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: Intel treasure trove: FP obtains an ISIS laptop; Blair-Olson-Neumann: empower ambassadors; Russia presses Ukraine; Foley was waterboarded; VA: sorry for comparing vets to Oscar the Grouch.

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel Only in FP: Buried on a Dell laptop computer captured in Syria are lessons for making bubonic plague bombs and missives on using weapons of mass destruction. U.S. policy in Iraq and Syria, and whether the Obama administration will widen an air war there, will be driven by the ...

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel

Only in FP: Buried on a Dell laptop computer captured in Syria are lessons for making bubonic plague bombs and missives on using weapons of mass destruction. U.S. policy in Iraq and Syria, and whether the Obama administration will widen an air war there, will be driven by the intelligence it can capture on the ground, naturally. A husband-and-wife journalist team were given a laptop found in the Syrian province of Idlib that belonged to fighters from the Islamic State and the two wrote about what they found exclusively for Foreign Policy today. It’s the kind of intelligence that is hard to come where intelligence collection is difficult, but it’s the kind of information that may help inform U.S. policymakers as they assess the threat the group poses to the region and U.S.

The amazing story of Harald Doornbos and Jenan Moussa, writing from Turkey for FP: "Abu Ali, a commander of a moderate Syrian rebel group in northern Syria, proudly shows a black laptop partly covered in dust. ‘We took it this year from an ISIS hideout,’ he says.

"Abu Ali says the fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), which have since rebranded themselves as the Islamic State, all fled before he and his men attacked the building. The attack occurred in January in a village in the Syrian province of Idlib, close to the border with Turkey, as part of a larger anti-ISIS offensive occurring at the time. ‘We found the laptop and the power cord in a room,’ he continued, ‘I took it with me. But I have no clue if it still works or if it contains anything interesting.’

"As we switched on the Dell laptop, it indeed still worked. Nor was it password-protected. But then came a huge disappointment: After we clicked on ‘My Computer,’ all the drives appeared empty.

"Appearances, however, can be deceiving. Upon closer inspection, the ISIS laptop wasn’t empty at all: Buried in the ‘hidden files’ section of the computer were 146 gigabytes of material, containing a total of 35,347 files in 2,367 folders. Abu Ali allowed us to copy all these files — which included documents in French, English, and Arabic — onto an external hard drive.

"The laptop’s contents turn out to be a treasure trove of documents that provide ideological justifications for jihadi organizations — and practical training on how to carry out the Islamic State’s deadly campaigns. They include videos of Osama bin Laden, manuals on how to make bombs, instructions for stealing cars, and lessons on how to use disguises in order to avoid getting arrested while traveling from one jihadi hot spot to another." Read the rest of this tale here.

As you were: President Barack Obama attempted to reverse the public narrative of White House thinking on expanding the air war in Iraq and Syria, appearing yesterday at the White House and essentially saying no decision was imminent with a rhetorical blow to pro-intervention warriors by conceding: "we don’t have a strategy yet."

Obama urges calm in the face of two crises, the NYT’s Peter Baker, here.

Kerrying water: John Kerry is the point man to drum up international support to fight the Islamic State. FP’s Brannen, Lubold and Hudson: "Secretary of State John Kerry will meet with his foreign counterparts to discuss confronting the Islamic State and U.S. efforts to support the Iraqi government while attending the NATO Summit in Wales, according to the State Department. Kerry’s role at next week’s summit, which starts Thursday, is part of the Obama administration’s effort to build a coalition behind a broader campaign to take on the Islamic extremist group in Syria and Iraq.

"…For an administration that shuns militarily intervention, the support of allies, from European to Arab nations, is critical. Some experts believe that if President Barack Obama sends additional troops into that theater of war, a variety of special operations forces from a number of countries could marry up with forces already deployed there." More here.

Turnabout is fair play to ISIS: The group waterboarded Jim Foley and other American hostages. The news yesterday that American hostages, including journalist Foley, were waterboarded by the group calling itself the Islamic State is haunting in the way in which it brings past Washington policy overseas back home. The WaPo’s Adam Goldman and Julie Tate: James Foley was among the four who were waterboarded several times by Islamic State militants who appeared to model the technique on the CIA’s use of waterboarding to interrogate suspected terrorists after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks… ‘They knew exactly how it was done,’ a person with direct knowledge of what happened to the hostages said of the Islamic State militants. The person, who discussed the hostages’ experience on the condition of anonymity, said the captives were held in Raqqah, a city in north-central Syria." More here.

The U.S. identifies Americans fighting jihad. The NYT’s Michael Schmidt and Eric Schmitt: American intelligence and law enforcement agencies have identified nearly a dozen Americans who have traveled to Syria to fight for the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the militant group that the Obama administration says poses the greatest threat to the United States since Al Qaeda before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. As ISIS has seized large expanses of territory in recent months, it has drawn more foreign men to Syria, requiring more American and European law enforcement resources in the attempt to stop the flow of fighters, senior American officials said. And as a result of the increasing numbers of men, ISIS is now recruiting foreign women as jihadist wives." More here.

Carrying out airstrikes against ISIS in Syria might be defensible on moral grounds. But is it legal? FP’s Colum Lynch: "President Barack Obama made three things clear at a news conference on Thursday: A military strike on Islamic State fighters in Syria is not imminent; the commander in chief doesn’t need Congress’s permission to act; and if the United States strikes, it’ll be in the nation’s self-defense.

"It’s that last point that may be the most important, as administration officials are grappling with a legal justification for launching airstrikes inside a country whose government hasn’t explicitly given permission to do so." More here.

Newsweek’s Jeff Stein adds to the thought bank on what a war against ISIS might look like, here.

Want to know the list of folks who attended the National Security Council meeting at the White House yesterday? Scroll all the way down.

Welcome to Friday’s edition of Situation Report. We’ll next see you Tuesday. If you’d like to be one of our subscribers, we’d love to have you. Sign up for Situation Report by sending 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. And hey! Follow us: @glubold and @njsobe4.

If you love runners and veterans, click here to watch what racers did when they saw a 95-year-old veteran. Probably an old video, doesn’t really matter.

Want security and stability around the world? Hand over the car keys to ambassadors and others assigned overseas so they are empowered to make decisions and coordinate policy in a way only they can. Denny Blair, Eric Olson and Ron Neumann make a new, forceful argument for changing the way Washington works, and not in a way you’ve heard before. In a new piece in the National Interest, the former DNI, former SOCOM commander and former ambassador in Algeria, Afghanistan and Bahrain, write together for the first time to make the case for why Washington must make dramatic changes to how and who implements policy, empowering diplomats and other U.S. personnel assigned overseas so they can make decisions that, the trio argue, will help create a long-term strategy for security and stability in some of the most dangerous parts of the world. But reform is a must, they write.

Few of the obvious lessons learned from recent years have actually been learned, Blair, Olson and Neumann argue in "Fixing Fragile States in The National Interest, just posted this week: "Continued complex political, economic and military operations will be needed for many years to deal with the continuing threat from Al Qaeda and its associated organizations, much of it stemming from fragile states with weak institutions, high rates of poverty and deep ethnic, religious or tribal divisions. Despite thirteen years of experience-and innumerable opportunities to learn lessons from both successes and mistakes-there have been few significant changes in our cumbersome, inefficient and ineffective approach to interagency operations in the field.

Build a better ambassador, they write. "We believe the time has come to look to a new, more effective operational model. For fragile states in which Al Qaeda is present, the United States should develop, select and support with strong staff a new type of ambassador with more authority to plan and direct complex operations across department and agency lines, and who will be accountable for their success or failure… Congress and the executive branch need to authorize field leaders to shift resources across agency lines to meet new threats. It is, in short, a time for change-change that upends our complacent and antiquated approach toward foreign societies and cultures."

The need for more Anne Pattersons: "…The leader of American in-country operations in a fragile state needs high-order managerial and leadership skills for complex program execution as well as a deep knowledge of the capabilities and limitations of other American organizations, especially military and intelligence. Some Foreign Service officers who became ambassadors have developed these skills. James Jeffrey, Anne Patterson and Ryan Crocker are among several in the recent past. However, although such training has been recommended, the Foreign Service is not geared toward producing such skills broadly. A qualification-and-selection process is needed for ambassadors to places like Yemen, Libya, Pakistan, Mali, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq to identify candidates with the experience, knowledge and stature to direct an integrated, multiagency task force."

And, why can’t more agencies be like the Pentagon? they ask. "…It is only the Department of Defense that has either the authority or the tradition of assigning personnel to difficult overseas assignments whether they volunteer or not. All other agencies rely on volunteers. The result has been chronic shortchanging of the nonmilitary billets in fragile states- short assignments for officers, or the use of contractors."
Their walk-off: " It’s time to replace decades of failure with a new approach that protects American security by transforming fragile states into genuinely secure ones." Read the rest of their argument here.

Russia is said to press offensive in Ukraine but don’t call it an "invasion." The WaPo’s Annie Gowen and Anne Gearan, here.

Reuters this morning: "Pro-Moscow rebels fighting in Ukraine said on Friday they would comply with a request from the Kremlin and open up a ‘humanitarian corridor’ to allow the withdrawal of Ukrainian troops they have encircled. It was not clear how the government in Kiev would react to the offer, suggested first by Russian President Vladimir Putin, but the first word from the Ukrainian military was negative. It said in a statement that Putin’s call showed only that ‘these people (the separatists) are led and controlled directly from the Kremlin." More here.

How far will Putin go? FP’s Elias Groll and Reid Standish: "…In the last two days, Russian troops have attempted to relieve pressure on their separatist allies in Donetsk and Luhansk by opening what amounts to a third front south of the two breakaway cities. On Wednesday, Ukrainian troops, who had been steadily advancing on separatist forces in the east, beat a hasty retreat from Novoazovsk, where they were routed by troops and armor streaming across the Russian border. Novoazovsk lies a mere 20 miles from the southeastern port city of Mariupol, a city of 500,000.

"Will Putin continue the advance past Mariupol, toward Crimea — which he annexed in March — and potentially all the way to the breakaway region of Transnistria in Moldova? Or is this a mere tactic to ensure the survival of Putin’s proxies in Donetsk and Luhansk?" More here.

Imran Khan’s populist protest movement is on the verge of taking down Pakistan’s corrupt, sclerotic government. How did such a lightweight get so far? Mosharraf Zaidi for FP: "…Today in Pakistan, there are two big questions: Is the military attempting to stage-manage Sharif’s third exit? And is his political tormentor, the temperamental former cricket star Imran Khan (unrelated to Ayub Khan), the Army’s choice as his replacement?" More here.

Who’s Where When today – Tomorrow, Navy Sec. Ray Mabus cheers on Navy vs. Ohio State in Baltimore…

That military pilot was found in Virginia in that fatal crash a few days ago. The WaPo’s Clarence Williams, here.

Stan McChrystal wades into midterm races, Martin Matishak for The Hill, here.

The VA regrets using "Oscar the Grouch" to depict dissatisfied veterans in a training guide. The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Tricia Nadolney: "…The cranky Sesame Street character who lives in a garbage can was used in reference to veterans who will attend town-hall events Wednesday in Philadelphia…The spokeswoman from the Philadelphia VA benefits office – which will host the town halls Wednesday at noon and 6:30 p.m. – said in a statement that the agency regretted any misunderstanding caused by the slide show." More here.

The VA is looking for a few good men and women – nurses and doctors – to fix what ails it. The WaPo’s Joe Davidson in the Federal Diary, here.

Mike Hagel’s life in aviation landed him in the Pentagon before his brother Chuck. Casey Logan for "From time to time, Mike Hagel likes to provide his older brother, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel, with an important piece of Pentagon history.

The younger Hagel: "I have to remind him every once in a while that I was there before he was… I’ve had paintings in the Pentagon since 1990."

"Hagel, 64, is one of four artists featured in an exhibit, ‘History Takes Flight,’ opening Saturday at the Strategic Air & Space Museum. The show presents more than 30 aviation-themed paintings and prints." More here.

Who attended the national security council meeting at the White House yesterday? Good question – here’s the list: VP Joe Biden (via secure video); Sec. State John Kerry (via secure video); Sec. Defense Chuck Hagel (via secure video); AG Eric Holder; DHS Sec. Jeh Johnson (via secure video); WH COS Denis McDonough; National Security Advisor Susan Rice; U.S. Amb. to the U.N. Samantha Power (via secure video); WH Counsel Neil Eggleston; DNI Director James Clapper; CIA Director John Brennan; Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey (via secure video); Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff James Winnefeld; National Counterterrorism Center Director Matthew Olsen; U.S. Central Command Commander Lloyd Austin (via secure video); OMB Director Shaun Donovan;  Deputy National Security Advisor Antony Blinken; Assistant to the President for Homeland Security and Counterterrorism Lisa Monaco; Deputy National Security Advisor for International Economics Caroline Atkinson; Deputy Secretary of State William Burns; White House Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa, and Gulf Region Philip Gordon; Assistant to the President and Director of the Office of Legislative Affairs Katie Fallon; DAS of State for Iraq and Iran Brett McGurk; U.S. Amb. to Iraq Robert Stephen Beecroft (via secure video); Executive Secretary and Chief of Staff of the National Security Council Suzanne George.

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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