The Early Edition: October 28, 2019

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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.  

AL-BAGHDADI DEATH

The leader of the Islamic State group (ISIS) Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi died Saturday night in a U.S. raid in Syria’s northwest Idlib province, President Trump announced in a national address yesterday morning at the White House, ending a years-long hunt for one of the world’s most-wanted terrorists. Baghdadi, who had led the jihadist group since 2010, killed himself along with three of his children by detonating a suicide vest after fleeing into a dead-end tunnel as U.S. Special Operations forces closed in. Missy Ryan and Dan Lamothe report at the Washington Post.

“Last night, the United States brought the world’s number one terrorist leader to justice,” Trump said yesterday, fulfilling what he called his top national security goal. In extended remarks describing the “daring” nighttime operation in extraordinary detail, Trump said Baghdadi died “whimpering and crying,” “like a dog … like a coward.” Using boastful language, Trump said Baghdadi was “the biggest there is,” casting the successful counter-terrorism mission as a greater achievement than the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden under his predecessor, Barack Obama. Peter Baker, Eric Schmitt and Helene Cooper report at the New York Times.

Trump thanked Russia, Turkey, Syria and Iraq for their assistance with the mission and recognized the Kurds for providing helpful intelligence. “Syrian, Iraqi and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces officials each sought to claim credit for supporting the operation,” Michael C. Bender, Gordon Lubold and Raja Abdulrahim report at the Wall Street Journal.

The U.S president refused to give Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) or other Democratic leaders advance notice of the raid that killed Baghdadi, as is customary, saying he withheld information about the high-level military operation from some members of Congress because he was worried about leaks spoiling the operation, even though the president apparently informed Russia beforehand. Trump also said he tipped off a couple of Republican senators, Allan Smith reports at NBC News.

Trump’s abrupt decision to withdraw American forces from northern Syria “disrupted the meticulous planning underway” and forced Pentagon officials to press ahead with a risky, night raid “before their ability to control troops, spies and reconnaissance aircraft disappeared with the pullout,” intelligence officials said. According to the officials, Baghdadi’s death “occurred largely in spite of, and not because of, Trump’s actions,” Eric Schmitt, Helene Cooper and Julian E. Barnes report at the New York Times.

“The United States is increasingly ill-positioned to prevent a resurgence and expansion of the Islamic State despite the welcome tactical success and symbolic importance of the U.S. raid that eliminated the militant group’s top leader,” according to a wide range of regional experts and former defense and intelligence officials, Karen DeYoung, Louisa Loveluck and Shane Harris report at the Washington Post.

Baghdadi inspired ISIS followers through social media to carry out terror attacks around the world and his death “won’t be enough to end an insurgency and ideology of international terrorism that has spawned affiliated groups from Afghanistan to West Africa and remains central to the global jihadist movement,” Isabel Coles, Jared Malsin and Warren P. Strobel report at the Wall Street Journal.

ISIS spokesperson Abu al-Hassan al-Muhajir, described as Baghdadi’s “right-hand man,” was also killed over the weekend in a separate Joint Special Operations Command raid by Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) and U.S. forces in northern Syria, an S.D.F official confirmed yesterday. Ben Hubbard and Karam Shoumali report at the New York Times.

AL-BAGHDADI DEATH: OPINION AND ANALYSIS

Three questions that follow the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the extremist leader of the Islamic State group (ISIS), are explored in an analysis by Ishaan Tharoor at the Washington Post.

The U.S. operation presents the ideal opportunity “to consolidate success and act on what is likely a trove of intelligence pulled from the Baghdadi compound,” Brett McGurk comments at the Washington Post, noting that although “our analysts are surely poring over this information now, and it will lead to Islamic State sleeper cells and networks across Syria, Iraq and elsewhere … our abrupt pullout from Syria will make it harder to act on this information.”

“President Trump made grievous blunders during his announcement and handling of media questions in the wake of the successful al-Baghdadi raid,” Ambassador Dana Shell Smith, who handled the State Department’s public messaging after U.S. special forces killed Osama bin Laden, writes at Just Security, commenting that any public statement made by the United States “will have a reverberating effect in different corners of the world” and “should be a very carefully managed effort,” but “Trump, as usual, could not resist gilding the lily without apparent concern for the consequences.”

“Trump’s effort to play down the significance of President Obama’s killing of bin Laden — while playing up his killing of al-Baghdadi as the key to creating the peace to end all peace — only shows how ignorant he is about the region,”  Thomas L. Friedman writes at the New York Times.

“Trump’s cockeyed view of the Middle East falsely presumes the Islamic State is completely defeated and deems Russia, Turkey and Syria as reliable powers to manage things in our absence,” Jennifer Rubin argues at the Washington Post, commenting that “another leader of the Islamic State undoubtedly will emerge to replace Baghdadi,” and that, while the U.S. military operation is somewhat comforting, it underscores Trump’s “impulsive orders” and “disastrous decisions.”

A transcript and video of Trump’s full statement about the death of al-Baghdadi, including his Q&A with reporters, is available at NPR.

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

A federal court judge on Friday validated the legality of the Democratic-led impeachment inquiry against President Trump and ordered the Department of Justice (D.O.J.) to provide by Oct. 30 grand jury evidence gathered by special counsel Robert Mueller as part of his investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election and alleged collusion with the Trump campaign. Delivering a major victory to House Democrats and undercutting arguments by Trump and Republicans that the investigation is a sham, U.S. District Judge Beryl Howell said in a 75-page opinion the House need not approve a resolution formally initiating the effort. Kyle Cheney and Josh Gerstein report at POLITICO.

The Judiciary Committee “has shown that it needs the grand jury material referenced and cited in the Mueller Report to avoid a possible injustice in the impeachment inquiry,” and that the “need for disclosure is greater than the need for continued secrecy,” Howell wrote. “Impeachment based on anything less than all relevant evidence would compromise the public’s faith in the process,” the judge added, explaining, “contrary to [the] D.O.J.’s position — and as historical practice, the Federalist Papers, the text of the Constitution, and Supreme Court precedent all make clear— impeachment trials are judicial in nature and constitute judicial proceedings.” Lauren Gambino reports at The Guardian.

House Democrats issued three more subpoenas on Friday in their impeachment inquiry into Trump. The House Foreign Affairs, Oversight and Intelligence Committees subpoenaed top aide to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo Ulrich Brechbuhl for deposition, as well as two officials from the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (O.M.B.): acting director Russell Vought and Michael Duffey, associate director for National Security Programs. Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

Acting assistant secretary in charge of European and Eurasian Affairs Philip Reeker told impeachment investigators on Saturday he did not know whether Trump had withheld security aid for Ukraine to pressure Kiev to launch investigations that could politically benefit the U.S. president, according to a person familiar with the matter. Reuters reports.

Reeker also testified that he repeatedly urged top State Department leaders, without success, to defend the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch “in the face of false attacks” that he said were “orchestrated” by the president’s personal lawyer Rudolph Giuliani.  Reeker’s account “underscored the bewilderment in American diplomatic ranks over the State Department’s decision in May to recall Yovanovitch, a highly respected career diplomat … months before her term was up,” Nicholas Fandos and Sharon LaFraniere report at the New York Times.

Trump’s top Russia and Europe adviser on the National Security Council (N.S.C.) Tim Morrison is expected to appear before House impeachment investigators this week and corroborate top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine Bill Taylor’s testimony that the Trump administration tied aid to Ukraine to the president’s request that Kiev investigate former Vice President Joe Biden. Morrison is the first currently serving White House official scheduled to testify as part of Democrats’ impeachment inquiry into Trump’s dealings with Ukraine. Manu Raju, Alex Rogers, Kylie Atwood and Pamela Brown report at CNN.

Trump’s former deputy national security adviser Charles Kupperman, a key witness in the impeachment investigation, filed a lawsuit Friday asking a federal judge to rule on whether he is required to testify in the impeachment inquiry today after the president apparently invoked “constitutional immunity,” leaving Kupperman unsure about what to do. The outcome of the suit could affect the ability of other witnesses who worked closely with the president, such as former national security adviser John Bolton, to cooperate with the ongoing investigation, Michael S. Schmidt reports at the New York Times.

The chairs of the House Foreign Affairs, Oversight and Intelligence Committees insisted Kupperman appear today. In response to the official’s lawyer’s “insistence on deferring to the courts,” they wrote he, “has a simple choice to make: either appear for a deposition [today] pursuant to a duly authorized subpoena, or abide by a baseless White House assertion that your client, a private citizen, should disregard his own legal obligations.” Tom Hamburger reports at the Washington Post.

TURKEY AND SYRIA

The Pentagon plans to deploy several hundred troops to defend oil fields in northeastern Syria from attack by the Islamic State group (ISIS), Defense Secretary Mark Esper confirmed Friday, in “another lurch in President Trump’s zigzagging military policy in the country.” Defense officials said the total number of American soldiers would be around 500 and the “additional steps” would include tanks that “are not already there.” Helene Cooper and Eric Schmitt report at the New York Times.

The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.) announced yesterday that their forces are leaving the Syria-Turkey border area, in accordance with an agreement brokered by Russia earlier last week. The S.D.F. also implored Russia to help ensure dialogue takes place between the Kurdish-led administration in northeast Syria and the Syrian government run by President Bashar al-Assad. Reuters reports.

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is urging Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to address reports on alleged war crimes committed by Turkish-backed forces in the Turkish offensive into northeastern Syria, including the reported use of white phosphorus-loaded munitions against civilians in northeastern Syria. Although the use of white phosphorus, which “can maim and kill when it comes in contact with human flesh,” in military applications is not prohibited, its use as an “incendiary weapon” in civilian areas is banned by international law. Four U.S. senators demanded answers about “whether U.S.-originated weapons, such as missiles, rockets, torpedoes, or mines, were used in the offensive, potentially … in violation of end-use agreements.” Robbie Gramer and Lara Seligman report at Foreign Policy.

“Turkish authorities [today] detained 20 foreign nationals with suspected links to Islamic State,” state-owned Anadolu Agency reported. Reuters reports.

“Leaving thousands of detained Islamic State supporters and their families in poorly guarded camps poses a national security threat for Europe and the United States,” Devorah Margolin, Joana Cook and Charlie Winter argue at Foreign Policy, commenting that the writing off of thousands of women and a whole generation of children by their governments as a lost cause has “grave” security implications because “these same people could become a lifeline for the Islamic State moving forward, whether or not they support it now.”

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS  

More than 80 Taliban fighters were killed in air raids conducted over the weekend by Afghan and American forces in Afghanistan’s Kandahar and Faryab provinces, officials said. Al Jazeera reports.

Nationwide anti-government protests continued over the weekend in Lebanon as tens of thousands of Lebanese people rallied, accusing the country’s political class of “mismanagement, wasting public funds and rampant corruption.” Al Jazeera reports.

The Senate last Thursday approved bipartisan legislation aimed at helping to further understand the risks posed by “deepfake” videos. The Deepfake Report Act would compel the Department of Homeland Security to publish an annual report on the use of such technology, including “an assessment of how both foreign governments and domestic groups are using deepfakes to harm national security.” Maggie Miller reports at the Hill.

The Trump administration has taken steps toward withdrawing the U.S. from the 1992 Open Skies Treaty — a nearly three-decade-old agreement intended to reduce the risk of war between Russia and the West by permitting both sides to conduct reconnaissance flights over one another’s territories — U.S. officials said. Michael R. Gordon and Vivian Salama report at the Wall Street Journal.

Negotiators in the House and Senate are apparently “struggling to reach a compromise” on several matters in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) related to Trump’s border wall, “dragging the must-pass bill into a quagmire that has bedeviled multiple legislative efforts in recent years.” Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill. 

About the Author(s)

Nat O'Connell

Assistant News Editor at Just Security and Legal Fellow at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK - Follow her on Twitter (@oconnellnat).