News Roundup and Notes: April 16, 2014

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-Qaeda

CNN (Barbara Starr) reports on a new video showing what appears to be “the largest and most dangerous gathering of al-Qaeda members [in Yemen] in years.” The video features Nasir al-Wuhayshi—al-Qaeda’s No.2 globally and the head of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula—addressing more than 100 fighters. House Intelligence Committee Chair Mike Rogers told CNN’s “The Situation Room” (Wolf Blitzer) that the video shows the organization is “more diverse and more aggressive” than pre-9/11.

The Wall Street Journal (Siobhan Gorman) and Washington Post (Greg Miller) provide further details, with U.S. counterterrorism officials saying the video appears to be authentic and recently filmed.

Ukraine

Reuters (Gabriela Baczynska and Thomas Grove) reports that government forces in Ukraine and pro-Russian separatists “staged rival shows of force in eastern Ukraine [today] amid escalating rhetoric on the eve of crucial four-power talks in Geneva.” The Washington Post (Anthony Faiola) reports that pro-Russian gunmen stormed the city hall in Donetsk, while “a cluster of Ukrainian troops meant to be restoring order in the region apparently defect[ed] to the side of separatists.” The New York Times (Andrew E. Kramer) also covers how the military operation in Slovyansk “suffered a setback” this morning, when pro-Russian militia commandeered six armed personnel carriers from the Ukrainian Army. The BBC has more information on the latest developments.

In a conversation with UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, Russian President Vladimir Putin said the crisis in Ukraine “has grown significantly worse due to the use of force initiated by the Kiev authorities” and asked the UN and international community to “clearly condemn these anti-constitutional actions.” In a call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Putin noted that “the sharp escalation of the conflict essentially puts the nation on the brink of civil war.”

The Daily Beast (Eli Lake and Josh Rogin) reports that during his Kiev visit, CIA Director John Brennan met with the Ukrainian leaders “to discuss the formation of new, more secure channels for sharing U.S. intelligence,” according to officials briefed on the meeting, which could help change the power equation in the conflict.

A former NATO commander and former Pentagon official have advised the administration that “[t]he most important assistance currently needed to make the existing Ukrainian force as defensible as possible … is nonlethal equipment from the U.S.” [New York Times’ Michael R. Gordon].

The White House backed Ukraine’s anti-terrorist operation yesterday [The Hill’s Justin Sink]. While White House press secretary Jay Carney said “the use of force is not a preferred option,” he said Kiev had a responsibility to enforce “law and order.”

A new report of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights calls for “[m]isinformation, propaganda and incitement to hatred … to be urgently countered in Ukraine to avoid the further escalation of tension in the country.”

In an interview with CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves called for a “physical presence on the ground” in the region as deterrence against Russia. The chair of Latvia’s parliamentary security committee accused Russian agents of discreetly gathering opinions of individuals near the Latvian-Russian border, “much like it did in Crimea before annexation of the Ukrainian region” [Wall Street Journal’s Juris Kaža].

Reuters (Jan Lopatka and Christoph Steitz) covers the “[u]nprecedented talks across the European Union on Tuesday [that] showed it scrambling for solutions on the ground to break its dependence on Russian gas and help supply Ukraine.”

Matthew Light and Maria Popova counter allegations that Ukraine is divided along linguistic lines [The Globe and Mail]. Rather, they write, “a civic Ukrainian identity has been developing” since Ukraine’s independence, and “today the overwhelming majority of Ukrainians, whether they speak Ukrainian or Russian at home, feel that they belong to a Ukrainian nation.”

Former U.S. ambassador to Iraq and Kuwait, James Jeffrey argues that the “best way to send Putin a tough message … is to back up our commitment to the sanctity of NATO territory with ground troops, the only military deployment that can make such commitments unequivocal” [Washington Post]. David Ignatius, in an opinion piece in the Washington Post, considers “[t]he cost of Putin’s adventurism in Ukraine.”

The New York Times editorial argues that the U.S. and Europe “must come to Geneva [for the Ukraine talks] prepared to be tough with Russia” and that the trans-Atlantic partners “must reach a clear and binding consensus on the next level of sanctions” if Russia fails to de-escalate tensions. Meanwhile, The Economist notes that “when a nuclear power doesn’t want peace, there is just not an awful lot that can be done to write a happy ending to the story.”

Afghanistan 

Afghan officials say that a NATO airstrike in eastern Afghanistan yesterday has killed a woman and two children [New York Times’ Azam Ahmed]. NATO said it was aware of the reports and was investigating the allegations.

UK’s Defense Select Committee has said British commanders must “bear a degree of responsibility” for their failure to prevent the 2012 Taliban attack at UK’s main base Camp Bastion, which left two U.S. marines dead [BBC].

According to Afghan officials and Pakistani militants, a prominent Afghan Taliban figure “who recently launched a peace overture with the government in Kabul” has gone missing in the United Arab Emirates, casting “new doubt on prospects for peace amid Afghanistan’s delicate political transition” [Wall Street Journal’s Nathan Hodge and Saeed Shah].

And the Washington Post (Kevin Sieff and Joshua Partlow) covers the “serious revenue shortfall” facing the Afghan economy amid its “tenuous political transition,” while “foreign funding begins to dry up.”

Syria

Reuters (Peter Apps) reports that online videos show Syrian rebels appearing to use U.S. anti-tank rockets, according to weapons experts. While the authenticity of the videos could not be independently verified, they signal the “first significant American-built armaments in the country’s civil war.”

A new academic study maps the role of social media in influencing foreign fighters in Syria [The Guardian’s Shiv Malik and Michael Safi]. Among other findings, it reveals the existence of new spiritual leaders who are using social media to back foreign fighters, “playing the role of cheerleaders.”

The New York Times (Anne Barnard) reports that “the campaign train [in Syria] is already unofficially rolling, a measure of Mr. Assad’s growing confidence that he is wrapping up the war.”

Syrian army troops have made gains in rebel-held areas within the city of Homs, and the fight “underscores how Syrian forces have methodically taken back opposition-held areas, bolstered by fighters from Hezbollah,” reports Al Jazeera America. 

Iran

The Wall Street Journal (Joe Lauria) reports that Iranian officials have met with the UN legal department over the U.S.’s denial of a visa for Iran’s new UN ambassador. The New York Times (Somini Sengupta and Rick Gladstone) also covers the development, noting that the latest clash has “laid bare the limits of global law when its provisions clash with the interests of the host country, the United States.”

In an op-ed in the Washington Post, Sen. Rand Paul considers the option of containment of a nuclear Iran. Paul argues that “[f]oreign policy is no place for ‘red lines’” and that while he believes “all options should be on the table to stop Iran from getting nuclear weapons,” war is an option of “last resort.”

The Iranian Defense Minister was quoted by state media as saying Tehran will not discuss its ballistic missiles program as part of the nuclear talks, as the missiles program had “nothing to do” with the nuclear negotiations [Associated Press].

Diplomats have told the Associated Press that a report of the International Atomic Energy Agency, to be released this week, certifies that Iran has diluted half of its 20 percent enriched uranium stockpile, reducing its ability to make a nuclear bomb.

In a separate development, The Daily Star (Kristin Dailey) reports that a market in south Tehran is selling “[e]very type of equipment the U.S. military has at its disposal.”

Israel-Palestine

State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said the Israeli and Palestinian negotiators will meet today to work on an agreement to extend the negotiations past the April 29 deadline. Meanwhile, the UN Special Rapporteur for the occupied Palestinian territories has urged Israel to prevent settlers from establishing a new settlement in the West Bank city of Hebron [UN News Centre].

And The Economist notes that while the two sides “are still meeting, albeit fitfully … in reality they are turning their backs on each other, thinking up their next strategies as if the talks had already ceased.”

Other developments

Yesterday’s pre-trial motions proceedings for the trial of the alleged 9/11 co-conspirators were halted to allow the defense team to inquire into Monday’s allegations that the FBI tried to enlist a defense team security officer as a “secret informant” [Miami Herald’s Carol Rosenberg]. The Guardian’s Spencer Ackerman has more details.

The New York Police Department has disbanded its secretive program that sent plainclothes detectives into Muslim neighborhoods “to eavesdrop on conversations and built detailed files on where people ate, prayed and shopped,” reports the New York Times (Matt Apuzzo and Joseph Goldstein).

The Australian and New Zealand governments have confirmed that two Australian men (one of whom held dual citizenship with New Zealand) were killed in the November 2013 “counterterrorism operation” in Yemen [Wall Street Journal’s Rebecca Howard].

Spiegel Online reports that the German parliament is divided over inviting Edward Snowden to testify before a parliamentary investigation into NSA surveillance, with some in Chancellor Merkel’s party “casting doubt on Snowden’s suitability as a witness.”

The Iraqi government has announced that it has closed the Abu Ghraib prison—“the site of a notorious prisoner abuse scandal during the American occupation of Iraq”—over security concerns that it could be overrun by Sunni militants [New York Times’ Duraid Adnan and Tim Arango].

A court in Egypt has banned members and former members of the Muslim Brotherhood, listed as a terrorist organization, from contesting in Egypt’s forthcoming elections [The National].

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About the Author(s)

Ruchi Parekh

Former Associate Editor at Just Security Follow her on Twitter (@RParekh88).