The Soufan Group Morning Brief


Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Chelsea Bomber Sentenced to Two Life Terms

Ahmad Khan Rahimi, a 30-year-old Afghan-born immigrant who was convicted in October of planting the bomb that exploded in Manhattan in 2016, was sentenced on Tuesday to two life terms in prison.

In direct, unwritten remarks to the court, Rahimi neither admitted nor denied setting the bomb and only hinted at his motivations that day. “I didn’t grow up hating anyone,” he said. “I grew up in an environment where we’re mixed with everyone.” But he came to understand, he said, “why there is such a big frustration between the Muslims overseas and the American people.”

Rahimi did not explain his motivations for building and planting two two improvised pressure-cooker bombs, one of which exploded and injured more than 30 people. He was convicted last fall on charges including using weapons of mass destruction, bombing public places and destroying property by means of fire or explosives. The charges also included using a destructive device during and in furtherance of a crime of violence.

After listening to Rahimi, also identified in court documents as Ahmad Rahami, U.S. District Judge Richard Berman sentenced him to two life terms plus 30 years in prison. Berman also ordered restitution in the amount of $562,803.03 to compensate victims of the attack for injuries and damage to their property. New York Times, Los Angeles Times, New York Daily News


The Middle East’s coming war: “War was averted this weekend between Israel and Syria — but only for now,” said Ronen Bergman in the New York Times. “All of the ingredients for an extremely violent eruption in the Middle East remain in place.”

Testing the legal limits of the war on terrorism: “For better or worse, the Trump administration has shown little interest in pushing the boundaries of who may be held, and under what conditions, in conjunction with the ongoing armed conflict between the United States and al Qaeda and its affiliates,” writes Stephen Vladeck in Foreign Affairs. “Yet despite the administration’s reticence, those limits are being tested by a lawsuit that has flown largely under the public radar. Known as Doe v. Mattis, it involves an unnamed American citizen who allegedly fought alongside the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) in Syria and who has been detained by the U.S. military in Iraq since September 14, 2017.”

How militants in Iraq and Syria recruit and use children: “In a new study for United Nations University, I analyze patterns of child recruitment by 10 of the major armed groups participating in the geographically linked conflicts in Syria and Iraq,” writes Mara Revkin in the Washington Post. “I found that while children’s pathways into and out of armed groups are rarely linear and their roles are fluid, we still see several patterns.”

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The nation’s top intelligence chiefs were united Tuesday in declaring that Russia is continuing efforts to disrupt the U.S. political system and is targeting the 2018 midterm elections, following its successful operation to sow discord in the most recent presidential campaign.

Their assessment stands in contrast to President Trump, who has repeatedly voiced skepticism of Russian meddling in the 2016 election.

Russia is already meddling in the midterm elections this year, the intelligence officials told the Senate Intelligence Committee, warning that Moscow is using a digital strategy to worsen the country’s political and social divisions. Russia is using fake accounts on social media — many of them bots — to spread disinformation, the officials said. European elections are being targeted, too, and the attacks were not likely to end this year, they warned.

“We expect Russia to continue using propaganda, social media, false-flag personas, sympathetic spokespeople and other means of influence to try to exacerbate social and political fissures in the United States,” said Dan Coats, the director of national intelligence. New York Times, Washington Post, NBC News

Coats also warned that the current risk of a global conflict remains high. “The risk of interstate conflict, including among great powers, is higher than at any time since the end of the Cold War,” Coats told lawmakers. “The most immediate threats of regional interstate conflict in the next year come from North Korea and from Saudi-Iranian use of proxies in their rivalry,” he said. “At the same time, the threat of state and non-state use of weapons of mass destruction will continue to grow.” CNN

Pentagon wants to replace Guantanamo prison: The Pentagon wants $69 million to replace the Top Secret prison where the accused 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, and 14 other former CIA captives are kept. The funding request, included in a massive 2019 Department of Defense budget package released Monday, warns that the current prison, Camp 7, is at risk of mechanical, electrical and secure-communications failure, which would be risky to the U.S. Army guards who work there. With its current 15-captive population, building costs work out to $4.6 million per prisoner. Miami Herald

Trump names new NSA chief: President Donald Trump on Tuesday nominated Lt. Gen. Paul Nakasone, the current leader of the Army’s digital warfighting arm, to helm the National Security Agency. The move, which was long expected, will also put Nakasone atop U.S. Cyber Command, the Defense Department’s digital warfighting unit, once he is confirmed by the Senate. Nakasone, 54, has been the chief of Army Cyber Command since late 2016. Prior to that, Nakasone served at Cyber Command, where he oversaw the units tasked with defending the country's digital networks and information systems. Politico

FBI director contradicts White House narrative on Porter: The White House struggled Tuesday to contain a widening crisis over its handling of domestic violence allegations against a senior official, as it reeled after sworn testimony by the FBI chief directly contradicted what President Trump’s aides had presented as the official version of events.

FBI Director Christopher Wray told the Senate Intelligence Committee that the bureau had completed a background report on then-staff secretary Rob Porter last July and closed out the case entirely last month. Wray’s account is at odds with White House claims that the investigation required for Porter’s security clearance was “ongoing” until he left his job last week, after his two ex-wives publicly alleged physical and emotional abuse. Washington Post, Wall Street Journal


A group of Russian military contractors died in a U.S. airstrike in Syria last week, according to multiple reports Tuesday, signaling the beginning of a potentially dangerous phase in the crowded theater of war in the Middle East. Some sources have said there were “dozens” of Russian casualties.

The incident appears to be the first publicly known case of the U.S. military firing on and killing Russians fighting on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Neither Washington nor Moscow officially confirmed the deaths.

The attack occurred in the vicinity of Deir al-Zour, a strategic, oil-rich territory that is coveted by the Syrians. Most of the fatalities were attributed to an American airstrike on enemy columns that was called in by American-backed Kurdish soldiers who believed they were under attack.

Beyond Russia’s official military engagement in Syria backing the regime, an unknown number of Russian mercenaries are fighting as part of Assad’s army. In recent days, rumors swirled online in Russia that large numbers of those military contractors had perished under American fire. The contractors have been active in Syria since the Kremlin began its intervention in September 2015, according to Russian news reports. Washington Post, New York Times, NPR

The Pakistani Taliban have confirmed the death of their deputy commander in an American drone strike in Afghanistan last week.

The commander, Khan Sayed, who also went by the name Khalid Sajna, was the No. 2 leader of the Pakistan Taliban. He also led his own breakaway faction of fighters from the Mehsud tribe, which inhabits the rugged, semiautonomous South Waziristan region along the border with Afghanistan.

Sayed’s death is a blow to the militant group that has been responsible for deadly suicide bombings and terrorist attacks in Pakistan for over a decade. New York Times

Tillerson says investment in Iraq is critical to prevent return of ISIS: Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday declared Iraq open for business and urged governments and investors to help rebuild the country or risk seeing a return of the Islamic State. Tillerson said the U.S. Export-Import Bank would sign a memo that would facilitate financing for $3 billion in American goods and services. He listed several large U.S. corporations that already have deals with Iraq totaling $2 billion, and he lauded the investment opportunities. Washington Post


The Israeli police recommended on Tuesday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu be charged with bribery, fraud and breach of trust, instantly raising doubts about his ability to stay in office.

Concluding a yearlong graft investigation, the police recommended that Mr. Netanyahu face prosecution in two corruption cases: a gifts-for-favors affair known as Case 1000, and a second scandal, called Case 2000, in which Mr. Netanyahu is suspected of back-room dealings with Arnon Mozes, publisher of the popular newspaper Yediot Aharonot, to ensure more favorable coverage. All told, the police accused Netanyahu of accepting nearly $300,000 in gifts over 10 years.

Netanyahu, addressing the nation live on television shortly before the police released their findings around 9 p.m., made clear that he would not step down. “I feel a deep obligation to continue to lead Israel in a way that will ensure our future,” he said, before embarking on a 12-minute defense of his conduct. New York Times, Wall Street Journal


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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