The Cable

Situation Report: U.S. shutters drone base; Ramadi fights on; Army submits plan for women in combat roles; new ISIS killer takes center stage; Russian intel chief dies; Kabul bombings; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley No drones here. In a surprise move, the United States has shut down a drone base it had been operating in southern Ethiopia since 2011. Military officials claim that operations involving unarmed Reaper drones from the base have fallen victim to the pull of more pressing needs in Iraq ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

No drones here. In a surprise move, the United States has shut down a drone base it had been operating in southern Ethiopia since 2011. Military officials claim that operations involving unarmed Reaper drones from the base have fallen victim to the pull of more pressing needs in Iraq and Syria, along with the growing conflicts with the Islamic State in Libya, and extremist militants in Nigeria, Mali, Chad and Cameroon.

But FP’s John Hudson and Siobhan O’Grady point to another possible reason for shuttering the base: pressure form the Ethiopian government. The country’s authoritarian ruling government has faced unrest among the Muslim community, where many believe the government has overstepped its boundaries and interfered with the country’s official Islamic authority. “It could be that from the Ethiopian government side, being seen as one of the countries supporting drone bases killing Muslims in the region might have been problematic,” said Terrence Lyons, a regional expert and associate professor at George Mason University.

Not done. The fight in Ramadi rages on, more than a week after Iraqi government forces claim to have routed the Islamic State from the city. But pockets of fierce resistance continue to fight it out in a few sections of the city, as Iraqi forces slowly clear rows of booby-trapped houses and roadside bombs left behind by retreating ISIS fighters. As civilians begin to emerge from the rubble of the destroyed city, government forces have found mass graves and an extensive tunnel network where ISIS fighters hid from the aerial bombardment from U.S. and coalition aircraft.

“The work is far from over,” Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. Jeff Davis told reporters at the Pentagon Monday. “There will be both good days and bad days ahead in Ramadi” as the army clears the last of the ISIS holdouts.

FP’s Henry Johnson went to the Wikileaks archive to dig up a 2008 cable from American diplomats in Riyadh after they met with Shiite cleric Sheikh Nimr al-Nimr, who was recently executed by Saudi Arabia. According to the document, al-Nimr tried to persuade American diplomats he wasn’t the pro-Iranian militant portrayed by Saudi officials.

According to the cable, Nimr “eagerly attempted to divorce himself from the image of being an Iranian agent.” The cable’s author added that Nimr was also “much more complimentary of the U.S” than he had been in past sermons. But even as Saudi Arabia and Iran — OPEC’s biggest powers — escalate tensions in the region over the execution, the price of crude oil managed to actually fall on Monday. What gives? FP’s Keith Johnson explains.

Kabul rocked. Underscoring the worsening security situation in Afghanistan — as highlighted by the recent FP map pinpointing areas of Taliban control — the country’s capital was hit by two big bomb blasts on Monday which killed one and injured dozens. The attacks came just as Afghan forces brought an end to the 24-hour siege staged by militants thought to be aligned with the Taliban on the Indian consulate in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif.

Planning to plan. The U.S. Army is moving fast, and has already submitted its plan outlining how it will open combat jobs to women to Defense Secretary Ash Carter. The delivery comes a month after Carter announced he was lifting gender-based restrictions on women in the armed forces. The Army’s plan is now in the hands of the Defense Department’s  implementation working group, which is co-chaired by Deputy Defense Secretary Bob Work and Gen. Paul Selva, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Homegrown. Are armed, anti-government militias in the United States a national security threat? The recent takeover of several federal buildings on an Oregon wildlife refuge has thrown a spotlight on the armed militia movement in the country, which has spiked to unprecedented levels since the election of President Barack Obama. FP’s Paul McLeary has more.

Welcome to the new 2016 version of the Situation Report. As always, if you have any thoughts, announcements, tips, or national security-related events to share, please pass them along to SitRep HQ! Best way is to send them to paul.mcleary@foreignpolicy.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley.

The Islamic State

There’s a new British citizen fascinating the media in an Islamic State propaganda video, appearing to follow in the footsteps of the group’s notorious executioner Mohammed Emwazi (a.k.a. “Jihadi John”). Reuters reports that Siddhartha Dhar is the man in a new Islamic State video brandishing a gun and threatening to kill unbelievers. Dhar is a former bouncy castle salesman and convert from Hinduism who fell in with Britain’s al-Muhajiroun militant movement before leaving for Syria.

Iraq

How are Iranian-backed Iraqi Shiite militias making their way to Syria? Good question. Al Monitor put the question to the fighters themselves and found the normally chatty militants and officials suddenly rather quiet. Groups like Harakat al Nujaba have openly participated in the Syrian civil war for years and advertise recruitment pitches for volunteers to fight there on its radio station in Iraq. But when asked how their fighters managed to show up in Syria, fighters for the group and Iraqi officials aren’t willing to say how they got there.

Russia

Russia’s head of military intelligence has died suddenly at just 58 years old, the Wall Street Journal reports. Col. Gen. Igor Sergun had served as chief of the Russian intel apparatus since 2011, and had been in the military intelligence organization since the Soviet days, joining in 1984. The U.S. and European Union placed Sergun under sanctions in 2014 for his alleged role in Russia’s invasion of eastern Ukraine and annexation of Crimea. Moscow has not said how Segun died or offered any further information about his passing.

Ukraine

Ukrainian authorities claim that three regional power substations may have suffered a cyberattack shortly before Christmas, and cybersecurity researchers believe it might just be the first known use of malware to interfere with electrical power distribution, Ars Technica reports. Ars spoke to researchers at iSIGHT Partners who gained samples of the malware found on the substations’ systems and said that the code was responsible for causing the blackouts. Researchers had found malware dubbed “BlackEnergy,” developed by a hacker group linked to Russia on the networks of Ukrainian electrical utilities as early as 2007. As of yet, it’s unknown whether the BlackEnergy malware was responsible for the Ukrainian outage but researchers believe that it’s “theoretically capable of shutting down critical systems.”

Geopolitical messes

The diplomatic blowup over Saudi Arabia’s execution of Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr and the storming of the Saudi embassy by protesters in Iran is prompting a number of countries to pick sides, as Sunni states such as Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Sudan have either broken off or downgraded relations with Iran. As the Gulf chooses sides, though, a few actors are trying to put the brakes on further conflict. Turkey’s Deputy Prime Minister Numan Kurtulmus called on Saudi Arabia and Iran to turn down the volume on the dispute, noting that the region is already plagued by conflict. The U.N. Security Council is also urging better relations between Riyadh and Tehran, calling on both to continue to talk.

India

India has updated its maritime strategy and published it under restricted distribution. The new strategy, according to The Wire’s Rahul Roy-Chaudhury, includes a number of significant revisions since the previous iteration in 2007 that reflect India’s growing interest in the maritime domain. In terms of its scope, the new strategy has a more expansive definition of the areas India considers primary areas in its “maritime interest” both south and west all the way to the Red Sea. It also reveals that India will develop its navy around a force of three carrier battle groups.

The U.S. is now weighing in on a lengthy assault by terrorists against an Indian air force base in Pathankot which took place over the weekend, the BBC reports. The United Jihad Council, a jihadist group linked to Pakistani intelligence and focused on attacking Indian targets in Kashmir, claimed responsibility for the assault, leading State Department spokesman John Kirby to urge Pakistani officials to “continue to target all militant groups”

 

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