Paris attack planner reported killed; Iran shrinks its Syria ops; Rhetoric and reality on refugees; How cyber gaps undid the Galactic Empire; and a bit more...

From plotter to goner: the Paris attack planner is dead, France’s top prosecutor said this morning. Belgian extremist Abdel­hamid Abaaoud was killed in the 7-hour morning raid Wednesday in the north Paris suburb of Saint-Denis. The Washington Post first reported the news Wednesday, citing two unnamed senior European officials. “It was not immediately clear how Abaaoud died—whether in police gunfire, by his own hand or in a suicide blast triggered by a woman in the apartment.” More here.

A future attack might use chemical and biological weapons, Prime Minister Manuel Valls told lawmakers today in Paris. The parliament was set to vote on measures that would “grant the French government extended powers to conduct stop and searches, ban large gatherings in public places and place suspected extremists under house arrest,” the WaPo reports.

Elsewhere in Europe, the raids will continue until morale improves. Belgian security forces carried out a half-dozen overnight raids of places linked to one of the Paris attackers who was a French national living in Belgium. That on top of France’s more than 400 raids in three nights.

From Paris to Moscow, Iran is looking like a fifth wheel when it comes to forging an international coalition against ISIS. Tehran’s troops are increasingly seen packing up their combat shop in Syria, which could have big implications for what some are calling a “grand coalition” against the Islamic State, the Wall Street Journal’s Jay Solomon reports. U.S. and European officials say “Iran’s elite military unit, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, has withdrawn some troops from Syria in recent weeks, because of a strain on its resources. A number of senior IRGC officers have been killed in Syria in recent months.” Russian President Vladimir Putin has met with leaders from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Israel, “and has indicated Moscow would seek to limit Iran’s influence inside Syria as part of any negotiated settlement to the conflict,” according to senior diplomats.

Moscow submitted a plan to the UN Security Council on Wednesday that “defines terrorist groups in Syria in broad terms while still targeting the Islamic State extremist group,” WSJ says. Paris, by contrast, is working on its own draft plan, said to focus “more tightly” on the Islamic State group.

One of the most volatile factors in much of this talk about Syria’s future is how to approach the Sunni angle, and it appears as though Russia is beginning to see this as well. “Saudi officials publicly warned Moscow after its intervention that Moscow could face rising opposition from Sunni Muslim states because of the Kremlin’s alliance with Shiite-dominated Iran and Mr. Assad,” Solomon writes. More here.

Russia says it’s now hitting ISIS with “pinpoint” strikes. “A massive airstrike is targeting ISIL sites in Syrian territory,” Russian Defense Minsiter Sergei Shoigu said Tuesday. “The number of sorties has been doubled, which makes it possible to deliver powerful pinpoint strikes upon ISIL fighters all throughout the Syrian territory.” The Atlantic’s Marina Koren has more, here.

For what it’s worth—Moscow will sell Beijing 24 Su-35 fighter jets in a deal reportedly totaling $2 billion, according to the Russian business newspaper Kommersant. The deal makes China the first international customer for the advanced warplanes, which had only previously been purchased by the Russian Air Force. The jets can strike targets on the ground and in the air, similar to the U.S.-made F-15E Strike Eagle. Indonesia is also considering a buy of Su-35s, according to state-run Sputnik.

With French planes pounding ISIS in Raqqa, Syria, what are the early takeaways? First off, “damage to the extremist group appears to be minimal,” (only about three-dozen ISIS fighters are believed to have died from the raids so far) and secondly, “after more than a year of U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, the ­Islamic State has learned to secure its weapons, communications systems and fighters in fortified bunkers or densely populated residential areas where bombing would inflict intolerably high civilian casualties,” WaPo’s Hugh Naylor writes.

In the Iraqi town of Sinjar — and likely elsewhere — ISIS built a network of tunnels and underground bomb shelters that had to be painstakingly cleared by Kurdish fighters, who called it a “feat of engineering,” WSJ’s Ben Kesling reported Wednesday. “In the end, the intricate underground infrastructure the militants built in Sinjar wasn’t enough to prevent a determined Iraqi Kurdish ground force known as the Peshmerga from routing them with the help of the U.S.-led airstrikes.” More on that obstacle to an “efficient” war on the group, here.

Syrian refugees are trapped between the political rhetoric of the U.S. presidential race and reality in the wake of the Paris attacks. The House is set to vote later today on a bill intended to make it for difficult for the U.S. to accept refugees fleeing the war in Syria—the “American SAFE Act of 2015”—and the White House has already pledged to veto it on account of “the lives at stake and the critical importance to our partners in the Middle East and Europe of American leadership in addressing the Syrian refugee crisis.”

The reality: Not only are refugees the most scrutinized of any category of traveller to the U.S., they are subjected to one of the most extensive security clearance processes in the world for refugee applicants. According to the White House, of the 2,174 Syrian refugees admitted to the U.S.  since 9/11, “not a single one has been arrested or deported on terrorism-related grounds.” Read Defense One’s special report from Politics Reporter Molly O’Toole, here.

The Atlantic comes to much the same conclusions, here.

And be sure to check out this short explainer laying out “four things to know about the vetting process for Syrian refugees,” from NPR’s Brian Naylor.

From Defense One

Army, Air Force acquisition chiefs to step down. The departures of William LaPlante and Heidi Shyu will likely leave the Air Force and Army without permanent procurement leaders until 2017. Global Politics Reporter Marcus Weisgerber reports, here.

Meet the head of the Pentagon’s agile new digital team. The Pentagon is standing up a Defense Digital Service, headed up by a former member of the White House’s own agile cadre of technology wizards. The DoD DDS will be a small team of engineers and data experts meant to “improve the Department’s technological agility and solve its most complex IT problems,” Technology Editor Patrick Tucker reports.

Three ways ISIS gets its money. Bottom line up front: Kid­nap­pings, an­tiquit­ies traf­fick­ing, and private dona­tions. National Journal has the details, here.

Nigeria has an arms fraud problem to the tune of some $2 billion. While Boko Haram swept across the country, Sambo Dasuki, a former national security adviser awarded “phantom contracts” to buy 12 helicopters, four fighter jets, bombs that were never supplied. He was fired in July, but Quartz’s Yomi Kazeem why we’re only now catching wind of these shenanigans, here.

Welcome to the Thursday edition of The D Brief, from Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. Tell your friends to subscribe here: Want to see something different? Got news? Let us know:

Today in the Philippines, President Obama addressed the ties that bind three controversial issues in American politics: an authorization for the use of military force, his push to close the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo, and the Syrian refugee crisis.

On Guantanamo, he said, “I guarantee you there will be strong resistance [in Congress], because in the aftermath of Paris, I think that there is just a very strong tendency for us to get worked up around issues that don’t actually make us safer but make for good political sound bites. And whether it’s refugees or Guantanamo, those are handy answers, particularly for folks who aren’t interested in engaging in a more serious debate about how do we invest in the long, hard slog of dealing with terrorism, doing the tough law enforcement work, gathering intelligence meticulously, and building the kind of diplomatic and military solutions that we need in the Middle East."

On the war powers front, he took a swipe at lawmakers for not dodging debate on an AUMF against ISIS, while they hurriedly took up legislation intended to keep Syrians from finding refuge in the U.S. “It’s easier to talk about Guantanamo, I guess, than it is to, for example, pass an authorization for the use of military force in Syria—which hasn’t gotten done yet.”

And on the Syrian refugee crisis, he continued: “It’s easier to talk about refugees than to talk about the hard work that’s going to be required in putting organizations like ISIL out of business, but they don’t actually have the kind of impact that we need on the problem.” Quick thought, though: Isn’t it also his job to talk about the work of putting ISIL out of business?

Sneak peek at Clinton’s big “natsec” speech: Following Republican candidate Jeb Bush's as-billed big national security speech yesterday, Hillary Clinton takes to the stump at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York today at 10:30 a.m. EDT.

A Clinton aide shared this tease with Defense One: “In the wake of recent attacks, in Paris, Sinai, Beirut and Nigeria, Thursday, Hillary Clinton will lay out her strategy for countering ISIS and for the longer-term struggle to combat radical jihadism across the globe. She will detail elements of this blueprint to achieve three overarching objectives: (1) Defeat ISIS in Syria, Iraq, and across the region. (2) Disrupt and dismantle the growing terrorist infrastructure that facilitates the flow of fighters, financing, arms, and propaganda around the world. (3) Harden our defenses and those of our allies against external and homegrown threats.” Livestream it, here.

After Paris, ISIS has moved its messaging machine to the darknet. “The new propaganda hub was discovered by researcher Scot Terban,” writes the security research site CSO. “In a post on the Shamikh forum (a known jihadi bulletin board), someone posted the new address and instructions for reaching it. The post explained that the new [ISIS Al-Hayat Media Center] hub was needed, because other websites were removed almost as soon as they are registered. The hope is that by existing on the Darknet, Daesh can thwart most efforts to shut them down.”

The new hub also reportedly points ISIS sympathizers to “Telegram, the encrypted chat / messaging platform that became the key communication tool for Daesh after Twitter and Facebook started to take action against their supporters. Telegram's Channels feature has enabled the terrorist group to reach nearly 20,000 people instantly, as it acts as a sort of RSS feed.”

But defeating encryption won’t stop future attacks, CSO writes, echoing previous reporting this week on Defense One.

Lastly todayand in a bit of an abrupt change of tone—Darth Vader’s Galactic Empire would not last long in today’s cybersecurity environment, writes the Council on Foreign Relations’ Alex Grigsby.

“In re-watching the old movies,” he writes, “it’s not surprising given that the Empire, despite its resources and power, had some pretty glaring security gaps. I mean, who builds the most complex and destructive weapon in the galaxy and equips it with a single point of failure in the form of an exhaust port? Its cybersecurity gaps don’t fare that much better. In fact, three critical cybersecurity improvements would have made it much more difficult–if not impossible–for the Rebel Alliance to defeat it in Return of the Jedi.”

Grigsby’s three improvements—limiting access controls, two-factor authentication, and encrypting sensitive data—are ripped from today’s cyber lessons learned. And he elaborates on all three in straight-faced detail, here.

NEXT STORY: Three Ways ISIS Gets Its Money