The Soufan Group Morning Brief


Thursday, February 15, 2018

American Held in Iraq as ISIS Fighter Claims to Have Sought Press Credentials

An American citizen being held by the U.S. military in Iraq after allegedly working for ISIS in Syria repeatedly sought press credentials and offered to write news stories about the conflict in Syria, according to newly unsealed court filings. The U.S-born prisoner, who also has Saudi citizenship and has not been publicly identified, made numerous inquiries about press identification and claimed he had such documents from a media group and other publications.

The detainee has told U.S. authorities that he was kidnapped by ISIS after arriving in Syria and initially imprisoned for seven months. He claimed to have press credentials to do freelance writing about the Syrian conflict. “Petitioner claimed that he intended to enter Syria to be a freelance writer and that he obtained press credentials using his U.S. passport, as well as from other press outlets,” an FBI agent wrote in the filings unsealed Wednesday evening as part of a legal challenge the prisoner is pursuing with the assistance of the ACLU. But U.S. authorities appear deeply skeptical that the prisoner had any bona fide journalistic mission.

The court filings released Wednesday also says that when he surrendered, the detainee was carrying $4,200, a global positioning device, and thumb drives containing information about how to interrogate captives as well as other how-to manuals for ISIS fighters

In making a case for holding him as an enemy combatant, the government said the detainee's name and other biographical details as well as information labeling him as an ISIS fighter were found on another thumb drive that contains what appear to be intake forms for new ISIS recruits. The drive was recovered by local Syrian forces in July 2015, and the Defense Department obtained it in November 2015. The detainee's intake form says he joined ISIS in July 2014 in Jarabulus, Syria. Politico, Associated Press


The United States can – and should – prosecute the killers of U.S. journalists and aid workers in Syria: “The murder of war correspondents is a war crime punishable under U.S. law. Although the U.S. War Crimes Act does not go as far as it could under international law, it does give U.S. courts clear jurisdiction over war crimes committed by or against U.S. citizens,” Beth Van Schaack writes in Just Security. “The United States has never activated this statute—the brutal murders of Foley, Sotloff, and Kassig offer an opportunity to rectify this.”

What Iran is really up to in Syria: “With their position entrenched in Syria and their influence in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen secure, Iran and Hezbollah and their Shiite allies believe they have built a formidable, unified, border-spanning front,” Sam Dagher writes in The Atlantic. “How they choose to exert their power could dictate the future for this region.”

Putin is struggling to keep his wars separate: “The outsized role of mercenaries in Russia's conflicts isn't just about deniability. It's basically an extension of the freelancing culture that has thrived under Putin in Russia's law enforcement agencies, with intelligence services using mobs and hiring black-hat hackers for odd jobs that hold the promise of side revenue,” Leonid Bershidsky writes in Bloomberg. “For the official Kremlin – the side that wages the geopolitical wars – deniability is, however, the most important issue.”

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A senior al Qaeda member is set to be sentenced on Friday in a Brooklyn court for conspiring to kill two American service members 15 years ago in Afghanistan and later plotting to bomb the U.S. Embassy in Nigeria. Ibrahim Suleiman Adnan Adam Harun, also known as Spin Ghul, who was convicted on terrorism charges in March last year, faces life in prison. But the case highlights a predicament for the Trump administration. The federal court system, which Attorney General Jeff Sessions has criticized as being too lenient with terrorists captured overseas, is far more efficient than the military tribunals run out of Guantanamo Bay.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, federal prosecutors have used civilian courts to bring more than 500 international terrorism cases, obtaining convictions in more than 400 to date, according to Fordham University’s Center on National Security. Most of the others are pending. None of the alleged 9/11 conspirators, who were indicted in 2009 and remain at Guantanamo, has been tried.

In the case of Spin Ghul, the Justice Department supported the case after receiving a letter from the military commission at Guantanamo, where prosecutors were persuaded that the al Qaeda member would never be extradited to stand trial there and that if he were prosecuted federally, he might produce evidence useful in their cases. Washington Post

Authorities investigate shooting incident outside NSA headquarters: Authorities are investigating a shooting incident on Wednesday morning outside the NSA headquarters in Fort Meade, Maryland. The NSA said shots were fired when the driver of a vehicle tried to enter the intelligence agency’s campus without authorization around 7 a.m. The FBI ruled out terrorism but the motive remains unclear. “We don’t believe there is an nexus to terrorism, we believe this was an isolated incident,” FBI Special Agent in Charge Gordon Johnson said. The driver of the vehicle, an NSA police officer, and a civilian who happened to be at the security gate at the time of the shooting started were hospitalized, Johnson said. “At this point we don't believe any of the injuries were the result of gunfire,” he said. Wall Street Journal, NBC News

Schiff complains FBI, DOJ making too many demands on memo: The top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee suggested Wednesday that the FBI and the Justice Department are asking for excessive redactions from a memo written by Democrats to rebut GOP assertions that the FBI unlawfully spied on Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. Rep. Adam Schiff said FBI and Justice Department officials appeared to have labeled everything in the memo that had not already been released to the public as classified. But he added Democrats are in “good discussions” with the FBI on declassifying the document and hope to resolve the issue “very soon.” If the document is changed significantly, the committee may need to vote again on whether to release it, which would mean resending it to Trump for review. Politico, Reuters

Democratic lawmakers push $1 billion bill for election security: Congressional Democrats introduced legislation on Wednesday that would provide more than $1 billion to boost the cyber security of U.S. voting systems. The measure followed warnings on Tuesday from U.S. intelligence officials that the 2018 midterm elections are likely to see renewed meddling from Russia and possibly other foreign adversaries. Lawmakers have introduced several bills to bolster election security since the 2016 election, but the new bill is the most comprehensive to date. Reuters

USS Cole judge says he hasn’t decided whether to have lawyers who quit arrested: A war court judge in the USS Cole case said Wednesday that he was still deciding whether to send U.S. Marshals to pick up two civilian defense lawyers who quit the case and ignored a subpoena to appear at the war court. “I haven’t decided yet to issue any writs,” Air Force Col. Vance Spath said at the opening of a third day of a weeklong hearing that has mostly focused on the presentation of evidence to the judge before a jury is seated and the trial begins. At issue is Spath’s frustration over repeated refusals by attorneys Rosa Eliades and Mary Spears to come to Guantanamo and defend Abd al Rahim al Nashiri, a Saudi accused of orchestrating al Qaeda’s October 2000 bombing that killed 17 U.S. sailors on the USS Cole. Miami Herald


Taliban insurgents on Wednesday issued an open letter to the “American people,” asking them to pressure U.S. officials to end the 17-year-old conflict in Afghanistan and asserting that the war has brought only death, corruption, and drugs to the country. The letter, released by Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid, comes amid deteriorating conditions for U.S. and Afghan coalition forces on the battlefield and after a two recent Taliban assaults on Kabul killed 150 civilians.

The letter is unusual due to its use of published statistics and logical arguments to persuade the American people that the U.S. government’s investment in the war in Afghanistan has been a mistake. It includes a list of goals that the U.S. government set out to achieve in entering the war, including eliminating terrorism, establishing the rule of law and eradicating drugs, and then systematically presents arguments, including statistics, to show that these efforts have failed or produced extremely negative consequences.

“Prolonging the war in Afghanistan and maintaining American troop presence is neither beneficial for America nor for anyone else,” the letter says, calling on U.S. citizens and legislators to “prudently” evaluate the costs and benefits of continuing to fight. It also warns that further protraction of the war will have “dreadful consequences” for the region and for US stability. The letter warns that although the Taliban prefers to reach a peaceful solution in Afghanistan, the group “cannot be subdued by sheer force.” Washington Post, The Guardian
Tom Dispatch: The Light at the End of the Corner
RFERL: Afghanistan’s Neighbors Pledge Cooperation On Security

International donors pledged $30 billion to help rebuild Iraq after the war against ISIS, Kuwait announced Wednesday after the close of a donor conference there. The figure falls short of an estimated $88.2 billion needed to rebuild Iraq, but it surpasses the $20 billion Iraqi officials initially said they needed to begin reconstruction word. American and regional officials praised a last-minute rush of pledged investments, loans, and guarantees made mostly by Iraq’s neighbors.

A significant portion of the funds pledged came from the Persian Gulf states, with Saudi Arabia and Qatar each giving $1 billion and the United Arab Emirates giving $500 million. Kuwait contributed $1 billion through its development fund as well as an additional $1 billion in investment.  Turkey also extended a $5 billion line of credit and $50 million in humanitarian assistance in Iraq. The U.S. Export-Import Bank on Tuesday signed a memorandum of understanding with Iraq guaranteeing $3 billion of loans to spur private sector investment, but Washington did not commit to any aid in the conference. Associated Press, Wall Street Journal, New York Times
Reuters: UN Says Bombs Will Litter Mosul for More Than a Decade
Associated Press: Coalition Ramps Down Air Support in Iraq, Shifts to Training

The British government does not want two British members of an ISIS cell known as “The Beatles” returned to the UK for trial, the Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson said. Williamson spoke amid a dispute with the U.S. over the militants’ fate, as the US insists that their “countries of origin” must take responsibility. He said the militants, Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, had “turned their back on British ideas, British values” and should not be allowed back in the country.

Earlier this week, U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis called on countries to take responsibility for their citizens who have joined ISIS as foreign fighters. “We are working with coalition partners to determine what to do with ISIS fighters held by the SDF,” said State Department Undersecretary for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Steven Goldstein said. “One possibility is that former British citizens return to the UK. Another option that we’re looking at is to place these terrorist fighters in Guantanamo Bay.” Washington Post, Yahoo News

U.S. may seek to put Pakistan on terrorism-finance list: The U.S. has indicated that it will seek to place Pakistan on a watch list of countries that are not doing enough to counter terrorism financing, according to a senior Pakistani official. The U.S. is likely to introduce the motion next week in Paris, where the Financial Action Task Force will vote on the matter. Pakistan was on the list from 2012 to 2015. In an effort to stave off returning to the list, Islamabad has quietly adopted sanctions against two groups that the United States accuses of being fronts for the militant group Lashkar-e-Taiba. New York Times

First person convicted for Nigeria’s Boko Haram schoolgirl kidnapping: Nigeria has convicted the first person to be brought to justice for the Chibok girls kidnapping in 2014, the justice ministry said. As part of a mass trial of suspected members of Boko Haram, 35-year-old Haruna Yahaya was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment for his role in the abduction of more than 200 girls from their school in the northeastern town of Chibok. The ministry said Yahaya had confessed to participating in the kidnapping after being forced to join Boko Haram. Reuters

French court acquits one, convicts two in Paris attack trial: A French court on Wednesday acquitted a man charged with harboring Islamic extremists after they carried out the November 2015 Paris attacks. Judge Isabelle Prevost-Desprez said the Paris court found 31-year-old Jawad Bendaoud not guilty of providing lodging to two of the attackers and helping them hide from police. “It has not been proven that Jawad Bendaoud provided accommodation to two individuals whom he knew to be terrorists,” Judge Prevost-Desprez said. Bendaoud faced up to six years in prison if convicted of harboring terrorists.

The court convicted and sentenced two of Bendaoud’s co-defendants in the case. Mohamed Soumah, who was accused of acting as an intermediary with Bendaoud to secure lodging for the two fugitives, received a 5-year prison sentence. Youssef Ait-Boulahcen, who was accused of knowing the extremist’s whereabouts and not informing authorities, was sentenced to three years in prison. Both had denied the accusations.
Associated Press

UK bames Russia for cyber attack: Britain blamed Russia on Thursday for a cyber attack last year, publicly pointing the finger at Moscow for spreading a virus which disrupted companies across Europe including. The NotPetya attack in June started in Ukraine, where it crippled government and business computers before spreading around the world. “The decision to publicly attribute this incident underlines the fact that the UK and its allies will not tolerate malicious cyber activity,” Britain’s foreign ministry said. “The attack masqueraded as a criminal enterprise but its purpose was principally to disrupt.” The Kremlin on Thursday denied the allegations, calling them “the continuation of a Russophobic campaign.” Reuters, BBC News

Former British soldier who fought against ISIS appears in court: A former British soldier appeared in court on Wednesday facing prosecution under terrorism legislation for fighting against ISIS in Syria. James Matthews is accused of attending a training camp “as part of a group of people struggling to assist the Kurdish groups fighting against ISIS” in Syria. At the preliminary hearing, Matthews pleaded not guilty. His first hearing will be on March 1. BBC News, The Guardian

Russia seeks to regulate private military contractors: The Russian parliament is working on a bill to regulate private military companies, a senior lawmaker said Wednesday after reports that an unknown number of Russian military contractors were killed in a U.S. strike in Syria. Retired Gen. Vladimir Shamanov, head of the defense committee in the lower house of Russia's parliament, called on the government to oversee private military contractors. According to media reports, Russian private contractors were part of pro-Syrian government forces that attacked U.S.-backed fighters in eastern Syria on February 7 and faced a fierce U.S. counterattack. Along with the Russian military, which has waged a military campaign in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad since 2015, thousands of Russians have also reportedly fought in Syria as private contractors. Associated Press


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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