Today's Headlines and Commentary

Cody M. Poplin, Elina Saxena
Monday, January 4, 2016, 4:17 PM

In rapid escalation of tensions in the Middle East, on Sunday Saudi Arabia moved to cut off all diplomatic ties with Iran, telling Iranian diplomats they had 48 hours to leave the kingdom.

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In rapid escalation of tensions in the Middle East, on Sunday Saudi Arabia moved to cut off all diplomatic ties with Iran, telling Iranian diplomats they had 48 hours to leave the kingdom. The decision to sever diplomatic relationswith Iransoon joined by Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates — comes after Iranian activists and protesters stormed the Saudi Embassy in Tehran, setting fire to part of the compound as part of a protest of the Kingdom’s execution of a prominent Shiite cleric, Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, along with dozens of other men. Following the execution, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei declared that “God’s hand of retaliation will grip the neck of Saudi politicians.” The New York Times reports that American officials are concerned that the increased tensions will undermine international peacemaking efforts across the region, from Iraq and Syria to Yemen to Libya, with one senior U.S. official saying “we’re obviously concerned this could blow up the process.”

For its part, the Obama administration appeared to be caught off-guard by the executions, with senior administration officials telling the Times that they were frustrated by the “‘negligent disregard’ for how they could inflame tensions in the region,” while another commented on the “apparent absence of due process” in the executions. Yet Reuters explains why Saudi Arabia carried out the executions, which included four prominent Shiites and dozens of al Qaeda fighters, suggesting they were calculated to “crush support for Sunni jihadists without alienating more moderate Sunnis.”

Foreign Policy has more on the growing rift and its implications for Syrian diplomacy, while in Politico, Nahal Toosi covers the U.S.’s efforts to keep both sides at the table.

While ISIS counterattacks continue on the outskirts of Ramadi, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al Abadi is scheduled to hold a meeting today to discuss what the Wall Street Journal characterizes as the “monumental task of rebuilding the recently liberated city of Ramadi.” According to the Journal, Iraqi government officials estimate that 80 percent of Ramadi, the capital city of Anbar province, was destroyed in the fighting to retake the city, as ISIS fighters’ “scorched-earth policy” left behind “destruction that will linger for years.” The estimated cost of reconstructing the city is $10 billion USD. While the Iraqi government in Baghdad hopes to use the reconstruction of Ramadi to signal that the central government can bring security and prosperity to Iraq’s Sunni population, the Journal notes that the costs of rebuilding come as global oil prices plummet, undermining the government’s ability to finance a war against ISIS and a major national reconstruction program.

Over the weekend, the Islamic State launched a series of attacks near oil facilities in northern Libya. Though the attacks were repelled by the Libyan army, the Guardian tells us that the Islamic State is attempting to expand eastward from its coastal stronghold of Sirte in order to reach Libya’s “oil crescent.”

Private researchers are downplaying the threat posed by Islamic State hackers amid government concerns that the group could possibly breach critical systems. This highlight the “growing perception gap between officials’ fears and what security experts consider a believable threat.” Experts believe that the group’s use of Twitter to recruit lone-wolf actors continues to pose the biggest security threat. The New York Times has more.

Al Qaeda-affiliate al Shabab featured GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump in their latest propaganda video. The video references Trump’s call to ban Muslims from entering the United States following the attack in San Bernardino. The Washington Post writes that the video portrayed the United States as a "hotbed of racial inequality, police brutality and anti-Muslim sentiment" and called upon Americans to “join the Holy War” against the country.

Speaking of 2016 presidential candidates, Michael Crowley of Politico asks whether Chris Christie, the Republican Governor of New Jersey, is overstating his terrorism credentials.

As the Obama administration considers additional targets for sanctions following Iran’s testing of a ballistic missile late last year, the Associated Press reports that the White House “has more diplomatic and technical work to do before it will announce any sanctions in response to ballistic missile launches by Iran.” The Administration has recently come under fire for failing to issue any new sanctions for Iran’s latest round of missile tests.

The Israeli military shelled the Lebanese border over the weekend in an attempt to ward off Hezbollah attacks. The group has recently threatened to avenge the death of a prominent Hezbollah commander in Syria whose assassination has been attributed to Israel. And earlier today, a Hezbollah bomb targeted Israeli security personnel near that same border in retaliation for the commander’s death, but Israeli military sources reported that no soldiers were killed in the attack. The BBC has more.

Militants attacked India’s Pathankot airbase near the country’s border with Pakistan on Saturday after reportedly hijacking a police vehicle near the facility on Thursday night. The United Jihad Council, a coalition of Kashmir-based militants, claimed responsibility for the attack on Pathankot, which may be an “attempt to derail recent peace moves by Pakistan and India.” A total of five militants and seven Indian military personnel have been killed during the three days of fighting.

Meanwhile in Afghanistan, security forces repelled an attack at the Indian consulate in the Afghan city of Mazar-e-Sharif. Gunman attempted to enter the facility on Sunday night, resulting in a siege which lasted over 24 hours. Agence France-Presse suggests that this latest incident is part of a series of attacks on Indian targets in the country that appear to be “aimed at derailing Prime Minister Narendra Modi's bold diplomatic outreach to arch-rival Pakistan following his first official visit to Afghanistan last month.” No group has claimed responsibility for this attack.

As operations continue in Pathankot, Indian officials are considering cancelling talks with Pakistan scheduled for later this month.

Foreign Policy maps the significant gains made by the Taliban in 2015, as the group now controls more territory than it has since 2001. Elsewhere, Military Times reports that U.S. commanders in Afghanistan hope to maintain troop levels and plan to deploy special operations forces and “expeditionary advise-and-assist” units to bolster efforts by the Afghan military to fight against the Taliban.

Over in Pakistan, counterterrorism officials arrested 42 people with suspected links to the Islamic State. The arrests resulted from a series of raids in four cities in the Punjab province. A local government minister said that the suspects "had been tasked with setting up sleeper cells” for the militant group and that weapons and Islamic State literature had been found during the raids.

The Pakistani government and Blackberry have resolved disputes following the company’s refusal to grant Pakistan access to encrypted data sent through Blackberry servers. A company official announced that, “after productive discussions, the Government of Pakistan has rescinded its shutdown order, and BlackBerry has decided to remain in the Pakistan market.”

Big news from the South China Sea today, as Agence France-Presse reports that a Chinese “test flight” landed on an airstrip on Fiery Cross reef last Saturday. China began construction on the reef in 2014, and a government spokesman said that the test flight “falls completely within China’s sovereignty.” Vietnam, which also claims the reef, protested the flight, calling it a violation of its sovereignty.

According to Military Times, the U.S. government has shuttered its drone base in Ethiopia. An embassy official in Addis Ababa confirmed the news, saying that the U.S. military had reached the conclusion that the “presence in Arba Minch is not required at this time.”

In the New York Times, Benjamin Weiser reports that Donald Trump’s anti-Muslim remarks are now affecting jury selection in New York. A defense lawyer for Minh Quang Pham, a man charged with material support to al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, is arguing that Trump’s call for a ban on Muslims’ entering the country will make it harder to find an unbiased jury when her client goes to trial.

The folks at Ars Technica outline five cases to watch that could bring surveillance before the Supreme Court.

The Hill reports that the Pentagon will transfer the first group of recently cleared Guantanamo detainees as early as next week, according to an unnamed senior U.S. official. Last month, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter notified Congress that 17 additional detainees had been cleared for release.

Back on base, James Risen of the Times shares that in response to new strict professional ethics guidelines issued by the American Psychological Association, Marine General John F. Kelly, the head of U.S. Southern Command, has pulled psychologists from a wide range of activities dealing with detainees at Guantanamo Bay. A spokesman for South Command said that the new rules for psychologists at the base were instituted in order to protect the psychologists from violating the APA’s new ethics guidelines, noting that “Gen. Kelly will not jeopardize them losing their credentials.”

Parting Shot: In Foreign Policy, Jean-Marie Guehenno lists 10 conflicts for us to watch in 2016. What joy that there are 10 to list. The year might not bring peace on Earth.

ICYMI: This Weekend, on Lawfare

In Sunday’s Foreign Policy Essay, Renanah Miles and Brian Blankenship examine China’s quest for bases around the globe, arguing that the new competition is creating a dysfunctional market for access.

Paul Rosenzweig asked whether a power black out in Ukraine is yet another cyber war event.

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Cody Poplin is a student at Yale Law School. Prior to law school, Cody worked at the Brookings Institution and served as an editor of Lawfare. He graduated from the UNC-Chapel Hill in 2012 with degrees in Political Science & Peace, War, and Defense.
Elina Saxena was a National Security Intern at The Brookings Institution. She is currently a senior at Georgetown University where she majors in International Politics with a concentration in Security Studies.

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