The Cable

SitRep: Did the U.S. Kill ISIS Leader? China’s New Military Tech

Iran’s Two Navies; Syrian Chemical Mystery; Putin Crony Paid for Access to Snowden; And Lots More

Syrian soldier sets fire on April 4, 2016 to an Islamic State (IS) group flag after Syrian troops regained control the previous day of al-Qaryatain, a town in the province of Homs in central Syria.
IS jihadists withdrew from the town a week after the Russian-backed army and allied militia scored a major victory in the ancient city of Palmyra, which is also located in the vast province of Homs. The recapture of al-Qaryatain allows the army to secure its grip over Palmyra, where jihadists destroyed ancient temples during their 10-month rule and executed 280 people.
 / AFP / JOSEPH EID        (Photo credit should read JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)
Syrian soldier sets fire on April 4, 2016 to an Islamic State (IS) group flag after Syrian troops regained control the previous day of al-Qaryatain, a town in the province of Homs in central Syria. IS jihadists withdrew from the town a week after the Russian-backed army and allied militia scored a major victory in the ancient city of Palmyra, which is also located in the vast province of Homs. The recapture of al-Qaryatain allows the army to secure its grip over Palmyra, where jihadists destroyed ancient temples during their 10-month rule and executed 280 people. / AFP / JOSEPH EID (Photo credit should read JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images)

 

A terrorist leader is dead. Does it matter? The Islamic State announced Tuesday that the head of its external operations and propaganda wing, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani, was killed near Aleppo, Syria, on Tuesday. The Pentagon has confirmed that it launched a strike targeting him near the town of al Bab, though they’re not confirming his death just yet.

It’s unclear what the loss of Adnani would mean for ISIS, a group already on its heels in Iraq and Syria. If the past 15 years of war in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Syria have taught us anything, it’s that taking out terrorist leaders rarely cripples large terrorist organizations. But Adnani would rank as the highest ISIS leader to be killed by an airstrike, and has been a critical voice and leader for the group. He was the first to declare a caliphate for ISIS in June 2014, and has personally overseen plans to hit targets in Europe while encouraging followers to attack non-Muslims around the globe, as a series of illuminating New York Times exclusives from Rukmini Callimachi have shown us over the past several months.

Like ISIS leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, Adnani was in U.S. custody in Iraq from 2005 until 2010, when he was released and fled to Syria, where he again signed up with the group that would become ISIS.

Something to consider. The New Yorker’s Robin Wright spoke with Hassan Hassan, the author of  “ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror,” who had an interesting take on Adnani’s apparent death. “The transition to the second and third tiers of the group is already well under way. And this could affect the direction of the organization and how it operates,” he said. “Those leaders who grew up within this organization are more attuned to the local dynamics, so the decapitation of such leaders could, in fact, inject a new life into the group.”

Crib sheet. Here’s a very handy little report from the Congressional Research Service listing what countries are taking part in the U.S.-led fight against ISIS in Iraq, what their contributions are, and where their troops are based.

Syria mystery. We’ll probably never really know if Syria destroyed all of its chemical weapons stocks, FP’s Colum Lynch writes in his latest exclusive on the continuing story. What inspectors know of the country’s chemical program, and what has been delivered to weapons inspectors, leaves “a yawning gap” that has left inspectors “questioning whether Syria may have retained a stockpile of tactical chemical munitions it has never acknowledged. That’s the conclusion of a highly confidential, 75-page report by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) reviewed exclusively by Foreign Policy.”

Iran’s navies. The top U.S. general in the Middle East made a critical distinction between the Iranian navy and  the hard line Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy on Tuesday, blaming the latter for the spate of recent “unsafe and unprofessional” incidents in the Persian Gulf. Over the past week, fast boats from the Revolutionary Guard have stepped up their harassment of American warships, leading the USS Squall to fire warning shots into the water.

“The big concern here is miscalculation,” U.S. Central Command chief Gen. Joseph Votel told reporters at the Pentagon. “If they continue to test us, we are going to respond, and we are going to protect ourselves and our partners.” Iran’s actions in the Gulf “are unlike anyone else’s,” Votel added. “No one else does what they do – go out and drive fast boats towards military vessels. Nobody else does that in international waters.”

Good morning and 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

South China Sea

Secretary of State John Kerry said Wednesday that there is “no military solution” to rising tensions in the South China Sea, but everyone sees to be arming up, anyway. Russia sending five ships to the waterway to conduct military exercises with China next month, including two anti-submarine ships — an interesting development given the rush by China’s neighbors to modernize their underwater capabilities as recently outlined by FP’s Elias Groll and Dan De Luce. And China is ready to deploy a new air defense system developed to knock incoming missiles out of the sky. The focus has shifted to anti-missile technology since Beijing now sees incoming missiles as more of a threat than hostile aircraft, experts say.

More on China

Plans for China’s third aircraft carrier appear to have leaked online, according to imagery posted on Chinese military forums and reviewed by IHS Jane’s. If the images are authentic, the ship does away with the curved ski jump deck seen on the Type 001A, currently under construction, leading to speculation that it will use a catapult system to launch aircraft. Once finished, the ship will be China’s second indigenously-produced flattop. The People’s Liberation Army Navy purchased its first carrier, an old Soviet vessel, from Ukraine and is nearly finished building its first homemade one.

Russia

Russian bombers are putting the Kh-32 cruise missile through its final trials, according to UPI. The missile, which reportedly travels at a blazing 3,300 miles per hour and can reach the stratosphere at heights of up to 130,000 ft., is being tested aboard long-range bombers. Russian sources also claim that the Kh-32 is impervious to the latest American air defense systems, able to evade Patriot missiles.

Russia isn’t kitting up its fighter jets in Syria with its latest and greatest air-to-air weapons, according to the National Interest. Once in a great while, an Su-35S Flanker E will appear in Syria outfitted with R-77 RVV-SD missiles, but more often than not, Russian air-to-air defense is provided by Su-30SM Flanker-H and Su-34. Experts say the newer R-77 RVV-SD missiles remain in relatively shorter supply and Moscow isn’t in a hurry to arm its fighter jets with advanced air-to-air loads because it’s not sweating the possibility of a throwdown with American fighter jets in Syria.

Snowden

Maybe you thought you knew Edward Snowden. Or at least had a handle on the strange story of the international saga that followed his leaking of NSA secrets. Well, now get ready for the inside story of how Oliver Stone made a movie about Snowden, and the Russian lawyer with direct ties to Vladimir Putin who made Stone pay him what’s reported to be one million dollars for access to Snowden, who remains holed up somewhere in Russia.

ISIS

The State Department on Tuesday offered a $3 million reward for information on the whereabouts of Gulmurod Khalimov, an ISIS leader who was the former commander of a police special operations unit in Tajikistan. Khalimov underwent training from U.S. special operations forces, according to reports.

Bots o’ war

The U.S. military isn’t the only force in the Middle East using remote control weapons, according to new Army report examining insurgent use of RC armaments. The study looked at 21 such systems used in Iraq, Libya, and Syria, consisting mostly of a remote controlled firearms with some sort of camera for aiming. The Army concludes that the weapons, though rarely used and somewhat crude, are “more efficient than expected.” In one instance, the Islamic State used a remotely-operated sniper rifle protected by dogs to kill advancing Kurdish troops.

Qatar

Qatar has been throwing lots of money around Washington, DC on lobbyists and PR flacks in order to counter charges that it’s soft on terrorism, Al Monitor reports. In 2015, the Gulf monarchy quadrupled its lobbying and PR budget from $764,000 to $3.4 million. The spending binge follows anxieties in the United States that Qatar has been lax on curbing terrorist financing and Qatari citizens support for al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra (now Jabhat Fateh al-Sham).

Afghanistan

The Taliban released a video on Tuesday showing a Canadian and an American couple, Joshua Boyle and Caitlan Coleman, kidnapped and held hostage by the insurgent group in 2012, Reuters reports. In the video, the couple ask the U.S. government to get the Afghan government to halt its policy of executing captured Taliban prisoners. A senior Taliban source tells the wire service that the tape was intended to put pressure on the Afghan government not to execute Anas Haqqani, the son of the powerful Haqqani network leader Jalaluddin Haqqani.  Coleman has had two children since she and Boyle were kidnapped while backpacking through Afghanistan four years ago.

Navy

The second U.S. Navy Littoral Combat Ship in a week has gone down with engine trouble in the Pacific. USNI News reports that the USS Coronado is headed back to Hawaii after experiencing an unspecified engineering casualty. Sources tell the news outlet that sailors on board the ship witnessed electrical problems near the ship’s engines. Coronado’s problems come on the heels of problems reported with the USS Freedom’s engines on Sunday.

 

Photo Credit should read JOSEPH EID/AFP/Getty Images

Paul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. @paulmcleary

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