Fdd's overnight brief

April 4, 2019

In The News


In an intensive study of the Arabic-language tweets the Oxford Internet Institute released on Wednesday, researchers determined that “the most widely shared websites included in Arabic tweets push an Iranian political narrative, including criticism of Saudi Arabia and support of the Syrian president Bashar al-Assad.” – Washington Post

The U.S. military has revealed it believes Iran has helped kill 608 U.S. troops in Iraq since 2003, according to newly revealed and formerly-classified numbers. – Washington Examiner

Iran is being blamed for a wave of cyber attacks that targeted key parts of the UK’s national infrastructure in a major assault just before Christmas. – Sky News (UK)

Jason Rezaian writes: Something does finally seem to be changing, though. In Jeremy Hunt, Britain has a foreign secretary who understands the full insidiousness of the problem of state-sponsored hostage-taking. This is a tactic of pirates and terrorist organizations, and it can’t be allowed to become a normal tool of government policy. It must be rooted out. And the Iranian regime, which has often resorted to this most primitive tool of statecraft, must be punished in a way that will deter the practice in the future. – Washington Post

Islamic State

The Reuters team sat down in the dimly lit room in the camp in Ain Issa, northern Syria, and waited for the two Belgian sisters-in-law to arrive. Our reporters in Brussels had been following their story for months: the women had joined Islamic State in Syria at its height, surrendered to Kurdish forces in 2017, and one of their mothers was trying to get them home with their six children. – Reuters

Young children nursing severe facial burns, others suffering from malnutrition — an exodus of jihadist families and civilians from the Islamic State group’s vanquished final enclave is overwhelming eastern Syria’s hospitals. – Agence France-Presse

Islamic State militants blew themselves up following clashes with the U.S.-backed Syrian forces in the Syrian city of Raqqa, which was liberated from the extremists nearly two years ago, a war monitor said Wednesday. – Associated Press

Sarah Hunaidi writes: It is too early to celebrate victory over the Islamic State. It is regrouping, and the Syrian regime is taking advantage of its re-emergence. Assad’s regime is watching passively as it tears communities apart until they submit to the government and join the Syrian army. If the lives of the Syrian people are not important enough, perhaps the threat to the U.S. military base at Tanf will make policymakers face the reality that the Islamic State is far from gone. It may no longer be an expansionist caliphate, but it is strategically reorganizing itself as an insurgency to terrorize the people of Syria. – Foreign Policy


The NATO alliance faced a fresh test as the U.S. and Turkey traded threats on Wednesday over Ankara’s plan to buy a Russian air-defense system, escalating a long-simmering standoff. – Wall Street Journal

Even before the important election of Istanbul’s mayor has been settled, the opposition candidate, who claims to have won, is challenging President Recep Tayyip Erdogan by pressing ahead with his promise to have an independent audit of the city’s books. – New York Times

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s determination to purchase Russian anti-aircraft missile systems could cripple his country’s participation in the NATO alliance, Vice President Mike Pence warned Wednesday. – Washington Examiner

The U.S. administration and Turkey should explain to the U.S. Congress why Ankara had to purchase the S-400 missile system from Russia, Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Wednesday. – Reuters

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned Wednesday of “devastating” results if Turkey strikes Syria as he met in Washington with Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu. – Agence France-Presse

Turkey has no idea what the U.S. policy in Syria is, the country’s foreign minister told a Washington audience Wednesday, noting contradictory statements coming from different parts of the Trump administration. – Politico

Tensions soared Wednesday between the United States and two of its NATO partners, Germany and Turkey, marring a 70th birthday celebration for the alliance aimed at showing a united front against a resurgent Russia. – Agence France-Presse


Israel has recovered the body of a U.S.-born Israeli soldier missing since a 1982 tank battle against Syrian forces, a case that had long vexed the nation, the military said on Wednesday. – Reuters

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanayhu departed for Moscow Thursday morning for a meeting with President Vladimir Putin that is expected to focus on Syria and Iran. – Times of Israel

Israel has not ruled out the option of reoccupying Gaza, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday morning in an interview with KAN news. “All the options are still on the table, including entering Gaza and occupying it, out of consideration of what is best for Israel,” he said. – Jerusalem Post

As Israel prepares to hold a national election next week, experts say it is vulnerable to the kind of foreign hacks and cyber campaigns that have disrupted the political process in other countries. – Associated Press

The Jewish Agency for Israel’s Partnership2Gether (P2G) Peoplehood Platform added Warsaw as a partner in the program that aims to create an enduring relationship between Israel and the Jewish communities of the Diaspora. – Jerusalem Post

Arabian Peninsula

A Saudi prosecutor denied accusations by several women activists that they had been tortured in detention, family members said, as the group returned to court for a trial that has drawn intense Western scrutiny of the kingdom’s human-rights record. – Wall Street Journal

The importance of shoring up soft power as part of a broader national security strategy has grown in importance for Qatar lately, as it faces the most serious external threat in its four-decade history. Since June 2017, a land and sea blockade led by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and including Bahrain and Egypt, has cut the kingdom off from its neighbors. – New York Times

A United Arab Emirates female pilot running to head the U.N. aviation agency’s governing council said she is capable of playing a “bridging role” in trying to resolve an air dispute between several Gulf states and Qatar. – Reuters

Lawmakers have raised concerns about the efforts of the Trump administration to give Saudi Arabia nuclear materials without consultation with Congress and without properly notifying regulators. – Newsweek

Muneer Binwaber writes: There’s no doubt that the ideal option is stopping the war and imposing security and stability to begin the process of alleviating human suffering in Yemen and to introduce a new focus on reconstruction. A model for this ambitious option can already be seen in southern Yemen, where most of the liberated areas of the country and much of the infrastructure, including police stations, courts, schools, hospitals and roads, is being restored and built. A large part of these reforms were funded directly by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, allowing the United Nations to remain focused on humanitarian interventions in areas of conflict and areas controlled by Houthi forces. – Washington Institute

Rauf Mammadov writes: Central Asia’s strategic location, vast resources, and predominantly Muslim population mean that Gulf states are likely to continue expanding their influence in the region[…]. But a larger Gulf state presence in the region also means rivalry with Russia and China. Saudi Arabia has established a unique collaboration with Moscow to stabilize global oil prices while at the same time competing with Russia for the lucrative Chinese market. The Gulf states will likely need to continue walking a tightrope to maintain good relations with Central Asia’s two big neighbors as they expand their presence in the region. – Middle East Institute


The U.N. chief says he’s worried about a major armed showdown in Libya and is urging warring factions to instead turn to dialogue. – Associated Press

Eastern Libyan military forces have moved to western Libya and were briefly locked in a skirmish with a rival force south of the capital Tripoli, an eastern official and residents said on Wednesday, in an escalation between rival camps in the oil producer. – Reuters

Libya’s internationally recognized government, which controls the capital Tripoli, declared a general military alert on Wednesday after eastern forces said they were moving west, a statement said. – Reuters

Forces loyal to eastern Libyan commander Khalifa Haftar are preparing a mission to “liberate the homeland from terrorism”, a force spokesman said on Wednesday, suggesting the capital Tripoli was a desirable destination. – Reuters

Middle East & North Africa

For weeks, millions of protesters filling Algeria’s streets have demanded the end of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika’s 20-year rule, as well as the “System” of cronyism and corruption he oversaw. On Tuesday night, the wheelchair-bound, 82-year-old president was finally forced from power. – New York Times

In his desire to wield sweeping power, President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt has suppressed politics, cowed the media and jailed legions of opponents. Now he is extending his iron grip to a new corner of Egyptian society: the country’s cherished soap operas. – New York Times

Algeria’s caretaker government faces the prospect of persistent popular demands for the removal of a scletoric ruling elite and wholesale reforms after ailing 82-year-old President Abdelaziz Bouteflika quit in the face of mass protests. – Reuters

Flag-waving Algerians have celebrated the resignation of veteran president Abdelaziz Bouteflika, but vowed Wednesday to keep protesting to demand sweeping change to the country’s political system. – Agence France-Presse

The United Nations is expressing concern that Tunisia is still holding a member of the U.N. panel of experts monitoring sanctions against Libya despite his diplomatic immunity. – Associated Press

Ben Fishman writes: In the best case, a caretaker government will lead Algeria toward a constitutional reform process and fair elections, producing an elected government that can begin adopting necessary economic reforms while maintaining the military’s loyalty. Yet the chances of that process unfolding smoothly seem dim. A smooth transition is in the best interests of the United States given the deep security interests at stake. Algeria borders Libya, the Sahel, and the Mediterranean region, all of which would suffer tremendously if local authorities cannot control the borders and keep a lid on terrorism, smuggling, and mass migration. – Washington Institute

Mohammed Issam Laaroussi writes: In the absence of any current form of Maghreb integration, and in light of the growing needs and concerns of the populations in the region regarding security, stability, and the opportunity to live a life with dignity, the question of reviving the Arab Maghreb Union will always remain an imperative issue. If a revival was accomplished, this process would force political regimes to cooperate, first in order to achieve stability and security, and secondly, to keep pace with changes in societal values that require reform and which are rejecting ready-made, top-down policies currently supplied by governments. – Washington Institute

Korean Peninsula

South Korean authorities revealed this week they had been detaining a domestic cargo ship for months due to suspicion that the vessel had helped supply illicit oil to North Korea, in a breach that casts doubts over Seoul’s level of enthusiasm for enforcing U.S.-led sanctions. – Wall Street Journal

South Korea has begun testing super-light U.S. oil sold by energy firm Anadarko Petroleum Corp as a substitute for Iranian crude as it awaits word from Washington whether it can keep buying oil from the Middle Eastern nation, sources said. – Reuters

In one of the clearest signs of just how much Kim Jong Un wanted an agreement at what became the failed Hanoi summit in February with President Donald Trump, CNN has learned that the North Korean leader gave specific orders to his generals to not carry out any unplanned activity in the days and weeks leading up the meeting, according to a senior South Korean official and a US defense official. – CNN


After business groups had criticized a plan to ease rendition of fugitives between Hong Kong and jurisdictions including mainland China, the Hong Kong government pulled back, a little. – New York Times

The Trump administration’s demand that punitive tariffs remain to ensure Beijing enacts genuine overhauls has emerged as one of the biggest sticking points, as U.S. and Chinese trade negotiators opened new face-to-face talks aimed at a deal. – Wall Street Journal

Top Democrats in Congress want the FBI to determine whether the facilities and equipment President Trump uses to access classified information while at his Florida resort are vulnerable to foreign exploitation, after reports that a Chinese national managed to clear security at the Mar-a-Lago Club with a thumb drive containing malicious software. – Washington Post

President Donald Trump will meet on Thursday with Chinese Vice Premier Liu He, who is in Washington for trade talks, according to Trump’s schedule released by the White House on Wednesday night. – Reuters

A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers on Wednesday faulted the Trump administration for failing so far to impose sanctions over China’s alleged human rights abuses against its Muslim minority and called for punitive measures against a senior Communist Party official and Chinese companies. – Reuters

The rise of China is one of the greatest challenges that the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) will face in the coming decades, Vice President Mike Pence said Wednesday during an event to mark the 70th anniversary of the military alliance. – Newsweek

Rondi Adamson writes: Washington and Brussels aren’t happy with Rome’s decision to help China expand its geopolitical influence. There is already talk of allowing Chinese state companies to manage or own stakes in key Italian ports—Trieste, Genoa and Palermo among them. Michele Geraci, one of Italy’s chief Belt and Road negotiators, dismissed such complaints as motivated by “jealousy.” “Concern” might be the more accurate word, and I wonder whether Italians ought to be feeling some. If they think the Marshall Plan was intrusive, there is no telling what’s coming down this new Silk Road. – Wall Street Journal

Joseph Bosco writes: Trump can tell Xi that his government needs to stop complaining about having been left out — the self-pity has worn thin and is not worthy of a rising great power, especially one not at all reluctant to bully smaller parties such as Taiwan and Southeast Asian countries. It would advance the cause of peace and stability in the region if Trump would state unequivocally to Xi that Washington will defend Taiwan against any aggression from China. It also would be the best way to preserve the two leaders’ personal friendship and make Nobel-caliber history together. – The Hill

Daniel J. Samet writes: Chinese espionage is a grave threat that demands a vigilant response from American society. The good news is that the U.S. government is doing more in response to China’s military and economic aggression. The bad news is that American colleges and universities are not. – Washington Examiner

Erin Dunne writes: Trump was right to cite the international flow of fentanyl as a key part of the problem. He was also right to call on China to take responsibility to change its laws to address the manufacture and export of fentanyl and similar drugs. In doing so and finding success in Beijing, Trump highlighted the importance of good, working relations, even with a country claimed as an adversary. And with fentanyl, those open diplomatic channels will likely save the lives of individuals in the U.S. far removed from the politics of international diplomacy. – Washington Examiner

John Lee writes: If it is confirmed that Washington is moving to a more robust approach with respect to cross-strait relations, Japan, Australia and others will follow. Xi is already under internal pressure from the global pushback against his flagship policies such as the Belt and Road Initiative and “Made in China 2025.” China has lost goodwill with neighboring states over its actions in the East and South China Seas and along the disputed border with India. […]If the United States goes ahead with the sale of F-16Vs to Taiwan, then the pressure on a president who has embarked on an unprecedented “anti-corruption campaign” to silence political enemies and doubters will be immense. – The Diplomat

Tom Cheshire writes: Living behind the Great Firewall of China is a miserable digital existence. Standard web services and news sites are inaccessible here in Beijing. Reaching them means using VPN software. VPNs often don’t work, they make browsing very slow and they’re sometimes shut down altogether during big political events like the recent Two Sessions. Streaming Alan Partridge was truly a nightmare. – Sky News (UK)


The U.S. is expanding its military presence on tiny but strategically important Pacific islands as part of its strategy to block Chinese expansion and cultivate neglected relationships across a broad swath of the Pacific. – Wall Street Journal

Australia passed sweeping legislation Thursday that threatens huge fines for social media companies and jail for their executives if they fail to rapidly remove “abhorrent violent material” from their platforms. – New York Times

The huge Chinese global infrastructure building program known as the Belt-and-Road Initiative was supposed to help unleash an economic boom in close ally Pakistan that was beneficial to both countries. – Wall Street Journal

Former Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak lost his bid to delay the first of several trials related to the multibillion scandal surrounding state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Bhd., with proceedings finally getting under way Wednesday. – Wall Street Journal

The United States hopes to reach agreement for another aircraft carrier visit to Vietnam this year and for such port stops to become a regular feature of the increasingly close relationship between the former Vietnam War enemies, a senior U.S. defense official said on Wednesday. – Reuters

Brunei is violating human rights by implementing Islamic laws that would allow death by stoning for adultery and homosexuality, the United Nations said on Wednesday. – Reuters

A Chinese state-backed newspaper has issued a stern warning to the U.S. over its stance on Taiwan, cautioning Washington that Beijing will not hesitate to act to protect its core interests. – Newsweek


NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Wednesday called for the military alliance to stay united against an increasingly assertive Russia at a time when President Donald Trump’s shaky commitment to NATO and efforts to engage Moscow have strained transatlantic relations. – Politico

Russia scoffed at President Donald Trump’s calls for Moscow to cut defense ties with the Venezuelan government pointing out the United States’ unparalleled international military presence. – Newsweek

China was reportedly set to receive another batch of the S-400 surface-to-air defense systems this summer, making it the latest power preparing to deploy a weapon sought by U.S. friends and foes alike. – Newsweek


One of China’s biggest investments in Europe suffered a major setback after Greek bureaucrats declared much of a port a Chinese state-run company has bought into to be of archaeological interest, likely delaying a key Chinese infrastructure project. – Wall Street Journal

After years of partisan battling, Prime Minister Theresa May and the opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn began an emergency, 11th-hour effort Wednesday to find common ground on Britain’s tortuous effort to withdraw from the European Union. – New York Times

With Westminster deadlocked over Britain’s departure from the European Union, one small party is potentially positioned to rescue Britain from its self-induced paralysis — but it refuses to vote. – New York Times

The Irish backstop, a portion of the agreement for Britain’s planned withdrawal from the European Union, has been a near constant point of tension since the country began the Brexit process. – New York Times

The vaulting of a popular TV comic to the top of Ukraine’s presidential race presents a quandary for the West by threatening to displace a leader and ally who for five years has led his country’s costly war against Russia. – Wall Street Journal

German efforts to meet defense obligations as part of NATO are sparking heated discussions within the country about its military because of the nation’s Nazi history, according to a top diplomat. – Washington Examiner

Foreign and interior ministers from the Group of Seven are gathering in France this week to try to find ambitious solutions to world security challenges. Putting a dampener on that are two glaring American absences: U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen. – Associated Press

Editorial: The challenge for NATO’s future is for Western Europeans to overcome their entitlement complacency to spend enough for their common defense. As for the U.S., NATO is a modest investment in deterrence to prevent a European war that America would have to return to Europe to fight. NATO at 70 is a challenged alliance but still a necessary one. – Wall Street Journal

Editorial: As member nations gather to celebrate NATO’s 70th anniversary this week, POLITICO asked experts to forecast what the military alliance will look like 10 years from now. How should it spend its growing resources? What new technologies are needed to counter Russian aggression? What threats must NATO prepare for that are not being discussed today? – Politico

James Kirchick writes: Germany’s underinvestment in defense has long been a topic of concern among NATO watchers, but it became particularly sensitive once Trump began attacking the country repeatedly on the campaign trail. More than two years into his turbulent administration, the issue has helped bring U.S.-German relations to their worst point since the Iraq War, when Social Democratic Chancellor Gerhard Schröder was reelected after running an explicitly anti-American campaign. […]Yet Germans need to get past their intense personal dislike of this particular White House occupant and realize that enhancing their defense capabilities is in their own best interest. – Washington Post


An American woman touring one of Uganda’s most popular safari destinations was kidnapped with her local guide on Tuesday evening and held for $500,000 in ransom, the authorities said. – New York Times

More than 60 people have been killed in tit-for-tat clashes between communities in northern Burkina Faso in recent days, the government said on Wednesday, the latest in a bout of inter-communal violence afflicting West Africa’s Sahel region. Burkina Faso and neighboring Mali have seen a spike in ethnic clashes fueled by Islamist militants as they seek to extend their influence over the Sahel, an arid region between Africa’s northern Sahara and its southern savannas. – Reuters

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressed support for Congo President Felix Tshisekedi’s “change agenda” to tackle corruption, improve human rights and strengthen security during their first meeting on Wednesday, the State Department said. – Reuters

The U.S. State Department on Tuesday called on Burundi to rescind its decision to suspend the U.S-funded Voice of America and ban the BBC and to allow journalists to operate freely in the run-up to elections in 2020. – Reuters

The Americas

Mexican officials and business leaders along the U.S.-Mexico border warned that delays at ports of entry are causing tens of millions of dollars in losses for shippers and logistics companies, as tension grows over President Trump’s threats to close the frontier between the two countries. – Wall Street Journal

Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó remained defiant Wednesday after the government of President Nicolás Maduro moved to strip him of his parliamentary immunity and begin investigating him for a range of alleged crimes. But as the political and humanitarian crises in Venezuela escalate, some here are taking the threat against the U.S-backed leader seriously. – Washington Post

NATO can look at the possibility of other Latin American states joining Colombia in becoming alliance partners, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Wednesday, while appearing to rule out U.S. President Donald Trump’s suggestion that Brazil could one day become a full member of the North Atlantic security body. – Reuters

China’s expansion in Latin America of its Belt and Road initiative to build ports and other trade-related facilities is stirring alarm in Washington over Beijing’s ambitions in a region that American leaders since the 19th century have seen as off-limits to other powers. – Associated Press

Venezuela’s foreign minister, meeting with anti-U.S. allies in the Middle East, said Wednesday that opposition leader Juan Guaidó is in breach of the constitution and that the judiciary has to “take care” of it. – Associated Press


The Army is moving forward with new contract awards for prototyping the Department of Defense’s cyber training platform. – Fifth Domain

The Army issued awards March 15 on a cyber contract that could total up to $982 million. The R4 contract is just for research and development — not materiel solutions — in support of the cyber mission, according to an Army spokesperson. – Fifth Domain

The U.S. Navy is shaking up its plan for acquiring a new, much larger and more deadly version of its Virginia-class attack submarine it aims to start buying this year. – Defense News

Long War

French media outlets revealed on Wednesday that a man who described himself as the “heir of Mohamed Merah” —  the Islamist terrorist who murdered three young children and a rabbi at a Jewish school in Toulouse in March 2012  — was arrested by security agents last week on suspicion of plotting his own terrorist attack against a school. – Algemeiner

Germans with a second nationality who fight abroad for groups like Islamic State will lose their citizenship, the cabinet agreed in a draft law on Wednesday intended to deter future militants. – Reuters

A lawyer named as a plaintiff in a case questioning the constitutionality of the government’s use of a federal terrorist watchlist says it is time for the U.S. to end its practice of “targeting Americans on the basis of their faith, particularly the American Muslim community. – Newsweek

Trump Administration

Some of Robert S. Mueller III’s investigators have told associates that Attorney General William P. Barr failed to adequately portray the findings of their inquiry and that they were more troubling for President Trump than Mr. Barr indicated, according to government officials and others familiar with their simmering frustrations. – New York Times

The email came out of the blue, from an aide to the mysterious Russian billionaire, Oleg V. Deripaska, who is said to be close to President Vladimir V. Putin and an on-again, off-again character in the two-year investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election.  – New York Times

The senior White House official whose security clearance was denied last year because of concerns about foreign influence, private business interests and personal conduct is presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner, according to people familiar with documents and testimony provided to the House Oversight Committee. – Washington Post

Members of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s team have told associates they are frustrated with the limited information Attorney General William P. Barr has provided about their nearly two-year investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether President Trump sought to obstruct justice, according to people familiar with the matter. – Washington Post