The Soufan Group Morning Brief

The Soufan Group Morning Brief, June 23, 2017

FRIDAY, JUNE 23, 2017

President Donald Trump said Thursday that he does not have “tapes” of his private conversations with former FBI Director James B. Comey. “With all of the recently reported electronic surveillance, intercepts, unmasking, and illegal leaking of information,” Trump said on Twitter, “I have no idea …. whether there are ‘tapes’ of my conversations with James Comey, but I did not make, and do not have, such recordings.”
On May 12, days after firing Comey, Trump suggested on Twitter that he might possess audio recordings of their conversations in the White House. Trump reportedly pressed Comey to pledge loyalty during a dinner at the White House shortly after the inauguration and asked Comey to drop an investigation into former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn over alleged links to Russia. Trump and and senior White House officials refused to reveal whether such tapes existed until now. New York Times, Bloomberg, Washington Post
Trump said he had not obstructed the FBI's probe into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 U.S. presidential election. “Look there has been no obstruction, there has been no collusion,” Trump told Fox News Channel in an interview set to air on Friday. Trump also said the friendship between Comey and Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who is leading the Justice Department's Russia probe, is “very bothersome.” Asked whether Mueller should step down from the investigation because of his friendship with Comey, Trump replied, “We're going to have to see.” Reuters, CBS News
Politico: Trump Loses Patience With His White House counsel
Vanity Fair: The Trump Obstruction Case is Gathering Momentum
PBS Newshour: President Trump’s Tease of Possible Comey Tapes Fit Similar Pattern
Washington Post: Trump is Struggling to Stay Calm on Russia, One Morning Call at a Time

Supreme Court could reveal action on travel ban at any time: Supreme Court justices met Thursday morning for their last regularly scheduled private conference in June and likely voted on whether to let the Trump administration immediately enforce its travel ban and hear the administration's appeal of lower court rulings blocking the ban. The travel ban has been tied up in the courts since President Trump's original order in January sparked widespread protests just days after he took office. The court's decision could come any time and is expected no later than late next week. Associated Press
Supreme Court sides with Serb who lied during naturalization process: The Supreme Court on Thursday made it harder to strip citizenship from naturalized Americans. The court unanimously rejected the government’s view that simply proving that someone lied during the process was enough to strip citizenship. Justice Elena Kagan said that would give the government too much power. “The government opens the door to a world of disquieting consequences,” Kagan wrote, adding that it would “give prosecutors nearly limitless leverage — and afford newly naturalized Americans precious little security.” The case at the court involved a Bosnian native, Divna Maslenjak, who was prosecuted for lying on her application about her husband’s military service. She was deported by the Obama administration, which held the broad view that any misrepresentation — whether relevant or not — was enough to give the government the right to consider revocation. Washington Post
Former State Department security officer accused of spying for China: Former State Department diplomatic security officer and military contractor Kevin Patrick Mallory was charged on Thursday with conducting espionage for China after FBI agents found top-secret documents and incriminating messages on a communications device he brought back from Shanghai. Mallory is also charged with lying to federal investigators. “The conduct alleged in this complaint is serious, and these charges should send a message to anyone who would consider violating the public’s trust and compromising our national security by disclosing classified information,” U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia and acting assistant attorney general for national security Dana J. Boente said. New York Times
Judge will not reduce charges in New York-New Jersey bomb case: A federal judge refused on Thursday to throw out criminal charges that could result in a mandatory life prison sentence for a man accused of plotting bomb attacks in New Jersey and New York that injured 30 people. U.S. District Judge Richard Berman made a series of rulings in the case brought against Ahmad Khan Rahimi, including declining a defense request to dismiss two explosives charges, saying judicial precedent from other terrorism cases makes clear their relevance to the eight-count indictment. Rahimi, 29, pleaded not guilty to detonating a pipe bomb near a charity run in Seaside Park, New Jersey and planting two pressure cooker bombs in Manhattan in September. Associated Press

U.S. Central Command said Thursday it carried out an airstrike in Yemen on June 16 that killed Abu Khattab al Awlaqi, the emir for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula's Shabwa province. “Al Awlaqi was a senior leader responsible for planning and conducting terrorist attacks against civilians,” Centcom said in the statement. “He had significant influence throughout AQAP's terrorist stronghold, had ties and access to the group's other senior leaders, and was implicated in planning and leading efforts to exacerbate instability in southern Yemen.” Centcom noted that AQAP maintains a “terrorist stronghold” in the Yemeni province and and elsewhere in the country’s south. Reuters, DoD News
Russia fired cruise missiles from the Mediterranean Sea on ISIS positions in Syria, its Defense Ministry said Friday, in Moscow's latest show of strength in the Syrian conflict. The ministry said that two frigates and a submarine launched six cruise missiles on ISIS installations in Syria's Hama province, destroying command centers and ammunition depots. It did not say when the missiles were launched.
Moscow has previously fired missiles from the Mediterranean at militants' positions in Syria, including launches from a submarine and a frigate in May at targets near Palmyra. The missiles also come amid tensions following the U.S. downing of a Syrian fighter jet. Separately on Friday, a senior Russian lawmaker said Moscow is “nearly 100 percent” sure that it killed top ISIS Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi in an airstrike last month. Associated Press, CNN
The leader of the Afghan Taliban, Maulvi Haibatullah Akhunzadah, said Friday that a planned U.S. troop surge will not end the protracted war in the country and vowed to fight on until a full withdrawal of NATO troops from Afghanistan had taken place. “The more they [NATO] insist on maintaining the presence of their forces here or want a surge of their forces, the more regional sensitivity against them will intensify,” he said. However, he also promised “constructive and good relations with you and the world” once “your illegitimate occupation of Afghanistan comes to an end.” The remarks follow a suicide car bombing claimed by the Taliban in Afghanistan’s Helmand province this week that targeted Afghan troops and government workers. Associated Press, Reuters
Car bomb explodes in southwestern Pakistan: A car bomb exploded near the office of the provincial police chief in southwestern Pakistan on Friday, killing 11 people and wounded 20. Spokesman for the provincial government Anwarul Haq Kakar said the bomb, near the police chief's office in the capital of Baluchistan province, was planted in a moving car, but officers were trying to determine whether it was a suicide attack. No one claimed responsibility for the attack, but Kakar blamed neighboring India for the blast. He offered no evidence. Associated Press
Car bomb explodes at police station in Somalia: A car bomb targeting a police station killed at least seven people in Somalia's capital of Mogadishu on Thursday, police said. Al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab claimed responsibility for the attack. The blast came despite thousands of security personnel, including police, intelligence and military, being assigned to secure Mogadishu earlier this month. On Tuesday, al Shabaab claimed responsibility for a car bomb attack on a government building in Mogadishu that killed at least 10 people. Reuters
Southeast Asian countries commit to cohesive approach to thwart militants: The Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia agreed on Thursday to pool intelligence and address militant financing as fears grow that protracted fighting in Marawi City in the Philippines town signals a growing threat from ISIS to the region. Foreign ministers and defense officials of the three neighboring countries agreed to work together to share information, track communications, and crack down on the flow of arms, fighters, and money. Philippine Foreign Secretary Alan Peter Cayetano said the agreement aimed to revisit and strengthen existing security programs between the three countries. Reuters
Turkey says multinational forces could patrol Syria de-escalation zones: Turkey on Thursday said multinational forces from differing sides of Syria’s conflict could be deployed to ensure peace in so-called "de-escalation" zones aimed at ending the civil war. Iran, Russia, and Turkey agreed on May 4 at peace talks in Kazakhstan to establish four de-escalation regions across Syria. A spokesman for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said the three countries now have a working group to discuss the logistics for keeping the peace in the de-escalation zones. He said forces in the Idlib region of the north would be mainly Turkish and Russian troops and forces around Damascus would be Russian and Iranian troops. Jordanian and American forces could be deployed in the southern Daraa region, he added. Meanwhile, Moscow suggested that Kyrgyz and Kazakh forces could also be involved in the effort. Agence France Presse

Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries that have cut ties to Qatar issued a list of demands on Thursday to end the diplomatic crisis. The thirteen demands, presented to Qatar by mediator Kuwait,  include shutting down Al Jazeera, cutting back diplomatic ties to Iran, and closing down a Turkish military base in Qatar. Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain are also demanding that Qatar sever all ties with the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups including Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, and ISIS.
Additionally, the demands call on Qatar to hand over all individuals who are wanted by the four countries for terrorism; stop funding any extremist entities that are designated as terrorist groups by the U.S.; and provide detailed information about opposition figures that Qatar has funded, ostensibly in Saudi Arabia and the other nations. If Qatar fails to meet all the demands within 10 days of their submission, the deal becomes invalid. Neither Qatar nor the U.S. had any immediate reaction to the list. Earlier this week, U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson insisted that Qatar's neighbors provide a list of “reasonable and actionable” demands. Associated Press, The Guardian, BBC News
North Korea carried out a test of a rocket engine that the U.S. believes could be part of its program to develop an intercontinental ballistic missile, a U.S. official said Thursday. The U.S. assessed that the test, the latest in a series of engine and missile tests this year, could be for the smallest stage of an ICBM rocket engine. The disclosure of the engine test came a day after the U.S. pressed China to exert more economic and diplomatic pressure on North Korea to rein in its nuclear and missile programs in talks between Chinese officials and Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of Defense Rex Tillerson in Washington. Reuters, The Hill
Ghana court rejects resettlement of Guantanamo Bay detainees: The Supreme Court of Ghana ruled Thursday that the government’s decision to allow two former Guantanamo Bay detainees to live in the country was unconstitutional. Last year, Ghana signed an agreement with the U.S. to allow two detainees, Khalid Mohammed Salih al-Dhuby and Mahmmoud Omar Mohammed Bin Atef, both citizens of Yemen, to resettle in Ghana. They were the first Guantanamo prisoners resettled in sub-Saharan Africa and arrived in January 2016. The court justices said former Ghanaian President John Dramani Mahama needed parliamentary approval to accept the former prisoners. That court ruled that parliament has three months to approve the transfer of the detainees. Associated Press, New York Times
French leader Macron proposes expansion of his counterterrorism powers: French President Emmanuel Macron’s government on Thursday proposed a significant expansion of authorities’ powers to fight terrorism. The draft law proposed Thursday seeks to wind down a state of emergency imposed after the November 2015 Paris attacks that gave French security officials broad powers. Some of those powers would be made permanent, including the ability to temporarily close places of worship that promote extremism and conduct searches with fewer restrictions. The draft law would also strip some oversight powers from judges and gives security officials more latitude to act without judicial review. It was introduced after a series of attempted terrorist strikes in Paris and Brussels in recent weeks and several attacks in Britain that were claimed by ISIS-inspired militants. Reuters, Washington Post
We participated in talks with North Korean representatives. This is what we learned: “This month, we were part of a group of delegates from the United States, Japan, China and South Korea who met in Sweden with representatives of North Korea to explore possible grounds for resuming the six-party talks that collapsed in 2009… North Korean officials made unambiguously clear that Pyongyang will not be deterred from augmenting its nuclear arsenal or test-launching an intercontinental ballistic missile that could eventually threaten the U.S. homeland,” Bruce Klingner and Sue Mi Terry write in the Washington Post. “Instead of trying to preempt the North Korean nuclear weapons program, the Trump administration would be better advised to ramp up sanctions — including secondary sanctions, despite predictable Chinese protests. This would impose a penalty on North Korea, without risking a war — and could conceivably hasten the day the Kim regime finally collapses.”
The Trump tower peace theory: “Trump properties are physical, immovable assets largely unprotected against hostile action. The president’s failure to divest from his business empire gives U.S. adversaries an instrument of personal coercion. All manner of U.S. adversaries, including sovereign states and terrorist organizations, could seek to influence the president’s foreign policy by threatening Trump assets,” Phillip Y. Lipscy writes in Foreign Policy. “Even if we optimistically assume the best of this president, his business interests still threaten U.S. national interests.”
Is the New Saudi Heir the Right Man for the Job? “The new crown prince is trying to use Trump's backing to mount an attack against perceived Iranian inroads in the Arab world. This policy in and of itself is fraught with the risk of military conflicts, but it is also forcing Putin's hand in aligning Russia to a greater extent with Iran,” Leonid Bershidsky writes in Bloomberg View. “To keep the volatile situation from blowing up, Saudi Arabia needs a leader who is able to keep a balance between the U.S. and Russia. King Salman and former crown prince Mohammed bin Nayef understood the challenge. Prince Mohammed bin Salman seems to be swinging heavily toward Trump, however, as a way to gain support for his stepped up anti-Iran efforts.”
British counterterrorism after the election: “It is likely that May’s Conservatives will seek to further widen the state’s powers and increase its focus on policing so-called nonviolent extremism, especially among Muslim communities, deepening measures that date back to Cameron’s Conservative-led coalition government,” Zaheer Kazmi writes in Foreign Affairs. “If the prime minister’s weak mandate forces her to tone down some of the more problematic aspects of her government’s counterterrorism policies, it would be a rare silver lining in what has been a chaotic few weeks.”
For cutting-edge analysis of the geopolitical events shaping global affairs, read today’s TSG IntelBrief: Iran Benefiting from Gulf State Rift

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