US military spokesman: No confirmation Baghdadi has been killed

US mil spox: No confirmation Baghdadi has been killed //US watching Iranian-backed forces "carefully

By Lucas Tomlinson, Fox News Producer

A top US military spokesman based in Baghdad said Wednesday that he could not confirm that the head of the Islamic State, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, has been killed in a recent US airstrike.  

“I can't confirm one way or another.  We don't know for sure,” said Col. Christopher Garver during a press briefing.  Garver said there were no US airstrikes in Raqqa on June 10, the day and location where multiple reports said the strike took place.  Garver said there were “two small strikes” the next day in Raqqa, however.

“We've been targeting senior leaders of [ISIS] and if we've got an opportunity to get him, we would take it,” said Garver.

There is currently a $25 million bounty on Baghdadi’s head.

Meanwhile Iraqi forces are having a tough time pushing into the heart of the largest concentration of ISIS fighters in western Iraq near Baghdad.

Iraqi forces are now inside the “southern edge” of Fallujah, located 45 miles west of the Iraqi capital, said Garver.

“The fighting remains intense inside the city,” Col. Christopher Garver told reporters during a press briefing Wednesday.  He said while Iraqi forces are inside Fallujah, they have not yet reached the center of the city.

In the past week, US jets have conducted 19 airstrikes in and around Fallujah, he said.

“We have hit tactical units and fighters, heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenade teams, mortar systems, recoil-less rifles, air artillery pieces, and Daesh vehicles,” said Garver describing the targets.

Garver said 40,000 Iraqi civilians have evacuated Fallujah.

When asked by Fox News about Iranian-backed Shia militias carrying out reprisal killings against Sunni Iraqi citizens fleeing Fallujah, Garver could not confirm the reports.

“We have not seen that specifically,” he said.

But he acknowledged such killings between Iranian-backed forces, some of whom killed American troops in the past decade in Iraq, has occurred recently in the ISIS fight around Tikrit.    

“Clearly, it is a problem, something we're going to watch carefully,” said Garver.

Photos of Iran’s Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani as well as his deputy Abu Mahdi al Muhandis have surfaced on social media showing the Iranian generals charged leading Shia militias in the Fallujah battle.

Last week, Iraq’s prime minister said Soleimani was serving in Iraq as an invited guest of his government.

Col. Garver said the US Army Apache strike earlier this week against an ISIS car bomb 50 miles south of Mosul was approved by the Iraqi government before the strike.

Garver said the Apaches are located at various locations inside Iraq, but would not give a specific location when asked if they had been moved to support the Mosul operation.

Garver said there have been 50 airstrikes in northern Iraq in the past week.

In Syria, Garver said the US-led coalition has conducted 73 strikes in Syria supporting an operation to liberate the ISIS-held town of Manbij near Syria’s border with Turkey, seen as a key logistics hub for ISIS to ferrying troops and supplies across the border.

US-backed Syrian force launches operation to retake ISIS-held Syrian town near Turkish border

Lucas Tomlinson, Fox News Producer

A large Sunni Arab fighting force, backed by US special operations forces and fighter jets have launched an operation to recapture a key ISIS-held village in northern Syria 20 miles from the border with Turkey, a senior defense official tells Fox News.

The official said the US special ops troops would “not be engaged in direct combat” during the operation to reclaim the city of Manbij, to seal off a key access point for ISIS to move supplies and foreign fighters into Syria from Turkey.

18 US airstrikes in Manbij in the past 24 hours in Syria have destroyed ISIS headquarters buildings, weapons caches, training areas and six bridges, according to the daily strike report released by the US-led coalition Wednesday morning.  An unknown number of ISIS fighters were also killed according to officials familiar with the operation.

Over the weekend, an American commando was wounded in Syria north of the ISIS de-facto headquarters of Raqqa in a rocket or mortar attack, the first time the Pentagon has acknowledged a US service member had been hurt inside Syria.  In a separate ISIS attack near Irbil in neighboring Iraq, another US special operator was wounded last weekend as well, according to a Pentagon spokesman said Tuesday both ISIS attacks against the US special operations troops did not involve “active combat.”

The Obama administration has gone to great lengths to avoid calling the deployment of some 5,000 US troops to Iraq and nearly 300 to Syria as a “combat” deployment, stressing an advisory role to local forces away from the front lines.

The US-backed force numbers in the “thousands,” but the official refused to disclose the precise size of the force citing operational security.  The official said a small contingent of Kurdish fighters are also part of the ground force, but have pledged to return to their territory in Syria’s northeast following the clearing operation in Manbij, located west of the Euphrates River, historically Arab held territory.

The official acknowledged it was important to show NATO-ally Turkey that Arabs would take the lead in the operation.  Turkey considers the Kurdish fighters known as the YPG a terrorist group, an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party or PKK in Iraq.  The United States and Turkey consider the PKK a terrorist organization, which has fought a guerrilla war against Turkey since the mid-80s killing tens of thousands of Turks. 

The YPG has been a key ally for the US military on the ground in Syria in the fight against ISIS.  In January, YPG fighters captured Kobane, a Syrian city on the border with Turkey.

The State Department says the YPG is a separate entity from the PKK, despite historical links between the two groups. 

Last week, photos by AFP of US special operations forces in Syria wearing patches of the YPG surfaced on the Internet, drawing outrage from Turkish officials. 

The YPG has roots in Marxist ideology and pledges allegiance to the PKK’s jailed leader Abdullah Öcalan.  Col. Steve Warren, a Baghdad-based spokesman for the U.S. military said Friday that US forces wearing the YPG patches was “inappropriate” and that corrective action had been taken.

In February, the YPG opened its first foreign bureau in Moscow. 

New satellite imagery obtained by Fox News shows Chinese drone on contested island in South China Sea for the first time

By Lucas Tomlinson

New satellite imagery obtained by Fox News shows that China, for the first time, has deployed a drone with stealth technology to a contested island in the South China Sea, in another sign of escalating tensions in the region.  This development comes as President Obama visits Japan and recently lifted an arms embargo against Vietnam while visiting Hanoi earlier this week, drawing criticism from the Chinese government about stoking tensions in the region.

The newly obtained satellite images from ImageSat International (ISI) shows a Chinese Harbin BZK-005 long range reconnaissance drone on Woody Island in the South China Sea.  The drone can remain airborne for up to 40 hours.  The Chinese drone did not appear armed in the satellite image taken last month.  For the time being, the BZK-005 does not have the capability to fire missiles unlike other drones in China’s inventory. 

Other satellite images show some of the recently deployed HQ-9 surface-to-air missiles on Woody Island transferred from one cluster on the northern part of the island to other locations in a move most likely to make them more difficult to destroy in a potential air strike.  In February, Fox News first reported the deployment of the missiles to Woody Island as President Obama hosted leaders from 10 Southeast Asian nations in Palm Springs, California.

The Chinese HQ-9 is similar in design to the Russian S-300 missile system according to US defense officials and has a range of 125 miles.

Asked about the deployment of the Chinese drone to the island, a senior Pentagon official said he could not comment on intelligence matters.  

When asked about the increasing drone threat by China in the South China Sea at a press briefing Thursday, Pentagon Press Secretary Peter Cook did not address the issue directly, but acknowledged the Pentagon had “concerns” about China’s behavior in the region along with other countries.  

“You've heard us talk at length [about] our concerns about militarization in the South China Sea, not just by China,” said Cook.  "There are concerns about what's happening.”

The Chinese first built a runway on Woody Island in the 1990s.  Located in the Paracel chain of islands in the South China Sea, Woody Island is also claimed by Taiwan and Vietnam in addition to China. 

Separately,  China has constructed 3,200 acres of artificial islands atop former rocks and reefs farther south in the Spratly Islands according to a recent Pentagon report to Congress.  

Over $5 trillion in cargo and natural resources pass through the South China Sea each year. 

The LA Times recently reported that China has sold its armed drone, the CH-4, to Nigeria, Pakistan and Iraq, raising concerns about the proliferation of this type of technology.  In December, Iraq claimed to have successfully used a CH-4 against ISIS.  

Earlier this month, the US Navy sailed a guided-missile destroyer near Fiery Cross Reef, one of China’s man-made islands in the South China Sea.   The “freedom of navigation” operation as the Pentagon calls them, took the US Navy warship within 12 nautical miles of the Chinese island, sending a message to China that the United States does not recognize China’s territory.  In response, China launched fighter jets.   Early this year, China tested commercial airliners on a new runway on Fiery Cross Reef.  Defense officials tell Fox News, that China has sent fighter jets and other military equipment there recently.

A week after the US destroyer sailed near Fiery Cross Reef, two Chinese J-11 fighter jets buzzed a US Navy EP-3 reconnaissance aircraft flying 50 miles east of Hainan Island where a large Chinese submarine base is located.  The Pentagon called China’s action “unsafe” and claimed the Navy EP-3 was flying in international airspace.

Chinese officials were quoted Thursday saying China is ready to deploy nuclear-armed submarines in the Pacific, as a result of the United States moving more weapons to the region. 

China has said previous freedom of navigation operations by the US Navy “violated Chinese law” and called the actions “provocative.”  A Chinese military spokesman vowed “dangerous consequences” if similar operations from the American warships continue in the future.

When China’s President Xi visited the White House in September he vowed not to militarize the South China Sea.   China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, reiterated that pledge  when Secretary of State John F. Kerry visited Beijing in February, but said some “self-defense” weapons were necessary to protect the Chinese islands.  

Last month, Secretary of Defense Ash Carter visited the Philippians where US military forces have returned for the first time since the Subic Bay naval base was closed in 1992.   After Carter’s visit, a flight of US Air Force A-10 attack planes flew near Scarborough Shoal, located only 200 miles from Manila, where US defense officials have seen Chinese ships surveying the area for another potential dredging operation.  

US supporting Fallujah operation with air strikes

The United States is supporting an Iraqi military operation to retake Fallujah, the first city to fall to the Islamic State, with airstrikes and is advising the Iraqis at two operation centers in Baghdad and Taqaddum, according to an American military spokesman based in Baghdad.

"We are not pushing guys forward," Col. Steve Warren told Fox News by phone Monday.

US support for the Iraqi military will mirror recent operations to capture Rutbah, a strategic town near Iraq's border with Jordan, Hit and Ramadi also in Iraq's Anbar Province, according to Warren. 

Late Sunday night, Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the start of his military's operation to retake Fallujah located 40 miles west of Baghdad, an hour drive from the capital. 

Following a string of bombings killing hundreds of Iraqis in Shia neighborhoods in Baghdad, the Iraqi government put the operation to clear ISIS from Fallujah ahead of the one to recapture Mosul, located roughly 250 miles north of Baghdad.

There are reports of Iranian-backed Shia militias participating in the Fallujah operation.  Those forces are located on the outskirts of town. Warren said the US military will not support those forces.

"We are not going to drop bombs in support of the Shia militias," he said. 

2 Chinese jets 'buzz' US recon plane Tues in South China Sea

By Lucas Tomlinson, Fox News Producer

Two Chinese fighter jets ‘buzzed’ a US military reconnaissance plane in the South China Sea Tuesday in an “unsafe” manner according to the Pentagon.  The incident comes a week after a US Navy destroyer sailed within 12 miles of China’s Fiery Cross reef, an artificial island made after months of dredging operations, more proof that tensions in the region are escalating between two global powers.

It was the third time the US Navy sailed a warship close to a contested Chinese island in what the Pentagon calls, “freedom of navigation” operations.

In response to China’s “unsafe” actions Tuesday, the Pentagon is “addressing the issue through the appropriate diplomatic and military channels,” according to Major Jamie Davis, a Pentagon spokesman who said the incident occurred in international airspace during a “routine” patrol by the US aircraft.

In January, China landed civilian jets on a 10,000 foot runway on Fiery Cross reef, more proof that China is militarizing the South China Sea and threatening US allies in the region.  

In February, China  deployed fighter jets to a contested island in the South China Sea, the same place, Woody Island, where China deployed surface-to-air missiles a week before according to satellite imagery exclusively obtained by Fox News.

The dramatic escalation in February came as Secretary of State John Kerry hosted his Chinese counterpart, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, at the State Department.

Wang said he hoped that “close up” military flights and patrols by U.S. Navy ships over the contested islands would end.

Kerry said he wanted China to end its militarization of the contested islands in the South China Sea.

"We want to halt the expansion and the militarization of occupied features," he said.

His Chinese counterpart added that he didn't want to see any more U.S. military over flights or patrols.

"We don’t hope to see any more close-up military reconnaissance or the dispatch of missile destroyers or strategic bombers to the South China Sea," said Foreign Minister Wang.

Chinese President Xi pledged not to militarize the South China Sea when he visited the White House this fall.

In February, Adm. Harry Harris, leader of the U.S. military’s Pacific Command, told Congress that China was clearly militarizing the South China Sea. "You would have to believe in a flat earth to think otherwise," he told lawmakers.  

After the US Navy guided-missile destroyer sailed past China’s artificial island last week, China scrambled fighter jets to show its displeasure.

NBC was first to report the latest incident.

DHS Secy Johnson: We Will Not Compromise Aviation Security in Face of Heightened Wait Times

Per Matt Dean, Fox News producer

DHS Secretary Jeh Johnson and TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger today rolled out a 10 point plan aimed at addressing increased wait times at security screening lines at airports around the country. 

As part of that plan, the agency is expediting the hiring of additional TSA officers - 576 are expected to enter the TSA training academy in Georgia by mid June.

TSA also plans to maximize the use of overtime for its existing officers.

A reduction in size and number of carry on bags will also result in this new plan, something Secretary Johnson said DHS has been in touch with airlines about recently.

Johnson said repeatedly that TSA will not compromise aviation security in the face of heightened passenger volume and longer wait times. He added that recent events around the world confirm the need for continued vigilance.

Johnson did note that there are no specific, credible threats to the homeland at this time. 

Asked about airport security concerns post-Brussels and the potential target non-sterile zones paint given those long screening lines, Johnson said that airport security is being stepped up and reevaluated around the country. He added airport security is a shared responsibility with TSA and local law enforcement. 

In his remarks Johnson warned there will be wait times and that passengers should set "appropriate expectations." 

Johnson said that he would not characterize the current issue of heightened airport wait times as a national crisis, instead he noted that it is an aviation security imperative. Johnson added that DHS and TSA are going to work to bring more resources to face this problem. 

As to his thoughts about airports threatening to privatize security screening, he noted that this is already in place in certain airports in the U.S. - notably San Francisco - and that he is not entirely opposed to the use of private screeners.

Speaking to yesterday's incident at Phoenix's airport, Administrator Neffenger said that the problem occurred as a network switch at the airport failed. He added that airport officials called in the manufacturer of the baggage screening mechanism who worked throughout the night to remedy the problem. Neffenger added that TSA is analyzing the issue and that they believe the problem was isolated. 

DC Metro: Gridlock in Miniature

By Joe Fiocco, College Associate: Special Report

From all walks of life, denizens of the nation’s capital step onto the city’s subway platforms, uncertain if they’ll be late for work. Although it’s in vogue to joke about the city’s ailing Metro network, the underlying decay is no laughing matter. The politicized inner workings of the Metro raise a mirror to the inaction many Americans see in Congress.

In recent years, Metro has suffered a decline in efficiency and safety. Their on-time percentage has fallen to 84% from 90% last year. Recent safety trends are worrisome as well.  Employee injuries have risen 30% since last year. Metro’s mechanical failures of recent memory expose a lagging safety culture. Exposed electrical cables have started fires, closing numerous stations. Also, automated train piloting has had deadly consequences. In 1996, the automated system ignored an ongoing blizzard, and accelerated the train on slippery tracks. The resulting brake failure and crash at the Shady Grove station killed the train operator. For the first time, doubts arose about Metro’s automated guidance system since its inception in 1976. Another crash at the Fort Totten station killed 6 people in 2009, pressuring Metro executives to switch to manual piloting. However, these instances reveal a failure of Metro management to learn from previous mistakes.

Conflicts between Metro workers and management contributed to the lack of a safety culture. Former Metro executive John B. Catoe remembers calling safety training meetings, with only one third of workers showing up. He recalls station managers pulling workers out of those meetings to keep trains on schedule. The Metro culture put safety and efficiency at odds. Metro workers also feared being labelled troublemakers for pointing out mechanical flaws. Critics claim their union benefits stall necessary investments in maintenance. Fringe benefits come in at $431 million for FY 2016, out of a total operating budget of $1.81 billion. However, the unions did not mandate this amount; it came after negotiations with management, with the unions as the only party contributing to the fund. The conflict here underscores greater financial woes for Metro.

As it stands, Metro does not have a designated source of funding, such as a sales tax. The agency has to request funds from local governments in Maryland, Virginia, the District of Columbia, and Congress. Politicians in those districts wouldn’t risk their seats over a new tax. Although local jurisdictions have been willing to match federal contributions to Metro’s budget, they only do so if it means the Metro will expand. The political implications are clear. The potential economic boom of the Silver Line to Dulles International Airport gave Virginia officials tunnel vision. In 2006, Virginia members of Metro’s Board of Directors ousted Dan Tangherlini, the interim general manager, for trying to institute cost cutting measures. The board believed replacing short escalators with stairs and recycling old car designs would stall expansion of the Silver Line into their districts.

The Metro is not yet doomed, though. Metro board member Jack Evans believes introducing a dedicated sales tax wouldn’t hurt the public. He claims a 1% tax would net $700 million a year in the surrounding Maryland and Virginia counties. With relatively low debt outstanding, issuing 30 year bonds would reduce Metro’s dependency on federal funding sustainably. In addition, to end the cycle of political patronage on Metro’s board, Rep. John Delaney of Maryland introduced a bill requiring board appointees to be certified in the management, transportation, or financial fields. There have also been proposals to introduce a Governance Commission to the agency. This would require the DC mayor, along with the governors of Virginia and Maryland to meet once a year to coordinate their budget contributions, preventing distractions from other local issues.

Metro’s situation bears a likeness to what many perceive as deadlock in Congress. Conflicting political ties halt legislative progress; a strict attachment to the status quo prevents new ideas and people from entering the discussion, and past mistakes seem to repeat themselves.  All the while, rising costs grow more difficult to cover. Yet, voices calling for consensus and common sense still ring out. All it requires for such measures to succeed is a willingness to bear the political and financial costs and remain patient with the leadership. From there, the halls of Congress and the tunnels of the Metro can begin to regain the public’s trust.

Unlikely That FBI Will Share Hacking Tool Used to Unlock San Bernardino iPhone with Apple

Matt Dean, Fox News

It is unlikely that the government will disclose to Apple the third party method used to unlock the iPhone 5C that belonged to San Bernardino gunman Syed Farook, according to law enforcement sources close to the matter. 

These sources tell Fox that the FBI is drafting a letter to the White House recommending that it not pursue an interagency review of whether or not to share this method with Apple due to the fact that the agency knows little about the intricacies behind the tool or the actual vulnerability that was exploited.

What FBI purchased from the undisclosed third party, according to these sources, was essentially a tailored tool that successfully exploited a vulnerability in the iOS 9 operating system running on an iPhone 5C. Fox is told that the agency does not know the source code behind that hacking tool or the specific vulnerability that was exploited, therefore making it unnecessary to share that tool with Apple. 

Fox is told that the technical details behind this tool remain with the third party. 

Fox News reported back on April 7, citing intelligence sources, that to unlock the device that belonged to Farook, FBI essentially purchased a "zero day" from the undisclosed third party. A "Zero Day" is a previously unknown vulnerability to a specific piece of computer software that cyber actors exploit to gain access to a system or override certain functionalities. 

Zero Days serve as the preeminent method of entry for hackers given that their targets can't protect against flaws they don't know exist, according to cybersecurity exerts.

Speaking at Georgetown University this morning, FBI Director James Comey said his agency was in the midst of determining whether it would disclose details of the third party method to Apple. 

Comey said last week in London that FBI paid a non-governmental third party over $1 million dollars for the hacking tool.

 

Fewer foreign fighters joining ISIS, sr. military officer says

By Lucas Tomlinson, Fox News

There are now 200 foreign fighters per month joining the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, down from 1,500-2,000 a year ago, a senior military officer from Baghdad told reporters during a press briefing at the Pentagon when asked by Fox News.

US Air Force Maj. Gen. Peter Gersten, the US-led coalition’s deputy commander for operations and intelligence said that recent airstrikes against ISIS cash storage facilities have "fractured" ISIS.   Gersten estimates strikes against ISIS cash sites have been in the "tens" and have destroyed between $300 and 800 million dollars away from ISIS. 

In the strike which killed ISIS' finance emir last month, believed to be the second in command of ISIS, MG Gersten said $150 million was destroyed at his house.  Using a tactic from the Israelis, Gersten said air bursts were deployed to scare the civilians to flee the house.  The "knock operation" as this tactic is called has been used to minimalize civilians casualties, Gersten said.

When asked how many ISIS fighters have been killed on the battlefield, Maj. Gen. Gersten replied, “not enough.”  He did not provide an estimate on the overall size of ISIS.

Following President Obama's announcement Monday that 250 more US troops would be going to Syria, 450 more troops ordered to the region over the past two weeks, MG Gersten said the US military would deploy an advanced rocket system to Turkey which uses GPS guidance to destroy targets up to 180 miles away, in another sign of incremental escalation in the war against ISIS.  

Gersten would not say where the HIMARS system, the name for the rocket system, will be deployed in Turkey citing operational security. 

Russia ignores Obama plea to maintain Syria ceasefire, shifts forces north for Aleppo offensive, officials

By Lucas Tomlinson, Fox News

Despite a call from President Obama to Russian President Vladimir Putin Monday urging him to maintain a fragile cease-fire in Syria, Russia has shown no signs of complying.  Russia continues to ignore repeated requests from the administration to stop backing the Syrian regime after five-years of civil war that have killed a quarter of a million people.

A U.S. defense official tells Fox News Russian-backed Syrian forces have shifted the bulk of their fire power, including rocket propelled artillery north to areas outside Aleppo, where a new offensive to recapture Syria’s largest city is poised to take place in the near future.

“They have shifted everything from Palmyra up north,” the official told Fox News.

Russian-backed Syrian forces recently recaptured the historic city of Palmyra from ISIS in central Syria.  Russian and Syrian jets have also been striking rebel held towns around Damascus and Homs, despite a cease-fire agreement agreed to in late November.   The cease-fire does not apply to ISIS and an al-Qaeda affiliated group in Syria, Jabhat al-Nusra.

Earlier this week, the main Syrian opposition group walked out of peace talks held in Geneva, brokered by the United States and Russia.  UN envoy Staffan de Mistura told reporters Monday that the humanitarian situation around Aleppo had deteriorated, where fighting has resumed in the past few days.

The State Department said Monday the cease-fire in Syria had been largely successful, despite reports of resumed Russian and Syrian bombing of rebel held areas.

“More Syrian people are living better lives as a result of the cessation than they were before,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said Monday

White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest told reporters that President Obama did not raise the issue of Russia’s provocative dangerous close range ‘flybys’ of a US Navy destroyer in the Baltic Sea and later conduced an “unsafe” barrel roll over a US Air Force spy plane also in the Baltic. 

The incidents “while provocative and concerning, are not particularly unusual,” said Earnest

Wall Street Journal first to report movement of artillery to northern Syria. 

Advertisement

Browse

Coming Up

A federal court has ordered the State Department to review newly found Clinton emails and turn over records by September 13 to show which emails are government related.

All-Star Panel

  • Tucker Carlson @tuckercarlson
  • Mara Liasson @MaraLiasson
  • George Will @georgewill

Premium Podcasts

Missed the All-Star Panel on Special Report with Bret Baier? You can now get a daily audio podcast of Fox News Channel's Special Report All-Star Panel.

Pay-Per-Podcast
Monthly Subscription
Yearly Subscription