The Soufan Group Morning Brief


Tuesday, February 13, 2018

U.S. Urges Allies to Help With Captured ISIS Foreign Fighters

The United States is urging its allies to help deal with hundreds of ISIS foreign fighters captured in Syria as concerns rise that Kurdish-led militias holding them lack the capacity to imprison the fighters securely. The fighters were rounded up as the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) drove ISIS out of cities and towns in eastern Syria, including Raqqa. But the successes against ISIS, which lost the majority of its territory in Syria in recent months, “has started to put pressure on the detention issue,” said senior Pentagon official Katie Wheelbarger said. “We are working with the coalition [against ISIS] on foreign fighter detainees, and generally expect these detainees to return to their country of origin,” she added. U.S. officials have said Washington is not considering sending foreign fighters to Guantanamo.

Defense Secretary James Mattis will raise the issue during a meeting in Rome with other members of the anti-ISIS coalition. He is expected to tell defense ministers from the coalition they must take responsibility for the foreign fighters from their countries. Speaking to reporters traveling with Mattis, Wheelbarger said the key goal is to keep the fighters off the battlefield.

SDF leaders have complained for months that they cannot get coalition partners to agree to take their citizens back. “They are our allies, yet they have left us with this huge burden,” an anonymous SDF leader said. “The Americans tell us they’ll get to it, but we worry about it. The Brits don’t respond at all. And the French — well, I think their position is clear. They want all their guys killed here so they don’t have to bring them back and deal with them at home.” Financial Times, CBS News
Washington Post: Syrian Militia Says Large Number of ISIS Foreign Fighters Held
Lawfare: What Fate for Captured Islamic State Terrorists?
Human Rights Watch: Ensure Fair Trials of Syria ISIS Suspects


The best way to fix U.S. diplomacy: “International engagement is in America’s economic and security interests, and we must support our civilian agencies in their unique and mutually-reinforcing missions,” Richard G. Lugar and Thomas Pickering write in Reuters. “The national security of the United States will suffer greatly if the true purpose of the Trump administration’s reorganization of the State Department and USAID is to shrink the role of or force a merger of our civilian foreign policy agencies.”

Forget Trump’s U.S. as the mideast mediator: “When President Trump decided to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, he put the Palestinians in an impossible position and joined Israel in a ‘blame game.’ But this is not a game to us. The policy falls so far outside the international legal and political consensus that it has made the United States ineligible to play the role of sole broker in the Middle East,” Saeb Erekat writes in the New York Times. “If his administration’s inability to be an honest broker opens the way for other parties to become mediators, Palestine can engage in meaningful discussions on a just and final peace.”

Child soldiers pose a national security threat: “With sustained conflicts and the continued use of children to wage wars, it is time to reframe the discussion on child soldiers and better emphasize the security challenges presented by the exploitation of children in conflict—both for the conflicts’ duration and the long-term impacts of those that come into contact with child soldiers,” Rachel Stohl and Shannon Dick write in The National Interest. “The recruitment and use of child soldiers are not crimes of desperation or opportunity, but represent a deliberate strategic process to sustain conflict.”

Brand loyalty: “The most obvious and immediate inference to draw from Rachel Brand leaving the Department of Justice is that Brand, surely as well positioned as anyone to read the writing on the wall, has not been reassured by the White House’s repeated assertions that neither Mueller nor Rosenstein are on the chopping block,” Julian Sanchez writes in Just Security. “Imagine being seated for a long flight, then seeing the plane’s co-pilot parachute out just as you reach cruising altitude. The clear message: If you’ve got options, now’s the time to take them if you want to avoid damage to your career.”

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Former President Barack Obama suggested in January 2017 that information related to the Russia probe may have to be withheld from aides to then-President-elect Donald Trump, according to an internal White House email released Monday by Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC). The warning Obama delivered on January 5, 2017, came during an Oval Office conversation shortly after senior intelligence officials briefed him on Russian cyber-meddling in the 2016 election. It was documented in an email then-National Security Advisor Susan Rice sent to herself on January 20.

The conversation Rice described in her email included then-FBI Director James Comey and then-Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates, as well as former Vice President Joe Biden. In the portion of the email the Republicans released, Rice recounted Obama making explicitly clear that he was not attempting to influence an ongoing federal probe into Russian election disruption. Politico, CNN

The White House on Monday proposed allocating $41.7 billion - a 30 percent cut - for the International Affairs Budget in fiscal 2019, a category that includes the State Department and and USAID. Trump sought similar cuts in his budget proposal last year, and he again faces stiff bipartisan resistance in Congress. “A strong, bipartisan coalition in Congress has already acted once to stop deep cuts to the State Department and Agency for International Development that would have undermined our national security. This year, we will act again,” Representative Ed Royce (R-CA), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, pledged in a statement Monday.

Representative Eliot Engel (D-NY), the ranking member on the committee, urged his fellow lawmakers to ensure that Trump’s proposal would be “dead on arrival.” In a statement, he said the cuts “are a gift to countries like Russia and China who are already filling the void left by America’s diminishing role in the world.” In a statement on Monday, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson defended the budget plan, saying it “requests the resources necessary to advance peace and security, and respond to global crises, while prioritizing the efficient use of taxpayer resources.” Politico

Former senior FBI official leading BuzzFeed’s effort to verify Trump dossier: A former FBI and cybersecurity official is leading an effort on behalf of BuzzFeed to verify allegations in the Christopher Steele dossier on President Trump, Foreign Policy reported on Monday. Anthony Ferrante, who now works at business advisory firm FTI Consulting, has led the investigation for months. Ferrante joined the FBI in 2005 before joining the National Security Council as a cybersecurity expert in 2015. His team directed BuzzFeed lawyers to subpoena specific data and testimony from dozens of agencies and companies and assembled a cyber ops war room to analyze the data, according to sources familiar with the work. The Hill, Foreign Policy

DOJ official quit partly over fear she might be asked to oversee Russia probe: The Justice Department’s No. 3 attorney had been unhappy with her job for months before the department announced her departure on Friday, according to multiple sources close to Associate Attorney General Rachel Brand. Brand grew frustrated by vacancies at the department and feared she would be asked to oversee the Russia investigation, the sources said. Brand would have been next in line to oversee Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russia's meddling in the 2016 election if Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein was fired, a position in the political spotlight Brand told friends she did not want to enter. NBC News

Democratic senators pressure Trump on Russia sanctions: Three senior Democratic senators on Monday introduced a resolution pushing President Trump to use the new authority over Russia sanctions that Congress overwhelmingly gave him last year. The symbolic measure from Senators Ben Cardin (D-MD), Sherrod Brown (D-OH) and Bob Menendez (D-NJ) marks the latest Democratic effort to pressure the Trump administration on its delay in implementing a bipartisan Russia sanctions bill designed in part as a response to Moscow’s meddling in the 2016 election. The administration’s decision last month to hold off on new penalties targeting Russian defense and intelligence infuriated Democrats, who pointed out that the bipartisan bill had designed the sanctions as mandatory. Politico

White House says media outlets put national security at risk by publishing classified info: White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders on Monday accused reporters of “putting national security at risk” when they publish classified information. The remark came in response to a question about how the White House handles security clearances for top officials after it was revealed that ex-aide Rob Porter was operating on an interim clearance while the FBI was looking into allegations of his domestic abuse. The Hill, The Daily Beast

Trump proposes money for new FBI headquarters: The White House is proposing to spend more than $2 billion in funding for a new FBI headquarters, infusing cash into a stalled effort to replace the downtown Washington building. CNN, Washington Post


U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday described the fight against ISIS in Syria and Iraq as far from complete and announced $200 million in new U.S. aid to stabilize war-torn communities so residents can return home. “The end of major combat operations does not mean we have achieved the enduring defeat of ISIS,” Tillerson said in Kuwait. “ISIS remains a serious threat to the stability of the region, our homelands and other parts of the globe.” Tillerson spoke at a meeting of more than 70 countries that contributed militarily or financially in ousting ISIS militants from Iraq and Syria. His goal is to encourage them to focus on fighting extremists in the region and elsewhere.

Tillerson also will attend a conference to raise money for rebuilding Iraq. He is expected to announce a package worth more than $3 billion from the Export-Import Bank, including loans, loan guarantees, and insurance to seed American investment in Iraq. The new infusion of U.S. money and support comes a day after President Trump suggested the United States already has spent too much in the region. Washington Post, Voice of America, Reuters

The Syrian government said on Tuesday that Israel would face “more surprises” in future attacks on its territory, after Syrian air defenses shot down an Israeli F-16 jet on Saturday. “Have full confidence the aggressor will be greatly surprised because it thought this war - this war of attrition Syria has been exposed to for years - had made it incapable of confronting attacks,” Syrian Assistant Foreign Minister Ayman Sussan said.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that Israeli forces would press ahead with operations in Syria despite the loss of the advanced warplane, the first it has lost to enemy fire in 36 years. On Tuesday, Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman told reporters, “There are no limitations (on military operations), and nor do we accept any limitations ... We will respond to every provocation.” Reuters
New York Times: The Middle East’s Coming War

Al-Shabaab is making millions of dollars each year by exploiting foreign aid money sent to Somalia by western nations that are trying to eliminate the terror group. A CNN investigation has revealed how money given directly by the UN to people displaced by conflict and famine is ending up in the hands of the terrorist organization. Former members of al-Shabaab and Somali intelligence agents said the terror group is extorting thousands of dollars per day through roadblocks and taxes on merchants attempting to transport food and supplies. CNN

Pakistani Taliban confirm deputy killed by drone: The Pakistani Taliban confirmed on Monday that their deputy leader was killed in a suspected U.S. drone strike last week. A pair of strikes killed the militant leader, Khalid Mehsud, also known by his alias Sajna, on Thursday last week in Afghanistan near the border with Pakistan, Pakistani security officials said. But there were conflicting accounts of the drone attack from Pakistani intelligence officials and militant sources. A spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban told Reuters the drone strike was in the North Waziristan region, on the Pakistani side of the border. Reuters

Trump tells Putin more steps needed to scrap North Korea nuclear program: President Donald Trump told Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday that more needs to be done to counter North Korea’s nuclear program. “President Trump reiterated the importance of taking further steps to ensure the denuclearization of North Korea,” the White House said. In an interview last month, Trump accused Russia of helping North Korea evade international sanctions meant to punish Pyongyang for its nuclear program. Trump and Putin spoke after U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, in an interview with the Washington Post, raised the prospect of talks with North Korea. Reuters

India warns Pakistan after Kashmir army camp attack: India warned Pakistan that it would “pay for this misadventure” following a deadly attack by militants on an army camp in the northern state of Jammu and Kashmir that has stoked tensions between the two countries. Indian Defense Minister Nirmala Sitharaman told reporters on Monday that the Indian army has ample evidence to prove that “the handlers of the terrorists were back in Pakistan.” Saturday’s attack on the camp near Jammu was the worst in months, with six soldiers and the father of a soldier killed. Reuters


Uzbek man pleads guilty in Stockholm terror trial: An Uzbek man on trial in Sweden has pleaded guilty to carrying out a truck attack that killed five people in Stockholm last April. Rakhmat Akilov had been charged with terror-related murder and attempted murder. He traveled to Sweden in 2014 where he had applied for asylum, claiming he had been persecuted at home. His application was rejected and he was ordered to leave Sweden in December 2016. Sweden’s domestic intelligence agency has said it had nothing indicating he was planning an attack. Defense lawyer Johan Eriksson told the court the motive of the attack “was to instigate fear and to get Sweden to end its participation in the coalition against ISIS.” The prosecution has called for Akilov to be deported from Sweden after serving any sentence handed down. BBC News, Associated Press

UK unveils machine learning technology to fight ISIS propaganda online: The UK government has released details of a tool that it says can automatically and accurately detect terrorist content on any online platform. Developed by the UK Home Office and artificial intelligence firm ASI Data Science, the technology uses “advanced machine learning” to analyze both the visuals and audio of a video. This enables it to decide whether the content could be propaganda for ISIS. The government said that tests had shown that the tool was able to automatically detect 94 percent of ISIS propaganda, with an accuracy of 99.995 percent. “Automatic technology like this can heavily disrupt the terrorists’ actions, as well as prevent people from ever being exploited to these horrific images,” UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd said. CNBC, Financial Times


For cutting-edge analysis of the geopolitical events shaping global affairs, read today’s TSC IntelBrief.
Editor-in-Chief, Karen J. Greenberg, Center on National Security, Fordham Law School

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