US troops sent to Gabon; Americans captured with ISIS; What’s going on in Somalia?; DOD seeks AI combat ethics; And a bit more.

At least one and possibly two Americans have been captured from ISIS in Syria, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces announced this weekend.
One of the two men: Warren Clark, a 34-year-old Texas man who joined after sending his resume and cover letter to the group. His story, via Seamus Hughes at the George Washington University Program on Extremism, here.
The other guy: Zaid Abed al-Hamid, according to CNN. Unclear where he’s really from, possibly Trinidad and Tobago.
If the two men “are extradited to the United States, they would be only the 15th and 16th American adults to return from joining ISIS in Iraq and Syria,” The New York Times‘ Rukmini Callimachi reports. “The number is minuscule,” Seamus Hughes told Callimachi. “To put it in context, the Brits are talking about hundreds of returnees.”
Also this weekend: Two British soldiers were wounded in the fight against ISIS around Hajin, Syria, the BBC’s Jonathan Beale reported.
Syrian exit, draft 2. White House National Security Advisor John Bolton walked back Trump’s Syrian withdrawal plans this weekend, NBC News reports.
The strategy now: do not withdraw U.S. troops from northern Syria until Turkey guarantees it won’t attack Syrian Kurdish forces.

One other thing this weekend: We learned 80 U.S. troops deployed to Libreville, Gabon, central Africa, last Wednesday. The news was delivered Friday afternoon.
The troops’ tasking: protect U.S. diplomatic personnel and facilities in the wake of December 30 presidential elections in neighboring Congo.
Background, via AP: Those December 30 elections were supposed to happen two years ago. “Congo faces what could be its first democratic, peaceful transfer of power since independence from Belgium in 1960, but election observers and the opposition have raised numerous concerns about voting irregularities as the country chooses a successor to longtime President Joseph Kabila.”
Open-ended. According to the letter President Trump sent to Congress notifying lawmakers of the deployment, “Additional forces may deploy to Gabon, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or the Republic of the Congo, if necessary… until the security situation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo becomes such that their presence is no longer needed.” More via al-Jazeera, here.


From Defense One

Pentagon Seeks a List of Ethical Principles for Using AI in War // Patrick Tucker: An advisory board is drafting guidelines that may help shape worldwide norms for military artificial intelligence — and woo Silicon Valley to defense work.

The Truth About the Soviet War in Afghanistan // Gregory Feifer, The Atlantic: Trump mischaracterized it in an attempt to justify his own disastrous policy in the region.

Trump Instructs Pentagon to Curb Watchdogs’ Access to Secret Military Reports // Charles S. Clark, Government Executive: Transparency groups decry move as hindering the work of inspectors general.

Democrats Are Wrong About Defense Spending // Reihan Salam, The Atlantic: The need for investment is only likely to grow in the coming years.

Welcome to this Monday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. Thanks for reading! On this day in 1914, an old French crane boat called Alexandre La Valley became the first ship to pass through the Panama Canal.


Choose your own Somali adventure: Drawdown, or status quo? Either the Pentagon “plans to scale back its role in Somalia and curtail airstrikes against al-Shabab insurgents,” as NBC News reported Friday afternoon — or “There have been no recent policy changes regarding U.S. operations in Somalia,” and the U.S. military’s roughly 500 troops deployed to Somalia will continue with their mission this week same as they did last week. That last scenario  comes from what a Pentagon spokeswoman told Voice of America after NBC reported the upcoming Somali drawdown.
According to NBC, the Trump White House thinks the Shabab insurgency does not pose a “direct danger to the U.S.,” two senior U.S. officials told NBC.
How one official described the planned new approach: as the Pentagon “narrowing its mission a bit” in Somalia. Why? U.S. officials think they’ve killed enough high-level Shabab fighters to shift the mission over the CIA. Read on at NBC, here.

Quietly confirmed: Trump’s nominee to be Ambassador to Yemen, Christopher Paul Henzel, in a voice vote at the Senate last Wednesday. He’s no stranger to Yemen; read a tiny bit about his background via this State Department page.
BTW: NSA Bolton visited Israel over the weekend. On Saturday, the national security adviser tweeted: “ Looking forward to meeting with Israeli senior officials tomorrow to discuss a range of shared priorities between the United States and Israel, including the enduring U.S. commitment to Israel’s security.”

Trump’s Cabinet meeting, fact-checked. The president said so many false and misleading things at last week’s cabinet meeting that it took the Washington Post a few days to run them all down. (The Post called it “a fact-checking nightmare, with sentence after sentence uttered by the president false or misleading.”)
Among the new not-true things the president said:  

  • The number of illegal immigrants entering the country each day is about half what Trump said it was.
  • He vastly exaggerated the amount of money the U.S. spends on foreign aid.
  • Against all evidence, he said Russia is not happy with his plans to withdraw from Syria.
  • He suggested that India’s $3 billion in reconstruction aid to Afghanistan had built “one library.”
  • He said the Iran nuclear deal would eventually permit Tehran to build nukes, notwithstanding this permanent provision: “Iran reaffirms that under no circumstances will Iran ever seek, develop or acquire any nuclear weapons.”
  • He inaccurately described why the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, framing it as Putin might.

Read the whole rundown, here, and ponder whether cable news performs a journalistic service by allowing politicians to spout lies on live TV.

Will they or won’t they, Iranian navy edition. On Friday, Iran’s naval deputy commander was quoted by state media as saying that Tehran would dispatch a naval flotilla to the Atlantic Ocean in March. That followed a December vow to send two or three warships to Venezuela.
Either deployment would be all but unprecedented for the Iranian navy, which has been extending its reach with recent deployments to the Indian Ocean and waters off Somalia. Read more from Reuters, here.
Not so fast… The Drive’s Joseph Trevethick pours cold seawater on the notion that Iranian warships will soon show up off America’s eastern seaboard: “The Iranians, who regularly object to the presence of American warships near their territorial waters in the Persian Gulf, have been suggesting they could make a similar show of force near the United State for nearly a decade and has never followed through. The Iranian Navy doesn’t look to be in any better a position to carry out this mission than it has in the past.” Read on, here.
A name to conjure with. Rear-Admiral Touraj Hassani said the Atlantic flotilla would include the new 1,300-ton destroyer Sahand. Students of U.S. operations in the gulf will recall the first Sahand, a British-built 1,100-ton destroyer whose commander earned the sobriequet “Captain Nasty” during the Iran-Iraq War before his ship was sunk by U.S. forces in retaliation for the mining of the frigate Samuel B. Roberts.

A U.S. warship just entered the Black Sea for the first time since August. It’s the amphibious-warfare ship Fort McHenry, carrying out what U.S. officials called “a regularly scheduled Black Sea operation.” But of course, the mission is intended to send a message to Moscow, whose forces still hold three Ukrainian vessels and their crews, seized illegally in the Sea of Azov in November. Stripes has a bit more, here.

The ongoing U.S. government shutdown is reportedly endangering America’s air passengers. That’s what the main airline pilots’ union said in a Jan. 2 letter to the president: “On behalf of the 61,000 pilots of the Air Line Pilots Association, International (ALPA), I am writing to urge you to take the necessary steps to immediately end the shutdown of government agencies that is adversely affecting the safety, security and efficiency of our national airspace system.” Read the letter, here.

Finally today, and unlikely to be in next year’s Golden Globes: A new horror movie about a possessed off-the-shelf drone — a DJI Phantom 2, to be exact. We’re not horror film buffs, or even really fans; but we couldn’t pass up this mention of emerging tech that’s gone from a vague warning by the CIA in 1986 (PDF) to battlefield staples in 2017 Mosul to now its own starring role in a film titled bluntly, “The Drone.” The Geek has the story of this new flick, which premieres later this month, here; or watch the trailer right here.

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