The Soufan Group Morning Brief


Tuesday, March 13, 2018

UK Says 'Highly Likely' Russia Behind Spy Attack

Prime Minister Theresa May said Monday that British investigators have concluded it was “highly likely” that Russia was responsible for the poison attack that left a former Russian double agent and his daughter comatose on a park bench last week.

The British leader said police identified the poison as a “military-grade nerve agent of a type developed by Russia.” She said Russia either engaged in a direct attack against Britain or lost control of the nerve agent it developed. Britain will not tolerate such a “brazen attempt to murder innocent civilians on our soil,” she warned, and she gave Moscow until Wednesday to provide an explanation.

The March 4 nerve agent attack on Sergei Skripal, once an informant for Britain’s foreign intelligence service, and his daughter, Yulia, exposed untold numbers of bystanders to risk around public spaces in the city of Salisbury. Traces of the poison have been found at a pub and a pizza parlor visited by the Skripals.

Immediately after May’s remarks, the Russian government denounced her speech as a spectacle designed to mislead.

“It is a circus show in the British Parliament,” the Tass news agency quoted Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova as saying.

May said British investigators have concluded that the chemical used in the attack was part of a group of Russian nerve agents known as Novichok. The chemical was produced by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and 1980s, and, at the time, it was believed to be far more lethal than anything in the United States arsenal.

After the breakup of the Soviet Union, Vil Mirzayanov, a chemist who helped develop the agent, said that Soviet laboratories had developed enough of the substance to kill several hundred thousand people.
Dispersed in a powder, Novichok nerve agents blocked the breakdown of a neurotransmitter controlling muscular contractions, leading to respiratory and cardiac arrest, Mirzayanov told investigators at the time. Washington Post, New York Times, BBC News
Washington Post: What a Brave Russian Scientist Told Me about Novichok, the Nerve Agent Identified in the Spy Attack
New York Times: As Putin’s Opponents Flocked to London, His Spies Followed
CNN: How the UK Could Hit Back at Russia Over Spy Poisoning


The ex-jihadi in plain sight: “We met in a European city where he didn’t live, a neutral location on a quiet side street far from the crowds of shoppers and sightseers,” said Rania Abouzeid in the New York Times. “To passers-by, he looked like a hipster, dressed in rust-colored skinny pants and a gray polo shirt. But he was not. I had known him for years in his native Syria. He was a onetime confidant of Abu Mohammad al-Jolani, then the leader of Al Qaeda in Syria.”

Destroying Guantanamo’s Camp X-Ray is a huge mistake: “Destroying the physical structure of Camp X-Ray would destroy both vital legal evidence and the foundation of our future conscience,” said Liz Sevcenko in the Guardian.

The national security tariff ruse: “Conservatives rightly criticized President Obama for stretching the law to issue executive edicts. The same scrutiny should attend the Trump Administration’s dubious use of national security and Section 232 to justify its new tariffs on steel and aluminum,” said the Wall Street Journal in an editorial.

I knew the Cold War. This is no Cold War.: “A lot of smart people seem to think the United States and Russia are in a ‘new Cold War,’” said Stephen Walt in Foreign Policy. “The current situation is bad. But to call it a “new Cold War” is misleading more than it is enlightening.”

Editor's Picks


House Intelligence Committee Republicans closed their investigation of Russian election interference Monday, declaring they found no evidence that President Donald Trump's 2016 campaign cooperated with the Kremlin, a conclusion Trump quickly celebrated — but which Democrats called premature and even misleading.

Representative Michael Conaway, the Texas Republican who is leading the investigation, said committee Republicans agreed with the conclusions of American intelligence agencies that Russia had interfered with the election, but they broke with the agencies on one crucial point: that the Russians had favored Trump’s candidacy.

“The bottom line: The Russians did commit active measures against our election in ’16, and we think they will do that in the future,” Conaway said. But, he added, “We disagree with the narrative that they were trying to help Trump.”

“We found no evidence of collusion. We found perhaps some bad judgment, inappropriate meetings,” Conaway added. “But only Tom Clancy or Vince Flynn or someone else like that could take this series of inadvertent contacts with each other, or meetings, whatever, and weave that into a some sort of fictional page-turner spy thriller.”

In a statement on Monday evening, Representative Adam Schiff of California, the top Democrat on the committee, lamented the decision, saying that the committee had put partisan politics over fulsome fact-finding and had failed to serve American voters at a key moment in history. “By ending its oversight role in the only authorized investigation in the House, the majority has placed the interests of protecting the president over protecting the country,” he said. “And history will judge its actions harshly.”

Conaway said the committee would turn over a 150-page draft report to Democrats on Tuesday for review and comment. Politico, New York Times, Wall Street Journal

Two lawyers who have represented accused Cole bomber Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri  are contesting the government’s portrayal of the events surrounding their team’s discovery of a hidden microphone in the room where they regularly met with their client.

In a newly declassified account formally disclosed on Monday, the government acknowledged that the defense team found a microphone in the room in August. But the government statement played down the discovery, saying that the microphone was only a “legacy” device left over from when that room had been used for interrogations, and was “not in use and not connected to any audio listening/recording device” when the lawyers met with their client there.

The two defense lawyers, however, said that account was missing several key details. There was no sign, they said, that the microphone was no longer connected to a listening or recording device somewhere else in the facility. And, they said, the government had never previously put forward that explanation in the five-month fight. New York Times

Austin police said Monday that they believe three packages that exploded at homes and killed two people are connected, raising fears that a bomber is on the loose in a city hosting tens of thousands of people for the world-renowned SXSW music and technology festival.

Authorities said it was too early to say what motivated the attacks and did not rule out the possibility of a hate crime. The two people killed in the explosions — a teenage boy and a 39-year-old man — were black, and a 75-year-old Hispanic woman was seriously injured.

The first explosion occurred March 2, when a package on the front porch of a northeast Austin home exploded and killed the man. At the time, police said his death was “suspicious.” Washington Post, CBS News, NBC News

Stone claimed contact with Assange: The Washington Post reports that Roger Stone learned from Julian Assange in spring 2016 that Wikileaks had obtained emails that would create problems for Democrats and the Clinton camp before that fact became public, according to a person who spoke with Stone at the time. Washington Post

Trump blocks Broadcom-Qualcomm deal on national security grounds: President Trump on Monday blocked Singapore-based Broadcom’s $117 billion bid for the chip maker Qualcomm, citing national security concerns and sending a clear signal that he was willing to take extraordinary measures to promote his administration’s increasingly protectionist stance. New York Times, Los Angeles Times

Terror suspect competent for Chicago bomb trial: A terrorism suspect accused of trying to set off a bomb at a bar in downtown Chicago is competent to stand trial after receiving a year and a half of psychiatric treatment, a federal judge ruled Monday. Government and defense attorneys told U.S. District Judge Sharon Coleman on Monday afternoon that they agree terror suspect Adel Daoud can now stand trial, a year and a half after he was sent to a federal mental institution for treatment. Courthouse News

Qataris opted not to give info on Kushner to Mueller: Qatari officials have reportedly gathered evidence of what they claim is illicit influence by the United Arab Emirates on Jared Kushner and other Trump associates, including details of secret meetings, but decided not to give the information to special counsel Robert Mueller for fear of harming relations with the Trump administration. NBC News


Seventeen years after the U.S. vowed that Afghanistan would never again provide “safe haven” to terrorist groups, U.S. officials are reportedly bracing for just that. With the war against ISIS  in its twilight, U.S. officials are tracking foreign fighters veering to provinces in Afghanistan’s north and east. Meanwhile, Al Qaeda remains a persistent and deadly threat across the country, a senior American general told senators last week. And a report published in November by the Institute for the Study of War flatly stated that Afghanistan is “a safe haven for terrorist plots against the U.S. homeland.” New York Times
Washington Post: Mattis Arrives in Afghanistan, Discusses Reconciliation with Taliban
Bloomberg editorial: Afghanistan’s President Puts Peace on the Table

The Syrian government and its allies have managed to split the rebel enclave of eastern Ghouta, on the outskirts of Damascus, into three blocs, each surrounded and besieged.

The fracturing of the enclave, one of the last major rebel-controlled areas in Syria, could be a turning point after three weeks of a relentless scorched-earth campaign by pro-government forces, backed by heavy Russian airstrikes. In the pivotal battle for the northern city of Aleppo a year and a half ago, a government advance that divided the rebel-held pocket in two signaled the beginning of the end for insurgents.

On Monday, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, warned that the United States is “prepared to act if we must” to stop indiscriminate bombing of civilians in Syria. New York Times, Washington Post

Turkish forces encircle Afrin: The Turkish military says it has surrounded the Kurdish-held city of Afrin in northern Syria, the focus of an offensive against a Kurdish militia. BBC News

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said on Monday that Washington was considering lifting a travel ban on Chad, offering an olive branch to an ally in the fight against Islamist militant groups in West Africa.

Tillerson said Chad had taken important steps to strengthen control over its security and passports.“These steps I think are going to allow us to begin to normalise the travel relationship with Chad,” he told reporters. A report on Chad’s progress was being prepared in Washington and would be reviewed by Trump next month, Tillerson said.“We have to wait for the final report,” he added.

Chadian President Idriss Deby “expressed his incomprehension” about his country’s inclusion in the travel ban during a meeting with Tillerson on Monday, Foreign Minister Cherif Mahamat Zene said.

Tillerson flew to Nigeria after Chad for a stay of just a few hours, less than the overnight visit originally planned. His entourage said he had been forced to cut short a 5-nation African tour on Monday to return to deal with urgent work in Washington, including last week’s tariff announcement and Trump’s decision to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. Reuters


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

Center on National Security
Fordham University School of Law
150 W. 62nd St. 7th Floor
New York, NY 10023 US
Copyright © 2018 Center on National Security, All rights reserved.