The Cable

Situation Report: New counterterrorism efforts from White House; former SEAL leaving DoD for State Dept.; possibility of more U.S. stealth planes heading for South Korea; Iraq drones Shiite militias; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley Task Force: Task Force! President Barack Obama is making a big push in the waning days of his administration to show movement in the fight against the Islamic State and the growing ambitions of al Qaeda-inspired groups. Stunned by the mass slaughter of 130 people in Paris by ISIS-directed ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Task Force: Task Force! President Barack Obama is making a big push in the waning days of his administration to show movement in the fight against the Islamic State and the growing ambitions of al Qaeda-inspired groups. Stunned by the mass slaughter of 130 people in Paris by ISIS-directed murderers, the downing of a Russian passenger jet over Egypt, and the ISIS-inspired attack in San Bernardino, Calif., the White House has been hard pressed to show that it is prepared to defend Americans against violence.

So on Friday, the White House did what the White House has done for decades: it created a task force. This one directs the Homeland Security and Justice departments to piece together a multiagency Countering Violent Extremism task force to “integrate and harmonize” efforts to counter extremism in the United States. The office will include staffers from 11 different government agencies.

SEAL on message. As part of a related effort, Michael Lumpkin, the Pentagon’s assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low intensity conflict — known commonly as SO/LIC — is heading to the State Department to take over another program.

Lumpkin — a former Navy SEAL who retired in 2007 after serving in both Iraq and Afghanistan — will helm what’s being called the Global Engagement Center, and it’ll be his job to craft anti-extremist messages for foreign audiences. SitRep has learned that Lumpkin’s highly-respected deputy, Theresa Whalen, will take over SO/LIC for the time being, and since the job requires Senate approval, the thinking around the building is that she’ll remain there until the next administration moves into the White House next year and sends their own nominee to Capitol Hill.

Leaving the Hill behind. A top congressional aide at the center of the bruising battle between the CIA and the Senate Intelligence Committee over the government’s use of torture is leaving Capitol Hill for the Department of Homeland Security. David Grannis, the long time Democratic staff director for the intel panel, will become principal deputy undersecretary at DHS’s Office of Intelligence and Analysis, FP’s John Hudson has learned. Grannis makes the move after a lengthy tenure as a top staffer for Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, and in the new role, he’ll be charged with “funneling threat information to law enforcement agencies, state and local governments, and large corporations across the United States,” Hudson writes.

Not us. The U.S. ambassador to Iraq has denied reports that American commandos have been conducting helicopter raids in northern Iraq, despite local reports of U.S. helicopters buzzing around the area in preparation for an assault on the ISIS-held city of Mosul later this year.

“There have recently been reports of U.S. helicopter raids in Hawija and Kirkuk,” Ambassador Stuart Jones said in a statement on Saturday. “Reports of these raids are untrue.” President Obama announced late last year that as many as 200 American commandos were heading for Iraq to begin conducting raids on Islamic State targets, but U.S. officials refuse to confirm if they have arrived in country.

Lights out. A Russian-linked group may have knocked out power to as many as 700,000 Ukrainians on Dec. 23, in a stark reminder of how cyberweapons have become a tool of modern warfare, writes FP’s Elias Groll. Details of the attack, which hit one Ukrainian energy firm and may have targeted two more, remain scant. But a leading American cybersecurity firm says that its own analysis suggests that Russian-linked hackers — who often appear to be carrying out the Kremlin’s bidding — were responsible. More here.

More Yemen trouble. Ban Ki-moon, the U.N. secretary-general, warned Friday that a Saudi-led air coalition heavily supported by the United States may have committed war crimes by using cluster munitions in Yemen, FP’s Colum Lynch reports. The U.N. chief has “received troubling reports of the use of cluster munitions” in several Jan. 6 attacks in Sanaa, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters. “The use of cluster munitions in populated areas may amount to a war crime due to their indiscriminate nature,” Dujarric said. Washington provides aerial refueling and intelligence assistance for the Saudi-led coalition.

We’re well into the new year now, and so far 2016 has been a pretty busy one. As always, if you have any thoughts, announcements, tips, or national security-related events to share, please pass them along to SitRep HQ! Best way is to send them to paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.

Who’s where when

11:00 a.m. The U.S. Navy’s Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. John Richardson, will speak at the National Press Club.

North Korea

More U.S. “strategic assets” may be inbound to South Korea after the North claimed it set off an H-bomb last week, even as Washington says it doubts that the device was what the North claims. In the kind of show of force typical after such things, a nuclear-capable American B-52 bomber took off from Guam on Sunday for a flight over South Korea. There have been reports in South Korean media that the U.S. is considering sending B-2 bombers, nuclear-powered submarines and F-22 fighter jets to the region in the coming weeks, but no U.S. or Korean officials are speaking openly about any upcoming moves.

Syria

Travel documents seized by Syrian Kurdish fighters show that the Islamic State ran a formal immigration system for bringing fighters and migrants in and out of Syria, according to a scoop from the Guardian. The documents show ISIS members running migrants from Tunisia through the town of Tel Abyad, a town on the Syrian-Turkish border which Kurdish fighters later wrested from the group’s control with help from U.S. airstrikes. The documents showing bus travel across the border raise questions about Turkey’s efforts to crack down on the Islamic State’s use of Turkish territory as a launching point for migration to the self-styled caliphate.

Iraq

Iraq’s new Chinese armed drone may have been involved in a friendly fire incident which killed nine Shia militiamen on Saturday, Reuters reports. An Iraqi drone operator mistakenly fired on members of the Jund al-Imam militia after an attack by the Islamic State near Camp Speicher in Tikrit. Late last year, Iraq publicly acknowledged that it purchased a CH-4 drone from Beijing. But that didn’t stop Jund al-Imam and another Shia militia, Asa’ib Ahl al Haq, from blaming the incident on the United States, even though American and Iraqi sources pointed to an Iraqi drone as carrying out the strike.

Iran

The U.S. Navy has released footage of provocative rocket tests carried out by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy in the Persian Gulf. The infrared footage shows Iranian fast attack craft firing unguided rockets near the U.S. carrier USS Harry S. Truman in the Persian Gulf 20 minutes after warning nearby vessels by radio that a test would take place. Iran has denied the incident, saying the U.S. claims amount to “psychological warfare.”

Afghanistan

The Afghan government is using an old American military base in Kabul as a treatment center for drug addicts, according to the New York Times. Camp Phoenix — once a hub of NATO training activities for Afghan forces — is now home to victims of Afghanistan’s growing heroin problem. The Afghan government moved addicts to the base, which had been sitting empty since the U.S. handed it over in 2014, after their presence on the streets of the city became a public nuisance to residents. The facility is now Afghanistan’s largest drug treatment center.

Germany

Germany and Italy may send troops to help train Libyan security forces, according to a report in Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine. The move would involve up to 200 German troops training Libyan troops in neighboring Tunisia. Libya has descended into civil conflict between rival factions, and the ensuing chaos has allowed the Islamic State to establish a growing presence in the country.

Yemen

Another MSF hospital — this time in Yemen — has been hit in a deadly missile strike, the group announced on Saturday. The attack killed at least four people and wounded 10 others in an area controlled by Houthi rebels. In a statement, the aid group said that while it “cannot confirm the origin of the attack…planes were seen flying over the facility at the time. At least one more projectile fell near the hospital.”

Japan

Tokyo has decided to show Beijing that it can fly airplanes around the South China Sea, too. In February, Japanese P-3C maritime surveillance aircraft will visit several countries facing off against China in the ongoing dispute over territorial rights in the South China Sea while on their way home from an anti-piracy mission off the coast of Somalia. Word is, the spy plane — which usually refuels in countries well away from the South China Sea — will stop in the Philippines, Malaysia, and Vietnam. The P-3C is a state-of-the-art monitoring aircraft, and the new flights will widen the area of the South China Sea that Japan normally flies over.

Technology

The Defense Department’s Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office has released its annual technology wish list for high tech counterterrorism gear. Pentagon tech geeks are hoping for a range of items, including lighter, thinner, and less-noticeable body armor, tunnel-crawling robots with x-rays to find hidden compartments, lasers that can uniquely identify people by their heartbeat from a distance, and wireless health monitors that can radio back vital signs to a homebase in the event a wearer is unable to call for help.

And finally

If you’re having a Star Wars hangover in the wake of The Force Awakens marketing push, Israel’s Tactical Robotics has you covered with their speeder-like drone, the AirMule. The AirMule, an attempt at a cargo-carrying drone, has been under development since at least 2008 but the company has just shown off its first completely autonomous flight in a new video.

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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