The Soufan Group Morning Brief


A Texas-born man on trial for his role in the 2009 al Qaeda-orchestrated bombing of a U.S. base in Afghanistan “turned his back on this country” to “murder Americans,” prosecutors told jurors as his trial got underway in Brooklyn Tuesday. “He turned his back on this country, joined terrorists, and lived with them for seven years until he was caught,” Assistant US Attorney Saritha Komatireddy said as she pointed at Mohanad Mahmoud Al Farekh.

Federal prosecutors say Al Farekh, 31, took part in a plot to bomb the Army base with explosives-filled trucks. But the Jan. 2009 plot failed when the first truck detonated at the gate, and the second truck, which was packed with enough ammo to take out the entire camp, fell into the crater caused by the first truck and the driver fled.

Defense attorney David A. Ruhnke said the government’s case was built “on witnesses who have committed terrible crimes,” and should be discounted. He also urged jurors to set aside their feelings about the Sept. 11 anniversary, calling his client a “real human being” who deserves a fair and impartial jury. New York Post, New York Daily News, Associated Press
Five years after lethal attacks in Benghazi on U.S. diplomatic and intelligence facilities, potential jurors arrived Tuesday in federal court in Washington in preparation for the terrorism trial of the accused leader of the assaults in Libya. Potential jurors answered 28 pages of questions that extended beyond routine vetting queries to ask about views on whether the U.S. government acts fairly toward mostly Muslim countries and aggressively enough to fight terrorism.

The questionnaire is the first phase in trying to seat a jury for the trial of Ahmed Abu Khattala, 46, who has pleaded not guilty to all charges of conspiring in the attacks on Sept. 11 and 12, 2012, that killed U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three other Americans: Sean Smith, Tyrone S. Woods and Glen Doherty. Abu Khattala is the first terrorism suspect to face trial in a civilian U.S. courtroom after being captured in a raid overseas and interrogated aboard a U.S. warship. Washington Post

A bipartisan group of House lawmakers have struck a deal on a controversial spy law due to sunset at the end of the year, setting up a fight with the Trump administration over potential limits to the National Security Agency’s warrantless surveillance program. Three key members of the House Judiciary Committee have privately agreed to support extending the law through 2023.

But as part of that extension, the lawmakers have agreed to push for some limits to the law, including a requirement that FBI agents obtain warrants before searching the program’s repository of intercepted messages for information about American criminal suspects. New York Times, The Hill

White House spokesman: Justice ‘should certainly look at’ prosecuting Comey: White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Tuesday that the Justice Department should consider prosecuting former FBI director James Comey for actions that “were improper and likely could have been illegal.”

“I think if there’s ever a moment where we feel someone’s broken the law, particularly if they’re the head of the FBI, I think that’s something that certainly should be looked at,” Sanders said. Washington Post

White House considers lowering refugee quota: The Trump administration is considering reducing the number of refugees admitted to the country over the next year to below 50,000, according to current and former government officials familiar with the discussions, the lowest number since at least 1980.

The question is reportedly a matter of deep debate at the White House, with some officials at the Department of Homeland Security citing security concerns and limited resources as grounds for deeply cutting the number of admissions, and officials at the National Security Council, the State Department and the Department of Defense opposing a precipitous drop. New York Times

Postponement in terror trial: A federal judge in Ohio recently postponed the trial of three men accused of providing financial support to terrorists until April 2018. By the time their cases go to trial, Ibrahim Zubair Mohammad, 38; Asif Ahmed Salim, 37; and Sultane Roome Salim, 42; will have been locked up – or on house arrest – for two and a half years. Reports do not indicate a reason for the postponements. Toledo Blade

Flynn backed for-profit nuclear scheme: As a top official in President Donald Trump’s transition team, Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn actively promoted a private-sector scheme to build dozens of nuclear reactors across the Middle East known informally in the transition as the “Marshall Plan.” But he did not publicly disclose that backers of the plan had paid him at least $25,000. Politico

Prosecutors granted access to Reality Winner’s phone and social media records: Federal prosecutors in the Reality Winner espionage case were granted access to the former Fort Gordon contractor’s social media accounts and phone records, according to unsealed court documents. Winner, an NSA contractor who has been accused of leaking classified material to the media, has pleaded not guilty in the case. She is being held without bond. Her trial date, previously set for October, is now March 19. Augusta Chronicle

The government reportedly obtained metadata from Winner’s AT&T cell phone, two Google accounts, her Facebook and Instagram accounts, and her Twitter account. Of those providers, it appears that only Twitter asked to tell Winner the government had obtained that information. Empty Wheel

Russia’s military said Tuesday that Syrian troops have liberated about 85 percent of the war-torn country’s territory from militants, a major turn-around two years after Moscow intervened to lend a hand to its embattled long-time ally.

Russia has been providing air cover for President Bashar Assad’s troops since 2015, changing the tide of the war and giving Syrian and allied troops an advantage over opposition fighters and ISIS militants. Associated Press

Hundreds of defectors from the Islamic State have massed in Syria’s Idlib province, with many planning to cross the nearby Turkish border and find ways back to the Middle East, North Africa and Europe, the Guardian reports. The exodus of fighters from areas controlled by ISIS to other parts of Syria and Iraq has continued throughout the past year, as the terror group has lost much of its former territory.

However, large numbers of militants and their families are now trying to leave the war-battered states altogether – posing significant challenges to a global intelligence community that, for the most part, views them as a hostile and unmanageable threat. Guardian

A video released by ISIS asks would-be fighters to go to the Philippines instead of Syria and Iraq, the latest sign that the terror group is shifting its recruiting tactics as it loses ground to coalition forces in the Middle East.
The seven-minute, English-language video, released by the official ISIS media operation late last month, includes messages from several fighters in the Southern Philippines, and scenes from battles with government troops near the city of Marawi, including the pillaging of a Catholic church. NBC News

U.S. warns China over North Korean sanctions: The Trump administration threatened on Tuesday to impose further sanctions on China if Beijing doesn’t do more to shut down banks and other Chinese firms aiding North Korea. The warning followed Monday’s passage by the United Nations Security Council of new sanctions against North Korea—measures that were softened, diplomats said, to win approval from China and Russia, which wield veto power. Wall Street Journal

North Korea has rejected the latest round of U.N. sanctions and vowed to accelerate its plans to acquire a nuclear weapon that can strike the U.S. homeland. Bloomberg

Iraq sentences Russian national to death for ISIS links: Baghdad’s central criminal court has sentenced a Russian national to death by hanging for his membership in the Islamic State group. It is reportedly the first time that a foreign ISIS fighter in Iraq has received a death sentence. The man was arrested as Iraqi forces pushed the extremist group out of Mosul’s western half. He was tried under Iraq’s anti-terrorism law and confessed to carrying out “terrorist operations” against Iraqi security forces since 2015. Associated Press, CNN

New Zealand’s national intelligence agency has investigated a China-born sitting member of parliament in connection with the decade he spent at leading Chinese military colleges. Jian Yang, an MP for New Zealand’s ruling National party, spent more than 10 years training and teaching at elite facilities including China’s top linguistics academy for military intelligence officers, reports the Financial Times.

Yang, 55, lived in China until he was 32. No information about his Chinese education or military background is included in his official biographies in New Zealand or those published when he was an academic at Auckland university. He served on New Zealand’s parliamentary select committee for foreign affairs, defence and trade from October 2014 until he was replaced in March 2016.

Yang on Wednesday insisted he was loyal to New Zealand, said the reports about his background were a “smear campaign” and suggested that anti-Chinese racism was the motive. After the FT published its investigation, at a press conference in Auckland he said he had never been a spy but acknowledged training people who went on to be intelligence officers. Financial Times
The disturbing paradox of presidential power: “Eight months of Donald Trump’s administration, however, suggest that — for this president, anyway — our collective anxiety has been at least somewhat misplaced,” writes Benjamin Wittes in Foreign Policy. “Trump’s presidency has been abusive in the extreme, but the authorities he is abusing do not lie at the margins of presidential power. They lie at its core. And they thus raise a different question from the one we have taught ourselves over the centuries to ask.”

What Trump can do about Pakistan: “The administration has wisely begun by simply conditioning aid on Pakistani progress disrupting terror networks within the country,” writes Bloomberg View in an editorial. “The U.S. should not be averse to applying pressure more narrowly as well: Levying U.S. and European Union sanctions on key Pakistani military and intelligence officials, for example, would not only make life harder for specific commanders -- many of whom have children studying in the West -- but embarrass the military as an institution.”

A problem much bigger than Putin: “More than 25 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the attempt to build a democracy in its place, Russia has once again become an authoritarian state,” writes Mikhail Khodorkovsky in the New York Times. “Still burdened by a ‘besieged fortress’ mentality, the Kremlin pursues a foreign policy aimed at achieving a ‘balance of forces’ between Moscow and the West. This outdated strategy creates a hysteria for military adventurism that threatens the entire planet.”

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

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