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.
EUROPEAN TERROR THREAT
Brussels bomb attacks. Several explosions have hit Brussels’ Zaventem airport and the metro system this morning. Thirteen people have reportedly been killed at Zaventem airport and another 15 at the metro explosion. The blast at Maelbeek metro station was close to EU buildings. [The Guardian’s Nadia Khomami; Le Soir]
Belgian broadcaster VRT says that the airport explosion was a suicide attack. Belga news agency reported that shots were fired and shouts in Arabic were heard before the explosions. [Reuters]
Belgium has raised its terror threat to the highest level, the country’s prime minister Tweeting that people should “stay where they are.” [BBC] Security has been tightened across Europe at airports in France, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK. [France 24]
“Blanket media coverage and calls for revenge just fuel the cycle of violence.” Simon Jenkins offers first thoughts in the wake of the attacks, cautioning the media and western nations to refrain from giving the Islamic State what it is looking for in the reaction to the attacks. [The Guardian]
This story is still developing. Check out the Guardian, the New York Times and Reuters for live updates. Belgian news station VGT has a live news stream available here.
Paris attacks. Belgian authorities are searching for Najim Laachraoui, a fugitive wanted in connection to the Paris attacks; Laachraoui is suspected of playing a critical role in the Islamic State’s recruitment network. [Wall Street Journal’s Valentina Pop et al]
The arrest of Salah Abdeslam has ended a manhunt, but not answered many questions, writes Alissa J. Rubin, providing an overview of the circumstances leading to his capture. [New York Times]
“Coming soon: the Franco-Belgian anti-terror divorce.” Nicholas Vinocur and Carmen Paun comment on the glowing praise shared between the two nations in the wake of Abdeslam’s arrest, opining that “the problem is that such talk barely conceals the mutual frustration that has been building up for months.”
SURVEILLANCE, PRIVACY and TECHNOLOGY
Apple v. FBI. The hearing scheduled for today in the dispute between Apple and federal law enforcement has been postponed; the Justice Department yesterday convinced the federal court to cancel the hearing on the basis of a possible new way to access the iPhone, without Apple’s assistance. [Politico’s Tony Romm and Josh Gerstein]
In a filing with the court, the DoJ said that an “outside party” demonstrated a possible method to the FBI of unlocking the iPhone of one of the San Bernardino shooters, adding that it must now test the method. [Wall Street Journal’s Daisuke Wakabayashi]
If the new method is successful it could “forestall, but is unlikely to entirely head off, a showdown between Silicon Valley and the Justice Department” over encryption, report Katie Benner and Matt Apuzzo. [New York Times]
The development comes as a surprise to many, including Apple’s legal team, reports Spencer Ackerman. [The Guardian]
Encryption is an “important enabler of human rights,” according to a new report from Amnesty International. [NBC News’ Matthew Deluca]
Americans do not trust Apple any more than other tech giants, like Google, Amazon and Microsoft, to protect their information. Sixty percent of respondents in a Reuters/Ipsos poll are confident Apple would protect their data from hackers. [Reuters’ Jim Finkle]
A former State Department employee has been sentenced to 57 months in prison for an extensive computer hacking, cyberstalking and “sextortation” scheme, the Justice Department announced.
IRAQ and SYRIA
Syria peace talks. The Syrian government is refusing to discuss the future of the Assad presidency at ongoing peace talks in Geneva, head of the delegation Bashar Ja’afari saying that the subject was “excluded,” during a press conference yesterday. [The Guardian’s Patrick Wintour] The UN special envoy to Syria, Staffan de Mistura has described political transition for the country as the “mother of all issues,” adding that the temporary cessation of hostilities will not hold if there is no progress on the political future of the country. [Reuters’ John Irish and Dominic Evans]
Moscow has threatened to unilaterally target those accused of breaking the temporary truce there, adding a “volatile new element” to the conflict which has experienced relative calm in recent weeks, reports Michael Birnbaum. [Washington Post]
The Pentagon has confirmed the presence of a small Marine base in northern Iraq, staffed solely by Marines, the acknowledgement following an ISIS rocket attack that killed one Marine over the weekend. [New York Times’ Michael S. Schmidt] And Nancy A. Youssef notes that the militant knew “just where to hit” the Marines, despite the fact that the base’s location was supposed to be a secret. [The Daily Beast]
ISIS killed two dozen Syrian naval commandos on the outskirts of Palmyra yesterday, as the Assad regime pushed to reclaim the ancient city from the militant group, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and opposition activists. [Wall Street Journal’s Dana Ballout]
The Islamic State has claimed that a British suicide bomber killed 30 Iraqi soldiers in an attack on a convoy near al-Asad air base in Anbar province yesterday. The Iraqi military quickly rejected the claim, saying the attacker was the only victim of the explosion. [The Guardian’s Kareem Shaheen]
US-led airstrikes continue. US and coalition forces carried out four strikes against Islamic State targets in Syria on March 20. Separately, partner forces conducted a further seven strikes against targets in Iraq. [Central Command]
The New York Times editorial board comments on the push for self-rule by the Syrian Kurds, exploring the viability of a semi-autonomous zone and the idea floated by others that Syria could be divided roughly into the areas held by the Kurds, the government, ISIS and rebel groups.
“Calling it genocide won’t stop it.” William McGurn considers whether Secretary of State John Kerry’s declaration that ISIS atrocities constitute genocide is the “prelude to stepped-up” American action against the group, or whether it is “in fact a substitute for such action.” [Wall Street Journal]
OBAMA IN CUBA
President Obama and Cuban President Raúl Castro make historic meeting. The two leaders “traded criticism of each other’s countries” even as they asserted a mutual commitment to normalizing relations between the US and Cuba, during yesterday’s summit in Havana, report Julie Hirschfeld Davis and Damien Cave. [New York Times]
President Castro demanded the return of “the territory illegally occupied by Guantánamo Naval Base,” stating that relations between the US and Cuba would not be fully normal until this and the removal of the US embargo against Cuba had been accomplished. [The Guardian’s Dan Roberts and Jonathan Watts; Wall Street Journal’s Carol E Lee]
“What political prisoners?” Castro, asked by reporters about political dissidents detained by his government, promised that if they could give him a list of those prisoners they would be “released before tonight ends.” Cuba has responded “intermittently” to similar lists in the past, President Obama told reporters following the summit. [The Hill’s Jordan Fabian; Politico]
Back in the US, reactions to the meeting have been mixed. Eugene Robinson considers that President Obama’s visit to Havana will “almost surely hasten the day when Cubans are free from the Castro government’s suffocating repression.” [Washington Post] Conversely, Katie Pavlich insists that Obama is “lost in his own naiveté,” tweeting his arrival in Cuba while the Cuban government increases its censorship and oppression of its people. Worse still, she writes, “Obama’s love for Cuba and promotion of “change” in the country has nothing to do with helping the Cuban people” and blames it instead on his “leftist and radical” activism. [The Hill]
President Obama “must not forget the Castro regime’s victims.” Hayes Hunt and Tom Leonard report on the victims of Castro’s regime who have won judgments in the US under statutes such as the Foreign Sovereign Immunity Act and the Civil Liability for Acts of State Sponsored Terrorism. They consider that Castro will “most likely insist that all of these judgments be wiped out as part of any final normalization.” [Wall Street Journal]
The UN has acquiesced to China’s request to remove sanctions on four blacklisted ships linked to North Korea’s arms trade. China had obtained assurances from the ships that they would not use North Korean crews, according to US officials. [Reuters]
Desperation and/or miscalculation could soon lead North Korea’s leadership to make a “dangerously wrong move,” writes Gordon G Chang. [The Daily Beast]
The EU military mission’s headquarters in Mali was attacked by “extremists” yesterday, though it is not yet clear which group is responsible for the attack. Al-Qaeda has been responsible for several previous attacks in the area, Mali’s capital Bamako. [New York Times’ Rick Gladstone; AP]
US Republicans have introduced legislation aimed at confronting Iran on its behavior over ballistic missile tests. The Iran Ballistic Missile Sanctions Act of 2016,introduced to the Senate late last week, would impose fresh sanctions on missile developers. Unilateral US sanctions are a “good start” to countering Iran’s ballistic-missile program now that the UN has closed the way to international sanctions, says the Wall Street Journal editorial board, adding that it expects that President Obama is likely to oppose the measures.
Saudi Arabia is a “free-rider” ally that exploits “American ‘muscle’” for its “own narrow and sectarian ends,” President Obama has said in an interview. Although Obama has always seen Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab countries as repressive and contributing to extremism, suggests the New York Times editorial board, it is unusual for a US president to “skewer a friendly government publicly.”
A former high-ranking US diplomat suspected by the FBI of providing secrets to the Pakistani government will not be prosecuted, according to Justice Department officials. Robin L Raphel was the focus of an FBI counterintelligence investigation, agents raiding her home in 2014 and discovering classified materials there. That material turned out to be many years old, officials confirmed. [Washington Post’s Adam Goldman; New York Times’ Matt Apuzzo]
Secretary of State John Kerry met with the Colombian government and Farc rebels to push for a peace accord. Talks are being held in Cuba, and are currently focused on the issue of disarmament, agreement having already been reached on land reform, political participation, the illegal drugs trade and transitional justice. [BBC]
Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump outlined a foreign policy position involving significant reduction in US involvement in NATO during a debate before the American Israel Public Affairs Committee yesterday evening at which Democratic Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was also present to outline her vision for future US involvement with the Middle East and, particularly, Israel. [Washington Post’s Philip Rucker and Robert Costa; Financial Times’ Demetri Sevastopulo and Peter Spiegel; New York Times’ Mark Landler and Maggie Haberman] Trump also named the first of his foreign policy advisers during his speech, and they are a mixture of the “not well known” and the “controversial,” according to the BBC.
Morocco has requested that the UN close its military liaison office in Western Sahara, according to a UN spokesperson, as tensions between Moroccan authorities and the UN continue to escalate. [New York Times’ Rick Gladstone]
The Republican chairman of the House Oversight Committee has threatened to issue a subpoena for documents and communications that will shed light on Defense Secretary Ash Carter’s use of a private email account for work during his first few months at the Pentagon, an issue that came to light in December 2015. [The Hill’s Rebecca Kheel]
Congolese politician Jean-Pierre Bemba has been convicted of war crimes by the International Criminal Court in the Hague, including rape – the first time the court has held that large-scale rape is a war crime. [New York Times’ Marlise Simons]