The Soufan Group Morning Brief

The Soufan Group Morning Brief, June 22, 2017

Hundreds of men swept up in the hunt for al Qaeda militants have disappeared into a secret network of prisons in southern Yemen where abuse is routine and torture extreme, an investigation by the Associated Press found. Drawing on accounts from former detainees, families of prisoners, civil rights lawyers, and Yemeni military officials, the Associated Press documented at least 18 clandestine prisons across southern Yemen run by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) or by Yemeni forces trained by the Gulf nation. The UAE has been aiding Yemen’s government in an ongoing civil war against Houthi rebels as part of a U.S. supported, Saudi-led coalition.
On Wednesday, senior U.S. defense officials acknowledged that U.S. forces have been involved in interrogations of detainees in Yemen but denied any participation in or knowledge of human rights abuses. Defense officials said U.S. senior military leaders were aware of allegations of torture at the prisons in Yemen, had looked into them, and were satisfied that there had not been any abuse when U.S. forces were present. “We always adhere to the highest standards of personal and professional conduct. We would not turn a blind eye, because we are obligated to report any violations of human rights,” Defense Department Spokeswoman Dana White said. The Emirati government denied the allegations.
None of the dozens of people interviewed by the Associated Press contended that American interrogators were involved in the actual abuses. Nevertheless, obtaining intelligence that may have been extracted by torture inflicted by another party would violate the International Convention Against Torture. Associated Press
Just Security: The Potential Legal Implications for the U.S. in the AP’s Disturbing UAE Torture Scoop

In separate meetings last week, two top intelligence officials told Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team and Senate investigators looking into Russia’s involvement in the 2016 election that President Donald Trump suggested they say publicly there was no collusion between his campaign and the Russians. Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats and National Security Agency Director Adm. Mike Rogers described their interactions with President Trump about the Russia investigation as odd and uncomfortable, but said they did not believe he gave them orders to interfere, according to multiple sources familiar with their accounts.
Both Coats and Rogers told Mueller’s team they were surprised that Trump would suggest that they publicly declare he was not involved in collusion. Yet sources said in private meetings with the Senate Intelligence Committee that neither Coats nor Rogers raised concerns that Trump was pushing them to do something they did not want to do. Both men had testified in public hearings on June 7 about the matter, but provided little detail. CNN
Russian government-linked hackers potentially targeted the election systems of up to 21 states during the 2016 presidential race, DHS official Samuel Liles said. Speaking before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Liles said the intelligence community concluded by late September of last year that 21 states “were potentially targeted by Russian government-linked cyber actors” with scanning of Internet-connected election systems. The department’s Acting Deputy Undersecretary of Cyber Security, Jeanette Manfra, said there was no evidence that any votes were manipulated. CNN
Meanwhile, Former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson testified before the House Intelligence Committee on Wednesday that to his knowledge, Russia neither altered vote tallies nor ballots in the 2016 election. Johnson said his department had issued warnings about hacking into voter registration databases. Asked why the Obama administration did not do more to warn the public, he said, “We were very concerned that we would not be perceived as taking sides in the election, injecting ourselves into a very heated campaign.” Reuters, CNN, CBS News
Washington Post: The Simple Reason Intelligence Officials Keep Talking About Russian Hacking? Trump.
CNN: Everything Trump Has Said About Who Tried to Hack the U.S. Election
FBI Director nominee removed reference to case involving Russian government from law firm bio: President Trump’s nominee to be the director of the FBI, Christopher Wray, removed the mention of a 2006 case in which he represented an American energy executive who was being criminally investigated by the Russian government from his biography on his law firm’s website. The firm, King and Spalding, said Wray made the change himself in January 2017 before he considered whether he might be nominated for any administration post. Deputy Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has confirmed that Wray’s nomination had not been formally submitted to the Senate for confirmation. CNN, Newsweek
FBI investigating police officer airport stabbing as terrorism: The FBI is investigating a stabbing at Bishop International Airport in Flint, Michigan, as an act of terrorism. An airport police officer was stabbed in the neck in the airport’s main terminal at Bishop International Airport on Wednesday morning. The FBI’s Detroit field director David Gelios said Amor Ftouhi, a Canadian national, was charged with violence at the airport and will be arraigned in Detroit. Ftouhi, who illegally entered the U.S. on July 16,  yelled “Allahu akbar” before stabbing the officer in the neck, Gelios said. CNN, CBS News
Ex-Guantanamo detainee Ghailani may pursue prison prayer claim: A federal appeals court on Wednesday revived a lawsuit in which Ahmed Khalfan Ghailani, a former Guantanamo Bay detainee convicted over the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, said prison officials violated his right to participate in group prayer. The 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver said a lower court judge erred in dismissing Ghailani’s lawsuit over being forbidden to pray Jumu'ah, a Muslim prayer held on Fridays, at a Supermax prison in Colorado where he is serving a life sentence without parole. Reuters

ISIS militants on Wednesday blew up the centuries-old Grand al-Nuri Mosque of Mosul and its famous leaning minaret, Iraq’s military said in a statement, as Iraqi forces seeking to expel the group from the city closed in on the site. It was at the mosque in 2014 that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi declared a caliphate after his fighters took control of Mosul and swept through other parts of northern Iraq and Syria. It was the last time Baghdadi was seen in public. “Blowing up the al-Hadba minaret and the al-Nuri mosque amounts to an official acknowledgement of defeat,” Iraqi Prime Minister said.
ISIS’ Amaq news agency accused U.S. aircraft of destroying the mosque, a claim swiftly denied by the U.S.-led coalition fighting the militant group. “We did not strike in that area,” coalition spokesman U.S. Air Force Colonel John Dorrian said. The destruction of the mosque and minaret, which has dominated Mosul’s skyline for centuries, is a further blow to the city’s heritage as a number of ancient sites have been damaged or destroyed during three years of ISIS rule. Reuters, New York Times, Associated Press
At least 30 people have been killed and dozens wounded after a car bomb exploded outside the New Kabul Bank branch in Lashkar Gah, the capital of the southern Afghan province of Helmand. There was no immediate claim of responsibility but Taliban and ISIS militants have carried out deadly attacks in recent months. “It happened at a time when civilians and officials had lined up outside the bank to collect their salaries,” police spokesman Salam Afghan said. Bank buildings where Afghan civilians and military personnel receive monthly salaries have been repeatedly attacked in recent years. This is the third time in three years that militants have targeted crowds collecting salaries at the bank. The two previous attacks were claimed by the Taliban. BBC News, Reuters, The Guardian
On Wednesday, Chief Pentagon Spokeswoman Dana White said that the problem of ISIS in Afghanistan is “not getting better.” She said. “We have a problem, and we have to defeat them and we have to be focused on that problem.” The U.S. plans to send more troops to Afghanistan, and U.S. Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis is still reviewing what his commanders need on the ground in terms of the types of military forces and the number of those forces, White said. Voice of America
Taliban releases video showing American, Australian captives: The Taliban released a new video on Wednesday showing an American and an Australian captive they abducted last August, the second such footage of the hostages. The two men, an American identified as Kevin King and an Australian man identified as Timothy Weekes, were abducted outside the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul, where they work as teachers. In the footage, both King and Weekes say the date is June 16. Both say they are being treated well by the Taliban but that they remain prisoners and appeal to their governments to help set them free. Associated Press
U.S. reassures Turkey over arms provided to Syrian Kurds: Turkish officials said Thursday that U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis has written to his Turkish counterpart to reassure him that arms provided to Syrian Kurdish fighters would be taken back once ISIS militants are ousted from their stronghold in the Syrian city of Raqqa. Turkish Defense Ministry officials said in a statement that Mattis also reassured Defense Minister Fikri Isik that the United States would regularly provide Turkey with a list of arms provided to the fighters and U.S. military advisers would ensure that the arms don’t go outside of the battle zones in Syria. Associated Press

Four detained in raids linked to Brussels rail station attack: Belgian authorities said Thursday that police detained four people in a series of raids in Brussels linked to the failed bombing at a rail station on Tuesday by a man shouting “Allahu akbar.” The federal prosecutor’s office said that the four were picked up during searches in the Molenbeek neighborhood, as well as in Anderlecht and Koekelberg. The authorities said that the attacker on Tuesday, a Moroccan citizen, had assembled the bomb at his home in the Molenbeek section of Brussels. Many of the suspects linked to attacks in Brussels and in Paris in November 2015 lived in or passed through the neighborhood. New York Times, Associated Press
UN chief appoints Russian diplomat to top anti-terror job: The United Nations on Wednesday named Russian diplomat Vladi­mir Voronkov as its new undersecretary general for counterterrorism, the first new senior executive office created at the international body in decades. UN Spokesman Farhan Haq said that in his new role, Voronkov would “provide strategic leadership to UN counterterrorism efforts, participate in the decision-making process of the United Nations and ensure that the cross-cutting origins and impact of terrorism are reflected in the work.” Reuters, Washington Post
Mattis backs Trump tweet on China, North Korea: President Donald Trump “represents the American people’s view of North Korea,” U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Wednesday, backing up a tweet by President Trump declaring that China had failed in trying to ease the threat posed by North Korea. In a tweet sent Tuesday afternoon, Trump expressed gratitude toward China and its president, Xi Jinping, for trying “to help with North Korea,” but concluded “it has not worked out.” Mattis suggested that Trump was airing the discontent of the American people in the wake of the death of Otto Warmbier, a University of Virginia student who was returned to the U.S. from North Korea in a coma last week after spending more than a year in captivity. Politico
This is how great-power wars get started: Such wars begin “not with a bang, but with strategic confusion in Washington about the links between Syria, Qatar, Iran and Russia” Emile Simpson writes in Foreign Policy.
The Kurdish region of Iraq is going to vote on independence. Here’s what you need to know: “The Kurdish referendum holds the possibility of affecting the balance of leverage between Irbil, Baghdad and regional powers, as well as shaking up internal Kurdish politics,” Morgan L. Kaplan and Ramzy Mardini write in the Washington Post. “With control over disputed territories and a referendum at hand, the Kurds are making a play for bargaining power on the road to independence. This does not represent a declaration of independence — but it is a strong indicator of where the focal point of Kurdish politics will lie in post-Islamic State Iraq.”
The U.S. enters a new phase in Syria: “Whether it recognizes it or not, the United States has entered a new phase in its war in Syria. If it insists on destroying ISIS, it will face a difficult choice: between conducting a more ambitious but riskier Syria policy, and accepting sacrifices that could lower the risk of escalation with Iran and the Assad regime but potentially threaten long-term U.S. interests,” Faysal Itani writes in The Atlantic. “It’s perfectly clear now that choosing which wars to fight or ignore in Syria is not possible—and it probably never was.”

For cutting-edge analysis of the geopolitical events shaping global affairs, read today’s TSG IntelBrief:  The U.S. and Russia on a Conflict Heading

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