The Early Edition: March 23, 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.

EUROPEAN TERROR THREAT

Brussels terror attacks. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for yesterday’s attacks on Zaventem airport and Maelbeek metro station in the Belgian capital. The latest official death toll stands at 31, with up to 230 people reported to have been injured.

Two Belgian brothers have been named by the Belgian state broadcaster RTBF as the suicide bombers at Zeventem airport; brothers Khalid and Ibrahim el-Bakraoui were already being sought by authorities in connection with the November Paris attacks.

A third man, captured on CCTV at the airport, is thought to have escaped the attack without detonating his explosive. [The Guardian’s Claire Phipps]  Following a manhunt, Belgian authorities made an arrest in Anderlecht, west of the capital. Initial reports suggested the arrested person was Najim Laachraoui, a fugitive wanted in connection to the Paris attacks. Belgian media now says that the arrested person is not Laachraoui. [Reuters]

The attacks paralyzed the city which houses the headquarters of the European Union and NATO. Raids in Brussel’s Schaerbeek district after the attacks resulted in the discovery of “chemical products and a flag of the Islamic State,” as well as another nail bomb. [New York Times’ Alissa J. Rubin et al]

The State Department has issued a travel warning to US citizens traveling to and throughout Europe following the attacks. Zeventem airport remains shut today, it was announced.

Additional security has been deployed across American cities, at airports, train stations and other public places. Homeland Security said there were no specific or credible threats however, the measures put in place out of an abundance of caution. [Wall Street Journal’s Pervaiz Shallwani and Andy Pasztor]

American counterterrorism officials have likened Belgian security forces to “children” and accused them of “shitty tradecraft,” according to Nancy A. Youssef and Nadette De Visser. [The Daily Beast]

The House of Representatives will today vote on a measure declaring ISIS a global security threat and condemning the Brussels attacks. [Politico’s Lauren French]

The Wall Street Journal has an interactive explainer, detailing how the terror attacks unfolded.

For live updates on this story, check out the Guardian, the BBC and France 24.

International response. President Obama gave a proclamation from Cuba, ordering US flags to be flown at half-staff in America and around the world in honor of the victims. The president emphasized the need for the global community to stand together against the terrorist threat.  The UN strongly condemned the attacks, the Security Council stressing the need to intensify regional and global efforts to defeat ISIS.  Middle Eastern nations also condemned the attacks, including the Assad regime which said the attacks are “an inevitable consequence” of misguided policies in the region. [Wall Street Journal’s Asa Fitch] And the AP compiles statements from international actors in response to the attacks.

The media weighs in. The Wall Street Journal editorial board opines that Tuesday’s attacks, like “Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., before, are mainly an indictment of Western foreign policy failures in Syria.”  The Washington Post editorial board argues that the Brussel’s attacks serve as a “rebuke” to presidential candidate Donald Trump’s foreign policy.  The Guardian gives its view on the attacks, calling on Belgium and its European allies to “maintain some perspective and keep a cool head,” arguing that suggestions of “war” set “dangerous traps while offering no convincing solutions.” And the New York Times editorial board warns that the “world must brace for a long struggle against this form of terrorism,” adding that this will mean “intensified counterterrorism efforts and a far higher degree of cooperation among threatened nations.”

Comment and analysis. “Belgium’s struggle against jihadi terrorism comes not in black or white but shades of grey,” writes Kristof Clerix, citing a chronic lack of investment by successive governments in the country’s security apparatus.  Roger Cohen says that President Obama’s strategy against the militant group is “not working,” posing the question why Raqqa is “tolerated” but al-Qaeda’s Tora Bora Afghan sanctuary was not.  Anne Applebaum calls on the West to reject “dangerous isolationism,” describing it as an ideology that ignores “reason and logic, instead substituting panic and fear.” [Washington Post]  And Daniel Benjamin argues that while Americans “shudder as if rocked by the blast” when Europe is hit, the US should not expect an attack to happen next on American soil, commenting that the global terror threat is “by no means equally distributed.” [Politico Magazine]

SURVEILLANCE, PRIVACY and TECHNOLOGY

Apple v. FBI. Israeli company Cellebrite, which provides mobile forensic software, is helping the FBI to unlock the iPhone owned by one of the San Bernardino shooters, according to Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. [Reuters]

“This makes the legal showdown all the more reckless.” The revelation that the FBI has been pursuing “non Apple leads” while insisting for months that it cannot unlock the iPhone without Apple’s help shows the FBI “rushed to legal war” before exhausting all practical options, on the basis of “dubious theories,” says the Wall Street Journal editorial board.

Apple’s resistance to the court order “has some validity” now that it seems clear that the application had “very little to do” with the information stored on the iPhone and more to do with “the creation of a precedent for getting into other phones,” according to journalist Fred Kaplan. NPR presents highlights from its interview with him.

Despite its privacy rhetoric Apple is lagging behind many competitors to protect its systems from hackers, say Nicole Perlroth and Katie Benner, citing security experts. [New York Times]

Congress must move on an encryption bill post-Brussels terror attacks, House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Michael McCaul, who is currently backing a measure to create a national commission tasked with looking into “how police can access data without endangering people’s privacy rights,” told reporters yesterday. [The Hill’s Cory Bennett]

IRAQ and SYRIA      

Syria peace talks. Russia has urged patience on the part of those participating in the Syria peace talks in Geneva, a Kremlin spokesperson saying today that the talks were always going to be long and difficult. [Reuters]  And the Syrian government will review a letter given to it by the UN special envoy to the peace talks before the next round of negotiations, the head of the government’s delegation said today. He declined to answer reporters’ questions. [Reuters]

Islamic State has come under financial pressure in recent months, according to US and Western officials, the result of a series of military setbacks in Syria and Iraq. The group has lost some access points along the Syrian-Turkish border, reports Nour Malas, adding that the large-scale attack in Brussels yesterday demonstrates that despite this it still has the ability to inspire and mobilize overseas operations. [Wall Street Journal]

President Obama has sworn to “go after” Islamic State in Iraq and Syria in the wake of the attacks in Brussels, yesterday, also defending his decision not to cut short his current trip to Cuba on account of the attacks. [Politico’s Nolan D McCaskill and Sarah Wheaton]  His comments come as Republicans in Congress heap criticism on the president’s approach to Islamic State, which they say the Brussels attacks have exposed as perilously out of step with the threat the group poses. [The Hill’s Jordain Carney]

“Does the president have this right?” President Obama’s “primary goal seems to be to get out of office being able to say that he had shrunk America’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan” and “prevented our involvement on the ground in Syria and Libya,” writes Thomas L Friedman, prompting him to consider whether it is open to the US president not to respond to every threat in the Middle East. [New York Times]

Islamic State’s “suicide brigade” has 123 members, according to personnel files obtained by Sky News that were reportedly leaked by an Islamic State defector earlier this month. Members were recruited from countries including Belgium, France, Germany and Tunisia. [The Hill’s Rebecca Savransky]

A 16-year-old Australian girl has appeared in court on charges of funding terrorism, allegedly having sent thousands of dollars to Islamic State in Syria and Iraq along with a 20-year-old accomplice. [BBC]

OBAMA IN CUBA

President Obama rounded off his three-day visit to Cuba with a televised speech to the island’s people on Tuesday morning. [New York Times’ Julie Hirschfeld Davis; Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin and Karen DeYoung]  He made “a compelling case that the ties that bind Cuba and the United States are more powerful than their differences,” considers the New York Times editorial board, interspersing his praise of Cuba with “a healthy dose” of criticism and calls for change, which he said was not possible unless citizens are given free speech and are protected from arbitrary detention.

Obama met privately with a group of dissidents following his speech, including Berta Soler, leader of the Ladies in White, a group formed by relatives of victims of a regime crackdown over a decade ago. [New York Times’ Frances Robles]

A freer Cuba after President Obama’s trip will be the real test of his “thaw,” says the Washington Post editorial board, not the “pomp and circumstance” of the visit itself.

Live step-by-step coverage of the president’s trip to Cuba has been provided by the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

A US airstrike in Yemen yesterday has killed dozens of al-Qaeda fighters, the Pentagon has claimed, advising that it is still assessing the full results of the operation. [Washington Post’s Thomas Gibbons-Neff; New York Times’ Michael S Schmidt]  The death toll is at least 50, according to reports from local residents today [Reuters]

The new commander of US and NATO forces in Afghanistan apologized unreservedly for the US’s bombing of a hospital in Kunduz last year. General John W Nicholson Jr spoke yesterday to families of the 42 who were killed. His statement is not likely to change the position of Doctors Without Borders, who are demanding an inquiry by the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission and calling the airstrikes a war crime, report Mujib Mashal and Najim Rahim. [New York Times]

“What sounds reasonably cautious in the evening can ring weak or categorically incoherent by morning.” David E Sanger and Maggie Haberman suggest that GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump’s comments about scaling back the US contribution to NATO, followed immediately by the terrorist attacks in Brussels, NATO’s headquarters, yesterday, is a “vivid reminder” of the risks of running for president in “an age of terrorism.” [New York Times]

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he hopes the US will oppose all UN resolutions on the creation of a Palestinian state. Speaking at the annual conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee via video link from Jerusalem yesterday, Netanyahu said that any resolution could actually “kill the chances for peace” for a long time. [Al Jazeera] 

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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