The Cable

Situation Report: Following the ISIS money trail; militant families fleeing Raqqa; new front in the Syrian war; hacking unhackable apps; Turkey border ops in the works; the French are coming; and lots, lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley The taxman. American and allied bombing raids may have succeeded in taking the largest Islamic State-controlled oil fields in Syria offline in recent days, but the militant group still has plenty of ways of making money. FP’s David Francis and Dan De Luce followed the money trail, and their ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

The taxman. American and allied bombing raids may have succeeded in taking the largest Islamic State-controlled oil fields in Syria offline in recent days, but the militant group still has plenty of ways of making money. FP’s David Francis and Dan De Luce followed the money trail, and their must-read story finds the Islamic State gains most of its revenue from shaking down the estimated 8 million unfortunate people who are being crushed under the group’s thumb in Iraq and Syria. The mob-like racket to make people pay for everything from garbage pickup to road tolls to simply taxing salaries puts ISIS in control of assets in excess of $2 trillion, and an annual income amounting to $2.9 billion, according to a 2014 study by Thomson Reuters.

Body counts. The UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights is reporting that at least 33 ISIS militants have been killed in Raqqa by French and Russian airstrikes over the past several days, and the network of local activists who comprise the reporting group have observed that “dozens of families of [ISIS] leaders and members” have started to trickle out of the city en route to the Iraqi city of Mosul, the militant group’s stronghold in Iraq. The road to Mosul ain’t what it used to be, however, as Iraqi Kurdish forces have recently taken control of the main highway in Iraq between the two cities, as Foreign Policy reported last week.

New front. There are also new reports about an offensive by over 2,000 Syrian Arab fighters in eastern Syria pushing to take control of a main border crossing between the two countries.  The fight “is led by a new umbrella group that calls itself the New Syrian Army, which operates as part of the Authenticity and Development Front, a moderate Islamist grouping that claims 2,200 fighters operating in different parts of Syria,” reports McClatchy’s Roy Gutman and Zakaria Zakaria. The two say that a conservative Saudi militant, Khaled al Hammad, leads the group, parts of which “have won U.S. backing, arms and training, because they effectively fit the U.S. restrictions that their first aim must be to fight the Islamic State and not the government of President Bashar Assad.”

More on the border. There’s some real discussion over what Secretary of State John Kerry was talking about on Tuesday when he told CNN in Paris that the United States was entering into a new operation with Turkish forces to take control of the border between Syria and Turkey, parts of which are now controlled by ISIS. “The entire border of northern Syria – 75

percent of it has now been shut off,” Kerry told CNN. “And we are entering an operation with the Turks to shut off the other remaining 98 km.” While Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook saids Tuesday he was unaware of Kerry’s comments, and had not heard of any plans along the border, a Turkish official told Reuters, “we are in a common struggle with the U.S. against Daesh and in the coming days some steps will be taken together.” The Pentagon might want to give him a ring.

Sniping. After weeks of American officials criticizing Russia for opening up its own air war in Syria, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, for one, appears ready to hit back. Speaking to the Rossiya-1 television network on Tuesday, he accused Washington of not fighting hard enough against ISIS. “It looks like a cat that wants to eat a fish but doesn’t want to wet its feet,” he said. “They want the Islamic State to weaken Assad as soon as possible to force him to step down this or that way but they don’t want to see Islamic State strong enough to take power.”

But the big quote came later, when he said that the 8,000 U.S. and allied airstrikes targeting ISIS in Iraq and Syria over the past year have accomplished nothing. “Our opinion of the developments after the anti-terrorist operation was launched in August 2014 is based on what we see and we see next to no concrete results but for the expansion of the Islamic State over this time.”

Squawk box. One positive development in U.S.-Russian relations came Tuesday, when Russian forces notified the U.S.-led coalition’s headquarters at the Coalition Combined Air Operations Center in Qatar that it was launching bomber and cruise missile strikes against Raqqa. It was the first time Russian forces had been in communication since the two countries signed a memorandum on Oct. 20 promising to “deconflict” air operations over Syria several weeks ago.

Frequent flyer. Is France prepared to act as the bridge between Washington and Moscow over the war in Syria? French President Francois Hollande appears to be willing to make those connections, and plans to visit President Barack Obama in Washington next week, followed by a trip to speak with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow two days later.

New days. Is the Defense Department ready to name is first female officer as the head of a military combatant command? NPR’s Tom Bowman reports that while no woman has ever held that position within the U.S. military, “Obama wants to change that before the end of his term,” by naming a woman to command the U.S. Northern Command, which also runs the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD. Two names on the list for the nomination are Air Force Gen. Lori Robinson, who now commands U.S. Air Forces in the Pacific, and Adm. Michelle Howard, currently the vice chief of the Navy.

Tough talk. Attorney General Loretta Lynch told the House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday that advanced encryption technologies being used by Islamic militants has stuck a wrench into investigations of individuals plotting violence in the United States. FP’s Elias Groll writes, “Lynch said that terrorist suspects have switched from traditional communications tools to ones with end-to-end encryption, which even providers can’t unlock when served with court orders to do so. By using such tools, suspects ensure that officials “no longer have visibility into those discussions” about plots.”

Good morning all, and thanks for showing up yet again this morning. Hope this is helpful as we power through another week of Natsec news from around the globe. 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 paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.

In this week’s Global Thinkers podcast, FP Global Thinkers Erica Chenoweth and David Scheffer debate when – if ever – social and political movements should turn to armed insurgency. Check it out on iTunes, along with FP’s other podcasts here: http://atfp.co/1ljqfAp

Congress

The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee will recommend placing a four-star general on the ground in Iraq to direct the fight against the Islamic State. “It is very important that ISIS be dealt a significant tactical defeat in the near term, and I think you need somebody on the ground to redevelop the confidence in our allies,” Rep. Mac Thornberry (R-Tx.) told reporters on Tuesday. “The president is absolutely wrong. His strategy is not working, and something more significant needs to take place.”

Paris

The New York Times profiles Abdelhamid Abaaoud, the 27 year-old alleged ringleader of the Paris attack plot whose family is now “praying that [he] really is dead.” Abaaoud reportedly came from a comfortable middle class family in Brussels’ Molenbeek neighborhood and began a life of petty crime and casual drug use in his early adulthood. After a stint in prison, Abaaoud suddenly traveled to Syria, and authorities traced his return journey from Syria from Greece at the end of 2014, launching a raid in Brussels in the search for him in January, after which he fled back to Syria.

Afghanistan

Remember that other U.S. war? Afghanistan’s Tolo News reports that eight Taliban fighters were killed in a drone strike in Nangarhar province on Tuesday, a strike which followed another drone hit the day before that took out 13 members of the Taliban, including a local leader, or “shadow governor,” according to Hazrat Omar Mashriqiwal a government spokesman. “The shadow governor named Noor Ahmad and his men were targeted while they were in a vehicle and preparing for an attack,” Mashriqiwal said.

Syria

Military Times reports that the USS Harry Truman aircraft carrier will head toward the eastern Mediterranean on its way to the Middle East and may carry out airstrikes in Syria from there alongside France’s carrier, the Charles de Gaulle, which is headed to the waters off Syria’s coast. The U.S. has been without an aircraft carrier in the Middle East for roughly a month, to the ire of many in Congress. Navy officials have promised to step up maintenance in order to ensure more carriers are available.

It’s the circle of life for weapons in the Middle East these days. The Washington Post follows the strange journey of American arms seen in a recent video shot in Aleppo, Syria. The video shows a rebel firing a U.S.-made TOW anti-tank missile at an American Humvee, which somehow made it into the hands of either the Islamic State or one of the myriad militias buttressing the Assad regime.

Russian choppers are reportedly ferrying pro-Assad militia fighters to the frontlines according to a report in Britain’s Daily Telegraph. Pictures posted to social media by the Gozarto Protection Force, a Syrian Christian militia, show Gozarto militiamen hopping a ride with the Russians to defend the predominantly Christian city of Sadad near Homs.

The Islamic State

How many foreign fighters does the Islamic State have? Two different organizations have recently taken a stab at versions of that question.

The AP looked at numbers from European governments and figures 5,000 Europeans have traveled to join jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria, with 1,600 of them from France — the largest contribution of any single European country. 1,200 of those who have traveled to fight in the Middle East have since returned home, according to the wire service.

The New America Foundation launched a new report this week that used open sources to identify at least 475 people from 25 Western countries who have traveled to the region to become foreign fighters for Sunni jihadist groups. The report finds that the latest crop of foreign fighters is younger and has more women than the first generation of jihadis who traveled to Afghanistan in the 1980s. They’re also suffering high mortality rates, with the dead numbering nearly two fifths of those in the think tank’s dataset.

Who’s where when

1:00 p.m. The House Armed Services Committee holds a hearing examining “Outside Views on the Strategy for Iraq and Syria,” with former Acting Director of Central Intelligence John McLaughlin, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, former Ambassador to Syria and Iraq

2:00 p.m. Defense Secretary Ash Carter will announce the first phase of personnel reforms in his Force of the Future initiative at George Washington University

Nigeria

Al Jazeera reports that a massive bombing in the city of Yola on Tuesday has killed at least 32 people, with all eyes on the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram as the likeliest culprit. The city was hit with another bombing almost a month ago, which killed 27.

Russia

After two weeks of investigation, Russia has finally concluded that a bomb brought down Metrojet Flight 9268 over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and killed all 224 people on board. Egyptian officials, however, are still hesitant to join the international chorus of governments pointing the finger at terrorism as the cause of the crash. Egypt has, however, arrested two airport workers at Sharm el-Sheikh airport. Many have speculated that the Metrojet bombers may have bribed airport officials to allow an explosive device past security screening.

China

Tensions in the South China Sea are the hot topic ahead of the East Asia Summit, which President Obama will attend this week along with other regional leaders. But before the subject of China’s disputed territorial claims and island construction is broached in any official venue, China is letting everyone know that it could have grabbed many more islands if it wanted to, showing “great restraint,” according to Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin.

Cyber

Britain’s Finance Minister George Osborne says his country will double its spending on cybersecurity to almost $2.9 billion between now and 2020, and plans to develop a new range of offensive capabilities to take on a range of threats, including the Islamic State. Osborne said the group is trying to be able to attack Internet-connected infrastructure systems but thus far lacks the capability to do so.

 

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