Obama plans for expanded war against ISIL called ‘geopolitical whack-a-mole’

Special to WorldTribune.com

WASHINGTON — The United States has been preparing to expand its military role in Iraq and Syria.

Officials said the administration of President Barack Obama has drafted plans for combat operations in both Iraq and Syria as part of the war against Islamic State of Iraq and Levant. They said Washington would bolster its advisory mission in Iraq and prepare for air strikes on ISIL positions in northern Syria.

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U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, left, and Gen. Martin Dempsey.

“This plan includes targeted actions against ISIL safe havens in Syria — including its command and control, logistics capabilities, and infrastructure,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said.

At the hearing, senators expressed concern over the expansion of the U.S. role against ISIL. Sen. Angus King said the United States could end up waging wars in Asia and Africa.

“This is geopolitical Wack-a-mole,” King said.

On Sept. 16, Hagel and other senior officials briefed the Senate Armed Services Committee on U.S. military options against ISIL. The officials raised the prospect of air strikes as well as directing the Iraq Army to expand operations to the Syrian border.

“Because ISIL operates freely across the Iraqi-Syrian border, and maintains a safe haven in Syria, our actions will not be restrained by a border in name only,” Hagel said.

The proposed air strikes would comprise a major element in a plan outlined to Obama on Sept. 17. Hagel said the plan was drafted by U.S. Central Command, responsible for operations throughout most of the Middle
East, and could include the training of up to 5,000 Sunni rebels in Syria over the next year. Training was expected to take place in Saudi Arabia.

“Five thousand alone is not going to be able to turn the tide,” Hagel said. “We recognize that.”

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that the U.S. military could embed personnel to help the Iraq Army recapture the northern city of Mosul. But Dempsey said he did not envision this in the short term.

“To be clear, if we reach the point where I believe our advisors should accompany Iraqi troops on attacks against specific ISIL targets, I will recommend that to the president,” Dempsey said. “But for the day-to-day activities that I anticipate will evolve over time, I don’t see it to be necessary right now.”

On Sept. 15, the U.S. Air Force expanded operations in Iraq when fighter-jets bombed a suspected ISIL stronghold southwest of Baghdad. Officials said the stronghold was the source of fire on Iraq Army soldiers.

“Three air strikes southwest of Baghdad damaged an ISIL truck and destroyed an ISIL anti-aircraft artillery piece, a small ISIL ground unit and two small boats on the Euphrates River that were re-supplying ISIL forces in the area,” Centcom said on Sept. 16.

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ISIL, in first, shoots down Syrian fighter jet

Special to WorldTribune.com

NICOSIA — The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant has demonstrated anti-aircraft capabilities in Syria.

The Syrian opposition said ISIL shot down a Syrian fighter jet over the northern city of Raqqa.

image.adapt .960.high  300x199 ISIL, in first, shoots down Syrian fighter jet

An ISIL fighter sits in a truck with an anti-aircraft gun. /Reuters

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights did not identify either the warplane or the anti-aircraft battery deployed by ISIL.

“It is the first aircraft shot down since the regime launched air strikes against the jihadists in July following their declaration of a caliphate in late June,” Syrian Observatory said.

Syrian Observatory said the Syrian Air Force jet was on a bombing mission when it was struck by ISIL fire on Sept. 16. The opposition group said the fighter-jet crashed into Raqqa and several people were killed.

Islamic websites aligned with ISIL confirmed the downing of the Syrian aircraft. One website posted a photograph of what was claimed to have been the downed warplane.

Opposition sources said ISIL has acquired a range of U.S.- and Russian-origin air defense systems captured from the Iraqi military. They said ISIL was also using the batteries to counter U.S. Air Force bombing
raids in northern Iraq.

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iPhone6 on hold in China where ‘economic nationalism’ is on the rise

Special to WorldTribune.com

By Willy Lam, East-Asia-Intel.com

One of the big surprises of the unveiling of the long-awaited iPhone6 is that China — Apple’s biggest market — is not among the eight countries where the smartphone will be first put on sale.

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Apple has delayed the launch of the iPhone 6 in China. /Bloomberg News

While Apple has teamed up with the state-owned giant China Mobile, the release of the potentially iconic phone has been held up by reasons including supply-chain hiccups — and government interference. The Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), China’s powerful regulatory agency, has yet to give the go-ahead for the mass distribution of iPhone6.

The social media in Beijing and Shanghai have been replete with reports that Chinese authorities are worried about unspecified “security specifications” in the much-coveted gadget. In any event, Apple’s market share of smartphone sales in China has dropped to around 11 percent.

Since early this year, China-based multinationals ranging from IT firms such as Microsoft to automakers from the U.S. and Japan have been hit with charges of “monopolistic practices.”

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U.S. continues jet fuel sales to Israel despite cooling strategic ties

Special to WorldTribune.com

WASHINGTON — The United States, despite a halt in sales of some military systems, continued to export jet fuel to the Israel Air Force.

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Israeli F-15

The Defense Department has awarded two contracts for fuel to the Israel Air Force and Army. The contracts were meant to maintain fuel exports to Israel until December 2015.

“This is a fixed-price with economic-price-adjustment, indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity contract for aviation turbine fuel for the country of Israel,” the Pentagon said.

On Sept. 12, the Pentagon awarded a $324.9 million contract to Valero Marketing and Supply Co. for the supply of jet fuel through November 2015. The contract marked the exercising of an option by the San Antonio, Texas company.

The Pentagon also awarded a $45.6 million contract to Petromax for gasoline for the Israel Army. The award reflected an option for a one-year base contract for the Texas company.

“The contracting activity is the Defense Logistics Agency Energy, Fort Belvoir, Virginia,” the Pentagon said.

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Tunisia captures Al Qaida-linked terror cell with large weapons stockpile

Special to WorldTribune.com

CAIRO — Tunisia has foiled a military cell linked to Al Qaida.

The Interior Ministry said security forces nabbed 12 suspected insurgents believed linked to Al Qaida-aligned Ansar Al Sharia in Libya. The ministry said Ansar amassed a stockpile that included rocket-propelled grenades, ammunition and a 4.4 vehicle.

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Tunisian Interior Ministry spokesman Mohammed Ali Laroui

“All security units are constantly preparing to respond to terrorist threats by conducting surprise searches and raids,” Interior Ministry spokesman Mohammed Ali Laroui said.

The arrests came ahead of national elections in November 2014, said to be threatened by Islamist insurgents. Officials said Tunisia was bracing for bombings, abductions and attacks on its soldiers along the borders with Algeria and Libya.

Officials said Al Qaida-aligned militias were transporting a range of weapons from Algeria. They said security forces seized a shipment that included a 4×4 vehicle that contained 28 grenades, 30 grenade fuses, 11 RPGs as well as thousands of rounds of ammunition.

In a briefing on Sept. 5, Laroui identified a key suspect in the insurgency campaign. He said the 25-member group that was transporting the weapons was led by Lokmene Abu Sakhr, accused of planning an operation that killed 15 Tunisian soldiers in July 2013.

“This is a dangerous terrorist,” Laroui said.

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Online volunteers map uncharted Ebola zones to help save lives

By Stella Dawson

WASHINGTON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Donating to disasters used to mean writing a check to Oxfam or the Red Cross.

These days in the Internet age, for the Ebola crisis, citizens from all over the world are donating their time by going online to build maps for relief workers.

Call it crowd-sourced cartography that can save lives.

Roads or paths to remote villages through deep forest in West Africa, bridges and river crossings, school buildings that can be used as temporary clinics, an open field for a helicopter landing – all these are visible from satellite imagery and provide critical information for delivering aid.

However, these details never made it onto official maps in Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone – countries too poor to worry about whether there are accurate Google Maps loaded onto smartphones.

So when the Ebola epidemic erupted earlier this year, Doctors without Borders, the American Red Cross and other groups on the ground found that unreliable maps made fighting the spread of the deadly virus much more difficult.

They could not trace the likely vectors of transmission because they did not know the patterns of peoples’ daily lives, and they could not plan effective aid delivery.

Enter the collaborative Ebola project by the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT).

OpenStreetMap is a project to create a free, open map of the world, built by volunteers through GPS surveying, aerial imagery, and public sources of geographic data.

Taking that concept a step further, HOT connects the OpenStreetMap community with humanitarian players on the ground to fill in the gaps on maps for disaster and crisis zones.

Around 1,200 volunteers so far have logged onto HOT’s website, clicked on a map quadrant and traced in the rich geographic details visible from satellites.

A quick tutorial guides volunteers through the work, which is similar to using a software program like Adobe Photoshop.

By using the satellite imagery to add details like population density and connecting paths between communities, remote map makers give humanitarian groups vital tools for planning their ground campaign in combatting a disease that has claimed more than 2,400 lives.

“They will print out the maps poster sized and pin them on the wall to plan their work, how to distribute supplies,” said Pierre Beland, a 67-year-old retired economist living near Montreal who has turned his computer knowledge to map making.

For Andrew Buck, an unemployed 29-year-old computer scientist who logs on daily from his home in Fargo, North Dakota, the map work transports him a continent away.

“You are acutely aware and start to get a sense of being in that place and learn about how people live, their farms, the fields, where the kids play soccer, the schools, and connections to the next village,” Buck said in a telephone interview.

VOLUNTEERS MAP DISASTER ZONES

Their work began in March after Doctors without Borders, the non-profit medical corps based in Switzerland, sent a geographer to Guinea to work alongside epidemiologists, who needed accurate maps of buildings that could serve as clinics and specialised maps showing pathways along which the virus could spread.

Audrey Lessard-Fontaine, the group’s cartographic liaison, asked OpenStreetMap to enlist volunteers.

Its worldwide Internet community had experience mapping disasters. Their first assignment was in January 2010 mapping Port-au-Prince after the Haiti earthquake destroyed the government offices that housed its maps.

Nearly four years later, 1,500 OpenStreetMap volunteers from 82 countries mapped flooded homes and what was left standing after Typhoon Haiyan ravaged the Philippines.

The Ebola crisis is by far its largest project to date.

“The great thing about it is the speed at which areas can be mapped. Even if we had five staff full-time working on it, we would hardly be able to reach the speed at which dozens,hundreds of volunteers manage to map out a zone,” said Lessard-Fontaine.

The volunteer cartographers have recorded 7 million data points so far and still have large swathes undone. By comparison, Typhoon Haiyan was 4.5 million data entries, and Haiti only 1.3 million, Buck and Beland said.

Their latest assignment came this week. Doctors Without Borders needs a detailed street map of Monrovia, the capital of Liberia, where the outbreak is raging out of control and U.S. President Barack Obama is sending 3,000 soldiers.

For the cartographers, it’s a way to fight Ebola from their desktops for which anyone can sign up.

“We’re just a bunch of computer guys on the Internet,” said Buck.

(Reporting by Stella Dawson.; Editing by Alisa Tang)

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Chinese hacked U.S. military contractors, Senate panel finds

By Ros Krasny

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Hackers associated with the Chinese government have repeatedly infiltrated the computer systems of U.S. airlines, technology companies and other contractors involved in the movement of U.S. troops and military equipment, a U.S. Senate panel has found.

The Senate Armed Services Committee’s year-long probe, concluded in March but made public on Wednesday, found the military’s U.S. Transportation Command, or Transcom, was aware of only two out of at least 20 such cyber intrusions within a single year.

The investigation also found gaps in reporting requirements and a lack of information sharing among U.S. government entities. That in turn left the U.S. military largely unaware of computer compromises of its contractors.

“These peacetime intrusions into the networks of key defense contractors are more evidence of China’s aggressive actions in cyberspace,” Democratic Senator Carl Levin of Michigan, the committee’s chairman, said in releasing the report.

Officials with the Chinese Embassy in Washington did not immediately comment.

Cybersecurity expert Dmitri Alperovitch, chief technology officer with the security firm Crowdstrike, said China had for years shown a keen interest in the logistical patterns of the U.S. military.

The investigation focused on the U.S. military’s ability to seamlessly tap civilian air, shipping and other transportation assets for tasks including troop deployments and the timely arrival of supplies from food to ammunition to fuel.

Those companies typically do not have the level of defense against hackers as major weapons makers or the military itself.

“The military uses secret or top-secret networks that are not on the Internet, but private companies do not,” said Alperovitch. “That’s a real challenge.”

The FBI said in a statement that it “continues to aggressively investigate cyber intrusions emanating from state-sponsored actors and other criminals.

“We remain committed to working with our interagency partners to identify threats, protect the nation’s infrastructure from potential harm, and hold accountable those groups and individuals that pose a threat in cyberspace,” the statement added.

In a 12-month period beginning June 1, 2012, there were about 50 intrusions or other cyber events into the computer networks of Transcom contractors, the 52-page report stated.

At least 20 of those were successful intrusions attributed to an “advanced persistent threat,” a term used to designate sophisticated threats commonly associated with attacks against governments. All of those intrusions were attributed to China.

Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the committee’s top Republican, called for a “central clearinghouse” that makes it easy for contractors to report suspicious cyber activity.

“We must ensure that cyber intrusions cannot disrupt our mission readiness,” Inhofe said.

The investigation found that a “Chinese military intrusion” into a Transcom contractor between 2008 and 2010 “compromised emails, documents, user passwords and computer code.” In 2012, another intrusion was made into multiple systems of a commercial ship contracted by Transcom, the report said.

The Senate probe could further increase tensions between the two world powers over cyber spying.

In May U.S. authorities charged five Chinese military officers, accusing them of hacking into American nuclear, metal and solar companies to steal trade secrets.

Last month, Community Health Systems, one of the largest U.S. hospital groups, said Chinese hackers had stolen Social Security numbers and other personal data from some 4.5 million patients.

(Reporting by Ros Krasny; Additional reporting by Jim Finkle in Boston; Editing by Will Dunham, Chizu Nomiyama and Peter Cooney)

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Banks spend more on IT, hoping the cloud is silver-lined

By Tom Miles

GENEVA (Reuters) – Two-thirds of banks are planning to spend more on information technology this year, the highest proportion since before the start of the financial crisis, according to an annual survey published on Wednesday.

The survey of 198 senior bankers by banking software firm Temenos also found only 11 percent anticipated spending less on IT this year, the lowest since 2008.

“Historically, and even more in Switzerland, IT was considered as a necessary evil, something that needed to exist because it existed in the engine room,” said Pietro Di Gregorio, head of business intelligence at Swiss private bank EFG Bank.

“But as of now, IT has to change its behavior,” he said.

Survey respondents considered customer loyalty their biggest challenge, cited by 30 percent. This worried Asian banks more than their European counterparts and they were also keener to invest in IT-related innovations to help them retain clients.

Private banks were second only to retail banks in worrying about customer loyalty – and with good reason, said the survey’s author, Temenos’ chief strategy officer Ben Robinson.

Younger tech-savvy clients “have zero interest in banking the way their parents did”, he said. But banks must spend wisely to avoid their IT infrastructure turning into a spaghetti-like mess.

“They need to clean that whole thing up if they are going to be successful in the digital age. But instead what they tend to do is they say ‘Customers want access to the bank through their mobile phone’, so they build specific applications for those without dealing with the underlying mess.”

CLOUD COMPUTING

The top competitive threat, cited by 23 percent of respondents, was seen to be non-bank newcomers such as Google and Pay pal, part of EBay Inc.

“The new entrants are coming into an area that’s not highly regulated but highly profitable, things like remittances, foreign exchange, unsecured lending, micro finance. But these are also the parts of the banking value chain that subsidize the rest of what banks do,” said Robinson.

“So right now they’re in danger of being pushed down into the heavily regulated, unsexy, unprofitable parts of banking. So really it is a choice between do they fight back or live with that reality.”

In the search for a strategy, banks are increasingly turning to cloud computing to save money. Most now use some cloud-based email or collaboration tools, and 86 percent now run at least one application in the cloud, compared to 57 percent in 2009.

But they are also getting more worried about the safety of doing so . Some39 percent said data security was the biggest barrier to more cloud computing, a jump from 29 percent a year ago.

“I think it’s a blip, it’s an Edward Snowden related blip,” said Robinson. “And I don’t see any alternative for banks to adopt the cloud long term.”

Only 1 percent of banks’ core processing is cloud-based, since they are reluctant to entrust the most sensitive data to what Robinson described as “shared infrastructure”.

But Temenos expects the situation to change quickly. The cloud could even present a selling point for Swiss banks that are struggling to reinvent themselves after the loss of Swiss banking secrecy, Robinson said.

“Switzerland could have an unbelievably successful business in cloud. The data regulations are more evolved that in most European countries, certainly more evolved than in the U.S., and secondly for all the reasons that multinationals come here – it’s politically stable, it’s got lots of renewable energy.”

(Reporting by Tom Miles; Editing by Tom Heneghan)

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Top U.S. security threats: lone wolves, Syria fighters : officials

By Doina Chiacu

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Americans radicalized by online propaganda from Islamic State and other militant groups pose the main terrorist threat to the United States, which is especially vulnerable to foreign fighters returning from Syria, senior U.S. security officials said on Wednesday.

While there is no evidence that the radical Islamist group plans an attack on U.S. soil, its vigorous propaganda machine and sophisticated online recruitment efforts created a clear potential threat, they said.

The heads of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Homeland Security and the National Counter terrorism Center issued the warning in a hearing before the House Homeland Security Committee.

They spoke as the U.S. military prepared to expand U.S.-led military action against Islamic State from Iraq to Syria, and before a House of Representatives vote on President Barack Obama’s request to arm Syrian rebels to fight the militants.

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson said Islamic State was committed to attacking Americans just because they were Americans, as shown in videos it released in recent weeks of the beheadings of journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff.

The group’s threat lies in its online attempts to radicalize Americans and its efforts to recruit from 2,000 Westerners who have traveled to Syria to fight President Bashar al-Assad’s government, the officials said.

The foreign fighters, who included 100 Americans, “may eventually return to their home countries battle-hardened, radicalized and determined to attack us,” said Matt Olsen, the leading U.S. counter terrorism official.

He said Syria remained a key training ground for independent or al Qaeda-aligned groups, and that the rate of travelers going to Syria exceeded that of those who went to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq, Yemen or Somalia in the last 10 years.

Lawmakers pressed the administration officials on how they can prevent attacks by so-called homegrown violent extremists or Syria foreign fighters who may carry U.S. or European passports.

The officials cited the arrest of a Rochester, New York, man announced on Tuesday, on charges of trying to provide material support to Islamic State and attempting to murder U.S. soldiers.

FBI Director James Comey acknowledged the difficulties of countering the homegrown threat. “In a country this big and this free, with the material that is available, it’s a big challenge,” he said.

The administration officials outlined threats from militant groups around the world, including al Qaeda offshoots, and said they continued to focus on airline security to counter a primary threat.

Olsen singled out Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, which was behind three attempted airline bombings, including the 2009 underwear bomber in Detroit, as the al Qaeda splinter group most likely to attempt an attack inside the United States.

But Olsen said “homegrown violent extremists remain the most likely immediate threat to the homeland.”

Johnson identified such “lone wolf” attackers as the hardest to detect and said his agency was working with communities to identify people vulnerable to recruitment by extremist groups through online propaganda.

“This boundless virtual environment, combined with terrorists’ increasingly sophisticated use of social media, makes it increasingly difficult to protect our youth from propaganda,” Olsen said.

“This online environment is likely to play a critical role in the foreseeable future in radicalizing and mobilizing (them) towards violence,” he said.

(Editing by Jonathan Oatis)

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Air strikes not enough to destroy Islamic State: U.S. general

By Adrian Croft

WIESBADEN Germany (Reuters) – Air strikes alone will not be enough to destroy Islamic State fighters in Iraq and Syria, and Baghdad will need training to rebuild ground forces capable of “going after them and rooting them out,” the U.S. Army Chief of Staff said on Wednesday.

Three years after U.S. forces pulled out of Iraq, President Barack Obama has ordered air strikes to halt Islamic State fighters who made rapid advances earlier this year as Iraqi forces melted away.

General Ray Odierno, who commanded U.S. troops in Iraq from 2008 to 2010, said it was the sectarian bias of Iraq’s army rather than any failings in U.S. training that had led Iraqi forces to collapse against the Islamic State onslaught.

Describing what had happened in Iraq as “very disappointing”, he suggested it might have been better if U.S. forces had stayed in Iraq as “we would have been able to keep a closer eye on what was going on.”

The United States is now working to build a broad international coalition to take on Islamic State in Iraq.

Air strikes had stopped Islamic State’s advance in Iraq, but they would not be “the end-all solution”, Odierno told a small group of reporters in Wiesbaden, Germany, where he was attending the Conference of European Armies.

“You’ve got to have ground forces that are capable of going after them and rooting them out in order to defeat and destroy them, so that is why the training, our ability to have advisers and train them (Iraqis) to do this is incredibly important,” he said.

Obama said last week he had authorized U.S. air strikes for the first time in Syria, where Islamic State fighters have also established themselves during a three-year civil war. “We cannot have a safe haven (for Islamic State) in Syria,” Odierno said.

Fighting Islamic State in Syria is more complex because the U.S. and its allies are hostile to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Intervening in Syria without the government’s permission could put U.S. planes at risk from Syrian air defenses.

THREAT TO U.S., EUROPE

“They (Islamic State) are a threat regionally and I believe they are a potential future threat both to Europe and the United States, so it is important for us to deal with that threat now with our international partners,” he said.

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the U.S. military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, raised the possibility on Tuesday that American troops might need to take on a larger role in Iraq’s ground war against Islamic State militants, but the White House stressed they would not deploy on a combat mission.

Asked about Dempsey’s comments, Odierno said: “We are constantly conducting assessments and we will provide the best military advice to the president in order to achieve the objectives he has set forth.”

The United States would welcome help from other countries to train Iraqi security forces, including Kurdish peshmerga fighters, he said. “There seem to be some countries that are very interested in doing that,” he added.

He said it was unclear whether U.S. special forces or army would be involved in training moderate Syrian rebels in Saudi Arabia, but said it was possible.

Odierno denied that the crushing defeat of Iraq’s armed forces at the hands of Islamic State was due to inadequate training by the United States.

“Over time, Prime Minister (Nuri al-) Maliki developed sectarian forces that were no longer truly accepted by all the Iraqi people. He put leaders in place that were not qualified … It wasn’t that they weren’t trained to fight – they refused to fight at all,” he said.

Under Maliki, the Iraqi armed forces came to be dominated by Iraq’s Shi’ite majority, alienating the Sunni minority.

Odierno said that future U.S. partnership with Iraqi armed forces would depend on them being more representative of Iraqis. “As we look to the future, our ability to partner with them will be based on those that are truly representative of Iraq as a whole,” he said.

(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

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