The Soufan Group Morning Brief


Thursday, March 22, 2018

Israel Admits Striking Syrian Nuclear Reactor in 2007

Israel acknowledged on Wednesday that it destroyed a nuclear reactor in the Deir Ezzor region in eastern Syria in 2007, ending its silence over a covert operation code-named Outside the Box. The Israeli army released a trove of newly declassified material from the 2007 attack, including what appeared to be video from the cockpit at the moment Israeli jets bombed the Al-Kubar reactor. Accounts of the strike appeared long ago in international news media, and former President George W. Bush wrote of the strike in a memoir published in 2010. But Israel had barred the Israeli media from reporting on the operation until now.

Israel described the 2007 strike as a warning for Iran, as some Iranian officials have said Tehran could pull out of the 2015 nuclear deal that limits Iran’s nuclear enrichment program. Israeli Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz wrote on Twitter that the strike “sends a clear message: Israel will never allow nuclear weapons to countries like Iran who threaten its existence.”

In recent months, Israel has amplified criticism of Iranian attempts to set up military bases in Syria, warning it would counter any attempts by Tehran and its allies to strengthen their presence on Israel’s border with Syria. Tensions escalated in February after Israel’s military said one of its jets was shot down by anti-aircraft missiles during strikes on Syrian targets after Israel said it intercepted an Iranian drone launched from Syria that had infiltrated its airspace. CNN, New York Times, Wall Street Journal


How the U.S. can play cyber-offense: “In seeking merely to deter enemies, the United States finds itself constantly on the back foot,” Michael Sulmeyer writes in Foreign Affairs. “Instead, the United States should be pursuing a more active cyber policy, one aimed not at deterring enemies but at disrupting their capabilities. In cyberwarfare, Washington should recognize that the best defense is a good offense.”

The Saudi war in Yemen is strengthening terrorism: “As we should have learned in Afghanistan and Iraq, neither we nor Saudi Arabia can bomb our way to victory,” Paul R. Pillar writes in Just Security. “Extremists prosper in ungoverned spaces and amid war’s misery and deprivation.  As long as the Yemen war drags on, civilians will suffer and the terrorist threat to the United States will increase.  The collapse of government institutions amid three years of war has created openings for AQAP and ISIS to recruit and even to control territory.”

Why the FBI appears politicized, and what to do about it: “A set of rules should be adopted that governs how the FBI addresses any scenario in which it might affect the electorate’s independence of thought. These rules should permit limited investigative steps while maintaining the FBI’s ability to preserve evidence of a crime. Most important is that these rules be publicized to prevent any future charges of partisanship,” James S. Davidson writes in The Hill. “Adopting such guidance would protect the thousands of FBI investigations across the country that have nothing to do with politics, but which now are hampered by the perception of bias.”

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Noor Salman and her husband, Omar Mateen, exchanged text messages during his attack at the Pulse nightclub in June 2016, jurors in Salman’s trial were shown Wednesday morning. Salman is on trial in federal court for aiding and abetting her husband and with obstruction of justice for lying to federal agents.

At 4:27 a.m., during a standoff with police more than two hours after Mateen first opened fire inside the Orlando club, Salman texted Mateen, twice asking, “where are you?” The exchange happened about the time that police called her at the couple's home in Fort Pierce, Florida., asking her to leave their apartment. In response to messages from Salman that she was worried, Mateen responded, “You heard what happened.” In his last message at 4:29 a.m., he wrote, “I love you babe.”

Earlier on Wednesday, the jury in Salman’s trial saw records of Mateen's expansive online research prior to the attack at Pulse, including searches for ISIS, violence in the Middle East, other acts of terrorism, and places to access guns. Kim Rosecrans, an information technology specialist with the FBI, testified about dozens of searches on Mateen’s smartphone in May and June related to ISIS. LA Times, CBS News
Orlando Sentinel: Pulse Gunman Omar Mateen’s Mother Testifies in Widow’s Trial — ‘I Wish I Knew’

Former CIA Director John Brennan suggested on Wednesday that President Donald Trump could be withholding criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin because the Russians “may have something on him personally.” In an interview with MSNBC’s “Morning Joe,” Brennan said, “I think he is afraid of the President of Russia.” The comments after Trump reportedly disregarded a warning from his national security advisors against congratulating Putin on his reelection. “The Russians, I think, have had long experience with Mr. Trump, and may have things that they could expose,” he said.

Later on Wednesday, Brennan explained that his comments were speculation based on Trump’s words and deeds, as well as how Putin’s government has operated at home and abroad, and not any inside knowledge. “I do not know if the Russians have something on Donald Trump that they could use as blackmail,” he said in a written response to questions from The New York Times. New York Times, CNN

The lack of a verifiable way to audit election results in some states represents a “national security concern,” Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen said on Wednesday, signaling concern ahead of midterm elections in November. DHS is prioritizing election cyber security above all other critical infrastructure the department protects, she told the Senate Intelligence Committee.

The hearing on Wednesday to examine the Trump administration’s efforts to improve election security came after U.S. intelligence officials’ repeated warnings that Russia will attempt to meddle in the 2018 contests. Nielsen endorsed paper ballot backups for electronic voting systems as an important safeguard in ensuring that tabulated election results are not tampered with. She said that more than half of U.S. states have signed up for the agency’s cyber scanning services designed to detect potential weaknesses that could be targeted by hackers. Reuters

The FBI investigated Attorney General Jeff Sessions for possible perjury last year over congressional testimony in which he said he had no contacts with Russians, according to people familiar with the case. Sessions later acknowledged that had personally met the Russian ambassador to the U.S. during the campaign and was aware that Trump campaign advisor George Papadopoulos had developed Russian ties. Andrew McCabe, the former FBI Deputy Director who was recently fired by Sessions for showing a “lack of candor,” reportedly authorized the investigation after Congress asked the FBI to investigate Sessions last March. New York Times, ABC News

A cooperating witness in Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation worked for more than a year to turn a top Trump fundraiser into an instrument of influence at the White House for Saudi Arabia and the UAE, according to interviews and previously undisclosed documents. Hundreds of pages of correspondence between George Nader, a political adviser to the UAE, and Elliott Broidy, the deputy finance chairman of the Republican National Committee, reveal an active effort to cultivate President Trump on behalf of the two Arab monarchies. Nader’s cultivation of Broidy, laid out in documents provided to The New York Times, demonstrates how the two monarchies have sought to gain influence inside the Trump White House. New York Times

House probe overlooked most Trump-Russia contacts, report claims: The final report from the Republican-led House Intelligence Committee Russia investigation finds no evidence of collusion between the Trump presidential campaign and Russia. However, a new study by the Center for American Progress suggests the committee didn’t look very hard. According to the study, the House committee obtained either no or incomplete information about 81 percent of the known contacts between Trump officials and Russians. The report comes as the committee is due to vote Thursday on its final report and effectively end its investigation. NBC News

US anti-terror training abroad includes K-9, cyber security: The State Department's Anti-Terrorism Assistance program has allocated $300 million this year to train and equip domestic security forces in partner nations — so far 21 out of a pool of 56 countries. In Jordan, this includes training more explosives-sniffing dogs for airport duty, focusing on the departure gates of U.S. bound flights, and setting up cyber security training for local law enforcement agencies. Retired U.S. law enforcement officers mentoring Jordanian counterparts said the local facilities are largely on par with those in the U.S. Associated Press


The Syrian government moved closer to ending rebel resistance in eastern Ghouta as civilians fled one of its besieged towns on Thursday and insurgents prepared to surrender another. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said more than 4,000 people had fled the rebel-held town of Douma since Wednesday, crossing over into government-held territory. Meanwhile, a witness told Reuters that 15 buses had driven into the town of Harasta to transport fighters and their families to opposition areas in northwestern Syria in a deal brokered by the Assad government’s ally, Russia. The decision by the group Ahrar al-Sham to surrender Harsata leaves only Douma and another rebel pocket in eastern Ghouta in rebel control. Reuters

Top Russian and U.S. generals discuss Syria: America's top military officer, Gen. Joseph Dunford, spoke with his Russian counterpart Gen. Valery Gerasimov on Wednesday, the second such conversation in less than two weeks. “The conversation focused on Syria and other issues of mutual concern,” U.S. Air Force Col. Patrick Ryder, a spokesman for Dunford, said. The calls come as the U.S.-led coalition fighting ISIS has observed pro-Syrian regime forces, including Russian private military contractors, conducting a slow build-up east of the Euphrates River near where U.S. troops are presently advising local allies. CNN

U.S. strike in Somalia kills 2 Al Shabaab extremists: U.S. Africa Command said it killed two extremists in an airstrike in Somalia on Monday. The U.S. has carried out over 30 drone strikes against al-Shabaab since the Trump administration approved expanded military efforts against the group a year ago. Associated Press

ISIS has lost most of the territory it once held in Syria and Iraq, but Western authorities have long worried that some of the estimated 5,000 EU residents who fought for the terror group could come back and initiate terrorist attacks at home. Of the 1,700 French citizens who joined ISIS, 302 had returned to France by November, according to the government. Around 360 of Britain’s roughly 850 fighters are back home, according to a British official. So far, the worries have been largely unrealized. But an emerging concern is that returning fighters could also raise money to help ISIS replenish its depleted coffers and potentially fund terrorist attacks by others.
Wall Street Journal

Chief executive of Facebook Mark Zuckerberg said Wednesday that he was taking action to prevent users’ data on the social network from being harvested, and laid out several steps the company was taking to address the issue.The statement was the first time Zuckerberg has spoken out since The New York Times reported over the weekend that Cambridge Analytica, a political consulting firm that provided voter-targeting services to President Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, improperly obtained data on 50 million Facebook users.

Politicians in the U.S. and Britain have called for Zuckerberg to explain his company’s handling of user data, and state attorneys general in Massachusetts and New York have begun investigating Cambridge Analytica and Facebook. Zuckerberg said Facebook is “working with regulators” conducting investigations into Cambridge Analytica.
New York Times, CNN, BBC News
Associated Press: Kenya Opposition Probes Cambridge Analytica’s Election Role

Saudi Arabia says revamping education to combat extremist ideologies: Saudi Arabia is revamping its education curriculum to eradicate any trace of Muslim Brotherhood influence and will dismiss anyone working in the sector who sympathizes with the banned group, the education minister said. Earlier this month, Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman told CBS in an interview that Saudi schools had been “invaded” by elements of the Muslim Brotherhood.

South Korean President hints at three-way talks with U.S., North Korea: South Korean President Moon Jae-in suggested the possibility of a three-way meeting between the U.S., North Korea, and South Korea, if a series of upcoming summits is successful. Speaking after a meeting of the Inter-Korean Summit Preparatory Committee on Wednesday, Moon said negotiations were continuing ahead of “historic talks” planned for next month with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. Moon’s meeting with Kim would mark the first time North Korean leader has publicly met with a foreign head of state. CNN, New York Times


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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