The Soufan Group Morning Brief


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WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 18, 2017
RAQQA RECAPTURED FROM ISIS BY U.S.-BACKED MILITIAS

American-backed forces said on Tuesday that they had seized the northern Syrian city of Raqqa from the Islamic State, a major blow to the militant group, which had long used the city as the de facto capital of its self-declared caliphate.

The military operations within the city are completely over,” said Talal Silo, a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, which led the months-long battle against ISIS in Raqqa. “We are combing through the city to make sure there are no sleeper cells and to defuse the mines.” The United States Central Command stopped short of declaring victory, saying that “more than 90 percent of Raqqa is in S.D.F. control.”

Whether final or not, the seemingly inevitable defeat in Raqqa carries heavy symbolic weight. The first significant city to come under ISIS’s control, in 2014, Raqqa became a template for the group’s brutality. Militants in the city carried out public beheadings for blasphemy and crucifixions for murder. Child soldiers were radicalized and taught to kill. The city also held some of the most important assets and institutions for the group’s state-like operations in Syria, such as its highest courts.

With the fall of Raqqa, the Islamic State has lost the two most important cities of its self-declared caliphate in three months. It was pushed out of Mosul in July, and now holds only a fraction of the territory it once controlled. Wall Street Journal, New York Times

What’s next for ISIS? ISIS 2.0: “Rather than declare the Islamic State and its virulent ideology conquered, many Western and Arab counterterrorism officials are bracing for a new, lethal incarnation of the jihadi group.” New York Times
Related:
Washington Post: Al Qaeda Set to Gain as ISIS Disintegrates
Politico: Raqqa’s Liberation Will Change, Not End, Fight Against ISIS
CNN: Trump Takes Credit for ISIS ‘Giving Up’
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FEDERAL JUDGE BLOCKS TRUMP’S THIRD TRAVEL BAN
A federal judge on Tuesday largely blocked the Trump administration from implementing the latest version of the president’s controversial travel ban, setting up yet another legal showdown on the extent of the executive branch’s powers when it comes to setting immigration policy.

The decision from U.S. District Judge Derrick Watson in Hawaii is sure to be appealed, but for now, it means that the administration cannot restrict the entry of travelers from six of the eight countries that administration officials said were unable or unwilling to provide information that the United States wanted to vet the countries’ citizens.

The latest ban was set to go fully into effect in the early hours of Wednesday, barring various types of travelers from Syria, Libya, Iran, Yemen, Chad, Somalia, North Korea and Venezuela. Watson’s order stops it, at least temporarily, with respect to all the countries except North Korea and Venezuela. Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, New York Times

SESSIONS FACES GRILLING ON CAPITOL HILL
Attorney General Jeff Sessions is testifying at 10 a.m. on Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee for the first time since he was confirmed in February. He is expected to be asked about a number of topics, including his relationship with President Trump, the curtailing of the Justice Department’s broad approach to civil rights protections and his hard line on immigration enforcement. NBC News, New York Times
Related:
Lawfare: Ten Questions the Senate Judiciary Committee Should Ask Sessions

Mueller interviews: Special Counsel Robert Mueller and his team reportedly interviewed former press secretary Sean Spicer this week. Several weeks ago, he also interviewed Matt Tait, a cybersecurity expert who claims he was "recruited to collude with the Russians" in the 2016 election by a longtime GOP operative with ties to the Trump campaign. Politico, The Hill

Iraqi militia suit: A group of American veterans filed a federal lawsuit Tuesday against U.S. and European drug companies and medical device makers, accusing them of supporting an Iran-backed Iraqi militia that killed and wounded hundreds of Americans. The lawsuit accuses companies including Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer of paying bribes to officials of Iraq's health ministry that benefited the Mahdi Army, an Iranian-backed militia that the suit says worked closely with Hezbollah, a Lebanese group that has been designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. government. NBC News


PHILIPPINES CALLS MARAWI ‘LIBERATED’ FROM ISIS
President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines on Tuesday declared the southern city of Marawi “liberated from terrorist influence,” five months after Islamic militants stormed the town, killing scores and sending thousands fleeing.

The president’s visit to Marawi came one day after the authorities declared government forces had killed the insurgency’s leaders in a gunfight. But gunfire could still be heard in pockets of the city, where about 30 militants, some of them foreigners, continued a last stand. At least 20 civilians remain hostages, the authorities said. New York Times


CNN REPORT: PUTIN’S MAN BEHIND THE TROLL FACTORY
Yevgeny Prigozhin is a Russian oligarch dubbed “chef” to President Vladimir Putin by the Russian press. In 2002, he served caviar and truffles to President George W. Bush during a summit in St. Petersburg. Before that, he renovated a boat that became the city’s most exclusive restaurant.

But his business empire has expanded far beyond the kitchen. US investigators believe it was Prigozhin’s company that financed a Russian “troll factory” that used social media to spread fake news during the 2016 US presidential campaign, according to multiple officials briefed on the investigation. One part of the factory had a particularly intriguing name and mission: a “Department of Provocations” dedicated to sowing fake news and social divisions in the West. CNN

MI5 CHIEF: UK FACING MOST SEVERE TERROR THREAT EVER
Britain is facing its most severe ever terrorist threat and fresh attacks in the country are inevitable, the head of Britain’s normally secretive domestic intelligence service said this week in a rare public speech.

Andrew Parker, the director general of MI5, said the UK had seen “a dramatic upshift in the threat” from Islamist terrorism this year, reflecting attacks that have taken place in Westminster, Manchester, and London Bridge. The spy chief said: “That threat is multi-dimensional, evolving rapidly and operating at a scale and pace we’ve not seen before.” He added: “It’s at the highest tempo I have seen in my 34-year career. Today there is more terrorist activity, coming at us more quickly, and it can be harder to detect.” Guardian

UK strengthens powers to block M&A deals on national security grounds: The U.K. government on Tuesday moved to extend its powers to block foreign acquisitions of British companies that threaten national security to include makers of advanced technology alongside military equipment manufacturers. Proposals also include measures that would allow the government to scrutinize much smaller deals than current rules allow. Wall Street Journal, Financial Times
TOP OP-EDS
Why the collapse of al-Nashiri’s defense team matters: “Based on the facts that I know, this issue is unlikely to be limited to the al-Nashiri defense team,” writes Michel Paradis in Lawfare. “Counsel in the long-delayed September 11 case have, as of this morning, sought discovery respecting the factual underpinnings of the excusal of al-Nashiri’s civilian trial counsel. If they too determine that they are unable to preserve the attorney-client privilege, you can expect that this issue will have a wide-reaching impact on the military commission in Guantanamo more broadly.  At a minimum, it will further postpone justice that has already been long delayed.”

The war on ISIS held the Middle East together: “The fall of the Islamic State’s stronghold and symbolic capital in Raqqa brings a certain grim satisfaction. But let’s not kid ourselves,” said Thanassis Cambanis in The Atlantic. “The end of ISIS’s temporal empire and first capital does nothing to spare the Middle East and the world of the array of strategic threats and headaches of which jihadis are but one leading edge. At best, the war against ISIS pressed a ‘pause’ button on the unspooling narrative of conflict and fragmentation. With the fall of Raqqa, the sad story will pick up exactly where it left off in 2014.”

Trump makes Iran policy based on a caricature: “Iran is not the same country that took American diplomats hostage in 1979, not in terms of who its people are. It is not the same country that Trump, or anyone over 60, myself included, remembers — one that had scowling and shouting men in beards and screaming women in black chadors, stomping on and burning American flags in 1980. Today, many of those revolutionaries are in jail, under house arrest, in exile, retired or simply tired, or dead,” writes Hooman Majd in the Washington Post. “What Trump either doesn’t know, or doesn’t want to know, is that Iranians may not all like their government or even the political system, but they also don’t take kindly to an American president lecturing them on the evil nature of a government that they stood in line for hours to vote into office just a few months ago.”
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