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: WH backing away from airstrikes for now; Baghdad’s fight against ISIS online; Few details on the Benghazi suspect captured; An FP report sparks a UN investigation of itself; and a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel The White House is backing away from the idea of using airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq – at least for now. Administration officials are in managing expectations mode, signaling that using airstrikes to counter the ambitions of the Sunni militant group pressing toward Baghdad may not be the way ...

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel

The White House is backing away from the idea of using airstrikes against ISIS in Iraq – at least for now. Administration officials are in managing expectations mode, signaling that using airstrikes to counter the ambitions of the Sunni militant group pressing toward Baghdad may not be the way to go. Airstrikes sound good on paper and in headlines, but are accompanied by a host of complexities and risks – including a lack of intelligence, the political dynamics among Sunnis and the perils of putting even non-combat boots-on-the-ground. Now, the White House is looking at a more "comprehensive" approach. Despite the merits of circumspection when it comes to military action, the deliberative approach will further enrage critics. The WSJ’s Carol Lee, Julian Barnes and Dion Nissenbaum on Page One: " President Barack Obama decided against immediate air strikes on marauding Sunni extremists in Iraq, opting instead to pursue strategies such as providing intelligence to the Iraqi military, addressing the country’s political divisions and seeking support from regional allies. Mr. Obama will convene a White House meeting Wednesday with Republican and Democratic leaders from the House and Senate to brief them on what officials call this new comprehensive approach.

"The president wants to avoid airstrikes for now in part because U.S. military officials lack sufficient information to hit targets that would shift momentum on the battlefield. Officials say their approach also would help address underlying causes of the Sunni uprising and the collapse of Iraq’s military forces.

"The White House and Pentagon now hold a more skeptical view of the possible effectiveness of speedy airstrikes and instead are considering deploying U.S. special operations forces to provide intelligence and battlefield advice to the Iraqi military, the U.S. officials say. Such an effort, the officials hope, would allow Iraqi forces to mount a counterattack. Officials said Mr. Obama could follow up increased training and advising of Iraqi forces with airstrikes if deemed necessary, but that outcome isn’t a sure thing. Read more here.

The AP’s Julie Pace: "…More broadly, the Obama administration is also pressing for Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to take steps to make his Shiite-dominated government more inclusive. Obama said last week that any short-term U.S. military actions in Iraq would not be successful unless they were accompanied by political changes by the government in Baghdad.

"Despite those calls, there were ominous signs Tuesday of open warfare between Shiites and Sunnis, the two main Muslim sects. Nearly four dozen Sunni detainees were gunned down at a jail north of Baghdad, a car bomb struck a Shiite neighborhood of the capital, and four young Sunnis were found slain." More here.

But the Iraqi government is fighting ISIS – online. FP’s own Shane Harris looks at what Baghdad is already doing to neuter ISIS, but it’s not all about guns – it’s about what they’re doing with mouses and keyboards. Harris: "In the past week, government ministries have blocked Internet access in regions where ISIS has a physical foothold in an attempt to stop the group from spreading propaganda and recruiting followers among Iraq’s repressed Sunni minority. The government has also ordered Internet service providers across the country to block all access to certain social media sites, including Facebook, YouTube, and Twitter, which are ISIS’s favorite tools for spreading propaganda and posting photos and videos of their victories over the Iraqi military and their wholesale slaughter of unarmed Shiites — both sources of tremendous embarrassment for the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite. Baghdad’s online offensive appears to be having some effect.

"…But because Baghdad doesn’t have centralized control over the country’s telecommunications infrastructure, it cannot enforce a complete cyber-blackout the way government authorities have done in Syria, to block rebel fighters from communicating with each other, and in Egypt, where the government shut down Internet access across the country during citizen uprisings.

"…Although it’s unclear whether Iraq is winning its cyberfight with ISIS, the central government has stepped up its offensive. On Sunday, June 15, the Iraqi Ministry of Communications instructed 10 Internet service providers, including one of Iraq’s largest, to cut off service in five provinces, including those where ISIS has made its biggest gains, according to a government document posted on the website of the Social Media Exchange, an Internet advocacy group based in Beirut."

Meantime, the capture of Benghazi suspect Ahmed Abu Khatallah amounts to a new shiny object. Move over Bergdahl, the VA, Afghanistan and even Ukraine. The capture of one of the men thought to be behind the September 11, 2012 attack on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi amounts to a win for the Obama administration even as it re-animates critics of the entire episode. The NYT’s Peter Baker, Eric Schmitt and Michael Schmidt: "American commandos operating under the cover of night seized the man suspected of leading the deadly attack on the United States Mission in Benghazi, Libya, the government announced on Tuesday, ending a manhunt that had dragged on for nearly two years and inflamed domestic and international politics.

"With drones hovering overhead, about two dozen Delta Force commandos and two or three F.B.I. agents descended on the outskirts of Benghazi just after midnight local time on Monday; grabbed the suspect, Ahmed Abu Khattala; stuffed him into a vehicle and raced away, according to officials briefed on the operation. No shots were fired, and the suspect was spirited out of Libya to a United States Navy warship in the Mediterranean.

"…Officials said he would be brought to the United States in the coming days to face charges in a civilian court. A sealed indictment sworn out secretly last July and made public on Tuesday outlined three counts against him in connection with the deaths of Mr. Stevens, Glen A. Doherty, Sean Smith and Tyrone S. Woods. But some Republicans argued that Mr. Abu Khattala was a terrorist who should be sent to the American military prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and held as an enemy combatant." More here.

Amb. Samantha Power tells the U.N. Security Council that the Benghazi suspect was planning more attacks on Americans. Reuters’ Michelle Nichols: "The United States told the U.N. Security Council that a suspected ringleader of the deadly 2012 attack on its diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya had been planning to target more Americans and that justified his capture. In a letter obtained by Reuters on Wednesday, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, notified the council of the capture on Sunday of Ahmed Abu Khatallah by U.S. special forces in Libya after an investigation identified him as a key figure in the 2012 attack that killed four Americans." More here.

Ahmed Abu Khattala lived openly in Libya. The AP’s Sarah El Deeb in
"The Libyan militant suspected in the deadly Sept. 11, 2012 attack on Americans in Benghazi was not a difficult man to find. Ahmed Abu Khattala lived openly and freely in the restive eastern Libyan city – seen at cafes and in public places – even after the U.S. administration named him and another militant as suspects in the attack two years ago that killed the U.S. ambassador to Libya. ‘I am in my city, having a normal life and have no troubles,’ he told The Associated Press late last year after he was first accused. He denied the allegations and said he didn’t fear being abducted from Libya." More here.

But while Khattala lived openly, it’s not as if he was an easy capture. Pentagon Pressec Rear Adm. John Kirby, yesterday, to reporters at the Pentagon on why it took so long to get him: "…These people deliberately try to evade capture and — and putting yourself in a position where you can properly I.D. and — and move against them takes a lot of planning. And I don’t think anybody’s going to apologize for the effort over such a long period of time that eventually led to his capture…  [It’s not as if] he was going to McDonald’s for milkshakes every Friday night and we could have just picked him up in a taxicab."

But for a White House thought to be one of the most secretive, but which boasts of being the most open, Kirby struggled yesterday to square transparency with protecting the secrecy of the operation that captured Khatallah.

Kirby, to reporters yesterday: "I don’t think you’re going to find a federal agency that is more transparent and open than the military, than the Pentagon. I know you don’t like that, and I know you don’t agree with it. But I can tell you it’s true. I mean, we’re as transparent as we can be."

Kirby on details of the operation: "I am not going to talk about the specifics of the operation or the units involved."

Kirby on whether the Libyans were notified in advance: "I’m not gonna get into the specifics of diplomatic discussions. I can tell you the Libyan government was notified."

Kirby on why the administration remains mum on when Khatallah might return to the U.S., where he is currently being held and by whom: "This is about a legal process. And I think it’s important to preserve the integrity of that process. And on the — on the operational details, as you know, we don’t routinely talk about many of the operations we conduct for good reason."

But, bottom line, he said: "I mean, again, let’s not miss the major point here, is he’s — he’s captured. He’s not on the streets of Benghazi." Full transcript of the Pentagon briefing here.

Meantime, Obama’s approval rating is taking a hit in the polls; read that here.

Welcome to Wednesday’s edition of 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 and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Marty Dempsey appear before the Defense Subcomm. of the Senate Appropriations Committee this morning at 10 a.m. to talk budget – (and probably Bergdahl and Iraq)… Navy Sec. Ray Mabus is back in the office… Army Secretary John McHugh and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno will attend a cake cutting on the Hill in honor of the Army’s 239th birthday.  In the evening, it’s Army Day at the Nats game, which McHugh, Odierno and Sergeant Major of the Army Ray Chandler will attend along with other senior Army leaders, soldiers and their families.

Also today, as the band gets back together from the old days of the Iraq war, Sen. John McCain will join Gen. Jack Keane, the retired four-star, for a conversation this afternoon on the situation in Iraq at the American Enterprise Institute. Watch it here.

Roula Khalaf and Sam Jones for the FT: since 2012 the ISIS has issued annual reports, outlining in numerical and geographical detail its operations – the number of bombings, assassinations, checkpoints, suicide missions, cities taken over and even "apostates" converted to the cause, here.

ICYMI, from yesterday: The U.N.’s International Criminal Court is calling for a thorough investigation after an FP investigation called attention to wrongdoing within the UN ranks in the mission in Darfur. FP’s Colum Lynch: "The International Criminal Court’s prosecutor will appeal to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon on Tuesday to conduct a ‘thorough, independent and public inquiry’ into allegations — first disclosed in a Foreign Policy investigation — that the U.N. systematically covered up crimes against civilians and U.N. peacekeepers in the U.N.-African Union Mission in Darfur, also known as UNAMID. The request by Fatou Bensouda, the ICC’s Gambian prosecutor, for a U.N. investigation into wrongdoing within its own ranks is unprecedented. It comes more than two months after Foreign Policy published a three-part series detailing the mission’s failure to protect civilians under their watch or to seriously investigate evidence indicating that the Sudanese government and its proxies may have targeted U.N. blue helmets. More here.

Remember Bergdahl? The Army says that the sergeant, now at a military medical center in Texas, is on a routine and that he’s reading the news. Military Times’ Michelle Tan: "Four days after arriving at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl has adjusted to a ‘regular’ routine, officials said. ‘The reintegration of Sgt. Bergdahl continues here,’ said Col. Hans Bush, a spokesman for Army South, in a statement released Tuesday. ‘He has acclimated to his time change from Germany. He is eating and sleeping on a routine schedule. His debriefings and medical care continue. He is gradually being provided media coverage about him.’ Bergdahl arrived June 13 at Fort Sam Houston from Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany to begin phase three of his reintegration." More here.

Oil markets are chill about terrorists and Iraq’s oil production – it’s the long term that’s worrisome. FP’s Keith Johnson: "The relentless march of Islamist militants south through Iraq is taking a toll on the country’s oil infrastructure, forcing the closure of Iraq’s largest oil refinery and sparking fears of an attack on Baghdad itself. But with Iraq’s oil output, if not its national integrity, apparently still intact, global oil markets are tread
ing water after pushing crude prices up to nine-month highs late last week.

"The real problem posed by the offensive unleashed by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham is not what happens to Iraqi oil production this week, but whether OPEC’s second-biggest producer can meet outsized production-growth expectations for the rest of the decade. If it can’t, energy analysts say, the world’s inexorable thirst for oil could soon collide with limited growth in supply, leading to higher prices and lower economic growth in the United States and around the world." More here.

Hagel Chief of Staff Mark Lippert appeared before Senate Foreign Relations yesterday in his bid to be the next amby to the U.S. in Seoul.  Yonhap News Agency’s Lee Chi-dong for Global Post: "…Lippert… pledged Tuesday to work tirelessly to improve relations between the two countries, especially in efforts to denuclearize North Korea. At a Senate confirmation hearing, the nominee emphasized the "stark threat" North Korea poses to the U.S. and other parts of the world.

He cited Pyongyang’s continued pursuit of nuclear weapons, advanced ballistic missiles, transfer of nuclear technology and egregious human rights violations against its own people.

"If confirmed, I will work closely with the leadership of the Republic of Korea to ensure we are fully aligned in our efforts to achieve the complete and verifiable denuclearization of North Korea and prevent proliferation of key technologies," he said at the start of the hearing before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. More here.

Guess what? Turns out, China dominated a strategy discussion with the Navy yesterday at Newport that we mentioned yesterday. Not a big surprise. Defense News’ Chris Cavas: "The latest international crisis may be a terrorist land offensive in Iraq, but concerns about China’s ambitions clearly dominate those thinking about strategies for the Navy. ‘The rise of China as a challenger is the most significant strategic challenge for the U.S.,’ Hal Brands, a historian at Duke University, told a ‘Current Strategy Forum’ audience Tuesday at the Naval War College here. ‘The U.S. is not devoting enough resources to addressing China’s rise,’ claimed Aaron Friedberg, a professor of international affairs at Princeton University. ‘We need to develop a credible military strategy for countering China,’ Friedberg continued. ‘Our ability to come to the aid of our allies depends on having a plausible strategy in which our friends and allies believe.’" More here.

Key issues await Dunford as the next Marine Commandant. Defense News’ Paul McLeary: "If Gen. Joseph Dunford is confirmed as the 36th commandant of the US Marine Corps, he will take over a force already well on its way to executing a major strategic pivot from the large dusty bootprint of Iraq and Afghanistan to that of a smaller, faster, globally dispersed national crisis response force. But to finish the job started by current commandant Gen. James Amos, Dunford will be forced to strike a not-so-delicate balance between an expanded post-Afghanistan operational tempo and the equipping and modernization needs of a force in motion. And he’ll have to do it within the confines of sequestration, which is expected to come back full force in fiscal 2016.

"Dunford was nominated on June 6, and analysts expect he will have a relatively straight-forward confirmation process. One analyst close to the Marine Corps who asked for anonymity said that Dunford is ‘not afraid to butt heads with civilian leaders, but picks fights only when he’s done his homework and has his facts.’ Those are traits that have reportedly served him well in previous deployments inside the Beltway. Yet with less money and fewer troops at his disposal than budget projections call for, the next commandant’s room to maneuver could be limited." More here.

Check out CNA Corp’s 2013 Year in ReviewCNA Corporation’s research and analysis efforts cover a wide range of government and national security concerns, focusing on matters of foreign affairs, DOD programs and systems, homeland security, education, energy, and the environment.  Find the report 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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