News Roundup and Notes: February 8, 2016

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 

Forces loyal to the Assad regime pushed close to the Turkish border today, part of a major offensive supported by Russia and Iran. Iran-backed militias have taken on a key role on the ground while Russian planes engaged in an increased air campaign. [Reuters]

“A defining battle for Aleppo … seems imminent.” Tim Lister reports that the government siege of Aleppo, supported by Russian airstrikes, constitutes a major shift in the country’s civil war. [CNN] 

Humanitarian workers rushed to assist Syrians at the Turkish border yesterday, as 35,000 civilians fled the battle for control of Aleppo. [Wall Street Journal’s Ayla Albayrak] Aid was delivered by Turkey across the border into Syria. [Reuters] Civilians fleeing Aleppo were blocked from crossing into Turkey over the weekend due to concerns over a fresh influx of refugees. [Washington Post’s Liz Sly and Zakaria Zakaria]

The Wall Street Journal editorial board opines that the “Syrian disaster is becoming so painfully obvious that even members of the pro-Obama national security establishment are calling for the President to drop his let-it-burn policy.”

The UAE is prepared to send ground troops to Syria to assist in efforts to fight the Islamic State, a senior official said. [Al Jazeera] And an Iranian commander has mocked an earlier offer from Saudi Arabia to send troops to Syria. [CNN’s Jason Hanna]

A member of the ISIS gang responsible for the detention and beheading of western hostages in Syria has been identified as Alexanda Kotey, a 32-year old Londoner. The British group included Mohammed Emwazi, dubbed “Jihadi John.” [The Guardian’s Robert Booth et al; Buzzfeed News’ Jane Bradley et al] The British Home Office would “neither confirm nor deny” the reports. [New York Times’ Kimiko De Freytas-Tamura]

ISIS has been forced to cut fighters’ pay by up to 50% as a result of US airstrikes targeting its resources. [Reuters]

US airstrikes against Islamic State are inadvertently helping rival jihadis, Al-Qaeda, US intelligence and defense officials have warned. [The Daily Beast]

US-led airstrikes continue. US and coalition military forces carried out seven airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on Feb. 7. Separately, partner forces conducted a further 10 strikes on targets in Iraq. [Central Command]

NORTH KOREA

North Korea launched a long-range rocket on Saturday. The US Department of Defense tracked the missile on a southerly route over the Yellow Sea. [DoD News]  While North Korea claims it launched a satellite, many observers suspect it was an illegal test of a ballistic missile. [The Hill’s Elliot Smilowitz and Kristina Wong]

The US has started negotiations with South Korea over the installation of a US anti-missile system, called the Terminal High Altitude Defense system, or “THAAD.” It is anticipated that the move may put strain on relations with China. [Washington Post’s Anna Fifield; Fox News]

Meanwhile, the UN Security Council is discussing new sanctions against North Korea, following the “deeply deplorable” and “provocative” launch. [Wall Street Journal’s Alastair Gale and Farnaz Fassihi; The Guardian’s Justin McCurry and Damien Gayle]

Kim Jong-un launched the rocket/missile in an effort to seek “clear successes before his important Seventh Party Congress in May,” opines Bruce Bennett, senior defense analyst at the Rand Corporation. He also discusses North Korea’s likely missile capability. [BBC]

SURVEILLANCE, PRIVACY and TECHNOLOGY 

EU states are prepared to strike down the new “Safe Harbor” agreement if they feel that America has not done enough to reform its surveillance programs. [The Hill’s Katie Bo Williams] 

Twitter has shut down 125,000 terrorism-related accounts on its site since mid-2015, part of the company’s continued efforts to tackle violent extremism. The company says there is no “magic algorithm” for doing so, adding that it is forced to make judgment calls based on “very limited information and guidance.” [NPR’s Laura Wagner]

A new bill introduced in the Senate aimed to speed up the Defense Department’s ability to acquire electronic warfare technology, Cory Bennett reports. [The Hill]

IRAN

Satellite images have captured Iran’s expansion of its top-secret military complex, Parchin, including the building of an access tunnel. Analysts have warned that Tehran may be “developing facilities that the IAEA may or may not have access to,” even while it is working to negotiate a nuclear deal. [The Daily Beast’s Kimberly Dozier]

“Left behind.” US citizen, Siamak Namazi’s relatives have urged the Obama administration to redouble efforts to free him from the prison in Tehran, Iran, from which five others were released last month. Namzi, a businessman with ties to Washington foreign policy “insiders,” has been in captivity since last October. [Politico’s Michael Crowley]

AFGHANISTAN

Following an aggressive attack on government buildings, the Taliban are getting closer to capturing Sangin, a district of Helmand province. [The Guardian’s Sune Engel Rasmussen and Aimal Yaqoubi] 

A suicide bomber has killed three and wounded 18 on board an army minibus in Afghanistan’s northern Balkh province. There were no civilian casualties. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack in an email to the media, which was subsequently released online. [Reuters; Al Jazeera]

SOMALIA PLANE BLAST

“It was a bomb that exploded in the Daallo Airlines flight. It was meant to kill all onboard.” Officials have confirmed that the blast onboard the Djibouti plane last Tuesday was the result of a bomb. [BBC]

A video capturing two men, one of whom is wearing an airport employee’s official reflective vest, apparently handing over the explosive to the suspected bomber has led to the identification of all three men. They are believed to be from Hargeisa, in Somaliland, indicating that the initial suspicion that the attack was carried out by Al-Shabaab was incorrect. [AP; Fox News]

The bomber originally intended to board a Turkish Airlines flight, which was canceled due to weather conditions. Turkish Airlines, which has not commented on the attack, has suspended its flights to Somalia. [Al Jazeera’s Hamza Mohamed]

JULIAN ASSANGE INVESTIGATION

Julian Assange is unable to leave the Ecuadorian embassy in London despite the findings of the UN Working Group’s report. [The Intercept’s Alex Emmons]

The report, considered a “symbolic victory” for Assange, found that Sweden and the UK had, among other factors leading to the conclusion that he has been arbitrarily detained, not taken his fears of extradition to the US sufficiently seriously. Both nations have issued statements disputing the report’s findings. [New York Times’ Nick Cumming-Bruce and Madeleine Kruhly]

“His personal politics undermine WikiLeaks’ neutrality.” Jochen Bittner discusses Assange’s possible ideological reasons for wanting to reveal classified documents, which go beyond the principle of transparency. [New York Times]

EGYPT 

A meeting between Egypt’s foreign minister and the State Department’s top official for human rights, Sarah B. Sewall in Washington this week is likely to feature discussion of the death of Italian student Giulio Regeni, whose mutilated body was discovered in Cairo last week. [New York Times’ Declan Walsh]

Back in Cairo, four “terrorist elements” have been killed by Egyptian police, who said that those killed had been making explosives and are suspected of killing a soldier, two policemen and a civilian. [NBC News]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

On Friday, the Pentagon released 198 photographs documenting injuries sustained by prisoners at military detention centers, as a result of a lawsuit from the American Civil Liberties Union. The photographs are a selection from a trove of around 2,000 photos. [The Hill’s Rebecca Kheel] 

“Often the best chance of disrupting terrorism before it’s too late.” The FBI is increasingly using undercover agents and informants to monitor online chat rooms. [Wall Street Journal’s Dan Frosch]

Donald Trump is standing by his weekend declaration that he would reinstate the torture practice of waterboarding and “a hell of a lot worse,” though he has declined to be specific about what exactly that would entail. [Politico’s Theodoric Meyer]  Ted Cruz, while denying that waterboarding meets the definition of torture, has stated that he nevertheless does not want to see it “widely practiced.” [Politico’s Nick Gass]

The Israeli Prime Minister has proposed a bill that would see members of the Knesset, Israel’s legislative body, expelled for “unseemly behavior.” Three Palestinian members have recently been suspended after meeting with families of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces while allegedly attacking Israelis. [Al Jazeera’s Patrick Strickland]

Spanish police have arrested seven suspects believed to be connected to Islamic State and other militant Islamist groups, following raids in the cites of Valencia and Alicante. [BBC]

The gunmen who attacked Bacha Khan University in Charsadda, Pakistan in January have been congratulated and thanked in a video featuring Mufti Abu Zar al-Burmi, a key figure often associated with the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan. The video was released by the media arm of the Pakistan Taliban. [Al Jazeera’s Madiha Tahir and Saleem Mehsud]

An Australian woman has arrived in Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, following her release by al-Qaida several weeks ago. Her husband remains in captivity. [AP]

“It is not just experience that matters, it is judgment.” Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders had to defend his qualification to make decisions on foreign policy, following criticism from Hillary Clinton and her supporters. He drew parallels with the former secretary of state’s line of attack against then- Senator Obama in 2008. [The Hill’s Kyle Balluck]

“Are you guys nuts?” GOP candidate Ted Cruz decried the “politically correct” move to draft women into the military, stating that the notion “is wrong, is immoral and, if I’m president, we ain’t doing it.” [The Hill’s Bradford Richardson]

“Global jihad’s deadliest front.” Yaroslav Trofimov discusses the advances made by militant Islamist groups such as Boko Haram and al-Shabaab into Africa. [Wall Street Journal]

“The mistaken idea that desperate refugees are particularly likely to radicalize and join terrorist groups is having a moment,” writes Cora Currier, commenting on a new book from Ben Rawlence. [The Intercept]

Obama must relinquish his “wished-for legacy” and accept that “ending the wars” in Iraq and Afghanistan, one of his professed main objectives during his re-election campaign, is not immediately foreseeable, opines Jackson Diehl. [Washington Post] 

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About the Author(s)

Nadia O'Mara

Former Assistant News Editor at Just Security