- By Paul McLearyPaul McLeary is Foreign Policy’s senior reporter covering the U.S. Defense Department and national security issues. He joined the Washington office in 2015 after working for Defense News, where he was also on the Pentagon beat, and covered stories relating to Pentagon spending and the defense industry. While there, and in a previous incarnation as a New York-based reporter, Paul embedded with U.S. Army and Marine Corps units in Iraq and Afghanistan to cover ground combat operations, where he got inside a secretive drone program being run out of Bagram air base. He has also traveled with the U.S. Navy, covered NATO meetings in Europe with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and stalked major international arms shows in Paris and London., Adam RawnsleyAdam Rawnsley is a Philadelphia-based reporter covering technology and national security. He co-authors FP’s Situation Report newsletter and has written for The Daily Beast, Wired, and War Is Boring.
Kirkuk strike. American and coalition military officials have said for weeks they expect the Islamic State to go underground and revert to guerrilla tactics once they’re pushed out of Mosul. But a brazen, conventional military attack on the Kurdish city of Kirkuk Friday by dozens of ISIS fighters in uniform has spawned a series of running gun battles with security forces that continues as we write. Early reports say about two dozen civilians and security forces have been killed, and some of the terrorist fighters are holed up in a hotel in the city.
While the guns rage in Kirkuk, another group of ISIS fighters — including three suicide bombers — hit a power station north of the city, slaughtering over a dozen workers, including some from Iran, according to reports.
Mosul push continues. While ISIS is striking out, thousands of its fighters are still in and around Mosul, where the noose is slowly tightening. But it’s coming at a heavy cost. Kurdish fighters, who opened a new front north of the city on Thursday are being battered by waves of suicide car bombers and fighters with suicide belts who are ambushing the Kurds from fortified houses once they enter a village.
The New York Times’ Michael Gordon paints a harrowing picture of the road into the city: “Blood stained the sand near their front-line aid station, and a medevac helicopter touched down on the highway back to Dohuk, ready to take the most grievously hurt to treatment there. One Kurdish fighter was so desperate to get his injured comrade through the snarl of military traffic that he began to fire shots into the air.” Some Kurd commanders have complained that they’re not receiving the level of air support from the Americans they were promised, a charge the U.S. military has rejected.
American casualties. A U.S. service member was killed in near Mosul Thursday when an improvised explosive device detonated as American troops moved toward the city. It was the first American combat death associated with the fight for Mosul, and the second combat death suffered by American forces battling the Islamic State this month, FP’s Paul McLeary notes. The incident took place just a day after a U.S. soldier and civilian contractor were ambushed and killed by an Afghan soldier in Kabul. There are over 100 U.S. troops embedded with Iraqi and Kurdish forces moving on Mosul, and about 6,000 deployed to Iraq overall.
Turkey hammering Kurds. Turkish warplanes are targeting Kurdish fighters in northern Iraq and Syria, with Ankara claiming Friday it had killed 12 Kurdish militants in southeast Turkey and another six in air strikes in northern Iraq. On Wednesday, Turkish warplanes also hit the Kurdish YPG militia near the town of Hasakah in northern Syria, claiming they killed as many as 200 fighters. Who, exactly, those Kurds are is a matter of debate, however, with some reports claiming they were a part of the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. But a defense official told SitRep Thursday that while U.S. forces are still investigating, the Kurds don’t appear to be part of the group that the U.S.-led coalition is working with the battle ISIS.
SecDef in Turkey. Defense Secretary Ash Carter met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Prime Minister Binali Yıldırım, and Minister of National Defense Fikri Isik n Ankara on Friday. The secretary toured the Turkish Parliament building where he was shown damage from July’s failed military coup attempt, and the two sides discussed the Turkish incursion into northern Syria and the fight against the Islamic State, according to readout of the meetings provided by the Pentagon.
The people of Mosul, caught in a vice. The fight for Mosul “threatens to trigger a large-scale humanitarian crisis loaded with sectarian danger, with hundreds of thousands of civilians torn between remaining in a booby-trapped warren or running the gauntlet of Iranian-backed Shiite militias potentially blocking their way to safety west of the city,” FP’s Dan De Luce and Paul McLeary report, laying out the dangers involved in the plan to send sectarian Shiite militias to the west of the city to act as a blocking force for escaping ISIS fighters looking to make it to Syria.
Russia, carrier through English Channel. A flotilla of Russian warships — including Moscow’s only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov — passed through the English Channel Friday morning on their way to Syria, and were closely followed by English warships. The decades-old Kuznetsov, which often breaks down or catches fire while at sea, is accompanied by its very own tugboat to help it along should its engines give out once again, making its months-long deployment to the Mediterranean an interesting one to watch. In a twist, some naval observers have spotted at least one new Ka-52K attack helicopter aboard the ship.
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: email@example.com or on Twitter: @paulmcleary or @arawnsley
Confused by the competing attribution claims over who hacked which Democratic party organization and Washington bigwig? The U.S. intelligence community has publicly attributed the recent campaign of hacks and document dumps rocking the 2016 election, but NSA chief Admi. Michael Rogers has said he’s not keen to share the evidence publicly. Fortunately, Esquire magazine has a handy piece by Thomas Rid laying out the publicly available evidence provided cybersecurity firms like Crowdstrike and SecureWorks, as well as by the hackers themselves linking the hacks and dumps to Russian intelligence.
Police in the Czech Republic and the U.S. FBI arrested a Russian man who was reportedly behind the 2012 hack of the professional networking site, LinkedIn. Details have been sparse so far, but Czech authorities and the FBI would only say they’d arrested a man suspected of “criminal activities targeting U.S. interests.” LinkedIn, for its part, issued a statement saying that it had been “actively involved” in an FBI manhunt for the perpetrator of the hack, suggesting a link between the hack and the arrest. Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty managed to dig up the name — Yevgeny Nikulin, subsequently confirmed by the Russian Foreign Ministry — of the accused hacker as well as his social media accounts. Nikulin’s instagram account reveal an apparent life of luxury, with expensive cars and watches on display.
In court documents filed on Thursday, federal prosecutors unloaded on Harold Martin, the NSA contractor who they say hoarded terabytes of highly classified secrets in his home. As FP’s Elias Groll reports, Martin is accused of sneaking out what may be the largest archive of classified secrets in American espionage history over the course of 20 years. Thus far, the government hasn’t formally accused Martin of passing the secrets he allegedly brought home to anyone, but they have insinuated that espionage might be a possibility.
Smithsonian magazine tells the fascinating story of the FBI’s “fake Russian,” a Bureau employee who spoke nine languages and posed as a Soviet — and later, Russian — spy in order to fool would-be American spies. Dimitry Droujinsky served in the FBI from the 1960s through the 1990s, often dispatched to intercept would-be spies after they’d reached out to foreign embassies in order to sell classified information. Droujinsky, playing the role of a slightly-accented KGB officer, would meet with the correspondents before the Soviets and others could make contact, gathering evidence which could be used in criminal cases.
The United States and Saudi Arabia announced new sanctions on members of Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese terrorist group. Washington added five new men to the list of Specially Designated Nationals (SDN) for their alleged association with Hezbollah, alongside and organization named Global Cleaners S.A.R.L. based in Lebanon and Iraq. The State Department singled out one of the sanctioned men, Haytham ‘Ali Tabataba’i, as press release-worthy, describing him as the commander of Hezbollah’s special forces with time spent “provide training, materiel, and personnel” in Syria and Yemen. Saudi Arabia also announced its own sanctions on two of the men included on the SDN list, Mohamed Al-Mohtar Falah Kallas and Hasan Hatem Jmaml Al-Din, as well as the Global Cleaners S.A.R.L. organization.
International Criminal Court
South Africa might be walking away from the International Criminal Court (ICC) according to a document obtained by Reuters. The document purports to be a declaration from South Africa’s minister of international relations and cooperation sent to the UN indicating that the country will leave the court in a year’s time. The reason? The letter says South Africa’s “obligations with respect to the peaceful resolution of conflicts at times are incompatible with the interpretation given by the international criminal court.” More specifically, South Africa’s exit appears to follow up on a previous threat to leave after it refused to arrest Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who was wanted by the court.
Small, explosive-laden drones have captured the headlines since the revelation that a weaponized Islamic State drone killed two Kurdish fighters and two French special operations troops in Iraq. Well before the recent incident, however, the weapons tracking organization Conflict Armament Research got a closer look at the jihadist group’s explosive drone research and development when they visited an Islamic State workshop in Ramadi in February 2012. At the factory, researchers found small drone components and improvised explosive device components. An SA-7B man-portable air defense system (MANPADS), found at the facility with the control section removed, suggests the group may have been trying to leverage the missile’s components for use in drones.
Photo Credit: Hamit Huseyin/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images