News Roundup and Notes: March 23, 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.

YEMEN

U.S. pulls out of Yemen. In light of the deteriorating security situation in Yemen, the United States government has decided to relocate all remaining personnel out of Yemen. President Hadi has been informed of the decision. [State Department]

House Homeland Security chair Michael McCaul expressed concern that the U.S. is now without any intelligence capabilities to monitor the activities of AQAP, ISIS and Shi’ite militias in the region, speaking on ABC’s “This Week.”  Rep Adam Schiff said yesterday that it is hard to imagine a “more dangerous downward spiral” than has been seen in Yemen in recent months. [The Hill’s Mark Hensch]

The UN Security Council held an emergency session on Yemen on Sunday. The UN’s special envoy to the country warned of a protracted conflict that could turn into a “Libya-Syria combined scenario.”  Special envoy Jamal Benomar added that it would be “an illusion” to think the Houthis could mount a successive offensive gaining control of the whole country. [UN News CentreDeutsche Welle]

Houthi rebels seized key parts of Yemen’s third largest city, Taiz, yesterday, putting them “more firmly on a path toward military confrontation” with forces loyal to President Hadi, report Saeed Al-Batati and Kareem Fahim. [New York Times]  Shi’ite Houthi rebels had issued a call to arms against forces loyal to Hadi on Saturday. [AP’s Ahmed Al-Haj]

An affiliate of the Islamic State has claimed responsibility for suicide attacks on two mosques in Sana’a on Friday which killed at least 137 people. The attacks are the first claimed by the Islamic State in the country since announcing its formation in Yemen last November. [BBC]

The proliferation of the Shi’ite Houthi movement in Yemen is pushing the country’s Sunni-dominated south “into the arms” of AQAP and the Islamic State in the country. [The Guardian’s Ghaith Abdul-Ahad]

Eric Schmitt notes the far reaching threat posed by the deteriorating situation in Yemen, noting that officials consider it to be the “most grievous threat to Untied States global interests and to the country itself.” [New York Times]

IRAQ and SYRIA

The Islamic State has published a kill list on its website, identifying 100 U.S. service members and urging followers in America to take steps to kill them. A Pentagon official could not confirm whether the names, photos and addresses listed were valid. [Stars and Stripes]

The Iraqi military and allied Shi’ite militia are laying “full siege” to Tikrit and Islamic State fighters in the city are now surrounded, says Iraq’s defense minister. [Al Jazeera]

The U.K. will assist in the training of moderate Syrian opposition rebels  in neighboring countries, but will not join the U.S. in conducting airstrikes against the Islamic State in Syria, according to sources familiar with the matter, writes Nicholas Winning. [Wall Street Journal]

Iran has been accused of sending 30,000 troops to Iraq to fight the Islamic State by Kurdish authorities, with involvement going beyond military advisers and experts. [Al Jazeera]  CIA Director John Brennan said that the involvement of Iran’s Quds Force in directing Iraqi forces is complicating U.S. counterterrorism efforts and contributing to the destabilization of Iraq on “Fox News Sunday.”

Several Syrian government airmen were captured by militants from the Nusra Front yesterday after their helicopter crashed in rebel-held territory in the northwest of Syria, according to a monitor group. [Reuters]

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. military forces conducted three airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria between 8am March 20 and 8am March 21. Separately, U.S. and coalition forces carried out a further seven strikes in Iraq. [Central Command]

Syria’s Kurds remain “largely on the outside looking in” on the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS, and their relationship with the U.S. remains “loose and ad hoc” despite winning praise from the Pentagon for their four month long effort against the militant group in Kobani. [AP]

Al-Qaeda is in “fierce competition” with the Islamic State and may attempt to carry out an attack in Europe to prove it has not lost the “leadership in global jihad,” said EU counterterrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove on Saturday. [Wall Street Journal’s Valentina Pop]

“The Jihadi Factory.” Christine Petre explores how a suburb of Tunis has become a breeding ground for Islamic State recruits, explaining why Tunisia’s “shaky democratic transition may itself be a primary cause.” [Foreign Policy]

Is ISIS’s “slick online propaganda” sufficient to entice recruits or is “face-to-face persuasion” required? Scott Shane profiles a Minneapolis youth, radicalized by the Islamic State. [New York Times]

IRAN NUCLEAR TALKS

Iran has not made the “kind of concessions” necessary for a final deal, President Obama said in an interview with the Huffington Post on Saturday. American and Iranian officials claimed substantial progress in the latest round of talks, but Secretary of State John Kerry adopted a more cautious tone on the likelihood of reaching a political agreement by March 31. [AP’s George Jahn and Bradley Klapper]

Iran’s deputy foreign minister has called upon the P5+1 to find a “common position” to reach a “balanced” comprehensive agreement. Abbas Araghchi’s comments referencing a lack of coordination among the six nations come as Israel sends envoys to France to prevent a “bad deal.” [AP]

There will be “tremendous costs and consequences” for Tehran if it pursues a nuclear weapon, CIA Director John Brennan said on “Fox News Sunday.” Brennan added:

“I am confident that our intelligence capabilities are sufficiently robust that we have a good understanding of what the Iranian nuclear program entails.”

A one-year breakout period “may not be sufficient to detect and reverse Iranian violations,” explain former CIA director Michael Hayden and others in a Washington Post op-ed, calling for congressional review of an agreement with Tehran.

The “drama” over the GOP letter to Iranian leaders should not “take us off our course of … Congress playing its appropriate role,” Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair Bob Corker said on CBS’s “Face the Nation” yesterday. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy said that President Obama is “consistently wrong” on U.S. foreign policy, including his approach to Iran’s nuclear program, also on CBS’s “Face the Nation”.

Iran’s imminent “leadership crisis” could derail a nuclear deal; Sohrab Ahmari writes that Iran’s new leaders could be even less supportive of an agreement with the West. [Wall Street Journal]

AFGHANISTAN

The “importance of the U.S.-Afghanistan alliance” is outlined by Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah in a Washington Post op-ed, ahead of their Washington visit this week.

ISIS is looking toward Afghanistan and views the country as a strategic target, Ashraf Ghani told NBC News’ Andrea Mitchell. The Afghan president also told reporters that he is “cautiously optimistic” about restarting face-to-face peace talks with the Taliban, but said this would require “strategic patience.” [Wall Street Journal’s Margherita Stancati]

The prospects for a sustainable partnership with Afghanistan are “much improved” under the new Afghan leadership, explains Michael O’Hanlon. [BBC]  Michael D. Shear and Matthew Rosenberg also report on the chances of a “less fractious relationship” under Ghani, but note that the Afghan president is likely to push to retain the maximum number of U.S. troops in his country through 2016. [New York Times]

President Obama is determined to end the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan before he leaves office, even though officials have indicated a willingness to slow down the timetable for bringing the mission to a close. [Washington Post’s Missy Ryan and Greg Jaffe]

Pakistan should not be relied upon to facilitate dialogue with the Afghan Taliban, warns former Afghan official Mohammed Umer Daudzai, who writes that “the hype [of rapprochement] does not measure well against reality.” [New York Times]

ISRAEL and PALESTINE

President Obama is taking Benjamin Netanyahu “at his word” on his rejection of Palestinian statehood, despite the Israeli leader’s post-election clarifications. The president told the Huffington Post that the U.S. needs to evaluate other options in light of Netanyahu’s comments to ensure “we don’t see a chaotic situation in the region.”

Netanyahu’s aides are citing the Iran nuclear negotiations as the key reason for tensions with Washington. [New York Times’ Isabel Kershner]  The Wall Street Journal’s Carol E. Lee provides further details on “one of the most tumultuous weeks in memory” for U.S.-Israel ties, noting that last week ended on “a note of deep estrangement.”

Tensions with Israel dominated the Sunday political shows. Speaking on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. suggested that Obama had mischaracterized statements made by Netanyahu, stating that the Israeli leader supports a demilitarized Palestinian state. The Hill offers a useful wrap-up.

The U.S. will not take the floor during the annual debate on violations of human rights committed in the Palestinian territories at the UN Human Rights Council, a U.S. spokesperson told Reuters.

SURVEILLANCE, PRIVACY, and TECHNOLOGY

New Zealand spied on candidates in contention for the WTO’s director general position in the buildup to the May 2013 appointment, according to a top-secret document. The surveillance operation appears to have been carried out to boost the New Zealand candidate’s chances of securing the job. [The Intercept’s Ryan Gallagher]

Silicon Valley is at odds with the Obama administration over “backdoor” surveillance and what it argues is a lack of support for online privacy, claims that are backed by privacy hawks on Capitol Hill. The Hill’s Cory Bennett reports.

Cisco–one of the world’s largest manufacturing corporations–is taking steps to prevent the NSA from tampering with its devices, underscoring broader concerns of companies’ that the NSA will manipulate their products for surveillance purposes. [The Hill’s Elise Viebeck]

RUSSIA and UKRAINE

Arming Ukraine’s troops could be “destabilizing,” but so could “inaction,” NATO’s top military commander Gen. Philip Breedlove said yesterday. [Wall Street Journal’s Laurence Norman]

Russia’s ambassador to Denmark warned Copenhagen against joining NATO’s missile defense program, stating that Danish ships would become targets for Moscow’s nuclear arsenal. [New York Times’ David M. Herszenhorn]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

A manhunt is in progress to catch a third attacker responsible for the Bardo museum attack in Tunis last week which left 23 dead. [The Guardian’s Chris Stephen]

U.S. District Court Judge Alvin Hellerstein has ordered the release of some 2,000 photos showing the abuse of detainees in U.S. military custody – the same images that President Obama previously said should not be made publically available. [Politico’s Josh Gerstein]

Chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee sees a heightened risk of terrorist attacks to the U.S.; Michael McCaul issued a firm warning in light of recent attacks in Tunisia and chaos ridden Yemen on ABC’s “This Week.”

There will be no war court intervention in the healthcare of an alleged 9/11 plotter, despite still suffering from wounds inflicted at a CIA “black site” according to his lawyer, after a military judge rejected a request to intervene. [Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg]

Jeffrey Sterling should have his conviction reconsidered, according to lawyers for the former CIA official convicted of leaking classified information to the New York Times. His attorneys have requested reconsideration after former general David Petraeus and James Cartwright received much more lenient penalties for similar offenses, writes Peter Maass. [The Intercept]

Emails released by Hillary Clinton to the House committee on Benghazi show the former Secretary of State and her aides closely monitoring the fallout from the incident but provide no proof of “incendiary” accusations made by some Republicans that she issued an order to halt U.S. forces responding to violence in the city. [New York Times’ Michael S. Schmidt]  House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy has defended a House GOP request that Hillary Clinton hand over her private email server to an independent third party investigator. [Politico’s Katie Glueck]

House Armed Services Committee chair Mac Thornberry will unveil his proposals for reform of the Pentagon’s buying policies this week. [The Hill’s Martin Matishak]  Michael O’Hanlon considers what the House Budget Committee “gets right” on 2016 military spending. [Politico Magazine]

Smugglers illegally selling Libya’s natural resources abroad at heightened prices are likely–at least partially–financing the conflict between the country’s rival governments, according to a UN report. [Wall Street Journal’s Benoit Faucon]

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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