The Soufan Group Morning Brief


February 21, 2018

U.S. Misses Deadline to Repatriate Guantanamo Detainee

The Pentagon missed a deadline on Tuesday to send a prisoner from Guantanamo home to Saudi Arabia in what would have been the first transfer under President Donald Trump. Ahmed al-Darbi pleaded guilty before a military commission in 2014 to charges stemming from a 2002 attack on a French oil tanker. He was supposed to be transferred to a rehabilitation program for former jihadists in Saudi Arabia in exchange for his testimony in two other Guantanamo war crimes cases.

But the U.S. is still awaiting unspecified “assurances” from the Saudi Arabian government before the Pentagon can move forward with the transfer, Navy Cmdr. Sarah Higgins, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said. Higgins said that the Defense Department “hopes the transfer will take place soon,” but said she could not offer further details.

Al-Darbi’s lawyer, Ramzi Kassem, said he believes “all sides are working together toward the same goal” to complete the transfer despite the missed deadline. “It would make little sense for the U.S. government to renege on a deal with Mr. al-Darbi after describing his testimony as ‘unprecedented’ in counter-terrorism prosecutions to date,” said Kassem. “That would virtually guarantee that no one else will cooperate with the U.S. government and its military commissions.” Associated Press, New York Times, Miami Herald
New Yorker: At Guantanamo, Are The Judges Giving Up?


What if North Korea decides to bloody America’s nose first? “Understanding North Korea’s internal decision-making process and the various influences on Kim’s calculations is perhaps the hardest intelligence challenge on the planet,” Michael P. Dempsey writes in War on the Rocks.  “Sadly, my experience working on this issue while in government also causes me to believe that Kim is surrounded by advisers who, based on the last quarter-century of U.S.-North Korea relations, may be overconfident that the United States will shy away from conflict in the face of aggressive actions by North Korea. These advisers are unlikely to tell Kim anything he doesn’t want to hear for fear of their own personal safety. In other words, it’s a situation ripe for miscalculation by both sides.”

The CIA may need to call White House to clarify Russia meddling: “When I was director of the Central Intelligence Agency between 2006 and 2009, my staff and I knew there were differences between what we called ‘political speak’ and ‘intelligence speak’...when political comments went over the edge, we were always prepared to make that phone call to the president’s national security advisor that began with, ‘Steve, with regard to last night’s statement by (whomever), you need to know that we can’t back that up and he or she needs to consider not saying that because, sooner or later, we’re going to have to say something.’ Before this weekend’s mayhem, Vice President Mike Pence made such a statement,” Gen. Michael Hayden writes in The Hill.


After ISIS, the U.S. Faces Its Next Battle: Syria’s Erupting Fault Lines: “Syria’s endgame has ushered a sorting out of winners and losers with reverberations that already echo beyond Syria’s borders from Israel to Moscow,” Mona Yacoubian writes in Defense One. “These emerging power dynamics will demand that the region’s players figure out new red lines between them and how to redefine strategic deterrence.”

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The son-in-law of a Russia-based billionaire admitted on Tuesday to lying to investigators about his communications with a former Trump campaign aide. The guilty plea by Alex van der Zwaan, a 33-year-old Dutch citizen and former lawyer at a powerful New York-based firm, broadened the scope of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s inquiry into Russia’s election interference. He is the fourth person to plead guilty in Mueller’s Russia investigation.

Van der Zwaan acknowledged in federal court that he lied to prosecutors about a September 2016 conversation with former Trump aide Rick Gates over work they did together for a Ukrainian political party aligned with Russia. He also admitted that he deleted records of email exchanges that prosecutors had sought. His plea deal may allow him to avoid prison. He is now facing a recommended sentence ranging from zero to six months at his sentencing scheduled for April 3.

The plea deal comes as Gates has reportedly been in plea negotiations with the special counsel. Mueller indicted Gates and former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort in October on charges that they conspired to launder millions of dollars and directed a covert Washington lobbying campaign on behalf of former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych’s political party. Both men have pleaded not guilty. New York Times, Politico, Associated Press, Washington Post
Bloomberg: Mueller’s Move on Ex-Skadden Lawyer Puts Heat on Manafort, Gates

Jared Kushner, President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, is resisting giving up access to highly classified information, prompting an internal struggle with White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, according to White House officials and others briefed on the matter. Kushner is one of dozens of White House officials operating under an interim security clearance because of issues raised by the FBI during his background checks.

Kelly, who came under fire over the White House's handling of domestic abuse allegations against former staff secretary Rob Porter, ordered an overhaul of the security clearance process for current and incoming top administration officials. In a memo issued on Friday, Kelly said he would revoke top clearances for anyone whose background check had been pending since June 1 or earlier, and review such clearances every month thereafter.

Kushner’s background investigation is still pending after 13 months serving in President Trump’s inner circle. White House Press Secretary Sarah Sanders said Kelly’s security clearance directive would not affect Kushner's work in the White House. Kelly said in a statement Tuesday that he would not comment on security clearances but that he had expressed his confidence in Kushner's ability to “continue performing his duties in his foreign policy portfolio.” CNN, New York Times

Sessions forms cyber task force after election warnings: Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Tuesday announced the creation of a task force to examine how the Justice Department can better combat global cyber threats, including efforts to interfere with U.S. elections. The announcement comes after leaders of U.S. intelligence agencies warned that Russia will likely try to interfere in the 2018 midterm elections. The task force will be chaired by a senior official appointed by Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, and it will have representatives from the department’s Criminal Division, National Security Division, the FBI, and several other Justice Department components. Sessions ordered the task force to submit a report with initial recommendations by June 30. Reuters, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post

Longtime Mattis aide leaves the Pentagon: An adviser to Defense Secretary James Mattis is resigning, leaving the secretary without one of the first senior officials to join his staff after he was nominated as Pentagon chief. In a statement on Tuesday, Mattis said his longtime aide Sally Donnelly had been a “trusted and valued adviser” for more than a decade. He said she played a critical role in the past year in building international partnerships and bringing business reform to the Pentagon. A senior Pentagon official familiar with the situation said that Mattis and Donnelly had agreed initially that she would work for him at the Pentagon for about a year. The move leaves the Pentagon without one of its few female senior defense officials. The Hill, Washington Post

North Korea dropped out of meeting with Pence at last minute: Vice President Mike Pence had planned to secretly meet with a high-level delegation of North Korean leaders while attending the Winter Olympics in South Korea this month, but the North Koreans canceled at the last minute, according to the State Department. “We regret the failure to seize this opportunity,” Spokeswoman Heather Nauert said Tuesday. “The vice president was ready to take this opportunity to drive home the necessity of North Korea abandoning its illicit ballistic missile and nuclear programs,” she added. New York Times, NPR


A surge in Syrian government airstrikes has killed at least 200 people over the past two days in Eastern Ghouta, aid agencies said Tuesday. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said it was the highest 48-hour death toll in Syria since a 2013 chemical attack on the besieged enclave.

Hundreds of people have been injured, flooding hospitals and clinics with casualties they are ill-equipped to treat after four years under siege. Twelve hospitals and clinics have been struck by bombs in the past two days, according to the Union of Medical Care and Relief Organizations (UOSSM). “The sheer intensity of airstrikes is leveling the city and killing civilians without any regard or mercy,” UOSSM said.  The UN has denounced the bombardment, saying attacks on hospitals and other civilian infrastructure could be war crimes. On Wednesday, residents of Eastern Ghouta said they were waiting their “turn to die” as the bombardment continued. Washington Post, New York Times

A commander in the coalition fighting on behalf of Assad’s government told Reuters that the bombing aims to prevent Syrian rebels from targeting the eastern neighborhoods of Damascus with mortars. It may be followed by a ground campaign.“The offensive has not started yet. This is preliminary bombing,” he said. Reuters
CNN: The International Community is Failing Syria's Eastern Ghouta

Turkey warns Syrian forces entering Afrin face serious consequences: Turkey warned on Wednesday that pro-Syrian government forces entering the northwest Afrin region to support a Kurdish militia there would be considered legitimate targets in Ankara’s offensive. A convoy of some 40-50 vehicles carrying pro-government forces tried to enter Syria’s Afrin on Tuesday, but retreated after artillery fire by Turkish forces, a spokesman for Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said. “Any step by the [Syrian] regime or other elements in this direction will surely have serious consequences,” he said. Reuters

Taliban attack Afghan checkpoints: Taliban insurgents launched attacks on three checkpoints in nighttime raids on Tuesday in the western Afghan province of Farah, killing about 20 police officers, according to Afghan officials. Equipped with night-vision goggles, the Taliban quickly overwhelmed the checkpoints, said Dadullah Qani, a provincial council member in Farah. Afghan officials have said that the night-vision goggles the Taliban have been using with such effect typically bear Russian markings, though their origin is unclear. Politicians in Kabul, the capital, have accused Russia of arming the Taliban, which Russia denies. New York Times

Nigeria convicts 205 Boko Haram suspects: A Nigerian high court convicted 205 Boko Haram suspects for their involvement with the insurgent group, according to a Justice Ministry statement on Monday. The suspects were sentenced to jail terms ranging from three to 60 years. "Most of them were convicted for professing to belong to the terrorist group, concealing information about the group which they knew or believe[d] to be of material assistance that could lead to the arrest, prosecution or conviction of Boko Haram members," the statement said. CNN

Stockholm truck attacker wanted to kill Swedish citizens: Uzbek national who killed five people in a truck attack in Stockholm in April last year said he wanted to murder Swedish citizens to pressure the government to end its participation in the global fight against ISIS. Rakhmat Akilov, who had been rejected for asylum by Sweden, had previously sworn allegiance to ISIS and admitted to carrying out the attack. Swedish intelligence agency Sapo is still investigating who Akilov may have communicated with in planning the attack. Akilov claimed in court that the attack was approved by ISIS members he had been in contact with on encrypted chat sites. He maintained that he did not know their real identities. Deutsche Welle, Agence France Presse

North Korea cyber espionage group goes global: A North Korean cyber espionage group previously known only for targeting South Korea’s government and private sector deepened its sophistication in 2017 by hitting targets outside of Korea, security researchers said on Tuesday. U.S. cyber security firm FireEye said the Reaper hacking organization, also dubbed APT37, had previously operated in the shadows of Lazarus Group, a better-known North Korean spying and cybercrime group widely blamed for the 2014 Sony Pictures and 2017 global WannaCry attacks. APT37 has spied on South Korean targets since at least 2012 and appears to have expanded its scope and sophistication to hit targets in Japan, Vietnam, and the Middle East in the last year, FireEye said. Reuters

Iranian security officers killed in clashes: Three Iranian police officers and two paramilitary troops were killed overnight during clashes with members of a Sufi Islam order in Tehran, Iranian news outlets reported on Tuesday, the most casualties the security forces have suffered in one evening since the height of anti-government demonstrations in 2009. State news media reported that the police arrested more than 300 protesters, most of them members of the Gonabadi dervishes, a Sufi strain of Islam that the Iranian government has designated a challenge to mainstream Shiite theology. New York Times

Pakistan given three-month reprieve over terrorist financing watchlist: Pakistan has been given a three-month reprieve by a global watchdog over a U.S.-led motion to put the South Asian country on a terrorist financing watchlist, Pakistan’s Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif said Tuesday. Pakistan has been scrambling in recent months to avoid being added to a list of countries deemed non-compliant with anti-money laundering and terrorist financing regulations by the Financial Action Task Force, a measure that officials fear could hurt its economy. Reuters

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


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