on the shores of the tiny African country of Djibouti, and Beijing is in full-on PR mode. China’s talking points stress that the base and a railway connecting it to Ethiopia are all about developing trade links and not about expanding Chinese military power. But the message isn’t sitting well in countries like India, where officials fear the Djibouti base could be part of a naval encirclement in the Indian Ocean. As FP’s Paul McLeary pointed out last month, the facility also sits pretty close to a key U.S. drone base.

Afghanistan

The Taliban is still struggling to quell dissent against the leadership of Mullah Akhtar Mansoor, Afghanistan’s Tolo News reports. Fighters loyal to a dissident Taliban faction in Badghis province, led by former Taliban bigwig Mullah Rasoul, have been fighting members of the group loyal to Mansoor, who took over the Afghan Taliban after it was revealed last year that founder Mullah Mohammed Omar had been dead for two years. Mullah Rasoul’s faction claims that Mansour, with help from Pakistani intelligence, have been waging war against dissident Taliban, killing and imprisoning them.

Advanced research

The intelligence community’s advanced research shop, IARPA, is looking to build a system that can remotely detect all manner of nasty and dangerous chemicals hanging around U.S. facilities. And its name is everything you hoped it would be. The Molecular Analyzer for Efficient Gas-phase Low-power Interrogation, or MAEGLIN would look for harmful substances like chemical weapons, radioactive materials, drugs, toxins, and pollutants by periodically sampling the air and analyzing its contents at different sites.

Air Force

The Air Force is mulling a new missile to protect American fighter jets against the latest crop of Russian and Chinese air-to-air weapons. Flight Global reports that Lockheed Martin has been talking up its Small Advanced Capabilities Missile, or, SACM concept. The SACM would protect jets like the F-22 and F-35 by seeking out and destroying incoming PL-12  and Vympel RVV-BD air-to-air missiles, made by China and Russia, respectively. Lockheed says it could produce the defensive missiles in a year and a half to two and a half years, if given the go-ahead by the Air Force.

Gitmo

The Obama administration’s point man for shutting down the Guantanamo Bay detention facility testified before Congress Wednesday that some prisoners released from the facility have taken up the fight against the U.S. and killed Americans. Paul Lewis, Department of Defense Special Envoy for Guantanamo Detention Closure, told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that, “unfortunately, there have been Americans that have died because of Gitmo detainees.” Lewis didn’t offer specifics on which detainees had reengaged in combat or where, but previous reporting on the 2011 attacks on the U.S. consulate Benghazi indicate that Abu Sufian bin Qumu participated in the siege, which killed four Americans.

Rumble on the Potomac

The Pentagon and State Department are fighting each other for greater control over where and when U.S. foreign military aid gets spent, Politico reports. The Pentagon has managed to wrest control over more and more of the budget in recent years, amid complaints over the sluggish approval process at the State Department. But critics, including top State Department leadership and Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), counter that shift in the balance of power between the two departments is leading to an unhealthy “militarization” of U.S. foreign policy and one that could privilege military expediency over human rights interests.

Drones

The Smithsonian’s Air & Space magazine has a fascinating piece on the RQ-170, the secretive batwing-shaped stealth drone, informally referred to as “the beast of Kandahar.” The magazine reports that the U.S. has used the RQ-170 to follow insurgents crossing the Afghan border into Pakistan. The piece dives deep into the technological background of the RQ-170, used in the raid that killed Osama Bin Laden, and speculates on other likely missions that stealth drone may have engaged in.

And finally…

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) has published a new report from top naval analyst Ron O’Rourke. “Navy Lasers, Railgun, and Hypervelocity Projectile: Background and Issues for Congress” updated CRS’s continuing series on the Navy’s next generation of sci-fi weapons over the last edition, issued in November of 2015.
 
 
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Today:
Situation Report: Marines in Iraq expand combat role; Congress unhappy with late White House ISIS plan; Russia arming Pacific islands; debate over arming U.S. drones; and lots more
 
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Friday, March 25, 2016
 
 

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Bigger role. The company of U.S. Marines secretly deployed to northern Iraq earlier this month in a non-combat role have now been involved in combat on several occasions, even though officially, the unit isn’t even in Iraq. The 100-plus Marines are deployed on a temporary basis, meaning they don’t count against the troop cap of 3,870, a tactic the Pentagon has been using to obscure the true number of American troops on the ground. The number is actually closer to 5,000.

On Thursday, defense officials said the Marines — who deployed with four 155mm cannons — have been firing illumination and artillery rounds to help Iraqi forces push ISIS fighters out of villages near their base in Makhmour, southeast of Mosul. Last Saturday, a Marine was killed in an ISIS rocket strike on their base. The outpost was also attacked by ISIS gunmen on Monday, though the attack was repelled.

Deadlines. Just days after Defense Secretary Ash Carter was sharply criticized by members of the House Armed Services Committee for missing a deadline — by a month — to present a strategy paper to Congress outlining how to defeat the Islamic State, the document landed with a thud on Thursday. You might not have heard the thud, since the document is only seven pages long and contains little of note.

Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tx.), Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, is not happy. The paper “fails to provide much new information and fails to address all the elements required by law, such as identifying which groups must be engaged to counter violent extremism,” Thornberry said in a statement. ”It is unsettling to know that this report may reflect the actual depth of strategic thought within the Administration on how to face this grave threat.”

Arming more drones. There’s a fight playing out in Washington over whether the CIA should use armed drones to go after the leadership of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. As it stands now, the CIA’s unmanned assets are only used to track the militants, while the Pentagon’s drones do the killing. But the leaders of the Senate intelligence committee want to change all that, and have urged President Barack Obama to slap missiles on the spy drones. The two senators — Republican Richard Burr of North Carolina and Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California — sent a letter to the White House before the Brussels attacks urging him to consider the change. Obama isn’t expected to make any changes to the current arrangement, however.

Thanks for clicking on through this morning as we work through another week of SitRep. As always, if you have any thoughts, announcements, tips, or national  security-related events to share, please pass them along to SitRep HQ. Best way is to send them to: paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.

Brussels

The two brothers who blew themselves up in suicide attacks in Brussels on Tuesday were already on U.S. watch lists. Reuters reports that both Khalid El Bakraoui and Brahim El Bakraoui were known to American intelligence before the attacks, and it was Brahim El Bakraoui’s terrorist leanings which led him to pop up on Turkey’s radar, leading that country to ship him back to Belgium last year. Belgium’s minister of interior and justice have now confirmed reports that Turkey arrested and deported him to Belgium last June, telling the Belgian government that he was a foreign fighter.

A U.S. official has confirmed that at least two Americans were among those killed in Brussels, the AP reports. The official told reporters that two American families had already been notified that their loved ones died in the attacks. No further information on their identities or the circumstances of their deaths is available. Secretary of State John Kerry acknowledged the deaths of Americans in remarks to Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel Thursday, offering the sympathies of the U.S. for the “loved ones of those cruelly taken from us, including Americans.”

The Islamic State

Britain has released the tally for the number of drone strikes British forces have carried out in Iraq and Syria. Minister of State for the Armed Forces Penny Mordaunt told Parliament that British Reaper drones have conducted 200 airstrikes since September 2014, accounting for 29 percent of British airstrikes in Iraq and 20 percent of those in Syria, according to numbers crunched by IHS Jane’s.

Syria

Russia announced that one of its special operations troops was killed sometime “in the past week” in the fighting near Palmyra. Ground forces allied with the Assad regime have been inching closer to the ancient city, held by the Islamic State since may of 2015, with the help of Russian airpower. (There have been a few U.S. strikes around the city recently, as well.) A Russian military source told Interfax that the commando died “while performing a special task to direct Russian air strikes onto terrorist targets.” The commander of Russian ground forces in Syria, Colonel General Alexander Dvornikov recently admitted to the presence of special operations forces in the country to direct airstrikes, perform reconnaissance, and train Syrian troops.

Russia

European officials believe that Russia has been encouraging larger migrant flows to Europe in order to stir up political trouble among its adversaries on the continent. Bloomberg reports that these suspicions received an airing at last week’s Brussels Forum, where Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves made the claim that Russia has been nudging its own permanent residents to emigrate to European countries in order to feed the growing anti-Islamic and anti-refugee sentiment. NATO Supreme Commander Gen. Philip Breedlove told Congress earlier this month that Russia was “weaponizing” the issue of refugee flows from Syria into Europe.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said Friday that Russia will deploy “coastal missile systems” to the disputed Kuril Islands just north of Japan, along with an unknown number of Eleron-3 drones. The news follows on October’s announcement that Moscow intended to build a naval base on the, a particularly painful slap in the face to Tokyo given that Russia seized the island chain just before the end of WWII.

Iran

The U.S. Treasury Department announced new sanctions against Iranian entities related to the country’s ballistic missile program. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) designated two companies, Shahid Nuri Industries and Shahid Movahed Industries, saying they were related to the already-sanctioned Shahid Hemmat Industrial Group, as well as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Al-Ghadir Missile Command, which it says carried out ballistic missile tests in October. The U.S. has tried to step up pressure on Iran’s ballistic missile program following the Emad missile tests and other recent missile exercises, applying new sanctions in January and seeking international sanctions at the United Nations.

North Korea

U.S. intelligence believes that North Korea has “probably” miniaturized a nuclear warhead, according to a scoop from CNN. The judgment is not yet the official view of the intelligence community, but it is held by a number of analysts, senior intelligence officials tell the cable news channel. The view echoes recent testimony by Northern Command chief Adm. William Gortney, who told Congress that it is “prudent to assume” that Pyongyang can fit a smaller nuclear warhead on an intercontinental ballistic missile.

F-35

The F-35 has become almost synonymous with cost overruns, delays, and technical problems. So what’s the solution? Why, clearly a whistlestop public relations tour of 14 different cities to tout the $400 billion stealth fighter jet’s virtues to the American public. Air Force Lt. Gen. Christopher Bogdan told Congress on Wednesday that “Getting out there and telling the story is part of what we need to continue to do.” Ironing out the program’s notorious bugs might help, too.
 
 
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This email was sent to benartemixemayda@gmail.com by fp@foreignpolicy.com.
 

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Foreign Policy Magazine is published by the FP Group, a division of Graham Holdings Company. All contents ©2016 The Slate Group, LLC. All rights reserved. Foreign Policy, 11 DUPONT CIRCLE NW, SUITE 600, WASHINGTON DC 20036

 

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