Fdd's overnight brief

January 17, 2019

In The News


A prominent American-born journalist working for an Iranian state-run satellite television channel has been arrested in the United States, the broadcaster said Wednesday. The reported action, which has not been confirmed by the American authorities, was condemned by Iranian officials. – New York Times

Iran kept up its criticism Thursday of the FBI’s apparent arrest of an American anchorwoman from Iran’s state-run English-language TV channel, with its foreign minister saying “she’s done nothing but journalism.” The hard-line Vatan-e Emrooz paper criticized the detention of Press TV’s Marzieh Hashemi as “Saudi-style behavior with a critical journalist.” – Associated Press

US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal was the “most important thing that happened in the last year” in the Middle East, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asserted on Wednesday. – Algemeiner

The Iranian ambassador to the UK has told the husband of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe that his campaign to secure her release from a Tehran jail is reducing her chances of freedom. – The Guardian

Israel needs to prepare for the possibility that its battle to keep Iran from entrenching itself militarily in Syria may have to be expanded to Lebanon or to Iran directly. That is one of the recommendations that appeared in the Institute for National Security Studies Strategic Assessment for Israel 2018-2019, which was released and rolled out by the Tel Aviv-based think tank at a ceremony at the President’s Residence on Wednesday. – Jerusalem Post

Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps commander Mohammad Ali Jafari warned Israel Wednesday to “fear the day when Iranian precision missiles hit you and take revenge of all the blood of oppressed Muslims which you have shed.” – Jerusalem Post

Ray Takeyh writes: The latest news to rattle the Washington establishment is that John Bolton, President Donald Trump’s national security adviser, has asked the Pentagon for military options against Iran. The commentariat and the Democrats in exile are aghast and insist that such bellicosity will only invite belligerence from Iran. […]But the truth is that when dealing with Iran, threats usually work while blandishments only whet the appetite of the mullahs who run the country. – Politico


The four Americans killed in Manbij, Syria on Wednesday — two soldiers, a Defense Department civilian and a military contractor — matched the largest number of deaths from hostile fire in a single incident overseas since Donald Trump became president. The killings, in a suicide explosion claimed by the Islamic State, came less than a month after Trump declared the militants defeated and ordered that the 2,000 U.S. troops in Syria be withdrawn. – Washington Post

Vice President Pence told U.S. diplomats Wednesday that the Islamic State caliphate has collapsed in Syria, but he made no mention of the U.S. military personnel confirmed killed in the country shortly before he spoke. In remarks filled with praise for the leadership of President Trump, Pence told the Global Chiefs of Mission Conference at the State Department that some of the most heinous enemies of the United States are in retreat. – Washington Post

Donald Trump’s decision to pull troops out of Syria came under renewed pressure after a suicide attack claimed by Islamic State, the terrorist group the president said a month ago was effectively defeated. – Bloomberg

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has responded to the deadly attack against U.S. personnel in northern Syria, arguing it may be linked to President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw troops from the conflict there. – Newsweek


When Avichai Mandelblit first considered an offer to join Benjamin Netanyahu’s administration in 2013, he told Israel’s prime minister that he’d accept if he could finish his doctorate and stay out of politics, aides to him say. Mr. Mandelblit managed to earn his Ph.D. in law. But now as Israel’s attorney general, he is at the center of one of the country’s biggest political storms. – Wall Street Journal

Israeli television said on Wednesday that US President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan would propose a Palestinian state on as much as 90 percent of West Bank, with a capital in East Jerusalem, but not including its holy sites. The Trump administration has said publication of the plan, kept closely under wraps, could be months away, and cautioned against speculation about its contents. – Reuters

Hamas on Tuesday night released three Italian security guards held for two days at the UNESCO offices in the Gaza Strip on suspicion of being part of an IDF undercover force. The three were freed following intervention by the Italian ambassador to Israel. The men, who were armed, entered the Strip to prepare for a visit of Italian Ambassador to Israel Gianluigi Benedetti on Wednesday. – Ynet

Michael Danby, an Australian Labor Party member, condemned Malaysia’s recently announced ban on Israeli swimmers from the Paralympic Qualifiers in Malaysia on Wednesday, calling Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad a ‘”Malay bigot.”  Danby called on Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to host the Paralympics swimmers in Australia instead. – Jerusalem Post

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reaffirmed his comparison of BDS to antisemitism, when asked to retract the statement at an event at Canada’s Brock University Tuesday. “I will continue to condemn the BDS movement,” Trudeau said. – Jerusalem Post

The Palestinian Authority said on Wednesday that “any peace plan that does not include an independent Palestinian state – with all of East Jerusalem as its capital – on the 1967 borders, is destined to fail.” The PA was responding to a report on Channel 13 News that claimed that US President Donald Trump’s “deal of the century” will include a Palestinian state on 85% – 90% of the West Bank and some parts of east Jerusalem. – Jerusalem Post

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is scheduled to fly to Chad late Saturday night, the first visit by an Israeli leader to the country, to mark the renewal of diplomatic relations between the two countries. Netanyahu will meet with President Idriss Déby, who came to Israel in a historic visit last November. – Jerusalem Post

Middle East & North Africa

The Security Council on Wednesday voted unanimously to deploy a team of up to 75 U.N. observers to the city of Hodeidah in Yemen for six months. The U.N. team will monitor a cease-fire and the redeployment away from Hodeidah by both government and Houthi opposition forces, as mandated by an agreement reached in Sweden last month. – Wall Street Journal

Rival militias clashed in the Libyan capital Tripoli on Wednesday and at least five people were killed and 20 wounded, the health ministry said, splintering a four-month-old, U.N.-brokered ceasefire. – Reuters

Two very different versions of Tunisia’s progress since its Arab Spring uprising were on show this week along the capital’s Habib Bourghiba Avenue, which has become a stage for locals who want to passionately argue politics. – Bloomberg

Kenneth Pollack writes: The Middle East is changing. Dramatically so. The political, economic, and cultural systems that the Arab states (and Iran) installed after gaining independence following World War II are breaking down all across the region. Most are financially shaky as a result of a torrid population boom that has outstripped the oil revenues that underpin their rickety economies. – American Enterprise Institute

Ben Fishman and Dana Stroul write: If the 2011 revolutions taught us anything, it is that Arab citizens — specifically Arab youths — want economic opportunity and a certain political liberalization, if not Western-style democracy. Clearly amplifying their voices, while convincingly standing against our collective threats, is the most effective way for the United States to be a force for good in the Middle East. – The Hill

Korean Peninsula

A senior North Korean official arrived in Beijing on Thursday, reportedly en route to the United States for talks ahead of a possible second summit between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. Kim Yong Chol, a former spy chief, arrived at Beijing airport and was booked to leave on a flight for Washington with two other North Korean officials later in the day, South Korea’s Yonhap news agency said. – Washington Post

President Trump could announce a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as soon as Friday, following an expected meeting at the White House with a North Korean envoy, U.S. and Asian diplomats said Wednesday. – Washington Post

Vice President Mike Pence told American ambassadors on Wednesday that North Korea has failed to take any substantive steps to give up its nuclear weapons, even as President Trump is moving toward a second meeting with Kim Jong-un, the North Korean leader. – New York Times

North Korea and the U.S. appeared to be moving toward a rekindling of denuclearization talks, setting the stage for a widely expected second summit between the two country’s leaders. Gen. Kim Yong Chol, North Korea’s lead nuclear negotiator and the country’s former spymaster, is expected to meet with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo at the State Department on Friday, according to a person familiar with the matter. Gen. Kim also may meet with President Trump at the White House. – Wall Street Journal


The U.S. State Department said that China’s death sentence on a Canadian man is “politically motivated.” The statement from U.S. deputy spokesman Robert Palladino said Wednesday that U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland spoke Tuesday and “expressed their concerns about the arbitrary detentions and politically motivated sentencing of Canadian nationals.” – Washington Post

Federal prosecutors are pursuing a criminal investigation of China’s Huawei Technologies Co. for allegedly stealing trade secrets from U.S. business partners, including technology used by T-Mobile US Inc. to test smartphones, according to people familiar with the matter. – Wall Street Journal

Chinese lawmakers are accelerating work on a long-sought foreign-investment law, as Beijing seeks a hurried concession to the U.S. The national legislature’s executive committee on Wednesday announced a previously unscheduled session for Jan. 29 to 30 with the draft law as the top item, less than three weeks after reviewing the current draft in a routine session. – Wall Street Journal

China’s economy czar, Vice Premier Liu He, will visit Washington on Jan. 30-31 for talks aimed at ending a costly tariff war over U.S. complaints about Beijing’s technology ambitions. The announcement Thursday that the official in charge of the Chinese side of the negotiations will participate in person is a possible sign of progress following talks in Beijing this month between lower-level officials. – Associated Press

China’s Foreign Ministry said on Thursday that proposed U.S. legislation targeting Huawei, ZTE and other Chinese telecommunications equipment companies was due to “hysteria”, and urged U.S. lawmakers to stop the bills. – Reuters

China said on Wednesday it was “not worried in the slightest” by mounting international concern over the death sentence handed to a Canadian for drug smuggling. – Reuters

In recent years, top defense officials and internal Pentagon reports alike have cautioned about the rise of China as a military power, in large part due to its investments in high-end technologies like hypersonics and its development of indigenous capabilities like stealth fighters and aircraft carriers. – Defense News

A new report from the Defense Intelligence Agency provides insights into how the Chinese military might deploy cyber capabilities in a future conflict. – Defense News

The new report, released by the Defense Intelligence Agency, provides an assessment of the Chinese military and states that China views controlling the “information domain” as a prerequisite for victory in modern war. This tactic is essential for countering outside intervention in a conflict. – Defense News

Vice President Mike Pence Wednesday signaled that the Trump administration has made little progress in trade talks with China, even after what the White House portrayed as a breakthrough late last year. Pence painted a picture of a new lull in U.S.-China trade talks even after President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed Dec. 1 over local steaks in Argentina to call a truce in what had been a tense tariff war that threatened to slow the global economy. – Roll Call

Anna Sauerbrey writes: As the trade impasse between the United States and China grinds on, the rest of the world is reduced to being anxious bystanders — and nowhere are leaders more anxious than here in Germany. – New York Times

John Lee writes: The death sentence imposed on Canadian Robert Lloyd Schellenberg by the Dalian Intermediate People’s Court in north-eastern China is an immense blow for the convicted drug smuggler and his family. China argues it is a simple matter of sentencing a felon according to the Chinese code. But for the rest of the world, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, the decision is far more sinister. – Hudson Institute

Arthur Herman writes: China and the West are currently locked in a race to dominate the future of global telecommunications through so-called fifth generation or 5G technologies, which will not only accelerate everyone’s access to the Internet and data and networks, but also interconnect us all as never before. – Hudson Institute

Peter Coy writes: The rivalry between the U.S. and China is complicating the lives of companies and countries that would prefer to stay on the good side of both superpowers. […]Collateral damage in the contest between the U.S. and China has been heavy because both are employing hard power—economic and military might—rather than the soft power of persuasion. – Bloomberg


Taiwan held live-fire exercises along its east coast Thursday amid renewed threats from China to bring the island under its control by force if deemed necessary.[…] The drills are Taiwan’s first since Chinese President Xi Jinping on Jan. 2 reasserted Beijing’s willingness to use military force to bring self-ruling Taiwan under Chinese control. – Washington Post

Taiwan objects to Britain’s proposed rules for managing its trade in services after it leaves the European Union and has requested negotiations at the World Trade Organization, according to a document seen by Reuters on Wednesday. – Reuters

The number of maritime piracy, and sea robbery incidences in Asia fell to a 12-year low in 2018, but risks over crew abductions for ransom in the Sulu and Celebes seas, and off Eastern Sabah in Malaysia remain. – Jane’s 360


The U.S. and Russia failed to made headway in talks this week on a 1987 treaty banning ground-based intermediate-range missiles, leaving one of the last arms-control accords between the two countries on the brink of collapse. – Wall Street Journal

The U.S. Treasury Department on Wednesday prepared to cut several companies controlled by an oligarch close to Russian leader Vladimir Putin from its sanctions list after a bid by Democratic lawmakers to block the delisting failed in the Senate. – Wall Street Journal

Top Russian officials ridiculed the idea that U.S. President Donald Trump could have worked for Russia’s interests, dismissing them Wednesday as “absurd” and “stupid.” Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said during a news conference that U.S. newspaper reports about Trump withholding details of his meetings with Russia’s president and an FBI investigation of whether he was working on Moscow’s behalf reflected a plunge in journalism standards. – Associated Press

Michael McFaul writes: The Trump administration seeks to contain Russian influence in the Middle East and place maximum pressure on Russia’s most important ally in the region, Iran. Trump, however, just announced his desire to withdraw American soldiers and equipment from Syria, exactly what Putin and his Iranian allies seek. – Washington Post


European Union leaders on Wednesday called on Britain to give them a clear plan to split from Europe amid concern that the political chaos that led to a historic defeat for British Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit plan could lead to an uncontrolled departure. May was widely expected to lose Tuesday’s vote in the British Parliament on the withdrawal agreement she negotiated with the E.U. – Washington Post

Prime Minister Theresa May narrowly survived a vote of no-confidence in Parliament on Wednesday, but that did little to quell the turmoil gripping the British government over her plan to leave the European Union, coming a day after she suffered a historic defeat on that proposal. – New York Times

Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras of Greece survived a late-night confidence vote on Wednesday as two days of acrimonious debate ended with Greek lawmakers delivering him a razor-thin victory to hold his government together. – New York Times

The British Parliament’s overwhelming rejection of the Brexit agreement raises an uncomfortable question for the rest of the European Union: whether it has been too successful in negotiating the U.K.’s departure from the bloc. – Wall Street Journal

British Prime Minister Theresa May’s failure to get U.K. parliamentary approval for a deal to split the country from the European Union adds significant pressure on continental companies as they plan for the now greater possibility of an abrupt and disorderly exit. Lawmakers on Tuesday soundly rejected Mrs. May’s agreement with Brussels and approved by her cabinet, putting the process in jeopardy ahead of a March 29 deadline to leave. – Wall Street Journal

Russian President Vladimir Putin is making a high-profile trip to the Balkans, where he appears poised to pressure local governments to turn their backs on the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and embrace their relationship with Moscow. – Newsweek

Desmond Lachman writes: Not only is the unfolding Brexit crisis casting a dark cloud over the world’s fifth-largest economy; it is also occurring in the context of meaningful difficulties in Europe’s other major economies. As such, a deepening in the Brexit crisis has the real potential to spill over from the United Kingdom to the rest of Europe and to reach our shores. – The Hill


Kenya’s police chief, Joseph Boinnet, said Wednesday night that the fatalities had risen to 21 from 14, with six additional bodies retrieved from the attack site and the death of a police officer from injuries. The victims included an American and a British national. – New York Times

Islamist militants’ deadly 18-hour siege of an upscale complex here jolts a key U.S. ally in the war on terrorism and raises questions over how the Somalia-based insurgents have survived more than a decade of international military campaigns. – Wall Street Journal

After Jason Spindler graduated from the University of Texas at Austin in 2000, he moved to New York to work as an investment banker on Wall Street. Then 9/11 happened. That morning, as thousands of people fled from the collapsing World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan, Spindler did the opposite: He ran straight into the rubble and began pulling people out, his college roommate Kevin Yu told The Washington Post on Wednesday. – Washington Post

The International Criminal Court on Wednesday halted the release of former Ivory Coast president Laurent Gbagbo following a fresh appeal by prosecutors, a day after he was acquitted of crimes against humanity. – Agence France-Presse

Zimbabwe police armed with AK-47 rifles detained a prominent activist and pastor on Wednesday, part of more than 600 arrests, in a harsh crackdown over protests against dramatic fuel price hikes in the economically shattered country. A doctors’ group said it had treated more than 60 gunshot wounds in a “human rights crisis.” – Associated Press

Nicholas Kristof writes: These protests are unfolding in Sudan against the regime of President Omar al-Bashir, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court for genocide. Other presidents have committed genocide over the last century, but Bashir has the distinction of conducting three different genocides by my count: in South Sudan, in the Nuba Mountains and in Darfur. He is not just a serial killer; he is a serial genocidaire. – New York Times


The Pentagon, citing terrorism and espionage fears, is developing a plan to scrutinize prospective recruits with foreign ties, including some U.S. citizens, after a related effort targeting thousands of green-card holders was blocked by a federal judge last year. The new policy, still in development, will be distributed to the military services by no later than Feb. 15, according to two Defense Department officials and several department memos obtained by The Washington Post. – Washington Post

The Trump administration is seeking to expand the scope and sophistication of American missile defenses on a scale not seen since President Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” initiative in a new strategy that President Trump plans to roll out personally on Thursday alongside military leaders at the Pentagon. – Washington Post

In a separate report on global risks, the World Economic Forum, which produces the annual Davos confab of politicians, business leaders and academics, on Wednesday identified trade wars and rising political tensions as the biggest global threats. Cyberattacks and climate change were also high on that list. – Wall Street Journal

The U.S. Coast Guard conducts armed maritime patrols, inspects freight in Afghanistan and trains allied navies. But unlike the U.S. Army, Navy and Marine Corps, its 40,000 active-duty servicemembers are working without pay during the partial government shutdown. – Wall Street Journal

The Army is looking for replacements to the venerable drone, first flown in 1991, through its Future Tactical UAS program. In the nearly three decades since, every aspect of drone technology has seen some improvement, including materials used, sensors to communication hardware and software, and even the batteries that power those computers and sensors. – Defense News

The U.S. Navy is moving toward settling on an approach for recapitalizing the nation’s aged sealift fleet, moving away from a single common hull for five missions. The sealift fleet, which is facing the prospect of an imminent collapse in capacity due to the ships all reaching or exceeding their hull life according to the U.S. Army, is what the U.S. would use to transport up to 90 percent of Army and U.S. Marine Corps gear in the event of a major conflict overseas. – Defense News

There’s a growing sense of impatience among Capitol Hill legislators over the Navy’s pace for selecting a future frigate (FFG(X)) program design, the new chairman of the House Armed Services seapower and projection forces subcommittee said on Wednesday.The Navy is considering five possible frigate designs, and Congress is eagerly awaiting a decision, Rep. Joe Courtney (D-Conn.), said while speaking at the 2019 Surface Navy Association Symposium. – USNI News

If the Navy’s going to leverage revolutionary technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning to help make decisions in combat it needs to improve how it handles its data, Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Bill Moran said on Tuesday. – USNI News

With increasing threats abroad and anticipated tighter defense budgets ahead, Secretary of the Navy Richard V. Spencer will spend 2019 instilling a sense of urgency into how the Navy and Marine Corps operate. Since taking office, Spencer has focused on training, capabilities and the way the Navy and Marine Corps invest resources. Now, a year and a half on the job, the lethality of the force is better, but sailors and Marines must pivot to embrace change, Spencer said during his keynote address at the 2019 Surface Navy Association symposium. – USNI News

U.S. President Donald Trump has approved direct federal investment for suppliers of American bomb parts and chemicals, part of as much as $250 million in direct investments by the Pentagon to fix supply chain vulnerabilities, Defense News has learned. – Defense News

Carrie Cordero and Joshua A. Geltzer write: As the longest government shutdown in American history drags on, it’s not just hurting the morale of America’s federal work force and the broader American economy. It’s hurting our national security. Some of the damage is already plainly apparent—but in four crucial ways, its harms will persist long after the government reopens. – Center for a New American Security

Gen. Hawk Carlisle writes: President Donald Trump’s consideration of declaring a national emergency to fund a border wall carries significant risk for American war fighters, undoing the positive impact the administration and Congress have made on military readiness. Declaring an emergency for a chronic challenge to leverage defense funds could hyper-politicize the defense budget process. – Defense News

Long War

A Georgia man was charged Wednesday with plotting a terrorist attack on the White House after he allegedly told an undercover FBI agent he “wanted to do as much damage as possible” and hoped to be a martyr, according to court papers. – Washington Post

Two deadly terror attacks rocked Syria and Kenya and show that extremist groups such as Islamic State and Al-Shabab have not been dented in their ability to strike at the most sensitive and important targets. On Wednesday, an attack claimed by ISIS struck Americans meeting with locals in the sensitive town of Manbij in northern Syria. Four Americans were reported killed. In Nairobi, Al-Shabab attacked a luxury hotel on Tuesday and murdered more than 20 people. – Jerusalem Post

Adam Taylor writes: President Trump’s decision to remove U.S. troops stationed in Syria was predicated on a seemingly simple argument: The Islamic State, the extremist group that once controlled large swatches of that country and Iraq, had been defeated.“We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency,” the president tweeted on Dec. 19, using an acronym to refer to the group. – Washington Post

Trump Administration

Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked President Trump on Wednesday to scrap or delay his Jan. 29 State of the Union address amid the partial government shutdown, an extraordinary request that escalated the partisan battle over his border wall even as bipartisan groups of lawmakers pressed him to reopen the government and make room for compromise. – New York Times

The partial U.S. government shutdown is squeezing exporters that can’t get the licenses they need to send their products abroad, particularly those operating in sensitive industries such as defense and technology. – Wall Street Journal

Rudolph W. Giuliani claimed Wednesday night that he “never said there was no collusion” between President Trump’s campaign and Russia leading up to the 2016 presidential election. Appearing on CNN, host Chris Cuomo pointed out that the president’s lawyer appeared to contradict his own past statements about collusion as well as what Trump has repeatedly said. – Washington Post