The Soufan Group Morning Brief



The FBI and the Department of Homeland Security warned in May that white supremacist groups had carried out more attacks than any other domestic extremist group from 2000 to 2016 and were likely to carry out more attacks over the next year, according to an intelligence bulletin obtained by Foreign Policy. The white supremacist movement “likely will continue to pose a threat of lethal violence over the next year,” it said. The revelation comes after a driver plowed into a crowd protesting a white supremacist rally on Saturday in Charlottesville, Virg., killing a 32-year-old woman. Foreign Policy, The Hill

President Donald Trump was heavily criticized for not condemning racist groups in the aftermath of the attack Charlottesville over the weekend. His initial statement condemned violence “on many sides.” On Monday, he condemned the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, white supremacists, and other hate groups, calling them “repugnant to everything we hold dear as Americans.” Also on Monday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions vowed that the Justice Department would “take the most vigorous action” to protect Americans against “racism and bigotry” in the aftermath of the Charlottesville attack, which he said met “the definition of domestic terrorism in our statute.” CNN, NBC News

However, according to the Justice Department and legal analysts, it is not possible for the government to file charges of domestic terrorism, because no such criminal law exists. Neal Katyal, former acting solicitor general for President Barack Obama, said the government has three basic ways to approach the Charlottesville case. “No. 1, this is a hate crime, under the hate crime statutes. The second is that this is a conspiracy to deprive individuals of civil rights. And the third is, this is an act of domestic terror, which isn't itself a crime,” he explained. Still, portraying the attack in Charlottesville as domestic terrorism could help enable federal jurisdiction for what would normally be the state crime of vehicular manslaughter. It could also trigger certain enhanced powers to obtain records or seize assets that are available in security investigations. NPR, CNN, New York Times
Reuters: The Justice Department’s Mission in Charlottesville
NPR: Charlottesville Violence Highlights Cities' Struggle To Balance Rights And Safety
New York Times: Far Right Plans Its Next Moves With a New Energy
CNN: Anti-Trump, Anti-Racism Rallies Across U.S. Draw Thousands
NPR: Trump's Fuzzy History Of Denouncing White Nationalism

A 23-year-old Oklahoma man was arrested after he tried to blow up a bank in downtown Oklahoma City using what he believed was an explosives-laden van, federal officials said Monday. Jerry Drake Varnell had been plotting the attack for months, authorities said, but was thwarted by an undercover investigation led by an FBI joint terrorism task force.

According to court documents, Varnell had espoused an anti-government ideology and had expressed an interest in carrying out an attack that would echo the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in April 1995, which killed 168 people. Varnell was charged with attempting to use explosives to destroy a building in interstate commerce. If convicted, U.S. Attorney Mark Yancey said Varnell would face a minimum of five years in prison and a maximum sentence of 20 years.

During a meeting in June with an undercover FBI agent, Varnell said that he wanted to start the next revolution and identified himself with the “III% ideology,” which pledges resistance to the U.S. government. A statement by III% spokesman Dylan Hunter said Varnell’s claim to adhere to III% aims was “blatantly false” and that the group does not condone acts of terrorism. He said Varnell had signed up to be a member less than a year ago but was never active and had been removed from the Oklahoma and national membership rolls. New York Times, ABC News, CNN, KOCO

Three days after Donald Trump named his campaign foreign policy team in March 2016, adviser George Papadopoulos sent an email to seven campaign officials offering to set up meetings between the Trump campaign and Russian officials. In the email, whose subject line read, “Meeting with Russian Leadership - Including Putin,” Papadopoulos said his Russian contacts welcomed the opportunity to meet with Trump campaign officials. Between March and September 2016, Papadopoulos, a campaign volunteer with little foreign policy experience, sent at least six requests for Trump and members of his team to meet with Russian officials.

Campaign chairman Paul Manafort rejected a proposal from Papadopoulos in May 2016 for Trump to meet with Russian officials, although he attended a meeting along with Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner in June 2016 with a Russian lawyer at Trump Tower. Other campaign officials also expressed concern about Papadopoulos’ offers. Campaign co-chairman Sam Clovis said he thought NATO allies should be consulted before any plans were made. Another Trump adviser, retired Navy Rear Adm. Charles Kubic, cited legal concerns, including a possible violation of U.S. sanctions against Russia and of the Logan Act, which prohibits U.S. citizens from unauthorized negotiation with foreign governments. Washington Post, USA Today, CBS News
Washington Post: Trump is Now Out of Excuses for Denying Russia Meddled in the Election
Newsweek: Who is George Papadopoulos, the Trump Campaign Adviser who Suggested a Meeting with Russian Leaders?

Mattis says Pentagon still studying issue of transgender military service: Defense Secretary James Mattis left the door open Monday for transgender service members continuing to serve in the U.S. military, three weeks after President Trump said that they would not be allowed to do so “in any capacity.” Mattis said that he and his staff are still studying the issue, including how having transgender service members affects other members of their units. “I’m going to wait until I get the direction from the White House and then we will study it and come up with what the policy should be,” he said. Washington Post, The Hill

Al Qaeda threatens rail systems in magazine: In the latest edition of its Inspire Magazine, Al Qaeda calls on supporters in the U.S. and Europe to attack train stations and rail lines. It says train stations “are always crowded and cause major interruption towards the transportation system.” The magazine tells supporters how to build a device that would “remove any traces for suspicion” and shares a map of the main U.S. rail routes. The NYPD said it is aware of the threat and is prepared to protect U.S. railways. Newsweek

British cyber researcher pleads not guilty to U.S. hacking charges: British cyber security researcher Marcus Hutchins pleaded not guilty on Monday to federal charges that he built and sold malicious code used to steal banking credentials. In May, Hutchins helped defang the global “WannaCry” ransomware attack, which infected hundreds of thousands of computers and caused disruptions at factories, hospitals, stores, and schools in more than 150 countries. He was arrested earlier this month in Las Vegas on unrelated hacking charges. U.S. prosecutors have claimed that he and an unnamed co-defendant advertised, distributed and profited from malware code known as “Kronos” between July 2014 and 2015. Reuters, BBC

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has decided not to launch a threatened missile attack on Guam, Pyongyang’s state media reported on Tuesday, but warned that he could change his mind if the U.S. persists with “extremely dangerous reckless actions.” North Korean state media said Kim made his decision not to fire on Guam after visiting a military command post and examining a military plan presented to him by his senior officers. Photos released by Pyongyang on Tuesday offered a glimpse into its plans to fire missiles near Guam. A map reading “Strategic Force's Firing Strike Plan” showed a flight path for the missiles originating from North Korea's east coast and flying over Japan to end near Guam. Wall Street Journal, CNN, Reuters

North Korea also warned that joint exercises by the U.S. and South Korea, due to start on August 21, could trigger an accidental war at a time of high tensions. Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr., the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, emphasized diplomacy and sanctions over war in a visit to South Korea on Monday. Dunford’s trip to the region, which includes visits to China and Japan,  is meant to offer transparency to America’s allies in the region and to prevent any miscalculation on China’s part about the Pentagon’s intentions. New York Times

U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis on Monday warned that a North Korean missile attack aimed at US territory “could escalate into war very quickly.” He said U.S. forces would know “within moments” if the trajectory of a North Korean missile was headed towards Guam. The Guardian

Mattis says administration is close to Afghanistan decision: Defense Secretary James Mattis said Monday that the Trump administration is “very, very close” to finalizing its new strategy in Afghanistan, but warned it had not been settled yet.“The strategic decisions have not been made,” he said in comments at the Pentagon. He insisted that “all options” remain on the table for how to approach Afghanistan, which include a full withdrawal of troops as well as a proposal to increase the number of contractors managing the U.S. effort in Afghanistan. Mattis also defended the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Nicholson, whom President Trump has suggested he may fire. CNN, NBC News

Taliban letter calls for U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan: The Afghan Taliban on Tuesday released an “open letter” to President Donald Trump reiterating calls for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan. Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said Trump has recognized the errors of his predecessors by seeking a review of the U.S. strategy for Afghanistan. The 1,600 word letter said a U.S. withdrawal would “truly deliver American troops from harm's way” and bring about “an end to an inherited war.” Associated Press

UN says nearly 50,000 stranded at unsafe Jordan-Syria border: Nearly 50,000 people, mostly women and children, are stranded at Syria’s southern border with Jordan, the United Nations said Monday. UN Deputy Spokesman Farhan Haq told reporters that “some people are reportedly attempting to leave the area, risking further danger and deprivation in an inhospitable desert location.” Those remaining in the area face a scarcity of food and health care, Haq said. Associated Press

Russia says it foiled ISIS attack plot: Russia’s top domestic security agency said Monday it thwarted suicide bombings in Moscow planned by ISIS operatives from Syria. Four people have been arrested on suspicion of plotting attacks on the Moscow transit system and shopping malls, according to the Federal Security Service (FSB). Those arrested included two would-be suicide bombers, an ISIS envoy, and an expert in explosives. One was a Russian national and three others hailed from former Soviet Central Asia, the FSB said. In May, the FSB arrested another group of suspected ISIS members who were also accused of plotting terror attacks in Moscow. Associated Press

Court finds defrauding ISIS is a crime in Germany: A German court has found a Syrian refugee guilty of attempting to defraud ISIS, a court spokeswoman said on Monday. A judge in the district court in the southwestern city of Saarbruecken sentenced the 39-year old man from Damascus to two years in prison for trying to get ISIS operatives to transfer him over $200,000. He never received the money. The court rejected the prosecution's argument that the man was guilty of the more serious crime of planning to carry out attacks on behalf of ISIS. Reuters

Iranian president threatens to revitalize nuclear program: Iranian president Hassan Rouhani issued a direct threat to the West on Tuesday, claiming Iran is capable of revitalizing its nuclear program within hours and quickly bringing it to advanced levels. If Washington continues with “threats and sanctions” against Iran, Rouhani told parliament, Tehran could easily restart the nuclear program. Rouhani’s remarks to lawmakers followed the Iranian parliament’s move earlier this week to increase spending on the country’s ballistic missile program and the foreign operations of its paramilitary Revolutionary Guard. Associated Press
Don’t be too eager to label Charlottesville ‘terrorism:’ “The federal government does not have a crime of domestic terrorism, although the Patriot Act expanded the definition of terrorism to include domestic acts in violation of the law that appear to be intended to coerce or intimidate a civilian population or to coerce the policy of the government,” Mark Brown writes in the Chicago Sun-Times. “Absent evidence not available at this point, I’m not sure how it could be proved the 20-year-old Fields’ intent went beyond harming the counter-protesters on the street in front of him out of misguided rage...But if you open the door to investigating people on their political beliefs, you don’t know where it will lead.”

How Mr. Trump could face up to white supremacists: “There’s a moral awakening taking place across America, but President Trump is still hiding under his blanket,” the New York Times Editorial Board writes. “The good news for Mr. Trump is that he has the chance now to demonstrate that he is truly concerned about this continuing threat.”

Our missing president: “This past week served [as a] reminder of why the presidency remains a singularly important office, and why temperament, character, and convictions matter as much in a president as do particular issue stances and personnel selections,” Will Inboden writes in Foreign Policy. “To our nation’s detriment, on these grounds President Trump failed in both of his tests. He did not act like a president at moments when we needed a president the most.”

Don’t expect indictments soon in Russia probe: “Despite the apparent abundance of material to work with, it will be difficult for investigators to develop a strong case of espionage against Mr. Manafort. The complex and strict rules of the criminal justice system do not always mesh with the objectives of a successful counterespionage operation,” John Sipher writes in Just Security. “If charges for collusion do not come to pass, it does not mean collusion didn’t occur nor that the intelligence community doesn’t know quite precisely how it happened.”

What the United States can do to protect Internet freedom around the world: “Today, U.S. technology companies adhere to a wide array of requirements from repressive governments that undermine Internet freedom and privacy. These demands violate international law, including the right to freedom of expression,” Jared Genser writes in the Washington Post.“Unless the U.S. government stands in support of companies that refuse to comply with wrongful requirements, authoritarian regimes will feel emboldened to make ever-increasing and unreasonable demands.”

For cutting-edge analysis of the geopolitical events shaping global affairs, read today’s TSC IntelBrief.

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