Situation Report

FP’s Situation Report: Islamic State oil installations are targeted; France weighs joining the fight in Syria; Ebola takes center stage at U.N.; and a bit more.

By Kate Brannen It turns out the Islamic State’s frightening ambitions are also the group’s Achilles’ heel. No longer a shadowy terrorist group, the Islamic State now governs vast stretches of territory, including cities and towns in Iraq and Syria. This makes going after it a bit easier as it now has large strategic assets ...

By Kate Brannen

It turns out the Islamic State’s frightening ambitions are also the group’s Achilles’ heel. No longer a shadowy terrorist group, the Islamic State now governs vast stretches of territory, including cities and towns in Iraq and Syria. This makes going after it a bit easier as it now has large strategic assets out in the open, just like any other state actor.

Yesterday, the United States and its Arab allies targeted the Islamic State’s oil installations, one of the terror group’s main sources of revenue. FP’s Keith Johnson: "Attacking oil installations, such as mobile refineries, rather than oil fields in eastern Syria could minimize the environmental damage and long-term impact from the strikes, but also lessens the impact it could have on the group’s coffers.

"The latest round of strikes launched Wednesday evening included about a dozen Islamic State ‘modular oil refineries’ in eastern Syria, used to turn crude oil into refined products that are then smuggled to buyers in Turkey and Iraqi Kurdistan.

"…The group’s dive into the oil business, while bolstering its revenue stream, has also created fresh vulnerabilities, as the latest airstrikes seem to show. Because the group has to maintain control over the territory where oil fields are located and work to maintain oil output, then move the refined product for sale, it represents a potentially easier target." More here.

The U.S. Embassy in Turkey issued a warning late last night, urging U.S. citizens to be vigilant against possible terrorist attacks in retaliation for U.S. airstrikes against the Islamic State. The AP report here.

Breaking this morning — France is weighing joining the United States and its Arab allies in strikes against the Islamic State in Syria. This would lend the U.S.-led operation more legitimacy because up until now no European power has agreed to participate militarily in Syria. There are also reports this morning that France conducted new strikes today in Iraq. AP report: "France’s defense minister says the country is considering whether to extend airstrikes to Syria, and top military officials are meeting Thursday to define the country’s mission against the Islamic State group." More here.

After an Algerian militant group beheaded a Frenchman yesterday, fear is growing that the Islamic State’s horrific propaganda tactic will spread. FP’s Shane Harris: "The video, which surfaced publicly Wednesday, apparently shows the murder of Herve Gourdel, 55, who was kidnapped by the group Jund al-Khilafah four days ago while traveling in northeastern Algeria. The group had promised to kill Gourdel if the French military didn’t halt its airstrikes on the Islamic State in Iraq."

"… Jund al-Khilafah, or Soldiers of the Caliphate, is new on the militant scene. The group only announced itself and aligned with the Islamic State earlier this month. This is its first known beheading video and the real purpose of Gourdel’s gruesome murder may be proving the group’s bona fides publicly and demonstrating that the Islamic State has attracted support far from Iraq and Syria." More here.

The U.S. dropped almost as many bombs and missiles in Syria over the past two days as were used in the first month of attacks on the Islamic State in Iraq. Bloomberg’s Tony Capaccio adds up the numbers here.

Rumors swelled yesterday that U.S. strikes Monday night against the Khorasan Group killed its leader, Mohsin al-Fadhli. But a defense official told Situation Report that he could still be alive and urged caution. The WaPo’s Karen DeYoung, Greg Miller and Loveday Morris: "U.S. missile strikes against an obscure al-Qaeda cell in Syria killed at least one of the group’s leaders, delivering what U.S. officials described as a significant but not decisive blow to a terrorist group accused of plotting attacks against Europe and the United States.

"U.S. officials said late Wednesday that American intelligence agencies had not confirmed reports that the leader of al-Qaeda’s Khorasan group, Mushin al-Fadhli, was the senior operative killed in the barrage of strikes west of Aleppo." More here.

The Obama administration’s focus on the Khorasan Group raises questions about earlier claims that Al Qaeda’s core leadership had been decimated. The NYT’s Mark Mazzetti: "The focus on the Khorasan Group in recent days has, at least for the moment, diverted attention from the Islamic State, the militant group whose recent battlefield successes were Mr. Obama’s original reason for launching airstrikes. It has also underscored the enduring relevance of Al Qaeda’s leadership apparatus in Pakistan, a group that Mr. Obama told the United Nations on Wednesday had been badly battered."

Bruce O. Riedel, a former C.I.A. analyst now at the Brookings Institution: "There’s a contradiction here … If they are that decimated, why are we so alarmed when we detect new evidence of their activities?" More here.

At the U.N. today, President Barack Obama will speak at a session focused on the Ebola epidemic, which according to the latest estimates from the World Health Organization has already killed nearly 3,000 people. This week marks six months since WHO was notified of an outbreak of the Ebola virus in Guinea. Since then, it has grown into the most severe outbreak of the disease’s history and it’s now "raging unabated," according to Doctors Without Borders, or MSF. It’s pretty clear that by failing to act early to stop the disease’s spread, the international community will now have to pay a much higher price if it wants to control the epidemic.

At the U.N., Obama will try to rally a more robust response. Yesterday, during his address to the U.N. General Assembly, Obama said, "We need a broader effort to stop a disease that could kill hundreds of thousands, inflict horrific suffering, destabilize economies, and move rapidly across borders.  It’s easy to see this as a distant problem — until it is not." The full text of his speech can be found here.

Ebola was just one of several crises for which Obama asked the world’s help yesterday. At the top of Obama’s list: the Islamic State and the violent ideology that supports it. The NYT’s Mark Landler with more on the president’s speech: "Two days after ordering airstrikes on dozens of militant targets in Syria, Mr. Obama issued a fervent call to arms against the Islamic State – the once-reluctant warrior now apparently resolved to waging a twilight struggle against Islamic extremism for the remainder of his presidency." More here.

Below the surface of U.N. meetings this week, there is trouble brewing. FP’s David J. Rothkopf on the tale of two meetings: "The first, more polished, view is the story you would get if you listened only to presidents and foreign ministers speaking of clear goals, coalitions knit together by common ideals, and, ultimately, a remade, safer, more stable world. While the other view, the story you only hear in conversations that take place on background or off the record, reveals that even behind well-intentioned initiatives there can be the kind of delusions, dubious motivations, divisions, and duplicity that seem likely to make bad situations worse." More here.

Welcome to Thursday’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 kate.brannen@foreignpolicy.com 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, you, send it to us early for maximum tease. And the more shovel-ready, the better. And hey! Follow us: @k8brannen and @njsobe4.

Who’s where when:  Adm. Samuel Locklear, PACOM commander, is briefing reporters at noon at the Pentagon. Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James and Chief of Staff of the Air Force Gen. Mark Welsh will be on hand at Nationals Park tonight for the Air Force Appreciation Game.

The Stimson Center is out with a new peacekeeping report that details the security situation facing tens of thousands of civilians in South Sudan. The report is being released before Vice President Joe Biden convenes a summit tomorrow at the U.N. to address peacekeeping challenges. The report interviewed people living inside U.N. bases in the capital city of Juba and found that they live in fear of threat from both inside and out of the camps. You can read the full report here.

And more on tomorrow’s meeting from AP’s Edith M. Lederer here.

The inside story: An agreement with the Saudis in early September provided the greenlight for strikes against the Islamic State in Syria. The WSJ’s Adam Entous and Julian E. Barnes: "Officials on both sides say the partnership could help rebuild trust between longtime allies whose relations have been deeply strained over the U.S.’s response to the Arab Spring uprisings and Mr. Obama’s outreach to Saudi rival Iran. It was also a sign the Saudis might take on a greater security role in the region, something the U.S. has long pressed for." More here.

A dispatch from Erbil: Kurdish leadership is calling on the United States and its allies to do more, especially in the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobani, which is under siege by the Islamic State. Mohammed A. Salih for FP: "Reports emerged Wednesday morning saying that airstrikes hit IS targets near Kobani, but Kurdish officials near the town denied that any such strikes have taken place." More here.

Dov S. Zakheim writes for FP that it’s time "to admit that something is wrong with the way America trains foreign forces." "The Iraqi Army could not collapse quickly enough in the face of the Islamic State onslaught, despite a decade of training by the American military. The Afghan Army, which Americans have been training for an even longer period has barely held its own against the Taliban. The Yemeni Army has just evaporated before advancing Houthi forces. And the Free Syrian Army, which only recently has been receiving American military tutelage, is faring no better, whether against Assad’s forces, al-Nusra, or IS." More here.

A Syrian woman from Raqqa decided to carry a hidden camera to record what life is like inside the city. You can watch the footage, which was captured earlier this year but aired in France for the first time this week, here.

A regional perspective: Eyad Abu Shakra, managing editor of Asharq Al-Awsat, asks "Have We Entered the Iranian Era?" "What we have seen over the past few days in Yemen, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon suggests that the Middle East as we know it has ceased to exist and that we are on the threshold of a completely different era. Away from firebrand speeches and threats and counter-threats, we must admit that a certain agenda has been imposed on the region and that a new balance of power is emerging with an international backing and the acquiescence, or acceptance, of the region." More here.

The Nigerian military says the dead man depicted in a photograph by Cameroon’s military, who looked just like Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau, was not Shekau. But according to the Nigerian military, that doesn’t mean the terrorist leader is alive. Instead, the military claimed for the first time yesterday that Shekau has been dead for a while, but that drew some immediate skepticism. The WaPo’s Terrence McCoy: "Prominent Nigerian journalist Ahmad Salkid, who has gotten closer to Boko Haram than any other reporter, immediately expressed skepticism over Shekau’s reported death. "Mark my words: I have it on authority that Shekau is well & alive," he said on Twitter." More here.

Surprise, surprise: The Government Accountability Office is questioning the affordability of sustaining the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Defense News’ Aaron Mehta: "‘To date, the program’s sustainment strategy continues to evolve but may not be affordable,’ auditors for the GAO found. ‘DoD has not fully addressed several key risks to long-term affordability and operational readiness that, if not mitigated, could affect the development of the strategy.’" More here.

Kate Brannen is deputy managing editor at Just Security and a contributor to Foreign Policy, where she previously worked as a senior reporter. @K8brannen

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