PBS NewsHour

What’s behind the recent retreat of ISIS in Northern Iraq?


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HARI SREENIVASAN: In recent days, pro-western Kurdish fighters, backed by American air power, have forced ISIS fighters in Northern Iraq to retreat from territory they seized last summer.

For more about this, we are joined by Anthony Cordesman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. Cordesman previously served in the State Department and was the director of intelligence assessment in the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

So, what happened in the past few days?

ANTHONY CORDESMAN: What happened is that a combination of Syrian and Iraqi Kurdish forces, backed by U.S. and other airpower, opened up a line where Yazidis — these are a minority group who have been stranded on a mountain range for months — could actually move out along the ground.

Now, this was important not only because the Yazidis for the first time were given a secure ground route to escape, but there are estimates that up to 8,000 Kurdish troops were involved, that they were able to make effective use of air support, that this is the largest operation so far as an offensive ground-air operation against the Islamic State.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, strategically it’s important because they are able to maintain control of a region?

ANTHONY CORDESMAN: Well, it’s important because they were able to operate a significant ground force with air support. We need to remember that again and again, we’ve been told it’s going to take two to three years to create an effective combination of Kurdish, Iraqi, and Sunni Iraqi forces that could actually liberate the parts of Iraq occupied by the Islamic State.

This is not a decisive victory. The Islamic state is still making some gains in the south. It hasn’t affected the situation in Syria. There still has been no really effective operation by the Iraqi ground troops, except in a refinery area in Beiji. This is very early days in a very long but low-level struggle.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Speaking of Iraqi ground troops there, have been reports there have been almost mass desertions in some corners from Shiite forces that signed up. They were crucial in order to take back certain gains that ISIS has made, but is Iraq slipping again from maintaining that morale and maintaining that troop force that can hold off ISIS?

ANTHONY CORDESMAN: We have to understand there are an awful lot of reports here, and some of them are more accurate than others. There were a lot of Shiite militias involved. These are not forces that can really stay on the ground. They really had only limited capability to push Islamic forces out. They were helpful in defense.

The core is the Iraqi army, frankly, collapsed under the previous prime minister, a combination of corruption, bad leadership, almost everything that could go wrong did. We are now trying to salvage some nine brigades out of a force that once had 46 brigades.

HARI SREENIVASAN: All right. So, what’s happening in the Mosul area now?

ANTHONY CORDESMAN: Well, the fact is it remains under the control of the Islamic State. The air campaign, efforts to shut off the illegal export of petroleum — all of these have weakened the Islamic State.

There is really a problem with power. Almost all of it has to come from local generators. There are problems with water. There are no real jobs in the area, and, oddly enough, it’s the Iraqi central government that is paying for the schools that the Islamic State now supervises.

So, you have some elements of a state from the Islamic State, but the situation in Mosul and the areas it controls seems to be steadily deteriorating.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Anthony Cordesman joining us from Washington, thanks so much.


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China arrests US aid worker on North Korea border

         walk across a bridge over the Tumen river from North Korea to the town of Tumen in China's Jilin province on March 21, 2009.
         Credit:  Peter ParksAFP/Getty Images.

Visitors walk across a bridge over the Tumen river from North Korea to the town of Tumen in China’s Jilin province on March 21, 2009. Credit: Peter ParksAFP/Getty Images.

Chinese authorities arrested Christian missionary Peter Hahn near the China-North Korea border on Friday.

The 74-year-old Korean-American was detained at the end of November and was charged with embezzlement and possession of fake receipts, his Shanghai-based lawyer Zhang Peihong told the Associated Press.

“The charges leveled against him are just excuses,” Peihong said, who alleged they were part of a larger crackdown by Chinese authorities on Christian nonprofits in the area.

Hahn, a naturalized U.S. citizen who fled from North Korea years ago, was the head of a Christian aid agency and set up a vocational school, which served North Koreans in the Chinese border town of Tumen. The school was shut down in July.

Both Hahn’s lawyer and his wife, Eunice, told Reuters that more than a decade ago Hahn had helped North Korean defectors, but that he had stopped doing so.

In August, Canadian Christian couple, Kevin and Julia Garratt, who had lived in the border town of Dandong for decades and had opened a coffee shop in 2008, were detained on suspicions of stealing state secrets, according to the Wall Street Journal.

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North Korea calls Sony hack claims ‘slander,’ threatens to retaliate

Leaders in North Korea on Saturday called the Obama Administration’s accusations that it was behind the cyber attack on Sony Pictures “groundless slander” and threatened to retaliate unless the United States agreed to conduct a joint investigation with them.

The comments were included in a statement broadcasted on the official state-controlled KCNA news agency, Reuters reported, and read by an unnamed spokesman for the country’s foreign ministry who maintained the country was not behind the attacks.

“We propose to conduct a joint investigation with the U.S. in response to groundless slander being perpetrated by the U.S. by mobilizing public opinion,” the North Korean spokesman said. “If the U.S. refuses to accept our proposal for a joint investigation and continues to talk about some kind of response by dragging us into the case, it must remember there will be grave consequences,” the spokesman said.

Neither the White House nor the State Department had commented on North Korea’s response by Saturday afternoon.

On Friday, President Barack Obama said the U.S. will respond “in a place and manner and time that we choose” to the hack attack the FBI blamed on North Korea and said it was similar to others carried out by the country.

He also said that Sony Pictures Entertainment “made a mistake” in its decision to shelve a film about a plot to assassinate North Korea’s leader, the Associated Press reported.

“I wish they had spoken to me first,” Obama said of Sony executives at a year-end news conference Friday. “We cannot have a society in which some dictatorship someplace can start imposing censorship.”

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How should the U.S. government respond to North Korea’s attack on Sony?


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JUDY WOODRUFF: We now take a closer look at North Korea and cyber-terrorism and what the president had to say about it all this afternoon. It made up the dominant topic at today’s White House news conference.

JUDY WOODRUFF: It was the first question.

QUESTION: And did Sony make the right decision in pulling the movie? Or does that set a dangerous precedent when faced with this kind of situation?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And an unequivocal seven-word answer.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Yes, I think they made a mistake.

JUDY WOODRUFF: President Obama told the White House press corps that Sony is in a difficult position, but was wrong to withdraw its own film.

BARACK OBAMA: We cannot have a society in which some dictator someplace can start imposing censorship here in the United States, because if somebody is able to intimidate folks out of releasing a satirical movie, imagine what they start doing when they see a documentary that they don’t like, or news reports that they don’t like.

Or, even worse, imagine if producers and distributors and others start engaging in self-censorship because they don’t want to offend the sensibilities of somebody whose sensibilities probably need to be offended.

So, that’s not who we are.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Notably, Kim Jong-un’s name was never mentioned. But the president clearly targeted the North Korean leader in his remarks, using pointedly casual terms like “some dictator” and poking fun at the seriousness of the movie involved.

BARACK OBAMA: I think it says something interesting about North Korea that they decided to have the state mount an all-out assault on a movie studio because of a satirical movie starring Seth Rogen and James Flacco.


BARACK OBAMA: I love Seth and I love James, but the notion that that was a threat to them I think gives you some sense of the kind of regime we’re talking about here.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The greater question for the president is, how will the United States respond to North Korea? The attack cost Sony Pictures tens of millions of dollars so far and an unknown hit in its business position. But the named attacker is another nation, one which is known for its unpredictable, defiant military posture.

BARACK OBAMA: They caused a lot of damage, and we will respond. We will respond proportionally, and we’ll respond in a place and time and manner that we choose. It’s not something that I will announce here today at a press conference.

More broadly, though, this points to the need for us to work with the international community to start setting up some very clear rules of the road in terms of how the Internet and cyber operates.

We’ve been coordinating with the private sector, but a lot more needs to be done. We’re not even close to where we need to be.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The president said his team has presented options for a response to North Korea and he is reviewing them, and that he is also looking at detailed ideas for strengthening cyber-security. As he forms a response, the president stressed that he sees the threat as serious and urgent.

BARACK OBAMA: If we don’t put in place the kind of architecture that can prevent these attacks from taking place, this is not just going to be affecting movies. This is going to be affecting our entire economy in ways that are extraordinarily significant.

JUDY WOODRUFF: After the press conference, Sony CEO Michael Lynton responded to the president. He told CNN: “The president, the press and the public are mistaken as to what actually happened.”  He also said: “We have not caved. We have not backed down.”  And he added, Sony still plans to let people see the movie, but that theaters and home video distributors are not willing to show it yet.

He also contradicted the president. He said Sony had reached out to a White House adviser. But he didn’t say whom.

North Korea, by the way, today denied that it was behind the attack.

Let’s explore some of the many questions all this raises with Dmitri Alperovitch. He is co-founder and chief technology officer of CrowdStrike. It’s a security technology company. And former ambassador Jack Pritchard, he’s been involved with Korean peace negotiations for both Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

And we welcome you both.

DMITRI ALPEROVITCH, CrowdStrike: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, Dmitri Alperovitch, to you first.

What do you make of the FBI finding — and the president referred to it — that North Korea and North Korea alone was behind this attack?

DMITRI ALPEROVITCH: At CrowdStrike, we absolutely agree with that. We have actually been tracking this actor. We actually call them Silent Chollima. That’s our name for this group based that is out of North Korea.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Say the name again.

DMITRI ALPEROVITCH: Silent Chollima. Chollima is actually a national animal of North Korea. It’s a mythical flying horse. And we have been tracking this group since 2006. They have been engaged in a lot of destructive attacks against South Korea predominantly and U.S. forces in South Korea. And this is their first major attack against a U.S. company that is destructive in nature.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I ask you because there were questions in the last few days about whether North Korea was capable of mounting this kind of attack. You’re saying they clearly were.

DMITRI ALPEROVITCH: They absolutely are. They’re not the best cyber-power out there. They’re not as good as United States and they are not as good as Russia or China, but they’re in the second tier and they absolutely have this capability. And they have been using that capability for the last eight years.


Let me turn now to another piece of this story, Jack — Ambassador Pritchard. And that is, we know the president said that Sony made a mistake in pulling back the film, and then we heard the reaction from Sony’s CEO. But what I want to ask you about at this point is the president’s characterization of North Korea’s leader.

At one point, he said — he talked about some dictator someplace, and then he talked — he seemed dismissive of the fact that North Korea has launched such a major attack, cyber-attack on, he said, a company that just made a satirical comedy.

JACK PRITCHARD, Former U.S. Special Envoy for Negotiations with North Korea: Yes.

Well, number one, I think the president is trying to avoid publicly naming Kim Jong-un as the force behind this, but you have got to take a look at the history of North Korea. It’s been led by one family, the grandfather, the father and now the son. And throughout the history of North Korea, any attack on the leadership required North Korea to respond.

So it’s not surprising they did, regardless of what we may think of the — how funny the movie is or whatnot. From a North Korean perspective, it’s an attack on the core of their being, and it requires a response. What we weren’t prepared for is the level and the fact it was this type of cyber-attack. But, clearly, we knew something was going to happen.

JUDY WOODRUFF: What did you make of the president’s term some dictator someplace? You said he wanted to avoid naming Kim Jong-un. Why?


You know, every time you talk about the North Korean leaders, using their name, it raises the hackles of the North Korean leadership. And he’s probably trying to not artificially raise a tit-for-tat response between the United States and North Korea at the governmental level. He’s still formulating what he’s going to do and how he’s going to respond.

So, what he doesn’t want to do is give North Koreans the fodder to suggest that it’s the United States beating up on this poor, small country and some dictator that’s leading it.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, in terms of a response, we heard the president say that it’s going to be proportional and he said it’s going to at a time of the U.S. choosing. He’s not going to be announcing it. It will be done behind the scenes, presumably. What are the options?


Well, you know, in basic terms, there are three things could be done, diplomatic, military and economic. On the diplomatic side, we don’t have a relationship with North Korea. We can’t leverage something that they may want to preserve, so that’s out.

On the military side, anything that we would contemplate would have to have the full cooperation and understanding and approval of South Korea, and that doesn’t fall within the proportionality that the president is talking about. That leaves you economic aspects to deal with.

And from my point of view, I think there are probably three things that the administration’s looking at right now. One, it’s a coordination, consultation with the other members of the six-party talks, China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea.

I would expect they’d also take this to the United Nations to kind of put it on the record in the world spotlight, if you will. And, third, and what will actually be the proportionality that will do some damage to the North Koreans would be financial sanctions. If you think back to 2005, when the Treasury Department imposed sanctions that affected the Banco Delta Asia, a small bank in Macao that only had about $25 million worth of North Korean money, it caused a great deal of angst in North Korea that ultimately led them to additional bad behavior, but finally brought them back to the negotiating table.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And I want to bring Dmitri Alperovitch back into it.

Now, the president also talked about the need to work, he said, with the international community the start setting up some kind of rules of the road. What could that look like? What can the international community do?

DMITRI ALPEROVITCH: Well, the first thing you can do is encourage additional information-sharing on the indicators and the type of tactics that the North Korean regime has used, as well as the other actors that are out there. The intelligence on this group has been around, as I said, for most of eight years.

If these companies that have been coming under attack from them had that intelligence, if they had used it proactively to hunt on their networks for that adversary, this type of event could have been prevented. That’s a very critical thing that we don’t have right now.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And so you’re saying the U.S. and other countries could begin to create something like that?

DMITRI ALPEROVITCH: Well, that’s right. The U.S. government has a lot of information. The private sector has a lot of information. You could encourage additional information-sharing, declassify some information related to the intelligence we have on some of these bad actors and share it with the private sector.

That would be a good first step. You could also start talking about norms of behavior, that it’s not OK for a nation state to do this to a private company, to completely destroy its network, to take its information and leak it out into the public, and there will be repercussions when you do it. That would be a first good step.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Dmitri Alperovitch, Ambassador Jack Pritchard, we thank you both.


JACK PRITCHARD: Our pleasure.


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