Fdd's overnight brief

April 2, 2019

In The News


Iran, which is accused of launching state-sponsored cyber espionage attacks against the Middle East in the past, continues to be a major threat to businesses and government institutions across the region in 2019. – The National

Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif accused the United States of impeding aid efforts and “economic terrorism” on Monday as authorities ordered the immediate evacuation of flood-stricken cities in western Iran. – Agence France-Presse

The U.S. government is considering additional sanctions against Iran that would target areas of its economy that have not been hit before, a senior Trump administration official told reporters on Monday. – Reuters

The balance between supply and demand in the oil market is fragile, Iranian Oil Minister Bijan Zanganeh said on Monday, as he called on crude producers to be wary of troubles caused by US sanctions. Oil prices are being supported by US sanctions on Iran and Venezuela along with voluntary supply cuts by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries and other major producers. – Reuters


An international aid group says 31 deaths were recorded in the final week of March among people making their way out of the last sliver of territory held by the Islamic State group and toward a camp for the displaced. – Associated Press

The last ISIS fighters have been routed in Baghouz, the town they once held on the Euphrates River that was liberated by the Syrian Democratic Forces in late March with support from the US-led anti-ISIS coalition. Now the coalition is transitioning to focus on the “enduring defeat” of ISIS according to Col. James Rawlinson, director of Public Affairs for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR). – Jerusalem Post

There’s a saying in Arabic: Learning while young is like carving in stone. (It rhymes in the original.) The saying has come to the fore as authorities begin efforts to reeducate about 25,000 school-age children being held in Al Hol, the desolate internment camp on the edge of eastern Syria for members of Islamic State’s so-called caliphate and refugees from the communities the militant group controlled in Syria and Iraq. – LA Times

Joseph V. Micallef writes: The situation in Syria remains fluid. The future of the Islamic State unknown. The issue of a semi-autonomous Kurdish state is still to be resolved. One thing is certain; however, the Islamic State is not going away. Its continuing actions and the legacy of its rule will continue to haunt the region for the foreseeable future. – Military.com


The U.S. is suspending delivery of support equipment and supplies to Turkey for F-35 jet fighters because of Ankara’s pursuit of a Russian antiaircraft system over repeated U.S. objections, the Pentagon announced Monday. – Wall Street Journal

While Turkey is a NATO ally, it has hardly been acting like one. Indeed, one would not expect an ally to purchase an air defense system from Russia, the preeminent military threat to the alliance. Yet, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan recently reaffirmed plans to purchase the S-400 from Moscow. This raises serious questions about Turkey’s commitment to the NATO alliance and gives Russia an extraordinary opportunity to compromise the F-35, a mainstay of U.S. and allied combat aviation forces going forward. – Breaking Defense

Gonul Tol writes: The stakes are high for President Erdogan. Sunday’s elections marked the first ballot-box test for him since he became the country’s first executive president with sweeping new powers. He led an aggressive campaign, accusing opposition parties of links to terrorism and blaming inflation on foreign powers seeking to undermine the country. But the electorate sent him a clear message: drop the aggressive rhetoric and deal with the economy. – Middle East Institute


Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, accompanied by Israel’s prime minister, visited Jerusalem’s Western Wall on Monday as the Palestinians considered recalling their ambassador in Brasilia over a new trade mission to Israel in the holy city. – Reuters

President Trump wants an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan “that the Palestinians think is equitable,” according to a U.S. official, notwithstanding his close relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “The notion that we’re going to impose the Bibi plan on the Palestinians is a non-starter — it wouldn’t work,” a senior administration official told reporters Monday, using Netanyahu’s nickname. “If that was our intent, we would have done it 18 months ago.” – Washington Examiner

Following the March 17, 2019 terror attack near the town of Salfit in the West Bank, in which two Israelis were killed, the Qatari press lavished praise on the attacker, ‘Omar Abu Laila, who was later killed in a shootout with Israeli forces that came to arrest him. Calling him “a legendary hero” and “a teacher for the future generations,” the articles expressed support for terror and armed operations as means of struggle against Israel. They also praised Abu Laila’s willingness to sacrifice his life, stressing that martyrdom for the sake of Palestine is a commendable act. – Middle East Media Research Institute

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has agreed to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow this week, just days ahead of an Israeli general election, following a telephone conversation between the two leaders. – Arutz Sheva

Israel opened an embassy in the Rwandan capital of Kigali on Monday. The embassy “symbolizes the policy of Israel’s return to Africa,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement, noting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had visited the continent four times in the past three years. – Algemeiner

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin met with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Ottawa on Monday, and urged international solidarity against Iran. “Iran is leading the establishment of a Shi’ite axis in Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, and its actions are exacerbating Sunni-Shi’ite tensions,” Rivlin said. “This could lead to regional escalation and threaten the whole world.” – Algemeiner

Editorial: There’s no doubt that Netanyahu, exactly a week ahead of the election, would have preferred to have been able to boast of another embassy opening in Jerusalem yesterday. But Bolsonaro has reportedly come under pressure particularly in the agricultural sector, which fears that the embassy relocation could harm sales of halal meat to Arab countries. In addition, the Arab League warned that moving the embassy would have an adverse effect. In this light, Bolsonaro’s opening of the Jerusalem representative office is to be welcomed as a brave step in the right direction. […]Brazil is probably the most important country in South America and its influence there should not be underestimated. – Jerusalem Post

Arabian Peninsula

Lockheed Martin Corp was awarded a $2.4 billion Pentagon contract on Monday for THAAD interceptor missiles, some of which are slated to be delivered to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. – Reuters

Last week, the U.S. carried out its first airstrikes in Yemen in nearly three months, striking targets associated with a local al Qaeda affiliate there. – Washington Examiner

Fred Ryan writes: Each day that Trump allows the Saudis to avoid accountability, the more tyrants around the world come to believe that they, too, can kill with impunity. Congress must continue to do everything in its power to hold Khashoggi’s killers responsible. Administration officials should look at shocking evidence that reinforces the conclusions of our intelligence agencies. And Trump must, at minimum, obey the law — and produce the findings that the Magnitsky Act requires. – Washington Post

Middle East & North Africa

Ms. Corley has decided to go public with her cause, hoping to stop a $1 billion U.S. sale of 10 more Apache helicopters, a deal announced in late 2018, until the Egyptian government agrees to compensation to cover her soaring medical bills. […]Ms. Corley is pressing her case amid heightened congressional scrutiny of American support for its Arab military allies. Congress recently voted to cut support to the Saudi Arabia-led coalition fighting in Yemen, where more than 10,000 people have died. – Wall Street Journal

Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi called for the “two-state solution” for the Israel-Palestinian Arab conflict in his speech at the Arab League summit held in Tunis on Sunday. – Arutz Sheva

The ISIS territorial “caliphate” may have crumbled, but the terror group’s heart beats on for at least as long as its illusory leader evades capture or death — and Iraqi intelligence officials insist Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, 47, is alive and in hiding. – Fox News

Tom Rogan writes: Iraqi safe houses are almost certainly preferable for ISIS than those in Syria. In the latter case, the loss of ISIS territory means that ISIS strongholds from Raqqah to the eastern border with Iraq are now saturated with pro-U.S. Kurdish and Arab forces. […]wherever Baghdadi is, we can confidently assess three things. First, that Baghdadi will keep releasing audio tapes inspiring his fighters to new action. Second, that ISIS will continue threatening regional and Western security. Third, that skilled U.S. and allied intelligence services mean he will eventually be caught. – Washington Examiner

Jim Hanson writes: Foreign influence in the United States is a major problem, but it might surprise you to find out just who some of the biggest players are. You would certainly think of Russia given the massive coverage of their attempts to influence the 2016 US election. But one name you probably haven’t heard is Qatar, a small country in the Middle East which wields an outsized influence through a large and well-funded operation. – Jerusalem Post

Korean Peninsula

South Korean President Moon Jae-in said on Monday he hopes North Korea responds positively when he meets U.S. President Donald Trump this month as part of efforts to restart denuclearization talks with the North. – Reuters

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo voiced hope that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump will meet again “in the coming months” and make significant headway on ending Pyongyang’s nuclear program. In an interview broadcast Monday, the top US diplomat cautioned it was difficult to know the timing of a third US-North Korea summit but said: “It’s in America’s best interest to resolve this as quickly as we can.” – Agence France-Presse

Anastasia Barannikova writes: While intended as a tool for undermining Kim Jong-un’s regime, another unexpected consequence of sanctions has been to consolidate his power. As in many countries, Kim Jong-un’s legitimacy derives in part from his role in defending the nation from an external enemy. The stronger the perceived external threat, the stronger the cohesion of North Korean society and elites. Even competing factions of North Korean political elites tend to unite if they perceive a real threat to the regime’s survival, which they equate with their own survival. – Center for Strategic and International Studies


U.S. national security officials are planning for a future in which the Chinese firm Huawei will have a major share of the advanced global telecommunications market, and have begun to think about how to thwart potential espionage and disruptive cyberattacks enabled by interconnected networks. – Washington Post

Search for Sheng Xue on Google in English and you will find the story of an award-winning writer who left China for Canada after the Tiananmen Square uprising and became one of the world’s leading advocates for Chinese democracy.[…] As China extends its influence around the globe, it has mastered the art of soft power, establishing Confucius Institutes on Western college campuses and funding  ports and power plants in developing countries. – New York Times

China said Monday that it will tighten regulation of fentanyl-related substances as a gesture to the United States, where the synthetic opioid has caused tens of thousands of overdose deaths annually and fueled a public health crisis. – Washington Post

A fugitive billionaire has launched a legal challenge against proposed changes to Hong Kong’s extradition law that would allow suspects to be handed over to other Chinese jurisdictions. […]On Friday, the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, a business group representing hundreds of businesses in the city, said that it continues to have serious concerns about the revised proposal. – Wall Street Journal

Diplomats and activists on Monday denounced intense Chinese lobbying, pressure and even threats to rein in criticism of Beijing during last month’s session of the UN Human Rights Council. – Agence France-Presse

President Xi Jinping called upon New Zealand on Monday not to discriminate against Chinese companies during a meeting with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, whose country has rejected a bid by Chinese telecom giant Huawei to build a 5G mobile network. – Reuters

Tokyo sees China’s recent retreat from heavy-handed international lending practices as an opening that can enhance Indo-Pacific security and bolster its vision of making it a free and open trading region, a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official said Friday. – USNI News

Editorial: The Chinese may hope Sunday’s escalation will convince Washington that its support for Taiwan’s democracy isn’t worth the risks. This strategy has worked for decades to convince American Presidents not to sell fighters to Taiwan, and the island’s forces are now heavily outnumbered. – Wall Street Journal

Tom Rogan writes: The U.S. military is battle hardened, and the Chinese military is not. We also find increasing support for our Indo-Pacific strategy (thanks, Jim Mattis) from Britain and other close allies. China is also not-so-cleverly pushing the world’s most populous democracy, India, closer to America. But Davidson’s words demand action. On our current course, if America is forced to fight China next week, there is a very real possibility we’ll run out of weapons, and find ourselves unable to maximize our submarine warfare advantage. Trump likes to win. This ain’t winning. – Washington Examiner

Tom Rogan writes: If China continues to erode Taiwanese democracy, Taiwan will eventually find itself a puppet state to the Communist giant. But if Trump overplays his hand, Xi Jinping may feel he has to resolve the issue with force. A mix of caution and confidence is required from the White House. –  Washington Examiner

South Asia

Pakistan and India traded fire in the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir, leaving seven people dead — three Pakistani soldiers, a Pakistani villager, an Indian woman and a girl and a member of the Indian paramilitary troops, officials said Tuesday. – Associated Press

Nasa has called India’s destruction of a satellite a “terrible thing” that could threaten the International Space Station (ISS). – BBC

Fighting in Afghanistan has escalated ahead of the usual spring season, as both sides seek to increase leverage in talks on a peace settlement – a gamble that analysts warn could also risk hardening positions. – Reuters

During a lull in Afghanistan’s never-ending war, before the fighting season resumes once again in the spring, Taliban fighters recall laying down their Kalashnikovs and, for a brief moment, enjoying a game of cricket. – Reuters


The demise of the only U.S.-Russia arms control pact limiting deployed nuclear weapons would make it harder for each to gauge the other’s intentions, giving both incentives to expand their arsenals, according to a study released on Monday. – Reuters

Cheap and rugged, the Kalashnikov AK-47 made assault rifles ubiquitous in the world’s trouble spots. Now the famed Russian weapons designer is offering a smallish drone that it says can crash its 3-kilogram warhead into a target more than 40 kilometers away. If the new drone is anything like the AK-47, it heralds the dawn of a new era of warfare with global ramifications. – Defense One

Dmitriy Frolovskiy writes: Even if the Saudi-led blockade of Qatar were to be lifted tomorrow, the underlying tensions between the GCC and Doha will endure – and will mean that the emirate will continue to bolster relations with other actors. Russia, as it happens, stands foremost among them. – Jerusalem Post


British lawmakers, who have earned a global reputation for voting no on everything Brexit, failed again to muster a majority Monday for any of four possible ways forward. They rejected two proposals for a “soft Brexit.” They also declined to back a second referendum or cancel Brexit. – Washington Post

In the political realm, no one knows how Brexit’s long-running theater of the absurd will end. But for much of the business world, Britain’s departure from the European Union has effectively happened. – New York Times

Former British Labour Prime Minister Gordon Brown has joined the Jewish Labour Movement in an act of solidarity with the Jewish community, denouncing his own party for allowing the “demonization of the entire Jewish people.” – Algemeiner

Germany must honour its own promises on defence spending, NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg insisted Monday, as the alliance prepares to mark its 70th anniversary amid unprecedented tensions with Washington. – Agence France-Presse

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker stepped up his criticism of Chinese trade practices just days after President Xi Jinping sought to soothe European concerns in Paris. – Bloomberg

Editorial: The good news after Sunday’s Ukrainian presidential election is that voters had plenty of choices and reaffirmed their desire to join the West. The runoff is a chance to have an actual contest of ideas. […]Russia wasn’t a major campaign issue, but expect Vladimir Putin to test whoever wins. Another challenge: Debt from the era of Russian puppet Viktor Yanukovych comes due this year, and Kiev will need to negotiate with the International Monetary Fund. – Wall Street Journal

Karlyn Bowman writes:  The pollsters have mostly ignored Trump’s criticisms of NATO and focused instead on Trump himself and his comments about NATO, rarely getting to the issues he has identified as problems. It is important to know how the American public reacts to him, of course, but it is also important to know about underlying attitudes toward the US support of our international commitments. Here the pollsters have fallen short. Given Americans’ support for the NATO alliance over 70 years, Americans will likely want to continue to maintain a strong relationship with NATO. Still, it would be useful to know how concerned Americans are about the nature and depth of our many and varied international commitments. – Forbes

Luke Coffey and Daniel Kochis write: Since its creation in 1949, NATO has done more to promote democracy, peace, economic prosperity, and security in Europe than any other multilateral organization, including the European Union. It is essential that the U.S. continue to be an active participant in the Alliance’s future and chart a course back to basics. – Heritage Foundation

Latin America

Until last week, U.S. officials held up El Salvador as proof that foreign aid could help curb migration. Then President Trump announced that he was withdrawing economic assistance to the Central American country and its neighbors Guatemala and Honduras. – Washington Post

The top Republican on the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee said on Monday that cutting aid to El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras would make the situation there worse, not better, a sign that President Donald Trump will face bipartisan objections in Congress as he pursues the plan. – Reuters

The fate of the estimated 50,000 Nicaraguans who’ve fled violence and persecution for exile in Costa Rica over the last year is a central point in fledgling peace talks between Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s government and the opposition, which is demanding guarantees for their safe return. – Associated Press


As the international community tries to comprehend how Maduro has, despite a collapsing economy and punishing U.S. sanctions, held onto power over these past couple months, the role played by Russia and China, key financial backers of his authoritarian regime, gets most of the attention. But Cuba and its cadre of operatives on the ground are crucial too, providing intelligence support that’s helped frustrate the bid by Juan Guaido — the opposition lawmaker recognized by more than 50 countries as Venezuela’s rightful leader — to topple Maduro and install a transitional government. – Bloomberg

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu says Turkey is giving Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro its continued support and intends to deepen cooperation with Venezuela “in all fields” despite U.S. pressure. – Associated Press

Dozens of Venezuelans who fled to Bolivia over recent months to escape economic and political unrest at home say they fear being deported from one of the few countries in the region that still supports the government of Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro. – Reuters


Facebook Inc. said it has taken down hundreds of pages and accounts that it said were working together to spread misleading content or spam ahead of elections in India set to begin April 11. – Wall Street Journal

Singapore plans to introduce tough new laws to hold online outlets accountable for the spread of fake news, joining countries around the world in putting pressure on companies like Facebook Inc. to address the issue. – Bloomberg

It’s not just the United States that has unique offensive cyber capabilities. In a March 27 speech, Mike Burgess, Australia’s director general of the Australia Signals Directorate, detailed how his government’s hackers conducted operations against ISIS in Syria to aid military ground forces as part of the global coalition to defeat the terrorist group. – Fifth Domain

A major cyber attack on Israel is expected to take place on Sunday, April 7. According to the Hebrew news site Mako, the attack will be a semi-organized international hacking assault, and has aroused particular concern because it comes two days before Israel’s general elections. – Algemeiner

A group of American hackers who once worked for U.S. intelligence agencies helped the United Arab Emirates spy on a BBC host, the chairman of Al Jazeera and other prominent Arab media figures during a tense 2017 confrontation pitting the UAE and its allies against the Gulf state of Qatar. – Reuters

Cy Vance Jr. and James P. O’Neill write: As our counterterrorism colleagues learned after 9/11, in cybersecurity the only way to protect the world from bad actors and evil networks is to connect good actors into virtuous networks. So in 2019 we’ll continue to expand our collective to better protect New York City, to make sure that a lack of coordination never undermines our public safety. – Wall Street Journal


The Navy’s mine countermeasures community brought all three legs of its triad together for a single experiment – aboard an allied ship – to see how well they could combine their gear and people to tackle a common threat. – USNI News

Naval forces forward-deployed in the Pacific took a big step in raising their warfighting proficiency, completing their first advanced training event hosted by the Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC). – USNI News

The U.S. Army’s new strategy to improve marksmanship will eliminate a shortcut that units use for individual weapon qualification — a long-standing practice that has eroded lethality over the years, infantry officials said. – Military.com

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency on Thursday announced it would begin funding research to reshape the way AI language systems like Alexa and Siri learn to speak. Instead of crunching gargantuan datasets to learn the ins and outs of language, the agency wants the tech to teach itself by observing the world like human babies do. – Defense One

The U.S. Department of Defense is making big bets on artificial intelligence – rolling out new strategies, partnerships, organizations, and budgets to develop the technology for military uses. But as DOD moves to harness this technology, its success may hinge in part on something that is not technical in nature: overcoming the massive gaps in trust around AI. – Defense One

Lifting an idea from the Army and a name from the Star Wars universe, the U.S. Navy is assembling a team of engineers, researchers, and even hackers to develop ways to fight off swarms of cheap commercial drones. – Defense One

The Army’s sustainment community is beginning to prepare for the challenges associated with the tactical network of the future. The Army is working to field its first capability set for what it is calling the integrated tactical network (ITN). The service’s new approach heavily relies on rapid and ongoing insertion of commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) systems. – C4ISRNET

With Lockheed’s fifth-generation F-35 and Boeing’s fourth-generation F-15X in a dogfight for budget dollars, a bipartisan group of 99 House lawmakers has called on colleagues to add 24 F-35s over President Donald Trump’s 2020 budget request, for a total of 102. – Defense News

Long War

German authorities decided to expel terrorist Rasmieh Yousef Odeh from the country following Israeli diplomatic activity. – Arutz Sheva

The Supreme Court on Monday turned away a bid by family members of 17 U.S. sailors killed in the 2000 al Qaeda bombing of the Navy destroyer USS Cole to collect some $35 million in damages from Sudan for its alleged role in the attack, six days after also ruling against Americans injured in the attack. – Reuters

Two men who tried to get into Islamic State-controlled Syria have been found guilty of preparing terrorist acts. Hanzalah Patel and Safwaan Mansur, both 22, were arrested at an Istanbul hotel in June 2017, after contacting a US agent posing as an IS sympathiser. Birmingham Crown Court heard the pair, who denied the charges, claimed the talk was just “thoughts and banter”. – BBC

Trump Administration

A Trump administration employee said the White House reversed rulings that denied security clearances for about two dozen officials and contractors, including two senior officials who are still working for the administration. – Wall Street Journal

President Donald Trump is taking his interpretation of special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia investigation well beyond the facts. He says he’s been fully exonerated based on a four-page summary of Mueller’s nearly 400-page report and is casting himself as a victim of illegal practices by the FBI because the agency investigated him in the first place. – Associated Press

Noah Feldman writes: Anytime government officials can effectively block individuals from service without giving public explanation and without the possibility of recourse, we should treat the process with appropriate skepticism. Maybe Trump acted wrongly in granting clearances where they had previously been denied. But we shouldn’t assume the conclusion — at least not without seeing the evidence. – Bloomberg

Eli Lake writes: In a way it’s understandable. Barr’s letter last month said Mueller did not establish any conspiracy between Russia and the Trump campaign to influence the election. So maybe Democrats are thinking they can find their collusion pony in the pile of documents that informed Mueller’s investigation. […]It should also be said that Democrats are within their rights to demand this kind of material. This is what Republicans pressed for and received last year with regard to the warrant to conduct surveillance on former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page. Aren’t the Democrats just playing by the Republicans’ rules? Nevertheless, this gambit is a trap. – Bloomberg