The Soufan Group Morning Brief


The senior U.S. commander in Iraq told reporters on Tuesday that an American airstrike earlier this month most likely led to the collapse of a building in Mosul that killed scores of civilians. “My initial assessment is we probably had a role in these casualties,” said Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, speaking with reporters by phone. “There’s a fair chance we did it.”

Local Iraqi officials estimate that the final civilian death toll from the March 17 strikes could reach 200 people. But Townsend denied that the rules of engagement in Iraq have changed under President Trump and said that a military investigation would examine whether the attack might have set off a larger blast from explosives set by militants inside the building. Because the building in question was destroyed, it indicated other explosives likely were responsible for its destruction, he said. Wall Street Journal, New York Times
Washington Post: Panic Spreads in Iraq, Syria as Record Numbers of Civilians Are Reported Killed in U.S. Strikes
CNN: Trump: U.S. Troops ‘Fighting Like Never Before’ in Iraq
The House Intelligence Committee’s probe of alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election is effectively on hold, after Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) said the panel would not interview more witnesses until FBI Director James Comey and NSA Director Mike Rogers return to Capitol Hill for a still-unscheduled private briefing.

Late last week, Nunes abruptly canceled an open hearing that was scheduled for yesterday that would have featured testimony from former director of national intelligence James Clapper, former CIA director John Brennan, and former acting attorney general Sally Yates. On Tuesday, the Washington Post reported that the Trump administration sought to block Yates from testifying, claiming that the topics she would discuss were covered by the presidential communication privilege. The White House later denied that it had weighed in on whether Yates could testify before Nunes canceled the hearing.

Democrats on the intelligence committee continued to call on Nunes to recuse himself, saying his close ties to the Trump administration had jeopardized the panel’s investigation. “In my three years here, I’ve never seen us have a full week without a hearing,” committee member Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) said. “We’ve made no progress since last Monday’s open hearing, and that is intentional.” Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Reuters, Lawfare
Wall Street Journal editorial: Lack of House Intelligence
New York Times/Frank Bruni: Devin Nunes Is Dangerous
New Yorker: How the White House and Republicans Blew Up the House Russia Investigation

The FBI this week arrested two Iraqis living in Northern Virginia after the men failed to disclose that one of their brothers had been involved in the 2004 kidnapping of an American contractor in Iraq. The two men, Yousif Al Mashhandani, 35, and Adil Hasan, 38, who came to the U.S. as refugees in 2008, reportedly admitted to the FBI that they did not tell the authorities about their brother in Iraq when they applied for citizenship, according to a criminal complaint. In 2013, the FBI discovered that fingerprints taken from one of the brothers during his citizenship application matched those on a document seized by American commandos during the rescue of the kidnapped contractor, Roy Hallums, in 2005. Hallums was held for 311 days in an underground bunker with other hostages south of Baghdad. New York Times

Sisi’s Washington visit: The White House formally announced Tuesday that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi will visit the White House on April 3 to discuss the fight against ISIS and regional stability. Wall Street Journal

Police and military gear: Police groups are lobbying the Trump administration to overturn Obama-era rules that banned local police departments from acquiring tank-like armored vehicles, grenade launchers, and other military-grade equipment from the federal government. Wall Street Journal

FISA court: All 11 judges on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court will rehear an ACLU claim that it has standing to assert a First Amendment right to see FISC decisions upholding the government’s bulk data collection program, reports Lawfare

ISIS has released a Persian-language video in which it threatens Iran and promises to conquer the country soon. The 36-minute video is aimed at Iran’s Sunni Muslim minority and accuses Tehran of persecuting them. Voice of America

Hundreds of ISIS loyalists have fled the group’s de facto Syrian capital of Raqqa in recent days, according to the Wall Street Journal. A lack of water and electricity and fewer military checkpoints and fighters patrolling the streets point to the extremists’ crumbling control. Wall Street Journal

South China Sea: China appears to have largely completed major construction of military infrastructure on artificial islands it has built in the South China Sea and can deploy combat planes and other military hardware there at any time, according to a study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative. Reuters

Iran and Russia: Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said Tuesday that Iran and Russia had agreed that Russia could use Iranian military bases to launch airstrikes against militants in Syria on a “case by case basis.” Reuters

Brexit: The UK today formally set in motion its planned exit from the European Union, triggering Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and beginning the two-year process that will sever it from the political bloc. BBC News, Guardian
What comes before jihad: “The term ‘lone wolf’ is a misleading one,” writes Niall Ferguson in the Boston Globe. “No one becomes a jihadist all by himself, just by watching beheading videos. As my wife Ayaan Hirsi Ali argues in a powerful new report, jihad is always preceded by dawa — the process of non-violent but toxic radicalization that transforms the petty criminal into a zealot.”

Lone wolves no more: “The public understanding of lone-actor terrorism may finally be changing for the better,” writes David Gartenstein-Ross in Foreign Affairs. “Previous lone-attacker plots often have some organizational involvement—and ignoring that fact is costly.”

Trump administration sends China a bad signal on torture: “On Feb. 27, a new letter was dispatched to the Minister of Public Security, Guo Shengkun, on the vital subject of the torture and secret detention of a number of human rights lawyers,” writes the Washington Post in an editorial. “It was signed by 11 governments, including Britain, France, Germany, Canada, Australia and Japan. But from China’s point of view, the big news was the signature that was missing — that of the United States.”

British counterterrorism policy after Westminster: “In virtually every year since 9/11, the United Kingdom has either thwarted or suffered a major terrorist attack,” writes Robin Simcox in Foreign Affairs. “But London can do more to prevent radicalization.”

Research Professor (Open Rank)
Arizona State University
Center on the Future of War
For cutting-edge analysis of the geopolitical events shaping global affairs, read today’s TSG IntelBrief: Trump Eyes Expanding Role in Yemen

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