Fdd's overnight brief

May 22, 2019

In The News


Lawmakers were sharply divided Tuesday over whether Iran poses an imminent threat to U.S. interests or the Trump administration is exaggerating intelligence to lay the groundwork for war. Top administration officials briefed the House and Senate in two closed-door sessions for all members, presenting evidence that Iran may be poised to attack U.S. military and diplomatic personnel in the Middle East. – Washington Post

The Trump administration said Tuesday that the threat of hostilities with Iran has receded in the face of U.S. military deployments and sought to assure lawmakers in classified briefings that a war wasn’t imminent. – Wall Street Journal

Half of all Americans believe that the United States will go to war with Iran “within the next few years,” according to a Reuters/Ipsos public opinion poll released on Tuesday amid increased tensions between the two countries. – Reuters

Acting Defense Secretary Pat Shanahan Tuesday credited the deployment of U.S. military weaponry with preventing potential attacks by Iran or its proxies in the Middle East, an apparent break in rising tensions in the region that has seen an uptick in threats on both sides. – Politico

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani rejected talks with the United States on Tuesday, after President Donald Trump said Iran would call and ask for negotiations “if and when they are ever ready”. – Reuters

A classified Senate briefing on Iranian plots against the United States turned into a tense clash between top U.S. officials and lawmakers frustrated with President Trump’s strategy toward Tehran. – Washington Examiner

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said his government needs more powers to push back against an “economic war” being waged by the U.S., signaling the country is bracing for a prolonged period of turmoil. – Bloomberg

The Justice Department says a New Hampshire man sold nearly $1 million worth of surplus Defense Department hand-me-down machinery to Iran—and they’ve got secret tracking data to prove it. – The Daily Beast

Mehdi Khalaji writes: Tehran may yet be planning to sabotage and threaten more allied and U.S. targets in the region while seeking to escape responsibility for these operations. The regime has been known to take risks that seem highly disproportionate to the potential benefits; witness its string of attempted terrorist attacks in Europe this year, which led to the arrest of various Iranian agents. […]The only narrative that can increase the possibility of negotiations is one that allows Khamenei to portray the drastic change in his posture not as a shameful defeat for the regime, but as a wise compromise taken in his country’s best interest.  – Washington Institute


The State Department said on Tuesday that the Syrian government might be renewing its use of chemical weapons, citing a suspected chlorine attack in northwest Syria, and maintaining that any use of such weapons would lead the United States and its allies to “respond quickly and appropriately.” – New York Times

Thousands of Syrian government documents recovered amid the country’s civil war provide a paper trail showing widespread and systematic human rights violations by its powerful security agencies, according to a Syrian-led organization that analyzed the papers, the Syria Justice and Accountability Center. – New York Times

At least 380 civilians have been arrested in Syria’s south and 11 civilians serving on local councils and former fighters have been killed or attacked there since the government retook the area, the United Nations said on Tuesday. – Reuters

Frances Z. Brown writes: This spring, U.S. troops and their coalition partners, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), captured the final outpost of the Islamic State territory in eastern Syria. But the United States has yet to achieve its stated policy objective: the “enduring defeat” of the Islamic State in the region. […]TStabilization programs provide valuable services, regardless of larger strategic outcome. But they cannot compensate for poor security, uncertain U.S. commitment and an unclear political endstate. Unless the United States redirects its approach, stabilization programs will not achieve the enduring Islamic State defeat we desire. – Washington Post


Turkey’s defense minister said it was preparing for potential U.S. sanctions over its purchase of Russian S-400 missile defense systems, even while he said there was some improvement in talks with the United States over buying F-35 fighter jets. – Reuters

Turkey will not evacuate its military observation post in northern Syria’s Idlib, the last rebel stronghold in the region, after a suspected Syrian government attack this month, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar said. – Reuters

Turkey has closed its ports to Iranian oil, fully complying with U.S. sanctions against its main supplier, despite Ankara publicly criticising the United States’ move to end import waivers and warning of a struggle to tap alternative producers. – Reuters


After United Nations Special Coordinator for Lebanon Jan Kubis met with Deputy Secretary General Naim Qassem of Hezbollah, Israel officials condemned the meeting. – Jerusalem Post

An offensive video that was removed from Al Jazeera’s online website has resurfaced on the internet on the official Facebook page of Fatah, the party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian Media Watch reported. – Jerusalem Post

A group of 200 former Israeli security officials sent a formal letter to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu denouncing the possible annexation of the West Bank, leading to a furious response from Netanyahu, who called the contested territory “our patrimony.” – Algemeiner

Israel isn’t involved. That’s the official response to anyone who asks what the recent deterioration in relations between Iran and the United States means for Jerusalem. We’re not involved; we’re not addressing or responding to it. Ramifications? Potential harm to Israel’s maritime space? Our lips are sealed. But on the informal level, behind the scenes, there is concern. – Haaretz

Atef Abu Saif, culture minister in the Palestinian Authority (PA) government and former Fatah spokesman, claimed that U.S. President Donald Trump, his senior advisors Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman had shown complete and even deliberate ignorance about the historical facts pertaining to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that they had enthusiastically adopted the false Israeli narrative. […]The following are excerpts from Atef Abu Saif’s article.  – Middle East Media Research Institute


Iraq will send delegations to Washington and Tehran to help “halt tension” amid fears of a confrontation between the United States and Iran in the Middle East, Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi said on Tuesday. – Reuters

The UN envoy to Iraq, Jeanine Hennis-Plasschaert, has requested, “wide-based international support” to hamper Islamic State activity in the country, the Associated Press reported on Tuesday. – Jerusalem Post

Michael Knights writes: Given its voluminous and definitive intelligence on the matter, the U.S. government is firmly convinced that Iran recently told Iraqi militias such as Kataib Hezbollah, Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, and AAH to be ready for conflict. This order may have been issued in case the United States escalated after last week’s apparent Iranian-sponsored attacks on Gulf tankers and pipeline facilities, though AAH was reportedly preparing to strike U.S. forces even before then. Whatever the case, Washington should take the following steps to firm up its posture in Iraq before tensions with Iran spike again. – Washington Institute

Omar Al-Nidawi writes: Conditions in Iraq since the defeat of ISIS’s territorial “caliphate” justify both optimism and concern at the same time. On the one hand, Iraqis are seeing a degree of normalcy that is unprecedented for the youthful majority of its population. On the other hand, there are innumerable governance, security, and economic challenges that threaten to derail the country’s progress. […]The threat of exposing fraud can go a long way toward persuading militia leaders to refrain from economy-destroying behavior. – Middle East Institute

Middle East & North Africa

Saudi Arabia has agreed to purchase U.S. liquefied natural gas from Sempra Energy , SRE 0.24% a new strategic direction for the kingdom as it seeks to establish a footprint in the growing global market for the fuel. – Wall Street Journal

Yemen’s Houthi rebels backed by Iran said they’ve attacked Najran airport in southern Saudi Arabia with a drone, days after targeting one of Aramco’s oil facilities in the kingdom. – Bloomberg

The United Arab Emirates on Wednesday said it welcomed a June 25 to 26 “Peace to Prosperity” economic workshop hosted in Bahrain in cooperation with the United States.  – Jerusalem Post

Libya is on the brink of a civil war that could “lead to the permanent division of the country,” a top U.N. official warned the Security Council on Tuesday as he urged the world body to stop countries that were fueling the conflict with weapons. – Reuters

Simon Henderson writes: King Salman of Saudi Arabia has called for a conference to be held in the holy city of Mecca on May 30 to discuss last week’s attacks on oil tankers near the Strait of Hormuz and drone attacks on the kingdom’s main east-west domestic strategic pipeline.  Reporting on the official invitation sent to Arab leaders, the Saudi Press Agency linked the pipeline attacks to “terrorist Houthi militias [in Yemen], backed by Iran.” […]Welcome to the Middle East, which, even before unexpected events, looks to be a very busy place for the next few weeks. – The Hill

Korean Peninsula

North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations held a rare news conference on Tuesday to warn the United States that its seizure of a North Korean cargo ship could imperil any future disarmament negotiations between the two countries. – New York Times

North Korean state media on Wednesday slammed former US vice president Joe Biden as an “imbecile” and a “fool of low IQ” after he criticised leader Kim Jong Un. – Agence France-Presse

Tens of thousands of North Korean women have been forced into sexual slavery in China, according to a report that documents the widespread gender-based sexual violence of those trying to escape the secretive state. – Newsweek


Huawei Technologies Co. denounced U.S. actions against the company as “bullying” and implored European governments to resist American pressure to follow suit in a bid to safeguard one of its most lucrative markets. – Wall Street Journal

The Trump administration is considering limits to a Chinese video surveillance giant’s ability to buy American technology, people familiar with the matter said, the latest attempt to counter Beijing’s global economic ambitions. – New York Times

For all of China’s efforts to become a global force in high technology rivaling the United States, it has mostly failed to produce top-flight contenders in one crucial area: the industry that gave Silicon Valley its name. – New York Times

Beijing is ready to resume trade talks with Washington, China’s ambassador to the United States Cui Tiankai said, as a top U.S. business lobby in China said nearly half its members are seeing non-tariff barrier retaliation in China due to the trade war. – Reuters

David Ignatius writes: The Huawei assault may be the Trump administration’s most important long-term strategic decision, because it confronts China’s technological challenge to the United States head-on. The goal is to prevent Huawei from dominating 5G wireless communications, the next phase of the digital revolution, by blocking use of its technology by the United States and its partners. […]Trump is about building walls. But he should be especially careful about this digital barrier, behind which the United States might stand while the rest of the world races forward. – Washington Post

Eli Lake writes: The key task now is for President Donald Trump and his administration to stick with the Huawei ban, no matter what happens in trade talks. […]The tech cold war against China, like the original cold war against the Soviet Union, could last a long time. And like the first cold war, it will not always make American lives easier. Now as then, however, that cost is worth paying to contain a dangerous adversary. – Bloomberg

John Calabrese writes: In the South China Sea, North Korea, and the Persian Gulf — all flashpoints of conflict — as in Venezuela — on the verge of state collapse — tensions have been rising and China and the United States find themselves sharply at odds. This confluence of developments has come at the very time when contentious bilateral negotiations have led China and the United States to the brink of an all-out trade war. Thus the issue of how to deal with Iran has become more complicated and more deeply enmeshed with the evolving China-US strategic rivalry. – Middle East Institute

Edward Lucas writes: Russia and China are both engaged in an undeclared war on the West. They are not allies, but they cooperate. Their arsenals are different, but overlap. Six tactics are common to both. […]Three tactics are I think are specific to China. – Center for European Policy Analysis


Afghans often express fears that a Taliban return to power would bring a reversal of the gains in democracy and women’s rights made during nearly 18 years of civilian rule. But in the past two weeks, a woman’s murder on a Kabul street and a chaotic brawl in parliament have exposed the tenuous nature of these gains, the permanent specter of violence, and the stubborn grip of male pride and ethnic rivalry in this traditional, conflict-steeped society. – Washington Post

Besides terrifying teachers, students and their families, the attacks have renewed larger fears of a return to the repressive days of Taliban rule, as the militants and the United States try to negotiate a peace deal. Until the Taliban government was toppled in 2001, girls’ education was outlawed and women were confined to their homes. – New York Times

The head of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) says that militants from the extremist group Islamic State (IS) have been amassing in northern Afghanistan, near its borders with former Soviet republics in Central Asia. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty


Europe’s far-right nationalists will have a chance to expand their power in elections for European Parliament that begin Thursday, as they seek a breakthrough that could thwart the workings of the European Union and jolt capitals across the continent. – Washington Post

The collapse of Austria’s governing coalition marked the end of a political venture that critics say appeared doomed from the start. […]The growing crisis not only signals the possible marginalization of the Freedom Party, at least temporarily, but has also refocused attention on the party’s extremist elements and the far right’s connections to Russia. – Washington Post

British Prime Minister Theresa May laid out a fresh plan to get Parliament to back her Brexit divorce package, dangling the prospect of a second Brexit referendum and other concessions to entice opposition lawmakers to ratify the deal in her fourth time asking. – Wall Street Journal

Days before crucial elections for the European Parliament, politicians, security services and social media companies that were bracing for an onslaught from Russia are surprised that, so far, they seem to have avoided one. – Washington Post

Citizens in the 28 European Union nations will go to the polls this week in an atmosphere of uncertainty — with the specter of Brexit looming over the process and a growing nationalist, euroskeptic movement drawing voter support — to cast ballots for the bloc’s only directly elected body: the European Parliament. – New York Times

A swastika was found etched inside an elevator in the British Parliament this week. The symbol was found Tuesday on the door of an elevator in the Norman Shaw North building, the Jewish Chronicle reported, near MPs offices at the Palace of Westminster. – Arutz Sheva

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt expressed support for the German parliament’s resolution defining the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement as “anti-Semitic”, the UK-based Jewish News reported on Tuesday. – Arutz Sheva

Wojciech Sadurski writes: But the irony turns to tragedy when we realize that Poland — once rightly hailed as a path-breaking example of democratic consolidation after communism — is now a pariah within the European Union and NATO, both staunch defenders of democracy and the rule of law. The only hope for the nation is that elections later this year will bring an end to this unhappy episode. And the only hope for an individual harassed by an overweening state is that he or she must come before judges with the independence and strength to do what courts must crucially do: curb the excesses of political power. – Washington Post

Jasmin Mujanovic writes: For the past 16 years, Brussels has been promising the states of the Western Balkans, the continent’s most vulnerable and volatile region, that “the future of the Balkans is in the European Union.” Over the past year, however, Brussels has pivoted sharply and all but completely snuffed out the idea of further enlargement. […]Simply saying “no” to the Western Balkans might play well with segments of the Europe’s increasingly nativist electorate, but it’s not a strategy. It’s merely a crisis delayed. – Washington Post


Mozambique’s former finance minister, who has been indicted in the U.S. in connection with an alleged $2 billion corruption scheme, will be extradited to his home country rather than to the U.S., South Africa’s justice ministry said Tuesday. – Wall Street Journal

Sudan’s main protest group called on Tuesday for a general strike, saying two late-night negotiation sessions with the military had failed to reach a deal on how to lead the country after the overthrow of former president Omar al-Bashir. – Reuters

Islamic State cells in Africa are currently no more than a regional threat, but terror experts fear a return of global attacks if these offshoots are allowed to grow unchecked. – Bloomberg

The Senate of the University of Cape Town in South Africa has deferred a vote on a boycott of Israeli academic institutions, agreeing to “a more consultative process on the proposal.” – Algemeiner

United States

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) blocked a bipartisan attempt to limit Chinese companies from contracting with U.S. transit systems, a move that benefited a Chinese government-backed manufacturer with a plant in his district, according to multiple people familiar with the matter. – Washington Post

The Senate Intelligence Committee’s top Democrat is filing legislation that seeks to impose criminal penalties on political campaign officials who fail to disclose contacts with foreign nationals, as President Trump’s staff did ahead of the 2016 election. – Washington Post

The House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday approved an amendment to the annual defense spending bill that would end the authorization for the use of military force (AUMF), as lawmakers grow increasingly concerned over the possibility of war with Iran. – The Hill

New US federal charges were filed Tuesday against a man accused of opening fire in a Southern California synagogue, killing one person and wounding three others. – Associated Press

Latin America

The U.S. is preparing measures ranging from criminal charges to sanctions against people it believes to be involved in Venezuela’s military-run emergency food program, according to U.S. officials, part of an effort to target what they describe as a large-scale money-laundering operation run by the government. – Wall Street Journal

Weakened and unable to bring the political crisis gripping Venezuela to a quick resolution, Mr. Guaidó has been forced to consider negotiations with Mr. Maduro. Both sides have sent representatives to Norway for talks, a concession Mr. Guaidó previously rejected. – New York Times

Colombia’s army walked back on Tuesday part of a contentious policy to step up attacks in the country, saying it would change its pledge forms in which officers are required to list the number of criminals and militants they plan to kill, capture or force to surrender in battle. – New York Times

President Donald Trump on Tuesday threatened to take action against Mexico in the near future, claiming the country’s southern neighbor is doing “virtually nothing” to curb illegal migration to the United States. – Politico

Turkey opposes foreign interventions including coup attempt in Venezuela, Foreign Minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu said on May 20. Speaking on Turkey’s position on the Venezuelan crisis in a panel, Çavuşoğlu said: “We are against foreign intervention, resorting to undemocratic means, including coup attempts, imposing unilateral sanctions to replace legitimate governments.” –  Hurriyet Daily News


Within the U.S military services, leaders often discuss the close relationship of cyber warfare and electronic warfare. But what’s less clear is the relationship between these two disciplines at U.S. Cyber Command. That may be changing. – Fifth Domain

A web of far-right Facebook accounts spreading fake news and hate speech to millions of people across Europe has been uncovered by the campaign group Avaaz. – The Guardian

Sri Lankan social networks saw a surge in fake news after the Easter suicide bombings a month ago despite an official social media blackout, highlighting the inability of governments to contain disinformation, experts said. A nine-day ban on platforms including Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram and WhatsApp was introduced following the Islamic State-claimed attacks on churches and hotels on April 21 which killed 258 people and wounded nearly 500. – Agence France-Presse


Acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan has mandated new restrictions on the way the Pentagon shares information with Congress about military operations around the world, a move that is straining ties with key Republican and Democratic lawmakers. – Washington Post

President Trump is nominating Barbara Barrett, a former U.S. ambassador to Finland and onetime Republican candidate for governor of Arizona, to serve as the next secretary of the Air Force, tapping a longtime space enthusiast to run the service set to oversee the new Space Force. – Washington Post

The Marine Corps will kick off the analysis of alternatives on its Armored Reconnaissance Vehicle (ARV) this summer, after some early troubles finding the right strategy to replace the 1980s-built Light Armored Vehicle (LAV) with a fifth-generation combat capability. – USNI News

The Navy awarded General Dynamics Electric Boat nearly half a billion dollars to help shore up its submarine supplier base through equipment purchases and plant expansions. – USNI News

Three new ship-based weapons being developed by the Navy—solid state lasers (SSLs), the electromagnetic railgun (EMRG), and the gun-launched guided projectile (GLGP), also known as the hypervelocity projectile (HVP)—could substantially improve the ability of Navy surface ships to defend themselves against surface craft, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and eventually anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs). – USNI News

The U.S. Air Force’s top general has made multidomain command and control one of his top priorities. Now he wants to see it become the Pentagon’s No. 1 technology development initiative. – C4ISRNET

U.S. F-22 Raptors intercepted four Russian bombers and a pair of Su-35 Flanker-E fighter aircraft off the coast of Alaska on Monday, according to the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD. – Military.com

The risk of nuclear weapons being used is at its highest since World War Two, a senior U.N. security expert said on Tuesday, calling it an “urgent” issue that the world should take more seriously. – Reuters

Long War

The Australian man accused of fatally shooting dozens of Muslim worshipers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, has been charged with carrying out a terrorist act, the police said Tuesday. – New York Times

He was the “American Taliban” captured during the invasion of Afghanistan in the fall of 2001. Pictures showed him as a gaunt, filthy, 20-year-old held in the aftermath of a prison uprising that claimed the first United States casualty of the war, a 32-year-old C.I.A. officer named Johnny Micheal Spann. […]On Thursday, that captive, John Walker Lindh, is scheduled to leave a federal prison in Terre Haute, Ind., released on probation after serving 17 years of a 20-year sentence for providing support to the Taliban. – New York Times

Senators have told the head of the Federal Bureau of Prisons to explain why ‘American Taliban’ fighter John Walker Lindh is to be released this week two-and-a-half years before the end of his sentence. – Washington Examiner

A. J. Caschetta writes: If al Qaeda fighters were treated as illegal combatants rather than common criminals, Zazi would be spending many more years in prison and Lindh would not have been offered a plea deal. […]Zazi’s and Lindh’s cases are reminders that nearly 18 years after 9/11, we’re still treating terrorists like criminals to be processed through the criminal justice system, rather than enemy warriors to be interrogated and processed by the Department of Defense. – Washington Examiner

Trump Administration

A top adviser to President Trump will depart the White House on Friday to advise enterprises such as e-cigarette company Juul, according to a new report. Johnny DeStefano, who has been with the Trump administration since 2017, notified Trump on Monday of his departure, the Washington Post reports. – Washington Examiner

The Justice Department is trying to stave off an “enforcement action” against Attorney General William Barr this week, making a rare offer to have the House Intelligence Committee review materials from special counsel Robert Mueller’s report if House Intelligence Chairman Adam Schiff agrees to back down. Last week Schiff said that he would hold a business meeting Wednesday to take an unspecified action against the Justice Department for not providing the committee documents related to Volume I of Mueller’s report on links between the Trump campaign and the Russian government. – CNN

A few weeks before Donald Trump became president, Russian banker Petr Aven, a billionaire oligarch with Moscow’s Alfa Bank, pulled aside Washington lobbyist Richard Burt at a corporate meeting in Luxembourg with a sensitive request. Aven told Burt that “someone high in the Russian government” wanted “a communications channel between the Kremlin and the Trump Transition Team,” according to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s recently released report.  – Time

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., on Tuesday subpoenaed former White House officials Hope Hicks and Annie Donaldson to testify before his committee and provide documents related to a sweeping probe of figures in President Donald Trump’s orbit. Donaldson was chief of staff to former White House counsel Don McGahn, who on Tuesday defied the Judiciary panel’s subpoena to testify about special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe. Hicks is the former White House communications director. – CNBC