The Soufan Group Morning Brief


Thursday, March 1, 2018

Britain Presses U.S. Not to Seek Death Penalty for ISIS Suspects

The British government wants the Trump administration to provide assurances that American prosecutors will not seek the death penalty against two British ISIS suspects who were recently captured in Syria — and is threatening to withhold important evidence about them as leverage, according to officials familiar with the deliberations. The British are also insisting that the U.S. promise to prosecute the two men in a civilian court, rather than taking them to the Guantanamo, the officials said.

The two men, Alexanda Kotey and El Shafee Elsheikh, are believed to be half of a cell of four British jihadists called the Beatles who played a central role in torturing and killing Western hostages, including several Americans. British Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson has said his government does not want to take back the two men, who have been stripped of British citizenship.

The U.S. is expected to eventually take custody of them, but the Trump administration is holding off on doing so until it decides out how to handle the case, according to several U.S. officials. While the American military has interrogated Kotey and Elsheikh, it has not yet read them Miranda warnings or re-interviewed them in hopes of eliciting confessions that could be used as courtroom evidence. Officials said the Justice Department is deciding whether the Southern District of New York or the Eastern District of Virginia would handle the prosecution. New York Times, ABC News


The legal case for striking North Korea first: “Pre-emption opponents argue that action is not justified because Pyongyang does not constitute an ‘imminent threat.’ They are wrong,” John Bolton writes in the Wall Street Journal. “The threat is imminent, and the case against pre-emption rests on the misinterpretation of a standard that derives from prenuclear, pre-ballistic-missile times. Given the gaps in U.S. intelligence about North Korea, we should not wait until the very last minute.”

Building peace in Yemen from the ground up: “From the beginning, the peace process in Yemen has suffered from faulty assumptions and out-of-date-analysis,” Peter Salisbury writes in Foreign Affairs. “Ending Yemen’s civil war and building a sustainable peace will require a plan that more closely reflects the realities on the ground. If the mistakes of the past are repeated, the world’s worst humanitarian crisis will only spiral further out of control.”

The national security case for immigration: how immigrants and minorities have boosted U.S. hard power: “One of the thorniest policy issues facing the United States today is immigration. Too often those who seek to drastically reduce or even end immigration portray themselves as the only ones who care about national security,” Mark Stout writes in War on the Rocks. “Fears like the president’s are overblown, to put it mildly, but they also neglect the fact that the United States reaps great security benefits from being a nation of immigrants.”

Putin is getting away with murder in Syria: “This latest Syrian atrocity has been made possible, like so many before it, by Vladi­mir Putin,” the Washington Post writes in an editorial. “Syria has become a maelstrom of war that has sucked in half a dozen outside powers … But most of the conflict is waged, supported or manipulated by Mr. Putin, who aspires to use Syria to reestablish Russia as a Mideast power at the expense of the United States.”

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A Saudi detainee who remains stranded at Guantanamo even though he was supposed to have been repatriated last month under the terms of a plea deal is accusing his government of dragging its feet. “It’s shameful,” the detainee, Ahmed Muhammed Haza al-Darbi, said in a statement conveyed Wednesday through his lawyer. “Unlike other countries, the Saudi government never even provided me with an attorney all these years.”

Darbi agreed in February 2014 to plead guilty to terrorism-related offenses involving a 2002 Qaeda attack on a French-flagged oil tanker. Under the pretrial agreement, if he cooperated, he would return home after four years to serve the remainder of his sentence in Saudi custody.

Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at the City University of New York who has been Darbi’s lead defense counsel since 2008, appealed to Saudi officials to focus on his client. “I understand that senior Saudi officials are preoccupied with other matters. It’s still disappointing to read statements by U.S. spokespeople indicating that the cause of delay is the Saudi government. This arrangement has been a long time coming. We expected smooth and timely implementation and hope that both countries are working hard to fulfill the agreement soon,” he said. New York Times

Special Counsel Robert Mueller has been investigating a period of time last summer when President Donald Trump appeared determined to drive Attorney General Jeff Sessions from his job, according to people familiar with the matter. They said a key area of interest for the inquiry is whether those efforts were part of a months-long pattern of attempted obstruction of justice.

Mueller’s team has questioned witnesses in detail about Trump’s private comments and state of mind in late July and early August of last year, around the time the President issued a series of tweets in which he referred to Sessions as “beleaguered.” The questions are reportedly aimed at determining whether the president’s goal was to oust Sessions in order to pick a replacement who would exercise control over the investigation into possible coordination between Russia and Trump associates during the 2016 election.

The New York Times previously reported that Mueller was examining Trump’s efforts in the spring of 2017 to fire Sessions. Washington Post, The Hill
Politico: Sessions Defends Himself After Trump Twitter Criticism

Kushner Companies, the firm run by White House adviser Jared Kushner’s family, reportedly received a $184 million from a firm whose founder made “regular” visits to the White House. Joshua Harris, whose firm Apollo Global Management made the loan to Kushner Companies, “met on multiple occasions” with Kushner and advised the White House on infrastructure issues, according to The New York Times. Among other things, the two men reportedly discussed a possible White House job for Harris.

It was one of the largest loans Kushner Companies received last year. Kushner Companies also received a $325 million loan from Citigroup after Kushner met with Citigroup’s CEO, Michael L. Corbat, in spring 2017.  The two men talked about financial and trade policy and did not discuss Kushner’s family business, one person familiar with the conversation said. New York Times, The Daily Beast

Hope Hicks to resign as White House Communications Director: White House Communications Director Hope Hicks, one of President Trump’s longest-serving aides, said Wednesday she would resign. Hicks had reportedly been considering leaving for several months. She told colleagues that she had accomplished what she felt she could at the White House and that there would never be a perfect moment to leave, according to White House aides.. New York Times, CNN

Manafort trial set for mid-September on charges from Mueller investigation: A judge in Washington on Wednesday set a September 17 trial date for former Trump Campaign Chief Paul Manafort on charges from Special Counsel Robert Mueller, including money laundering and failing to register as a foreign agent. The decision by U.S. District Court Judge Amy Berman Jackson means Manafort will go on trial during the campaign season for the midterm elections. Manafort faces a second federal trial in northern Virginia, where he was has been charged with 18 additional counts of bank fraud, money laundering, and tax fraud. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges. Politico, Los Angeles Times

Mueller asking if Trump knew about hacked Democratic emails before release: Investigators for Special Counsel Robert Mueller have asked witnesses about President Trump’s connection to Democratic emails that were hacked and leaked leading up to the 2016 election, NBC News reported Wednesday. Mueller’s team has reportedly focused on whether Trump was aware of plans by WikiLeaks to publish emails from the Democratic National Committee and members of Hillary Clinton’s campaign, or if Trump was involved in the release of the emails. NBC News, The Hill

UN body says Guantanamo detention of Pakistani has no legal basis: A Pakistani man held at Guantanamo since 2006 should be released immediately and given a right to compensation, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said on Wednesday. A written opinion by the group of five independent experts said the detention of Ammar al-Baluchi is arbitrary, breaches international human rights law, and has no legal basis. Al-Baluchi, a Kuwaiti-born Pakistani citizen also known as Abdul Aziz Ali, is the nephew and an alleged co-conspirator of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the accused mastermind of the 9/11 attacks. Reuters

Man accused of terrorism standing trial in 1 of 4 killings: Jurors are being selected to hear the terrorism trial of a man accused of killing four people in two states in revenge for U.S. policy in the Middle East. Ali Muhammad Brown of Seattle is the first person in New Jersey to be charged with terrorism connected to a homicide case, prosecutors said. Brown was charged with fatally shooting a 19-year-old college student in West Orange, New Jersey in 2014. He is also awaiting trial in three killings in Washington state from earlier that year. Associated Press

Pentagon receives orders to plan military parade for Veterans Day: The Pentagon confirmed to CBS News on Wednesday that it has a received a memo from the national security adviser to plan a military parade for Veterans Day, November 11. The date also marks the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. The estimated cost of the parade is between $10 million and $30 million. CBS News


The U.S.-led campaign to hunt down the last pockets of ISIS militants in Syria has lost its most effective battleground partner, which American military officials fear will stall a critical phase of the offensive and leave open the door for hundreds of foreign fighters to escape. Thousands of Kurdish fighters and commanders who make up the backbone of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in recent weeks have diverted to defend Afrin, in Syria’s northwest, where Kurdish fighters are facing attacks from Turkish troops.

The Kurdish-led SDF was the driving force last fall in routing ISIS from its self-proclaimed headquarters in Raqqa and chasing insurgents fleeing to the Iraqi border. That fight now is largely reliant on Syrian Arab fighters who make up a majority of the SDF but lack the Kurds’ military organization and logistical prowess. Without the Kurds, the Arab forces and their American military advisers have largely been forced to halt clearing operations and taken up mostly defensive positions, U.S. officials said. That has left American air power to pick up the slack.  New York Times
CNN: Turkish Operation in Syria Undercuts U.S. Gains in ISIS Fight

Nigeria orders all schools to be defended in Boko Haram areas: Nigeria’s security forces have been ordered to defend all schools in “liberated areas” of the country's northeast to avoid further mass abductions from schools by Boko Haram extremists, the president's office announced Wednesday. President Muhammadu Buhari's office said leaders of police and civil defense forces have been ordered to coordinate with the military and the governors of Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states to “ensure deployment of personnel to all schools.” Associated Press

Pakistani Taliban kill troops, police in attacks: A bombing killed four members of Pakistan’s paramilitary force on Wednesday on the outskirts of the southwestern city of Quetta, while elsewhere in the city gunmen opened fire on a senior police officer’s convoy, killing two of his guards. The Pakistani Taliban claimed responsibility for both attacks. A Pakistani Taliban spokesman said in a message that such drive-by attacks would continue. Associated Press

Cyber attack on German government sought more sensitive data than 2015 hack: On Wednesday, Germany said security officials were investigating an isolated attack on its government computer networks, but the incident had been brought under control. However Patrick Sensburg, a member of the parliamentary committee that oversees German intelligence agencies, said it would take time to analyze the incident, which involved complex malicious software and targeted more sensitive data than a 2015 breach of the German parliament. Sensburg said it was premature to link the cyber attack to a Russian hacking group known as APT28, although he said there was sufficient evidence that the group had links to a Russian spy agency. Reuters, BBC News

Report says Iranian hacking group expanding operations in the Middle East: An Iran-based hacking group that in the past has conducted domestic surveillance is turning its gaze outward across the Middle East, according to a new report from Symantec. The cybersecurity firm said the Iranian group, known as Chafer, attacked organizations in Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates last year. Sectors targeted by the group included include airlines, aircraft services, telecom firms, and technology companies serving the air and sea transport sectors. CNBC


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

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Editor-in-Chief, Karen J. Greenberg, Center on National Security, Fordham Law School

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