The Soufan Group Morning Brief


Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl, who walked off his base in eastern Afghanistan in 2009, setting off a huge military manhunt and a political furor, pleaded guilty on Monday to desertion and to endangering the American troops sent to search for him.

The guilty plea by Sergeant Bergdahl, a 31-year-old Idaho native now stationed at an Army base in San Antonio, was not part of any deal with prosecutors.

It will be up to an Army judge at Fort Bragg to decide the sergeant’s punishment, following testimony at a hearing that is scheduled to begin next week. The desertion charge carries a potential five-year sentence, and the charge of endangering troops — formally known as misbehavior before the enemy — carries a potential life sentence.

Bergdahl was captured by Taliban militants within hours of disappearing from his remote outpost, and was held captive for five years.

He endured torture, including beatings with rubber hoses and copper cables, that his military debriefer later characterized as the most profound abuse sustained by any American service member since the Vietnam War. He was released in May 2014, when the Obama administration freed five detainees from Guantánamo in exchange for him.

His decision to plead guilty appeared to reflect the impact of victories by Army prosecutors over the last year. They include rulings to allow the case to go forward despite inflammatory statements on the campaign trail by President Trump, who called him a “traitor,” and to allow prosecutors to introduce evidence of grievous injuries suffered by service members who, the judge ruled, were searching for the sergeant at the time. New York Times, CNN, Guardian, NBC News
The U.S. Supreme Court declined Monday to consider a pretrial challenge to the war court brought by death-penalty defendant Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, the former CIA captive accused of orchestrating al Qaeda’s 2000 bombing of the USS Cole.

It was the second rejection of a Guantánamo captive’s appeal to the high court in two weeks. No other explicit military commission challenges are up before the justices this session.

Nashiri, 52, is accused of orchestrating al Qaeda’s suicide bombing of the USS Cole off Yemen, an attack that killed 17 U.S. soldiers.

The decision also comes just days after Nashiri’s three civilian lawyers invoked an ethical conflict and quit the case, with permission of the Marine general overseeing war court defense teams. That leaves just one other attorney who has met with and been accepted by Nashiri on his case — a Navy lieutenant with no death penalty experience. Miami Herald
Miami Herald: Will the Obama-era War Court Prosecutor Stay On? No Word Yet.

A federal jury in Manhattan on Monday found Ahmad Rahimi guilty on all counts in connection with planting two bombs in New York City in September 2016, including one that exploded and injured more than two dozen people.

Rahimi, a 29-year-old naturalized U.S. citizen who lived in Elizabeth, N.J., faces a mandatory life sentence in prison. A lawyer for Rahimi said they planned to appeal the verdict, which came after less than a full day of deliberations.

Prosecutors said Rahimi, who was born in Afghanistan, was inspired by al Qaeda and ISIS ideology to plant the bombs, which put the city on high alert and led to a manhunt across two states.

“Today’s verdict is a victory for New York City, a victory for America in its fight against terror,” acting U.S. Attorney Joon H. Kim said outside the Manhattan federal courthouse Monday. “Rahimi’s crimes of hate have been met with swift and resolute justice.” Wall Street Journal, NY Daily News, NPR, Newsday

Sen. John McCain delivered a condemnation of “spurious nationalism” on Monday night in Philadelphia, using his acceptance speech for the National Constitution Center’s Liberty Medal to issue a call to American ideals and a what appeared to be a warning about the leadership approach of President Donald Trump.

“To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain ‘the last best hope of earth’ for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems,” McCain said, “is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history.”

“We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil,” he continued. “We have a moral obligation to continue in our just cause, and we would bring more than shame on ourselves if we don’t. We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent. We wouldn’t deserve to.” Politico

President Trump has reportedly been weighing replacing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson with CIA Director Mike Pompeo, and now, Axios reports, Trump is mulling Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) to replace Pompeo at CIA. Cotton, 40, is open to the switch, a “longtime friend” tells Axios.

The report in Axios continues that Cotton “ is one of the few senators with an easy relationship with Trump, talking to him a few times a week, giving him advice about top jobs (that Trump has taken), and planting the seed for the Iran policy announced Friday.” Axios, The Week

Man accused of planning airport attack released from jail days before: The man arrested for planting an explosive device at a North Carolina airport earlier this month, who planned to “fight a war on U.S. soil,” was released from jail eight days before the incident. Michael Christopher Estes, 46, had been convicted in 2016 of assault with intent to inflict serious bodily injury; he served just a week in jail in late September, though he was sentenced to serve between 10 and 21 months. He was arrested on Oct. 6 for placing a homemade explosive device at the Asheville Regional Airport. NY Daily News

President Trump declared Monday that the U.S. will stay on the sidelines as Iraqi forces took control of the contested city of Kirkuk on Monday, raising concerns about a broader civil conflict erupting in Iraq. “We’re not taking sides,” Trump said at a news conference in the Rose Garden, adding that the United States had a “very good relationship” with the central government and with the Kurds.

The Iraqi forces recaptured military bases, an oil field and other infrastructure held by the Kurdish troops, saying their aim was to return to positions around Kirkuk they held before fleeing in the face of an Islamic State push in 2014. But in the end they went further, entering the city itself. Iraqi officers lowered Kurdistan’s flag and raised Iraq’s flag at the provincial council building in oil-rich Kirkuk, the center of a fierce dispute between the Kurds and Baghdad. Cars packed roads out of the city as some residents rushed to leave. Others who had been unhappy with Kurdish rule took to the streets to celebrate.

The clashes follow a referendum in which the Kurds, who run their own semiautonomous region in northern Iraq, voted overwhelmingly in favor of independence, defying Baghdad, regional powers and the U.S., which warned it would distract from the final battles to defeat the Islamic State. Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times
The Atlantic: The Battles After ISIS
Foreign Policy: Iraqi-Kurdish Clash in Kirkuk Opens Door to More Iranian Influence

U.S. forces conducted airstrikes against two ISIS training camps in Yemen on Monday, killing dozens of ISIS fighters and “disrupting the organization’s attempts to train new fighters,” according to a statement released by the Pentagon. Two camps, containing an estimated 50 fighters, were targeted.

A U.S. defense official told CNN this is the first US strike specifically targeting ISIS in Yemen; earlier strikes have targeted al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.The U.S. military has conducted more than 100 airstrikes this year against AQAP, almost triple last year’s strikes. CNN, ABC News

The massive attack that rocked a bustling Mogadishu street Saturday, killing at least 300 and injuring hundreds more, was a demonstration of resilience by ­al Shabaab, an Islamist militant group that has been battling U.S.-backed forces.

While U.S. officials and other observers say Saturday’s bombing does not necessarily signal ­al Shabaab’s resurgence, it does highlight the group’s ability to absorb setbacks and survive to execute brazen attacks. And it poses tough questions for Somali leaders and the U.S., who have spent years fighting the Islamist insurgency.

The attack also highlights the shortcomings of U.S. drone strikes in a politically fraught country with a weak military and even weaker police. The Trump administration this year eased the rules of engagement in Somalia, allowing it to mount more attacks against al Shabaab by simplifying legal approvals. More than a dozen drone strikes have killed several targets this year.

“Decapitation strikes certainly serve a purpose, but al-Shabab will not be defeated this way. They replenish leadership very quickly,” Matt Bryden, a security consultant on the Horn of Africa who once served as a United Nations expert, told the Associated Press. Washington Post, Associated Press, Wall Street Journal

North Korea warned on Monday that a nuclear war “may break out any moment” as the U.S. and South Korea began one of the largest joint naval drills off both the east and west coasts of the peninsula. Kim In Ryong, North Korea’s deputy ambassador to the United Nations, said on Monday that his nation had become a “full-fledged nuclear power which possesses the delivery means of various ranges” and warned that “the entire U.S. mainland is within our firing range.” Bloomberg
New York Times: The World Once Laughed at North Korean Cyberpower. No More.

A provincial police chief and more than a dozen officers were killed in eastern Afghanistan on Tuesday when Taliban gunmen in explosive vests entered their headquarters by blowing through its walls with a bomb-laden vehicle. More than 100 people were injured in the attack on the station in Gardez, the capital of Paktia Province, according to local news reports. New York Times, BBC News

FBI helps in arrest of Spanish woman accused of ISIS recruiting: Spain’s Interior Ministry says the civil guard has arrested a 21-year-old Spanish woman who allegedly recruited other women to join the Islamic State group in conflict areas. The ministry said Civil Guard agents arrested the woman on Tuesday in Palamos, a coastal town in the northeastern Catalonia region, in an operation helped by the FBI. The woman allegedly was part of a global network that police have been dismantling for two years. Associated Press
Should we use the ‘t’ word for right-wing violence? “Although many definitions of terrorism exist, the most prominent make little differentiation about the cause that violence serves; whether it is the Klan or Al Qaeda, the specific agenda is not what counts,” writes Daniel Byman in Lawfare. “But both the political baggage that comes with the terrorism label and American public perceptions make it far easier to use the t-word when discussing foreign groups than when describing domestic ones.”

If Trump wants to confront Iran, he should start in Kirkuk: “When decertifying the Iran nuclear deal last week, President Trump cited Tehran’s destabilizing role in the Middle East as a reason for his decision,” writes Ranj Alaaldin in Foreign Policy. “Just days later, as if to confirm Trump’s argument, Iraqi Shiite militias aligned with Iran launched an offensive on the Kurdish Peshmerga in the oil-rich, disputed territory of Kirkuk. Trump now has an opportunity to prove that his rhetoric on Iran is more than just grandstanding, and that he is serious about confronting what he described as Iranian attempts to sow ‘conflict, terror and turmoil’ across the Middle East.”

Trump’s Iran strategy looks ominously familiar: “Listening to President Donald Trump’s Iran speech on Friday—in which he announced his refusal to certify the nuclear deal to Congress—I am sure I was not alone in having flashbacks to 2002,” writes Philip Gordon in Politico. “Then, as now, we watched as a U.S. president set the United States on a course for war in the Middle East by politicizing intelligence, making false claims about weapons of mass destruction, overselling the benefits of confrontation and pulling members of Congress—afraid of looking soft on terrorism and WMD—along in his wake.”

Why I’m going on a hunger strike: “I’m going on hunger strike from today. I’m not allowing myself anything but sips of water,” writes Tom Watson, deputy leader of the UK’s Labour Party in the Guardian. “I’m following the Guantánamo diet in solidarity with two men who are being slowly starved to death by President Trump.”

For cutting-edge analysis of the geopolitical events shaping global affairs, read today’s TSC IntelBrief.

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