The Soufan Group Morning Brief

The Soufan Group Morning Brief, June 16, 2017

FRIDAY, JUNE 16, 2017

Russia’s Defense Ministry said it is investigating reports that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was killed in one of its airstrikes in Syria last month. The strike on May 28 was carried out on the outskirts of Raqqa, ISIS’s de facto capital in Syria, on a command post where ISIS leaders were meeting, according to Russian state media reports. The strike is believed to have killed several other senior ISIS leaders, as well as around 30 field commanders and up to 300 of their personal guards, Russia said. Syrian opposition activists reported airstrikes on that day south of Raqqa, which they said killed more than a dozen people. U.S. defense officials said they were unable to confirm Russia’s reports.
There have been a number of reports of al-Baghdadi’s death in the past that were proven false. However, this is the first time that Russia has said it may have killed the ISIS leader. The last public video footage of al-Baghdadi is from Mosul, Iraq, in 2014 shortly after the group announced the establishment of the caliphate. He last released an audio message on November 3, in which he urged his followers to continue to fight for Mosul against a U.S.-backed offensive to retake the city. Associated Press, CNN, BBC News, Reuters
Reuters: From “Caliph” to Fugitive: ISIS Leader Baghdadi's New Life on the Run
Wall Street Journal: Al Qaeda Challenges ISIS for Leadership of Global Jihadist Movement, EU Police Say

Special counsel Robert Mueller, who is leading the Justice Department’s probe into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election, is recruiting a high-powered and experienced team of investigators. He has hired 13 lawyers, including members of his law firm WilmerHale who have Justice Department and law enforcement backgrounds, and plans to bring on more as he expands the investigation. CNN
The team includes James Quarles, an assistant special prosecutor for the Watergate investigation who specialized in campaign finance research for the Watergate task force; Aaron Zebley, a cybersecurity specialist who worked as a counsel at the Justice Department’s national security division before following Mueller from the FBI to WilmerHale; Jeannie Rhee, who was deputy assistant attorney general in the Obama administration and is an expert on the intersection of criminal law and government; and Andrew Weissmann, who formerly led the FBI’s fraud unit and the taskforce that investigated the financial dealings of Enron. Wired
“This is a team with wide expertise that is really top notch,” said Karen Greenberg, the director of the Center on National Security at Fordham University. “These are people who have a number of competencies who have dealt with fraud and corruption and who know government well. All of them know obstruction of justice and many have worked with Mueller and with each other before.” The Guardian
Meanwhile, the Washington Post reported Thursday that Mueller is investigating the finances and business dealings of President Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner as part of the investigation. The Post previously reported that investigators were scrutinizing meetings Kushner held with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and Sergey Gorkov, the head of a state-owned Russian bank, in December. Also on Thursday, members of Trump’s transition team were ordered to preserve documents and other materials related to the Russia investigation. Washington Post, New York Times
PBS Newshour: Robert Mueller is Expanding the Russia Probe. Here’s How
New York Times: Mueller, Known for Being Above the Fray, Is Now in the Thick of It
Vice President Mike Pence has hired a personal criminal defense lawyer to represent him in the special counsel investigation and congressional inquiries into Russia’s role in the 2016 election. The lawyer, Richard Cullen, is a former Virginia attorney general and a former U.S. attorney for the eastern district of Virginia. The decision to hire Cullen has been in the works for weeks, Pence aides said. It follows President Donald Trump’s decision to assemble a team of outside lawyers to represent in the Justice Department special counsel’s Russia probe.
Earlier on Thursday, President Trump called the probe a “witch hunt” on Twitter. “They made up a phony collusion with the Russians story, found zero proof, so now they go for obstruction of justice on the phony story. Nice,” Trump wrote. Washington Post, CNN, New York Times
Facebook announced Thursday details of its efforts to remove terrorist-related content from its site, including using artificial intelligence to help remove inappropriate content. The move follows growing pressure from governments for technology and social media companies to do more to remove materials such as terrorist propaganda. In a blog post, Facebook described how an artificial-intelligence system would, over time, teach itself to identify key phrases that were previously flagged for being used to bolster a known terrorist group.
For now, artificial intelligence will largely be used in conjunction with human moderators who review content on a case-by-case basis, Head of Global Policy Management Monika Bickert said. Brian Fishman, Facebook’s lead policy manager for counterterrorism, said the company had a team of 150 specialists working in 30 languages doing such reviews. “We are currently focusing our most cutting edge techniques to combat terrorist content about ISIS, al-Qaeda and their affiliates, and we expect to expand to other terrorist organizations in due course,” Facebook said. New York Times, BBC News,
Wikileaks document describes CIA’s router-hacking efforts: WikiLeaks has published a detailed set of descriptions and documentation of the CIA’s router-hacking toolkit. The document describes a program called Cherry Blossom, which uses a modified version of a router’s firmware to turn it into a surveillance tool. According to document, the CIA’s router-hacking killchain starts with a tool called Claymore, which can scan a network to identify devices and then launch the CIA’s router-hacking exploits. Wired, The Verge

The Pentagon will send nearly 4,000 additional American forces to Afghanistan, a U.S. official said, marking the largest deployment yet of American manpower under President Trump. The decision by Defense Secretary James Mattis could be announced as early as next week. It follows a move by Trump to give Mattis the authority to set troop levels in Afghanistan after Gen. John Nicholson, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, said that he doesn’t have enough forces to help the country’s army fight a resurgent Taliban insurgency.
The bulk of the additional troops will train and advise Afghan forces. A smaller number will be assigned to counterterror operations against the Taliban and ISIS, the official said. There are currently about 8,400 U.S. troops in Afghanistan in addition to several thousand troops from allied countries. NATO forces are also expected to increase troop levels in Afghanistan. Associated Press, USAToday
Afghan leaders endorse the idea of more U.S. troops, having lost significant ground to the Taliban in recent months and following a spate of deadly attacks in the capital city of Kabul by ISIS. On Thursday, ISIS claimed responsibility for a deadly attack on a mosque in an area of Kabul dominated by minority Shia Muslims. BBC News
Russia questions U.S. missile deployment in Syria: The Russian defence ministry has raised concerns about U.S. multiple-rocket launchers being deployed at a base in eastern Syria. The U.S. military this week moved a new truck-mounted, long-range rocket launcher from Jordan to a U.S. base in al-Tanf in Syria, near the Iraqi and Jordanian borders. Militiamen backed by Syria and Iran had reportedly been moving towards the base.

Blast outside Chinese kindergarten was bomb attack, police say: A deadly explosion, the result of a bomb, occurred outside of a kindergarten in the eastern Chinese city of Xuzhou on Thursday. A 22-year-old man made the bomb, which killed eight people, including himself, investigators said Friday. The incident is the latest in a string of attacks on Chinese schools and students, most of which are blamed on individuals with mental illnesses. Police said the suspect was identified primarily using security camera footage and DNA collected at the scene of the blast. Only the suspect’s surname, Xu, was released. No motive was provided. Investigators found bomb-making materials at his nearby residence and messages about death. CNN, Associated Press
Turkish president assails U.S. over changes against his guards: President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey lashed out at the United States on Thursday, condemning criminal charges filed against a dozen of his security personnel. His remarks came after U.S. authorities announced they had charged 12 Turkish security personnel and four other American and Canadian civilians in connection with an attack in May on protesters outside the Turkish ambassador’s residence. Erdogan’s government summoned U.S. Ambassador John R. Bass to a meeting with Foreign Ministry officials in Ankara to complain. They told Bass that the charges were “wrong, biased and lack legal basis,” and blamed American law enforcement officers who were on the scene. New York Times
Where have all the children gone? “Death and destruction stalk whole populations in Syria and other crumbling countries and failed or failing states across the region...When normal life disintegrates in this way, the most devastating impact falls on the children.” Karen J. Greenberg writes in TomDispatch.
“The U.S. and its allies may one day defeat ISIS and other terror groups, but if what’s left in their wake is only bombed-out, unreconstructed landscapes and millions of uprooted children, what kind of victory will that be? What kind of future will that ensure? There will be no ‘winning,’ not truly, if the crisis of grief, the crisis of the children who are the living casualties of this new age, is not addressed sooner rather than later.”
About that “deconfliction zone” in Syria: Is the United States on firm domestic and international legal footing? “From a purely legal standpoint, the recent U.S. military actions against pro-regime forces also raise immediate and serious questions. The United States’ domestic and international legal footing in Syria must be addressed before we stumble further into the Syrian civil war,” Tess Bridgeman writes in Just Security. “Is taking and holding Syrian territory sought by the Syrian regime and its allies lawful? And if so, what are the limits of action the United States can take against pro-regime forces under its theory of self-defense against ISIL?”
For peace in Afghanistan, talk to Pakistan: “The Trump administration’s Afghanistan policy review provides an opportunity to confront a central truth: No strategy, even with more troops, will succeed without reducing Pakistan’s support for the Afghan Taliban and the affiliated Haqqani network that is responsible for some of the deadliest attacks against the United States and its partners in Afghanistan,” Stephen J. Hadley and Moeed Yusuf write in the New York Times.
We should keep our word on refugees: “Refugees are being left to languish for years in camps or as urban squatters. Children are going without schooling. These conditions create fertile ground for the radicalization that is our greatest fear. By failing to rescue them, we are creating a self-fulfilling prophecy and are complicit in their suffering,” Georgette F. Bennett writes in the New York Times. “The issue cuts to the well-being and moral heart of our nation.”

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