The Cable

Situation Report: Moscow confirms passenger jet brought down by bomb; Russian bombers and cruise missiles hit Raqqa; French step up bombing in Syria; new American campaign to hit ISIS oil fields; more on Paris; new intel sharing agreement; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley The damage done. “We can say definitely that this was a terrorist act.” On Tuesday, the head of Russia’s Federal Security Service Alexander V. Bortnikov confirmed for the first time what many western intelligence officials had said for weeks: a bomb aboard a Russian commercial jet brought the plane ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

The damage done. “We can say definitely that this was a terrorist act.” On Tuesday, the head of Russia’s Federal Security Service Alexander V. Bortnikov confirmed for the first time what many western intelligence officials had said for weeks: a bomb aboard a Russian commercial jet brought the plane down on Oct. 31, killing all 224 people aboard.

“According to our experts, a homemade explosive device equivalent to 1 kilogram of TNT went off onboard,” he said, explaining why the plane broke up in the air. Speaking after huddling with his advisors at the G20 summit in Turkey, Russian President Vladimir Putin vowed to hit the perpetrators “everywhere wherever they are hiding. We will find them in any place on Earth and punish them.” The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attack, but hasn’t provided any real evidence so far. But that might not matter. Putin added that Russia’s air campaign in Syria “should not only be continued but should be intensified so that the criminals realize that retribution is inevitable.”

The fallout. Amid new reports that Russian cruise missiles and long range bombers hit the Syrian city of Raqqa late Monday night, (there’s video of one of the missiles streaking across the Syrian sky), French warplanes also pounded the Islamic State’s capital for the second straight night, launching 10 fighter jets from the United Arab Emirates and Jordan.

All together now. Now that France is going all in on the bombing campaign in Syria, President Barack Obama said Monday that Washington will start sharing more intelligence with Paris, and will “allow our personnel to pass threat information, including on [Islamic State], to our French partners even more quickly and more often,” he said at the G20 summit in Turkey. The expanded intel sharing won’t quite rise to the level of the “Five Eyes” agreement Washington has with Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, but it will come close, defense officials said on Monday.

The cost. A combination of airstrikes and continued fighting on the ground have displaced 120,000 Syrian civilians over the past month, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says. FP’s Siobhan O’Grady and Reid Standish deliver the grim statistics, which includes scores of children killed, and reports of strikes against hospitals across Syria.

Crowded skies. Not one to be left out of a mounting air war, the United States has launched a new round of strikes hitting Syrian oil fields and ISIS oil tanker convoys, dubbed Operation Tidal Wave II. FP’s Paul McLeary reports that the effort is aimed at cutting off the group’s oil revenue, estimated to be taking in hundreds of millions of dollars a year. U.S. defense officials would not say if the rules of engagement for the U.S.-led air war against the ISIS have changed, but did confirm that up to now, U.S. warplanes had been taking it easy on the fixed Syrian oil infrastructure. No longer.

More to come. CIA Director John Brennan said Monday he suspects the Islamic State is currently working on more terrorist plots against the West following Friday’s attack in Paris that killed at least 129 people and injured hundreds more, says FP’s John Hudson. Bennan also criticized new privacy protections enacted after Edward Snowden’s disclosures about U.S. government surveillance practices. “I would anticipate that this is not the only operation [the Islamic State] has in the pipeline,” Brennan told a crowd at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “It’s not going to content itself with violence inside of the Syrian and Iraqi borders.”

Briefed. In other news, FBI Director James Comey and DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson are set to  give members of the U.S. House of Representatives a classified briefing Tuesday on the Paris attacks. Newly-minted Speaker of the House Paul Ryan requested the briefing. Members of the Senate will receive their own classified briefing Wednesday afternoon.

Good morning all, and thanks for showing up yet again this morning. We’re glad you’re here and hope you find this thing we’ve got going on here helpful. As always, if you have any thoughts, announcements, tips, or national security-related events to share, please pass them along! Best way is to send them to or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.

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Paris attacks

France is deploying the Charles de Gaulle, its only aircraft carrier, to the eastern Mediterranean on Thursday. France had planned to send the de Gaulle to the region before Friday’s terrorist attacks, but it will now provide additional capability for the French military to carry out airstrikes in Syria. Once it arrives, the de Gaulle will be the only western aircraft carrier in the Middle East, as the USS Theodore Roosevelt left the region last month, and its replacement, the USS Harry S. Truman, isn’t scheduled to arrive until December.

Time takes a look at Molenbeek, the tiny neighborhood in Brussels, Belgium that has been tied a disproportionate number of terrorists involved in high profile attacks, including the Islamic State’s recent slaughter in Paris. The assassination of Afghan warlord Ahmed Shah Massoud on the eve of 9/11, the Madrid bombings, a shooting at a Jewish museum in Brussels, and the January attacks against the Paris office of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo — all were linked in some way to Molenbeek. French authorities say two of the Paris attackers had lived in the neighborhood.

Turkish officials say they’ve detained suspected members of the Islamic State who communicated with the attackers involved in Friday’s shootings in Paris, according to the AP. The arrests on Monday took in over half a dozen suspects, including one who Turkish authorities say has ties to Mohammed Emwazi or “Jihadi John,” the Islamic State terrorist who murdered journalists and aid works in a series of savage beheading videos.

U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron said that British intelligence disrupted a terrorist plot in October — one of seven attacks British intelligence officials later told reporters that they’ve blocked in the past year. While Cameron claimed the plot was less ambitious than the one carried out in Paris on Friday, he warned that similar attacks could happen in Britain. Cameron said he’ll be increasing the ranks of Britain’s intelligence services by 1,900 personnel in light of the terrorist threat.

The Islamic State

“This is the Islamic State help desk, how may we be of service?” NBC News reports that the Islamic State has established a “24-hour Jihadi Help Desk” staffed with a half dozen members tasked with providing communications security advice to the group’s followers. The members of the help desk staff reportedly have technical backgrounds and education that help them provide counseling for online operational security.


Last summer, Russian planes were falling out of the sky during training exercises with alarming regularity. Just months later, Moscow’s air force has flown 1,600 sorties over Syria in a little over six weeks of operations. Dmitry Gorenburg writes in the National Interest that the early returns point to the fact the Russian military “appears to have made great strides in increasing operational tempo and improving inter-service integration,” after the embarrassing war in Georgia in 2008. “It has also made significant advances in its ability to carry out expeditionary operations and showcased its recently developed stand-off strike capability,” he says.

Russian officials say they thwarted a terrorist plot tied to the Sochi Olympics involving a bomb disguised as hand cream, the AP reported on Monday. Deputy Foreign Minister Oleg Syromolotov told reporters that Russia got wind of a plan in which women would smuggle explosives hidden in the hand cream aboard a flight from France to Sochi, leading the plotters’ arrest.


Ukraine’s Sept. 1 ceasefire continues to fray as the Organization for Security Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) reported that it heard 229 explosions on Sunday from artillery and other unidentified weapons around Donetsk. The OSCE also reported witnessing ceasefire violations in Luhansk on Saturday, including gunfire aimed at the OSCE’s drone from a rebel checkpoint. The Ukrainian military has threatened to return its artillery to the frontlines following what it says is the death of six Ukrainian troops in fighting around Donetsk, according to Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.


The U.N. says that this year the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram has destroyed over a thousand schools in Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon, and Chad. The U.N.’s regional humanitarian coordinator for the Sahel Toby Lanzer adds that Boko Haram’s conflict with governments in the region has displaced 2.6 million people, the vast majority of them from Nigeria.


Even as the U.S. and China duke it out with displays of passive aggressiveness over disputed territorial claims in the South China Sea, the navies of the two countries are still feeling friendly enough to hold a joint exercise. Defense News reports that the U.S. Navy’s USS Stethem just pulled into port in Shanghai and will join its Chinese counterparts in an exercise practicing communications and rescue operations.


The world’s 20 most powerful countries signed onto a pinky swear not to spy on each other for economic gain. The Washington Post’s Ellen Nakashima reports that G20 leaders took a similar pledge to the one Chinese President Xi Jinping offered during his September visit to the United States. While the pledge lacks any built-in enforcement mechanisms, experts say the agreement could help in building an international norm against economic espionage.

Business of defense

In one massive — and deadly — package, the U.S. Defense and State Departments have signed off on a $1.2 billion deal to sell Saudi Arabia 22,000 smart and dumb bombs to help the Kingdom restock its shelves after months of bombing Houthi positions in an increasingly controversial air war in Yemen. The U.S. military also provides the Saudis intelligence help and has flown hundreds of sorties to refuel Saudi warplanes on their bombing runs. American defense contractors Boeing and Raytheon look to do the bulk of the work to send the warheads to Saudi.

And finally…

With purported pictures of American bombs addressed “From Paris, With Love” going viral on social media after the Paris attacks, the Washington Post takes a look at the American military’s historical affinity for decorating munitions with messages to their intended recipients.


Correction, Nov. 19, 2015: A Situation Report item on Nov. 17 summarized a U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs report as saying Russian airstrikes in Syria had displaced 120,000 civilians in Syria since October. The report actually states that the population has been displaced “as a result of aerial bombardment, as well as ground offensives among the parties.” It does not specify Russian airstrikes as the sole cause.

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