The Soufan Group Morning Brief


February 20, 2018

UK, U.S. in Talks Over Captured British ISIS Fighters

The UK and the U.S. are in talks about the fate of two captured British Islamic State militants, suspected of being part of a notorious group known for torturing and killing Western hostages, British Home Secretary Amber Rudd said. Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh were captured in Syria last month by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). They are suspected of being two of four militants called the “Beatles” who took part in the kidnap, torture, and murder of Western hostages.

“We’re absolutely committed to making sure that they are tried, these people should face the full force of the law,” Rudd said Tuesday. “I can’t be drawn at the moment into where that will take place but I am certain, because we will be working with the Americans to ensure this, that they will face justice.”

Last week, a meeting of about a dozen defense ministers in Rome failed to agree on how to deal with hundreds of foreign militants detained by the SDF in Syria. One option is for the prisoners to return to their country of origin to face prosecution. However Britain’s Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson has said he does not want Kotey and Elsheikh, who have been stripped of their British citizenship, back in the UK. Reuters, BBC News


What Syria reveals about the future of war: “It’s easy to look at the Syrian war as uniquely horrible, the catastrophic result of geography, Assad’s craven brutality, the spread of jihadism and its malignant ideology, and foreign intervention. But in reality Syria is emblematic, a frightening window into the future of war,” Steven Metz writes in World Politics Review. “This is what the Syrian war suggests about future conflicts: They will be intricately complex; they will involve conflict-specific configurations of participants; there will be no humanitarian intervention to stop them; and the United Nations will be a nonfactor.”

A crackdown by Egypt’s Sissi is devouring his own regime: “By shutting down every avenue for peaceful change, Sissi has sent an aggressive message to Egypt and the rest of the world that even the semblance of democracy no longer has a place in his country, and that brute force is the only possible response to any form of opposition or criticism,” Aya Hijazi and Mohamed Soltan write in the Washington Post. “As survivors of Sissi’s crackdown and the world’s most notorious prisons, we believe that we share a responsibility to call for more nuanced policies towards Egypt and the region.”

Just and unjust leaks: “Revealing official secrets and lies involves a form of moral risk-taking: whistleblowers may act out of a sense of duty or conscience, but the morality of their actions can be judged only by their fellow citizens, and only after the fact,” Michael Walzer writes in Foreign Affairs. “This is often a difficult judgment to make—and has probably become more difficult in the Trump era.”

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Special Counsel Robert Mueller's interest in Jared Kushner has expanded beyond his contacts with Russia and now includes his efforts to secure financing for his company from foreign investors during the presidential transition, according to people familiar with the inquiry. This is the first indication that Mueller is exploring Kushner's discussions with potential non-Russian foreign investors.

One line of questioning from Mueller's team involves discussions Kushner had with Chinese investors during the transition, according to sources familiar with the inquiry. A week after the presidential election, Kushner met with executives from Anbang Insurance, the Chinese conglomerate that also owns the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York, according to The New York Times. Talks between the two companies over financing a deal for the Chinese insurer to invest in the flagship Kushner Companies property, 666 Fifth Avenue, collapsed in March of last year.  Mueller's team has also reportedly asked about Kushner's dealings with a Qatari investor regarding the same property, which also stalled. CNN

Federal law enforcement officials have identified more than $40 million in “suspicious” financial transactions to and from companies controlled by President Donald Trump’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort — a much larger sum than was cited in his October indictment on money laundering charges. The vast web of transactions was unraveled mainly in 2014 and 2015 during an FBI operation. It explains how Special Counsel Robert Mueller was able to swiftly bring charges against Manafort for complex financial crimes dating as far back as 2008 — and it shows that Mueller could still wield immense leverage as he seeks to compel Manafort to cooperate in the ongoing investigation. Last week, Mueller’s team told a judge that it had evidence Manafort committed bank fraud, and news organizations have reported that the special counsel may be preparing additional charges. Buzzfeed

Several individuals who worked at the St. Petersburg “troll factory” that was listed in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s indictment last week say they think the criminal charges against the company are well-founded. Marat Mindiyarov, a former employee at the Internet Research Agency, said the organization hired people with excellent English skills to sway U.S. public opinion through an elaborate social media campaign.

Mindiyarov said he took a job at the Internet Research Agency in late 2014. At the time, about 400 people occupied four floors of an office building and worked 12-hour shifts, he said. The trolls received their wages in cash and operated in teams to try to foment public interest in fake discussions on social media, he said.

Another former employee, Lyudmila Savchuk, who worked in the company’s domestic division, said her experience corresponds with what she knows of the allegations made by Mueller’s indictment. “The [social media] posts and comments are made to form the opinion of Russian citizens regarding certain issues, and as we see it works for other countries,” she said. Paid trolls used carefully crafted fake identities that made them come across like real people, she said. “I knew there were people working in English. They were better paid than we were and their work was absolutely secret. They used the same techniques we did,” Savchuk said. Associated Press, CBS News
New York Times: Inside the Russian Troll Factory: Zombies and a Breakneck Pace

Kremlin dismisses Mueller’s indictment: The Russian government denied Monday that it had interfered in the 2016 election after the Justice Department indicted 13 Russian nationals and three Russian companies. Spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on Monday that the U.S. charges did not contain any proof that the Russian state had been involved in such activity. “We continue to insist that we consider such evidence to be unfounded, we do not consider it to be exhaustive, we do not consider it fair and cannot agree with them,” Peskov said. CNN

After Florida school shooting, Russian bot army pounced: One hour after news broke about the school shooting in Florida last week, Twitter accounts suspected of having links to Russia released hundreds of posts taking up the gun control debate. The accounts addressed the news with the speed of a cable news network. Some adopted the hashtag #guncontrolnow. Others used #gunreformnow and #Parklandshooting. Earlier on Wednesday, before the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, many of the Twitter accounts had been focused on Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election. New York Times

Facebook plans to use U.S. mail to verify IDs of election ad buyers: Facebook will start using postcards sent by mail later this year to verify the identities and location of people who want to purchase U.S. election-related advertising on its site. The postcard verification is Facebook’s latest effort to respond to criticism from lawmakers, security experts, and election integrity watchdog groups that it and other social media companies failed to detect and later responded slowly to Russia’s use of their platforms to influence the 2016 presidential election. The process of using postcards containing a specific code will be required for advertising that mentions a specific candidate running for a federal office, Facebook said. The requirement will not apply to issue-based political ads. Reuters

Concern in the Pentagon about Trump’s parade: There is growing concern within the U.S. military about the costs of President Donald Trump's proposed military parade and the disruption it could cause. If Trump insists on a military parade through Washington involving thousands of troops, armored vehicles, missiles, and other heavy weapons, the event could disrupt crucial military training schedules, according to a defense official directly familiar with the initial planning efforts. There are also concerns over the cost of the event. Another defense official told CNN that the Pentagon is considering seeking out private donations to offset some of the non-military costs of the event. CNN


A series of airstrikes and artillery bombardments by the Syrian government killed 94 people and wounded another 325 in rebel-held Eastern Ghouta, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Monday. Most of those killed were civilians, the monitoring group said. UN Regional Humanitarian Coordinator for the Syria Crisis Panos Moumtzis called the strikes an “extreme escalation in hostilities.” However, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said conditions in Eastern Ghouta were being exaggerated by international actors. “In the UN, the topic of humanitarian problems in Eastern Ghouta and Idlib is being actively hyped up,” he said, according to Russian media reports. CNN, BBC News, Reuters

Turkey warns Syria against protecting Kurdish fighters: Turkey warned the Syrian government Monday against entering the Kurdish-controlled enclave of Afrin in northern Syria where a major Turkish military offensive is underway, saying it would hit back at Syrian troops if their goal is to protect the Kurdish fighters. The warning sets up a potential clash between Turkish troops and Syrian forces. Bashar al-Assad’s troops have had no presence in Afrin since they pulled out of most of northern Syria in 2012. Associated Press

ISIS kills Iraqi militiamen near Kirkuk: ISIS militants ambushed a convoy of pro-government militia fighters near the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk late on Sunday, killing at least 27 fighters. A security official said Iraqi forces were pursuing the militants, who had disguised themselves in police uniforms to carry out the ambush. Iraqi forces launched an operation this month to consolidate control of a mountainous area near Kirkuk that is intended to be used as a transit route for Iraqi oil trucks heading for Iran. Reuters, Associated Press

Defeats in Middle East driving ISIS fighters to Philippines: ISIS fighters forced out of Syria and Iraq have been arriving in the Philippines with the intent of recruiting and planning attacks, the head of the country’s largest Muslim rebel group said on Tuesday. More than 1,100 people were killed last year when pro-ISIS militants attacked and held the city of Marawi for five months. That could happen in other cities, according to Ebrahim Murad, leader of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. “Based on our own intelligence information, foreign fighters who were displaced from the Middle East continued to enter into our porous borders and may be planning to take two southern cities - Iligan and Cotabato,” Murad said. Reuters

European diplomats seek to curb Iran’s regional push: European officials are intensifying their efforts to save the Iranian nuclear deal, opening a new channel to press Tehran to curtail its military involvement in neighboring conflicts amid rising regional tensions. European diplomats sat down with Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi on Saturday on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference.  Chaired by the European Union and attended by senior officials from Italy, Germany, Britain, and France, the meetings focused on the conflict in Yemen and Iran’s involvement there, as well as in Syria. Wall Street Journal

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


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Wednesday, February 28, 6PM
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Editor-in-Chief, Karen J. Greenberg, Center on National Security, Fordham Law School

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