Today's Headlines and Commentary

Alex R. McQuade
Thursday, April 28, 2016, 4:53 PM

At least 38 civilians were killed and dozens more were injured in a eruption of violence throughout Aleppo.

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At least 38 civilians were killed and dozens more were injured in a eruption of violence throughout Aleppo. According to Agence-France Presse, “an upsurge in fighting in Aleppo, Syria’s pre-war commercial hub, has killed at least 186 people since Friday.” Among the dead are at least 14 patients and staff members of a Doctors Without Borders hospital, after airstrikes hit the medical compound in Aleppo earlier today. A report by the Associated Press indicates that at least 27 people died in the hospital. It is not yet clear who carried out the strike, though observers have claimed the strikes were executed by Syrian or Russian forces.

Meanwhile, as the cessation of hostilities fails, the U.N. envoy for Syria is calling upon the United States and Russia to “revitalize” the collapsing cease fire. In what would seem a cause for pessimism, the New York Times tells us that Staffan de Mistura closed two weeks of Syrian peace talks earlier today without setting a date for the next round in Geneva. Reuters reports that Mistura was deeply concerned about the violence in Aleppo in recent days. Earlier today during a news conference, Mistura stated, “hence, my appeal for a U.S.-Russian urgent initiative at the highest level, because the legacy of both President Obama and President Putin is linked to the success of what has been a unique initiative which started very well. It needs to end very well.”

Russia is requesting that the United Nations blacklist two major Syrian rebel groups, but one of the groups is actually playing a key role in the talks aimed at ending the conflict. The two groups Russia is proposing be blacklisted are Jaish al Islam and Ahrar al Sham. Al Jazeera reports that Mohammed Alloush, a leading figure in Jaish al Islam (Army of Islam), is the chief negotiator for the High Negotiations Committee, the war-torn country’s main opposition group, at U.N.-brokered peace talks in Geneva.” According to Russia’s ambassador to the United Nations, Vitaly Churkin, the two groups are “closely linked to terrorist organizations, primarily ISIL and al Qaeda.”

According to the Daily Beast, U.S. special operations forces have killed 40 Islamic State operatives connected to terrorist attacks in Europe and elsewhere throughout the world. Defense officials have indicated that U.S. special forces “have killed 40 ‘external operations leaders, planners, and facilitators’ blamed for instigating, plotting, or funding ISIS’s attacks from Brussels and Paris to Egypt and Africa.” Additionally, the Beast writes that “as proof of the campaign’s overall success, Pentagon officials this week said the overall size of ISIS" has been reduced "to between 19,000 to 25,000 fighters," from a high estimate of 33,000 a year ago. They also estimate that "the influx of foreign fighters into Iraq and Syria has dropped from up to 2,000 a month last year to just 200.”

Meanwhile, the Lebanese army killed an Islamic State leader at the Syrian border. Reuters reports that “Fayez al Shaalaan, known as Abu Fawz, was killed when the army attacked an Islamic State position on the edge of the town of Arsal in north Lebanon.” Fawz was the militant group’s leader in the Arsal area, according to a report from a security source.

Vice President Joe Biden made a surprise visit to Iraq today. The New York Times tells us that, in his first trip to Iraq in nearly five years, Vice President Biden is “hoping to help a weak prime minister and bolster the military campaign against the Islamic State.” During his visit, Vice President Biden “planned to urge the Iraqis to put the good of their nation above sectarian, regional, or personal interests as the country confronts a constellation of threats: military, from the extremists of the Islamic State; economically, from low oil prices; and politically, from the stalemate between Prime Minister Haider al Abadi and Parliament over Mr. Abadi’s efforts to reconstitute his cabinet.”

Meanwhile, over in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel reshuffled things a bit as well, replacing the chief of Germany’s foreign intelligence service. The New York Times shares that “the move caught many by surprise as Europe faces growing pressure from Islamist terrorism and as the chancellor looks ahead to a general election next year.” According to Merkel’s chief of staff, the decision to fire spy chief Gerhard Schindler “was a response to the challenges the intelligence agency faced, including new security threats and reforms being considered by a parliamentary oversight committee.” The Times has more.

A female suicide bomber detonated explosives yesterday near the Grand Mosque in Turkey’s main manufacturing city of Bursa. The blast injured at least ten people and occurred in one of the city’s busy bazaars. The Wall Street Journal writes that “the attack was the fifth bombing targeting a major metropolitan area in Turkey this year, and it came less than 24 hours after the U.S. Embassy in Turkey issued a public warning that there were serious concerns about terrorist attacks at popular tourist sites around Turkey.” There was no immediate claim of responsibility. Reuters reports that Turkish police have detained 15 people believed to be connected to the suicide blast.

In Yemen, a suicide car bomb exploded outside of Aden’s security chief’s house. The attack wounded at least two people, but General Shallal Shayae escaped unharmed. According to Reuters, “guards fired at the attacker and the car he was driving exploded.” Al Jazeera has more on the attack here.

North Korea fired, or at least attempted to fire, another missile earlier today. Reuters shares that the Hermit Kingdom test-fired “what appeared to be two intermediate range ballistic missiles” but both failed according to South Korean officials. A defense expert in South Korea indicated that the failed test launches appeared to have been hurried. CNN has more on the failed attempts here.

Iran is preparing for a major ballistic missile test set for February 2017, which would appear to be timed to coincide with the upcoming U.S. presidential inauguration ceremony. Fox News has more on the timetable issued by Iran.

The FBI arrested three people, including the older brother of San Bernardino gunman Syed Rizwan Farook, today in connection with last fall's San Bernardino terrorist attack. The Los Angeles Times reports that “Syed Raheel Farook, the brother of Syed Rizwan Farook; his wife, Tatiana Farook; and her sister Mariya Chernykh were all arrested Thursday morning and charged in a five-count indictment filed in federal court that centers around a fraudulent marriage between Chernykh and Enrique Marquex, who has been charged with aiding the deadly Dec. 2 attack at the Inland Regional Center.”

Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump delivered his first major foreign policy address in Washington yesterday. In a move that was aimed at making him appear “more presidential,” with teleprompter and all, Mr. Trump alarmed American allies who fear that his “America First” agenda means the United States will retreat from the world if Trump is elected president. Read more from Reuters.

Yesterday, the House of Representatives unanimously passed an email privacy bill designed to close off “a loophole in the 1986 Electronic Communications Privacy Act to ensure that law enforcement gets a warrant before forcing technology companies to hand over customers’ emails or other electronic communications, no matter how old they are.” The Hill tells us that “though the outdated provision is no longer used by most agencies, the law technically allows law enforcement to use a subpoena - rather than a warrant - to get emails if they are more than 180 days old. When the law was enacted, there were large technical limits to storing data online.” The technology industry and advocates have pushed for the Email Privacy Act for years.

Senators Richard Burr (R-NC) and Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) have an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal. They say that the status quo of unbreakable encryption is unacceptable. Check that out here.

The FBI has decided that it will not tell Apple about how it hacked and unlocked the San Bernardino iPhone. The Wall Street Journal reports that the FBI’s decision brings an abrupt end to the “internal government debate about how much to tell Apple about a newly discovered security vulnerability in one iPhone model.” Furthermore, the Journal tells us that “the FBI decision not to initiate a broad governmental discussion called the Vulnerabilities Equities Process—in which a number of agencies explore whether to disclose software vulnerabilities to the affected companiesmeans Apple will likely be kept in the dark” on how the Bureau was able to gain access to the phone.

A new study finds that Edward Snowden’s disclosures about the NSA’s spying may have had a significant effect on Wikipedia’s search traffic. The Washington Post shares that the repercussions of the Snowden revelations “happened so swiftly and were so high-profile that they triggered a measurable shift in the way people use the Internet.” According to the study, in the months following the disclosures, web users conducted significantly fewer searches for terms that may be deemed suspicious such as Taliban and car bomb. The Post has more on the new findings here.

Yesterday, the House Armed Services Committee passed a measure that would require women to register with the Selective Service, making them eligible to be drafted in the military. According to the Military Times, Representative Duncan Hunter (R-CA) introduced the proposal “as a way to force congressional conversation about the role of women in the military,” following Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s decision to open all military jobs to women earlier this year.

Speaking of the Secretary, Carter is not too happy about the overseas contingency operations (OCO) wartime fund cuts. The cuts, proposed by House Armed Services Chairman Mac Thornberry (R-TX), would take $18 billion from the OCO wartime fund and invest it into buying more weapons systems. Yesterday, Secretary Carter appeared before the Senate and “flashed a bit of anger when discussing the plan, particularly the April end date for OCO, saying it amounts to ‘gambling’ with troops’ funding at a time of war and calling it ‘deeply troubling’ and ‘flawed.’” Defense News has more.

The Guardian reports that the United States is set to release a report detailing an internal investigation into last year’s deadly airstrike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan. The strike left 42 civilians dead at the Kunduz hospital. The Guardian writes that the “report provides an official assessment of the failings that led to a U.S. AC-130 gunship attacking a Kunduz hospital run by Medecins Sanc Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders, several of whose patients burned to death in their beds.” Doctors Without Borders has alleged that the strike represented a “deliberate act tantamount to a war crime.”

Remember that British Airways jet that supposedly hit a drone while descending into London’s Heathrow Airport? It appears that the British government has determined that whatever the plane hit, it wasn’t a drone. According to the AP, the U.K.’s junior Transport Minister Robert Goodwill speculated that it might have just been a plastic bag.

Parting Shot: Ever wonder what it is really like to fight for the Islamic State? VICE News has obtained footage taken from the GoPro-style headcam of an Islamic State fighter, capturing a battle between the terror group and the Kurdish peshmerga forces in northern Iraq. Check out the relatively brief clash here. The Washington Post says that “it is remarkable how disorganized the small team is, given that the assault was probably planned.” Indeed.

ICYMI: Yesterday, on Lawfare

Matt Tait provided an approach to James Comey’s technical challenge regarding the “going dark” debate.

Benjamin Wittes flagged some action coming from Guantanamo.

Nicholas Weaver commented on his own encrypted living will.

Julian Ku argued that the United States does not have a legal obligation to defend the Scarborough Shoal for the Philippines until it decides who owns it.

Jack Goldsmith and Amira Mikhail analyzed whether the Iran Deal requires the United States government to seek preemption of some state sanctions.

Paul Rosenzweig alerted us to the Email Privacy Act's unanimous passage in the House of Representatives.

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Alex McQuade was a national security intern at the Brookings Institution. He recently graduated with a master’s degree in Terrorism and Homeland Security Policy from American University. Alex holds a BA in National Security Studies and Justice and Law, also from American University.

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