US killing more ISIS leaders; Counterstrike in Kirkuk; China tried to hack a US aircraft carrier; Don’t let Aleppo become Guernica; and just a bit more…

U.S. special operators are in the killing ISIS business, and officials say business is booming. USSOF in northern Iraq and Syria are killing Islamic State leaders at a faster pace, disrupting the organization’s defense of Mosul, Defense One’s Kevin Baron reported while traveling with Defense Secretary Ash Carter to the coalition’s Joint Operations Center in Irbil, Iraq, on Sunday.

Quickening the pace of targeting ISIS leaders, known in military parlance as “high-value targets” or “high-value individuals,” has hurt the terrorist group’s ability to launch external “attacks aimed at our own people, our own country, and friends and allies,” Carter said.

“By targeting the mid-tier leaders, which our special operations forces and our air forces have done remarkably well, we have caused a lot of confusion in the ranks of the defender of Mosul. I think they’re going to pay off in the coming weeks ahead,” said Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, who commands the coalition forces in Iraq.

On the nastiness of the drive on Iraq’s second-largest city: “The battle for Mosul has seen snipers, car bombs, missiles, oil-filled moats waiting for the torch, secret village-to-village tunnels, and a burning sulfur plant — and yet U.S. war leaders here warn that this is the light stuff,” Baron reported Saturday from Baghdad. “With each advance of Iraqi, Kurdish, and American forces, ISIS resistance is hardening. In other words, things are going exactly as expected.”

We’re now one week into the Mosul offensive, and terrorism scholar Charlie Winter, who has been watching ISIS’s messaging closely, says this morning: “Seven days and 52 suicide operations later, ISIS is continuing to lose territory, with Peshmerga now within six miles of Mosul…Momentum does seem to have declined over course of last week—all those tunnels & suicide bombers weren’t for nothing.”

The Pesh continued to push from the northeast, seizing eight new villages in an area roughly 100 square kilometers by early Sunday, Peshmerga’s General Command announced in a statement.

For what it’s worth: “About 80 Islamic State-held villages and towns have been retaken in the first week of the offensive,” Reuters reports. Iraqi counterterrorism police forces “took three villages west of the Christian town of Bartella in an early morning attack on Monday and are now outside Bazwaia village, between five and seven km (three to four miles) east of Mosul.” Catch the latest from Reuters, here.

It’s taken nearly three days to push almost all of ISIS’s fighters out of the city of Kirkuk, which they attacked early on Friday, killing 80 people and wounding another 170. Most ISIS militants were cleared out after the first day of counterattacks by Iraqi forces. NBC News has a bit more on that, here.

But ISIS staged a separate attack in the west over the weekend, near the city of Rutbah, “unleashing three suicide car bombs that were blown up before hitting their targets,” AP reports this morning. A spokesman for the Joint Military Command said “some militants were killed, without giving an exact figure, and declined to say whether any civilians or Iraqi forces were killed. He said the militants did not seize any government buildings and that the situation ‘is under control.’”

ISIS also attacked Sinjar to the north of Mosul, where “at least 15 militants were killed in the two-hour battle and a number of their vehicles were destroyed,” Reuters reported. Lt. Gen. Townsend said he expects more diversionary attacks like this in the coming weeks. More from AP, here.

Apropos of nothing: Take a look at what Mosul looked like back in the 1970s.

And now take a look at what the region around Mosul looks like from the ground, and from the air—where plumes of smoke are darkening the skies after ISIS set fire to oil wells and a sulphur lake near Mosul, leaving children and sheep covered in black soot.

About all that smoke: The coalition passed out 24,000 chemical weapons protective masks to Kurdish and Iraqi fighters. More on that, here. And a bit more from the U.S. military side, via The Guardian, here.  

For your eyes only: The gas mask selfie.

The UN this morning says 600 to 800 civilians have required medical attention for smoke inhalation so far.

And on the diplomatic side of the Mosul offensive, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi rejected Turkey’s offer to help on Saturday; but Turkey’s Prime Minister Binali Yildirim, said Turkish troops contributed tanks and artillery against ISIS, at the Peshmerga’s request, al-Jazeera reports this morning. Going further, Yildirim said later on Sunday that “Turkish artillery fire had killed 17 ISIL fighters since the battle began and that four Turkish F-16 fighter jets were on standby to take part.”

But not so fast on all that support from Ankara, Iraq's joint-operations command said in a statement this morning denying Turkey's claims. More from al-Jazeera, here.

The Pentagon is wasting no time sending intelligence analysts to Iraq in anticipation of a mountain of intel generated from the push on Mosul. The New York Times has that story, here.

From Defense One

U.S. Special Operators Accelerate Killings of ISIS Leaders // Kevin Baron: Defense Secretary Ash Carter says this will weaken Mosul's defenders and stop attacks in the United States.

The Worst Is Yet To Come in Mosul, U.S. Leaders Say // Baron, again:

ISIS’ resistance is stiffening as coalition fighters close in on the city.

Someone Weaponized the Internet of Things // D1’s Patrick Tucker and Caroline Houck: Friday’s internet disruption could be a taste of what’s to come when nations and non-state actors stop using the web and start attacking it.

In Aleppo, Echoes of Guernica and Global Disorder // Brig. Gen. (ret.) Peter Zwack, former military attache to Russia: Nearly 80 years ago, a shattered town rang a death knell for international order. We must not let it happen again.

ISIS’ Social Media Ops Are Declining, U.S. Military Researchers Say // Quartz’ Lila MacLellan: The Islamic State’s military-themed messages have recently stayed constant while ones on governance dropped, according to a new report from West Point’s Combating Terrorism Center.

Welcome to Monday’s edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. On this day in 1648 was signed the final Westphalian peace treaty, ushering in the era of international order based on sovereign states. (Send your friends this link: And let us know your news:

U.S. plans to send new weapons to Syrian rebels has been stalled, “left in a state of ambiguity that U.S. officials said reflects growing administration skepticism about escalating a covert CIA program that has trained and armed thousands of Syrian fighters over the past three years,” the Washington Post’s Greg Miller and Adam Entous reported Sunday.

The situation, in short: “‘It’s a fine mess we’ve gotten ourselves into,’ said a former senior administration official who was directly involved in the early White House deliberations over the CIA program. ‘There’s a huge risk here since the Russians entered...The lesson out of this is that if you don’t take action early on, you should almost expect the options to get worse and worse and worse.” Read the rest, here.

A new chemical weapons allegation by the UN was levied against the Assad regime on Friday. The attack occurred in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province in March 2015. The Guardian has more on that, here.  

All of Syria must be “liberated,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said on Saturday, referring to calls for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s departure as “thoughtless.” More from AP, here.

Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s advisory team is reportedly split on how to proceed in Syria, WaPo’s Josh Rogin reported Sunday. The short summary here: “Don’t expect any big Syria policy shifts in the first few weeks of a Clinton administration, advisers cautioned me. Clinton would want to do her own full intelligence and military assessments with her new team.” Read Rogin’s report in full, here.

Climate change is reviving Russia’s hopes for a Northern Sea route. Starting at the unimaginably remote Arctic Sea town of Tiksi, the Financial Times’ Kathrin Hille explores the once and future prospects for natural resources and trade routes as the northern ice pack retreats.

Um, that’s not your carrier: Was Russian media in a hurry, or were they so embarrassed by the aged Admiral Kuznetsov that they used photos of an American, French and British aircraft carrier group instead? Odd tweet from Russia’s website.

But maybe the Kuznetsov is only a cover mission? The Atlantic Council notes that Russia is sending warships with nuclear-capable missiles to the Baltics: “Another ship movement has the potential to raise tensions on NATO’s eastern flank. This is the apparent Russian deployment of two small missile corvettes armed with the Kalibr long-range cruise missile (NATO reporting name “Sizzler”) to the Baltic.”

How do you contain Russia? Patience, says The Economist: “What should the West do? Time is on its side. A declining power needs containing until it is eventually overrun by its own contradictions—even as the urge to lash out remains.”

But that urge to lash out may yet do terrible damage to the world order, says retired one-star U.S. Army general Peter Zwack, a former U.S. defense attached to Moscow. “Time is not on Russia’s side. The longer she is embroiled as a combatant in Syria, the more she is vulnerably exposed inside that fractious land — and also within a broader Sunni constellation that includes a significant proportion of Russia’s own population.” Writing at Defense One, Zwack harks back to the 1937 obliteration of a city — Guernica, in the Spanish Civil War, that “was an early death knell of the League of Nations, and came to symbolize the violent rending of the post-WWI international order.” Read on, here.

ICYMI: Phishing in the South China Sea. Chinese hackers targeted the USS Ronald Reagan, according to cybersecurity firm FireEye, Financial Times reported Friday. “The China-based group created an infected document impersonating an official message addressed to officials visiting the USS Ronald Reagan, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier which conducted patrols of the South China Sea in July. The suspect document is dated July 11, the day before a tribunal in The Hague ruled against China’s expansive claims in the region. The targets of the attack were delegates from a foreign government due to visit the aircraft carrier that day. The document contained Enfal malware, which can be used to copy information from an infected computer or download further computer viruses.”

Possible intent: “The likely goal of the ‘spear-phishing’ attack — a attack in the form of an email that appears to be from someone known to the recipient — was to gather information on military manoeuvres and command and control systems, as well as policy issues,” FireEye said. More here.

Also: check these photos of China’s largest-yet warship taking shape in the Jiangnan Changxing shipyards. Via PopSci, here.

American airpower is intensifying in Afghanistan, L.A. Times’ Bill Hennigan reports from Bagram, where “M-9 Reaper drones, F-16 fighter jets and other aircraft here along the windswept flight line at Bagram have dropped about 1,000 bombs so far this year… More than 700 U.S. airstrikes have been carried out this year against the militants, twice as many as last year, as Afghan soldiers and police have struggled to contain a perpetual insurgency.”

Why? “The Afghan military, riddled with corruption and taking orders from President Ashraf Ghani’s fragile government, lacks intelligence-gathering and other essential capabilities to ward off attacks. As a result, the security forces depend upon American air power and special forces to help them in their fight, two years after President Obama formally ended U.S. combat operations in Afghanistan.”

And on the ground, “Currently, about 700 U.S. forces are in Kunduz and Helmand provinces, military officials said, helping advise and coordinate with their Afghan counterparts on beating back Taliban offensives.” Read the rest, here.

Lastly today: Meet more than a dozen enterprising young Americans—the “15 under 15: Rising stars in cybersecurity,” from Christian Science Monitor's Sara Sorcher, writing in the Passcode blog. Sorcher “traveled across the country to meet 15 kids under 15 years old who are fighting off the growing threat of cyberattacks. They are part of a new generation of tinkerers and boundary pushers – many still lugging school backpacks and wearing braces – who are mastering the numerical codes that underpin the digital world. But they aren’t trying to break the internet. They’re trying to put it together more securely.” From Texas to Colorado, San Diego to Virginia, read about them all, here.