The Soufan Group Morning Brief



The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Tuesday that it had “confirmed information” that ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has been killed. Russia's Defense Ministry said in June it might have killed Baghdadi when one of its airstrikes hit a gathering of ISIS commanders on the outskirts of Raqqa in Syria. The Syrian Observatory’s director Rami Abdurrahman told news agencies that “top-tier commanders” from ISIS in Syria’s Deir Ezzor province, which remains largely under ISIS control, confirmed al-Baghdadi’s death.

Spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS, U.S. Army Colonel Ryan Dillon, said he could not confirm the news. The Pentagon said it had no information to corroborate the reports, and Kurdish and Iraqi officials had no immediate confirmation. Baghdadi has not been seen in public since making appearing at the Grand Mosque of Al-Nuri in Iraq’s Mosul in 2014 to announce the formation of his “caliphate.” If confirmed, his death would mark a major blow to ISIS as it loses territory in Iraq and Syria. Reuters, Al Jazeera, Washington Post

The White House has been thrust into chaos after days of revelations about a meeting between Donald Trump Jr. and a Russian lawyer. According to top White House officials and advisors, President Donald Trump is enraged that allegations of collusion with Russia continue to hang over his presidency and have become focused on his eldest son. New York Times

On Tuesday, Trump Jr. released a chain of emails detailing his conversations about setting up a campaign meeting in June 2016 with the Russian lawyer, Natalia Veselnitskaya, who had offered compromising information on Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. “If it’s what you say I love it especially later in the summer,” Trump Jr. replied to an email from an intermediary who promised documents that would “incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia” and were “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.” In an interview with Fox News, Trump Jr. said that “in retrospect, I probably would have done things a little differently.” CNN, New York Times

While supporters of  Trump Jr. say he faces no legal repercussions for his meeting with Veselnitskaya, they privately acknowledged Tuesday that the story is a public relations disaster for both him and the White House. On Tuesday, a statement from President Trump said, “My son is a high-quality person and I applaud his transparency.” Trump Jr. said he would testify under oath in any of the investigations into possible collusion between Russia and his father’s campaign. Washington Post
CNN: Trump’s Web of Russian Ties Grows With Miss Universe Links
New York Times: Donald Trump Jr. Makes the Russian Connection
Reuters: Berlin Worries Trump's Russia Problems Hampering Policy

Confirmation hearings for Christopher Wray, President Donald Trump's nominee for FBI director, are set to begin Wednesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee, just over two months Trump fired former FBI Director James Comey. Wray, an assistant attorney general under President George W. Bush who currently works as a lawyer in private practice, was nominated by Trump in June to lead the bureau.

Wray is expected to face questions about how he plans to maintain independence from the White House amid an ongoing investigation by Special Counsel Robert Mueller into the Trump campaign’s ties with Russia. Democratic members of the committee are likely to press Wray about Trump’s decision to fire Comey. Current and former FBI agents say they are hopeful that Wray can keep the bureau out of the headlines so it can focus on conducting investigations. ABC News, Wall Street Journal
New York Times: What to Expect at the F.B.I. Nominee’s Confirmation Hearing
NPR: 5 Questions For FBI Director Nominee Christopher Wray
Washington Post: How Will FBI Nominee Wray Deal With Trump?
Lawfare: As the Senate Considers Christopher Wray as FBI Director: A Video and a Column
Foreign Policy: The Defense of the FBI Against Donald Trump Has to Start Now

The Intercept to fund defense of NSA leaker: The Intercept's parent company First Look Media will fund the legal defense of accused NSA leaker Reality Winner, who is charged with violating the Espionage Act after mailing classified documents to the news outlet. Winner, who was a government contractor with a top-secret clearance, was arrested by FBI agents last month for leaking classified documents to The Intercept.“We at The Intercept have always opposed the use of the Espionage Act against government whistleblowers,” Editor-in-Chief Betsy Reed said in a statement. “Our stand is unwavering and we would object to the prosecution of Winner under the act even if we had no connection to the materials she is accused of disclosing.” Winner’s trial is set for October 23. She has been denied bail. The Intercept, The Hill

Explosion hits U.S. Air Force recruiting office in Oklahoma: The FBI said Tuesday it had taken a person into custody after a bomb exploded outside a U.S. Air Force recruitment center in northeast Oklahoma. The blast late Monday caused no injuries but damaged the front doors of the Air Force recruiting center in Bixby, Oklahoma, southeast of Tulsa, local police said. Early reports indicate the fragments were consistent with a pipe bomb, FBI Special Agent Jessi Rice said. CNN, Reuters

The Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system on Tuesday successfully intercepted its target during a test, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency said. The test was the first-ever of the THAAD system against an incoming intermediate-range ballistic missile, which experts say is a faster and more difficult target to hit than shorter-range missiles. “This test further demonstrates the capabilities of the THAAD weapon system and its ability to intercept and destroy ballistic missile threats,” agency director Lt. Gen. Sam Greaves said in a statement. An official from the Department of Defense said the test is not related to North Korea's intercontinental ballistic missile launch on July 4. CNN, Reuters

Two Americans killed battling ISIS in Syria: Two Americans fighting alongside Kurdish forces in northern Syria were killed last week in the battle to retake Raqqa from ISIS. Nicholas Warden and Robert Grodt died last week on the outskirts of Raqqa, according to U.S. officials and a statement released by the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG). A British man, Luke Rutter, was also killed in the fighting. The YPG is one component of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of Arabic, Kurdish, and Turkish militants fighting under a U.S.-backed umbrella. Warden and Grodt’s deaths bring the total number of Americans killed fighting alongside the YPG to roughly a dozen. The number of Americans fighting alongside militia groups in Syria is unknown. Washington Post, The Guardian

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson signed a memorandum with Qatar on Tuesday to bolster efforts to fight terrorism. Tillerson outlined the agreement at the end of his first visit to Qatar amid a diplomatic rift between Doha and a Saudi-led bloc. Tillerson said work on the memorandum had been underway for as long as a year. It lays out a series of steps Washington and Doha will take “to interrupt, disable terror financing flows and intensify counterterrorism activities globally.” The agreement also includes milestones to ensure both countries are accountable to their commitments. “Together, the U.S. and Qatar will do more to track down funding sources, collaborate and share information and do more to keep the region and our homeland safe,” Tillerson said. CNN, Washington Post

Tillerson said he was “hopeful” the agreement would make progress towards resolving the Gulf diplomatic dispute. However, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain, which accuse Qatar of funding terrorism, called the agreement “insufficient.” The four states said they would continue an embargo against Qatar until Doha commits to implementing a set of demands issued by the Saudi bloc in late June. Al Jazeera
Reuters: Top U.S. Diplomat Faces Tough Gulf Talks on Ending Qatar Row
Washington Post: Tiny Qatar is Living Large Despite Monthlong Arab Siege

UN suspending plan for cholera vaccination in Yemen: The United Nations said Tuesday that it is suspending plans for a cholera vaccination campaign in Yemen. The UN aid coordinator in Yemen Jamie McGoldrick attributed the change to obstacles in delivering vaccines in the middle of the country’s conflict. The World Health Organization said the vaccine doses originally designated for shipment to Yemen will likely be sent to other countries threatened by cholera, where they can be used more effectively. The decision comes as the number of Yemenis afflicted with cholera reaches 313,000 and the death toll exceeds 1,700. New York Times

Trump travels to Paris to discuss Syria, terrorism: U.S. President Donald Trump travels to Paris on Wednesday to meet with French President Emmanuel Macron. The two leaders are set to discuss working together to resolve the conflict in Syria and combat global terrorism. Trump has repeatedly criticized European allies in NATO for not paying their fair share on military spending. Although France has not met NATO's target of spending 2 percent of GDP on defense, Trump is satisfied that the country is very close to meeting that goal, a White House official said Tuesday. Reuters

Tunisia homeland worse than Guantanamo for 2 ex-prisoners: Two Tunisian former Guantanamo Bay detainees, Hedi Hammami and Salah Sassi, call their homeland an open-air prison and yearn for escape, even back to the U.S. detention center in Cuba. They have been free for seven years and remain close, complaining that constant police harassment has left them few alternatives for companionship.“I was in a small prison and today I find myself in a larger one in Tunisia,” said Hammami, who lives on the outskirts of Tunis in a rented room he describes as smaller than his Guantanamo cell. The room is subject to search at any moment and Hammami himself must check in with the police daily. Of the 12 Tunisians that have been detained at Guantanamo, only Ridah Yazidi remains, one of 41 captives. Two former Tunisian captives traveled to Syria after their release from U.S. military custody. Other former Tunisian detainees are scattered around the world in the countries that agreed to U.S. requests to take them in. Associated Press

Trump administration restricts Russian security software: The Trump administration on Tuesday removed the software of Kaspersky Lab, a leading Russian cybersecurity firm, from two lists of approved vendors used by government agencies to purchase technology equipment, amid concerns that the firm’s products could be used by the Kremlin to gain entry into U.S. networks. This marks the most concrete action taken against Kaspersky Lab following months of mounting suspicion among intelligence officials and lawmakers that the company may be too closely connected to hostile Russian intelligence agencies accused of cyber attacks on U.S. A spokesperson for the General Services Administration said the decision aims to “ensure the integrity and security of U.S. government systems and networks.” Politico, Reuters

National security figures launch project to counter Russian meddling: A number of senior national security figures from both political parties are launching an effort to track and ultimately counter Russian political interference, cyber attacks, and fake news. Figures that have signed onto the new project, the Alliance for Securing Democracy, which will be housed at the German Marshall Fund, include former Homeland Security secretary Michael Chertoff; former acting CIA Director Michael Morell; former House Intelligence Committee Chairman Mike Rogers; and former NATO Supreme Allied Commander Adm. James Stavridis. The project aims to create a platform of information about Russian political influence activities in the United States and Europe that can act as a basis for transatlantic cooperation, as well as to map out Russian disinformation on social networks, cyber-efforts, and financial flows. Washington Post
Thanks to Trump and Russia, the United States is distracted and hobbled: “This behavior reminds us yet again that Russia’s primary goal was not to get Trump elected. It was to weaken the United States. Now with Trump in office, the best way to weaken our country is to fan the flames of the scandal enveloping the president. Putin and Russia benefit from the paralysis that a protracted series of investigations into Trump will cause,” David Rothkopf writes in the Washington Post. “The leaders of other nations have all indicated a willingness to fill the void left by the United States...It would be naive to think that as the Trump-Russia scandal deepens, as it now seems it inevitably will, that all these powers will view it not as political theater but as a significant force driving a geopolitical tectonic shift.”

Is the fall of Mosul the fall of ISIS? “ISIS was never the root problem in Iraq - even though it certainly created great misery among those it lorded over - but rather the group was the symptom of deeper problems that exist in the Middle East that are unlikely to disappear anytime soon,” Peter Bergen writes in CNN. “All of these factors have interacted to produce Sunni jihadists in the Middle East and to create fertile soil in Europe for the ideology of jihadism to take root among alienated, young Muslim men such as the ISIS recruits who carried out the deadly terrorist attacks in Paris, Brussels and Manchester, England, over the past two years. That takes us to the unhappy conclusion that the war against the terrorists is far from over.”

The challenges after Mosul: “The Trump administration has so far failed to put forward a comprehensive strategy to deal with postwar reconstruction in Mosul and other challenges,” the New York Times Editorial Board writes.”One unanswered question is how to ensure that Iraq’s Shiite-led government guarantees the Sunni minority security and brings Sunnis into the political process...Iraq squandered one opportunity to remake itself into a stable and pluralistic country. With ISIS on the run, it should seize this second chance.”

America isn’t ready for a ‘cyber 9/11:’ “Enhanced cybersecurity controls from private and public organizations are necessary but insufficient. The problem has not been lack of action. It is the multiplicity of programs and division of responsibility that diminish their effectiveness,” H. Rodgin Cohen and John Evangelakos write in the Wall Street Journal. “Congress should merge these disparate cybersecurity programs into one cabinet-level agency that also serves as the focal point for collaboration with the private economy. Call it the Department of Cybersecurity. This would be an extraordinary and risky measure, requiring careful implementation. But the magnitude of the danger, and the limits of America’s current ability to defend against the cyber threat, compel a bold response.”

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