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SitRep: Orlando And The Power of Affiliation

Libya Beating ISIS; Russian Icebreakers; and lots more

Lights from police vehicles light up the scene infront of the Pulse club in Orlando, Florida on June 12, 2016. 
Fifty people died when a gunman allegedly inspired by the Islamic State group opened fire inside a gay nightclub in Florida, in the worst terror attack on US soil since September 11, 2001. / AFP / Mandel Ngan        (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Lights from police vehicles light up the scene infront of the Pulse club in Orlando, Florida on June 12, 2016. Fifty people died when a gunman allegedly inspired by the Islamic State group opened fire inside a gay nightclub in Florida, in the worst terror attack on US soil since September 11, 2001. / AFP / Mandel Ngan (Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

 

Orlando takes its place on a grim list. In the minutes before opening fire at a nightclub in Orlando, Fla., shooter Omar Mateen called 911 and told an operator that he was pledging allegiance to the Islamic State. But investigators still don’t know what kind of link — if any — he may actually have had to the group.

The horrific shooting that killed at least 50 and wounded 53 more is the worst shooting in U.S. history and the bloodiest terror attack at home since 9/11. It’s also the third time a pledge to the terrorist group has been invoked to justify an attack within the United States. The first was came in May 2015 when a gunman sent out a series of Twitter messages just before opening fire on a cartoon exhibit featuring images of the Prophet Muhammad in Texas. Next came a December attack in San Bernardino, Calif., by a married couple who posted their oath of allegiance on Facebook before gunning down 14 people.

ISIS? Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi “knows if he calls for terror it will come,” author Bruce Riedel, a former CIA officer and now a fellow at the Brookings Institution, told FP’s Molly O’Toole and Dan De Luce. “He doesn’t need any direct human connection or even a web connection. His message is so pervasive in the media and so simple it is certain to inspire the angry.”

The Islamic State quickly claimed credit for the attack in Orlando, with its al-Bayan Radio describing him Monday as “one of the soldiers” of its self-described caliphate. But according to SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks terrorist activity online, neither the ISIS-affiliated Amaq news site nor al-Bayan indicates there was coordination with the ISIS  prior to the attack.

Numbers. The scale of the attack, bluntly: “Before the attack in Orlando on Sunday, 45 people in the United States had died in jihadist terrorist attacks since 9/11, according to a database maintained by the New America, a Washington think tank. The think tank added 50 more deaths to its database Sunday because of the attacks in Orlando.”

Libyan militias smash ISIS. Forces loyal to the internationally-recognized Libyan government continue to batter Islamic State fighters in the coastal city of Sirte, and have taken back much from the city from the terrorist group — including the port. The relatively swift series of victories in recent weeks along the Libyan coast came after militias from the city of Misrata, which is between Tripoli and Sirte, pledged their loyalty to the government, and began pushing toward the Islamic State’s stronghold.

Officials in Washington have estimated there to be as many as 5,000 ISIS fighters in Libya, but the pro-government Libyan have been bolstered by the support of special operations forces from the U.S., France and the U.K. While the fighting was street-to-street over the weekend in Sirte, officials in Libya have estimated there to be about 30,000 civilian left inside the city. No word yet on civilian casualties.

Good morning again from the Sitrep crew, thanks for clicking on through for the summer 2016 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

Russia

Russia’s military has a new icebreaker ship ready for Arctic operations, Agence France Presse reports. The Russian navy debuted the 6,000-ton Ilya Muromets this weekend, the first such ship to be built by the service in nearly a half decade. Russia’s renewed interest in icebreaker ships and Arctic operations reflects of the changing strategic interest in the region as climate change has opened up new waterways and access to energy and mineral resources. FP’s Keith Johnson and Dan De Luce recently explored the U.S. Coast Guard’s own struggles to keep up with rivals in the Arctic.

Syria

The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for a suicide bombing near revered religious shrine in Syria, according to NBC News. The assault on the Sayyida Zeynab shrine killed 20 people on Saturday and involved three attackers wearing suicide vests,. The shrine is believed to hold the remains of the granddaughter of the Prophet Mohammed and is particularly sacred to Shia Muslims. Iranian authorities frequently reference the shrine when announcing the death of Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps members, describing the dead as having fought to defend it.

Iraq

Civilians trapped inside the Islamic State-held city of Fallujah finally have a way out. Reuters reports that Iraqi security forces have established a secure corridor for civilians to leave the city, labeling it the “Peace Junction.”  Norwegian Refugee Council, a human rights group on the ground outside Fallujah, says 4,000 people have already made use of the corridor to escape. Residents of Fallujah have faced starvation at the hands of a months-long siege of the city and abuse by the Islamic State commanders ruling the city.

The Islamic State

The U.S. military says it’s killed 120 leaders from the Islamic State since it joined the campaign against the jihadist group, the Los Angeles Times reports. Lt. Gen. Robert Otto, the Air Force’s top official for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, however, is quick to point out that decapitation, alone, isn’t likely to topple the group, telling the paper that removing senior officials has “a temporary impact on operations.” The leadership culling is, however, making the group more paranoid, sowing suspicions about spies within its ranks and forcing members to put dubious “counter-drone screens” on buildings in the self-styled caliphate capital in Raqqa.

Who’s where when

2:30 p.m. Afghanistan’s ambassador to the U.S., Hamdullah Mohib, appears at the Hudson Institute to discuss the fight against the Taliban in aftermath of the death of its leader, Mullah Mansour, in a U.S. drone strike in Pakistan.  More here.

Lebanon

A bomb attack in Beirut, Lebanon targeted the Blom Bank, Reuters reports. The explosion caused significant property damage but no injuries or deaths, fortunately. There’s no claim of responsibility thus far or hard evidence confirming a perpetrator. Reuters notes, however, that the incident comes amid growing tensions in Lebanon between the U.S.-designated terror group Hezbollah and the Lebanese central bank. In 2015, the U.S. passed the Hezbollah International Financing Prevention Act, threatening sanctions against financial institutions — like the Lebanese central bank — that do business with Hezbollah and triggering a political standoff between the terror group and the Lebanese state.

Afghanistan

The Taliban have committed a horrifying atrocity in Afghanistan and some are worrying it may be a sign that the group is becoming even more brutal. The Washington Post reports that videos posted on the Internet reportedly show members of the Taliban killed a man by skinning him alive. The man, Fazl Ahmad, had been targeted because a relative had killed a Taliban commander. Experts worry that the group may become ever more radical as its leadership fragments and younger commanders take positions of prominence within its ranks.

Special Operations

Special Operations Command, Pacific (SOCPAC) has a new commander. Maj. Gen. Bryan P. Fenton takes the helm from Rear Adm. Colin J. Kilrain, who’s headed to lead special operators in Europe serving under the NATO flag. U.S. Pacific Command boss Adm. Harry Harris called Fenton “a combat-tested snake-eater” who’s been primed for the job by a series of previous leadership posts in hotspots around the world.

Bots o’ war

BAE’s armed drone technology demonstrator is headed for more flight testing. IHS Jane’s got a rare look at testing facilities for the Taranis, a joint project between Britain and France to develop an unmanned combat aerial vehicle (UCAV). The Taranis looks something like a cross between a B-2 stealth bomber and a Cylon Raider from Battlestar Galactica. BAE officials told Jane’s that the secretive stealth drone already underwent flight trials in 2013 and 2015 and the company is already in talks for another round.

 

Photo credit: MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images

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