The Soufan Group Morning Brief




U.S. military aircraft conducted more than 20 “precision strikes” on al-Qaeda targets in southern Yemen early yesterday, an indication that the Trump administration is ramping up counterterrorism operations in the country. Residents and local officials said that at least nine suspected al-Qaeda militants died in two separate incidents.


The Pentagon said it coordinated with the Yemeni government and President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi on the strikes, which are said to have targeted “militants, equipment, infrastructure, heavy weapons systems, and fighting positions.” The targets had been developed before the ill-fated counterterrorism raid in January, a senior U.S. official said. Analysts note that AQAP and local affiliates of the Islamic State have expanded during Yemen’s war, which pits a Saudi-led coalition of mostly Sunni countries supporting President Hadi against the country’s Shiite Houthi rebels.

President Trump is reportedly considering giving his military commanders more independent authority to conduct counterterrorism operations as part of an effort to accelerate the fight against ISIS. Pentagon officials have been pushing for an uptick in raids in Yemen in particular. While advocates say this would allow U.S. forces to move more quickly and effectively, critics warn of the potential for more tragedies like the operation that killed Navy SEAL Ryan Owens. (Reuters, NYT, NBC, WSJ)



U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions said yesterday afternoon that he would not participate in any investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. "I have recused myself in the matters that deal with the Trump campaign," he told reporters at a news conference. His decision follows revelations that he twice spoke with the Russian ambassador to the United States Sergey Kislyak and did not disclose the encounters when questioned, under oath, by Congress. Sessions rejected any suggestion that he tried to mislead anyone with his answers, but he did note that he should have been more careful in his testimony. (AP, Reuters, NYT)



CNN: More Trump Advisors Had Meeting With Russia’s Ambassador

Washington Post: Sessions Says He Doesn’t Know if Russia Favored Trump in Election

New York Times: Russian Envoy Cultivated Powerful Network in U.S.


Pence’s email hacked: The U.S. vice president used a private email account that was breached last spring while he served as governor of Indiana. He reportedly used the AOL account, which was opened in the mid-1990s, to conduct official business. A spokesman for Pence said his use of the account was consistent with previous governors. Hackers used his contacts to launch a phishing attack against his contact lists, and send financial scam emails.(Indy Star, WaPo, AP)


Trump pushes military budget: The president used a new U.S. aircraft carrier in Newport News, Virginia, as a backdrop to promote his plans to “rebuild” the country’s armed forces with a $54 billion increase in military spending. (NYT)


Al-Shabab: The Trump administration is reportedly considering widening the counterterrorism campaign against al-Shabab in Somalia. Recommendations to the White House would allow U.S special forces to increase assistance to the Somali National Army and give the U.S. military greater flexibility to launch more preemptive airstrikes.

Deportations: Sixty-one current and former local police chiefs and sheriffs penned a letter to President Trump urging him to soften his aggressive drive to enlist their forces in the removal of millions of undocumented immigrants. (Guardian)

Mosque Fires: Mosques in several U.S. states have been set fire to in recent weeks, a disturbing trend that comes amid increased fear about hate crimes against minority religious groups. (BuzzFeed)


Syria: Backed by Russian warplanes, Syria’s military recaptured the ancient city of Palmyra from ISIS militants for the second time in a year. Syrian troops seized Palmyra in March of last year but lost it to the militants in December. (USA Today)


Iraq: Government security forces have discovered that ISIS converted a rail tunnel in Mosul into a massive training camp, including a shooting range, obstacle course, mosque, and clinic. More than 150 recruits could train there at a time, sources said. (WSJ)

Meanwhile, the cameraman who is said to have filmed Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declaring the establishment of the Islamic State’s rule in Iraq and Syria was killed in an airstrike west of Mosul. (Iraqi News)

Germany: Police arrested two Syrian nationals suspected of belonging to al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. One of the men, identified as 35-year-old Abdalfatah H.A., reportedly killed three dozen employees of the Syrian government with his al-Nusra unit in 2013. The arrests are the latest in what appears to be an effort by German authorities to move against a growing number of radical Islamists in the country. (Politico, NYT)


Egypt’s Mubarak: The country’s top court cleared former President Hosni Mubarak of any responsibility for the killing of hundreds of people during the 2011 protests that ended his 30-year rule. The decision sweeps away the final legal hurdle to his release from detention, analysts say. (NYT)

Sweden: The non-aligned scandinavian country has decided to reintroduce its military draft amid fears of Russian aggression. Sweden and Finland are not in Nato but cooperate closely with the security alliance. (BBC)


Guantanamo’s Last 100 Days: “Today, Gitmo’s closure appears to be as inconceivable as shutting down the unending war on terror that birthed it. I will never, it seems, have the opportunity to compare the departure of its prisoners to their arrival, never be able to run that terrible film, that blot on our country, backwards. The legislative path is already being set for Gitmo to be eternally ours,” writes Karen Greenberg on TomDispatch.


Donald Trump, Master of Disaster? “How an administration handles major emergencies like these heavily shapes its legacy. Mismanaging a high-profile crisis can irreparably harm a presidency (see: Hurricane Katrina). But more importantly, it can have dire consequences for Americans at home, American interests abroad and vulnerable people around the world,” writes Jeremy Konyndyk in Politico.


Why Putin May Have Overplayed His Hand: “Over the centuries, Russia has shown a predilection to overplay its hand. Precisely because of Putin’s flagrant forays beyond Russia’s borders, he has awakened its neighbors to the threat—and, as a consequence, underscored the need for NATO and an equally vigilant, clear-eyed, and reliable U.S. administration. Curiously but mercifully, both Putin and Trump have made mistakes that could have salutary consequences,” write Strobe Talbott and Jessica Brandt in the Atlantic.

The Debate Over U.S. Foreign Policy Powers: “Scholars say there is much friction over foreign affairs because the Constitution is especially obscure in this area. There is not the intrinsic division of labor between the two political branches that there is with domestic affairs,” writes Jonathan Masters for the Council on Foreign Relations. “And because the judiciary, the third branch, has generally been reluctant to provide much clarity on these questions, constitutional scuffles over foreign policy are likely to endure.”


Foreign Affairs: The Real Problems With NATO

For cutting-edge analysis of the geopolitical events shaping global affairs, read today’s TSG IntelBrief: U.S. Ramps Up Operations in Yemen

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