Fdd's overnight brief

August 8, 2019

In The News


Suspected Iranian hackers infiltrated critical infrastructure and government computers in the Persian Gulf nation of Bahrain within the last month, raising fears among leaders in the region that Tehran is stepping up its cyberattacks amid growing tensions. – Wall Street Journal

The US Department of Transportation’s Maritime Administration has issued a new warning to commercial shipping about Iranian threats in the Strait of Hormuz and Persian Gulf, saying that some ships have reported having their GPS interfered with. – CNN

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has not been invited to this month’s G7 summit, a French diplomat said on Wednesday, denying a media report published as European leaders seek a way to defuse a brewing confrontation between Tehran and Washington. – Reuters

A week after the U.S. sanctioned Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, raising the prospect of him losing access to U.S. social media platforms, U.S. officials and tech companies are mum on the issue. – Voice of America

Jason Rezaian writes: This is a familiar strategy employed by authoritarian regimes like Iran’s, to intimidate and encourage self-censorship among foreign correspondents. News organizations are well aware of these strong-arm tactics, but they have generally chosen to maintain their presence in the country, preferring a limited ability to report from the ground over having no presence at all. Iran, though, is making it difficult to keep up that compromise. – Washington Post

Seth Cropsey writes: Iran is nowhere close to a near-competitor to the U.S. — but its ideology, geography and asymmetric military capabilities illustrate the need for wise statecraft and unassailable military dominance if America wants to retain its position as the world’s great power. – The Hill

Bobby Ghosh writes: Staying the course on the sanctions is, for now, the Trump administration’s smartest option. It should continue to offer negotiations, and it can ameliorate the suffering of ordinary Iranians by allowing humanitarian trade, especially in medicines. But it should keep the pressure on the regime at maximum. – Bloomberg


Islamic State militants are strengthening their capability to carry out insurgent attacks in Iraq and Syria, according to a new report to Congress by the Pentagon’s Office of Inspector General that in part links Trump administration policy decisions to signs of a resurgence. – Wall Street Journal

A Turkish military offensive against Syrian Kurdish fighters appeared to be averted  as the United States and Turkey announced Wednesday that they had agreed to “address Turkish security concerns” and work together on the establishment of a “safe zone” in northern Syria. – Washington Post

Reports suggest more than 100,000 people in Syria have been detained, abducted or gone missing during the eight-year conflict, with the government mainly responsible, the U.N. political chief said Wednesday. – Associated Press

A car bomb killed three children near a village post office on Wednesday in northeast Syria, controlled by Kurdish forces who warn they face jihadist sleeper cells, local police said. – Reuters

Syrian state-run media say government forces have captured a northwestern village and are getting closer to the town of Kfar Zeita, which has been held by insurgents since 2012. – Associated Press

A Turkish attack on Kurdish-led forces in northeast Syria would spark a “big war” if U.S. efforts fail to block Ankara’s plans, a top Kurdish official told Reuters on Wednesday. – Reuters


Two Turkish drill ships are continuing operations in the eastern Mediterranean and another ship will join them this month, Energy Minister Fatih Donmez said, as a dispute over natural resources there fuels tensions between Turkey and Cyprus. – Reuters

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan suggested Tuesday that stability in the Eastern Mediterranean will only be achieved if the interests in the area of both Turkey and the Turkish Cypriots are safeguarded. – Ekathimerini

Visa-free travel between Russia and Turkey goes into effect starting today, said Turkish Foreign Ministry in a statement on Aug 7. – Hurriyet Daily News

Soner Cagaptay writes: Earlier today, Ankara and Washington agreed to “stand up a joint operations center in Turkey as soon as possible to coordinate and manage the establishment of a safe zone” in Syria. This development could help realign the relationship between Turkey’s Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and its Syrian offshoot, the People’s Defense Units (YPG), a group that controls large swaths of Syria’s northern frontier. That in turn could help heal a major sore point in U.S.-Turkish relations. – Washington Institute


The body of an Israeli soldier was found with stab wounds near a West Bank settlement south of Jerusalem early on Thursday, the military said. – Associated Press

Israel is moving forward with more than 2,300 housing units for settlers in the West Bank, a watchdog group said Wednesday, drawing condemnation from the Palestinians and the international community. – Associated Press

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri on Tuesday awarded Israeli residency to a Palestinian man who saved the children of a West Bank rabbi in the aftermath of the deadly terror attack in which the father was killed. – Times of Israel

Right-wing politicians and settler leader called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to annex the West Bank settlements in response to Thursday morning’s terror attack, in which 19-year-old Dvir Sorek was stabbed to death. – Jerusalem Post


Separatists in Yemen tried without success to seize the presidential palace in the southern city of Aden, as a growing rift within the Saudi Arabia-led coalition fighting Iran-aligned Houthi rebels threatens to unspool international efforts to end the four-year war. – Wall Street Journal

The United Nations special envoy for Yemen, Martin Griffiths, expressed concern on Wednesday about a military escalation in the southern port city of Aden, the seat of Yemen’s internationally recognized government, and he called for dialogue. – Reuters

A senior United Arab Emirates official called for calm on Wednesday after clashes erupted between southern separatists and presidential guards in Aden, the seat of Yemen’s government. – Reuters

Yemen’s civil war, nearly five years long, has been locked into an exhausted stalemate. Little ground is gained or lost between the Iranian-allied Houthi rebels, who hold the north, and forces backed by the U.S.-allied, Saudi-led coalition, who control the south. – Associated Press

Middle East & North Africa

Egypt’s President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi is urging the nation to back his government’s efforts to defeat Islamic militants, saying it’s the mission of every Egyptian. – Associated Press

Iraq is struggling to maintain its airborne intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capability, especially its Chinese-made CH-4 unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), according to a US inspector general report released on 6 August to review Combined Joint Task Force Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR). – Janes 360

The United States said on Wednesday the case of a deadly shooting in Lebanon should be handled in a way that achieves justice “without politically motivated inflammation” of tensions. – Reuters

Korean Peninsula

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Wednesday he was hopeful denuclearization talks would resume between North Korea and the United States soon, in spite of repeated North Korean missile tests and the lengthening delay in restarting the talks. – Reuters

President Donald Trump said on Wednesday discussions have begun with South Korea, aimed at getting the country to pay more for the cost of maintaining U.S. troops in the region to guard against any threat from North Korea. – Reuters

US President Donald Trump said Wednesday his administration is in talks with South Korea to pay “substantially more” for protection against North Korea, with tensions rising on the peninsula. – Agence FrancePresse

A new North Korean television series has reportedly been panned by audiences as people grow weary of relentless propaganda. – Telegraph

The U.S. and South Korea can’t even agree on whether they’ve started talks on sharing defense costs, let alone how much to pay. – Bloomberg

For the fourth time in two weeks, North Korea has tested an increasingly sophisticated, hard-to-track missile system that could wipe out South Korean and Japanese cities — not to mention U.S. forces based in both countries. Yet Donald Trump says he’s not worried. – Bloomberg


China signaled on Thursday that it might continue to weaken its currency, a move that threatens to again escalate the trade war with the United States. – New York Times

China said on Thursday it “strongly deplores” comments by the head of Australia’s parliamentary intelligence committee, who likened the West’s attitude to China to the inadequate French response to the World War Two advances of Nazi Germany. – Reuters

NATO needs to understand the implications of China’s rise as Beijing expands its power around the world, including areas that may challenge members of the North Atlantic security body, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said on Wednesday. – Reuters

China’s rare earths association said it would support Chinese counter-measures in the escalating trade row with the United States, which it accused on Wednesday of “bullying”. – Reuters

China on Tuesday strongly rejected the Trump administration’s determination that it’s manipulating its currency for an unfair trade advantage and accused the United States of protectionist behavior that is hurting the global economy. – Politico

The main concern among some of Trump’s aides is that a spiraling trade war with China will both undermine the president’s beloved stock market gains, further chill corporate investment and anger red-state farmers who have seen their export soybeans and other agricultural products to China plunge. – Politico

Longstanding warnings from economists of global spillover from the US-China trade war appear to be materialising, with a trio of central banks springing surprise rate cuts on Wednesday and bond markets in retreat.  – Agence FrancePresse

Joseph Bosco writes: People should stop trying to prevent Trump from being Trump when it comes to dealing with China and North Korea, such as by reversing his initial sound ZTE and Huawei bans and acceding to Beijing’s pressure to ease up on North Korea. – The Hill


Taliban insurgents detonated a car bomb near the entrance to a police station in the Afghan capital on Wednesday, killing at least 14 people and wounding scores more, as peace talks aimed at ending the nearly 18-year war continued. – Wall Street Journal

Unrelenting Taliban attacks like the deadly car bomb that rocked Kabul on Wednesday are undermining the credibility of negotiations to end the nearly 18-year-old war in Afghanistan, the country’s ambassador to the U.S. said. – Associated Press

The leader of the Taliban said on Thursday the United States had raised a cloud of doubt and uncertainty about an expected deal aimed at allowing it to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan and end its longest war. – Reuters

South Asia

Pakistan announced Wednesday that it will downgrade diplomatic ties and suspend trade with nuclear-armed neighbor India over its sudden move to retract the semiautonomous status of the disputed Kashmir region. – Washington Post

Pakistan said on Wednesday it would expel India’s ambassador and suspend bilateral trade with its arch-rival after New Delhi stripped its portion of the contested Kashmir region of special status. – Reuters

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s strongarm move to tighten control on Muslim-majority Kashmir is a gamble that could trigger conflict with Pakistan and re-ignite an insurgency that has already cost tens of thousands of lives, experts warn. – Agence FrancePresse

Jonah Blank writes: The risk of conflict with Pakistan is much higher today than it was last week. Kashmir is the most controversial of issues, and Islamabad may respond by hiking its support for terrorist groups like Jaish-e Muhammad and Lashkar-e Taiba[…]. Yet the impact of this decision by Modi’s government is more likely to come not as a sudden blast of radiation, but a slow transmogrification of democracy—in India, in South Asia, and quite possibly much farther. – The Atlantic


A senior Chinese official in charge of Hong Kong affairs warned that Beijing would intervene if the local government proved unable to contain the violent protests, the most explicit threat of intervention to date from the central government. – Wall Street Journal

Amid concerns in the Philippines about the future of its military alliance with the United States, the aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan moored off Manila this week to show support for an ally locked in a territorial dispute with China. – New York Times

The United States on Wednesday issued an advisory warning people about traveling to Hong Kong, urging visitors to “exercise increased caution” because of “confrontational” protests in the semiautonomous Chinese territory. – New York Times

Esper’s stop in Ulaanbaatar — the third U.S. engagement with Mongolia in recent weeks — underscored its key role in America’s new defense strategy that lists China and Russia as priority competitors. – Associated Press

A senior U.S. official said on Wednesday Japan and Korea needed to do some “soul searching” about political decisions that have damaged relations between the two U.S. allies in recent months and called for calm words from their leaders. – Reuters

New Zealand has rebuked Chinese envoys for praising pro-Beijing students who scuffled last week with supporters of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement on a university campus, a news website said on Wednesday. – Reuters

Japan has approved shipment of a high-tech material to South Korea for the first time since imposing export curbs last month, but doubled down on political pressure and warned it could broaden restrictions on deliveries to its Asian neighbour. – Reuters

Aparna Pande writes: By changing the reality on the ground, even with a potential legal hurdle before the Supreme Court of India, the government appears to be presenting a fait accompli. Any attempt by the international community, the US, the UN, or even Pakistan, to discuss the issue of Kashmir will now have to deal with this changed reality. – The Print

Michael Shoebridge writes: Handled badly, Hong Kong will ripple through China, further widening the unhealed wounds from Tiananmen and showing the repressive will and brutality of the CCP and its security organs. It will make clear to any doubtful Taiwanese that unification means assimilation and doesn’t mean Taiwan’s democracy becoming one of two systems. And it will make it even harder for advocates of uncritical, deepening engagement with China under Xi to look themselves in the mirror and be credible in public. – The Strategist


Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday said he had asked Russian leader Vladimir Putin to put pressure on separatist fighters in the east, after four Ukrainian soldiers were killed in a grenade attack. – Agence FrancePresse

In what is likely an attempt to impress with its military’s capabilities, Russia has debuted its first large drone, called “the hunter.” Russia’s Defense Ministry says the unmanned stealth drone has a 3,100-mile range, according to Vice News. U.S. military experts are generally skeptical of Kremlin claims about the capabilities of its new technology. – Washington Examiner

Russian civilian ships are being used for intelligence gathering and propaganda operations in support of the Kremlin, a new intelligence report says. – Washington Examiner


British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government launched a charm offensive in Washington this week in a bid to secure a trade deal with the U.S. quickly after the U.K. leaves the European Union. – Wall Street Journal

The United States and China are Germany’s biggest and third-biggest export markets, respectively, and a weakening economic outlook in China is increasingly affecting German economic performance. Meanwhile, analysts are worried that the escalating trade war could also result in a slowdown of the economy in the United States, which would have an even stronger ripple effect in Germany. – Washington Post

Britain will leave the European Union in October without a divorce deal, an Irish government minister predicted, causing a severe economic shock that could require pan-EU financial support for countries including Ireland. – Reuters

China’s efforts to establish economic and even military influence far beyond its borders are pushing NATO to develop new plays for the Indo-Pacific, the security bloc’s civilian chief says. – Washington Examiner


Three Congolese doctors have been arrested for allegedly planning an attack on a hospital that killed a senior World Health Organization (WHO) epidemiologist involved in the Ebola response, a prosecutor said on Wednesday. – Reuters

The United States still needs to resolve longstanding issues with Sudan before it can consider removing it from its list of state sponsors of terrorism, a senior State Department official said on Wednesday. – Reuters

In the desert landscape of southeastern Niger, a radical Islamist insurgency has claimed hundreds of lives, fractured families and ravaged communities, fearful of the next Boko Haram attack. – Agence FrancePresse

The current African Partnership Station mission in the Gulf of Guinea aboard the USNS Carson City (T-EPF-7) seeks to help partner nations improve their security and prosperity, not to rival the economic encroachment of China in Africa, a leader of that mission said on Wednesday. – USNI News

Michael Rubin writes: It’s one thing for U.S. diplomats to fight for principle, but to do so absent a sense of vital U.S. national interests or a sense of Horn of Africa realities is counterproductive. Despite all the Trump administration’s rhetoric of America first, both the U.S. embassy in Somalia and the broader U.S. State Department appear effectively to be putting China first. – Washington Examiner

United States

Mexico has long used legal action to resolve international disputes, analysts say, but requesting the extradition of an American is unlikely to succeed as long as U.S. authorities continue pursuing a criminal case against the 21-year-old suspected shooter. – Washington Post

On the surface, white supremacists and Islamic State recruits would not seem to have much in common. […]Terrorism experts, however, say the radicalization process, tactics and narratives used by violent white nationalists are actually strikingly similar to those employed by Islamic State. Understanding what the two groups have in common, experts say, can help officials develop a strategy for preventing homegrown extremism. – LA Times

The owner of 8chan, the fringe messaging board that has been linked to a string of mass shootings this year, told lawmakers that he is coming back to the U.S. this week as Congress escalates its scrutiny of his website. – The Hill

The U.S. is bringing home citizens who joined the Islamic State to stand trial, but some Western European and other nations refuse to and a new watchdog analysis says ISIS could benefit from their inaction. – Washington Examiner

Mike Giglio writes: But U.S. struggles in combatting the ideology of Islamist extremism offer a sobering reminder of how difficult fighting the white-nationalist version will be. The comparison also underscores a key problem, one that ISIS and al-Qaeda never forced Americans to face: What if the center of an extremist militant ideology is not in some lawless region of the Middle East or South Asia, but in America itself? […]Part of ISIS’s goal was to provoke civil strife in Western countries by turning Muslims and non-Muslims against one another. But even as ISIS fades from the concerns of many Americans, a wider unrest seems only to be intensifying in U.S. society. – The Atlantic

Latin America

Kimberly Breier, assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere since October, has resigned, leaving a key vacancy at the top of the diplomatic office in charge of the Trump administration’s efforts to control immigration from Mexico and Central America and to build stronger partnerships in South America. – Washington Post

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro pulled his government out of negotiations with the opposition aimed at resolving the country’s political crisis after the Trump administration imposed sweeping sanctions against the authoritarian regime. – Wall Street Journal

Six months after the Venezuelan opposition began its U.S.-backed effort to drive President Nicolás Maduro from office, conditions for the people have perhaps never been worse. They’re struggling under ever-deepening shortages of medicine, food, gas and water, and widespread power blackouts in a disintegrating socialist state plagued by one of the world’s highest homicide rates. – Washington Post

An order by U.S. President Donald Trump to freeze the Venezuelan government’s assets and cut off its funds is an act of “gross interference” and a violation of the norms of international relations, China’s foreign ministry said. – Reuters

Eli Lake: Perhaps the best way to understand the new sanctions is as a form of political messaging. The timing is important; U.S. officials have become impatient with talks between Maduro’s regime and the administration of Juan Guaido, the man America and more than 50 other countries recognize as Venezuela’s interim president. U.S. officials say the announcement is meant to pressure Maduro’s envoys to begin real negotiations about a transition of power. – Bloomberg


The Trump administration on Wednesday took a tactical step in its trade confrontation with China, by releasing a rule that restricts government agencies from doing business with Huawei, the giant Chinese maker of telecommunications equipment and smartphones. – New York Times

Electric utilities are particularly vulnerable to cyber threats, experts say, in part because fixing security flaws can interrupt services and few of their employees have security clearances that let them receive timely government alerts. – Wall Street Journal

For voters in the United States, Election Day can bring long waits, delays caused by malfunctioning voting machines or extended voting hours at polling places. But the widespread use of mobile devices presents an opportunity to vote from mobile devices, eliminating these long lines and inconveniences, security experts told the audience Aug. 6 at BSides Las Vegas, a hacking conference. Mobile voting, however, does provide its own security challenges. – Fifth Domain

Republican Sens. Josh Hawley, Tom Cotton, and Marco Rubio excoriated Google on Wednesday for downplaying its activity in China despite a report last week that it had been working with Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei to develop “smart speaker” technology. – Roll Call


Former Defense Secretary James Mattis was elected to the board of directors for aerospace and defense company General Dynamics on Wednesday.  – The Hill

The next generation of air dominance will be a plan that will organize air assets and integrate their abilities into an overall operation involving land, sea, air, space and cyberspace platforms. The key to creating such a system is building capacity for secure data sharing between platforms, service branches and allied nations, said members of a panel speaking Wednesday at the Mitchell Institute. – USNI News

The U.S. military is just a few years from launching offensive hypersonic weapons under development and building those initial missiles is one thing. Manufacturing the weapons in multitude is another issue entirely. – Defense News

The Army is planning to field a high-power microwave capability to take out drone swarms as part of its Indirect Fires Protection Capability system in development. – Defense News

The Army is just weeks away from awarding the final contracts related to development of its mobile, ground-launched hypersonic missile being rapidly brought to life. – Defense News

Matt Donovan and Will Roper write: The Air Force is returning to its roots of designing, building and fielding cutting-edge systems using the same old-school mindset that put the Apollo astronauts on the moon. We know defense acquisition will probably never capture the public’s imagination like the space race, but we hope that “smart” fighters, networked swarming weapons, hypersonic glide vehicles and “transformer helo-jets” now under development make you proud of the Air Force that’s soon to come. Now  thanks to Section 804  it is coming to a base near you. Soon. – Defense News