The Cable

Situation Report: U.S. warplanes hit ISIS in Libya; Turks and Kurds and Washington; U.N. chief blasts Russia and Syria; U.S. support for Uganda; why is the U.S. government picking on Apple; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley Strikes. American warplanes hit an Islamic State camp near the town of Sabratha between Tripoli and the Tunisian border on Friday, allegedly killing about 40 Islamic State recruits. Most of the fighters are believed to be from Tunisia, according to first reports. U.S. officials are still trying to determine ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Strikes. American warplanes hit an Islamic State camp near the town of Sabratha between Tripoli and the Tunisian border on Friday, allegedly killing about 40 Islamic State recruits. Most of the fighters are believed to be from Tunisia, according to first reports.

U.S. officials are still trying to determine if the target of the strike, Noureddine Chouchane, was killed in the operation. Chouchane has been linked to two attacks in Tunisia last year: one that killed 22 people at the National Bardo Museum in Tunis, and another which killed 38 people at a beach in the coastal resort in Sousse, according to a U.S. official who spoke to the New York Times.

A growing problem. The strike comes as the Obama administration weighs how and when to take action against the growing presence of ISIS in Libya. The group already controls about 150 miles of the Libyan coastline centered around the city of Sirte, and Pentagon officials have estimated there are somewhere around 5,000 ISIS fighters operating in Libya. FP’s Dan De Luce recently took stock of the situation, reporting that the two rival political factions vying to run the country have so far failed to form a central government in Tripoli, something U.S. officials would like to see before kicking off any train-and-advise program or conducting larger scale military action.

But the concern is real. National Intelligence Director James Clapper told lawmakers recently that ISIS is “entrenched” in Sirte and is “well positioned to expand territory under its control in 2016.” American Special Operations Forces have been trying to work with different militia groups in Libya in recent months, in an effort to identify moderate groups that could form the backbone of the country’s security forces.

Turkey and the Kurds. The Obama administration is struggling to find a middle road between keeping NATO ally Turkey in the fold, while supporting Kurdish fighters in Syria that Turkey considers terrorists. The situation was made vastly more complicated after Turkey called on Washington to drop its support for Kurdish YPG fighters in Syria after a suicide bombing in Ankara on Wednesday killed at least 28 people — an attack Turkey attributed to the YPG.

FP’s John Hudson and Dan De Luce ran down the controversy, and write that Turkey has grown increasingly alarmed as Kurdish YPG forces in Syria, aided by Russian airstrikes, continue to seize territory near the Turkish border. Ankara views those groups as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a separatist group which has waged a bloody campaign inside Turkey for three decades. But “Washington views the YPG as the most effective ground fighting force inside Syria, and coordinates closely with its leadership to provide air support. And the U.S. has reportedly sent arms to groups affiliated with the YPG.”

Syria remains Syria. Meanwhile, over in the Islamic State’s primary stronghold, Syria, the situation isn’t getting any less complex. In an unpublished letter from U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon to the U.N. Security Council obtained exclusively by FP’s Colum Lynch, Moon charges that Russian and Syrian airstrikes have “severely disrupted” humanitarian operations around Aleppo during the past two months and hindered delivery of aid to hundreds of thousands of Syrians.

“The accusation marked the strongest direct criticism of Moscow’s military operations in Syria by the U.N. chief since Russian President Vladimir Putin entered the war last September,” Lynch writes. Moon also takes a swipe at Turkey, which has been shelling Kurdish positions in Syria, writing, “the latest shelling and bombardments have destroyed many more Syrian lives, as well as schools and hospitals, and have created large numbers of internally displaced persons.” There has been a sliver of good news in Syria in recent days, however. Aid convoys have been able to reach five besieged Syrian towns to deliver food to more than 80,000 people.

U.S. vs. Apple? The encryption debate exploded this week after a federal judge ordered Apple to unlock an iPhone 5c phone belonging to Syed Rizwan Farook who, with his wife, killed 14 people in a December shooting spree in San Bernardino, California. Apple so far has refused. FP’s Elias Groll asks why the government appears to be targeting Apple, rather than Google, whose mobile operating system runs on more phones around the world than Apple’s. The short answer: “Apple uses far more secure encryption in its mobile software than does Google. That’s potentially bad news for the hundreds of millions of people who use Android phones, but it’s a boon for the law enforcement personnel who say encrypted communications prevented them from stopping the Paris attacks and could enable more terror strikes in the future.”

How the U.S. military supports an African strongman. Washington pours about $170 million a year into Uganda’s security forces, in return for help in battling the al-Shabab terrorist group and in peacekeeping missions in places like Somalia. But as FP’s Ty McCormick reports in a fascinating story from Kampala, that aid comes amid plenty of questions over how the country’s military treats civilians, and how it props up the regime of President Yoweri Museveni.

Morning, all. Thanks for clicking on through this morning. 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: or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.


Defense Department officials have told their Russian counterparts the location of U.S. Special Operations Forces in Syria in order to protect them against accidental airstrikes by the Russians, the Washington Post reports. Air Force Central Command chief Lt. Gen. Charles Q. Brown offered few details on the size or location of U.S. commando units operating in Syria, but the U.S. informed the Russians about their location in December — the same month the Defense Department officials told the public that about 50 special operations troops were operating in Syria.


Navy Vice Adm. Ted “Twig” Branch is speaking for the first time since the public learned that he — the Navy’s top intelligence official — doesn’t have a security clearance and cannot view classified information, reports. Branch is under investigation for alleged involvement with Glenn Defense Marine Asia, the southeast Asian defense contractor accused of bribing senior Navy officials in return for contracts, and hasn’t had a clearance for nearly three years. Branch defended himself, saying he presents no threat to national security and “Naval intelligence is OK” under the circumstances, despite it being “frustrating in the extreme.” Rear Adm. Elizabeth Train was nominated in September to replace Branch.


There’s yet another twist in the long-running drama over Russia’s effort to sell advanced S-300 air defense missiles to Iran. Reuters reports that State Department officials are objecting to the proposed sale, saying that the U.N. Security Council needs to approve all conventional arms sales to Iran for five years under the terms of the nuclear deal hammered out with Iran last summer. A State Department spokesman said that the restrictions would apply to the announced Russian sale of Su-30SM fighter jets to Iran. The S-300 sale to Iran has a long, tedious history of near misses and cancellations as Russia first nixed the sale in 2010 following pressure from the U.S., and the removal of U.S. missile defense sites in Eastern Europe. Russia announced that it would once again sell the S-300 to Iran in 2015.


Another day, another story of hundreds of millions of dollars spent on a dubious construction project in Afghanistan. Special Inspector General for Reconstruction in Afghanistan John F. Sopko released a report Thursday revealing that the $155 million headquarters the U.S. built for Afghanistan’s defense ministry has “some construction deficiencies that may have safety implications” in the event a sizable enough earthquake hits earthquake-prone Afghanistan. The building, whose cost ballooned to over three times the size of its initial $49 million cost estimate, isn’t built to standards recommended by the American Society of Civil Engineers.


Libya’s Tunisian, Egyptian and Algerian neighbors are feeling increasingly anxious about the prospect of western intervention against ISIS in Libya, which could create further chaos in the region, Reuters reports. Diplomats tell the wire service they’re concerned that airstrikes against the Islamic State and military training efforts will achieve little in the absence of a broader political framework that brings Libya’s two major warring political factions into a unity government. Libya’s neighbors worry that a military campaign could cause refugees to come streaming across their borders and provoke reprisal terrorist attacks in their countries from the Islamic State.

North Korea

South Korea’s intelligence service believes that North Korea may be planning to carry out terrorist attacks in the South, Korea Times reports. One South Korean member of parliament, Rep. Lee Cheol-woo, said the National Intelligence Service told him that the North may be planning on terror attacks on orders from Kim Jong-Un, and the attacks could include kidnappings, chemical weapons or cyber attacks. Targets of the attacks could include North Korean defectors, members of the South Korean government, and anti-North Korea activists.

Bots o’ war

The Singapore Airshow is underway and it has offered a glimpse of some exotic new unmanned systems. The “air-phibious drone,” as Defense News calls it, made by Singapore’s ST Engineering and is designed to both fly and swim. The Unmanned Hybrid Vehicle as it’s formally known, could be used to counter mines at sea, flying from surface ships and ducking underneath the waves for a closer look. Interesting as the drone may be, it’s only in prototypes and designers have yet to actually test fly the hybrid aircraft.

The Afghan military will fly drones for the first time in March, U.S. Army Maj. Gen. Gordon Davis tells Reuters. The Afghans will use the small Boeing-Institu ScanEagle drones, which the U.S. announced it would export to Afghanistan back in December. The drones will be rolled out to cities where some of the most intense fighting has taken place, with a training facility in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif.


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

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