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: Boko Haram suggests a swap; Abdullah Abdullah wins a major endorsement; Syria wants antiaircraft missiles; Hagel wheels up today; The Army’s search for a Patron Saint of Public Affairs; and a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel Boko Haram says it will release the abducted schoolgirls in return for prisoners. Reuters’ Matthew Mpoke Bigg, in Abuja this hour: "The leader of the Nigerian Islamist rebel group Boko Haram has said he will release more than 200 schoolgirls abducted by his fighters last month in exchange for ...

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel

Boko Haram says it will release the abducted schoolgirls in return for prisoners. Reuters’ Matthew Mpoke Bigg, in Abuja this hour: "The leader of the Nigerian Islamist rebel group Boko Haram has said he will release more than 200 schoolgirls abducted by his fighters last month in exchange for prisoners, according to a video seen by Agence France-Presse on Monday.

"Around 100 girls wearing full veils and praying are shown in an undisclosed location in the 17-minute video in which Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau speaks, according to the French news agency… Nigeria said on Saturday it had deployed two army divisions to the hunt for the girls while several nations including the United States, Britain, Israel and France have offered assistance or sent experts. The Nigerian government has been sharply criticized for its response to the abductions but President Goodluck Jonathan said on Sunday that international military and intelligence assistance made him optimistic about finding the girls." More here.

Shekau also claims the girls converted to Islam. CNN: "A Boko Haram video emerged Monday purportedly showing some of the kidnapped Nigerian girls in Muslim headdresses and the terror group’s leader declaring they have converted to Islam. The video, released by French news agency Agence France-Presse, was shot in a nondescript bush area and showed about 100 girls." More here.

Sorrow but little progress in the search for girls, on Page One in the NYT here.

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The Saudis allege that Saudi recruits of a radical Islamist group in Syria plotted with others to assassinate leaders. The WSJ’s Ellen Knickmeyer: "…The alleged plot, and another involving al Qaeda’s Yemen branch, were behind the arrests of 62 terror suspects in Saudi Arabia. Those arrested included 35 previously convicted Saudis, some of them graduates of the kingdom’s rehabilitation program for militants, Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Mansour al Turki said on Sunday. Saudi officials haven’t said when they were arrested." More here.

And, Syrian rebels are lobbying for U.S. antiaircraft missiles. Also from the WSJ; Adam Entous: "The leader of Syria’s main political opposition group will ask a reluctant Obama administration to entrust a group of specially trained rebels with a limited number of shoulder-fired antiaircraft weapons known as Manpads.

"Ahead of talks at the White House this week, Ahmed Jarba said in an interview that he will ask the U.S. to either provide the advanced antiaircraft weapons directly to the opposition or to give a green light to another country to provide the systems… He said stringent safeguards would be put in place to ensure the weapons can’t fall into the hands of al Qaeda-linked militants. He added that he will assure the White House the moderate and secular-leaning Free Syrian Army is committed to defeating al Qaeda’s allies." More here.

Meantime, Hagel is wheels up today for a five-day trip to the Middle East. The Pentagon announced publicly on Friday that Hagel was headed to the region starting today. It will be his third trip to the Middle East. He’ll first stop in Saudi Arabia, where he’ll participate in a U.S.-Gulf Cooperation Council defense ministerial.

Pentagon Pressec Rear Adm. John Kirby on Friday: "This meeting agenda will be the first U.S.-GCC defense ministers forum since 2008, and it provides an important and timely opportunity for the United States to step up cooperation with Gulf nations as we confront common regional security challenges related to Iran, Syria, Egypt, and Iraq. The ministerial is designed to strengthen multilateral security cooperation in the region focusing on enhanced GCC coordination on air and missile defense, maritime security, and cyber defense. It is also an opportunity for the secretary to underscore U.S. security commitments in the Middle East and to reinforce the United States’ unstinting policy of preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon and further destabilizing the region."

Hagel’s next stop this week will be Jordan.

Read the transcript that details the trip here.

Staffers on a plane – Chief of Staff Mark Lippert; Senior Military Assistant Lt. Gen. Abe Abrams; Special Assistant Cara Abercrombie; Trip Director J.P. Eby, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International and Security Affairs Derek Chollet; Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East Matt Spence; Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Cyber Policy Eric Rosenbach; Pentagon Pressec Rear Adm. John Kirby; Assistant Presssec Carl Woog; Chief Speechwriter Jacob Freedman and Speechwriter Tarun Chhabra.

Reporters on a plane – AP’s Bob Burns, Reuters’ Missy Ryan, Bloomberg’s David Lerman, the NYT’s Helene Cooper, Fox’s Justin Fishel, the WSJ’s Adam Entous; the WaPo’s Ernesto Londono; the Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg; CBS’ Margaret Brennan.

Who’s Where When today – Defense Information Systems Agency Director Lt. Gen. Ronnie Hawkins, Jr., delivers the keynote at the 2014 Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association (AFCEA) Conference on Joint Information Environment at 12:15 p.m. EDT at the Baltimore Convention Center.

Afghanistan’s Abdullah Abdullah secures a key ally ahead of the run-off. The NYT’s Alissa Rubin: "Abdullah Abdullah, the front-runner in Afghanistan’s presidential election campaign, announced Sunday that he had won the endorsement of Zalmay Rassoul, the third-place candidate, as part of his effort to gather enough support to win in the next round of voting.

"Together the two men’s tickets took about 55 percent of the vote in the first round of voting on April 5, but there is no guarantee that voters would vote the same way in a second round, tentatively set for June 14. Adding to the prospect that Mr. Rassoul may not bring all his first-round votes with him is that his team appears to have split, with one of his two vice-presidential running mates declining to support Mr. Abdullah’s campaign. Mr. Abdullah’s camp and some analysts worry that a runoff could be rife with fraud and that there is a considerable risk that it could be disrupted by the Taliban. The insurgents’ campaign of violence failed to have much impact in the first round, but the Taliban could redouble their efforts to intimidate voters in a runoff." More

Pro-Russian separatists declare victory in eastern Ukraine after Sunday’s vote – but the U.S. says it was illegal.  The WSJ’s James Marson, Philip Shishkin and Alan Cullison: "Pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine declared victory in a secession referendum Sunday, ratcheting up tensions between the West and Moscow, which by recognizing the results could push the country toward a breakup.
"Ukraine called the vote illegal and riddled with irregularities, and part of a wider campaign by Moscow to punish Kiev for pursuing closer relations with Europe.
"But Sunday’s vote saw long lines at some polling places and was immediately hailed as a triumph by separatist leaders and Russian state media. Kiev’s fledgling government is scrambling to mount presidential elections May 25, which it hopes will shore up its legitimacy, and faces growing hurdles after losing control of provinces in the east to pro-Russian rebels. Local police in the region are of dubious loyalty, and army units have stalled in their offensive against rebel strongholds.
"…Amid an absence of electoral observers and a heavy presence of separatist gunmen patrolling the streets, the government in Kiev said the results of the vote were certain to be rigged. Just after midnight in Donetsk, the separatists said 89% of ballots had been cast in favor of ‘self rule,’ with 10% against and 1% invalid. Turnout was 75%, they said in a statement." More here.

Sunday’s Page One ICYMI: Two Americans who were attacked while getting a haircut in Yemen kill the two Al-Qaida-linked attackers. The NYT’s Shuaib Almosawa and Eric Schmitt: "The kidnappers pulled up in a pickup truck outside the Taj barbershop in an upscale neighborhood here in the Yemeni capital. One held an AK-47 assault rifle and the other carried a stun gun. As the men went inside, nearby shopkeepers heard shots.
"Then a foreigner – tall, with the physique of a body builder, and holding a black gun – was seen standing over one of the mortally wounded attackers in the doorway of the barbershop, witnesses said. The foreigner kicked an automatic weapon out of the man’s hands, looked right and left down the street, jumped into a nearby sport utility vehicle and drove away.
"…While much about the encounter remains unclear, a Yemeni official said Saturday that the two Yemeni assailants were part of a cell linked to Al Qaeda that had planned and executed several attacks on foreigners in the country. Whether by design or chance, the official said, the Americans had apparently disrupted a kidnapping ring that government officials blame for killing a Frenchman last week, kidnapping a Dutch couple last year, trying to assassinate a German diplomat last month, and attacking the central prison here in February, freeing 19 inmates.
"The shooting at the barbershop led Yemeni authorities to the group’s leader, Wael Abdullah al-Waeli, said an Interior Ministry spokesman, Col. Mohamed al-Qaidi. Yemeni officials said that they killed Mr. Waeli last Wednesday during a shootout in the capital. The State Department announced Wednesday that it had closed its embassy here to the public because of security concerns." More here.

Meantime, a December drone attack in Yemen reveals the tension between the CIA and the Pentagon over the program. The LA Times’ Ken Dilanian: "Soon after a U.S. military drone killed about a dozen people on a remote road in central Yemen on Dec. 12, a disturbing narrative emerged.
"Witnesses and tribal leaders said the four Hellfire missiles had hit a convoy headed to a wedding, and the Yemeni government paid compensation to some of the victims’ families. After an investigation, Human Rights Watch charged that ‘some, if not all those killed and wounded were civilians.’
"Such claims are common in the U.S. drone war, and just as commonly dismissed by Obama administration officials who insist that drone strikes are based on solid intelligence and produce few unintended casualties. But in this case, the CIA and the Pentagon sharply disagreed with each other.
"…According to two U.S. officials who would not be quoted discussing classified matters, the CIA informed the command before the attack that the spy agency did not have confidence in the underlying intelligence.
"After the missiles hit, CIA analysts assessed that some of the victims may have been villagers, not militants. The National Counterterrorism Center, which coordinates terrorism intelligence from multiple agencies, is somewhere in the middle, saying the evidence is inconclusive." More here.

Prosecutors are trying to hold on to whatever is left of the Blackwater case. The NYT’s Matt Apuzzo on Page One: … over the years, a case that once seemed so clear-cut has been repeatedly undermined by the government’s own mistakes. Prosecutors are trying to hold together what is left of it. But charges against one contractor were dropped last year because of a lack of evidence. And the government suffered another self-inflicted setback in April when a federal appeals court ruled that the prosecution had missed a deadline and allowed the statute of limitations to expire against a second contractor, Nicholas A. Slatten, a former Army sniper from Tennessee who investigators believe fired the first shots in Nisour Square. A judge then dismissed the case against Mr. Slatten." More here.

Hagel, on ABC on Sunday, says the military should review its transgender ban. From the AP: "The prohibition on transgender individuals serving in the U.S. military ‘continually should be reviewed,’ Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Sunday. Hagel did not indicate whether he believes the policy should be overturned. However, he said ‘every qualified American who wants to serve our country should have an opportunity if they fit the qualifications and can do it.’ … A military review of transgender issues could occur as it also deals with questions about how to treat transgender prisoners. Chelsea Manning, a former Army private serving a 35-year prison sentence for providing classified documents to WikiLeaks, is fighting to be treated as a woman. She is seeking a counselor who specializes in gender issues and also wants to get hormone replacement therapy, which the military has said it does not provide." More here.

Hagel also said that medical care for U.S. veterans is ‘not good enough’ but he backed Shinseki. Reuters’ Will Dunham: "Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel said on Sunday the care given to U.S. veterans by the Department of Veterans Affairs is ‘not good enough’ but offered support for Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, who has rejected calls to resign. …‘I do support General Shinseki,’ Hagel told the ABC program ‘This Week,’ referring to the former four-star Army general who lost part of a foot to a land mine during the Vietnam War. ‘But there’
s no margin here. If this (reported delays in care), in fact, or any variation of this occurred, all the way along the chain accountability is going to have to be upheld here because we can never let this kind of outrage, if all of this is true, stand in this country,’ the defense secretary added." More here.

The WSJ’s Michael Phillips reports on a woman who still receives a check from the VA for her father’s service during the Civil War. Read that here.

Not the Onion, not the Duffel Blog: Army public affairs is looking for a future "Patron Saint of Army Public Affairs." From the Chief of Army Public Affairs Maj. Gen. Gary Volesky last week: "I would like your input as we select the future Patron Saint of Army Public Affairs. The intent is to collect your submissions, convene a review and selection panel, and announce the new Patron Saint of Army Public Affairs by the end of May… Send your submissions in a word document and include any graphics or pictures you can accumulate on your nominated saint… your submissions should include the following: one, the history concerning the saint; two, why that particular saint would serve as an appropriate Patron Saint of Army Public Affairs, and three, graphics, images or art of the recommended saint. Army Strong!"

Hagel to Congress: quit monkeying with my budget. Hagel is "not pleased" with the House Armed Services Committee’s mark-up last week of the defense budget. That story here.

The Air Force faces more tough choices in 2016. Defense News’ Aaron Mehta: "When the US Air Force unveiled its budget in early March, it presented an unusual two-tier projection. The first was the normal five-year defense program. The second was a list of items that would be endangered if sequestration funding levels were not raised for 2016. The hope for the service was that members of Congress would see future cuts coming and act to raise funding levels to prevent them. But two months later, Air Force officials seem to be coming to grips that a congressional rescue isn’t coming.

"At an April 30 event, Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said, ‘I am not seeing any indication’ that Congress plans to change the 2016 budget plan. Days later, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James echoed his comments. ‘The conversations that I have had in Congress, with both congressmen, senators and staff members, overwhelmingly suggests that it’s less than a 50-50 chance,’ James said. ‘But… I’m an optimist, so I’m going to continue to push. I’m not going to give up. But realistically we have to think through that if we return to sequestration, how do we manage it?’" More here.

Wanna read about the Navy’s new "Expeditionary Fleet?" For Breaking Defense, Rob Holzer: "What’s in a name? A lot, especially for the military. Over the next decade, the Navy will take delivery of at least 32 Littoral Combat Ships (LCS); 10 Joint High Speed Vessels (JHSV); three Mobile Landing Platforms (MLP); several Afloat Forward Staging Bases; and new versions of amphibious assault ships and Ship-to-Shore connector craft. New riverine boats, upgraded patrol craft and new versions of Lewis and Clark-class T-AKE ships may also be added to this interesting platform mix." More here.

BTW, what was the White House security detail doing in rural Maryland? The WaPo’s Carol Leonning over the weekend: "Top Secret Service officials ­ordered members of a special unit responsible for patrolling the White House perimeter to abandon their posts over at least two months in 2011 in order to protect a personal friend of the agency’s director, according to three people familiar with the operation. The new assignment, known internally as Operation Moonlight, diverted agents to a rural area outside the southern Maryland town of La Plata, nearly an hour’s drive from Washington. Agents were told that then-Director Mark Sullivan was concerned that his assistant was being harassed by her neighbor, the three people said. Two agents were sent twice a day, in the morning and the evening, to monitor the home of the assistant, Lisa Chopey. The trips began June 30, 2011, and extended through the summer before tapering off in August, according to people familiar with internal shift records." More here.


Gordon Lubold is a senior writer at FP and author of Situation Report  with help by Nathaniel Sobel, director of research at the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace. Follow him @glubold and him @njsobe4.

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