US troops in Libya, again; Bombs incinerate ISIS cash; Seoul eyes THAAD; Kangaroo-based IED plot, foiled; and a bit more.

U.S. troops are looking for a few good friends in Libya, the Pentagon confirmed yesterday. As the U.S. looks to expand its global fight against the Islamic State, Afghanistan is receiving greater attention—but so is the teetering nation of Libya, which both ISIS and al-Qaeda are using to launch attacks, according to a new report from analysts at The Soufan Group.

A “small group” of U.S. forces had made contact with Libyan militiamen, “simply to get a sense of who the players are,” Pentagon spokesman Peter Cook said Wednesday, though he did not actually say these were special operations troops. “We are extremely worried about the metastasis of Isil in a number of locations, Libya being just one of those locations,” he added.

Libya has at least “500 key IS officials and fighters who left Syria and Iraq during the last several weeks of 2015 and moved to Libya in what appeared to be a calculated move,” Voice of America reports. “Western officials estimate IS may now have upwards of 5,000 fighters in Libya.”

The Pentagon’s messaging on Libya has been a bit spotty lately, The Guardian adds, noting, “In December, the presence of a US special forces unit in Libya was revealed after photographs of the troops were posted on a Libyan military Facebook page.” The OPSEC fail led to the troops being asked to leave “almost immediately,” NBC News reported at the time.  

“It’s time to get our forces back in the shadows,” America’s top special operations commander, Gen. Joseph Votel, wrote in a memo to Defense Secretary Ash Carter and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Joseph Dunford in early December, just one week after Carter told lawmakers the White House had authorized the “expeditionary targeting force” for attacking ISIS, Foreign Policy’s Dan Deluce reported Thursday.

And ICYMI: last week’s “Here’s How US Special Operations Command Views Libya,” from our own Patrick Tucker.

The Obama administration is watching the ISIS fight with a creeping sense of urgency, The Daily Beast’s Kim Dozier reports, noting that recent strikes on ISIS cash depots have set hundreds of millions of dollars ablaze. “Faced with the virulence of the ISIS brand and the clock ticking down on President Barack Obama’s last term, administration officials are green-lighting aggressive proposals that have been languishing for years, and asking for more ideas to check the growth of ISIS from Syria to Libya and beyond, according to multiple U.S. defense officials.”

Said one senior military official: “Our hands have been tied… Now I think you’ll see a little more willingness to tolerate civilian casualties in the interest of making progress.”

Added USSOCOM’s Votel: “It’s more than taking their territory. It’s preventing their ability to govern, nullifying their message, taking away their resources, cutting off their foreign fighters… I don’t think you could put a time limit on it. I certainly wouldn’t.” More here.

South Korea is reportedly rethinking its interest in a U.S. missile defense system to knock out possible volleys from the North, the Wall Street Journal reports. “One American official said there was a strong chance the U.S. could announce that the two countries are in negotiations over the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system, or Thaad, in the next week or so.”

Why discussions about Thaad have not gone away: “South Korea’s existing defenses rely on intercepting missiles at low altitudes, giving only a brief window of time to destroy them. The Thaad system, made by Lockheed Martin Corp. and Raytheon Co., targets missiles at higher altitudes, creating another layer of defense and more time to neutralize an attack. It could also cover other areas of South Korea currently vulnerable to attack.”

At any rate, the system is widely seen as a likely antagonist toward Beijing since “the radar system’s coverage would extend beyond North Korea into China’s north,” the WSJ writes. Read the rest, here.

“China and their military have done good things globally,” U.S. Pacific Command chief Adm. Harry Harris told a crowd at CSIS Wednesday before adding the crucial caveat that “they act in ways I think a great power should not”—i.e., all that island-building in the South China Sea.

Of course, China isn’t the only ones in the island-reclamation game, he noted. They’re just far and away the most efficient ones in the game, as Defense News writes: “Harris put up a chart showing that together, Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan have reclaimed 215 acres of land over the past 40 years, while China has reclaimed more than 3,000 acres in the past 18 months.” (Here’s that chart.)

Refugee or terrorist? IBM thinks its software has the answer. A new tool—the i2 Enterprise Insight Analysis, or i2 EIA—is turning unstructured data into actionable intelligence and could change the way law enforcement fights terrorism, and challenge the data-collection debate, Defense One’s Tech Editor Patrick Tucker reports.

Why IBM is so confident: They created a hypothetical scenario, “bringing together several data sources to match against a fictional list of passport-carrying refugees,” Tucker writes. “Perhaps the most important dataset was a list of names of casualties from the conflict gleaned from open press reports and other sources. Some of the material came from the Dark Web, data related to the black market for passports.” The system then cranks out a score “to indicate the likelihood that a hypothetical asylum seeker was who they said they were, and do it fast enough to be useful to a border guard or policeman walking a beat.” Read the rest, here.

From Defense One

Here’s what happened when Ash Carter crashed Davos. The defense secretary’s legacy may have been forged in the Alps, connecting economic elites to the Pentagon — and the war on terrorism. Exec editor Kevin Baron reports from the Swiss confab, here.

Obama taps new general to lead Afghan war. Lt. Gen. John Nicholson, an Army Ranger, will become the latest officer to lead the 14-year-old effort. Global Business Reporter Marcus Weisgerber has the story, here.  

ISIS communications app: much ado about not much. The group’s “secure messaging app” doesn't work: Ghost Security Group backtracks on previous claim. Tucker again, here.

Look who’s worried about the NSA’s 96-percent retention rate. It might seem counterintuitive that someone maintaining a workforce of 30,000 coders and analysts is concerned about too much loyal talent. NextGov, here.

With Lockheed deal, Leidos becomes the government’s largest IT provider. The merger creates an IT business with a $10 billion portfolio and contract holdings across every facet of federal government. NextGov again, here.

The Obama administration’s encryption views are all over the map. Some government officials are focused on catching criminals, while others worry about empowering hackers. That, from National Journal, here.

Who’s the Middle East’s quietly rising cyber superpower? Israel, with more than 300 cybersecurity companies, exports totaling $6 billion, and 20 percent of the world’s private cyber investment dollars, writes the Council on Foreign Relations’ Adam Segal, here.

Video: “Maintaining Force Readiness in the New Era of Global Threats.” If you missed last Thursday’s livestream, here’s the video of a conversation between Brig. Gen. Thomas Murphy, deputy commander of Air Forces Cyber; Robert Naething, deputy to the Commanding General of U.S. Army North; and Brig. Gen. Peter Lambert, vice commander of 25th Air Force, ISR and Air Combat. Moderated by Defense One’s deputy editor, Bradley Peniston. Watch, here.

Welcome to Thursday’s edition of the The D Brief, by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. Get your friends off on the right foot in 2016 by telling them to subscribe here: Want to see something different this year? Got news? Let us know:

NATO is mulling a U.S. request to provide Airborne Warning and Control System, or AWACS, planes to help fight ISIS, alliance secretary Jens Stoltenberg said this morning in Brussels. The question is expected to be taken up at an upcoming alliance defense ministerial next month, the Associated Press reports.

And speaking of surveilling your foe: what happens when a Syrian tank spots a rebel cameraman? Things get hairy real fast, as this clip reveals.

Did F/A-18 production delays just cost Boeing a huge Kuwait sale? That’s one possible takeaway from the recent deal Italy is expected to close on Sunday to provide Kuwait with 28 Eurofighter Typhoon jets, Defense News reported. “We were trying to acquire the F-18 Super Hornets and replace the existing fleet of F-18s with Super Hornets and Eurofighter Typhoons,” a Kuwaiti official said. “However, we cannot wait for the American approval and need to update our Air Force now.” More here.

Army secretary confirmation could take even longer. Marine vet and California Republican Rep. Duncan Hunter just threw his support behind a senatorial hold on confirming the Army’s would-be new secretary, Eric Fanning. Hunter is using the occasion to raise awareness for a Green Beret who was kicked out of the Army for beating an alleged child rapist in Afghanistan. Army Times has all the drama, here.

This afternoon: the folks at the Stimson Center talk nuclear security with a panel of experts that includes the National Security Council’s Director for Nuclear Energy Policy, Michael Wautlet. More details and an RSVP link, here.

Ahead of this evening’s Trump-less debate on Fox News, find out where all the candidates—Ds and Rs—stand on cybersecurity, encryption, Chinese hackers and more via three robust charts compiled by the Christian Science Monitor, here.

And while we’re on this evening’s debate, at least one veteran group doesn’t want Trump’s money. CNN has the story of the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America—whose founder Paul Rieckhoff said he prefers “strong policies from candidates, not to be used for political stunts”—here. (Full disclosure: Defense One and IAVA have held events together.)

Lastly today—a very Australia-like IED attempt was foiled by officials, AP reports. A 19-year-old evidently planned to pack a kangaroo with explosives, paint an ISIS symbol on the animal, and let it loose on police “in Melbourne or the neighboring city of Dandenong to mark ANZAC Day, the annual April 25 commemoration of the 1915 Gallipoli landings in Turkey,” according to prosecutors. That crazy story, here.