The Soufan Group Morning Brief

The Morning Brief will return on Tuesday, January 9, 2018. Have a lovely holiday season!


Senior national security officials in the Trump administration are reportedly weighing a proposal to transfer to Saudi Arabia an American citizen being held in Iraq as a wartime detainee. At a meeting last week of the National Security Council’s deputies committee, members reportedly expressed support for the detainee’s transfer. He is suspected of being a low-level ISIS fighter and has been held in military custody as an “enemy combatant” for the past three months after a Syrian militia turned him over to American forces. The man, whose name the government has refused to make public, was born in the U.S. to visiting Saudi parents, officials said.

Legal pressure to resolve the detainee’s fate has been building since the ACLU filed a habeas corpus lawsuit in October challenging his detention on his behalf. The government initially wanted to prosecute the man in a civilian court for providing material assistance to terrorism, but the FBI was unable to assemble sufficient courtroom-admissible evidence against him.

The officials at the deputies committee meeting agreed that as part of reaching out to the Saudi government, the Trump administration would request diplomatic assurances about what would happen to the man after any transfer. Previous repatriation deals for lower-level detainees have included assurances that their ability to travel would be restricted, as well as other security measures. It was not clear whether such a deal would require the detainee to renounce his American citizenship. Jonathan Hafetz, the lead ACLU lawyer in the habeas corpus lawsuit, said that whatever happens, the man should be given access to a lawyer first “to advise him on fundamental questions, including renouncing his citizenship, if that’s an issue.” New York Times

The Defense Department has issued new policy guidance to military recruiters for enlisting transgender men and women into the armed forces. The military distributed its guidance throughout the force on December 8. Lawyers challenging President Donald Trump’s proposed ban on transgender military service, which he announced on Twitter in July, have since included the document in their lawsuits. The guidance states that the Pentagon will comply with federal court orders, now under appeal, that direct the military to begin accepting transgender recruits on January 1.

The court order also raises the possibility that a handful of individuals who graduated from U.S. service academies in the spring could now join the military. They were denied commissions upon graduating due to transgender status, but now “may be commissioned if they meet established accessions standards,” a Pentagon spokesman said. Washington Post, NBC News

A group of House Republicans has gathered secretly for weeks in an effort to build a case that senior leaders of the Justice Department and FBI improperly mishandled the contents of a dossier that describes alleged ties between President Donald Trump and Russia, according to four people familiar with their plans. A subset of the Republican members of the House intelligence committee, led by Chairman Devin Nunes of California, has been working parallel to the committee’s Russia investigation. They have not informed Democrats about their plans, but they have consulted with the House’s general counsel.

People familiar with Nunes’ plans said the goal is to highlight what some committee Republicans see as corruption and conspiracy in the upper ranks of federal law enforcement. The group hopes to release a report early next year detailing their concerns about the Justice Department and FBI. That product could ultimately be used by Republicans to discredit Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation. Politico

Judge sentences second man in beheading plot to 15 years: A Rhode Island man was sentenced to 15 years in federal prison Wednesday after admitting to participating in a plot to behead a conservative blogger on behalf of ISIS. The sentencing of Nicholas Rovinski came one day after David Wright was sentenced to 28 years in prison in connection with the same plot. Rovinski testified against Wright after pleading guilty to conspiracy for his role in the plot to kill Pamela Geller, who organized a Prophet Muhammad cartoon contest in Texas in 2015. Prosecutors deemed Wright the “mastermind” of the plot. Speaking at his sentencing, Rovinski condemned terrorism and his own actions, adding he was thankful to be given a “second chance” after the completion of his sentence. NBC News, Associated Press

Virginia man sentenced to 20 years for trying to fund ISIS: A Virginia man who authorities say wanted to carry out a terrorist attack and tried to fund ISIS has been sentenced to 20 years in prison. Prosecutors said 27-year-old Lionel Williams was sentenced Wednesday in federal court in Norfolk. He had pleaded guilty in August to terrorism charges.The case against Williams began after he pledged allegiance to terrorists on Facebook, authorities said. Williams later told undercover FBI agents that he wanted to attack “hard targets” such as police officers. Court documents said he also gave informants $250, which he believed was going to fund ISIS. Associated Press

Florida man pleads guilty to Kansas City 9/11 memorial bomb plot: A Florida man faces up to 20 years in prison after pleading guilty on Wednesday of trying to enlist a person to bomb a memorial for 9/11 first responders in Kansas City. Joshua Goldberg waived his right to an indictment and pleaded guilty to attempted malicious damage and destruction by an explosive of a building. Law enforcement became aware of Goldberg in 2015 when he used social media to encourage an attack on an exhibit of caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad in a Dallas suburb. Shortly after that, Goldberg exchanged messages with an FBI informant and presented the informant with instructions for making an explosive devices that would be detonated at the memorial. Reuters

Army invites proposals for Detainee Legal Center at Guantanamo: Weeks after a Pentagon official asked for an eavesdrop-free attorney-client meeting place at Guantanamo, the Army on Tuesday invited proposals for a Detainee Legal Center whose specs include a court-approved “listening room” for attorney-client phone calls. Last month, the Pentagon’s Convening Authority for Military Commissions, Harvey Rishikof, appealed to the chief of the prison guard force to establish a “clean” facility to “provide assurances and confidence that attorney-client meeting spaces are not subject to monitoring.” In the past, lawyers have discovered listening devices disguised as smoke detectors in Guantanamo’s Camp Echo legal meeting rooms. Over the summer, Chief Defense Counsel Marine Brig. Gen. John Baker cautioned defense teams that no meeting site at the base guarantees attorney-client confidentiality. Miami Herald

FBI chief in Nevada says motive behind Las Vegas massacre is still a mystery: Federal authorities continue to search for the motive that drove a gunman to open fire on a county music festival in Las on October 1, leaving 58 people dead and hundreds wounded. FBI Special Agent in Charge Aaron Rouse said Wednesday that investigators still cannot say what made 64-year-old Stephen Paddock begin firing into a crowd of 22,000. “Ours is focusing a large part on the why,” Rouse said. He said federal authorities expected to issue a report sometime next year. Rouse said investigators think Paddock acted alone. “I believe that there is one person and one person alone to blame for what happened on October 1, and that is Stephen Paddock,” he said. LA Times

The Trump administration has approved the first ever U.S. commercial sale of lethal defensive weapons to Ukraine, in a break from the de facto U.S. ban on arms sales that dates back to the Obama administration. The move was heavily supported by top Trump national security officials and Congress but could complicate President Trump’s stated ambition to work with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Administration officials confirmed that the State Department this month approved a commercial license authorizing the export of Model M107A1 Sniper Systems, ammunition, and associated parts and accessories to Ukraine, a sale valued at $41.5 million. The weapons address a specific vulnerability of Ukrainian forces fighting a Russian-backed separatist movement in two eastern provinces. The sale by American manufacturers to the Ukrainian military is not a direct sale or exchange from the U.S. government. Trump has not made a decision whether to provide a more powerful lethal-aid package that includes anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine. Washington Post, ABC News

The Defense Department on Wednesday acknowledged ground operations in Yemen for the first time, while noting that ISIS has doubled in size in the war-torn country. “U.S. forces have conducted multiple ground operations and more than 120 strikes in 2017,” said a statement from U.S. Central Command. The operations aim to “disrupt the ability of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and ISIS-Yemen to use ungoverned spaces in Yemen as a hub for terrorist recruiting, training and base of operations to export terror worldwide.”

There has been sporadic acknowledgement of U.S. military operations in Yemen under President Trump. In August, the Pentagon acknowledged that a small number of U.S. forces on the ground were assisting an operation to clear a governorate in central Yemen of al-Qaeda fighters. At that point, Pentagon officials said U.S. forces had carried out more than 80 airstrikes in the country since February. In January, officials acknowledged a ground raid against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula after a Navy Seal was killed. NBC News, The Hill

Saudi coalition will keep Yemen port open: The Saudi-led coalition fighting in Yemen said Wednesday it would keep the Houthi-controlled Hodeidah port, which vital for aid deliveries, open for a month despite a recent missile attack against Riyadh. The coalition, which controls Yemen’s airspace and port access, said last month it would allow humanitarian relief through Hodeidah following a nearly three-week blockade. Saudi state news also said President Trump spoke with King Salman to express solidarity after the recent missile attack on Riyadh, which the White House says was “enabled by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps.” At the same time, coalition forces launched fresh air strikes in Yemen, killing at least nine people. Reuters, Voice of America, Washington Post

Russian parliament ratifies naval base agreement with Syria: The Russian parliament has voted to extend Russia’s lease of a naval base in Syria for 49 years. Earlier this month, President Vladimir Putin ordered a partial withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria but said Russia would keep its military presence there. The State Duma on Thursday voted to ratify an agreement with Syria, submitted by Putin, for Russia to keep its warships at the Mediterranean base in Tartus. The agreement allows Russia to keep 11 vessels there at a time including nuclear-powered ships. Associated Press

North Korean soldier defects to the South: A North Korean soldier defected to South Korea on Thursday through the heavily guarded demilitarized zone separating the two countries, the second such defection since November and the fourth this year, the South Korean military said. The “low ranking” soldier was manning a guard post along the DMZ when he fled. South Korean guards fired up to 20 warning shots at North Korean troops who were searching for the soldier. South Korea also said maritime police had found two North Korean men drifting in a small boat off the coast on Wednesday. The pair “expressed their willingness to defect,” and their claim for asylum was being investigated, an official said. New York Times, Reuters

Somali lawmakers seek to impeach president amid political crisis: Some Somali lawmakers said on Wednesday they plan to impeach the president in a mounting political crisis that could put the fledgling government on a violent collision course with one of the country’s most powerful clans. The political turmoil endangers fragile gains against al-Shabaab and could derail the government of President Mohamed Abdullahi, also known as Farmajo, who took power earlier this year in a UN-backed process. Somalia’s parliament adjourned last week until the end of February, but some legislators want it to reconvene on an emergency basis to discuss impeachment. Reuters

A car deliberately plowed into pedestrians injuring 19 people at a crowded intersection in the Australian city of Melbourne on Thursday, but police said they did not believe the attack to be terror-related. Two people were arrested at the chaotic scene, which was packed with holiday shoppers in Melbourne’s central business district. The driver was identified as a 32-year-old Australian of Afghan descent. Police said the man has a history of drug abuse and mental health issues. A second person was arrested after being seen filming the incident, according to police. He was found to have three knives in his backpack, but officials do not believe there is a connection between him and the driver. Acting chief commissioner of Victoria Police Shane Patton told reporters there is no “evidence or any intelligence to indicate a connection with terrorism” at this time, nor is there any evidence to indicate an ongoing threat. Reuters, ABC News, New York Times
TIME: A Timeline of Recent Terrorist Attacks in Australia

Swedish man arrested at UK airport suspected of terrorism: British police say they have arrested a Swedish man at Stansted Airport, north of London, on suspicion of terrorism offenses. The 34-year-old man was stopped by counterterrorism police officers after he got off a flight from Stockholm early Tuesday. Metropolitan Police said Wednesday he was arrested on suspicion of possessing “material containing information likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism.” Associated Press, BBC News

British dentistry student jailed for plotting terror attack: A British dentistry student who was radicalized by his brother, who became an ISIS suicide bomber in Iraq in 2016, has been jailed for 10 years for plotting a terror attack. Mohammed Awan was convicted of preparing a terrorist act and possessing material likely to be used in an attack. Awan was found to possess a “significant volume” of extremist material, including advice on how to be a “sleeper cell” in the West. Police found a “significant amount of terrorism-related material” on 11 mobile phones, 16 USB drives, and seven computers that were seized from Awan’s home. Daily Mail, The Independent

German police arrest alleged ISIS militant in ice rink truck attack plot: German police arrested a 29-year-old man they said was an active member of ISIS who was plotting a truck attack on an ice rink. The suspect is a German citizen, and his name was given only as Dasbar W. In 2015, the suspect traveled to Iraq to fight for ISIS, receiving weapons training and working as a scout seeking potential attack targets in the city of Erbil, police said. He returned to Germany the following year. Before leaving for Iraq, Dasbar worked for ISIS from Germany, producing propaganda videos and proselytizing to converts in online chat rooms, police said. Reuters
Three questions on the WannaCry attribution to North Korea: “Attribution by op-ed doesn’t lend itself to technical detail. Prior U.S. attributions, particularly the attribution of the Sony hack to North Korea three years ago, have come in for criticism for providing insufficient detail to support accusations, and this attribution is the least-supported to date,” Kristen Eichensehr writes in Just Security. “It does little to set an example or establish an evidentiary best practice for states to follow in attributing future cyberattacks to states or state-sponsored actors.”

Wrong changes to key intelligence program may put us at risk: “While some restrictions on the use of information gathered under Section 702 may be appropriate, requiring a warrant for queries is a bad idea,” Robert Litt writes in The Hill. “A consistent theme of those who have reviewed our nation’s intelligence activities over the years has been the need to break down barriers that impede information sharing. The 9/11 Commission, for example, found that intelligence agencies had information that might have led to detection of the attackers and their plot, but that that information was not appropriately shared.”

Why troops don’t trust drones: “Despite the strong push toward unmanned systems from technocrats in the Pentagon, however, little attention has been paid to how they are viewed from the battlefield,” Jacquelyn Schneider and Julia Macdonald write in Foreign Affairs. “Our research suggests that operators on the ground see drones as riskier and less trustworthy than manned aircraft. These are the personnel who integrate new technologies into training, develop tactics for their use, and ultimately put these tactics into practice. Their perspective on the technologies—and the disconnect between their views and those of the experts—is therefore key to understanding the future of autonomous weapons on the battlefield.”

Trump should mind the gaps in his National Security Strategy: “National security strategies lack the traditional attributes of ‘strategy.’ They do not spell out desired objectives, articulate the steps needed to achieve those ends, or describe the resources necessary to carry out those steps,” Richard Fontaine writes in War on the Rocks. “But for all that, it would be wrong simply to dismiss the exercise as a well-intentioned but ultimately inconsequential effort. And it’s likely that the Trump administration’s national security strategy will garner significant attention at home and abroad — likely more than any National Security Strategy since George W. Bush’s ‘preemption’ strategy in 2002.”

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

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