News Roundup and Notes: February 20, 2015

Before the start of business, Just Security provides a curated summary of up-to-the-minute developments at home and abroad. Here’s today’s news.

IRAQ and SYRIA

The major assault to retake Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, from the Islamic State will begin in April or May, U.S. Central Command has announced. At least 20,000 Iraqi and Kurdish troops will be required in order to defeat an estimated 2,000 Islamic State fighters currently holding the city. [Wall Street Journal’s Julian Barnes; AP]

Turkey and the U.S. signed an agreement yesterday to train and equip screened moderate Syrian rebels; the U.S. will send 400 troops to conduct the training of roughly 5,000 Syrian fighters from the FSA every year for three years. [Al Jazeera America]

Syrian rebels have captured 32 soldiers and pro-government fighters near Aleppo, amid fierce fighting between the two sides as each attempts to gain new territory ahead of a potential ceasefire, reports the AP.

President Obama suggested that the U.S.-led coalition efforts to defeat the Islamic State may hinge upon political transition in Syria, and accused President Bashar al-Assad with fueling sectarian tensions in the country. [Wall Street Journal’s Carol E. Lee et al]

Muslim leaders in the U.S. are organizing and expanding prevention programs on countering violent extremism, in order to halt the radicalization of young Muslims who often attempt to join extremist organizations in Iraq and Syria. [New York Times’ Laurie Goodstein]

Syrians from both sides of the four-year civil war wish for their nation to remain whole, a newly published survey of Syrian public opinion has found. [Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor]

Syria should release all of those detained by government forces and their militias, says UN human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein. Zeid emphasized the arbitrary nature of the detentions, including a lack of due process and reports of widespread and systematic torture and other ill-treatment.

A serving U.K. soldier has reportedly left his base and travelled to the Middle East to join the fight against the Islamic State with Kurdish peshmerga forces. [The Guardian]

LIBYA, EGYPT, and ISIS

Egypt and Qatar are trading accusations in a dispute over Egyptian air strikes against the Islamic State in Libya. A senior Egyptian diplomat accused Qatar of supporting terrorism after the country recalled its ambassador from Cairo. [Reuters’ Ahmed Tolba]  Leaders of the Gulf nations admonished Egypt for criticizing Qatar, an indication that they had “rebalanced their allegiances” in support of “previously ostracized” Qatar. [New York Times’ David D. Kirkpatrick]

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi’s call for international support for military intervention in Libya received a lukewarm response from Western states, with some European diplomats questioning his credibility and a number of EU states and the U.S. calling for a political solution to Libya’s conflict. [Wall Street Journal’s Tamer El-Ghobashy and Benoit Faucon]

The New York Times editorial board considers that Egypt “cannot afford to get bogged down in a war in Libya,” and suggests that the U.S. could be pulled into the fight if Cairo “makes the wrong choices.”

Morocco has arrested three men suspected of trying to join the Islamic State’s Libyan branch; more than 1,000 Moroccans have left the country to join jihadist groups, primarily in Syria. [AP]

Car bombs in the eastern city of Qubbah killed more than 30 people today, the country’s parliamentary speaker said. [Reuters]

The EU will extend its joint coastal border control mission with the Italian government until the end of 2015, and may enhance the operation in other ways, as Italy struggles with an influx of migrants fleeing Libya. [Wall Street Journal’s Laurence Norman]

The proliferation of terrorist groups in Libya is a “result of the international community’s failure to support Libya’s post-conflict reconstruction,” and something must be done urgently “to stem three years of hemorrhaging in a country that once promised to be one of NATO’s greatest successes,” writes Christopher S. Chivvis. [Foreign Policy]

SURVEILLANCE and CYBERSECURITY

The NSA and its British counterpart GCHQ hacked into the network of the world’s largest SIM cards manufacturer, according to a 2010 GCHQ document provided by Edward Snowden. The spy agencies gained access to encryption keys protecting the privacy of cellphone communications, offering the potential to monitor a significant volume of cellular communications around the world. [The Intercept’s Jeremy Scahill and Josh Begley]

The NSA traced the Sony cyberattack to North Korea after an analysis of the software used in the cyber breach, NSA Director Admiral Michael Rogers said yesterday. [Reuters’ Mike DeSouza]

A bill enabling information sharing about cyber threats between the public and private sector is expected to be introduced by the Senate Intelligence Committee next week. [The Hill’s Cory Bennett]

VIOLENT EXTREMISM CONFERENCE

President Obama argued that military force is insufficient to tackle extremism and called on nations to “put an end to the cycle of hate” by expanding human rights, religious tolerance and peaceful dialogue, report Peter Baker and Julie Hirdschfeld Davis. [New York Times]

The administration’s reluctance to use the words “Islam” and “Muslim” in describing the extremist threat has “irked” both sides, explains Michael Crowley. [Politico]  Dean Obeidallah sides with President Obama, highlighting that using the term “Islamic” plays into the terrorists’ hands as these groups want the West to believe their actions are based in Islam. [The Daily Beast]

UKRAINE and RUSSIA

Separatist rebels attacked Ukrainian positions almost 50 times over the past day, a military spokesperson said, despite the ceasefire that was called into effect earlier this week. [AP]  Notwithstanding the ongoing fighting, the French, German, Ukrainian, and Russian leaders have reiterated their support for the ceasefire deal concluded last week. [Deutsche Welle]

Ukraine’s “chaotic retreat” from Debaltseve exposes the weaknesses in the government’s political and military strategy, write Oleg Sukhov and Olena Goncharova. [Kyiv Post]  The defeat in Debaltseve places the Ukrainian president in an “increasingly difficult position,” argues Lucian Kim. [Reuters]

As troops retreating from Debaltseve flood into Artemivsk, residents fear that Russian-backed separatists will soon follow, bringing a new fight to the town. [Wall Street Journal’s James Marson]

This week’s developments in Ukraine rank among “the most instantly humiliating,” according to the Wall Street Journal editorial board. The board writes that while Ukraine has lost more territory, NATO “may also pay soon enough.”

Britain and the EU are guilty of a “catastrophic misreading” of Moscow in the build-up to the Ukraine crisis, a report of the U.K.’s House of Lords EU committee has concluded. [BBC]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Yemen’s feuding parties agreed to a “people’s transitional council” to assist in governing the country and leading it out of political crisis, according to UN mediator Jamal Benomar speaking today. [Reuters]

Iran continues to evade questions about its alleged nuclear weapons work, according to a report of the International Atomic Energy Agency. The report comes a day ahead of the latest round of U.S.-Iran talks on the country’s nuclear program. [New York Times’ David E. Sanger and William J. Broad]

Taliban representatives and Afghan officials will meet for an initial round of peace negotiations in the coming weeks, senior Afghan officials said, following a breakthrough reportedly spurred by the recent reset in Kabul-Islamabad relations. Meanwhile, a U.S. official and the Taliban denied reports of a meeting involving American officials in Qatar. [Wall Street Journal’s Nathan Hodge and Saeed Shah]

U.S. intelligence is “relatively weaker and more challenged” than at any point since 9/11, even as global terrorism threats rise; former CIA official Henry A. Crumpton explains how much of this weakness “is of our own making.” [Wall Street Journal]

The outcome of a $1 billion lawsuit filed over a series of deadly attacks in or around Jerusalem a decade ago threatens to undermine Palestinian efforts to garner international support for International Criminal Court action, reports the AP.

Denmark has announced a $150 million security package in the aftermath of the deadly shootings in Copenhagen, although the measures had been prepared following last month’s Paris attacks. [Reuters’ Alexander Tange]  Violent extremists in Europe are procuring military-grade weapons with “apparent ease,” despite the strict legal controls in place, report Griff Witte and Karla Adam. [Washington Post]

A car bomb followed by a suicide attack in the Somali capital, Mogadishu, targeted a hotel earlier today where Somali officials had gathered; it is not yet clear whether anyone was killed in the attacks. [Reuters’ Abdi Sheikh and Feisal Omar]

A British MI5 spy agent gave evidence at the New York trial of Abid Naseer, who has been accused of taking part in a transatlantic al-Qaeda plot aimed at recreating the scale of the 9/11 attacks. [BBC]

A British 19-year-old has been convicted of preparing an act of terrorism last August, when he was believed to be plotting to behead a soldier in London. [The Guardian’s Haroon Siddique]

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

Former Associate Editor at Just Security Follow her on Twitter (@RParekh88).

Nadia O'Mara

Former Assistant News Editor at Just Security