The Soufan Group Morning Brief



A Massachusetts man convicted of conspiring to support ISIS in a 2015 plot to attack police and behead a conservative blogger wept on Tuesday as he asked forgiveness from a judge who sentenced him to 28 years in prison. U.S. District Judge William Young told David Wright, 28, that he had “embraced a monstrous evil” when he plotted with his uncle and a friend to travel to New York to attempt to behead Pamela Geller in an act of retribution for her organization of a “Draw Mohammed” contest.

The group never made the trip, as Wright’s uncle, Usaamah Rahim, lost patience and told his co-conspirators that he wanted to kill law enforcement officers in Massachusetts. Wright testified during his trial that he had been living in a “fantasy world” when the group discussed plans including somehow hijacking a U.S. warship. He said he was stunned when Rahim attacked police.“I reject everything that ISIS stands for and represents,” Wright said in remarks on Tuesday. “I want to apologize to law enforcement to the extent that my words or failure to act put them in danger.” Reuters, NBC

Prosecutors had sought a life sentence for Wright, arguing it would send a strong message to others considering terror attacks in the U.S. Wright’s attorneys had asked for a 16-year sentence, saying he should be given the chance to redeem himself after serving his time. Geller, who spoke at Wright’s sentencing, urged the judge to sentence him to life and said it was "impossible to overstate the devastation" he had brought to her life. WBUR, Boston Herald

Senate Republicans are aiming for a short-term extension of a controversial surveillance program that lets the government collect foreign intelligence on U.S. soil, without relying on the budget or other legislation to get it through Congress. Senator John Cornyn (R-TX.) told reporters that the program, known as section 702 of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, could be renewed for several weeks by adding a provision to a stopgap government spending bill. That would give Congress more time to sift through competing bills in the House and Senate to alter and/or reauthorize the law.

Congressional Democrats and Republicans agree the law, which lapses on December 31 without action, is invaluable in helping the U.S. track foreign spies, terrorists, weapons traffickers, and cyber criminals. But a number of lawmakers and privacy advocates want greater protections for the communications of Americans that are picked up during the collection of foreign intelligence. The Trump administration has pushed for a renewal of the law without changes. Associated Press, Washington Post, Bloomberg
McClatchy: Congress Has Days To Re-authorize Foreign Surveillance Program. What If It Fails?

Congressional Russia investigators grill FBI deputy director: FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe was grilled by the House Intelligence Committee behind closed doors on Tuesday amid some Republicans’ concerns that of bias against President Trump. McCabe testified for close to eight hours in a rescheduled interview that came amid the committee’s investigation into Russian interference in the U.S. election. Republicans have raised questions about whether McCabe should have been recused from the Hillary Clinton email investigation over alleged ethical conflicts surrounding his wife, Jill McCabe, a Democrat who ran for political office in Virginia. McCabe has also faced scrutiny over text messages sent by FBI agent Peter Strzok, who was removed from Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team earlier this year after exchanging anti-Trump messages with FBI lawyer Lisa Page. CNN, The Hill

CIA will not confirm documents about Yemen raid: A U.S. government lawyer said on Tuesday that even confirming or denying that the CIA has records about a raid in January in Yemen would reveal intelligence secrets. The raid at the beginning of this year resulted in the death of a U.S. Navy sailor and Yemeni civilians. The ACLU filed a lawsuit in May seeking documents about the operation from the CIA and the Departments of Defense, Justice, and State. While every other agency has agreed to search for records, the CIA has refused to confirm or deny that it has such records. The ACLU filed a motion in October asking a federal judge to order the CIA to produce documents related to the raid. Associated Press

U.S. short of options to punish North Korea for cyberattack: The Trump administration vowed Tuesday that North Korea would be held accountable for a the WannaCry ransomware that affected 150 countries, but it did not say how, highlighting the difficulty of punishing Pyongyang. The public declaration of blame by Washington reflects growing concern over North Korea’s cyber capabilities. In a sign of continuing malevolent online activity, Microsoft and Facebook said Tuesday that they worked together last week to help disable hackers tied to the same hacking group that was behind WannaCry. Associated Press

The UN Security Council approved the delivery of humanitarian aid across borders and conflict lines in Syria for another year on Tuesday, with Russia urging a gradual end to the program that has helped millions of people in rebel-held areas. The council voted 12-0 to extend the mandate of the cross-border convoys, with Russia, China and Bolivia abstaining. Swedish Ambassador to the UN Olof Skoog, whose country co-sponsored the resolution along with Egypt and Japan, called the council's action “a major achievement that will save lives and alleviate suffering.”

Last month, Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia demanded changes in the resolution, saying the program “undermines sovereignty of Syria.” One key provision added to the resolution is a request to Secretary-General Antonio Guterres to conduct an independent review of cross-border operations within six months and recommend how to strengthen the program.

UN humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock stressed that “cross-border deliveries will remain an essential part of our efforts to meet the needs of all those across Syria who require humanitarian assistance.” But he was sharply critical that restrictions in all besieged and hard-to-reach locations meant only five cross-line convoys were able to deliver aid in November. So far this month, he said, not a single convoy has made it to any besieged location and only two have received authorizations to travel to hard-to-reach locations. Associated Press, Voice of America
Reuters: UN to Make Proposals to Kickstart Syrian Reform Process

Between 9,000 and 11,000 people were killed in the nine-month battle to liberate the Iraqi city of Mosul from ISIS— a civilian casualty rate nearly 10 times higher than has been previously reported, an Associated Press investigation has found. Iraqi or anti-ISIS coalition forces are responsible for at least 3,200 civilian deaths from airstrikes, artillery fire, or mortar rounds between October 2016 and July 2017, according to the investigation, which cross-referenced morgue lists and multiple databases from non-governmental organizations.

The coalition, which has not sent anyone into Mosul to investigate, acknowledges responsibility for only 326 of the deaths. “The coalition never came to us or sent anyone else to us asking for data,” said Hatem Ahmed Sarheed, one of the Iraqi men responsible for recording Mosul’s dead. An AP reporter visited the morgue six times in six weeks and spoke to morgue staffers dozens of times over the phone. The U.S. says it does not have the resources to send a team into Mosul. Because of what the coalition considers insufficient information, the majority of civilian casualty allegations are deemed “not credible.” Associated Press

Saudi Arabia says it intercepted ballistic missile fired from Yemen: Saudi Arabia said Tuesday it intercepted a ballistic missile south Riyadh that was fired by the Houthi rebel group in Yemen. The attempted missile strike marked the second time that the Houthis have targeted Riyadh since early November in retaliation. Col. Turki al-Malki, a spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition intervening in Yemen, said the missile was heading toward “populated residential areas” when it was intercepted and destroyed south of Riyadh. Witnesses described hearing a loud boom, and images on social media showed a plume of smoke in the sky. CNN, Washington Post

At least 6 killed during violent protests in Iraqi Kurdistan: At least six people were killed and dozens wounded on Tuesday when Kurdish demonstrators joined a second day of protests against austerity and unpaid public sector salaries amid tensions between their region and Baghdad. Over 1,000 protesters, mostly teachers, students, and civil servants, protested in the city of Sulaimaniya. “We are concerned with the uncivil actions and the violence used today in a number of cities and towns across Kurdistan,” a statement from the Iraq’s Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) said. “Peaceful expression of views is, of course, a legitimate and democratic right. But violence is never acceptable. I call on all of you to conduct your protests peacefully,” KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani. CNN, Reuters

Iraqi militias seek political power after fighting ISIS: Iraqi Shiite militias that helped Baghdad oust ISIS—some of which are loyal to Iran—now want to translate battlefield gains into greater political power in parliamentary elections scheduled for spring. Several powerful paramilitary groups have pledged over the past two weeks to surrender control of their arms and fighters to the Iraqi government. Iraqi law forbids militia members from engaging in political activity. The moves are stirring concerns among Iraqis who want to guard against Iran expanding its already substantial influence in the country. Wall Street Journal

Up to 30 percent of Somali soldiers unarmed: Since September 2017, al-Shabaab militants have overrun four Somali government military bases, killing more than 60 soldiers and seizing large quantities of weapons. Now, a military assessment by the Somali government found some of the troops manning these bases are completely unarmed. The “Operational Readiness Assessment” conducted by the government found that approximately 30 percent of the soldiers in the bases do not have weapons. On Tuesday, Somali Defense Minister Mohamed Mursal Sheikh Abdirahman acknowledged the army’s shortcomings. He also admitted “gaps” in the number of soldiers in military bases. Voice of America

U.S. urges UN to punish Iran, but Russia calls for dialogue: U.S. Ambassador Nikki Haley urged the UN Security Council on Tuesday to punish Iran for what the Trump administration calls “dangerous violations” of UN resolutions and “destabilizing behavior.” Russia, however, says dialogue is needed rather than threats or sanctions. At a council meeting on the implementation of the Security Council resolution that endorsed the 2015 nuclear deal, Haley said the U.S. is exploring a number of options with council members to pressure the Iranians “to adjust their behavior.” But Russia’s deputy UN Ambassador Vladimir Safronkov said the Security Council should “to abandon the language of threats and sanctions, and to start using the instruments of dialogue — and concentrate on broadening cooperation and mutual trust” with Iran. Associated Press

Sydney man charged under foreign fighter laws: Counterterrorism police have arrested a 25-year-old Sydney man, alleging he traveled to Syria in 2015 to fight for a “terrorist organization.” Police arrested Belal Betka and charged him with several offenses, including “incursion into foreign countries with the intention of engaging in hostile activities.” Betka has become the first person in Australia to be charged under federal foreign fighter laws. The sentence carries a maximum penalty of life in prison. Police said Betka man had been subject to ongoing investigations since he returned from Syria. ABC, The Daily Telegraph
The National Security Strategy is not a strategy: “The NSS is supposed to map out a strategy, but over time, the project has devolved into a rhetorical exercise, characterized by grandiose ambitions and laundry lists of priorities. Rather than forcing the U.S. government to engage in serious strategic planning, it has become a case study in the failure to do so,” Rebecca Friedman Lissner writes in Foreign Affairs. “This year’s NSS is unlikely to influence the Trump administration’s foreign policy in any meaningful way. But it should serve as a wake-up call, reminding Congress above all of the need to refashion the NSS so that it fulfills its intended purpose—instead of simply camouflaging a perennially ad hoc foreign policy.”

Cybersecurity in the 2017 National Security Strategy: “National Security Strategy documents are not known as documents where big policy innovation occurs. Instead, the best you can usually do is articulate the broad contours of the main threats to national security coupled with some rough themes about what the government will do to make things better,” Michael Sulmeyer writes in Lawfare. “Here, the administration does not isolate ‘the cyber’ to the sidelines; instead, by talking about cyber issues throughout the document, the administration shows an understanding that cyberspace is a critical part to practically every aspect of national security.”

Why America can’t win in Syria: “While it may be convenient for many in the United States and Western Europe to label Putin’s military gamble in Syria a unconditional victory for the Russians and an unfettered disaster for Washington and Brussels, the Syria story is still being written,” Daniel R. DePetris writes in The National Interest.  “By virtue of sustaining Assad’s rule, Putin and his Iranian partners are now de facto responsible for ensuring that the Syrian state is at least semi-functional and able to combat any security challenge that presents itself.”
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