Fdd's overnight brief

March 15, 2019

In The News


Iranian intelligence has hacked into the phone of Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, according to the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), and has taken all its contents – including sensitive information, Channel 12 reported on Thursday night. – Jerusalem Post

The United States aims to cut Iran’s crude exports by about 20 percent to below 1 million barrels per day (bpd) from May by requiring importing countries to reduce purchases to avoid US sanctions, two sources familiar with the matter told Reuters. – Reuters

New evidence disclosed in Iran’s secret nuclear files taken by the Mossad show that its underground Fordow nuclear facility is older than it has admitted, according to a think-tank report. This discovery could be significant, says the Institute for Science and International Security, because it shows that Iran is still lying to the international community about a nuclear facility that has no reasonable use other than military. – Jerusalem Post

Thousands of Iranian filmmakers, actors, and other artists are on a secret government blacklist that bans them from working or having their work shown in public. That is the startling revelation made by the ex-head of Iran’s state-run TV and radio, the first time a former official has disclosed the existence of such a list. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Kevjn Lim and Gil Baram write: Yet the national-security significance of Iran’s space program far surpasses its implications for ICBMs. Iran’s growing presence in outer space, especially when combined with its growing capabilities in cyberspace, strengthens all aspects of its hard power. – Foreign Policy

Anna Ahronheim writes: Six years after senior Hezbollah operative Ali Mussa Daqduq was released from an Iraqi prison for the murder of five American servicemen, he has resurfaced mere miles from Israel’s border on the Syrian Golan Heights as the mastermind of a new and dangerous Hezbollah terror network. – Jerusalem Post


Syrian government and Russian airstrikes on the last rebel stronghold in Syria have intensified in recent days, raising fears of a military offensive that the United Nations has long warned would cause a humanitarian disaster. – Wall Street Journal  

Islamic State militants along with women and children surrendered in the hundreds to U.S.-backed forces in eastern Syria on Thursday as the jihadists lost ground in their last shred of territory. – Reuters

The death toll in Syria’s northwestern Idlib province has risen to 15 following Syrian government forces launched air strikes in the rebel-held area, the Syria Civil Defence said on Thursday. – Al Jazeera  

The United Nations won almost $7 bln in aid pledges for Syria on Thursday, overcoming fatigue among donors after eight years of civil war and sidestepping divisions over how to deal with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. – Reuters


Two rockets were fired at Tel Aviv from the Gaza Strip on Thursday — the first time since 2014 that rockets had reached the area — in an attack that led to retaliatory airstrikes by Israel hours later. – New York Times

Israeli military aircraft bombed Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip early on Friday, hours after two rockets were launched at Tel Aviv in the first such attack since a 2014 war. – Reuters

The growing assumption among army officials is that last night’s rockets were fired from Gaza toward Tel Aviv by mistake, a defense official tells reporters. – Times of Israel

Pro-Hezbollah and pro-Iran regime media and social media accounts lit up on Thursday night, after two rockets were fired at Tel Aviv from Gaza. It indicates the close attention paid to tensions in Israel between Israel and terrorist groups in Gaza. – Jerusalem Post

A month after a crisis erupted between Israel and Poland over Polish history of the Holocaust, Polish President Andrzej Duda outlined a path on Thursday for how it can be resolved, saying that the first move must be made by Israel. – Jerusalem Post

Two Jerusalem-based institutes are joining forces in an effort to encourage the Palestinian Authority (PA) to stamp out incitement and violent themes in its school curriculum. – Algemeiner

In direct breach of its commitments, the Palestinian Red Crescent Society (PRCS) is set to host a BDS conference, the Palestinian Media Watch (PMW) reported. – Arutz Sheva

Raphael Ahren writes: Two rockets were launched from Gaza towards Tel Aviv on Thursday evening. And while it was not immediately clear which Palestinian terror group was responsible — both Hamas and Islamic Jihad possess the Iranian-made longer-range Fajr missiles, but both denied any involvement — one thing seemed immediately clear: these two rockets, whoever fired them, have brought Gaza to front and center of the current election campaign. – Times of Israel

Anshel Pfeffer writes: Anti-Israel and pro-Iranian conspiracy theorists have tried to establish the narrative that Israel somehow had a hand in the foundation of ISIS. The truth is that while Netanyahu always saw Iran as a much bigger threat than ISIS, he was one of the first leaders to identify the significance of the rise of Islamic State in the power vacuum that had been created in Syria and Iraq. – Haaretz

Becket Adams writes: The Times’ false citation of Fiske as a supposed AIPAC authority even led Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., to claim last week — falsely, but through no fault of her own — that the group is targeting her over her support for anti-Semitic Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn. Neither Ocasio-Cortez nor Omar are being targeted by AIPAC, though you’d think otherwise from reading the Times’ coverage. Serious question: Between the Fiske and “demolished Palestinian communities” errors, at what point does the Times cut its losses and simply retract this story? – Washington Examiner

New Zealand Shooting

Shootings at two mosques in the southern New Zealand city of Christchurch Friday left 49 people dead in an attack the prime minister described as one of the darkest days in the country’s history. – Wall Street Journal  

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says the national security threat level has been lifted from low to high after deadly shootings at two mosques. – Associated Press

An international cricket match between New Zealand and Bangladesh has been canceled after players from the visiting team narrowly avoided a mass shooting at a mosque in Christchurch on Friday. – Associated Press

The gunman who opened fire in a New Zealand mosque Friday local time reportedly livestreamed the slaughter on Facebook. A disturbing video appears to show the gunman executing people inside the Masjid Al Noor mosque in Christchurch. Another video shows bodies piled up inside. – New York Post

Political and Islamic leaders across Asia expressed their disgust at the deadly shooting at two mosques in New Zealand on Friday as some revealed their citizens had been caught up in the bloodshed. – Reuters

Gulf States

The head of the state-backed Saudi human rights commission dismissed an international investigation into the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi as interference on Thursday, and said everyone accused was already facing justice in the kingdom. – Reuters

Members of the US Congress, activists and families of detainees have slammed Saudi Arabia’s human rights record while urging the United States government to take action. The murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi last year and the ongoing detention of rights activists were the main issues on the table at the press conference organised by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in Washington on Thursday. – Al Jazeera  

Saudi Arabia says those responsible for the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi have been brought to justice. The head of its Human Right’s Commission made a statement at a UN human rights conference in Geneva without giving any details. – Al Jazeera  

A Bahraini court sentenced 167 people arrested in 2017 at a sit-in outside the home of Bahrain’s leading Shi’ite Muslim cleric to between six months and 10 years in prison at a trial in late February, court documents and lawyers said. – Reuters

Middle East & North Africa

Turkey’s pending purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defense system presents a national security problem for NATO, which would not be able to deploy F-35 aircraft alongside the Russian systems, senior U.S. officials said on Thursday. – Reuters

Based in the east of Libya, Khalifa Haftar has made no secret of his ambition to capture Tripoli, the northwestern seat of the internationally-recognized government. His threats were long dismissed as bombast, but a lightening advance through the south this year has put Haftar in control of most oil resources and could embolden him to make his much-vaunted final push. – Bloomberg

Michael Rubin writes: Every Jew who remains in Turkey, or even visits Turkey as a tourist, now puts their life and freedom in their hands. As Turkey’s economy falters and with so many Turks already in prison, Erdogan is looking for scapegoats. Turkish synagogues may be protected in theory by Turkish police and private security, but European intelligence already believes Erdogan has greenlit Islamic State terrorist attacks in other instances. The best option for Turkish Jews is to cease denial, overcome inertia, and to leave now, and quickly. – Washington Examiner

Shukur Khilkhal writes: The Trump administration is well aware of the role of Iranian influence, and is pressuring these groups in order to neutralize their influence. […] If the U.S. administration hopes to be effective, it must create new platforms for dialogue with groups that express willingness for a moderate approach, and must also create strong, genuine partnerships with its allies in Iraq in order to develop joint plans that advance the interests of all parties and constrain the country’s growing Iranian influence. – Washington Institute

Salim Abdullah el-Haj writes: In the past several weeks, peaceful mass protests have spread through the streets of Algeria in response to the announcement that President Abdelaziz Bouteflika would run for a new term in the upcoming presidential elections. In an attempt to calm the Algerian street, Bouteflika was forced to make a statement last Monday declaring his intention to abandon his bid for a fifth term. […]Nevertheless, the scenes of protest continue in a manner reminiscent of the Arab Spring, when young people across a number of Arab countries also took to the streets to demand new economic and social prospects. – Washington Institute

Bailey Ulbricht writes: Several months after formally breaking with al-Qaeda in January 2017, the Salafi-Jihadist group Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) deviated significantly from its prior methodology when it gave the Turkish Army access to portions of territory it controlled in Syria. Though HTS was careful to avoid direct military collaboration with Turkey, it welcomed the Turkish Army’s presence as an additional force against the Syrian regime and secular opposition groups. This caused a significant rift among the group’s supporters and the al-Qaeda community, who accused HTS of thwarting its own jihad by forming relations with Turkey, considered by Salafi-Jihadists to be an apostate. – Middle East Institute

Korean Peninsula

North Korea is considering suspending denuclearization talks with the United States unless Washington changes its stance after the breakdown of a summit meeting in Hanoi between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, a senior official said Friday. – Washington Post

Malaysian prosecutors on Thursday refused to dismiss the case against a Vietnamese woman accused of assassinating the half brother of North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, just days after her co-defendant was set free with charges dropped. – New York Times

Chung-in Moon writes: When the U.S.–North Korean summit in Hanoi ended early, with no agreement whatsoever, many South Koreans were shocked. The disappointing conclusion shook the public’s faith in summit diplomacy and undermined Seoul’s efforts to foster parallel processes: for denuclearizing North Korea, building a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula, and fostering inter-Korean economic cooperation. In short, South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s strategy for bettering relations among Seoul, Washington, and Pyongyang after the summit was shattered. The summit may have failed, but Seoul observed several encouraging signs. – Foreign Affairs  


China made last-minute changes to a proposed foreign-investment law, trying to address U.S. complaints about forced technology transfer and bolster a compromise seen as crucial to striking a trade deal with Washington. – Wall Street Journal  

As Beijing grows wary of pro-independence groups seeking to forge closer ties in Hong Kong and Taiwan, activists say they are coming under increased surveillance and harassment from pro-China media outlets and unofficial “operatives.” – Reuters

A summit to seal a trade deal between U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping will not happen at the end of March as previously discussed because more work is needed in U.S.-China negotiations, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said on Thursday. – Reuters

China’s premier denied Beijing tells its tech companies to spy abroad and promised Friday to treat foreign and domestic competitors equally, seeking to defuse tensions with Washington and Europe over technology, market access and other irritants. – Associated Press

China on Thursday rejected comments by Salvadoran President-elect Nayib Bukele, who accused the Asian power of not playing by the rules and intervening in other nations’ affairs. – Reuters

NATO is weighing up whether to take action in response to security concerns about Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei amid US concerns over the company’s relationship with Beijing, the head of the military alliance said. – Al Jazeera  

China is leading the world in hypersonic technology due to Beijing setting a clear investment strategy to its industrial base, a panel of national security experts said Monday. – USNI News

The United States’ top general said on Thursday that the Chinese military was benefiting from the work Alphabet Inc’s Google was doing in China, where the technology giant has long sought to have a bigger presence. – Reuters

Eli Lake writes: For now, America’s Five Eyes partners and other allies will have to wait to see whether the campaign against Huawei survives a U.S.-China trade agreement. In the meantime, Trump should listen to his spies and his generals. No trade deal is worth letting China become the world leader in eavesdropping. – Bloomberg


In a sign that the Taliban see a peace deal with the United States as imminent, one of their top leaders released a rare audio message on Thursday seeking to ease the concerns of the insurgency’s own fighters — and those of Afghans who fear that an agreement could let the Taliban return to power and roll back human rights. – New York Times

Afghanistan’s national security adviser on Thursday accused the U.S. special envoy leading talks with the Taliban of undermining the Afghan government to advance his own political ambitions, an unusual broadside that exposed a widening rift between Kabul and Washington. – Wall Street Journal  

Relations between the Trump administration and the government of Afghanistan fell to a new low this week, as they exchanged public accusations of bad faith and exposed deep differences over U.S. negotiations with the Taliban. – Washington Post

Authorities are investigating an errant raid by the United States forces on an Afghanistan military base in the southern part of the country. The attack killed at least five Afghan troops. The soldiers were killed by friendly fire on Wednesday in what was supposed to be a precision air attack by US forces supporting Afghan soldiers battling armed fighters near Tarin Kot in Uruzgan province. – Al Jazeera  


Documents unsealed Thursday in a lawsuit have shed new light on how hackers breached Democratic Party email accounts before the 2016 election. The documents include a forensic analysis by a former top official in the FBI’s cybercrime division, which concluded that a Web server company owned by a Russian Internet entrepreneur was used by Russian operatives to hack Democratic Party leaders. – Washington Post

Paul Whelan, an American citizen imprisoned in Russia on espionage charges, sharply criticized the handling of his case on Thursday and suggested he was being poorly treated at the Moscow prison where he has spent the past three months. – Washington Post

A Russian-made Soyuz rocket lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on Thursday, carrying three astronauts into space, two of whom survived a mid-air rocket failure in October. – Reuters

The comprehensive construction and upgrade of new airfields in the high Arctic has been practically completed and we are flying there and back, says Major General Igor Kozhin, leader of the Russian Naval Air Force. – Business Insider


NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said Thursday that alliance members increased defense spending in 2018 for the fourth year in a row, highlighting a slow turnaround amid White House criticism that allies are overly reliant on U.S. military power. – Washington Post

British lawmakers voted to delay the U.K.’s departure from the European Union, setting up Prime Minister Theresa May for a pivotal week ahead in which she will likely aim to coerce recalcitrant elements of her Conservative Party into backing a deal they have soundly rejected twice. – Wall Street Journal  

The delicate relations between two former Yugoslav republics took a bitter and bizarre turn on Thursday as Bosnia and Herzegovina’s security minister accused Croatia of concocting a plot intended to falsely paint Bosnia as a terrorist hotbed. – New York Times

President Trump, perhaps not wanting to spoil the chummy mood of the annual St. Patrick’s Day-themed visit, announced at the start of his meetings with the Irish prime minister Thursday that he was not going to comment on Brexit, on which he and his guest vigorously disagree. And then, of course, he commented at length. – Washington Post

In February 2018, Mr. Kuciak, 27, was shot dead in his home. His 27-year-old fiancée, Martina Kusnirova, was also killed there. The crime tore at the heart of a nation, drew tens of thousands of people to the streets in anger and disgust, and eventually forced the resignation of the prime minister, Robert Fico, and of other top government officials. Slovak authorities announced on Thursday that they had charged Mr. Kocner with ordering the murder of Mr. Kuciak and hiring a hit man to kill him. – New York Times

Volkswagen’s chief executive has apologized for using a phrase that echoed a Nazi-era slogan, “Arbeit macht frei,” or “Work sets you free,” that was emblazoned on the gates of Auschwitz and other concentration camps, saying the connection did not occur to him at the time. – New York Times

The president of the European Parliament apologized on Thursday after he said that Benito Mussolini, Italy’s fascist former leader, had done positive things despite leading his country into war and installing a totalitarian regime. – New York Times

The European Union must increase pressure on Britain to move forward on its exit from the bloc, the European Parliament’s Brexit coordinator told German television on Thursday, after British lawmakers voted overwhelmingly to seek a delay. – Reuters

France has decided to freeze the assets of Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) founder and leader Masood Azhar, the French government said on Friday. A joint statement issued by the French interior ministry, finance ministry and foreign ministry added that France would discuss putting Masood Azhar on a European Union list of people suspected of being involved in terrorism. – Reuters

A news kiosk inside Poland’s parliament was found to be selling a newspaper with an article instructing readers on “How to recognize a Jew”, drawing accusations that lawmakers were happy to tolerate anti-Semitism. – Reuters

Fareed Zakaria writes: One of the great strengths of democracy is that bad policies are often reversed. That’s a consolation when we look at the flurry of pandering programs being enacted as the populist wave works its way through the Western world. When a new government is elected, things can be undone. Except for Brexit, which, if it goes through, might prove to be the most profound legacy of this decade. – Washington Post

Tom Rogan writes: Trump should stand up for NATO without equivocation while continuing to invest in a military capable of defeating any threat. But NATO’s report also gives Trump another lesson. It proves that the president’s fury at states like Germany and Belgium is both necessary and morally required. Next time Trump speaks to NATO, he should directly rebuke by name those leaders who dare laugh, such as Merkel and Belgium’s Charles Michel. He would do well to say next that NATO is relocating to London or Paris and that Germany is losing its U.S. military bases to Poland. Let’s see if they laugh then. – Washington Examiner

Latin America

After pulling all remaining American diplomats from Venezuela on Thursday, the Trump administration warned the country’s leader, Nicolás Maduro, that any pressure on Juan Guaidó, the self-declared interim president who has the White House’s support, would be met with an “immediate reaction” from the international community. – New York Times

Federal prosecutors on Thursday brought terrorism and other serious charges against five people arrested last year on a New Mexico compound, alleging in a new indictment that the group was gathering weapons and training in their squalid quarters to kill FBI and military personnel. – Washington Post

The attack on Sunday was a chilling sign of how President Nicolás Maduro is increasingly relying on paramilitary groups as he clings to power. This week, he publicly urged the motorcycle-riding “colectivos” to intensify their efforts, as the country teetered on the edge of economic collapse and a U.S.-backed opposition movement pressed for his ouster. – Washington Post

All U.S. diplomats remaining in Venezuela left the country on Thursday, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said, amid a political crisis over the legitimacy of President Nicolas Maduro’s 2018 re-election. – Reuters

The United States has revoked hundreds of visas from Venezuelans since Monday, nearly a third of which belonged to former diplomats from Venezuela and their families, and is urging U.S. citizens in Venezuela to flee the country days after the United States withdrew its diplomats from Venezuela, the State Department said on Thursday. – Reuters

The United States is considering imposing financial sanctions that could prohibit Visa Inc , Mastercard Inc and other financial institutions from processing transactions in Venezuela, a senior Trump administration official said on Thursday. – Reuters

The United States will strengthen military ties with Brazil to a level usually reserved for NATO allies during President Jair Bolsonaro’s visit to Washington next week, boosting growing cooperation between the Americas’ two largest militaries, two Brazilian government officials said on Thursday. – Reuters

Cuba denounced the Trump administration on Thursday for continuing to refer to health incidents among their diplomats in Havana as “attacks” without presenting any evidence, saying it was part of a broader campaign to damage bilateral relations. – Reuters

Cuba has jettisoned rhetorical restraint toward the United States and is broadcasting footage of military defense exercises in the face of threats and new sanctions from the administration of President Donald Trump. – Reuters

Venezuelans resumed work Thursday after a weeklong hiatus forced by an unprecedented nationwide blackout, but President Nicolas Maduro’s government faced fresh problems including a “terrorist attack” on an oil facility. – Agence France-Presse

Brazil’s energy minister said the country plans to sign an accord next week with President Donald J. Trump that could pave the way for U.S. companies to explore the Latin American country for uranium and invest in new nuclear-power plants. – Bloomberg

Moises Rendon writes: Venezuela is becoming uninhabitable. The country with both the worst humanitarian crisis in the region and the highest inflation in the world is now facing a power outage that started on March 7. […] With partial or no electricity, running water, or functional telecommunications, the conditions inside Venezuela are similar to that of a country following a devastating natural disaster, such as a tsunami or a hurricane—except this crisis was entirely man-made. […] Despite the unprecedented humanitarian emergency, Nicolás Maduro continues to respond with further repression. – Center for Strategic and International Studies  

Cyber Security

A page run by a rebel group that controls a stretch of jungle-covered territory near China’s border, known as the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, had disappeared. […]The bans are the latest sign of Facebook’s growing power in many countries, where its control over the flow of information and public discourse makes it akin to national broadcaster, public utility and political regulator all rolled into one. – New York Times

A top US admiral explained Wednesday that the Navy is keeping high-level promotions a secret because hackers from China and other adversarial countries are targeting flag officers. – Business Insider

Army Gen. Paul Nakasone, head of US Cyber Command, laid out the escalating threats, following a Navy review released this week that described significant breaches of naval systems and concluded that the service is losing the cyber war. Speaking during a subcommittee hearing, Nakasone said the US is now prepared to use cyber operations more aggressively to strike back, as the nation faces growing cyberattacks and threats of interference in the 2020 presidential elections. – Associated Press

Robert H. Scales writes: Nowhere is the gap between sloganeering and meaningful doctrine more evident than at the tactical level. The thesis of multi-domain operations is that emerging technologies have added new dimensions to the traditional combined and joint layers of warfare: artillery, infantry, armor and air power. These new dimensions include space, cyber, electronic warfare, and information, among others. The literature suggests that new scientific developments will influence warfare principally in space and cyberspace. – War on the Rocks

Jeff Kosseff writes: It is worth understanding the intelligence, security, and law enforcement benefits of the open Internet that Section 230 has created. Rather than communicating exclusively via encrypted and anonymized tools on the dark web, some bad actors are fully visible to U.S. intelligence and law enforcement, providing valuable intelligence about threats. Changes to Section 230 may reduce or eliminate many of these benefits. – War on the Rocks


Acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan arrived on Capitol Hill for his second-ever public testimony before Congress on Thursday, hoping to make the case for a $750 billion national defense budget he crafted to compete with China and Russia. – Washington Post

The U.S. military will begin building and testing new, previously banned missiles following the United States’s expected withdrawal from a Cold War arms control agreement with Russia, a move that some say could set the stage for a non-nuclear missile race in Europe, the Pacific, and beyond. – Foreign Policy

The Senate voted 59-41 on Thursday to overturn President Donald Trump’s national emergency declaration, citing in part concerns with plans to divert billions of dollars from the Pentagon budget to build a southern border wall — a plan critics say would harm military readiness. – Defense News

U.S. acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan has rejected reports that the Pentagon plans to force allies to pay sharply higher costs for the right to host U.S. forces on their territory. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

The acting secretary of defense defended the Pentagon’s decision to retire a Nimitz-class carrier 25 years early during a hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday. – USNI News

David Ignatius writes: This battle between past and future is the hidden drama within the gargantuan $750 billion fiscal 2020 defense budget proposal. Nearly everyone favors high-tech weapons to combat great-power adversaries in the new millennium, in principle. But meanwhile, the military-industrial-congressional complex, as John McCain termed it, keeps pumping vast sums to sustain legacy weapons systems. – Washington Post

Rick Berger writes: The Trump administration wants to make it more expensive for American allies to host U.S. military personnel in their country. It reportedly intends to ask allies to drastically increase the amount they pay for hosting U.S. forces, sparking new fears that the United States will eventually withdraw from these countries entirely. Under the so-called “cost plus 50” proposal, allies would pay for the full cost of hosting U.S. units, plus a 50 percent premium. Germany and Japan will walk the plank first. – War on the Rocks

Trump Administration

The House voted overwhelmingly and in bipartisan fashion to urge the Justice Department to publicly release the entirety of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report into Russian interference in the 2016 election, once completed. – Washington Post

President Trump’s pick to lead the World Bank, Treasury official David Malpass, will almost certainly assume the bank’s presidency this year, after the deadline for countries to nominate candidates passed with no other challengers. – Wall Street Journal  

After displays of alleged anti-Semitism by Democrats and deep divisions within the party over what to do about it, White House officials and their close political allies believe President Trump has a unique opportunity to win support from Jewish voters in the 2020 election, despite the group’s longstanding loyalty to the Democratic Party. – Washington Examiner