The Soufan Group Morning Brief



A would-be suicide bomber detonated a pipe bomb strapped to his body in the heart of Manhattan’s busiest subway corridor on Monday, causing transit chaos and terrifying thousands of travelers who fled through tunnels filled with smoke. The suspect, identified by police as Akayed Ullah, 27, an immigrant from Bangladesh who lived in Brooklyn and is now in custody, told investigators he chose the location because of its Christmas-themed posters, recalling strikes in Europe against Christmas markets. He said he set off the bomb in retaliation for U.S. airstrikes on ISIS targets in Syria and elsewhere, several law enforcement officials said.

Ullah also said he watched ISIS propaganda online and read other extremist writings, including the al-Qaeda propaganda magazine Inspire, and learned how to make the explosive online. But the explosive did not fully detonate when it went off in the underground tunnel near the Times Square subway station and the Port Authority Bus Terminal. Ullah was the only one seriously injured; he was taken to Bellevue Hospital with serious burns to his hands and abdomen. Ullah has legally lived in the U.S. since 2011, sources said. He arrived in the country through a visa for people with relatives who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents. Officials in Bangladesh said they were trying to track down the extended family and any known associates.NBC News, NY Daily News, LA Times, Reuters

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio called the explosion an “attempted terror attack.” He said Ullah acted alone and that no other devices had been found. The authorities were searching Ullah’s residence on Ocean Parkway, pursuant to a federal warrant, one law enforcement official said. While no formal announcement had been made, both federal and local law enforcement officials indicated that Ullah would be prosecuted in federal court in Manhattan by the office of the acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York. The attack is being investigated by the Joint Terrorism Task Force. New York Times, USA Today, ABC News
The Intercept: The Collapse of the Islamic State and the Rise of the “Fail-Bomber”
PBS Newshour: Counterterrorism Chief Says ISIS Adapting to Inspire, Not Control Attacks
The Guardian: Manhattan Bomb: Officials Will Focus on Recent Activity and Overseas Links
Washington Post: Family of Alleged NY Bomber ‘Outraged’ at Treatment by Law Enforcement
Wall Street Journal: Google, Others Take Uneven Approach to Policing Extremist Content

In an interview with Politico, Michael Morell, former deputy director of the CIA, attributed Russia’s interference in the U.S. election to failures in the intelligence community. Morell said Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election was an “intelligence failure” and “a failure of imagination that’s not dissimilar to the failure of imagination that we had for 9/11.” Referring to the “weaponization of social media,” Morell said U.S. spy agencies did not anticipate that social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, as well as electronic hacking, could be used to attack the country’s election.

Morell also said that the U.S. was vulnerable because it had shifted its focus to fighting terrorism. “As we were trying to protect the country from terrorists, we became more blind to what was going on in the rest of the world, both from a collection perspective and from an analytic perspective.” The Hill, Politico

A federal judge said Monday that she will rule shortly in a case in which she suggested the U.S. government is asking courts for a “blank check” to indefinitely detain an American citizen held as an enemy combatant in Syria. U.S. District Judge Tanya Chutkan stepped up concerns about an unidentified citizen and suspected member of ISIS who has been detained for nearly three months without charge after being captured in Syria and transferred to the U.S. military. The ACLU has petitioned to represent the man to assert his constitutional right to go to court to challenge being held in custody. Justice Department civil division attorney Kathryn Wyer said there was no evidence the man wanted to challenge his detention, calling that “speculation.” Chutkan on Monday appeared to reject that argument. “I don’t see it as at all speculative he wants to assert his rights...He says he wants a lawyer. Isn’t that enough?” she said. Washington Post

An 18-year-old in Houston has been arrested and charged with illegally distributing explosive-making information and attempting to support ISIS. The Justice Department said Monday that Kaan Sercan Damlarkaya, a U.S. citizen, was arrested on December 8 following an undercover FBI operation. Damlarkaya said he had tried twice to travel to Syria to fight for ISIS and that he would commit an attack in the U.S. if efforts to travel overseas failed. A Justice Department statement said Damlarkaya provided a formula for explosive Triacetone Triperoxide and instructions on how to use it in a pressure cooker device containing shrapnel to alleged ISIS supporters. In addition, Damlarkaya reportedly provided instructions on how to build an assault rifle from readily available parts in order to avoid detection from authorities. If convicted, he faces a possible 20-year maximum prison term. Associated Press, CBS News, ABC News

A federal judge on Monday denied the Trump administration’s request to delay an order requiring the military to begin accepting transgender recruits starting January 1, saying the argument for more time seemed based on “vague claims.” U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly wrote that “the Court is not persuaded that Defendants will be irreparably injured by” meeting the New Year’s Day deadline.  The ruling follows Judge Kollar-Kotelly’s earlier opinion blocking the president’s ban on military recruitment of transgender men and women that possibly would have forced the dismissal of current service members starting in March.

Justice Department spokeswoman Lauren Ehrsam said in a statement that “we disagree with the Court’s ruling and are seeking to stay the Defense Department’s obligations under that ruling as we evaluate next steps.” The Pentagon said it would comply with the court’s order while pursuing its appeal. Last week, the Pentagon said it had established a panel of experts to propose recommendations on the issue of accepting transgender recruits following a series of rulings in federal court regarding the administration's policy to prohibit transgender recruits. Washington Post, USA Today, CNN

Men accused of bomb plot want Trump voters on jury: Three men accused of plotting to bomb a mosque and apartment complex housing Somali refugees asked a federal judge last week to include prospective jurors from rural western Kansas because they are twice as likely to have voted for President Trump. A defense motion argues that plans to only summon citizens in the more urban counties closest to the federal courthouse in Wichita is a discriminatory practice that excludes rural and conservative jurors. The trial begins March 19. Gavin Wright, Patrick Stein, and Curtis Allen, who were part of a militia group called “the Crusaders,” are charged with conspiracy to use a weapon of mass destruction and conspiracy against civil rights for allegedly planning to detonate truck bombs the day after the November 2016 election. Associated Press, NY Daily News

Thousands of Russian private contractors reportedly fighting in Syria: According to the Russian website Fontanka, about 3,000 Russians under contract to a private military contractor known as Wagner have fought in Syria since 2015. In a visit to a Russian air base in Syria on Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced Russian troops would begin withdrawing after “victory” against ISIS. But private contractors are likely to remain in Syria. “By having this military company Wagner, they can have a force they can actually deploy...but when people die, it doesn’t have to be announced,” Mark Galeotti, senior researcher at the Institute of International Relations in Prague, said. Washington Post

U.S. strikes, Afghan raids target Taliban drug money: American airstrikes and Afghan ground raids over the past month have so far destroyed 25 drug labs in southern Afghanistan, wiping out $16 million in Taliban proceeds, according to military officials and Drug Enforcement Administration estimates. Gen. John W. Nicholson Jr., the top American commander in Afghanistan, said the campaign would last for months, as the Taliban operates 400 to 500 labs across the country to sustain the group’s $200 million-a-year opium trade. The drug money accounts for at least 60 percent of the Taliban’s income, and goes to buy weapons, recruit and pay fighters, and conduct operations. President Trump’s strategy in Afghanistan aims to drive the Taliban to a negotiated settlement. It seeks not only to squeeze the group’s opium revenues, but also to increase Afghan army offensives backed by American air power and to hold elections to enhance the Afghan government’s legitimacy. New York Times

Hezbollah leader calls for Arab countries to stop seeking ties with Israel: Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, called on Monday for Arab countries to support the Palestinian cause and abandon their pursuit of normalizing relations with Israel. Speaking via a video feed at a rally in Beirut that was organized to protest President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Nasrallah called on Arab and Muslim countries to evict Israeli embassies and cut diplomatic ties with Israel. The rally drew thousands of protesters and was the largest yet in Lebanon in response to Trump’s Jerusalem declaration last week. New York Times

China plans refugee camps on North Korean border: A Chinese county along the border with North Korea is constructing refugee camps intended to house thousands of migrants fleeing a possible crisis on the Korean Peninsula, according to an internal document that appears to have been leaked from China’s main state-owned telecommunications company. Three villages in Changbai County and two cities in the northeastern border province of Jilin have been designated for the camps, according to the document from China Mobile. The camps are an unusual, albeit tacit, admission by China that instability in North Korea is increasingly likely, and that refugees could swarm across the border. Lu Kang, China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, told reporters on Monday that he was unaware of the plan for the refugee camps, but he did not deny their existence. New York Times

Amnesty accuses EU of abetting migrant rights violations in Libya: European governments are “complicit” in grave human rights violations in Libya through their support for authorities there that often work with people smugglers and torture refugees and migrants, Amnesty International said Tuesday. In an attempt to stem the flow of people across the Mediterranean to Europe, the EU is financing a system that routinely acts in collusion with militia groups and people traffickers to “make money from human suffering,” Amnesty said in a report. The report said up to 20,000 people are held in detention centers in Libya and subject to “torture, forced labor, extortion, and unlawful killings.” Reuters, The Guardian

Putin visits Egypt in sign of closer ties: Russian President Vladimir Putin visited Egypt on Monday, where he signed a deal to advance plans for a nuclear reactor but delayed the resumption of direct flights that were suspended after the 2015 bombing of a Russian passenger plane. During Putin’s second visit to Egypt in two years, he and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi appeared keen to cement ties between the two countries. “Russia always paid a special attention to expanding friendly and mutually beneficial ties with Egypt, our longtime reliable partner in the Middle East and North Africa,” Putin said. Reuters, Associated Press
Why the death of Saleh offers a chance for peace in Yemen: “Yemen’s former President, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is dead...We should not rejoice over his death. I and the other leaders of our peaceful revolution never wished him this end, but he reaped what he sowed,” Tawakkol Karman writes in the Washington Post. “Hopefully, Saleh’s death offers an opportunity to escape the vicious cycle of bloodshed. Yemenis must work with the international community to develop a road map based on the agreements reached at the U.N.-brokered national dialogue conference in the wake of the revolution.”

In Afghanistan, today’s pro-government militias could be tomorrow’s insurgents: “The lesson is clear: Arming new militias in Afghanistan is a dangerous game,” Deedee Derksen writes in War on the Rocks. “True, in some places militias have kept the Taliban — or those commanders that were at that stage fighting for the insurgency — at bay. Overall, however, arming thousands more men outside the formal security forces is a mistake, more likely over time to create problems and complicate efforts to withdraw U.S. troops.”

Why team Trump needs to lay off the Mueller probe: “The attacks on Mueller, together with Trump’s lawyers’ embrace of an aggressive legal theory, put in question whether the Department of Justice will be permitted to complete its investigation,” Bob Bauer writes in the New York Times. “Should the president next take the step of firing Mr. Mueller, he would end professionally conducted fact-finding on this crucial question of motive.”

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

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