The Cable

Situation Report: Second ISIS prisoner handed over to Kurdish government; don’t hack the grid; Republican Senators want to reopen Gitmo for business; U.N. flags ISIS in Libya; and lots more

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley Prison bound. Only weeks after capturing him in a special operations raid in northern Iraq, U.S. forces handed over Islamic State operative Dawud al-Bakkar to the Kurdish government in Iraq on Thursday. Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said Thursday that al-Bakkar – also known as Sleiman Daoud al-Afari – “provided ...

By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Prison bound. Only weeks after capturing him in a special operations raid in northern Iraq, U.S. forces handed over Islamic State operative Dawud al-Bakkar to the Kurdish government in Iraq on Thursday.

Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said Thursday that al-Bakkar – also known as Sleiman Daoud al-Afari – “provided important information” about the group’s chemical weapons capabilities before being handed over, and the information resulted in “multiple coalition airstrikes that have disrupted and degraded” the group’s ability to produce chemical weapons. Previously described as the head of the Islamic State’s chemical weapons program, Cook called al-Bakkar the group’s “emir of chemical and traditional weapons manufacturing.”

The handover marks the second time that Washington has transferred custody of an ISIS prisoner to the Kurdistan Regional Government. Last August, Umm Sayyaf, captured in a May 15 U.S. commando raid in Syria, was also handed over. Asked if the U.S. government will have access to al-Bakkar while in Kurdish custody, Cook said, “we feel confident that we have the cooperation of the government of Iraq.”

Gitmo, always Gitmo. The move came the same day that over a dozen Republican senators, including presidential hopefuls Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz, introduced a plan to send captured ISIS fighters to Guantanamo Bay. The Obama administration has refused to transfer new detainees to the facility, and is seeking to close it. The Obama administration “still does not have a coherent detention policy that will give our military and intelligence community the best opportunity to extract valuable intelligence” from captured terrorists, Rubio said. “Jihadists who seek to kill Americans should not be brought to American soil,” added Cruz.

Final edits. As Thursday’s publication of a series of interviews journalist Jeffrey Goldberg conducted with President Barack Obama for The Atlantic rippled across D.C. and world capitals, FP’s John Hudson zeroed in on five key takeaways from the piece, concluding, “the interviews reveal a president that is leaving office confident that his cautious instincts on foreign policy have served him well in the face of what he derided as a foreign-policy establishment that prizes soaring rhetoric and quick military solutions over calm, dispassionate decision-making.”

Hack attack. A new measure being debated in Congress is designed to make it harder for cyber attackers to take down the nation’s electrical grid, but FP’s Elias Groll takes a look at whether the bill may ultimately do more harm than good.

Thanks for clicking on through for another edition of SitRep. 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.

Syria

As the various parties to the Syrian civil war gear up for a resumption of talks in Geneva, the breakup of Syria into some sort of federal state is on the table. A senior United Nations diplomat tells Reuters that Russia and some Western countries have expressed interest in the idea of a federal division of the country, thinking that falls in line with proposals that some Kurdish elements have floated. Syria’s rebels and its backers in the Gulf, however, remain skeptical of federalism.

The Carter Center at Emory University has put together a very cool interactive map of the Syrian civil war for its Syria Conflict Mapping Project. The map, powered by software from Palantir, allows viewers to see the areas of control held by parties to the conflict over time.

About those ISIS docs…

Documents obtained by Sky News and Zaman al-Wasl purporting to be registration forms for thousands of members of the Islamic State have raised questions over how authentic they really are. Some officials at the Defense Department say the documents are at least three years old and contain lots of information that is already public. German interior minister Thomas de Maiziere has tentatively vouched for the documents, saying they are “probably authentic.” The Guardian puts the release in a bit of context by noting that sources it has spoken to have seen a number of similar lists floating around in the past few years, with bearers trying to use them as leverage to flee Syria or make money by selling them.

Libya

The Islamic State in Libya is trying to portray itself as the defender of the country against western meddling, according to a new U.N. report. The group “has been spreading a nationalistic narrative, portraying itself as the most important bulwark against foreign intervention,” the panel  wrote. Officials at the Pentagon have estimated there are anywhere between 4,000 and 6,000 ISIS fighters in Libya, mostly centered around the city of Sirte in the western part of the country. The report also finds that sanctions against the country may have been broken in 2014 and 2015, when shipments of military equipment from the U.A.E., Egypt and Turkey, among others, arrived in the country. U.N. officials said they are also investigating two U.S.-based companies who may have negotiated an arms deal in 2011.

Iran

The U.S. is preparing to indict Iranian citizens for the 2013 hacking of computers at the Bowman Avenue Dam north of New York City, CNN reports. The incident wasn’t terribly sophisticated and took place only on office computers, rather than the industrial control systems which command and control physical equipment at the dam. But the indictments, according to the cable news channel, are part of an increasing “name and shame” policy towards state-sponsored hacking, which aims to deter future hacks by calling their perpetrators out publicly.

Pakistan

Republican Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky made a bold bid to block Washington’s $700 million sale of F-16 fighter jets to Pakistan, but lost out on the final vote tally Thursday by a 71-24 margin in the Senate. Labeling Pakistan a “frenemy,” Paul objected to the sale on the grounds that it would send money and arms to a government he considered corrupt and perfidious. Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, stepped in to provide some support to Paul by allowing the sale to continue but blocking U.S. financing for the deal. Nonetheless, Corker argued that there were “more subtle ways” to change Pakistan’s behavior than a potentially humiliating blockage of the F-16 sale.

North Korea

After a ballistic missile test, a nuclear weapons test, and some missiles fired into the sea towards Japan, Kim Jong Un’s party might only just be getting started. North Korea’s state run news agency KCNA reported that the unpredictable leader has “issued combat tasks to continue nuclear explosion tests” in order to refine the capability of the country’s nuclear weapons program. The statement follows recent pictures published in the state newspaper Rodong Sinmun showing Kim beaming in front of what appears to be a nuclear implosion device and ballistic missiles.

Russia

Mikhail Lesin, the former Kremlin insider and founder of Russian state news channel RT, died of blunt force trauma to the head in a Washington hotel room, according to the city’s medical examiner. Lesin’s body also showed injuries to his neck, torso, arms, and legs. That diagnosis contrasts with what Lesin’s family told Russian media at the time of his death, saying the 59 year-old had died of a heart attack. Officials say the investigation is ongoing, but the Russian embassy issued a statement protesting the lack of information shared by the U.S. about the case.

Army

The much-delayed nomination of Eric Fanning for the post of Army Secretary appears to be moving forward, though how far it will get remains an open question. The Senate Armed Services Committee approved sending Fanning’s nomination to the full Senate in a voice vote on Thursday, where he’ll still face opposition from Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.). Roberts has stressed that his hold on Fanning’s nomination is “not personal” but is rather designed to pressure the White House to drop its plans to relocate prisoners from the Guantanamo Bay detention facility to prisons within the United States.

Drones across America

The Pentagon has flown drones over the U.S. on non-military missions 20 times between 2006 and 2015, according to a Defense Department Inspector General’s (IG) report obtained by USA Today. The IG report stresses that the flights were appropriate and lawful, often used for ordinary activities such as providing imagery during natural disasters or during National Guard exercises. Under an interim policy adopted by the Defense Department in 2006, the Pentagon is allowed to use its drones for civilian purposes for either homeland defense or supporting civilian authorities, but only if approved by the Secretary of Defense.

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