The Soufan Group Morning Brief

The Morning Brief will return Tuesday, September 5. Have a lovely holiday weekend.

The State Department on Thursday ordered Russia to close its consulate in San Francisco as well as two other properties in the U.S., instructions that came as officials said the U.S. has “fully implemented” a Kremlin directive to cut hundreds of diplomatic staff in Russia.

Russia has until Saturday to close its San Francisco consulate and two annexes housing trade missions in Washington, D.C., and New York City, officials said. The tit-for-tat move, which Secretary of State Rex Tillerson conveyed to Russia’s foreign minister, Sergey  Lavrov, in a morning phone call, bore all of the hallmarks of a Cold War-era grudge match.

But the administration seemed eager to contain the fallout, casting the move as a straightforward return to diplomatic parity between the countries rather than the latest volley in an increasingly combative relationship. The U.S. ordered the closures “in the spirit of parity invoked by the Russians,” said State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert. Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Los Angeles Times
A 31-year-old truck driver living in the western suburbs of Chicago was arrested by the FBI on Thursday on New York state charges that alleged he raised money in 2015 to help send fighters from the U.S. to ISIS fronts in Syria. At a hearing in federal court in Chicago, prosecutors asked that Dilshod Khusanov, a native of Uzbekistan, be detained as a flight risk and danger to the community. He would then be taken to Brooklyn to face the two-count indictment charging him with conspiring and attempting to provide material support to the Islamic State and a second terrorist organization, al-Nusrah Front. Each count carries a maximum of 15 years in prison if convicted. U.S. Magistrate Judge M. David Weisman will rule on the removal proceedings next week. Chicago Tribune

Special counsel Bob Mueller has teamed up with the IRS, reports the Daily Beast. According to sources familiar with his investigation into alleged Russian election interference, his probe has enlisted the help of agents from the IRS’ Criminal Investigations unit. This unit—known as CI—is one of the federal government’s most tight-knit, specialized, and secretive investigative entities. Its 2,500 agents focus exclusively on financial crime, including tax evasion and money laundering. Daily Beast

The Wall Street Journal also reported on Thursday that lawyers for President Trump have met several times with special counsel Robert Mueller in recent months and submitted memos arguing that the president didn’t obstruct justice by firing former FBI chief James Comey and calling into question Mr. Comey’s reliability as a potential witness. Wall Street Journal

No rush in White House to fill top DHS job: A month after former Homeland Security secretary John Kelly decamped for the White House, President Donald Trump has yet to formally interview any potential candidates to replace the retired general as the head of the department. Politico

The northern town of Tal Afar has been “fully liberated” from the Islamic State group, Iraq’s prime minister said Thursday, further shrinking the territory controlled by the extremists who overran nearly a third of the country three years ago. Iraqi troops “eliminated and smashed” the militant group in al-Ayadia district, northwest of Tal Afar, where they had fled last week, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi said in a statement. Associated Press

The seizure of Tal Afar is not seen by United States military commanders as an indication that the next phase of the campaign against the last remaining ISIS fighters will be easy or quick. Islamic State fighters are expected to make their last stand in a series of Euphrates River Valley towns and villages that American-backed Syrian and Iraqi forces are not expected to attack for months.

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the extremists’ self-styled caliphate, is believed to be hiding in the area, which stretches from Deir ez-Zor in Syria to Rawah in Iraq. So are the Islamic State cells that are responsible for planning attacks abroad, and were likely tied to Abdelbaki Essati, the shadowy imam whom the authorities believe was at the center of the August terrorist attacks in Barcelona, Spain. New York Times, NY Daily News, Guardian

For four days now, an Islamic State convoy with more than 600 people has been stuck in the middle of the harsh Syrian desert, blocked by American airstrikes, as a deal to allow it safe passage across Syria has collapsed.

The American-led military coalition has used airstrikes to prevent the convoy from reaching its destination in the Islamic State stronghold of Deir al-Zour Province, and vowed to continue doing so, criticizing the Lebanese and Syrians for trying to relocate terrorists. The convoy includes 308 lightly armed ISIS fighters with 330 of their relatives in 17 buses. A dozen ambulances carry 26 wounded fighters. New York Times, Reuters

U.N. says Iran is complying with nuclear deal: The world’s nuclear inspectors complicated President Trump’s effort to find Iran in violation of the two-year-old nuclear accord with the United States and five other world powers, declaring on Thursday that the latest inspections found no evidence that the country is breaching the agreement. New York Times

In a surprise development, a terrorism court in Pakistan on Thursday acquitted five suspected Taliban and Al Qaeda militants in the 2007 assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and declared the former leader Pervez Musharraf a fugitive in the case, lawyers said.

The release of the five militants was met with shock and disappointment by senior officials of Ms. Bhutto’s political party, the Pakistan Peoples Party, which called the court’s decision “a triumph of Taliban and Al Qaeda.” In freeing the five defendants, a judge in the special terrorism court, Muhammad Asghar, cited what he said was a lack of evidence.

Musharraf, a political adversary of Bhutto’s, was indicted in 2013 on charges of murder and conspiracy amid allegations that his government had not provided her with adequate security. Now in self-imposed exile in Abu Dhabi, he has denied the charges, calling them politically motivated. New York Times, BBC News

Spain denies receiving warnings about Barcelona attack: Barcelona officials on Thursday emphatically denied a Spanish newspaper report claiming United States anti-terrorism officials warned them of a planned attack in the city’s busy tourist center, but Spanish authorities did acknowledge receiving other tips from sources they didn't deem credible. Fox News

Buckingham Palace terror suspect tried to get to Windsor Castle: A UK court was told this week that a terrorism suspect arrested outside Buckingham Palace had first wanted to go to Windsor Castle, but his GPS instead took him to a pub of the same name, a court has heard. Mohiussunnath Chowdhury, 26, was arrested outside the royal family residence in central London last Friday, allegedly having a four-foot sword and saying “Allahu Akbar” as he was arrested by police. Guardian, Telegraph

UK surveillance watchdog begins work: An expanded watchdog agency charged with regulating the intelligence services and surveillance by state agencies has officially begun work in Britain. The role of the first investigatory powers commissioner, Lord Justice Fulford, combines the work of three former oversight bodies and will provide judicial checks on some investigations. His office, the IPCO, will employ about 70 staff, including 15 serving and retired judges. Inspectors will check that the interception of phone calls, and the handling of agents, surveillance and powers permitting bulk collection of communications data are carried out within the law. Guardian
I was a mercenary. Trust me, Erik Prince’s plan is garbage. “As a former military contractor, I cannot imagine a worse outcome for Afghanistan or the U.S. than handing everything over to mercenaries,” writes Sean McFate in Politico. “Prince’s argument has lots of problems. He insists contractors should not be stigmatized as “mercenaries,” even though he is proposing armed civilians in conflict zones—the classic definition of a mercenary. Prince also compares mercenaries to SpaceX, the private space company, probably offending SpaceX employees everywhere. Elon Musk does not kill people for money.”

Almost all coverage of Barcelona attack mentioned terrorism. Very little on Charlottesville did. “The recent attacks in Charlottesville and Barcelona both involved perpetrators with ties to extremist ideologies using vehicles to kill and injure civilians. Because of these similarities, a debate quickly began about how politicians and news outlets discussed these two events — including whether it was appropriate to call both acts of terrorism,” writes Bryan Arva, Muhammad Idris, and Fouad Pervez in the Washington Post. “Our research on these attacks — as well as the Orlando shootings by Omar Mateen and the Charleston church shootings by Dylan Roof — shows that news coverage framed these shootings very differently. Only the attacks perpetrated by Muslims were routinely called terrorism.”

Designating ‘antifa’ a terror organization would be a bad idea: “There are the increasing calls that antifa — what to call it: movement? cabal? conspiracy? enterprise? network? — should be “designated” (or “labeled”) a terrorist organization,” writes Andrew McCarthy in National Review. “This is an understandable reaction, especially here on the political right, which Antifa targets. Still, the suggestion is misguided.”

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

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