The Soufan Group Morning Brief



U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis on Tuesday said Turkey’s ground and air offensive against a Kurdish enclave in northwestern Syria is distracting from international efforts to ensure the defeat of ISIS. Mattis said it also risks worsening the humanitarian crisis there and in other parts of Syria. His remarks came after Turkey shelled targets in northwest Syria on Monday, the third day of a campaign by its forces and Syrian rebel allies against Kurdish fighters it views as terrorists. Mattis said the U.S. sympathizes with Turkey’s security concerns but warned that the renewed violence in the Afrin region of Syria could be exploited by ISIS. Reuters, Associated Press

At Monday’s White House briefing, Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said the U.S. understands Turkey’s “legitimate security concerns” but warned that “increased violence in Afrin disrupts a relatively stable area of Syria” and “distracts from international efforts to ensure the lasting defeat of ISIS.” Secretary of State Rex Tillerson also said Monday that the U.S. recognizes Turkey’s “legitimate concerns” and its right to defend itself from terrorist elements, while calling for restraint “on both sides.” He said the U.S. had proposed measures to Turkey to try to stabilize the situation. Voice of America, BBC News
New York Times: As Turkey Attacks Kurds in Syria, U.S. Is on the Sideline
CNN: Turkish Attack in Northern Syria Threatens to Ignite Broader Conflict
Reuters: Syrian Observatory: Thousands Flee Afrin Attack, Blocked by Government Forces

A Columbus, Ohio, man who trained with terrorists overseas and plotted to kill American troops upon his return to the U.S. was sentenced Monday to 22 years in federal prison. Abdirahman Sheik Mohamud, 26, had pleaded guilty to providing material support to terrorists and giving a false statement involving international terrorism in August 2015. Court documents say he admitted traveling in early 2014 to Syria in an attempt to join his brother, a fighter with the Nusra Front, and give him $1,000 and a communications device.

Mohamud reached Syria with the funds, court records show, and while there, was trained by Nusra in weapons and tactics. His brother was killed in June 2014 and there is no evidence he and Mohamud met face-to-face after he traveled to Syria, court documents filed by prosecutors say. Mohamud returned to the U.S. that same month and began to recruit others for a terrorist plot — possibly involving killing military personnel in Texas.

It is unclear how far along he got in his effort. Mohamud’s defense attorney wrote in court papers that by the end of November 2014, he had “completely abandoned” any plans for terrorism. The FBI arrested Mohamud in February 2015, and court documents say he lied to law enforcement about his time overseas.  Mohamud’s defense attorneys said he was heavily influenced by his brother and fully radicalized when he traveled to Syria, though once home, he “realized the immoral and illegal nature of terrorist ideology.” Mohamud, who was born in Somalia and came to the U.S. just before his second birthday, is a naturalized citizen. Washington Post, The Columbus Dispatch

FBI Director Christopher Wray reportedly threatened to resign after being pressured by Attorney General Jeff Sessions to fire deputy director Andrew McCabe, according Axios. The report follows news of Sessions’ pressure on Wray to oust McCabe and former general counsel James Baker in order to make way for a “fresh start” at the FBI. Sessions reportedly told White House Counsel Don McGahn that Wray was upset over the pressure to fire McCabe, and, in turn, McGahn told Sessions that it wasn't worth risking Wray's resignation over the issue.

McCabe served as the FBI’s acting director before Wray took the reins in August. Trump appointed Wray to the role after firing James Comey from the position in May. Trump has repeatedly targeted McCabe on Twitter, suggesting partisan bias in favor of Hillary Clinton. In July, Trump took to Twitter to question why Sessions hadn't replaced McCabe. Axios, CNBC

Intelligence Committee lawmakers lose fight over budget language: Congressional intelligence-committee members lost a fight with appropriators Monday over a provision of the budget bill they say gives President Trump unprecedented power to reshuffle funds the government spends on intelligence programs without first notifying Congress. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Richard Burr (R-NC) and Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-VA) attempted to make a last-minute change to a provision that would allow funds to be spent on intelligence programs notwithstanding a law that requires prior authorization by Congress. “Effectively the intelligence community could expend funds as it sees fit without an authorization bill in place,” Burr said.

The language appeared last week in the short-term budget extension drafted by House Republicans, and according to a person familiar with the drafting, it was originally proposed by the Trump administration. The provision applies for the duration of the short-term budget extension the House and Senate passed Monday. Appropriators have pushed back on the Intelligence Committee lawmakers’ complaints, arguing that they are misinterpreting the change and that it would have no effect on reporting policy. Washington Post, Reuters, Wall Street Journal

Sessions vows full probe of missing texts: Attorney General Jeff Sessions pledged Monday evening to fully investigate how the FBI failed to preserve five months of text messages between two high-level officials involved in the investigations of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. “We will leave no stone unturned to confirm with certainty why these text messages are not now available to be produced and will use every technology available to determine whether the missing messages are recoverable,” Sessions said in a statement released by the Justice Department. The statement came days after the Justice Department disclosed that the FBI, due to technical problems, wasn’t able to recover text messages from December 2016 through May 2017 between FBI Agent Peter Strzok and bureau lawyer Lisa Page. Wall Street Journal

Bike path terrorist to appear in court: Sayfullo Saipov, who is accused of mowing down bicyclists and pedestrians in a deadly terror attack in Lower Manhattan in October, will appear in federal court in Lower Manhattan on Tuesday. It is the first time Saipov will appear before a judge since his attorneys said he would be willing to plead guilty if the Justice Department agrees to take the death penalty off the table. If the government seeks death, the lawyers said a trial should occur no earlier than September 2019 because of the large volume of evidence and the need to build a defense with information to be gathered halfway around the globe. WABC

New York man pleads guilty to providing support for ISIS: A New York man who traveled to Turkey in an attempt to join ISIS has pleaded guilty to attempting to provide material support to a terrorist organization. Arafat Nagi entered the plea in federal court in Buffalo on Monday. The 47-year-old Lackawanna man faces up to 15 years in prison when he is sentenced in May. Prosecutors say Nagi traveled to Turkey in 2012 and 2014 with plans to meet members of ISIS. Authorities say he was planning his third trip to Turkey, with plans to continue to Syria to join the fighters, at the time of his arrest in 2015. Associated Press

In new proposed subway elevators, some see a terrorism risk: To some, the prospect of adding new subway elevators not far from the World Trade Center is a necessity for disabled access to a subway system that is among the least accessible in the nation. To a group of neighbors who live beside the proposed site, the elevators seem like a hazard a terrorist could turn into shrapnel. On one side of a growing skirmish on Broad Street in Lower Manhattan are disabled riders, advocates, and a real estate developer building the elevators. On the other are tenants of nearby buildings that have long been under intense security because of their proximity to prime potential targets like the New York Stock Exchange. Critics say the elevators could pose a threat in an area where police and bomb-sniffing dogs routinely check vehicles driving through. New York Times

Saudi Arabia said on Monday that it would donate $1.5 billion in aid to relief organizations in Yemen and create “safe-passage corridors” to ensure the delivery of goods across the country. The announcement of expanded relief measures comes nearly three years after a Saudi-led military coalition intervened in Yemen’s civil war to support Yemen’s exiled government against the Houthi rebels.

The measures announced Monday included an initiative to expand Yemeni ports to increase the supply of commercial imports and an “air bridge” to a Yemeni city under the control of the Saudi-led coalition that would accommodate up to six cargo flights a day and that would “be available for use by humanitarian organizations to deliver critical humanitarian needs,” according to a Saudi statement. The safe-passage corridors — including routes through Houthi-controlled territory — would be placed on no-strike lists that exempt them from targeting by coalition warplanes, the statement said. Washington Post, Financial Times

UN Yemen mediator to step down next month: The UN special envoy for Yemen, whose attempts at diplomacy to resolve the devastating war in that country have repeatedly failed, is resigning as of next month, the organization announced Monday. Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed, a veteran diplomat from Mauritania, is the second UN mediator in less than three years to vacate the Yemen post in frustration. “The Special Envoy remains committed to pursue through diplomacy an end to the violence and a political solution that meets the legitimate aspirations of the Yemeni people, until a successor is named,” a UN spokesperson said. Reuters, New York Times

Afghanistan searches for answers to deadly hotel attack: The deadly assault on the Hotel Intercontinental in Kabul over the weekend, which was claimed by the Taliban to have devastated one of Afghanistan’s three main airlines with the killing of many of its foreign pilots, has exposed again how vulnerable the city is to militant attacks. Even in a country long inured to violence, the attack by five gunmen dressed in army uniforms shocked people and raised questions about how they were able to penetrate security at one of the capital’s most prominent buildings. Reuters

Pentagon and watchdog at odds over efforts to prevent sexual abuse of children by Afghan troops: A government watchdog has suggested that Congress might want to prohibit the Defense Department from spending money on Afghan military units whose members sexually abuse children or commit other human rights ­violations. But the Pentagon disagreed with that idea, saying such incidents must be weighed against U.S. national security interests. The suggestion was made by the office of the U.S. Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction in a previously classified report released Tuesday. It highlights the challenges the U.S. military faces in partnering with forces abroad that do not always adhere to the same codes of conduct. Washington Post

Looted cash, gold helping ISIS recruit in Philippines: Islamist insurgents looted cash, gold and jewelry worth tens of millions of dollars when they occupied a southern Philippines town last year, treasure one of their leaders has used to recruit around 250 fighters for fresh attacks. The military said Humam Abdul Najib escaped from Marawi City, which the militants had hoped to establish as a stronghold for ISIS in Southeast Asia, before it was recaptured by the military in October after five months of battles and aerial bombardment.

Since then, Najib, also known as Abu Dar, has reportedly used the loot from bank vaults, shops, and homes in Marawi to win over boys and young men in the impoverished southern province of Lanao del Sur, military officers in the area said. Hardened mercenaries are also joining, lured by the promise of money. As a result, ISIS followers remain a potent threat in Southeast Asia even though hundreds of militants were killed in the battle for Marawi, the officers said. Reuters

UK cyber chief warns major cyber attack is inevitable: A major cyber attack targeting Britain’s electoral system or infrastructure is inevitable in the next two years, Ciaran Martin, head of the UK National Cyber Security Centre, said. Martin said the country had been lucky to avoid a “category one” attack targeting infrastructure such as energy companies and financial services, but that it was question of “when, not if” Britain would suffer such an attack. He also warned that while he had not seen any successful attempts to interfere with the UK’s democratic process, there may have been intelligence-gathering taking place for possible future attacks. BBC News, The Guardian

Ex-federal worker in Australia accused of financing ISIS: A 40-year-old Sydney woman who worked for the federal government is facing terrorism financing charges after the police accused her of wiring tens of thousands of dollars to ISIS in 2015. Michael Willing, the assistant commissioner of the New South Wales Police Force, said the woman was arrested Tuesday morning in a suburb in western Sydney. He would not say where the woman worked in the government, what her ties were to the recipient of the money, or to which country the funds were sent. “There’s no evidence to suggest that her employment was in any way related to her activities,” Willing said at a news conference, while reassuring the public that there was no impending security threat as a result of the arrest. New York Times

Malaysia arrests two men linked to ISIS over planned attacks: Malaysia has arrested two men believed to have links with ISIS, including one who allegedly walked around its capital armed with a knife aiming to kill Buddhist monks, police said Monday. The two suspects were arrested in two separate raids in December and January, on suspicion of planning to carry out acts of violence and promoting ISIS’s ideology. Reuters
Limited strikes on North Korea would be an unlimited disaster: “The allure of a punitive strike on North Korea is its seeming simplicity. North Korea continues its missile testing, or opts to detonate another nuclear device in a test shaft, and the United States fires a few missiles and fixes the problem. But this conclusion comes from a series of bad assumptions,” Luke O’Brien writes in Foreign Policy. “Chief among the problems with the limited strike option is that it assumes that the North is capable of discerning between a punch in the nose and a full-on pummeling — and that Kim could take the public humiliation of sitting on his hands throughout a limited U.S. strike and still cling to power. They can’t, and he wouldn’t.”

Trump could push us into arms negotiations: “The government is putting nuclear strategy and the threats to it — especially cyber threats — at the heart of an emerging ‘great power’ doctrine,” Scott Malcomson writes in the Washington Post. “Although Washington is currently embracing the idea of a new Cold War with Russia, not least because of Russia’s cyber-enhanced information operations, the great-power turn suggests it might nonetheless be time to talk with Moscow about cyber and nuclear weapons.”

America’s role in Syria just got a lot more complicated: “Whatever territory changes hands as a result of this Turkish campaign, it underscores the rapid unraveling of American-Turkish relations,” Jonah Shepp writes in New York Magazine. “Unfortunately, breaking up with Turkey also carries huge risks: It would likely drive Erdogan further into Russia’s welcoming embrace, for one thing, and more important, it would undermine whatever it is we’re doing in Syria.”

Hit Ayatollah Khamenei in his pocketbook: “The Trump administration already has offered rhetorical support to Iran’s anti-government protesters. Now, nearly a month after the demonstrations began, how can the U.S. provide material help? Follow the money,” Mark Dubowitz and Saeed Ghasseminejad write in the Wall Street Journal. “Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s supporters brag about his modest lifestyle. They fail to mention that he runs a multibillion-dollar corporate conglomerate to fund his political patronage networks.”

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

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