The Early Edition: March 2, 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

Syria peace talks. Intra-Syrian peace negotiations, mediated by Staffan de Mistura, the UN special envoy to Syria, will resume on March 9 in Geneva, according to a press statement from Mr de Mistura’s office.

Forces loyal to the Syrian government have opened a new fight to capture an opposition-controlled hill in the northwest of the country today, according to a rebel official and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. [Reuters]

Suicide attacks in Baghdad and Fallujah left dozens of Iraqi soldiers dead on Tuesday, Al Jazeera reports. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attacks.

More than 400 civilians were killed in Iraq by acts of terrorism, violence and armed conflict last month, according to the UN Assistance Mission for Iraq. [UN News Centre]  More than 670 Iraqis in total lost their lives to violence during February. [AP]

The US military has detained and is interrogating an Iraqi man suspected of fighting with the Islamic State, part of a mounting effort to gather more on-the-ground intelligence about the militant group, defense officials told The Daily Beast, report Nancy A. Youssef and Shane Harris.  The capture raises questions about how the US military should handle what is likely to become a growing group of detainees, observe Helene Cooper et al. [New York Times]

Mosul dam risks imminent collapse, warns the Iraqi engineers involved in building the dam 30 years ago. The collapse of the dam would put more than one million people at risk. The dam has not been properly maintained since ISIS took temporary control of it last year. [The Guardian’s Julian Borger]

The account provided by Raqqa is Being Silently Slaughtered on the killing of Dutch ISIS members is being contradicted by that of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which describes as “false rumors” the claims of infighting and executions, Nadette De Visser reports. [The Daily Beast]

US-led airstrikes continue. The US and coalition military forces carried out 12 strikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on March 1. Separately, partner forces conducted a further 15 airstrikes against targets in Iraq. [Central Command]

“It’s only a matter of time” before the Islamic State employs a “dirty bomb” either in the west or in Syria, warns Luke Coffey, commenting however that in most cases “a dirty bomb holds more value as a weapon of psychological warfare than a tool for mass killing.” [Al Jazeera]

SURVEILLANCE, PRIVACY and TECHNOLOGY

Apple v. FBI. Apple filed an appeal late yesterday in its fight with the FBI over demands that it create software capable of breaking into the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters. The formal objections to the order made by US District Court Magistrate Sheri Pym were made, the tech giant said, out of “an abundance of caution.” [Politico’s Josh Gerstein]

The FBI made a mistake over the San Bernardino iPhone, FBI Director James Comey conceded yesterday in testimony before Congress. Comey admitted that in the early days of the investigation, a mistake was made which now makes it more difficult to extract data from Syed Farook’s iPhone. [Wall Street Journal’s Devlin Barrett]  Federal law enforcement personnel were said to have believed that by resetting the iCloud password they could access information stored on the phone, an action which had the opposite effect. [New York Times’ Cecilia Kang and Eric Lichtblau]

The FBI is taking advantage of the San Bernardino attack in order to push its encryption agenda, suggested leading House Democrat, Rep John Conyers during a hearing of the House Judiciary Committee yesterday. [The Intercept]

“How did governments lose control of encryption” An in-depth analysis comes from cryptographer Whitfield Diffie and three other experts speaking to the BBC.

The Wall Street Journal editorial board writes that “Apple is right on encryption,” arguing that “Apple has no more connection to the data on Farook’s phone than Ford does to a bank robber who uses an F-150 as a getaway vehicle,” raising the question whether “Mr Comey prefers an encryption legal precedent over Farook’s actual data.”

The Pentagon needs strong encryption and data security, said Defense Secretary Ash Carter yesterday in Silicon Valley, calling on American tech entrepreneurs and innovators to play a greater role in national security. [Reuters]

The Defense Department will invite vetted external hackers to test the cybersecurity of some of the department’s public websites, part of a pilot project to be launched next month. [Reuters’ Andrea Shalal]

UK surveillance bill. The latest version of the UK’s Investigatory Powers Bill, introduced yesterday, gives expanded powers to police to access web browsing records, while heeding the warnings of the technology industry on encryption, offering a “pragmatic approach,” reports Alan Travis. [The Guardian]  Privacy expert Carly Nyst accuses the government of a “total contempt for privacy,” concluding that “should the bill be brought into law, its impact on the human rights of the British people would be monumental.” [The Guardian]

Attorney General Loretta Lynch gave remarks on cybersecurity yesterday at the RSA Conference, commenting that “information – and the technology that stores and transports it – has never been more important to our society, and so the task of securing it has never been more urgent, or more challenging.” [Justice News]

AFGHANISTAN

Explosions and gunfire close to the Indian consulate in Jalalabad, eastern Afghanistan, have destroyed at least eight cars, though casualties are yet to be confirmed. Although there has been no claim of responsibility so far, Islamic State, which “has a growing presence” in the area, perpetrated a similar attack on the Pakistani consulate earlier this year. [Reuters]  Afghan security forces have since confirmed that they managed to kill the attackers before they actually entered the consulate compound. [Reuters’ Rafiq Shirzad]

Incoming commander of the NATO-led coalition in Afghanistan, General John Nicholson, is set to inherit a conflict in which the Taliban controls or is fighting for as much as a third of the country. Speaking in Kabul on Wednesday, Nicholson acknowledged that the US is “committed to an enduring relationship” with Afghanistan, reassuring Afghan leaders that “we are with you.” [Reuters]

“If they can enforce the law like it was enforced during their reign, they are welcome.” Tim Craig reports on Afghanistan’s youth who, disaffected by unemployment and a lack of security, are increasingly open to the return of the Taliban and its “rule of law.” [Washington Post]

DECLASSIFIED BIN LADEN DOCUMENTS

The second batch of a “trove” of declassified documents seized from Osama bin Laden’s Abbottabad compound in Pakistan in 2011 includes correspondence that indicates the al-Qaeda leader bequeathed an estimated $29 million fortune to jihad. [Wall Street Journal’s Alan Cullison; BBC]

Letters from bin Laden denouncing “almost every aspect of the Islamic State playbook” were also among the declassified documents, including warnings to his subordinates against “seizing more territory than would be possible to hold, against prematurely declaring the restoration of the Islamic “caliphate,” and even against “publishing pictures of prisoners after they were beheaded.”” [Washington Post’s Greg Miller and Julie Tate]

A letter from bin Laden “to the American people” entreating them to “save humanity” by helping President Obama to fight climate change is also included. Bin Laden’s concern for climate change was also a “theme” of the first batch of documents. [Reuters’ Jonathan Landay]

GUANTANAMO BAY

Despite being subpoenaed, retired US Army General Geoffrey Miller failed to turn up for questioning before a French court regarding his role in the detention and torture of two former Guantánamo Bay detainees. French citizens Mourad Benchellali and Nizar Sassi were acquitted of terrorism-related charges following their transfer into French custody in 2009. [The Intercept’s Alex Emmons]

An ex-Guantánamo Bay detainee was arrested on the North African coast on February 23, where he was reportedly working for the Islamic State. Hamad Abderrahaman Ahmed was transferred from the detention facility to Spanish government control despite a 2004 Joint Task Force report recommending he should not be released because he “poses a high threat to the US, its interests and its allies.” Spain subsequently released him after its Supreme Court overturned his conviction on terrorism charges. [Fox News]

ISRAEL and PALESTINE

Google-owned navigation company Waze has countered suggestions that its mapping app guided Israeli soldiers into a West Bank refugee camp on Monday, leading to the death of a Palestinian student and numerous injuries. It said its app “includes a specific default setting that prevents routes through areas which are marked as dangerous or prohibited” but that in this case the setting had been disabled. It also pointed out that there were several signs on the road leading to the camp, prohibiting access by Israelis. [NBC News’ Alex Johnson]

Two Palestinian teenagers have been shot dead by Israeli forces as they attempted to infiltrate Eli, a Jewish-only settlement in West Bank, in an alleged stabbing attack on a man outside his home. [Al Jazeera]

“The Obstacle” is the Israeli security officials’ proposed method of dealing with Hamas’ attempts to construct an underground network of tunnels for transporting weapons and supplies in any conflict with Israel. Funded in part by the US, it is a system that detects and destroys tunnels. Officials have also been training Israeli soldiers in “underground combat.” [Wall Street Journal’s Rory Jones and Orr Hirschauge]

Hamas commander, Mahmoud Ishtiwi, was executed by his own people last month, amid accusations of “moral turpitude” – homosexuality. Diaa Hadid and Majd Al Waheidi report on the events leading up to his death. [New York Times]

NORTH KOREA

The UN Security Council is likely to vote on new sanctions against North Korea, today. As the time approaches, Rick Gladstone provides six questions and answers on the issue of “why North Korea has festered as an international crisis for more than a half-century.” [New York Times]

North Korea will “never, ever be bound” by UN resolutions, Foreign Minister Ri Su-yong asserted during a statement to the Council, and will no longer take part in Council sessions examining its human rights record. The decision is “likely to further isolate North Korea” as the UN Security Council moves to vote on fresh sanctions later today. [BBC]

“There are signs that this time Beijing means business.” If China cooperates with the new UN sanctions, and if they are vigorously implemented, suggests Thomas Byrne, they could “push North Korea’s command economy to the brink of collapse,” forcing the Pyongyang elite to recognize that nuclear weapons and warlike rhetoric are no substitute for a functioning economy. [Wall Street Journal]

SOUTH CHINA SEA

“China must not pursue militarization in the South China Sea,” Defense Secretary Ash Carter warned in a “pointed” speech at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco, yesterday. [The Hill’s Kristina Wong]  In response, China’s Foreign Ministry has requested that the US stops attempts to sensationalize the dispute. [Reuters]

Meanwhile, China has raised tensions in the disputed Jackson Atoll by stationing ships there, Philippine officials have reported, preventing Filipino fishermen from accessing traditional fishing grounds. China has said it sent the vessels to tow a grounded ship, and that they have since left. [Reuters]

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

US forces in Europe are “preparing for conflict if necessary,” Air Force General Philip M Breedlove, NATO’s chief allied commander told a Senate panel yesterday.  He also warned that refugees from the Middle East and north Africa are “masking the movement” of terrorists, Islamic State members “taking advantage of paths of least resistance, threatening European nations and our own.” [The Guardian’s Alan Yuhas]

Seven Islamist militants and a Jordanian police officer have been killed in overnight raids on Islamic State cells in Irbid, close to Jordan’s border with Syria. At least 30 suspects were captured in what was one of the largest operations in years. [BBC; Reuters]

Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group, has been designated as a terrorist organization by the Gulf Cooperation Council, a group of six Gulf Arab nations led by Saudi Arabia. The group said that its decision was based on the hostile acts Hezbollah has committed within its member states. [AP]

US sailors’ detention by Iran was “not consistent with international law,” the US Navy’s top military officer told a House Budget hearing. The sailors were intercepted on January 12 when they accidently strayed into Iranian waters. They were detained for 16 hours before Secretary of State John Kerry secured their release. [The Hill’s Kristina Wong]

FBI Director James Comey is “very close personally” to the investigation into the use of a private email server by former secretary of state Hillary Clinton. Speaking to the House Judiciary Committee yesterday, Comey refused to reveal details about the ongoing investigation, but was adamant that the FBI is pursuing it “independently, competently and promptly.” [The Hill’s Harper Neidig]

The International Criminal Court has heard submissions on the strength of evidence against Ahmad al-Faqi-Mahdi, a member of al-Qaeda-affiliated group Ansar al-Dine, and will assess whether it is appropriate to prosecute him for his alleged involvement in attacks against religious monuments in Timbuktu, Mali, in 2012. Al-Faqi-Mahdi is the first person to appear in front of the court in relation to the attacks. [Al Jazeera’s Fleur Launspach] 

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About the Author(s)

Nadia O'Mara

Former Assistant News Editor at Just Security

Zoë Chapman

Former Assistant News Editor at Just Security, Legal Researcher at UK-based human rights organization, JUSTICE