The Soufan Group Morning Brief


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WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 29, 2017
GUILTY VERDICT IN BENGHAZI TERRORISM TRIAL

A Libyan militant accused of being a ringleader of the deadly 2012 attacks on U.S. facilities in Benghazi was convicted on terrorism charges Tuesday, but the jury, which deliberated for five days after a seven-week trial, declined to find him directly responsible for the deaths of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

The defendant, Ahmed Abu Khattala, 46, was convicted on four counts — including providing material support for terrorism, conspiracy to do so, destroying property and placing lives in jeopardy at the mission, and carrying a semiautomatic firearm during a crime of violence — but acquitted on 14 others. He faces life in prison.

The outcome was reminiscent of the 2010 federal trial of Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a Tanzanian man and former Guantánamo Bay detainee who was charged in federal court as a conspirator in the 1998 bombings of two American embassies in East Africa that killed hundreds. Ghailani was acquitted of most of the charges, including each murder count for those who died, but he was still sentenced to life in prison for a conviction on one count of conspiracy.

Prosecutors acknowledged that no evidence existed that Khattala had personally fired any shots or set any buildings ablaze, but argued that he had nevertheless helped orchestrate the attacks and aided them while they were underway. To make that case, they drew primarily on testimony from three Libyan witnesses and on a database said to be Khattala’s cellphone records. New York Times, Washington Post, CNN,

Breaking: Trump retweets anti-Muslim videos from British far-right group BBC News
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SUSPECT IN NYC TRUCK ATTACK PLEADS NOT GUILTY
The man accused of killing eight people and injuring at least a dozen others by intentionally driving a truck into bicyclists and pedestrians along a path on Halloween in lower Manhattan has pleaded “not guilty” to murder and terrorism charges in federal court. An attorney for Sayfullo Saipov, a 29-year-old legal immigrant from Uzbekistan, entered the plea Tuesday during Sapiov’s arraignment in Manhattan federal court before U.S. District Judge Vernon Broderick, who did not set a trial date. Saipov could face the death penalty if he is found guilty of the charges, though it’s not clear whether federal prosecutors will seek it. PBS NewsHour, NPR, CBS News

TURK AT CENTER OF IRAN SANCTIONS CASE IS HELPING U.S. PROSECUTORS
In a case that could have implications for former national security adviser Michael Flynn, a Turkish-Iranian gold trader -- whose prosecution in Manhattan drew sharp criticism from Turkey’s president -- has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with the American authorities.

Reza Zarrab, who is being held by the authorities at an undisclosed location, pleaded guilty on Oct. 26 to all seven counts against him, including conspiracy to violate the United States sanctions against Iran, newly unsealed court records show. Zarrab is expected to testify on Wednesday as a government witness in the trial of a Turkish banker, Mehmet Hakan Atilla, that began this week in Federal District Court. Zarrab, Atilla, and seven other defendants were charged with participating in a billion-dollar scheme to smuggle gold for oil in violation of the Iran sanctions.

Flynn allegedly plotted on behalf of Turkish interests to help free Zarrab. Zarrab’s cooperation with federal prosecutors raised speculation that he was also cooperating with special counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry into Flynn, because it seemed unlikely prosecutors would offer a plea deal to Zarrab in exchange for his cooperation for the comparatively lower-profile trial of Atilla. Daily Beast, New York Times, Bloomberg, Slate

FACEBOOK SAYS 99 PERCENT OF TERRORIST CONTENT SPOTTED BY AI
Facebook’s artificial intelligence is becoming increasingly adept at keeping terrorist content off the social network, the company has said. Today, 99 percent of Islamic State and Al Qaeda-related content Facebook removes is detected by the company’s AI before any user flags it, Monika Bickert, Facebook’s head of global policy management, and Brian Fishman, head of counter-terrorism policy, said Wednesday. They said in some cases the software was able to block the content from ever being posted in the first place. Bloomberg, Wall Street Journal

TILLERSON REBUTS CRITICISM OF STATE DEPARTMENT CUTS
Secretary of State Rex Tillerson hit back at critics Tuesday who have claimed that he is overseeing a “hollowing out” of the department. “There is no hollowing out,” Tillerson said somewhat defensively on Tuesday when asked about it during a question-and-answer session after he gave a speech at the Wilson Center in Washington. “These numbers that people are throwing around are just false. They’re wrong.”

On Monday, a former corporate executive Tillerson hired in August to oversee the reorganization he calls a redesign abruptly quit. Maliz Beams was the third person assigned the job Tillerson recently called the most important task he will accomplish during his tenure, and though she was not widely known within the building, her departure only raised more questions. Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg

FLYNN PUSHED NUCLEAR POWER PLAN FOR MIDDLE EAST WHILE IN THE WHITE HOUSE
Private-sector backers of a controversial Middle East nuclear-power plan worked with former national security adviser Mike Flynn to promote it inside the White House, to the point of sending him a draft memo for the president to sign authorizing the project. The week after President Trump’s inauguration, Flynn forwarded a memo written by a former business associate and told his staff to fashion it into a policy for President Trump’s approval. The proposal — to develop a “Marshall Plan” of investment in the Middle East — was being pushed by a company called IP3 that Flynn later admitted he had advised during the 2016 campaign and transition. Representatives continued to meet with Jared Kushner after Flynn resigned. Wall Street Journal, Washington Post
Related:
BuzzFeed: Mueller’s Probe May Now Include Flynn’s DIA Tenure

Trump questions whether ‘Access Hollywood’ tape is real: Both the New York Times and Washington Post report that President Trump has repeatedly suggested to allies that the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape of him making vulgar comments about women is not really him.

Advisers also say he continues to privately harbor a handful of conspiracy theories that have no grounding in fact. In recent months, they say, Trump has used closed-door conversations to question the authenticity of President Barack Obama’s birth certificate. He has also repeatedly claimed that he lost the popular vote last year because of widespread voter fraud. New York Times, Washington Post

Classified data on Pentagon program accidentally leaked: Classified data on a joint program run by the National Security Agency (NSA) and the Army was accidentally leaked online. Researchers at cybersecurity firm Upguard discovered the data, which was stored on an Amazon Web Services cloud storage bucket without a password. The Hill


NORTH KOREA LAUNCHES BALLISTIC MISSILE IN SEA OF JAPAN
North Korea claimed the entire United States mainland was within reach after “successfully” testing a new kind of intercontinental ballistic missile, which it called the Hwasong-15, and said could carry a “super large heavy warhead.”

While Pyongyang is prone to exaggeration, its boast of having all of the United States in range is in line with experts’ calculations that the missile launched Wednesday, which flew 10 times higher than the International Space Station, could theoretically reach Washington, D.C. Washington Post, Politico


SAUDI ARABIA PREPARES TO RELEASE FORMER GUANTANAMO DETAINEES
Saudi Arabia is quietly preparing to release a group of Yemenis once held in Guantánamo, the first non-Saudis to graduate from its 13-year-old deradicalization program. The imminent release of the nine Yemeni men, however, comes at a tense time for the kingdom and a potentially awkward moment for Washington.

The Yemenis will be freed in Saudi Arabia in the coming days, an official at the Mohammed bin Nayef Center for Counseling and Care told Foreign Policy during a visit in late October. Another official confirmed on Friday the men have not yet been released, but will be shortly. Four more Yemenis are slated to leave the rehabilitation facility outside Riyadh in 2018. Foreign Policy
Related:
Independent: More than 40 Islamic Countries Just Met and Vowed to Wipe Terrorism Off the Map
TOP OP-EDS
Dismantling the Foreign Service: “The Foreign Service, our country’s irreplaceable asset for understanding and interacting with a complex and dangerous world, is facing perhaps its greatest crisis,” said Nicholas Burns and Ryan Crocker in the New York Times. “President Trump’s draconian budget cuts for the State Department and his dismissive attitude toward our diplomats and diplomacy itself threaten to dismantle a great foreign service just when we need it most.”

Necessary surveillance: “Under current practice, the FBI is authorized to review its FISA data without a warrant, as long as the bureau follows specific court-ordered safeguards (called ‘minimization procedures’) and internal policies designed to protect privacy. Critics, however, consider such queries ‘backdoor searches’ that circumvent the Fourth Amendment because they may reveal Americans’ communications,” writes Matt Olsen in Slate.com. “Requiring the FBI to obtain a warrant to review information it has lawfully acquired would interfere substantially with its ability to conduct national security investigations.”

Is Trump going to lie his way into war with Iran? “A decade and a half ago, in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq, President George W. Bush’s administration conjured up not only terrifying images of nuclear mushroom clouds but also of Saddam Hussein plotting with Osama bin Laden to attack the United States,” writes Mehdi Hasan in the New York Times. “It wasn’t true, of course. But it helped make the case for war. That may be why a similar lie is getting trotted out again now, except this time the target is Iraq’s neighbor, Iran.”
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