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: American suicide bomber in Syria raises fears; U.S. forpol has an E.D. problem; Dempsey: military will not “look away” from Bergdahl allegations; What about other Americans in captivity?; and a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel American officials had only limited intel on Moner Mohammad Abusalha, the American-born suicide bomber in Syria. The WaPo’s Greg Miller, Adam Goldman and Nicole Rodriguez on Page One: "…The inability to track Abusalha reflects what U.S. officials describe as a worrisome blind spot for intelligence agencies struggling to monitor ...

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel

American officials had only limited intel on Moner Mohammad Abusalha, the American-born suicide bomber in Syria. The WaPo’s Greg Miller, Adam Goldman and Nicole Rodriguez on Page One: "…The inability to track Abusalha reflects what U.S. officials describe as a worrisome blind spot for intelligence agencies struggling to monitor a surging flow of foreign fighters into and often out of a conflict dominated by Islamist militants. U.S. officials said that dozens of fighters from the United States, and much larger numbers from Europe and the Middle East, all but disappear from view once they are inside Syria’s borders.

"…U.S. officials described Syria as a daunting environment for espionage. The CIA pulled its people out of Syria when the U.S. embassy was closed as the conflict moved toward civil war. There are also legal impediments to tracking U.S. citizens or monitoring their communications. Amid estimates that as many as 12,000 foreigners have flocked to Syria, the opaque nature of the conflict has complicated efforts to determine how many might have become dangerously radicalized or to account for them if and when they return home.

Martin Reardon, who worked on FBI counterterrorism assignments for a decade before retiring in 2011: "‘It’s a game-changer… It drives home the threat of foreign fighters. What happens when they go home?’" More here.

Meantime, France is increasingly worried about the flow of jihadis to Syria. The NYT’s Alissa Rubin on Page One: "The three young Frenchmen were arrested as they tried to make their way to Syria to wage jihad. They had not harmed anyone in France or made plans to do so, according to the evidence at their trial in January, but in France these days, seeking to fight in Syria is enough to bring a charge of plotting terrorism – and in this case sentences of three to five years in prison.

"France, and much of Europe, have grown steadily more concerned over the past year about the possibility that the main terrorist threat could come from their own citizens, European passport holders who can move relatively easily between their homelands and the battlefields of Syria, where Islamist rebel groups are fighting the government of President Bashar al-Assad. In that climate, France is becoming especially aggressive by arresting would-be jihadis even before they leave the country or set foot on a battlefield." More here.

A report out this morning by the Soufan Group’s Richard Barrett looks at the thousands of foreign fighters in Syria. From the report: "…The three groups that have attracted the most foreign fighters, Ahrar al-Sham, Jabhat al- Nusra and ISIS, were all founded by people who at that time were members of al-Qaeda, and it is reasonable to suppose that if not now, they may at some point in the future follow al-Qaeda objectives by mounting attacks elsewhere. In March 2014, two incidents in Turkey, one in the South and one in Istanbul, in which the police clashed with armed members of ISIS, may suggest that ISIS is already setting up branches outside the Levant.

"The al-Qaeda leadership has also taken a close interest in Syria, seeing it as an opportunity to recover from the hammering it has suffered since 2001, and it has sent senior operatives there to work with and influence affiliated groups.49 Although the authority, legitimacy and relevance of al-Qaeda have been sharply challenged by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of ISIS, the leadership is probably in a better position now than at anytime since October 2001. If things go well for al-Zawahiri, the instability in both Iraq and Syria will carry on long enough for Jabhat al-Nusra and other al-Qaeda affiliates to control territory, establish camps, capture headlines, and rebuild an international network of supporters. Given their accessibility and resources, Iraq and Syria have multiple attractions in this respect over Yemen or Somalia." Full report here.

Russia opposed humanitarian aid corridors in Syria before it favored them in eastern Ukraine. FP’s Colum Lynch: "Syria’s bloody civil war has killed more than 160,000 civilians and left millions more in desperate need of food and other supplies. The current unrest in eastern Ukraine has killed a few dozen people, mostly Ukrainian soldiers, and caused no shortages of any vital goods. Russia has vehemently opposed efforts to make it easier to bring humanitarian goods into one country while enthusiastically promoting the idea in the other. Care to guess which country is which?

"Moscow on Monday launched a quixotic effort at the U.N. Security Council to create humanitarian corridors that would allow relief aid into conflict zones in eastern Ukraine — where low-level clashes between Ukraine’s army and pro-Russian separatists have escalated in the days following Kiev’s presidential elections — and make it easier for civilians to flee the fighting. Those are exactly the type of measures that Moscow has bottled up when it comes to Syria, despite the exponentially higher civilian death toll there." More here.

Syrians vote in a presidential election today. Reuters’ Marwan Makdesi, this hour: "Syrians voted on Tuesday in an election expected to deliver an overwhelming victory for President Bashar al-Assad but which his opponents have dismissed as a charade in the midst of Syria’s devastating civil war. Rebel fighters, the political opposition in exile, Western powers and Gulf Arabs say no credible vote can be held in a country where swathes of territory are outside state control and millions have been displaced by conflict. State television showed long queues of people waiting to vote at polling stations in areas under state control, as well as crowds waving flags and portraits of the president. Assad, looking relaxed and wearing a dark blue suit and light blue tie, voted at a central Damascus polling station with his wife Asma." More here.

Welcome to Tuesday’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. 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. Follow us: @glubold and @njsobe4.

Who’s Where When today – Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is in Brussels… Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Marty Dempsey is back from Saudi Arabia… Adm. Michael Rogers, commander of U.S. Cyber Command and Director of the NSA, delivers remarks on cybersecurity challenges and his vision for the organizations he leads at the Bloomberg cyber security summit at 8
:40 a.m. in the Pavilion Room, Ronald Reagan Building.

Under Secretary for Political Affairs Wendy Sherman will deliver remarks on the U.S. strategy in Somalia at USIP at 11:00 a.m. this morning. Her remarks will address the full range of the United States’ interests and efforts in Somalia, within the context of the administration’s partnership with Africa and U.S. leadership more generally. After her speech, Under Secretary Sherman will answer questions from the audience. Watch it here.

McCain, Coburn, Burr and Flake will introduce the Veterans Choice Act today. From Sen. John McCain’s office: The Act "addresses the most pressing issues raised by the scandal at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs by providing veterans with greater flexibility and choice in health care providers and increasing accountability and transparency at the VA."

A study of VA data shows that hospitals vary widely in patient care. The WSJ’s Thomas Burton and Damian Paletta: "The Phoenix facility at the heart of the crisis at the Department of Veterans Affairs is among a number of VA hospitals that show significantly higher rates of mortality and dangerous infections than the agency’s top-tier hospitals, internal records show. The criticism that precipitated last week’s resignation of VA Secretary Eric Shinseki has focused largely on excessive wait times for appointments across the VA’s 150-hospital medical system. But a detailed tabulation of outcomes at a dozen VA hospitals made available to The Wall Street Journal illustrates a deeper challenge: vastly disparate treatment results and what some VA doctors contend is the slippage of quality in recent years at some VA facilities. Some of the discrepancies are stark, especially for an agency known for offering high-quality care in 50 states." More here.

Invoking the leave-no-man-behind argument this morning in Poland, Obama defended the deal he made to get back Bergdahl. Obama: "Regardless of the circumstances, whatever those circumstances may turn out to be, we still get an American soldier back if he’s held in captivity. Period. Full stop. We don’t condition that… We saw an opportunity, we were concerned about Sgt. Bergdahl’s health … and we seized that opportunity."

National Security Council Spokesperson Caitlin Hayden issued an on-the-record statement this morning about the transfer of detainees and the notification of Congress. Hayden: "… In these circumstances, delaying the transfer in order to provide the 30-day notice would interfere with the Executive’s performance of two related functions that the Constitution assigns to the President: protecting the lives of Americans abroad and protecting U.S. soldiers.  Because such interference would significantly alter the balance between Congress and the President, and could even raise constitutional concerns, we believe it is fair to conclude that Congress did not intend that the Administration would be barred from taking the action it did in these circumstances." Read the rest of her statement here.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Marty Dempsey, on whether Bergdahl is in trouble or not, on his Facebook page this morning: "…As for the circumstances of his capture, when he is able to provide them, we’ll learn the facts. Like any American, he is innocent until proven guilty. Our Army’s leaders will not look away from misconduct if it occurred. In the meantime, we will continue to care for him and his family. Finally, I want to thank those who for almost five years worked to find him, prepared to rescue him, and ultimately put themselves at risk to recover him."

If Bowe Bergdhal is a deserter, what should be done with him? TIME’s Mark Thompson: "As Army veterans who served with Bowe Bergdahl continued to denounce what they described as desertion – an act that reportedly led to the death of some of the GIs who tried to find him after his disappearance in Afghanistan – senior military hands took a more measured approach to his ultimate fate at the hands of military justice." Read what Jack Keane and Eugene Fidell had to say here.

Obama swapped five Taliban for Bowe Bergdahl – what will he trade for the three other Americans being held in Afghanistan? FP’s Lubold and John Hudson: "The Obama administration’s controversial decision to swap five senior Taliban figures for the military’s lone prisoner of war, Bowe Bergdahl, is putting new pressure on the White House to do more to free the three other American citizens who have been missing in Afghanistan or Pakistan for years but have drawn little attention in Washington.
"The American civilians thought to be in captivity include Caitlin Coleman, an American citizen who, along with her Canadian-born husband Josh, disappeared in Afghanistan in October 2012. Coleman was pregnant and would have had a child by the following January; if the infant survived, he or she would be considered an American citizen. The third missing citizen is Warren Weinstein, 72, a government contractor who was doing work in Pakistan when he was kidnapped in August 2011. It was unclear from government officials Monday what the status of these Americans was or if active discussions were taking place to secure their release.
"In a letter to President Obama Monday, Rep. Duncan Hunter, Jr., a California Republican, demanded to know why they weren’t part of the deal in which Washington agreed to send five detainees from Guantánamo Bay, Cuba to Qatar in return for Bergdahl’s release. Bergdahl, 28, had been held by militants since wandering off his tiny outpost in eastern Afghanistan in 2009.
"…The deal, which has attracted growing criticism in recent days, has also raised new questions about the status of the other three Americans and whether the United States might part with additional detainees to secure their release. Upon hearing of the prisoner swap, the Weinstein family released a statement saying they were happy for the Bergdahls but hoped it would renew efforts to secure the release of their husband and father, grandfather and father-in-law. Weinstein has been held in Pakistan for more than 1,000 days, the statement said. The last ‘proof-of-life video’ was provided to the United States in December, but it shows an ailing Weinstein who will turn 73 in July." More, including Hunter’s letter, here.

Gary Owen for Sunny in Kabul on Bergdahl and not leaving anyone behind: "I know a few who won’t be coming home to anyone ever again. None of them were the kind of man who’d leave their unit and go off into the darkness alone. But it’s not about what we believe about Bergdahl. It’s about what we’d do for every one of our brothers and sisters in arms, and we never leave them behind. Even if we think he’s a dick." More here.

Robert Bergdahl’s jinormous beard, explained, by the WaPo’s Todd Frankel, here.

CNAS and the Alliance in Support of the Afghan People will host a briefing on Obama’s post-2014 Afghan strategy on Thursday morning. Write for deets.

Ukrainian forces held off an attack from pro-Russian separatists yesterday. The LA Times’ Carol Williams: "At least five pro-Russia separatists were killed Monday in a failed attack on a Ukrainian border guards base, the second large-scale operation in a week by insurgents apparently bent on taking key government facilities ahead of Ukraine’s presidential inauguration Saturday. The pre-dawn assault on the Ukrainian base in Mirny, near the rebel-held capital of the Luhansk region, involved as many as 500 separatist gunmen armed with mobile rocket launchers and heavy machine guns, Ukraine’s State Border Guard Service said in a statement. Five attackers were reported killed in the first barrage, which began at 4 a.m. local time and involved about 100 fighters. At least eight others were wounded when the clash swelled to involve an additional 400 insurgents in the afternoon, the border service reported. Seven Ukrainian border guards were wounded, four seriously." More here.

The U.S. is sending about 650 troops to Europe to commemorate D-Day. Stripes’ Matt Millham: "In what has come to be something of a tradition this time of year, the American military is again preparing to invade Normandy. The U.S. is sending roughly 650 troops from across the U.S. and Europe to take part in more than two dozen events commemorating the 70th anniversary of D-Day, the start of the Allied invasion that led to Germany’s defeat in World War II." More here.

Stripes’ @joshjonsmith tweets: "The US is sending about the same number of troops to commemorate D-Day as it did to respond to #Ukraine crisis"

Reading Pincus: A true whistleblower doesn’t behave like Edward Snowden; the WaPo’s Walter Pincus, here.

Turkey wants a DoD ombudsman. Defense News’ Marcus Weisgerber: "…The ombudsman could facilitate communications and deal with issues between DoD and the Turkish defense industry to "better help us understand the reasons for delays or denials of export licenses," Ismail Demir, undersecretary for defense industries, said Monday at an American Turkish Council conference. Demir made the request for the US ombudsman while appearing on a panel with Frank Kendall, the Pentagon’s undersecretary for acquisition, technology and logistics…Kendall said there is increased potential for the US and Turkey to cooperate more on research partnerships, such as expanding scientist and engineer exchanges." More here.

Calling Bob Dole: A Chinese general says the U.S. has erectile dysfunction problems. We’re not kidding. The WSJ’s William Kazer: "A Chinese general used a regional security conference this weekend to tell a global audience that U.S. rhetoric about the South China Sea risks provoking Beijing. For the Chinese language audience, the general used language saltier – and perhaps more provocative – words to describe how he feels about U.S. power. Maj. Gen Zhu Chenghu, a professor at the National Defense University, made the remarks in an interview with Chinese-language Phoenix TV at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore Saturday.

"He suggested that if China came to blows with any of its neighbors, the U.S. might not be a reliable ally. ‘As U.S. power declines, Washington needs to rely on its allies in order to reach its goal of containing China’s development,’ he told the TV station. ‘But whether it will get involved or use military intervention once there is a territorial dispute involving China and its neighbors, that is another issue,’ he added. He said that this depended on the U.S. ability to project power, citing Ukraine as an example.

"He said, ‘we can see from the situation in Ukraine this kind of ED’ –which he explained in Chinese was a military abbreviation for something that may have meant ‘extended deployment’ – "has become the male type of ED problem – erectile dysfunction." h/t to Military Times’ Jeff Schogol for this one. Read the rest here.

Meantime, watch out for those Chinese cruise missiles. Defense News’ Wendell Minnick: "Saturation strikes from Chinese anti-ship cruise missiles could become the biggest threat to US Navy carrier strike groups (CSG), according to a paper issued by the Center for the Study of Chinese Military Affairs at the National Defense University. The paper… draws from both Western and Chinese-language open source documents and concludes, ‘experienced Aegis warriors will respect China’s emerging capabilities.’ Written by cruise missile specialist Dennis Gormley, and China military specialists Andrew Erickson and Jingdong Yuan, the paper states that, due to the low cost of developing, deploying and maintaining cruise missiles, the Chinese believe that cruise missiles possess a 9:1 cost advantage over the expense of defending against them. China assumes that ‘quantity can defeat quality’ by simply saturating a [carrier strike group] with a variety of high-speed, low-altitude, cruise missiles. The common belief in US Navy circles that China would ‘need to approach parity in deck aviation capabilities’ to defeat a CSG ‘may no longer be valid.’" 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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