Situation Report

A weekly digest of national security, defense, and cybersecurity news from Foreign Policy reporters Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer, formerly Security Brief. Delivered Thursday.

FP’s Situation Report: Why a one-eyed militant is a threat to the U.S. in the Sahel; South Sudan unravels; Did diplomacy force an F18 to crash?; Karzai’s CoS got $100k per year from USAID; a sizing chart for the Army; and a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold Mokhtar Belmokhtar leads a new threat in Africa. The NYT’s Michael Gordon: "The State Department warned Wednesday that a new terrorist group linked to an Algerian militant has emerged as "the greatest near-term threat to U.S. and Western interests" in the Sahel region of Africa. The State Department’s move underscored the resilience ...

By Gordon Lubold

By Gordon Lubold

Mokhtar Belmokhtar leads a new threat in Africa. The NYT’s Michael Gordon: "The State Department warned Wednesday that a new terrorist group linked to an Algerian militant has emerged as "the greatest near-term threat to U.S. and Western interests" in the Sahel region of Africa. The State Department’s move underscored the resilience of the militant factions and their ability to forge new terrorist alliances, even in the face of Western pressure. ‘We are seeing a dangerous mutation of the threat,’ said Bruce Hoffman, an expert on terrorism at Georgetown University. ‘Splinters can become even more consequential than their parent organization.’ The source of much of the concern is Mokhtar Belmokhtar, an Algerian militant who has long been a notorious figure in the Sahel region – a vast area on the southern flank of the Sahara that stretches from Senegal to Chad – and who appears to have become more dangerous even as his ties to Al Qaeda seem to have become more tenuous. Known as Laaouar, or the one-eyed, after losing an eye to shrapnel, Mr. Belmokhtar fought against a Soviet-installed government in Afghanistan. After returning to Algeria in the 1990s, he joined a militant Algerian group and took refuge in Mali, where he was involved in smuggling and kidnapping for ransom, including the abduction of a Canadian diplomat in 2008. Mr. Belmokhtar became a leading figure in Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, or A.Q.I.M., the Qaeda affiliate in North Africa. But in 2012, he split with the group to lead the Al Mulathameen Battalion, which was officially designated as a foreign terrorist organization by the State Department on Wednesday."

Said Dan Benjamin, former counterterrorism official at State and now at Dartmouth: "He is a more adventurous, perhaps even more reckless operator than the A.Q.I.M. leadership has shown itself to be… and that translates into a threat.’" More here.

Losing control: Fighting is spreading in South Sudan. BBC: "South Sudanese rebels have taken over a key town, the military has said, as fighting continues after Sunday’s reported coup attempt. ‘Our soldiers have lost control of Bor to the force of Riek Machar,’ said army spokesman Philip Aguer. President Salva Kiir has accused Mr Machar, the former vice-president, of plotting a coup – a claim he denies. The unrest, which began in the capital Juba, has killed some 500 people and sparked fears of widespread conflict. The UN has expressed concern about a possible civil war between the country’s two main ethnic groups, the Dinka of Mr Kiir and the Nuer of Mr Machar. The United Nations has called for political dialogue to end the crisis, and the Ugandan government says its president has been asked by the UN to mediate between the two sides. A delegation of East African foreign ministers is due to fly to Juba to try to arrange talks." More here.

NYT’s Alan Cowell in London: "In a sign of mounting international concern about fighting in South Sudan, Britain said on Thursday that it had dispatched an airplane to evacuate British nationals as clashes were reported to have spread following claims of an attempted coup. The Foreign Office said that around 150 of the estimated 500 Britons in the newly created country had been in touch with British officials, many of them wanting to leave the country." More here.

Welcome to Thursday’s edition of Situation Report. If you’d like to sign up to receive Situation Report, send us a note at and we’ll just stick you on. And if you like what you see, tell a friend.  And if you have a report you want teased, a piece of news, or a good tidbit, send it to us early for maximum tease, because if you see something, we hope you’ll say something — to Situation Report. And one more thing: please follow us @glubold.

Page One: A panel says Obama should curb NSA spying. The WaPo’s Ellen Nakashima and Ashkan Soltani: A panel appointed by President Obama to review the government’s surveillance activities has recommended significant new limits on the nation’s intelligence apparatus that include ending the National Security Agency’s collection of virtually all Americans’ phone records. It urged that phone companies or a private third party maintain the data instead, with access granted only by a court order. The President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies also recommended in a wide-ranging report issued Wednesday that decisions to spy on foreign leaders be subjected to greater scrutiny, including weighing the diplomatic and economic fallout if operations are revealed. Allied foreign leaders or those with whom the United States shares a cooperative relationship should be accorded ‘a high degree of respect and deference,’ it said." Read the rest here.

The Pentagon is on its way to having more budgetary space. Defense News’ John Bennett: "The Senate on Wednesday approved a controversial bipartisan budget plan that erases over $30 billion in across-the-board spending cuts in 2014 and 2015. The former round of cuts would have kicked in next month. Pentagon leaders support the plan, as do defense industry executives. They say while it does not completely undo the ‘meat ax’ of sequestration, it does provide much-needed relief. Nine Republicans joined 53 Democrats and two independents in supporting the deal, which passed 64-36. Among those GOP ‘yays’ were Senate Armed Services Committee members John McCain of Arizona and Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, as well as former SASC member Susan Collins of Maine." More here.

Exclusive: Diplomacy might have caused an F-18 to crash in April. FP’s own Dam Lamothe: High over Afghanistan, a two-man team of U.S. naval aviators found itself in trouble April 8 after an aerial refueling mishap damaged their supersonic F/A-18F Super Hornet. Turbulence ripped the fighter away from an Air Force KC-135’s refueling hose, leaving a piece of the tanker’s refueling apparatus attached to the Super Hornet and causing the fighter to suck airborne fuel through its right engine. It began to stall, and a piece of the tanker plane remained stuck to the fighter as the aircraft parted ways.

"What followed was a series of miscommunications and judgment mistakes that ultimately forced the $60 million fighter — call sign ‘Victory 206′ — into the North Arabian Sea. The aviators safely ejected about 1.5 miles from the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower, the aircraft carrier to which they were trying to return, according to the findings of a new Navy investigation. And while the primary causes of the mishap were attributed to the aircrew failing to recognize the severity of the damage and land their plane in Afghanistan, officers aboard the aircraft carrier effectively took one of their options — landing at the closest airfield in Oman, a U.S. ally with ties to Iran — off the table because it would have caused diplomatic headaches for the United States, according to documents obtained by Foreign Policy, through the Freedom of Information Act." Rea
d the rest here.

The three things you should know about the Max Baucus pick to go to Beijing for Obama. Some are lamenting the choice of a 72-year-old Senator to go to China – "some pivot, right?" Indeed, there are some important takeaways from the White House’s choice for the U.S. ambassador to China. FP’s Issac Stone Fish says the pick could give the U.S. the upper hand in the U.S.-China relationship, it could improve Beijing’s relationship with Congress and "it’s an uncontroversial and unsexy choice for China." Read his bit here.

USAID paid Karzai’s chief of staff 100k per year to get Western technocrats into the GIRoA. The Daily Beast’s Eli Lake and Josh Rogin: "The chief of staff to Afghanistan’s president drew a salary from two U.S. government contractors in 2002 and early 2003 as he was managing President Hamid Karzai’s office, serving as his spokesman and advising him on foreign affairs, according to documents reviewed by The Daily Beast and subsequent interviews. The contractor salary provided to Said Jawad was part of a U.S. initiative to directly pay high salaries to Western-educated Afghans who helped rebuild a government from scratch in the midst of an ongoing civil war and foreign occupation. While some current and former U.S. officials say these measures were necessary in the first months and years of the Afghan reconstruction to attract top talent to a daunting project, other experts say it’s no different from the kind of corruption the Bush and Obama administration have publicly criticized inside the Afghan government. Two separate contracts for Jawad, one reviewed by The Daily Beast and the other mentioned in an email to Jawad, total more than $100,000 per year when taking into account stipends for housing, food, and health insurance that were included in the contracts.

"Larry Sampler, the current USAID Assistant Administrator for Afghanistan and Pakistan, said these types of transactions were a necessity during the initial phases of Afghanistan’s reconstruction. "If the U.S. policy interest was a functioning interim Afghanistan administration, USAID would look for ways to creatively support that. That might include using one of our contract mechanisms to provide temporary salary support to attract qualified employees. To my recollection, in 2002, I’m familiar with about half a dozen people for whom we did that," he said. "We would do this for high impact players who were essential for the new administration." More here.

Situation Report corrects – Eric Rosenbach isn’t going to the Department of Homeland Security as our hastily assembled item indicated yesterday. Rosenbach, who is close to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and worked for him when he was in the Senate, will be nom’ed to be Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense – at the Department of Defense. Duh. Apologies for the confusion we caused.

Red wedding: What the botched drone strike in Yemen means for the U.S. fight against al-Qaida in the AQAP. "…Whatever happened on Dec. 12, it was not a "targeted killing" — the language President Barack Obama’s administration often uses to describe drone strikes — nor was it consistent with the White House’s claim that the strikes are only carried out when civilians will not be caught in the crossfire. It’s not just a matter of the morality of the drone program: The confirmed deaths of noncombatants in this strike will set back anti-al Qaeda efforts everywhere in Yemen, and its effects will only be exacerbated by the restive area where it occurred… It’s going to take more than drone strikes to eliminate al Qaeda from its strongholds in this Yemeni province. The militants killed, locals say, are largely replaceable, while the tens of civilians killed over the past two years has only heightened distrust of the central government among noncombatants, pushing some young men into al Qaeda’s arms. However, the long-term solution to combatting the militants’ presence — ameliorating pervasive poverty and underdevelopment — is far easier said than done." Read the rest here.

Meanwhile, stop calling drones, names, yo. The U.K.’s Minister for Defence Equipment, Support and Technology starts off his piece in the HuffPo as follows: "For too long, the term "drone" has been used to scandalise and smear the activities of Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS). The most commonly propagated falsehood is that UAS are robots flying around the world indiscriminately firing on, often innocent, targets. It’s time to sort the fact from the fiction." And so it goes. More here.

Love 2 shop: The Pentagon’s Frank Kendall talks about how to change the spending culture inside the building. Kendall, the Pentagon’s acquisition chief, appeared on "In Depth with Francis Rose" on Federal News Radio to talk about how the building has to reform. And an example of that is the use-it-or-lose-it budgetary mind-set doesn’t work anymore and Kendall, whose name has been floated as a permanent replacement to DepSecDef Ash Carter, says that has to change. Kendall to Francis Rose: "I go back a long ways in the Defense Department, and I think there’s always been this sense that you were going to be punished if you didn’t spend all your money," Kendall said. "We want people to feel that if they don’t spend all their money, if they divert it to higher priorities for the department or for the service or even if they return funds to the Treasury, that’s a positive thing. We have not done that, I think, historically." He talked about a whole lot more. Read more or listen to the invu, here.

An Army in search of a sizing chart. FP’s Kori Schake: Our Army is really struggling to define its mission and its force structure going forward. With the president and defense secretary having ruled out sizing the force to fight a sustained counterinsurgency, and with intelligence assessments rendering implausible the need for a quick-trigger large-scale land war, the Army is in a bind. It doesn’t want to reclaim the strategy, but it has yet to offer an argument that justifies the 490,000 active-duty end strength in its Future Years Defense Program. So it is experimenting with amphibious deployments in the Pacific — but America already has a land force optimized to that role and it’s by no means clear the Army can best the Marine Corps at its core competency. If the strategy requires more amphibious capability, why not plus up the Marine Corps instead of retool the Army? That’s the argument in a post I wrote for War on the Rocks, a blog that debates defense issues. While the Ryan-Murray budget deal takes some of the pressure off in the near term, the Army really needs to find a persuasive mission for such a large and expensive active-duty force, because if the administration budgets to its strategy, Army end strength will come dramatically down. If I were betting my own money, I’d wager the Marine Corps will enthusiastically support the argument for an expanded expeditionary force and then take the Army’s lunch money." More here. Her full piece on War on the Rocks, "The Army Needs a Better Argument," here.


Gordon Lubold is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He is also the author of FP's Situation Report, an e-mailed newsletter that is blasted out to more than 70,000 national security and foreign affairs subscribers each morning that includes the top nat-sec news, breaking news, tidbits, nuggets and what he likes to call "candy." Before arriving at FP, he was a senior advisor at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, where he wrote on national security and foreign policy. Prior to his arrival at USIP, he was a defense reporter for Politico, where he launched the popular Morning Defense early morning blog and tip-sheet. Prior to that, he was the Pentagon and national security correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, and before that he was the Pentagon correspondent for the Army Times chain of newspapers. He has covered conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries in South Asia, and has reported on military matters in sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia and Latin America as well as at American military bases across the country. He has spoken frequently on the sometimes-contentious relationship between the military and the media as a guest on numerous panels. He also appears on radio and television, including on CNN, public radio's Diane Rehm and To the Point, and C-SPAN's Washington Journal. He lives in Alexandria with his wife and two children. Twitter: @glubold

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