Iraq: Mosul offensive has begun; Europe’s intel crisis; Obama on US values in Brussels’ wake; Sci-fi for officers; Taiwan’s ‘Happy Farm’; And a bit more.

Baghdad’s long-awaited Mosul offensive has begun, Iraqi military officials said Thursday. “Iraqi forces retook several villages on the outskirts of the town of Makhmour, east of Mosul, early in the morning on Thursday and hoisted the Iraqi flag there,” the Associated Press reports from the Iraqi capital.

The plan for the offensive’s “first phase” involves clearing the areas between Makmour and the adjacent Qayara area to the east of the Tigris River, and to cut one of the supply lines to the nearby Shirqat area, according to an official at the military’s provincial Nineveh Operations Command.

Reminder: Iraq’s military is hardly at anything like full strength. “Despite Thursday’s announcement, the number of Iraqi troops needed to carry out the operation to retake Mosul, nearly two years after it fell to IS, is not yet in place and training efforts by the U.S.-led coalition are still ongoing,” AP notes. “Coalition and Iraqi officials estimate that an eight to 12 brigades, or an estimated 24,000 to 36,000 troops, will be needed for the Mosul operation. So far, only 2,000 to 3,000 Iraqi troops have been deployed at Makhmour base.”

Holding things up still further is a “political crisis in Baghdad [that] has prompted [Prime Minister Haider] al-Abadi to pull some of Iraq’s elite counterterrorism forces back from the [Anbar provincial] front in the Euphrates River valley to secure the capital.” More here.

To the northwest, in Syria, government troops have entered the ISIS-held town of Palmyra, which has been under the group’s control since May. The big picture take: “The capture of Palmrya and further eastward advances into Deir al-Zor would mark the most significant Syrian government gain against IS since the start of Russia’s military intervention last September.” That central Syrian battlefield update, here.

Belgian officials are now looking for a possible fifth member of the alleged Islamic State cell that carried out Tuesday’s attack in Brussels. “Belgian state broadcaster RTBF and France’s Le Monde and BFM television reported Thursday that a fifth attacker may also be at large: a man filmed by surveillance cameras in the Brussels metro on Tuesday carrying a large bag alongside [subway attacker] Khalid El Bakraoui.”

About Bakraoui—Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdogan said Wednesday that his troops detained Bakraoui, a 29-year-old Belgian man, in the southern Turkish province of Gaziantep near the Syrian border last June. A month later, Erdogan said, he was deported to the Netherlands and Turkish officials notified their Dutch counterparts of the move. Erdogan’s office said Bakraoui “was later released by Belgian authorities as ‘no links with terrorism’ were found. It was not clear when Bakraoui was handed over to Belgian authorities,” Reuters reported, adding elsewhere that Bakraoui was deported a second time in August.

“At that time, [Bakraoui] wasn’t known to Belgian authorities for terrorism, but only criminal acts,” Belgian Justice Minister Koen Geens said on Belgian television.

Attention has quickly turned on the poor state of intelligence-sharing across Europe, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal write. “The hurdles are as basic as national pride and bureaucratic turf protection, with experts pointing out that even within nations, intelligence-gathering agencies — France alone has some 33 of them — have trouble cooperating,” the Times reports.

Other obstacles: “Once a prosecutor starts investigating a terrorism case, security services are shut out of the process and information revealed by the investigation isn’t shared with them—unlike, for example, in the U.K.,” WSJ adds. “Belgian intelligence services also can’t tap the phones of people suspected of extremism, including hate preachers. Nor can they hack their computers and phones. Belgian lawmakers are debating whether to change this as one of the 18 measures announced in November.” The list goes on, here.

Yesterday we noted the suspected presence of the “mother of Satan” explosive—TATP, or triacetone triperoxide. NYT’s former Marine C.J. Chivers reports Belgian authorities confiscated 33 lbs. of it from a flat in the Schaerbeek neighborhood of Brussels. Chivers explains the sensitive task of how to make the stuff—and what that says about possible future attacks, here.

Is a Brussels-like attack imminent in the U.S.? Nope says former Amb. Daniel Benjamin who was coordinator for counterterrorism at the State Department from 2009 to 2012. “While the jihadist threat is genuinely global, it is by no means equally distributed,” he wrote in Politico. More here. And another take on why U.S. is not Brussels from Third Way’s Mieke Eoyang and Sanaa Khan here.

From Defense One

What Trump Got Right About Brussels. Trump’s diagnosis of the attack makes sense. But the proposals he and Ted Cruz offered in response do not. The Atlantic‘s Peter Beinart, here.

ISIS Is Using the Media Against Itself. It doesn’t matter if the coverage that follows an attack is negative. For ISIS, any coverage is good coverage, writes Charlie Winter, senior research associate at Georgia State University’s Transcultural Conflict and Violence Initiative.

Are These Syrian Hackers Cyber Warriors, or Just Thieves? The FBI added two Syrian hackers to its most-wanted list for cybercriminals, a project that’s only been running since 2013 and includes individuals from China, Russia and Eastern Europe. The Atlantic’s Kaveh Waddell, here.

US Intelligence Wants Computers That Spot Fake Fingerprints. Researchers at the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Agency aim not only to spot prosthetic thumbs, it will also learn to predict attacks never seen before. NextGov’s Aliya Sternstein has the story.

Welcome to Thursday’s D Brief, by Ben Watson and Marcus Weisgerber. On this day in 1998, the UN announced a pullout from Afghanistan after the governor of Kandahar slapped the face of a UN employee. Send this link to someone who needs it: Got news? Let us know:

U.S. President Barack Obama rejected calls to change course in the White House’s approach to fighting ISIS, after a meeting with Argentine President Mauricio Macri on Wednesday. He struck back at some of the more severe plans to attack the group coming from 2016 contender Ted Cruz, who proposed surveilling Muslim neighborhoods in the U.S. in the wake of the Brussels attacks. “The notion that we would start down that slippery slope makes absolutely no sense,” Obama said. “It’s contrary to who we are. And it’s not going to help us defeat ISIL.”  

And about plans to carpet-bomb ISIS‚ Obama said the U.S. government does not “just go ahead and blow something up just so that we can go back home and say we blew something up. That’s not a foreign policy. That’s not a military strategy.” More here.

The U.S. wants Turkey to work with the Kurds to shut down the last remaining border crossing into Syria, a 60-mile stretch that ISIS is reportedly still using to route new fighters into its ranks. “The idea, if successful, would allow the Kurdish fighters to control most of the Turkey-Syria border,” the WSJ reports—noting the crucial caveat: “That is something Turkish officials said Wednesday they aren’t willing to let happen.”

Meantime, “There is not a whole lot we can do about it than watch it, patrol it, from the air,” said one U.S. military official. That, here.

The wacky “rock” versus “island” dynamic in the South China Sea. Taiwan is seizing on the language in the Philippines’ case now being considered by an international court in The Hague, which argues “no feature in the Spratlys could be legally considered islands because they lack the ability to sustain human habitation or economic life,” Reuters reports.

The location in question is what the WSJ calls a “tiny palm-fringed outcrop” known as Itu Aba (Taiping Island to Taiwan) that Taiwanese coasties call the “Happy Farm.” 167 are there farming pumpkin, okra, corn and cabbage, and keep a handful of chickens and goats. Their goal is to prove that Itu Aba is an inhabitable island, not a rock.”

What’s at stake: “If the tribunal concludes that Itu Aba is an island, it would be entitled to an Exclusive Economic Zone, or EEZ, extending up to 200 nautical miles, and allowing construction of artificial islands in that zone,” the Journal writes. “Since Beijing claims all the Spratlys, maritime experts say that could give legal cover to its artificial islands, all of which lie within 200 nautical miles of Itu Aba. But if the tribunal rules that Itu Aba is a rock, and thus not entitled to an EEZ, then China’s efforts to justify its claims through international law would be undermined.” More here and here.

Your Thursday #LongRead: There are probably more militaries burrowed into the tiny African country of Djibouti than you thought. And with a Chinese military base currently under construction, the list grows from the U.S., France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Japan. Saudi Arabia, too, said it plans to establish its first African base there. Bloomberg has a pretty incredible dispatch from Djibouti City, where you’ll see many of these installations in a nifty map, here.

Chinese man pleads guilty to stealing Boeing’s C-17 drawings. The businessman pleaded guilty in Los Angeles federal court Wednesday. “The plea by Su Bin, a Chinese citizen who ran a company in Canada, marks the first time the U.S. government has won a guilty plea from someone involved with a Chinese government campaign of economic cyberespionage,” The Washington Post reports. “Su’s plea follows a years-long investigation into the theft of scans, drawings and technical details related to Boeing’s C-17 military transport plane, as well as to advanced fighter jets.” China’s new Y-20 cargo plane bears a stunning resemblance to the American C-17. More here.

Army buys new trucks. The order of 657 Joint Light Tactical Vehicles is worth more than $243 million, Defense News reports. The project was delayed several months after Lockheed Martin contested the Army’s choosing Oshkosh to built the trucks that will replace tens of thousands of Humvees.

Lastly today—why reading science fiction is good stuff for military officers. This one comes to us via the Art of Future Warfare project at the Atlantic Council, and U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Mick Ryan. A quick selection of some of the perks of burying one’s nose in a sci-fi novel: “it informs us about bad potential futures; it nurtures innovative thought; it encourages diversity in intellectual development; and more, over here.

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