News Roundup and Notes: February 26, 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

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and partner nations conducted nine airstrikes targeting ISIS in Syria, and separately carried out six airstrikes against the militant group in Iraq on Feb. 24. [Central Command]

A coalition strike near the Iraqi border town of al-Qaim killed 17 ISIS fighters and nine civilians, according to a hospital source. An Arabic news channel claimed ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was in the area, but the information could not be verified, reports Reuters.

U.S. intelligence indicates that half of the Islamic State’s leadership in Iraq has been killed, Gen. John Allen, special U.S. envoy for the coalition against ISIS, told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday. [Washington Post’s Dan Lamothe]

Three Brooklyn men were arrested and charged with plotting to join or assist the Islamic State in Syria. [Department of JusticeCNN’s Ray Sanchez provides details of their suspected plans. 

The Islamic State has abducted at least 220 Assyrian Christians in northeastern Syria during a three-day offensive that began on Monday, activists said today. [AP]

Thirty men abducted by ISIS militants near Tikrit in Iraq have been freed, but the fate of those still being detained by the group is unknown. [Al Jazeera]

ISIS militant labeled “Jihadi John” has been named as Mohammed Emwazi, a British man from London who was known to British authorities. [BBC]

Almost 100 Syrian antiquities looted by the Islamic State have been smuggled into Britain and are being sold in an apparent effort to finance the group’s activities. [The Times’ Gabriella Swerling]

The Islamic State’s “scariest success” may be its capacity to attract an “unprecedented” number of Westerners, most of whom are “relative newcomers to Islamic observance,” suggests Yaroslav Trofimov. [Wall Street Journal]

The Islamic State is the result of “decades of failed governance in the Arab world and Pakistan and centuries of a calcification of Arab Islam,” writes Thomas L. Friedman, who suggests the steps needed to fully eradicate the group. [New York Times]

GUANTANAMO BAY

The 9/11 trial judge has halted pre-trial proceedings for Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and four others until the Pentagon repeals its move-in order to judges, holding that the order raises the question of “unlawful influence.”  [Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg; Wall Street Journal’s Jess Bravin]

The Periodic Review Board has approved the release of an Egyptian Guantanamo detainee, although the release of Tariq el Sawah is unlikely to be imminent, according to the Pentagon’s spokesperson for detainee policy. [Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg]

UKRAINE and RUSSIA

A Russian memo drafted in the weeks prior to the collapse of the Ukrainian government last February recommended that the Kremlin annex Crimea and a substantial portion of southeastern Ukraine, Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta has reported. The leaked memo contradicts President Vladimir Putin’s claim that Moscow was simply acting in protection of Russian speakers and to counter NATO’s apparent expansion after the collapse of the Ukrainian government. [New York Times’ Neil MacFarquhar]

Western efforts to counter Russian aggression are “not changing the results on the ground,” NATO’s top commander Gen. Philip M. Breedlove told the House Armed Services Committee yesterday. Breedlove has sent formal recommendations to the White House on other measures Washington should take to assist Ukraine. [Washington Post’s Craig Whitlock]

Ukraine will likely order the withdrawal of heavy weapons from the country’s east today under the Feb. 12 ceasefire agreement, according to a military source. [Reuters]  Ukraine’s demand of full observation of the ceasefire by rebels before Kiev will begin withdrawing heavy weapons is “ridiculous,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said. [AP]

U.S.-ISRAEL RELATIONS

Top U.S. officials pushed back against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday in an escalation of tensions between the two countries over efforts to secure an Iran nuclear deal. Secretary of State John Kerry told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that Netanyahu’s judgment may be wrong on this occasion, and reminded lawmakers of Netanyahu’s “outspoken” support of the Iraqi invasion under George W. Bush. [Al JazeeraWall Street Journal’s Carol E. Lee et al]

White House press secretary Josh Earnest reiterated how destructive partisan relations are for ties between the two states, emphasizing the importance of bipartisan cooperation and noting the president’s comment that the “relationship between the U.S. and Israel can’t just be reduced to a relationship between the Republican Party and the Likud Party.”

The core of Israel’s concern over the Iran nuclear deal is that the agreement may sunset as early as 2025, potentially enabling Iran’s production of nuclear weapons after the expiration date, writes Michael Crowley. [Politico]

If Netanyahu’s motivations were “guided by fear for Israel’s security rather than his own political survival,” then the Israeli leader would have pushed for the Iran nuclear accord to include some Israel-related points, writes Amir Oren. [Haaretz]

SURVEILLANCE, PRIVACY, and TECHNOLOGY

Canadian spy agency CSE monitors millions of emails from Canadians, storing them for “days to months,” as part of its cybersecurity operations, according to a secret 2010 CSE document obtained from Edward Snowden. [CBC News’ Amber Hildebrandt; The Intercept’s Ryan Gallagher and Glenn Greenwald]

SPY CABLES

South Africa’s intelligence service spied on its own government using a spy “with direct access to the Russian government” to learn details of South African involvement in a joint satellite surveillance program with Moscow, according to leaked spy cables. [The Guardian’s Seumas Milne and Ewen MacAskill]

Secret documents depict a deep wariness of Israel by South African intelligence; the country’s intelligence agency has accused Israel of pursuing “cynical” and “destructive policies” in the continent. [Al Jazeera]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

A U.S. soldier who deserted in Iraq on the basis that the war was illegal could claim asylum in Germany, but only if he could show that he would have been involved in the commission of war crimes and had no alternative to desertion, the European Court of Justice has ruled. [Reuters’ Adrian Croft]

A vehicle belonging to NATO’s top envoy in Afghanistan was attacked by a suicide bomber in central Kabul, killing one Turkish soldier and wounding at least one other person, said officials. [Reuters’ Jessica Donati]

Documents seized during the 2011 Osama Bin Laden raid were used at the New York trial of Pakistani citizen Abid Nasser, accused of orchestrating an al-Qaeda conspiracy to commit attacks in Manchester and New York. [BBC]

The U.S. embassy in Jordan has warned of a “credible” threat against high-end shopping malls in the capital, Amman. The statement did not reference the threat made against shopping malls by al-Shabaab in a video last weekend. [Reuters]

A series of explosions in Cairo killed one person and wounded another seven today; officials blame Islamist militants for a recent wave of attacks using homemade explosive devices. [AP]  The Washington Post editorial board comments on the continuing priority given by the Obama administration to security over human rights concerns in Egypt, noting the discrepancy between President Obama’s comments at his counterterrorism summit last week and his administration’s actions toward the Sisi government.

Boko Haram is sustaining losses due to the offensive by a coalition of African forces, with the result that the group is at its most dangerous, responding with more reckless and aggressive terrorist attacks, warn U.S. officials and experts. [The Daily Beast’s Nancy A. Youssef]

A number of NATO countries are on track to reduce military expenditures in 2015, despite solemn pledges to the contrary, a British-based think tank has found, reports the AP.

Cuba’s position on the U.S. list of terrorism-sponsoring nations and its ability to reopen U.S. bank accounts are the key barriers to resuming normal diplomatic ties, said a senior Cuban official, as the two governments prepare to resume talks on Friday. [Washington Post’s Nick Miroff and Karen De Young]

The kidnappers of a U.S. missionary in Nigeria have demanded a ransom of nearly $300,000 to secure her release, police said yesterday. [AP]

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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