Today's D Brief: ISIS leader, dead; F-35s to the MidEast; USN drills in Adriatic, Arabian, and Red Seas; And a bit more.
The most recent leader of ISIS blew himself up during a U.S. military raid in northwestern Syria, U.S. officials said Thursday. “Last night at my direction, U.S. military forces in northwest Syria successfully undertook a counterterrorism operation to protect the American people and our allies, and make the world a safer place,” President Joe Biden said in a written statement Thursday morning.
Newly deceased: Abu Ibrahim al-Hashimi al-Qurayshi, who was appointed ISIS leader more than two years ago, following the death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in a U.S. military raid back in 2019. He was known as a politically saavy religious scholar, the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point wrote in a report on him from September 2020. Just days after he assumed the role, other jihadis in the region derided him as a “secluded paper caliph” and “an unknown nobody,” according to CTC.
Al-Qurayshi was interrogated by U.S. forces in Iraq back in 2008, when he was known as Amir Muhammad Sa’id ‘Abd-al-Rahman al-Mawla. A person with that name was designated a global terrorist by the U.S. State Department in March 2020.
Agence France-Presse has alleged photos from the scene, here, which appear to include a U.S. helicopter that was destroyed before the forces departed, likely from thermite or related charges, as U.S. forces used in the aftermath of the Osama bin Laden raid 11 years ago.
The route leading to al-Qurayshi’s last location was known by U.S. military intelligence analysts for at least several months. “ISIS leaders depend on known routes that traverse ungoverned areas of the Syrian desert to connect from Idlib governorate to Iraq’s Anbar desert,” the Defense Intelligence Agency wrote in a report over the summer on ISIS.
One wonk’s POV: “The killing of Qurayshi shows how impressive the U.S. [counterterrorism] capabilities versus how bad ISIS ability is to keep up with the pressure,” said Syrian-born Middle East scholar Hassan Hassan. “This leader made zero statement/appearance, yet the U.S. caught up with him and [knew] who he was from day one.”
This afternoon: CENTCOM’s Marine Gen. Frank McKenzie is slated to keynote and take a few questions at an event hosted by the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C. That was expected to begin this morning, but developments in Syria pushed that time slot to the right, and it’s now expected to take place at 1:45 p.m. ET. Details, here.
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Welcome to this Thursday edition of The D Brief, brought to you by Ben Watson, with Jennifer Hlad. If you’re not already subscribed to The D Brief, you can do that here.
The U.S. is sending F-35s to the UAE, which the Iran-backed Houthis have increasingly targeted with ballistic missiles and armed drones. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced the moves on Twitter on Tuesday. “To support the UAE against these threats, I will deploy 5th Gen Fighters to the region and send the USS Cole to conduct a joint patrol with the UAE Navy and a port call to Abu Dhabi.”
The U.S. Navy has gathered 60 nations for drills across the Middle East, Africa, and Southwest Asia, Defense News reported Wednesday. They’re known together as the International Maritime Exercise 2022 and Cutlass Express 2022; they began on Monday, and run through Feb. 17.
Involved: Approximately “9,000 personnel, 50 ships, and about 80 unmanned systems to conduct maritime domain awareness, sea control, maritime security, mine countermeasures” and more. One task force has been chosen to focus almost entirely on unmanned systems and artificial intelligence, and that one’s known as Task Force X. More here.
Related reading: “Pentagon names acting chief digital and AI officer as it moves toward full capability,” via C4ISRNet, reporting Wednesday.
The U.S. Navy is also drilling today in the Adriatic Sea, using its Harry S. Truman aircraft carrier strike group, which Reuters reported from Wednesday as tensions between Russia and Ukraine remain with little resolution in sight.
Their ostensible purpose: Conducting “anti-submarine warfare training and long-range strike training,” Reuters reports. View photos from the wider Neptune Strike 22 drills over at DVIDS, here.
Russia is adding another 30,000 “combat troops” to its numbers in Belarus, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said Thursday in Brussels. “Over the last days, we have seen a significant movement of Russian military forces into Belarus,” Stoltenberg said, calling it “the biggest Russian deployment there since the Cold War.”
Russia’s defense minister is in Belarus today to meet with its autocratic leader, Alexander Lukashenko. Meanwhile, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan is traveling to Kyiv today after offering up his services this week as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine.
Ukraine is expected to finalize a deal to build a Turkish drone factory, Reznikov said Thursday in Kyiv. Reuters has a tiny bit more, here.
More ammunition just arrived to Ukraine from the U.S., Kyiv’s Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov tweeted Thursday morning, calling it the seventh such aircraft to land in Ukraine from the states.
It’s not just NSO Group that could hack into Apple iPhones. Reuters has found a second Israeli surveillance company that has been exploiting a flaw in iPhones for high-profile customers: “QuaDream, the sources said, is a smaller and lower profile Israeli firm that also develops smartphone hacking tools intended for government clients,” Chris Bing and Raphael Satter of Reuters reported Thursday.
What this means: “Both firms could compromise Apple phones without an owner needing to open a malicious link,” Bing and Satter write. However, “Apple fixed the underlying flaws in September 2021,” and that switch “rendered both NSO and QuaDream’s spy software ineffective.”
Bigger picture: “Spyware companies have long argued they sell high-powered technology to help governments thwart national security threats. But human rights groups and journalists have repeatedly documented the use of spyware to attack civil society, undermine political opposition, and interfere with elections.” That includes U.S. diplomats, as well as journalists and human rights workers around the globe. Read on, here.
And here’s some fairly extraordinary related reading: “North Korea Hacked Him. So He Took Down Its Internet,” from Andy Greenberg at WIRED. Long story short: “For weeks, observers of North Korea have noted that the country's internet seemed to be under attack, with all its websites down at times,” Greenberg tweeted Wednesday. “This wasn't the work of US Cyber Command. It was a single hacker getting even after [North Korean] spies targeted him last year.”
And lastly: The White House is mulling a revision of tech safety concerns that could sideline TikTok and other foreign mobile applications that “foreign adversaries” use “to steal or otherwise obtain data,” the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post reported Wednesday off new considerations at the Commerce Department. These latest developments follow “a June executive order, which launched a security review that could prompt restrictions of the apps,” the Post writes.
One big problem: “Regular Americans don’t recognize the harm the U.S. government is alleging," James Lewis of the Center for Strategic and International Studies told the Journal. And that means, he said, that "The onus is on the government to connect the dots.”
FWIW: Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg told investors Wednesday that the company is losing users to TikTok. This morning, the stock for Meta (formerly known as Facebook) has lost nearly a quarter of its value—that’s more than $175 billion—in early trading, the New York Times reports. Forbes has more, here.