Fdd's overnight brief

March 27, 2020

In The News


The Trump administration on Thursday levied another round of sanctions against Iran, targeting 20 companies, officials and business executives it says have helped U.S.-designated terror groups attack American forces in Iraq. – Wall Street Journal

Iranian media reports nearly 300 people have been killed and more than 1,000 sickened so far by ingesting methanol across the Islamic Republic, where drinking alcohol is banned and where those who do rely on bootleggers. – Associated Press  

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani wants to tap the country’s sovereign wealth fund for $1 billion to support a healthcare system overstretched by a major coronavirus outbreak, the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency reported. – Bloomberg 

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani on Wednesday denied the country is suffering a shortage of doctors, nurses, and hospital beds while it battles the COVID-19 pandemic, as his government appears to reconsider its soft approach to curbs on free movement. – RUDAW

Chief Commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps Major General Hossein Salami said that Americans say that they want to help Iranian people at the current condition that the country is fighting against coronavirus, is nothing but ‘demagoguery, deceptive’. –  Mehr News Agency

An Iranian artist who organized a Holocaust-mocking cartoon competition has turned his hand to a new topic: coronavirus conspiracy theories. – Jerusalem Post

Any sanctions relief for Iran during the COVID-19 pandemic must be linked to a pledge by Tehran that it would halt its nuclear program and its terrorist actives, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Danny Danon told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday. – Jerusalem Post 

In a March 22, 2020 speech broadcast live on Iranian television, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei reiterated that the U.S. created the coronavirus and is spreading it worldwide, and explained to the public that “demons are assisting the enemies.”  Iranian news agencies omitted this quote from their reporting on the speech. – Middle East Media Research Institute 

Tom Rogan writes: The U.S. Intelligence Community has now made a high confidence assessment that Levinson died in Iranian custody at some point in the past several years. That assessment is based on a range of evidence but centers on intercepted Iranian communications showing officials’ uncertainty about how to handle increasing U.S. pressure over Levinson’s fate. […]Ultimately, Iran let Levinson die of his health conditions or maybe even eliminated him. Either way, Iran is directly culpable, and the U.S. should ensure that consequences follow. – Washington Examiner

Farzin Nadimi writes: Finally, the pandemic’s serious effects inside Iran should not be regarded as evidence that the Iranian military threat has decreased. Washington should continue taking the IRGC threat to its regional military presence seriously, deploying a viable air and missile defense capability in Iraq and perhaps even Afghanistan in order to deter any attacks. And while it cannot maintain a two-carrier force posture in the region indefinitely, it still needs to maintain a demonstrated qualitative and quantitative advantage in Iran’s neighborhood—and, perhaps more important, credibility that it will respond at the right time and place. – Washington Institute 

Anthony H. Cordesman writes: It should be stressed that all of the current trends in both Iran’s missile forces and in the speculation regarding its efforts to develop and deploy weapons of mass destruction continue to assume that the Iranian regime will give priority to military forces over civil needs in spite of the steady hardening of U.S. sanctions and the growing impact of the Coronavirus. – Center for Strategic and International Studies 


The mission for U.S. forces in Syria is now more complex — and possibly more dangerous. Though U.S. forces are doing a variety of things in Syria, 29-year-old Quataert says, “our primary mission is to secure the oil infrastructure for use of our partner force.” – NPR

Idlib’s population of 3 million, already buckling under extreme shortages of medicine, is considered to be one of the world’s most defenseless against the virus. – CNN

Steven A. Cook writes: The almost decadelong conflict in Syria has already destroyed large parts of that country, contributed to instability in the region, and altered politics in Europe. Now it threatens to compound these problems through the dire threat that is the novel coronavirus. In a normal world, great powers would marshal the resources necessary to meet the challenge, leading a global effort of expertise, technology, money, and materiel to save lives everywhere, including in Syria. In reality, the United States and China are busy sniping at each other over responsibility for the pandemic.- Foreign Policy


Turkish-backed far right militants cut off the water to 400,000 Syrians, including tens of thousands of children, during the coronavirus pandemic, according to reports in eastern Syria. – Jerusalem Post

Can Dundar writes: By obstructing science and misallocating vital resources, political Islam in Turkey has become a direct threat to the health of the nation. Turks now find themselves fighting the virus even as they confront the ignorance that leads to bad policy. – Washington Post

Michael Rubin writes: Too often, diplomatic culture also undercuts diplomacy’s effectiveness. Too many ambassadors believe the headlines that derive from showering autocratic leaders with false praise signals diplomatic success. […]Satterfield’s efforts to praise Turkey’s government will not change Erdogan’s attitudes toward the U.S., nor will it diminish rampant anti-Americanism inside Turkey. If anything, it continues the U.S. Embassy in Ankara’s tendency to prioritize sycophancy toward Turkey’s leaders over a realistic assessment of their actions. – Washington Examiner

Ali Bakeer writes: As the Turkish defense sector grows though, it will need to overcome significant internal challenges to sustain its momentum in the long run, such as halting brain drain, securing large-scale funding, accessing critical markets, and avoiding potential negative knock-on effects from Turkey’s foreign policy endeavors that might deprive it of advanced technology and important customers. The challenges are substantial, but as the success of the Syrian drone campaign has made clear, Turkey’s defense industry has undoubtedly made significant progress.  – Middle East Institute


Israel’s opposition leader splintered his political party to pursue the formation of a unity government, a move that creates a path for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to extend his tenure after three elections in one year. – Wall Street Journal

When Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced late Tuesday night that Mossad Director Yossi Cohen was taking over the country’s efforts to purchase medical equipment abroad, it was not a huge surprise. […]It is also not a surprise that Netanyahu would turn to Cohen for a mission of the utmost primacy after the Mossad chief has led dramatic and daring efforts against Iran for years. – Jerusalem Post

Most Palestinians support the cooperation between the Palestinian Authority and Israel to prevent the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, according to a public opinion poll published by the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion (PCPO). – Jerusalem Post

The Israel Defense Forces said it shot down a drone that was flown by the Hezbollah terror group into Israeli airspace from Lebanon on Thursday morning. – Times of Israel

Scarcely two years ago Gaza’s border with Israel was a deadly front line, with black smoke swirling around thousands of Palestinian protesters as they faced off against Israeli troops firing live ammunition. […]with the highly contagious coronavirus spreading, organisers and Palestinian militant factions are discussing whether to cancel or scale down commemorative events. – Reuters

Michal Yaari writes: In just a few years, Israel and Qatar relations has evolved from enmity to strategic partnership regarding the Gaza Strip. This does not mean Qatar has abandoned its historic ties with Israel’s enemies, but its view of the Palestinian issue is no longer based on binary concepts of assailant and victim, but rather on recognition of the joint responsibility of the various elements for the Gaza crisis. – Jerusalem Post


The Iran-backed groups trying to drive U.S. troops out of Iraq have moved to a more clandestine approach that further complicates the Trump administration’s response to attacks against American forces. – Wall Street Journal 

Three French nationals and an Iraqi who work for a French non-governmental organisation have been released in Iraq more than two months after they went missing, French President Emmanuel Macron’s office said on Thursday. – Reuters  

Troops with the U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State began departing an air base in northern Iraq on Thursday, handing it over fully to the Iraqi military as part of a reduction of foreign forces in the country. – Reuters 

Arabian Peninsula

Many refiners in Europe and the U.S. are refusing to take more Saudi crude being offered at cut-rate prices, according to Saudi officials and oil traders, threatening the sustainability of a price war and battle for market share started by Riyadh. – Wall Street Journal

Yemen’s warring parties welcomed a U.N. call for an immediate truce on Thursday as the country entered its sixth year of a conflict that has unleashed a humanitarian crisis, rendering it more vulnerable to any coronavirus outbreak. – Reuters

The leader of Yemen’s Houthi rebels on Thursday declared his willingness to free several Saudi captives in exchange for the release of Hamas members recently detained in the kingdom, an unprecedented statement that signaled Iran’s regional reach. – Times of Israel 

Saudi-Led coalition intercepted and destroyed drones launched by Iran-aligned Yemen’s Houthis towards “civilian targets” in Saudi cities of Abha and Khamis Mushait, state news agency spa said early Friday, citing the coalition spokesman Colonel Turki al-Malki. – Reuters

A group of Republican senators are saying that Saudi Arabia should leave OPEC and instead become a “free market energy powerhouse.” – The Hill

Middle East & North Africa

European Union nations reached an agreement on Thursday to launch a naval mission in the Mediterranean Sea to enforce a UN-mandated arms embargo on Libya, according to a diplomat familiar with the matter. – Bloomberg

New clashes between the warring sides in Libya are threatening to push the six-year conflict into a dangerous new phase of confrontation just as the country braces for the spread of coronavirus and world powers focus their attention elsewhere. – Financial Times

Zvi Bar’el writes: The coronavirus seems to be becoming a prime strategic factor in military and long-term policy planning in the Middle East. It may present an opening for a series of interim or even final accords that would replace direct combat, due to the need to reduce military activity by regular armies and militias alike. – Haaretz


As China moves forward with expelling almost all American journalists from three major American newspapers, Trump administration officials have intensified discussions over whether to evict employees of Chinese media outlets who they say mainly act as spies. – New York Times

Worried that international travelers might trigger a second wave of coronavirus infections, China announced late Thursday night that it was suspending practically all entry to the country by foreigners and was halting almost all international passenger flights as well. – New York Times

For two countries that revel in bitter memories of suffering at the hands of foreign intruders, the gruesome events on the Amur in 1900 present a ticklish problem. Russia and China now have close economic and political ties, and are bound together by shared wariness of the West and by highly selective memories of their own often fraught pasts. – New York Times 

The leaders of the world’s two biggest economies finally spoke by phone in a call Mr. Trump initiated, according to China’s official Xinhua News Agency on Friday. – Wall Street Journal

Chinese officials are underreporting the number of coronavirus patients in the country, President Trump said. – Washington Examiner

President Trump said Thursday that he will speak with Chinese President Xi Jinping to discuss the coronavirus pandemic. – New York Post

Editorial: In short, China must suffer severe consequences for its actions, but more importantly, for the irresponsibility underlying them. China’s regime, it should be clear by now, is a danger to anyone dealing with it. The coronavirus itself might not be “Chinese,” but its global spread is the Chinese Communist Party’s most important contribution to the world this century. – Washington Examiner

Michael McFaul writes: After the Cuban missile crisis, U.S. and Soviet leaders, and especially American and Soviet scientists, learned that on nuclear issues, we were, as Siegfried Hecker characterized it, “doomed to cooperate.” The coronavirus pandemic should teach Chinese and American leaders — not to mention scientists, doctors and health-care officials in both countries — that even rivals are sometimes doomed to cooperate. – Washington Post

Newt Gingrich writes: Watching the Chinese Communist dictatorship mismanage the initial coronavirus epidemic, cover it up and then lie about it has been infuriating. But it is also a good lesson in how dangerous and how profoundly dishonest the dictatorship is. […]The simple fact is that Communist-ruled China has a long record as a source of potential epidemics and pandemics. – Fox News


Just days after the United States threatened to withdraw $1 billion in aid over a political crisis that risks upending the U.S.-Taliban peace deal signed last month, the Afghan government and the Taliban took steps that could move the two sides closer to beginning formal talks. – Washington Post

Afghanistan’s government late on Thursday announced a 21-member team to negotiate with the Taliban in a tentative sign of progress for the United States-brokered peace deal. – Reuters 

A small explosion has disrupted the funeral services for 25 members of Afghanistan’s Sikh community who were killed earlier this week in an attack by an Islamic State gunman on their religious compound. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty 


U.S. President Donald Trump has signed into law an act that requires increased U.S. support for Taiwan internationally, which will likely infuriate a China already angry with Trump’s criticism of the handling of the coronavirus outbreak. – Reuters   

Kazakhstan’s National Security Committee has detained a man suspected of planning a bomb attack in the capital, Nur-Sultan, on behalf of Islamic State, the security body said on Thursday. – Reuters  

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) said its board has approved an emergency $121 million disbursement to Kyrgyzstan to help the Central Asian nation deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, in what could be the first in a series of such moves. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty


Britain’s navy said on Thursday it had shadowed seven Russian warships after detecting high levels of activity by Russian vessels off its coastline. – Reuters

Russian President Vladimir Putin told the G20 video-summit on Thursday that participating countries need a common plan to support their economies amid the coronavirus outbreak and he proposed a moratorium on sanctions related to essential goods. – Reuters

Matthew Melino and Heather A. Conley write: Russia’s renewed military presence in the Arctic at sites like these secures its territory and guarantees its freedom of operation. This increase in investment and capacity also restricts the movement and access of NATO and potentially China through interdiction capabilities in both the maritime and air domains. Most critically, Russia is signaling the military capability to potentially project power over the Arctic “avenues of approach” to the United States and shape the future of this increasingly vital and contentious region. – Center for Strategic and International Studies

Heather A. Conley, Matthew Melino and  Joseph S. Bermudez Jr. write: Clearly, all that is announced by the Kremlin when it comes to it military posture in the Arctic is not necessarily true. This is especially true regarding Tiksi Airbase today. It appears that Tiksi’s value may be its part in a growing radio-electronic warfare element. […]It will be important to watch the use and integration of these “dual-use” outposts within future snap and large-scale exercises. This will help us better understand how they could operationally fit into Russia’s Arctic military strategy. – Center for Strategic and International Studies


The European Union marked the 25th anniversary of its open-border Schengen agreement on Thursday with all its land borders shut or subject to heavy checks imposed in an effort to curb the spread of the coronavirus. – Reuters

Russia’s military planeloads of aid to Italy to combat the spread of coronavirus have exposed the European Union’s failure to provide swift help to a member in crisis and handed President Vladimir Putin a publicity coup at home and abroad. – Reuters

European Union leaders have given North Macedonia and Albania formal approval to begin talks to join the bloc, two days after EU ministers gave the green light for the small Balkan nations to begin the process. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty  

The German air force will reportedly buy up to 90 Eurofighters, 30 F/A-18E/F Super Hornets and 15 EA-18G Growlers to replace the remainder of its Panavia Tornado fighter jet fleet, but the split procurement doesn’t offer an easy answer for Germany’s requirement to field a nuclear-capable jet, a U.K. defense think tank said. – Defense News 

Germany’s top official tasked with combating antisemitism warned on Thursday that “Jews and Israel” have become the main targets in a flurry of hate speech that is grounded in the coronavirus pandemic. – Algemeiner


Mali’s main opposition leader Soumaila Cisse is being held hostage with six members of his delegation, his party said on Thursday, after they were attacked on the campaign trail in a region where jihadists often strike. – Reuters   

A separatist militia in Cameroon is to down its weapons for a fortnight so people can be tested for coronavirus. – BBC 

These are some of the special forces from a number of Western countries who have been fighting jihadists in the Sahel for years. Many Western army and intelligence officials see extremists in the region posing a greater danger than the remnants of Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. America has sent about 6,000 troops to Africa, France 5,100 and Germany 1,100. There are almost as many Western troops in Africa as those fighting the Taliban and Islamic State. – The Economist

North America

The Trump administration dropped its consideration of plans to send U.S. military forces to the Canadian border to help with efforts to combat the new coronavirus, a U.S. official said Thursday, disclosing that decision after Canadian officials had strenuously objected to the idea. – Wall Street Journal

Senior officials in the Trump administration agreed to new measures to restrict the global supply of chips to China’s Huawei Technologies, sources familiar with the matter said, as the White House ramps up criticism of China over coronavirus. – Reuters

Michael Rubin writes: The UN is important and, as with peacekeeping and refugee works, can do things which the State Department and Pentagon cannot. It should be supported. But these types of budget requests — absent any sense of fiscal responsibility within the UN’s own organization — are counterproductive and neither help UN credibility nor coronavirus victims. – The Hill 

Latin America

U.S. authorities charged Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and senior government officials with drug trafficking and conspiring with terrorists and offered multimillion-dollar rewards for their arrests, escalating the Trump administration’s effort to unseat the leftist regime. – Wall Street Journal

The global health crisis caused by the novel coronavirus is prompting calls for global unity, but the Trump administration is showing no sign of pulling back on one of its most divisive foreign policy initiatives: “Maximum pressure.” Instead, it’s doubling down. – Washington Post

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro stood defiant in the face of a $15 million bounty by the U.S. to face drug trafficking charges, calling Donald Trump a “racist cowboy” and warning that he is ready to fight by whatever means necessary should the U.S. and neighboring Colombia dare to invade. – Associated Press

From Argentina to Mexico, Brazil to Peru, Latin American nations have accepted offers of support from China as the number of coronavirus cases across the region has climbed, amid growing fears about the preparedness of their healthcare systems. – Reuters

Editorial: The U.S. rarely indicts heads of state, not least because they can become more reluctant to leave power. But the indictment means Mr. Maduro can be arrested anywhere for trial in America and sends an important signal to the people of Venezuela that the U.S. supports its democratic aspirations. – Wall Street Journal 

Eli Lake writes: In addition to the indictment, the U.S. is also offering a $15 million reward for information leading to Maduro’s arrest and conviction. This should increase America’s chances of getting cooperation from people around him[…]. What can Venezuela do to unlock international aid and lift oil sanctions? The answer is simple: Maduro must leave office, paving the way for a new election. – Bloomberg 

Tom Rogan writes: But these indictments alone will not remove Maduro from power. […]Still, these indictments are, in and of themselves, good news. They clarify America’s position on Venezuela in a way that best serves our national interests and theirs. And their top line is clear: Maduro must go. – Washington Examiner


Malicious emails that used coronavirus information to target individuals spiked over the past month as the crisis ramped up, according to a report from cyber threat researchers at Barracuda Networks released Thursday. – The Hill   

New research from industrial cybersecurity company Claroty found that the overwhelming majority of IT professionals believe the government should be responsibility for securing critical infrastructure. – Fifth Domain 

A new congressional report suggests piloting a reserves corps for federal civilian cybersecurity, along with several other recommendations to support the government’s effort to attract and retain cybersecurity talent. – Fifth Domain 

Scott Shackelford and Megan Wade write: Paying the ransom also lets the criminals, and at times rogue nations like North Korea who also mount ransomware attacks, earn significant amounts with minimal risk, possibly increasing the likelihood of others being targeted as well. […]These events make clear the moral and ethical dilemma around fueling crime and efficiently using public resources, a quandary that can be lessened, if not relieved entirely, by negotiating. – Fifth Domain 


Acting U.S. Navy Secretary Thomas Modly said on Thursday that there was a need to balance transparency with operational security and privacy concerns, after Reuters reported that the U.S. military has decided it will stop providing some of the more granular data about coronavirus infections within its ranks. – Reuters

Top Pentagon officials insist the Defense Department’s role fighting the coronavirus crisis isn’t “martial law.” – Washington Examiner 

To combat a growing outbreak of COVID-19 on the carrier Theodore Roosevelt, the Navy has ordered the ship to pull into Guam and have the whole crew of 5,000-plus sailors tested for the novel coronavirus, the service’s acting secretary announced Thursday. – Navy Times 

An Atlas 5 rocket successfully launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida March 26 carrying a satellite that is expected to provide secure, jam-resistant communications for the military for the next 15 years. – C4ISRNET  

Hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH-20) will leave for New York City on Saturday, with President Donald Trump and Acting Secretary of the Navy Thomas Modly on hand to see off the ship from Naval Station Norfolk, Va. – USNI News  

The Marine Corps is dedicated to remaining a “fight tonight” force for the United States despite the coronavirus pandemic and will continue training to mission-essential tasks as determined by local commanders, the commandant said today. – USNI News  

Jennifer McArdle, Thomas Kehr, and Gene Colabatistto write: As near-peer competitors and adversaries — particularly Russia and China — undergo protracted periods of military modernization and reform, utilizing surprise to America’s advantage may become increasingly important. As a result, conducting mission preparation and mission rehearsal within a synthetic environment may be critical, as it would allow complex military preparations to be conducted more rapidly and seamlessly until just before combat. Indeed, a (cyber secure) synthetic environment may provide a modicum of operational security, in a way the live environment does not. – War on the Rocks 

Long War

Jihadists and other militant extremists are seeing a world health crisis as a window of opportunity. Leading terror organizations such as Islamic State have been calling on followers to increase attacks in recent days as world governments and militaries shift their focus to combating the COVID-19 pandemic. – Washington Times

A fundamentalist Iraqi cleric has been extradited to Italy from Norway, despite concerns about the coronavirus. Mullah Krekar, real name Najmaddin Faraj Ahmad, is considered a terrorist by the UN and the US. – BBC  

A man fatally injured by the FBI was planning a bomb attack on a medical facility in the Kansas City area, the agency said in a news release Wednesday. – Associated Press 

A German court on Thursday sentenced a 31-year-old Tunisian to 10 years in prison for planning a biological bomb attack with the deadly poison ricin. – Agence France-Presse

Nikita Malik writes: The COVID-19 crisis has ravaged many countries across the globe—and it has also presented an opportunity for extremist groups across the ideological spectrum to spread hate. As is often the case in times of uncertainty, extremists and terrorists have jumped at the chance to exploit confusion and fear, reach new audiences, and serve their own interests. – Foreign Policy