Assault on ISIS HQ begins; The little green men of the Internet; Leaked: NSA report on Russian election meddling; Trump picks ASD SO/LIC; and a bit more...

The operation to retake the Islamic State’s de facto HQ has officially begun, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces and CENTCOM announced this morning.

"We declare today the start of the great battle to liberate the city of Raqqa, the so-called capital of terrorism and terrorists," said SDF spokesman Talal Silo from the Syrian village of Hazima, just a few kilometers north of Raqqa, the BBC reports. “Mr Silo said SDF forces were attacking the city from the north, west and east, and urged civilians to keep away from the frontlines and nearby IS positions.”

Coalition commander, Lt. Gen. Steven Townsend cited the recent attacks in the U.K. as one impetus for the offensive’s timing: "We all saw the heinous attack in Manchester, England. ISIS threatens all of our nations, not just Iraq and Syria, but in our own homelands as well. This cannot stand."

CENTCOM reminded folks in that release that this has been a long time coming (more than seven months, by most accounts). “The [Syrian Arab Coalition] and SDF began marching on Raqqah in November and have been rapidly tightening the noose around the city since their daring air assault behind enemy lines in Coalition aircraft in March to begin the seizure of Tabqah...Coalition forces will continue to support the SAC and SDF during their Raqqah offensive as part of their 'advise and assist' mission, providing equipment, training, Intelligence and logistics support, precision fires, and battlefield advice.”

And to the practical matters of an offensive like this, CENTCOM said, “The SDF have encouraged civilians to depart Raqqah so that they do not become trapped, used as human shields or become targets for ISIS snipers.”

And the post-Raqqa plan, so far as it’s been spelled out: “Once Raqqah is liberated, the SDF have stated it will be turned over to a representative body of local civilians who will provide security and governance.”

Wasting no time. The SDF “broke into the Islamic State group's Syrian bastion of Raqa on Tuesday, less than an hour after declaring a new phase in their fight for the city,” AFP reports this morning.

“The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that the SDF had seized a number of positions inside Raqa on Tuesday after advancing to the city's eastern edge overnight. 'They have taken control of a checkpoint in Al-Meshleb, as well as a number of buildings,' Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman told AFP. 'The advance came after heavy air strikes by the US-led coalition.'”

Adds the BBC, also citing the SOHR, “said the SDF was attacking the eastern Mishlab district and the Division 17 military base, north of the city centre. The anti-IS activist group, Raqqa is Being Slaughtered Silently, said rockets and shells had been falling on Mishlab and Qitar Street since Monday night.”

End strength figures? “The coalition, which has deployed special forces personnel to train and advise SDF fighters on the ground, believes there are between 3,000 and 4,000 IS militants holed up inside Raqqa,” the BBC writes. “It is not clear how many fighters the SDF has deployed around Raqqa. However, the SDF has about 50,000 fighters in total, with Arabs making up about 60% of the force and Kurds 40%, according to the coalition.”

Now that we have an official start point for the operation, attention on civilian casualties is likely to rise. Just yesterday, “the Observatory said a coalition bombing raid killed 21 civilians as they tried to escape Raqa by dinghy on the Euphrates River,” AFP reported.

Indeed, the monitoring group, Airwars, is already drawing attention to the dangerous circumstances for civilians in the vicinity of Raqqa, noting: “According to official Coalition press release civilians are being ‘urged to leave’ Raqqa. But what concrete evac steps being put in place?  

Meantime in Iraq, ISIS killed more than 160 civilians trying to leave West Mosul just last week, the UN’s Human Rights chief Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein said this morning.

And oh, by the way: ISIS claims it's training snipers in Yemen. Photoset alleging as much, here.


From Defense One

Vladimir Putin and the Little Green Men of the Internet // Patrick Tucker: The future of Kremlin-backed information operations against Western governments looks a lot like Russia's deceptive campaign against Crimea in 2014.

New US Air Force Secretary Sounds A Lot Like the Old One // Marcus Weisgerber: In her first Washington event, Heather Wilson says the service needs new planes, faster.

The Right Way to Confront Iran in Syria // Alexander Decina and Jesse Marks: A careful diplomatic approach to Russia's safe-zone plan is less risky, and more promising, than direct action

Veterans Affairs to Adopt DoD's Electronic Health-Records System // Frank Konkel and Eric Katz: VA will sign onto MHS Genesis platform being developed by Cerner and Leidos under a $4 billion contract.

Trump to London: Be More Afraid // David A. Graham: Rarely does a leader in a liberal democracy embrace, let alone foment, fear. But that's exactly what Donald Trump did in response to attacks in London, as he has often done before.

Welcome to Tuesday’s edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. #OTD1944: D-Day. Got tips? Email us at the-d-brief@defenseone.com. (And if you’re reading this on our website, consider subscribing. It’s free.)


Alleged NSA leaker could face up to 10 years in prison in what’s being called “the first leak case of the Trump era.” And it was a swift pursuit by FBI investigators, who say the accused: (1) printed out a partially redacted top-secret report dated May 5, 2017; (2) emailed it to a news outlet—The Intercept, which made a name for itself by hiring reporters who published some of the first leaks from Edward Snowden; and (3) did it from the NSA contractor’s work computer, no less.

So, what’s in this report? The Intercept writes that it “analyzes intelligence very recently acquired by the [NSA] about a months-long Russian intelligence cyber effort against elements of the U.S. election and voting infrastructure” in the runup to last November’s election.” The Intercept called the report “the most detailed U.S. government account of Russian interference in the election that has yet come to light.”

The report describes “two cyberattacks by Russia’s military intelligence unit, the G.R.U. — one in August against a company that sells voter registration-related software and another, a few days before the election, against 122 local election officials,” the Times writes.

The Justice Department announced charges against the alleged leaker, 25-year-old Reality Leigh Winner, just an hour after The Intercept posted their story on Monday. CNN reported that when “confronted with the allegations, Winner admitted to intentionally leaking the classified document.” Winner was arrested at her home in Augusta, Ga., on Saturday. She’s been charged under the Espionage Act, The New York Times reported.  

How she was caught: “The N.S.A.’s auditing system showed that six people had printed out the report, including Ms. Winner. Investigators examined the computers of those six people and found that Ms. Winner had been in email contact with the news outlet, but the other five had not.”

Said national security attorney Mark Zaid, to The Daily Beast: “It’s not a partisan political prosecution. It is a case that upholds the lawful obligations that those who have access to classified information adhere to every single day.”

A new Trump appointee, Owen West—son of Bing—has been tapped for a key special operations role: Assistant Secretary of Defense, Special Operations and Low Intensity Conflict, the White House announced Monday.  

Owen’s most recent employer: Goldman Sachs, where he worked as “Partner, Head of Global Natural Gas Trading and Co-Head of Global Power Trading… where he designed and managed this international risk business.”

West’s military past includes time as a Marine infantry platoon commander, reconnaissance platoon leader and an advisor to Iraqi troops on two stints during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

The White House add that Owen is also “a member of the Council on Foreign Relations” and “a graduate of Harvard University, and the Stanford Graduate School of Business.”

Want to read more from Owen? Here’s an essay he co-wrote with his pop for War on the Rocks about 15 months ago. The topic: increasing Marine lethality.

And here he is explaining his job as an advisor to Iraqis, to Business Insider, back in 2012.

Montenegro becomes NATO's 29th member, and Moscow cites physics to illustrate its predictable anger. Russia's Foreign Ministry said the eastern European country bore “full responsibility” after joining EU sanctions against Russia in 2014. "In the light of the hostile course chosen by the Montenegrin authorities, the Russian side reserves the right to take retaliatory measures on a reciprocal basis. In politics, just as in physics, for every action there is an opposite reaction," the ministry said in a statement. Reuters, here.

Such threats are unlikely to calm rising tensions between Russia and the West, but they’re also a reminder that from Moscow’s point of view, a potentially hostile foreign alliance just added another member that used to be firmly in Russia’s camp.

ISIS war update, Philippine edition: The ISIS-linked Maute rebels in the southern city of Marawi are “hiding in tunnels and mosques as the Philippines military prepares for long siege,” according to the Philippine military. And hiding in mosques means “as religious buildings [the buildings and those inside] are protected under the Hague Convention Attack on Cultural Property, meaning they cannot be bombed or attacked.”

“The army estimates that between 80 - 200 militants are left in the city, mostly stationed in basements and tunnels,” Newsweek adds of the battle that began on May 23. “The conflict has killed 170 people so far, including 20 civilians… Around 600 civilians remain in Marawi City, despite several attempts to lead them to safety during ceasefires. Gunfire has prevented civilians from leaving, even during the ceasefire period, and supplies are dwindling for the remaining residents.” More here.

Duterte’s advice to the Marawi rebels: "My order really is to shoot you and to shoot you dead." And that means even if they take hostages, he said in a speech on Sunday. On that point, “Officials say they have no idea how many civilians are being held hostage by the gunmen, but a Catholic priest, the Rev. Teresito Suganob, said in a video that he and about 200 other captives, including children, were being held by the militants,” ABC News reports. “Suganob apparently spoke under duress in the video, which recently appeared online.” More, here.

Lastly today: Take a look at North Korea's air force, thanks to pictures shared by the attention-loving Hermit Kingdom. As Joseph Dempsey of the International Institute for Strategic Studies notes, North Korea’s “Air Force continues to show [the] least modernisation. [Its] Newest platforms are circa 1980s....most [are] decades older.”

Also worth noting: the North claims to have the “ability to destroy enemy Aircraft Carriers despite [the] apparent absence of any guided munitions,” Dempsey observed a bit lower in his Twitter thread, which begins here.

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