AQ leader droned in Syria; 6 months to retake Raqqa?; Russian meddling’s murky legal questions; The Red Baron, captured on video; and just a bit more...

The U.S. military killed a veteran al-Qaeda leader in Syria last week, the Pentagon said Wednesday. “Abu Hani al-Masri was killed in a drone strike on February 4 while riding in a vehicle near Idlib, Syria,” Voice of America reported. “Al-Masri, who also went by the name Hani Jasarevic, was a founding member of Egyptian Islamic Jihadist (EIJ), the first Sunni group to use suicide bombers in their terror attacks.”

Abu Hani was “a legacy al Qaeda terrorist with ties to the group’s senior leaders, including Ayman al Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden...oversaw the creation and operation of many al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan” in the '80s and '90s where “he recruited, indoctrinated, trained and equipped thousands of terrorists who subsequently spread throughout the region and the world,” according to a statement from Pentagon spox Capt. Jeff Davis.

Jihadi sources speculated Abu Hani was about to switch allegiances in Syria, moving from “Ahrar al Sham, a group that has been allied with al Qaeda’s branch in Syria for years,” to “Tahrir al Sham, a new entity formed by several groups, including al Qaeda’s rebranded arm in Syria,” The Long War Journal’s Thomas Joscelyn reported. Lots more to his story—along with a fairly thorough biography—here.

We’re getting an upbeat assessment of the broader war on ISIS: Mosul and Raqqa should be “concluded” in just six months, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend told the Associated Press on Wednesday. “Townsend also said he expected the fight for Mosul's western half to begin in days,” AP writes. The commander of the ISIS fight warned “It will be a more difficult fight, more constricted.”

In recent weeks, ISIS has “launched fewer car bombs and largely fled their advances — unlike the heavy resistance they faced in the first few weeks of combat inside the city,” AP reports.

But Raqqa is a whole ‘nother kettle of fish for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that “significant ground military operations against IS have barely begun.”

As well, “the issue of who exactly will assault the predominantly Arab city has not yet been worked out,” AFP reports. “Turkey has expressed interest in taking part in the operation, with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu indicating that his country is ready to deploy special forces to take part in the battle. Turkey opposes giving added weight to the Syrian Democratic Forces, as the Arab-Kurdish coalition is called, regarding it as little more than a front for the Kurdish YPG militant group, which Ankara considers a terror organization.”

Even so, said coalition spox Col. John Dorrian, the U.S. military expects that “within the next few weeks [Raqqa] will be nearly completely isolated, and then there will be a decision point” to move ahead with an assault on the city. More here.

How President Trump’s travel ban is reportedly going over among ISIS in Mosul: The group has reportedly taken to calling it “the blessed ban,” according to The New York Times’ Rukmini Callimachi, reporting from Mosul this week. She relays what she’s been told there in a discussion on Twitter Wednesday, here.

Whose jets bombed a Red Crescent headquarters in northwestern Syria on February 1? Many Syrian observers pointed the finger at the U.S., but the military denies it. Bellingcat’s open-source investigators dig into what can be known about the strike—which reportedly killed four civilians, including a pregnant woman and two children—here.

President Trump wants to designate the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization. But he faces “at least one significant obstacle: analysts at the Central Intelligence Agency,” Politico reported Wednesday. “CIA experts have warned that so labeling the decades-old Islamist group “may fuel extremism” and damage relations with America's allies, according to a summary of a finished intelligence report for the intelligence community and policymakers that was shared with POLITICO by a U.S. official.”

The allegedly leaked document “would seem to put the agency’s analysts at odds with its new director, Mike Pompeo, who as a member of Congress co-sponsored a bill to ban the Brotherhood and once warned in a radio appearance that Islamist groups were infiltrating the United States.” Story here.

In other cautionary news for the White House, defense and intelligence officials warn designating Iran’s Revolutionary Guards “as a foreign terrorist organization could endanger U.S. troops in Iraq and the overall fight against the Islamic State,” the Washington Post reported Tuesday. They also warn such a move would “be an unprecedented use of a law that was not designed to sanction government institutions.” More here.

In still more news from the White House, President Trump is reportedly “working on an order that would direct future ISIS detainees to Guantánamo,” the NYT’s Charlie Savage reported Wednesday. “White House officials have detailed their thinking about a new detainee policy in an evolving series of drafts of an executive order being circulated among national security officials for comment. While previous versions have shown that the draft has undergone many changes — including dropping language about reviving C.I.A. prisons — the plan to add Islamic State detainees to the Guantánamo population has remained constant.” Savage lays out the stakes, here.

From Defense One

Why are US Forces in Yemen at All? // Boston University’s Andrew J. Bacevich: 'The truth of the matter is that America is killing people — terrorists and others — because its leaders don't know what else to do.'

Did Russia's Election Meddling Break International Law? Experts Can't Agree // Patrick Tucker: Right now, that's a gray area — and it's hindering the U.S. response to influence operations.

VA's Patchwork System Eats Most of its $4B Tech Budget. Congress Wants That to Stop. // Nextgov’s Frank Konkel: The agency's CIO says there's no clear plan for replacing custom-built systems, two of which are more than 50 years old.

Elections Systems Are Critical Infrastructure, DHS Chief Affirms // Nextgov’s Joseph Marks: Initially dubious, John Kelly now says he concurs with the Obama administration's approach.

Welcome to Thursday’s edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. On this day in 1861, Jefferson Davis is elected provisional President of the Confederate States of America. (Got a tip? Let us know by clicking this link to email us:

Mattis and the FONOPs. Defense Secretary James Mattis reportedly told Japanese officials in private that the U.S. Navy plans “to increase the frequency of patrols within 12 nautical miles of man-made islands China has constructed in the sea,” the Nikkei Asian Review reported Wednesday. Also noteworthy, they write, “are comments Mattis made during his Japan visit likening China's expansion today to an effort to re-create the tributary system of the Ming Dynasty…[comparing] Beijing's quest for regional influence to imperial China's subjugation of its neighbors.”

However, “Translating this logic into action would mean the U.S. going beyond enforcing international rules and instead preventing any expansion of Chinese influence in the Asia-Pacific.”

“If these Japanese reports are accurate, Mattis wants tougher line on Beijing, and I doubt Trump will hold him back,” said Hofstra law professor Julian Ku. Story here.

Trump’s nuclear-policy review. First there was the Dec. 22 interview where the president-to-be declared "Let it be an arms race,” then the Jan. 27 executive order directing Mattis to perform a comprehensive review. Defense News’ Aaron Mehta give a good look at the options and the likelihoods. “As Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, puts it: “Trump is basically turning nuclear policy over to Mattis, whether Trump realizes it or not.” Read this, here.

An indictment for the record books. Former NSA contractor Harold Thomas Martin "was indicted on Wednesday by a federal grand jury on charges he willfully retained national defense information, in what U.S. officials have said may have been the largest heist of classified government information in history," Reuters reported. “Martin faces 20 criminal counts, each punishable by up to 10 years in prison.”

It’s virtually impossible to convey how much was stolen in the estimated 50-TB haul. But U.S. officials said this week it may have been “more than 75 percent of the hacking tools belonging to the NSA's tailored access operations, the agency's elite hacking unit.” More here.

Russian hackers “get burned” in deal with spy agency. AP: “For several years a group of hackers have been posting letters and documents stolen from senior Russian officials with impunity. And then the nation's spy agency tracked them down and offered them a deal...But somehow the things went wrong for the group, and its leader and two other men have ended up behind bars.” AP picks up the murky story—which may or may not be related to U.S. election hacks—here.

Flynn outlines how he’ll run the National Security Council. In a recent interview by WaPo’s David Ignatius, Mike Flynn said he was starting “with an organization chart that’s modestly streamlined. He says he’ll have eight people reporting directly to him, compared with his predecessor Susan Rice’s 23. The most interesting detail is the small box on the top-right corner, marked ‘Stephen Bannon.’ It’s a staff position, not in the chain of command.” Read on, here.

Peter Thiel’s influence on the NSC. Just Security does a deep dive on the billionaire entrepreneur and his proteges as they settle into advisory and leadership roles at the White House. “Like Trump and his chief advisor Steve Bannon, Thiel is known for being a provocateur who sees the country in a state of decline and in need of bold leadership. As [George] Packer wrote, two of Thiel’s favorite words are ‘disruption and risk.’ The Atlantic wrote in November, before Trump won the presidency, that Thiel ‘favors revolutionary ideas and people with big plans for blowing things up and remaking the world.’” Read more, here.

Are you Maj. Hacker? The Pentagon is launching a pilot program to offer commissions to civilians with cybersecurity experience, “similar to the Army’s direct commissioning programs for medical doctors, lawyers and chaplains, which place experts in those fields into the Army at a rank that is commensurate with their experience in the civilian sector, said Army Brig. Gen. Patricia Frost, the service’s cyber director for operations and planning.” Pentagon leaders have assigned the Army to look at what skills it needs, and to offer commission with ranks up to colonel. More at Stripes, here.

Lockheed is taking heat for “botched testing” of its GPS III satellite for the Air Force, Bloomberg reported Wednesday. “The mistake by subcontractor Harris Corp. forced another delay in the delivery of the first of 32 planned GPS III satellites until later this month, according to Major General Roger Teague, the Air Force’s chief of space programs. That will make the $528 million satellite 34 months late, according to service data...The program’s latest setback may affect a pending Air Force decision on whether to open the final 22 satellites to competition from Lockheed rivals Boeing Co. and Northrop Grumman Corp.” More here.

Lastly today: #ThrowbackThursday, legendary pilot edition. Nearly five minutes of footage has surfaced showing the infamous Red Baron, Manfred Von Richthofen up-close and personal in 1917. It was posted to the web back in June 2015, so it’s not new in that sense. But you can check out the rather remarkable sequences of, among other things, the Baron stepping into his flight suit one leg at a time before taking to the skies, here.