The Soufan Group Morning Brief

TUESDAY, MAY 02, 2017

Amid heightened tensions over North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, President Donald Trump said Monday he would meet with Kim Jong Un if the circumstances were right. “If it would be appropriate for me to meet with him, I would absolutely, I would be honored to do it,” Trump said in an interview with Bloomberg. “If it’s under the -- again -- under the right circumstances. But I would do that.” The United States does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea.

Trump’s comments came after North Korea’s failed test-fire of a ballistic missile over the weekend. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said last week the United States would only negotiate with the North Korean regime if it made steps to give up its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. Bloomberg, New York Times

In a call over the weekend, Trump also invited President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines to the White House, a move that stunned human rights groups and even some of Trump’s own aides because the authoritarian leader has been accused of ordering extrajudicial killings of drug suspects in the Philippines. Some reported Trump’s invitation to Duterte, as well as the leaders of Thailand and Singapore, as evidence of an effort to build wider cooperation among regional countries to isolate North Korea. But Congress wants the administration to focus on targeting North Korea through sanctions, rather than  through pressuring U.S. allies. Wall Street Journal, Washington Post
New York Times: Trump’s Volatility in Asia Distresses a Longtime U.S. Ally: Australia
Associated Press: Seoul: THAAD can Defend Against North Korean Missiles.
BBC News: Japan Sends Biggest Warship to Protect US Supply Vessel.
The State Department issued a travel alert on Monday warning Americans living in and traveling to Europe of the ongoing threat of terrorist attacks on the continent. The State Department said ISIS, al Qaeda, and their affiliates retain the “ability and to plan and execute” attacks in Europe. The alert warned that U.S. officials remain concerned about the potential for future attacks following recent strikes in France, Russia, Sweden, and Britain. Washington Post

President Trump abruptly ended an interview with CBS Chief Washington Correspondent John Dickerson after Dickerson pressed the president on his claims that he had been wiretapped by former President Obama. During the interview, Trump brought up his widely-refuted claims from March that Obama wiretapped the phones at Trump Tower headquarters in the run up to the 2016 election -- an allegation that  he said had “been proven very strongly.” When Dickerson pressed Trump for more details on his claims and his relationship with Obama, he responded by saying “you don’t have to ask me” because “I have my own opinions.” Trump ended the interview shortly afterwards. CBS News, New York Times, Politico, Time

In a new feature in The Atlantic, Emma Green writes about how Jaelyn Young and Muhammad Dakhlalla, two young college students in Mississippi, became obsessed with ISIS and were arrested after planning a trip to Syria with contacts who were actually undercover FBI agents. In the process, they found themselves at the center of a national debate about radicalization and what law enforcement should do about it.

When the government or its partners identify ISIS sympathizers online, especially people without criminal backgrounds like these two, they could intervene and deter crimes from committed, writes Green, citing Karen Greenberg and the work of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law School. The Atlantic  

Benghazi ringleader to challenge evidence in court: Ahmed Abu Khattala, a Libyan militant who has pleaded not guilty to charges that he led the 2012 attacks on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, will ask a federal judge to throw out statements he made to U.S. authorities when he was held for 13 days aboard a U.S. Navy vessel. Khattala was questioned by U.S. military, intelligence and law enforcement officials shortly after his June 2014 capture by U.S. Special Forces, his attorneys have said. He was interrogated again by a second FBI team aboard the USS New York, at which point he allegedly waived his Miranda right to not answer questions. A two-week hearing into this pre-trial motion and others is set to begin May 10. Washington Post

Congress leaves FBI headquarters underfunded: The FBI would remain more than a half a billion dollars short of what it needs to build a new headquarters under the budget agreement Congress is set to consider this week. This will likely delay a decision on the project’s location until next year. The FBI has been pressing for a new headquarters to replace the Hoover Building for more than a decade. Washington Post

Senator asks FBI for clarification on Trump dossier: Senate Judiciary Committee chair Chuck Grassley has asked the FBI to answer for apparent “material inconsistencies” in information it presented regarding the unverified dossier alleging that Russia was in a position to blackmail President Trump. Buzzfeed News

U.S. nuclear weapons lab under new management: Scientists and researchers at the federal government's largest national laboratory are pushing ahead with work related to national security and the proliferation of nuclear weapons as new managers take over New Mexico-based Sandia National Laboratories. Lockheed Martin had operated Sandia, located in Albuquerque, for the past two decades, but recently lost out in a contract bidding to a subsidiary of Honeywell International. Associated Press

SpaceX launches spy satellite for U.S. government: SpaceX launched a top-secret spy satellite for the U.S. government on Monday, successfully landing the booster back on land for recycling. It was SpaceX's first mission for the National Reconnaissance Office. No details were divulged about the newly launched NRO satellite. Associated Press

New evidence indicates that the Syrian government used suspected nerve agents in four chemical weapons attacks since December as part of a broader pattern of chemical weapons use, Human Rights Watch said Monday. The group said the chemical attack on April 4 on the Syrian town of Khan Sheikhoun, which prompted President Trump to launch the first U.S. military strike on Syrian government facilities on April 6, was one in a series of recent chemical attacks by the Assad government. The rights group said the “widespread and systematic” chemical attacks on civilians could constitute crimes against humanity. New York Times, Washington Post, Associated Press

Witnesses cast doubt on U.S. claims that ISIS was behind death toll in Mosul strike: After an American airstrike killed more than 100 Iraqi civilians in a house in the western part of Mosul in March, U.S. officials suggested ISIS may have been to blame. Officials suggested militants may have packed the building with people, booby-trapped it with explosives, and lured in an airstrike by firing from the roof. Yet witnesses and survivors tell the Associated Press that none of that happened. Associated Press

Iraqi commander says Mosul recapture to be completed in May: Iraq’s army chief of staff Lt. Gen. Othman al-Ghanmi said he expects to dislodge ISIS from Mosul in May despite resistance from militants. A U.S.-led international coalition is providing air and ground support for the offensive. Reuters, Newsweek

Pakistani spy chief to visit Afghanistan: Pakistan’s spy chief is expected to visit Afghanistan later this week for talks with counterparts in Kabul on anti-terrorism and security cooperation. Voice of America

NATO is considering appointing a senior official to oversee counterterrorism efforts, a move aimed at meeting one of President Trump’s demands that the alliance focus more on terror threats. The proposal is similar to NATO’s recent decision to create a top intelligence post, a move that Trump cited as evidence the alliance has responded to his criticisms and is no longer “obsolete.” However some diplomats are skeptical about the impact such a role would have unless alliance members also agree to expand the organization’s counterterror efforts and fund additional training initiatives. Wall Street Journal

Australian militants using gift cards to bankroll terrorism: Australian militants are using readily available travel and gift cards to travel to Middle East conflict zones and bankroll terror attacks, according to a report by Australian intelligence agency Austrac. More than 10 million “stored-value cards” worth some $1.5 billion are active in Australia and are highly vulnerable to criminal exploitation, the report said. The Guardian, Daily Mail

Uber driver suspended over bomb plot allegation in Australia: An Uber driver in Australia has been suspended while police investigate allegations that he told a passenger he led an organization related to ISIS and planned to blow up the house of parliament. CBS News
Every senator agrees the UN must change: “As both the UN’s  principal founding member and its largest financial contributor, the U.S. must insist on real reforms. We in Congress have a responsibility to conduct rigorous oversight of U.S. engagement at the UN and its use of our citizens’ tax dollars,” write Senators Chris Coons and Marco Rubio in the Wall Street Journal. “The HRC [Human Rights Council] should be the premier international body addressing the many pressing human-rights challenges of our time in countries such as China, Cuba, North Korea, Syria, Russia, South Sudan and Venezuela. We therefore urge specific reforms to end the HRC’s imbalanced focus on Israel, including the elimination of Agenda Item 7 and a competitive admission process in order to broaden and better balance membership on the council.”

Populism has not ‘peaked’ in Europe: “Many now claim that right-wing populism has peaked, and the European Union has walked back from the brink of self-destruction. But while there are many positive lessons to be drawn from the recent elections, triumphalism, which leads to complacency, would be dangerous and misplaced,” writes Charlotte McDonald-Gibson in the New York Times.

Sebastian Gorka isn’t wrong about everything: “I dare to say that Gorka, even with a bogus Ph.D. and a quasi-Nazi medal, is not entirely wrong [about Islam and jihadist groups]—and because of his Trump associations, his bombast, and his overwhelming preponderance of misguided thinking, some are reluctant to acknowledge when he has a point,” writes Graeme Wood in the Atlantic. “One of the oddities of the Trump administration is that a team so focused on ‘radical Islam’ appears to have no interest in the details and distinctions within the category of ‘radical Islam.’ They prefer to treat it as one big simple thing, and that leads to absurd conclusions...Perhaps in a new job, wherever that may be, Gorka will have time to contemplate such distinctions.”

For cutting-edge analysis of the geopolitical events shaping global affairs, read today’s TSG IntelBrief: The Enduring Legacy of Bin Laden Six Years Later

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