The Soufan Group Morning Brief



President Donald Trump on Wednesday formally recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, reversing nearly seven decades of U.S. foreign policy and setting in motion a plan to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Tump described the move as “a long overdue step” to advance the Middle East peace process. He said past U.S. policies brought the world “no closer to a lasting peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.” Israel called Trump's move “historic,” while Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called the announcement “deplorable” and said that the U.S. could no longer be a peace broker in the conflict. New York Times, BBC News

A chorus of international leaders criticized Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, calling it a dangerous disruption that contravenes UN resolutions and could inflame conflict. UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres and Pope Francis both expressed alarm that the announcement would provoke new tensions in Jerusalem. Guterres criticized unilateral measures that “jeopardize the prospect of peace,” adding that “there is no alternative to the two-state solution.” The European Union’s top diplomat, Federica Mogherini, expressed concern about “the repercussions [the move] may have on the prospect of peace.” French President Emmanuel Macron also criticized Trump’s announcement, saying in a statement that “France does not approve the U.S. decision.” In addition, within hours of Trump’s speech, eight countries on the 15-member UN Security Council — including some of America’s closest allies — requested an emergency meeting to be held before the end of the week. Diplomats said it would most likely be scheduled for Friday. New York Times, ABC News, The Hill

Palestinian leaders have called for “three days of rage” to protest Trump’s decision. Abbas warned that  it would “bolster extremists'’ calls for holy wars. “These procedures do also help in the extremist organizations to wage a religious war that would harm the entire region, which is going through critical moments and would lead us into wars that will never end,” he said. The U.S. reportedly asked Israel to temper its response to the decision due to fears about threats to U.S. facilities and people. “While I recognize that you will publicly welcome this news, I ask that you restrain your official response,” a State Department document dated December 6 said. “We are still judging the impact this decision will have on U.S. facilities and personnel overseas.” Reuters, CNN, Politico
Washington Post: State Department Sets up Emergency Task Force for Jerusalem Fallout
Washington Post: Where Would a U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem Actually Go?
Associated Press: For Tillerson, a Lonely Job Defending Trump’s Jerusalem Move
Reuters: Iraq Demands U.S. Backtrack on Jerusalem, Militia Says Troops a Target
Foreign Policy: Will the U.S. Embassy’s Move to Jerusalem Matter?
NPR: Religious Leaders Divided Over Trump's Jerusalem Decision

A Saudi facing a war crimes tribunal at Guantanamo Bay for allegedly aiding the 9/11 attacks told interrogators that he bought plane tickets and facilitated money transfers for seven of the hijackers, a retired FBI agent said Wednesday, providing the most detailed account so far of evidence prosecutors intend to use in the case. Mustafa Ahmed al-Hawsawi spoke to interrogators over four days in January 2004 as they showed him financial and travel records collected in the investigation into the attacks. He admitted that he helped carry out the al-Qaeda plot even if he did not know exactly what was planned beforehand, the retired agent, Abigail Perkins, told the court.

Perkins’ testimony came during the 26th pretrial hearing at the base in the case of five men held at Guantanamo for their alleged roles in 9/11. Prosecutors called Perkins to establish that al-Hawsawi meets the legal definition of “alien unprivileged enemy belligerent” and can be prosecuted by a military commission under the law that set up the tribunal in 2009. In doing so, they provided a window into some of the evidence they would likely present at the actual trial, which has not yet been scheduled. Associated Press

Former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn told a former business associate that economic sanctions against Russia would be “ripped up” as one of the Trump administration’s first acts, according to an account by a whistleblower made public on Wednesday. Flynn believed that ending the sanctions could allow a business project he had once participated in to move forward, according to the whistleblower. The account is the strongest evidence to date that the Trump administration wanted to end the sanctions immediately, and suggests that Flynn had a possible economic incentive for the U.S. to forge a closer relationship with Russia.

Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (D-MD), ranking member of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, detailed the allegations by the whistleblower in a letter Wednesday to the panel’s chairman, Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-SC). Cummings did not identify the witness, but he asked Gowdy to issue a subpoena to the White House for documents related to Flynn. He said the committee has “credible allegations” that Flynn “sought to manipulate the course of international nuclear policy for the financial gain of his former business partners.” Washington Post, New York Times, CNN

U.S. officials warn of new ISIS ‘caliphate’ in cyberspace: The collapse of ISIS’ self-proclaimed caliphate has not diminished the militant group’s ability to inspire attacks on Western targets via the internet, U.S. national security officials told senators on Wednesday. ISIS has been building its external operations over the past two years and has claimed or been linked to at least 20 attacks against Western interests since January, said Acting Director of Intelligence at the National Counterterrorism Center Lora Shiao said. “The elimination of the physical caliphate does not mark the end of ISIS or other global terrorist organizations,” said Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for Special Operations and Low-Intensity Conflict Mark Mitchell. He said ISIS will become more reliant on virtual connections and continue to inspire “stray dog” attacks by vulnerable people at it loses territory. Reuters

Officials say surveillance program can continue even if law expires: The Trump administration has decided that the NSA and the FBI can lawfully continue operating a warrantless surveillance program even if Congress fails to extend the law authorizing it before an expiration date of New Year’s Eve, according to American officials. National security officials have implored Congress for the past year and a half to extend the legal basis for the program, Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act, before it lapses at the end of the month. Executive branch lawyers have now concluded that the government could lawfully continue to spy under the program through late April without new legislation. New York Times, The Verge

The Pentagon on Wednesday said there are about 2,000 U.S. troops deployed in Syria, four times more than any official figure that U.S. officials have previously acknowledged. Army Col. Robert Manning, a Pentagon spokesman, disclosed the figure as part of a new effort by Defense Secretary James Mattis to be transparent about how many troops are deployed in Iraq and Syria. “In implementing this change, we seek to balance informing the American public with the imperative of operational security and denying the enemy any advantage,” Manning said. He noted that troop numbers in Syria are “trending downward.” Manning also said there are about 5,200 U.S. troops in Iraq — a number that remains unchanged from past reports — but said that it is also shrinking. Voice of America, Washington Post

Trump calls on Saudi Arabia to lift blockade on Yemen: President Trump pressed Saudi Arabia on Wednesday to fully end its blockade of food, water, medicine and fuel into Yemen, a rare rebuke to the Middle East ally that he has firmly embraced since taking office. His statement came after the second consecutive night of Saudi airstrikes in Yemen’s capital of Sana’a, as the Saudi-led coalition tried to prevent the Houthis rebels from consolidating power in the city after the Houthis killed former president Ali Abdullah Saleh. New York Times, CBS News

North Korea says U.S. threats make war unavoidable on Korean peninsula: Large military drills being carried out by the U.S. and South Korea and U.S. threats of a preemptive war against Pyongyang have made the outbreak of war on the Korean peninsula “an established fact,” North Korea’s foreign ministry said. Tensions on the Korean peninsula have risen markedly in recent months after North Korea’s latest missile and nuclear tests. A spokesman for the North’s foreign ministry blamed “confrontational warmongering” remarks by U.S. officials for pushing the peninsula to the brink of war. Reuters

AQIM has made millions through ransom and drug trading, study says: Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) is sitting on millions of dollars in ill-gotten gains that help fund its deadly activities across the region, according to a new report by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Center on Sanctions and Illicit Finance. The report said AQIM has reaped about $100 million through a combination of ransom, drug smuggling, taxes on locals, and donations from other countries. CNBC

Nigeria commander in fight against Boko Haram: Nigeria is replacing the military commander of the fight against Boko Haram after half a year, an army spokesman said on Wednesday, following a string of insurgency attacks despite years of official claims the group has almost been defeated. The shake-up underscores the fragility of the security situation in Nigeria's northeast, where the conflict with the Islamist insurgent group is now in its ninth year, despite assertions by President Muhammadu Buhari's administration that it is on its last legs. Reuters

Putin announces bid for fourth term as president: President Vladimir V. Putin announced on Wednesday that he would seek a fourth term as president of Russia in a March election that he is expected to win easily. A full, six-year term until 2024 would make his 24-year tenure — including his years as prime minister — the longest by a Russian leader since Joseph Stalin. It is widely believed that Putin wants to use what would be his last term, barring further constitutional changes, to cement his place as one of the more important historical figures ever to rule Russia. New York Times

Pro-Kurdish opposition leader goes on trial in Turkey: The jailed leader of Turkey’s pro-Kurdish opposition went on trial on Thursday, 13 months after his arrest on terrorism-related charges, facing up to 142 years in prison. Selahattin Demirtas, the co-leader of the Peoples’ Democratic Party, was arrested last year as the government launched a crackdown following a failed coup attempt, which critics say has been expanded to target all government opponents. Reuters, Associated Press

Number of UK terrorism arrests hits record high: The number of people arrested over terrorism-related offenses in Britain has risen by 54 percent over the past year to 400, the highest number of such arrests since records began in 2001. The Home Office said the increase in was due partly to 64 arrests made after the attacks in London and Manchester this year. So far, 115 of the 400 people arrested have been charged with terror-related offenses. The Guardian

UK defense secretary says British ISIS fighters should be killed: British citizens who have joined ISIS in Syria and Iraq should be hunted down and killed, according to UK Defense Minister Gavin Williamson. He suggested that airstrikes could be used against the estimated 270 British citizens who are in Iraq and Syria fighting with ISIS. “Quite simply my view is a dead terrorist can't cause any harm to Britain,” he said in an interview on Wednesday. “We should do everything we can do to destroy and eliminate that threat,” he said, adding that he believed any British fighters who joins ISIS should not be allowed to return to the UK. Reuters
How Trump’s Jerusalem announcement will shape Palestinian politics: “Whether the announcement will lead to prolonged unrest or to a third intifada is impossible to predict...Yet given the highly emotive nature of Jerusalem, the abundance of players such as Hamas that want to instigate clashes with Israeli forces, and the PA’s political weakness, the risk of conflict is high,” Ghaith al-Omari writes in Foreign Affairs. “Even if the worst does not come to pass, Trump’s announcement will leave in its wake a weakened Palestinian Authority, a volatile security situation, and a peace process in tatters before it could begin.”

Why Donald Trump would regret firing Robert Mueller: “Memo to the president: Firing Mr. Mueller would be a terrible idea,” Karl Rove writes in the Wall Street Journal. “Even if the president fired Mr. Mueller, there would still be enormous pressure to continue the inquiry. Even if the Justice Department refused to name a new special counsel, the investigation and its consequences would not stop. They would move to other venues, namely Congress and the campaign trail.”

The price of war with North Korea: “An American attack that truly caught North Korea by surprise could minimize the effectiveness of a North Korean counterattack — but not eliminate the possibility. And surprise would be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve,” Barry R. Posen writes in the New York Times. “The complexity, risks and costs of a military strike against North Korea are too high. A combination of diplomacy and deterrence, based on the already impressive strength of South Korean and United States conventional and nuclear forces, is a wise alternative.”

An al-Qaeda Setback in Syria? “Unheralded amid the recent political chaos in Washington and upheavals in the Middle East was a potential bit of good news: revelations that the al-Qaeda core’s split from its Syrian affiliate did not resemble a gentle parting but rather an acrimonious divorce,” Daniel Byman writes in Lawfare. “The revelations...suggest that al-Qaeda wields less influence than previously feared and that U.S. efforts to isolate al-Qaeda in Syria are bearing some fruit.”

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