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: Obama: “horrific acts … stiffen our resolve”; 350 more troops to Baghdad; A ceasefire in Ukraine?; Was Shabaab leader killed?; Ash Carter establishes a DC beachhead; and a bit more.

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel Overnight: the U.S. intelligence community authenticated the Sotloff video and Obama now says in Europe: "we will not forget." Intelligence officials confirmed overnight what most officials suspected: that the video purporting to show the beheading of American freelance journalist Steven Sotloff was real, another provocation from the Islamic State ...

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel

By Gordon Lubold with Nathaniel Sobel

Overnight: the U.S. intelligence community authenticated the Sotloff video and Obama now says in Europe: "we will not forget." Intelligence officials confirmed overnight what most officials suspected: that the video purporting to show the beheading of American freelance journalist Steven Sotloff was real, another provocation from the Islamic State that forces President Barack Obama to confront the way forward in Syria, where the IS is based, but also Iraq, where the U.S. has mounted a limited airstrike campaign that even the U.S. military acknowledges has only had a "tactical" effect. Now Obama, who just last week said he still didn’t have a strategy for dealing with the Islamic militants – and Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby said just this morning on CNN that strategy recommendations had yet to be given to the White House – must decide what to do. But his rhetoric in Europe overnight suggested sitting on his hands was no longer an option.

President Obama, from Estonia: "…Whatever these murderers think they’ll achieve by killing innocent Americans like Steven, they have already failed.  They have failed because, like people around the world, Americans are repulsed by their barbarism.  We will not be intimidated.  Their horrific acts only unite us as a country and stiffen our resolve to take the fight against these terrorists.  And those who make the mistake of harming Americans will learn that we will not forget, and that our reach is long and that justice will be served."

For the record, the Islamic State never intended to negotiate anything. FP’s Shane Harris and Kate Brannen: "In releasing a video showing the murder of a second American journalist, the militants of the Islamic State made clear that they have no interest in negotiating with Barack Obama’s administration or its allies over the fate of other missing Westerners despite implying that they’d release those prisoners if Washington stopped its intensifying air campaign against the group.

"…In that message, the group said that Sotloff would die unless the United States halted airstrikes. But some U.S. defense and intelligence officials believe that Sotloff may have been killed at the same time as Foley, meaning the group never intended to release the Florida native or negotiate for his freedom.

"Before the Sotloff video was released, a U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters, said it wouldn’t be difficult for the Islamic State to make it appear as if the video had been recorded after the one showing Foley’s murder. In the video released Tuesday, Sotloff’s murderer gives no definitive indication of when he killed Sotloff." Read the rest here.

Sotloff had freelanced for a number of publications, including Foreign Policy. His three dispatches for FP, here.

For Arab comedians, gallows humor is one way to cope with ISIS atrocities. FP’s Siobhán O’Grady: "…With radical Islamist militants seizing territory in Iraq and Syria, the Middle East has turned toward a black brand of humor to satirize and cope with a band of fighters advocating a medieval interpretation of Islam and a sadistic system of justice." More here.

Iraqi forces waged a desperate campaign and held off militants in Amerli. The NYT’s Azam Ahmed, here.

The Pentagon announced another 350 troops to Baghdad. Acting on a request a couple weeks ago from the State Department to beef up its security around the massive embassy complex in Baghdad, the Pentagon said it was deploying another 350 uniforms. That makes for an official, public count of about 820 personnel in Iraq, but the real number is more than 1,100 authorized for deployment there. Pentagon officials had said only last week that the reason the Defense Department was assessing State’s request for additional forces was to determine if the embassy really needed them – and to make sure that any additional deployment of troops was part of a broader strategy. But the announcement late yesterday means the request had to be filled sooner, even if the broader mission in Iraq and in Syria has yet to be defined.

FWIW: Here’s Tom Friedman’s BLUF on the Islamic State in today’s column in the NYT: "I’m all-in on destroying ISIS. It is a sick, destabilizing movement. I support using U.S. air power and special forces to root it out, but only as part of a coalition, where everybody who has a stake in stability there pays their share and where mainstream Sunnis and Shiites take the lead by demonstrating that they hate ISIS more than they hate each other. Otherwise, we’ll end up in the middle of a God-awful mess of duplicitous allies and sectarian passions, and nothing good we do will last." Read the whole thing here.  

Iraq Business News’ security update, here.

Welcome to Wednesday’s edition of Situation Report. 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 the more shovel-ready, the better. And hey! Follow us: @glubold and @njsobe4.

Ukraine says there is a ceasefire, but Russia isn’t too sure. AP: "The office of Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko said Wednesday that he and Russian President Vladimir Putin are in agreement on a cease-fire in eastern Ukraine, but the statement was ambiguous and a top rebel figure said no cease-fire was possible without Ukraine withdrawing its forces. The brief statement said ‘mutual understanding was reached regarding the steps that will contribute to the establishment of peace’ but gave no details. There have been previous statements of agreements on steps for peace, but the conflict has only intensified. Wednesday’s statement came as U.S. President Barack Obama arrived in Estonia in a show of solidarity with NATO allies who fear they could be the next target of Russia’s aggression." More here.

This week, NATO will agree on a rapid response force, but the Baltic states won’t be satisfied. FP’s John Hudson: "Russian President Vladimir Putin has masterfully played off the regional divisions within the North Atlantic Treaty Organization during his slow-rolled invasion of eastern Ukraine. But this week, the 28-member security alliance will finally settle on a unified response to Russia’s blatant incursions: a rapid response military unit capable of deploying quickly to Eastern Europe.

"The plan, announced by NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen on Monday, does not go as far as some Baltic states wanted but does represent the strongest response yet from the alliance since Moscow annexed Crimea in March. According to Western diplomats, the plan is the result of an internal push led by Britain, Norway, the Netherlands, Denmark and Canada, with the blessing of the United States.

Ryszard Schnept, Polish ambassador to the U.S. to FP: "The necessity of having units capable of reacting almost immediately in case of a crisis should let us make NATO more responsive and ready… Although the discussion existed already earlier, the recent events in Europe have shown how much justified this idea is." More here.

Even on the financial front, Ukraine and Russia are on opposing sides. FP’s Jamila Trindle: "As Ukraine’s battle against separatists along the border with Russia intensifies, the conflict threatens to bleed the government’s coffers dry. The IMF warned the government could be short $19 billion next year if fighting doesn’t stop soon. Kiev could really use the money frozen in Swiss bank accounts that allegedly originated from its treasury but was allegedly stolen by the former Ukrainian president and his cronies. The only problem is that it could take years — if ever — to get the money back." More here.

USC’s Philip Seib in an interview about America’s image problem and how U.S. diplomats can use public diplomacy more effectively. Read it on CFR, here.

David Ignatius: the Senate Republicans’ foolish fight over diplomats. The WaPo’s Ignatius: "… Even by Washington standards, the Senate Republicans have hit a new low for hypocrisy. They denounce President Obama’s inaction on foreign policy – and simultaneously refuse to confirm his nominees for U.S. ambassadors to such hot spots as Turkey, on the front lines against the Islamic State, and Sierra Leone, epicenter of the Ebola outbreak." More here.

The Pentagon says it hit its target in Somalia, but did it kill al-Shabab’s leader? FP’s Lubold and Brannen: "U.S. officials are assessing whether an airstrike in Somalia killed the leader of the al-Shabab terrorist group, a potentially significant blow to the al Qaeda affiliate responsible for a wave of bloody attacks across Africa. The officials confirmed Tuesday, Sept. 2, that the target of Monday’s attack was Ahmed Abdi Godane, al-Shabab’s leader, but said the Pentagon is still assessing whether Godane had actually been killed. The United States and close allies like Israel have previously touted the killings of other top militants, only to later discover that the targets had escaped unscathed.

Hussein Mahmoud Sheikh-Ali, the senior counterterrorism advisor to Somalia’s president, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, in remarks at the Atlantic Council on Tuesday: "I think [Godane] put the organization in a very vulnerable position… If he’s killed, it’s going to be a game-changer." Read the rest here.

Chuck Hagel is wheels up for Rhode Island – then Europe. He leaves today on a six-day, three-country trip with a stop at the Naval War College in Rhode Island before setting out for Wales, where he’ll join President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry for the NATO summit. There will be talk about Afghanistan, but Ukraine and Syria and Iraq. Hagel will also then travel to Georgia and Turkey.

Staffers on a plane – Chief of Staff Rexon Ryu (first big trip with the new boss), Senior Military Assistant Lt. Gen. Abe Abrams, Special Assistant Kathryn Harris, Junior Special Assistant Capt. H.B. Le, Senior Adviser to the Chief of Staff Lt. Col. David Morris, Director of Travel Operations, J.P. Eby, Trip Coordinator Cmdr. Bill Cox, Director of Personal Security Dave Plell, Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs Derek Chollet, ASD for Legislative Affairs Liz King, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Europe NATO Jim Townsend, DASD Russia/Ukraine/Eurasia Evelyn Farkas, Director NATO Policy Joe Collins, Deputy Director NATO Policy, Jesse Kelso, NATO Policy Mark Jones, Military Assistant for ISA Lt. Col. Ryan Suttlemyre, Country and Regional directors: Rachel Ellenhuus, Alton Buland, Shannon Culbertson, Jacqueline Ramos, Erica Brefka, Special Assistant for Public Affairs Brent Colburn, Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Adm. John Kirby, Speech Writer Jacob Freedman, Flag Aide to the Press Secretary Lt. Megan Isaac, Official Photographer Glenn Fawcett, Public Affairs Desk Officer Eileen Lainez.

Reporters on a plane – Politico’s Phil Ewing, AP’s Lita Baldor, Omaha World Herald’s Joseph Morton, WaPo’s Craig Whitlock, NYT’s Helene Cooper, Defense News’ Marcus Weisgerber, Reuters’ Phil Stewart, CBS’ Cami McCormick, WSJ’s Dion Nissenbaum, Defense Media Activity’s Jackie McGinnis.

The three-day Southeastern New England Defense Industry Alliance’s ‘Defense Innovation Days’ kicks off tomorrow in Rhode Island. Speakers include: Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel; Governor Lincoln Chafee; Senator Jack Reed; Senator Sheldon Whitehouse; Frank Kendall, Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology & Logistics (AT&L); Vice Admiral Jan Tighe, U.S. Navy, Commander, U.S. Fleet Cyber Command; and Rear Admiral Matthew Klunder, U.S. Navy, Chief of Naval Research, among many others.

The WH announced yesterday that National Security Advisor Susan E. Rice will travel to Beijing, China next week for meetings with senior Chinese officials, including State Councilor Yang Jiechi, to consult on a range of bilateral, regional, and global issues.

Ash Carter to the Markle Foundation. Former Deputy Secretary of Defense and technology czar Ash Carter is headed to the Markle Foundation, the New York-based "information technology/new economy" think tank to help lead a project called the Economic Future Initiative designed to help improve the U.S. economy and provide better access to opportunity for all Americans. The project is his first big gig since leaving the Pentagon earlier this year. He was recruited by Markle CEO Zoe Baird for the project, which has the backing from Starbucks coffee honcho Howard Shultz. Carter has been a member since 2002 of the Markle Task Force on National Security in the Information Age. We’re told Carter is expected to set up Markle’s "DC beachhead," and will operate out of the offices of SBD Advisors, the consulting firm begun by Sally Donnelly with which he affiliated some months ago.

The Russia-China axis… want to know more? Doug Schoen, a prominent Clinton insider and leading Democratic strategist, and Melik Kaylan, a journalist and international affairs analyst, are out with a new book, THE RUSSIA-CHINA AXIS. They dive deep into the strengthening relationship between the two countries aimed at subverting American power and the Obama Administration’s woefully inadequate response to it. It hits the shelves next week, but find it on Amazon, here.

The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) urges the world to use an alternative to "ISIS" when describing the Islamic State. Read their report titled "Needless Collateral Damage," here.

This is out there, even if yet there’s no real evidence it’s legit and the mainstream press hasn’t yet picked up on it: U.S. officials worry about 11 missing planes stolen in Tripoli that could be used to carry out another 9/11-like attack. The U.K.’s Mail, citing The Washington Free-Beacon: "U.S. officials fear Islamic militants have stolen nearly a dozen commercial planes in Libya which could be used to carry out 9/11-style terrorist attacks in the region. Eleven commercial jets operated by two state-owned airlines went missing last month, after militant group Libyan Dawn overtook the international airport in the capital city of Tripoli. 

"In the past two weeks, the U.S. government has been issuing warnings about the deteriorating state in Libya, drawing attention to the fact that the planes could be used in attacks to mark the anniversary of 9/11 later this month, sources who read the briefs told the Washington Free-Beacon. ‘There are a number of commercial airliners in Libya that are missing,’ one official told the Free-Beacon. ‘We found out on September 11 what can happen with hijacked planes.’" More here.

In a light-hearted symbol of Libyan anarchy, Islamists are having a pool party at the U.S. embassy in Tripoli. FP’s Elias Groll: "Muammar al-Qaddafi is dead, and in his absence rival militias have turned Libya into a violent playground for heavily-armed men jockeying for control of the country. That conflict now breaks down, roughly, as a stand-off between more anti-Islamist, tribal-oriented militias and their Islamist opponents. In recent days, the Islamist militias have been ascendant, seizing control of Tripoli, the capital, and while the anarchy gripping Libya is nothing to make light of, a sure indication of its lawlessness comes to us in the form of this rather amazing footage: a jihadi pool party at a residential compound of the U.S. embassy." More here.

ICYMI – FP’s South Asia Channel Editor Emily Schneider on protests in Pakistan. Read it on New America’s Weekly Wonk, 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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