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SitRep: U.S. Pounds More al Qaeda Franchises

SitRep: U.S. Pounds More al Qaeda Franchises

More U.S. strikes in Somalia. U.S. aircraft carried out two airstrikes in Somalia that hit al-Shabab forces “who posed imminent threats to U.S. and partner nation forces,” a Pentagon spokesman said Monday evening. The strikes, which occurred on April 1 and April 2, came just after the March 31 drone hit that took out Hassan Ali Dhoore, an al-Shabab militant who had a hand in planning several attacks that resulted in the deaths of at least three U.S. citizens. U.S. officials also said he was plotting attacks targeting U.S. citizens in Mogadishu.

The strikes follow a massive assault in early March on an al-Shabab training camp by American warplanes and drones that killed an estimated 150 fighters. Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, called the American bombing runs “self-defense ai strikes,” a new point of emphasis for the Pentagon as it portrays the new round of attacks on al-Shabab as heading off imminent attacks on U.S. and African Union forces operating in the country.

Update. We reported yesterday on some early, sketchy reports out of Syria that Russian, Syrian, or American aircraft had taken out Firas al-Suri, a spokesman for al Nusra, the al Qaeda affiliate in northern Syria. But later in the day the Pentagon claimed the hit. Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook went to great lengths to describe al-Suri as an al Qaeda leader, as opposed to a Nusra operative, in keeping with the American reluctance to open up a new front against Nusra in Syria.

“We have always considered al Qaeda leaders to be legitimate targets,” Cook said at a Pentagon press briefing.  “Of course, al Nusra has its ties to al Qaeda. And that is something that we’ve been very upfront about for years. And continues to be an ongoing, active part of our efforts, will be to target al Qaeda leadership.”

Can’t stop, won’t stop. Despite the $500 million flameout of its previous attempt to train and equip Syrian rebels to fight the Islamic State, U.S. forces have continued to look for credible partners on the ground in Syria. While only a handful of fighters ever managed to get into the action — and many of them were promptly attacked by al Nusra who took their U.S.-supplied weapons — the “U.S.-led coalition’s vetting process has continued uninterrupted over the past months,” the Pentagon’s Davis confirmed Monday. The confirmation comes weeks after we learned that President Barack Obama had signed off on a plan to begin bringing small groups of rebels out of the country for more training by U.S. forces. There are about 50 U.S. special forces troops in Syria advising the rebels in their fight with the Islamic State.

Remember Iraq? News of the Iraqi army’s deliberate march toward Mosul has been coming in bits and pieces lately, but there has been some heavy fighting farther south near the Islamic State-held city of Fallujah. The militant group has carried out a wave of suicide attacks from Baghdad on north over the past two days, killing dozens of civilians. But Iraqi forces have hit back, claiming to have killed about 150 Islamic State fighters near Fallujah.

Gold standard. Musa Hilal, the Sudanese warlord who helped push Darfur into a spasm of chaos and bloodletting, is now earning about $54 million a year in profits from Jebel Amir, one of the largest unregulated gold mines in Darfur, according to a confidential report by a U.N. Security Council panel. But there’s a catch, according to FP’s Colum Lynch: “the report’s release has been blocked by Russia, which is seeking to redact key details on the Sudanese gold trade. Russia has also refused to extend the contracts of the panel’s five members, effectively putting them out of work.” Neither move has previously been reported.

Home front. On Monday, the Pentagon announced that it was shipping two Guantanamo detainees to Senegal. The men are Libyans who had been held at the detention facility in Cuba without charge since 2002, but neither could be sent back to Libya due to the messy security situation there,  FP’s Molly O’Toole reports. With the latest transfer, 89 detainees remain at Guantanamo, with two of them from Libya. Thirty-five are cleared for removal to third-party countries. Nine are expected to be transferred in the next two weeks.

Thanks for clicking on through this morning as we open up another week 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.

#PanamaPapers

The leak of thousands of documents from a Panamanian law firm, Mossack Fonseca, has exposed the secret financial holdings of leaders from around the world, but the documents reveal more than just illicit personal wealth. The leaked data show how shell companies managed to do business on behalf of sanctioned rogue states. In North Korea, Mossack Fonseca helped set up the incorporation papers for DCB Finance Limited in the British Virgin Islands, a front company for the country’s Daedong Credit Bank. The U.S. later sanctioned both entities, citing their alleged role in helping North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs. And in Syria, the papers show the government there using Fonseca to set up front companies on behalf of three Syrian firms sanctioned by the U.S. for providing fuel for the Assad regime’s military.

Top dollar

Global military expenditures reached $1.6 trillion in 2015, a bump of about 1 percent from the previous year, according to a new report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI). The increase is the first time global military spending has risen since 2011, with the majority of that growth taking place in Asia, Eastern Europe, and the Gulf. SIPRI officially releases the report Tuesday at 10 a.m., when a panel discusses trends in global military spending at the Stimson Center.

Who’s where when

1 p.m. Defense Secretary Ash Carter discusses preparing DoD for the future with John J. Hamre at t the Center for Strategic & International Studies. Livestream here.

2:30 p.m. A panel discusses a new report “Distract, Deceive, Destroy: Putin at War in Syria” at the Atlantic Council. Livestream here.

Syria

The fighting around Aleppo is heating up despite the purported withdrawal of some Russian military assets from the country. Reports indicate that Hezbollah lost between eight and 12 members in the fighting near southern Aleppo this weekend. The skirmishes reportedly occurred around Tal al-Ais near the artery linking Aleppo to Damascus. The Twitter account @warreports, which flags reports in Iranian media of the country’s war dead in Syria, also notes the Monday announcement of an Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officer, Col. Ali Taheri, killed in Aleppo, raising the total IRGC killed there to seven since this weekend. Reports of Russian airstrikes around Aleppo, however, are noticeably absent from accounts of the fighting.

Iraq

The U.S. has extradited a Singapore man, Lim Yong Nam, on charges that he illegally exported American radio communications devices to Iran for eventual use in roadside bombs against U.S. troops in Iraq, the Washington Post reports. The charges against Lim date back to 2011, when the Justice Department indicted him, three other Singapore residents, and an Iranian citizen for the alleged exports. Two of Lim’s co-defendants pleaded guilty and have already served their sentences, and another two remain at large.

Turkey

Hackers appear to have hit a Turkish government database in a massive breach, posting purported personal identification information on 50 million Turkish citizens to the Internet. The data were published alongside an insulting tirade against Turkey, citing its “backwards ideologies, cronyism, and rising religious extremism” and mocking the Turkish government’s information security practices. Identity data allegedly belonging to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was also included in the post with similarly mocking statements about him.

Gulf Cold War

The feud between regional rivals Saudi Arabia and Iran continues as Saudi Arabia revoked the license for Iran’s Mahan Air to fly over Saudi airspace. According to U.S. sanctions filings, Iran has used the airline to ferry weapons to the Assad regime and Hezbollah throughout the Syrian civil war. Saudi Arabia cited alleged safety violations by Mahan in pulling the company’s licenses.

The USS Sirocco seized a large cache of weapons headed toward Yemen from Iran, Stars and Stripes reports. The Sirocco found the weapons on board a dhow, uncovering a cache of 21 heavy machine guns, 1,500 Kalashnikov assault rifles, and 200 rocket-propelled grenades. The U.S. says the weapons were bound for Yemen’s Houthi movement, which Iran has supported as a Saudi-led coalition has sought to oust it from power in a year-long war.

South China Sea

Vietnam has seized a Chinese ship it claims sailed through Vietnamese waters in an incident that highlights the running territorial dispute between the two countries. The AP reports that the Vietnamese coast guard towed the Chinese vessel to the Vietnamese port of Hai Phong. Vietnam and China have clashed over dueling maritime territorial claims. According to the wire service, Vietnam has shooed over 100 Chinese vessels from its territory in just the past few weeks.

The U.S. and the Philippines have kicked off joint wargames in the South China Sea, provoking an annoyed statement from China over the involvement of “outsiders” in the region. The exercises, dubbed Balikatan, will take place over the next 11 days and involve thousands of troops from the U.S. and the Philippines and a small contingent of 80-some troops from Australia. China’s state-run Xinhua News Agency lambasted the exercises along with a Japanese submarine’s recent port call in the Philippines, writing that the “provocation” is likely to “boomerang on the initiators”

And finally …

Some fascinating Cold War espionage history from the BBC’s Gordon Corera, who dug up a video of legendary Soviet spy Kim Philby lecturing the East German Stasi in 1981 on how he managed to deceive Britain’s intelligence services as one of the most devastating moles of the 20th century.

Photo credit: LEE O. TUCKER/U.S. Air Force via Getty Images