The Soufan Group Morning Brief


The death toll in the bomb and gun attack on a Sufi mosque in northern Sinai has risen to 305, Egypt’s state prosecutor said Saturday, with 27 children among the dead.

Friday’s attack, the deadliest terrorist incident in Egypt’s modern history, was described in a statement by the prosecutor in gruesome, forensic detail: Between 25 and 30 gunmen, traveling in five vehicles and carrying an Islamic State flag, surrounded a Sufi mosque on all sides in Bir al-Abed. After an explosion, they positioned themselves outside the main entrance of the mosque and its 12 windows, spraying the worshipers with gunfire. Seven parked cars were set ablaze to prevent victims from escaping.

The assault has sharpened scrutiny of Egypt’s counterinsurgency tactics against a dogged Islamist insurgency that has surged in strength since 2013, after President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi came to power in a military takeover. Counterterrorism experts paint a picture of a stubbornly outmoded and overly aggressive approach that is unsuited to the fight, and that perpetuates the mistakes of successive Egyptian leaders.

“The Egyptians have failed to acknowledge that ISIS is not just a terrorism threat,” Andrew Miller, a former Egypt specialist at the National Security Council, now at the Project on Middle East Democracy in Washington, told the New York Times. “Killing terrorists is not sufficient. They need to deprive ISIS of local support, which is rooted in Cairo’s historical neglect of the Sinai.” New York Times, CNN, Reuters
Boston Globe editorial: Egypt Reels from Terror
New York Times: To the World, They Are Muslims. To ISIS, Sufis Are Heretics.
Washington Post: With the Loss of Its Caliphate, ISIS Could Turn Even More Reckless and Radical
Amid an unprecedented wave of departures by top and mid-level diplomats, frustration with the leadership of Rex Tillerson has broken into the open, as diplomats going out the door make their feelings known and members of Congress raise questions about the impact of their leaving.

In a letter to Tillerson last week, Democratic members of the House Foreign Relations Committee, citing what they said was “the exodus of more than 100 senior Foreign Service officers from the State Department since January,” expressed concern about “what appears to be the intentional hollowing-out of our senior diplomatic ranks.”
Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, and Senator Jeanne Shaheen, Democrat of New Hampshire, sent a similar letter, telling Tillerson that “America’s diplomatic power is being weakened internally as complex global crises are growing externally.”

The number of those with the department’s top two ranks of career ambassador and career minister — equivalent to four- and three-star generals — will have been cut in half by Dec. 1, from 39 to 19. The political appointees who normally join the department after a change in administration have not made up for those departures. So far, just 10 of the top 44 political positions in the department have been filled, and for most of the vacancies, Tillerson has not nominated anyone. New York Times
Washington Post: Foreign Service Leadership Being ‘Decapitated’ and ‘Depleted at Dizzying Speed’

Jury to resume deliberations in Benghazi trial: Jury deliberations resume today in the trial of Abu Ahmed Khattala, who is accused of organizing the 2012 terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. PBS NewsHour

Pakistan’s government struck a deal on Monday with leaders of a fundamentalist Islamist protest movement, saying that the country’s law minister would step down in return for an end to demonstrations that had brought violent clashes and paralyzed the Pakistani capital for weeks.

The embattled law minister, Zahid Hamid, whom protesters had accused of blasphemy, was set to resign as part of negotiations overseen by Pakistan’s military.

The agreement was widely seen as another in a string of capitulations by the government to religious extremists who command growing popularity in the country. New York Times, Reuters, CNN, Associated Press

The State Department criticized Pakistan on Friday for freeing Hafiz Saeed, whom the U.S. and India have accused of masterminding the 2008 attack that killed 166 people in Mumbai and whom the U.S. has designated a global terrorist.

Pakistan released Saeed after a three-judge panel found there was “nothing tangible” in the evidence presented against him to justify further detention.

Saeed is allegedly the founder of Jamaat-ud-Dawa, which is widely believed to be a front for the Lashkar-e-Taiba militant group. Wall Street Journal, Guardian

In recent months, female immigrants to the Islamic State have been fleeing the caliphate by the hundreds, eventually returning to their native countries or finding sanctuary in detention centers or refugee camps along the way. Some are mothers with young children who say they were pressured into traveling to Iraq or Syria to be with their husbands. But a disturbing number appear to have embraced the group’s ideology and remain committed to its goals, according to interviews with former residents of the caliphate as well as intelligence officials and analysts who are closely tracking the returnees, reports the Washington Post.

From North Africa to Western Europe, the new arrivals are presenting an unexpected challenge to law enforcement officials, who were bracing for an influx of male returnees but instead have found themselves deciding the fate of scores of women and children. Washington Post

After years of cynicism, sneering or simply tuning out all things political, Iran’s urban middle classes have been swept up in a wave of nationalist fervor, reports the New York Times.

The changing attitude, while some years in the making, can be attributed to two related factors: the election of President Trump and the growing competition with Saudi Arabia, Iran’s sectarian rival, for regional dominance. New York Times
Foreign fighter hot potato: “Since August, I have examined the issue of what I refer to as unaccounted-for deportees. These are individuals who have been deported to a third country for their ties to the Islamic State, but not been incarcerated,” writes Kim Cragin in Lawfare. “I have discovered that the sheer volume of foreign fighter returnees, combined with local Islamic State fighters, has over-stretched the judicial systems of some countries. These countries simply do not have any more room in their prisons. They do not have the resources to implement de-radicalization programs for prisoners. And, in some instances, they do not have sufficient evidence to prosecute Islamic State fighters.”

Mass murder is how ISIS tries to stay relevant: “Terrorist groups never give up easily. They fight for survival and relevance, and if they suffer losses—as the Islamic State has in Syria and Iraq—they feel the need to offset them with quick and spectacular massacres like this one [in Egypt],” writes Graeme Wood in The Atlantic. “For the Islamic State, the motive and opportunity are accompanied by a special urgency. These 300 won’t be the last.”

Rex Tillerson is fiddling with PowerPoint while the world burns: “Imagine holding the job of representing the most important country on the planet, facing an exploding array of crises around the world, and focusing not on diplomacy but on fiddling around with your org chart and mundane tasks like fixing the email system,” writes David McKean in Politico. “Yet that’s what Rex Tillerson has done in his bizarre and disappointing 10 months as America’s secretary of state.”

Art censorship at Guantanamo: “Art censorship and destruction are tactics fit for terrorist regimes, not for the U.S. military,” writes Erin Thompson in the New York Times. “The art [by Guantanamo detainees on display in New York] poses no security threat: It is screened by experts who study the material for secret messages before it leaves the camp, and no art by current prisoners can be sold. Guantánamo detainees deserve basic human rights as they await trial. Taking away ownership of their art is both incredibly petty and utterly cruel.”
For cutting-edge analysis of the geopolitical events shaping global affairs, read today’s TSC IntelBrief.

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