The Soufan Group Morning Brief


Tuesday, March 20, 2018

'Serial Bomber' Suspected in Austin Attacks

A growing sense of alarm spread across Texas’ capital city Monday as the authorities confirmed that a new makeshift bomb that injured two people in southwest Austin on Sunday appeared connected to three earlier explosions, but suggested a “higher level of sophistication” with the use of a tripwire triggering device.

“We are clearly dealing with what we expect to be a serial bomber at this point,” Brian Manley, Austin’s interim police chief, told reporters as parts of Travis Country, where the latest bombing occurred, were put on lockdown yesterday.

The four attacks have now left two people dead and four others wounded. The three original attacks, which began March 2, featured simple package bombs triggered when victims interacted with the devices; the two men injured in Sunday evening’s attack appear to have triggered a tripwire. Law enforcement officials said they fear the bomber intentionally changed methods to undermine more than a week’s worth of pleas from police for residents to be cautious of packages outside their homes.

An explosion overnight inside a FedEx facility in Schertz, Texas, could be connected to the four Austin bombings, FBI San Antonio spokeswoman Michelle Lee said. “We suspect it is related to our investigation,” Lee said. No injuries have been reported in the explosion at FedEx. New York Times, Austin American-Statesman, CNN


We ignore these Iraq war lessons at our peril: “On March 20, 15 years ago, the United States invaded Iraq,” writes Jeremy Suri in “We should not regret Saddam's overthrow, but we must also recognize the war did not bring the promised benefits for the United States. Simply put, we should resolve not to repeat the mistakes of the past.”

Fifteen years ago, America destroyed my country: “The pundits and ‘experts’ who sold us the war still go on doing what they do,” said Sinan Antoon in the New York Times. “I never thought that Iraq could ever be worse than it was during Saddam’s reign, but that is what America’s war achieved and bequeathed to Iraqis.”

How Russia meddled in its own elections: “Vladimir Putin, Russia’s longest-serving ruler since Joseph Stalin, surprised no one with his landslide re-election on Sunday,” said Alina Polyakova in The Atlantic. “But even more important for Putin is that this election marked the culmination of his nearly two-decades-long project to control information in Russia and manipulate Russian society. Now, Putin has proven beyond any doubt that the Russia he has built is his and his alone.”

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President Donald Trump is expected to meet Tuesday with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office, where the two leaders are expected to focus on combating Iran’s influence in the Middle East and strengthening ties between their two countries.

But the Senate could vote as soon as Tuesday on a bipartisan resolution that seeks to cut off U.S. military support for Saudi Arabia’s military campaign in Yemen, and the debate could cast a cloud over Prince Mohammed’s Washington visit. Wall Street Journal
Washington Post: How Jared Kushner Forged a Bond with the Saudi Crown Prince
NBC News: Saudi Crown Prince: If Iran Makes a Nuclear Bomb, So Will We

The wife of the Pulse nightclub shooter in Orlando told FBI investigators she knew beforehand that he was going to do something violent.

“I wish I had done the right thing but my fear held me back. I wish I had been more truthful,” Noor Salman, wife of Omar Mateen, wrote in a statement to the FBI that was shown to the court on Monday.

That statement, and two others taken in the wake of the Pulse massacre, were shown to the court on Monday as part of Salman’s trial in Florida. Salman, 31, is charged with providing material support to a foreign terrorist organization and obstruction of justice for allegedly misleading law enforcement agents in their investigation of the massacre.

Salman has pleaded not guilty to the charges. In opening statements, defense attorney Linda Moreno cast Salman as a "simple young mother" with a low IQ. Salman was a victim of Mateen's abuse and infidelity and of the FBI's coercive investigators, Moreno argued. CNN, NPR

Three militia members go on trial Tuesday for plotting to bomb Somali immigrants working in the Kansas Meatpacking Triangle, a constellation of minority-majority, hardscrabble pioneer towns, that depend on foreign labor. Somali immigrants have all but abandoned one town in the year since, despite civic and police efforts to reassure them that they're safe there. NPR

U.S. moving toward first Gitmo repatriation under Trump: The United States is advancing toward the first transfer of a prisoner from Guantanamo under President Trump, the U.S. military told Reuters on Monday, a move that would repatriate 43-year-old Ahmed Muhammed Haza al-Darbi to Saudi Arabia. Reuters

Susan Pompeo, ‘first lady of the CIA’: Susan Pompeo, the wife of CIA Director Mike Pompeo, has taken an unusually active and prominent role at the organization, using office space on the seventh-floor headquarters in Langley, Va., and having a support staff of CIA employees assist her in her duties. Her presence at the agency has raised questions internally about the nature of her duties and why agency resources are being used to support her. Washington Post

Trump shakes up his legal team: President Trump shook up his legal team Monday by hiring Joe diGenova, a combative former prosecutor and longtime DC lawyer who has publicly argued that Trump is the target of an elaborate FBI conspiracy - catching many of his advisers by surprise. Washington Post

Tennessee man arrested after watching ISIS videos, trying to buy rifle: Federal authorities have arrested a Tennessee man accused of trying to buy a sniper rifle after researching ISIS and mass shootings online. USA Today

Mattis reportedly offers explanation for Gitmo firings: Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis reportedly submitted a three-page declaration Monday - the deadline - explaining why he fired the senior official in charge of the Guantanamo war court. But it was under seal, and defense lawyers who have seen it say it leaves them wanting to learn more. Carol Rosenberg on Twitter


Military chiefs from the United States and South Korea announced plans Tuesday to resume the annual military exercises that were delayed by the Winter Olympics.

The resumption of the drills, known as Foal Eagle and Key Resolve, had been a subject of speculation in recent weeks amid the post-Olympics diplomacy between North and South Korea.

They are now scheduled to begin on April 1, according to a Pentagon statement noting an agreement between Defense Secretary James Mattis and his South Korean counterpart, Song Young-moo. The Pentagon said the exercises, which have angered the North in the past, would proceed at a "scale similar" to previous years. Los Angeles Times
Washington Post: No Location, No Agenda: Trump Administration Scrambles for North Korea Talks

For weeks, the international news media have been filled with horrifying images from Syria: wounded children being treated in makeshift hospitals; lines of dead bodies wrapped in white shrouds; throngs of refugees fleeing the Syrian government’s military offensive in eastern Ghouta, a rebel-held suburb of Damascus.

This week, the government hit back with a series of videos showing President Bashar al Assad visiting the area to congratulate his forces and shake hands with cheering residents, some of whom held up their children so he could kiss them on the cheek. “You are the sons of our country,” he said in one video. “We will protect all the people of Ghouta.” New York Times

Trump attacks Iranian government in Nowruz holiday message: President Trump used the annual presidential statement marking the Persian holiday of Nowruz to criticize Iran’s government and military leaders with sharp-tongued language rarely before seen in a celebratory presidential message. Bloomberg

India confirms death of 39 men kidnapped by ISIS in 2014: India says 39 of its citizens who were working in India as construction workers and kidnapped by ISIS in Iraq in 2014 have been confirmed dead after their remains were tested in Baghdad. Guardian

Executives at Cambridge Analytica, a data firm that worked for President Trump’s 2016 campaign, advertised campaign tactics—such as entrapping political opponents with bribes and sex—in a sales pitch captured by undercover journalists at British broadcaster Channel 4.

In a series of meetings between November and January with Cambridge Analytica Chief Executive Alexander Nix and Mark Turnbull, the managing director of the company’s international political operation, a Channel 4 reporter posed as a “fixer” for a client seeking to elect candidates in Sri Lanka,
according to a video the broadcaster released Monday.

In the video, Nix and Turnbull touted the company’s ability to hide its involvement in elections and described what they said were previous tactics they had undertaken to damage the political opponents of their clients.

Nix outlined the type of work he said his firm had conducted in the past. One type of operation, Nix said, was to send women to seduce a politician and set up hidden cameras. “We could bring some Ukrainians in on holiday with us you know, you know what I’m saying,” he said. “I find that works very well.”

In a statement Monday, Cambridge Analytica, which was founded by Stephen K. Bannon and Robert Mercer, a wealthy Republican donor, called the video “edited and scripted to grossly misrepresent the nature” of the conversations. The statement said the two company executives were seeking to “tease out any unethical or illegal intentions” and that they left the meeting with “grave concerns.”
Washington Post, New York Times, Wall Street Journal

Norwegian minister faces no-confidence vote after terrorism post: A social media post by Norway’s justice minister accusing the opposition Labour party of putting terrorists’ rights above national security has triggered a no-confidence vote in her that could bring down the country’s minority government. “Labour thinks the rights of terrorists are more important than the nation’s security. Like and share,” Sylvi Listhaug, of the populist, anti-immigration Progress party, wrote on 9 March beneath a photo of masked Islamist fighters dressed in combat fatigues, black scarves and ammunition belts. She has since deleted it. Guardian


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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