Fdd's overnight brief

October 23, 2018

FDD Research & Analysis

In The News


Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on Monday made Iran oil sanctions a top part of a meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that took place amid heightened tensions between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. – Washington Examiner

Mossad Director Yossi Cohen warned of Iranian expansionist aspirations in the Middle East in a rare public speech on Monday. One of Israel’s main objectives, he said at a budget conference held by the Finance Ministry, “is to push Iran out of the (rest of the) Middle East. It has a strong presence on the Lebanese border thanks to Hezbollah; it has a strong presence on the Syrian border […]”. – Ynet

Iran said on Tuesday it arrested three militant groups planning attacks on Shi’ite Muslims at the annual pilgrimage of Arbaeen, which marks the end of a 40-day mourning period for the grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, Imam Hussein. – Reuters

A French senator visiting Iran said on Sunday that European nations are seeking to ensure at least one Iranian bank stays connected to the world after the US imposed new sanctions against the country. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Iran’s Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) has announced that the commander of its ground forces has traveled to Pakistan to pursue the issue of 12 Iranian captives. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty


To understand how the United States is countering Iran’s expansion across the Middle East, consider the outpost at Tanf. This tiny garrison, a jumble of dirt-filled blast barriers and tents surrounded by the immense desert of southern Syria, was established to roll back the Islamic State’s once-vast domain. – Washington Post

The U.S.-led coalition fighting Islamic State militants in Syria said it struck a mosque on Monday that was being used by the group as a command center, the second such incident in less than a week. – Reuters

Jon B. Alterman writes: Four years ago, the United States started committing troops to Syria. Four years into operations, the troops are clear what they have to do every day. What they are unclear about is why. At a recent gathering in Washington, a U.S. general lamented that the United States has multiple policy goals in Syria, but it has not been able either to prioritize or deconflict them. That is a problem. – Center for Strategic & International Studies

Serdar Kılıç writes: The conflict has claimed more than half a million lives, created more than 5 million refugees and more than 6 million internally displaced persons. It has also provided a fertile ground for terrorist organizations such as DAESH, PKK/YPG, and Al Nusra. This is why the international community should step up pressure on the Assad regime to ensure that it complies with the terms of the Idlib deal. – Defense One

Sam Heller writes: A recent video release from Tahrir al-Sham, or HTS, helps show how it has integrated into Syria’s opposition, and how it translates its ideological worldview into the language of Syria’s war. […]HTS’s integral relationship with Syria’s opposition could make it impossible to isolate the jihadists — or, conversely, it could give the Turks the opening they need to engage and demobilize parts of the group. Whether HTS’s own intertwined identities allow it to be untangled from the opposition may be what decides Idlib’s future. – War on the Rocks


President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, having promised to reveal the “naked truth” of a Saudi plot to kill the journalist Jamal Khashoggi, said on Tuesday in a speech to Parliament that a team including Saudi generals had flown in to carry out the mission. – New York Times

Turkish authorities embraced a strategy to leak evidence gradually in the days after the killing of a dissident journalist as part of an effort to blunt the international standing of rival Saudi Arabia, Turkish officials said. – Wall Street Journal

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan was expected to divulge details of Turkey’s investigation into the death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi for the first time on Tuesday, in a highly anticipated speech he had said would reveal the “naked truth” about Khashoggi’s fate. – Washington Post

Ilhan Tanir writes: Over more than a decade, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and his Justice and Development Party (AKP) have assumed almost total control of the national media and turned it into a well-oiled propaganda machine. But the Turkish government’s handling of the disappearance of Jamal Khashoggi has been the first truly global case study of Erdoğan’s ability to control media narratives. So far, he and his team seem to have performed spectacularly. – BuzzFeed News


Israel on Monday released two Palestinian Authority officials who were detained at the weekend, police said, but gave no further details on the case. – Reuters

The IDF exposed on Monday an observation post near the Israel-Lebanon border used by Hezbollah operatives dressed up as tree-planting environmental activists. The post — the sixth identified by Israel along the border — is located near the Lebanese village of al-Adisa, adjacent to the Israeli border kibbutz of Misgav Am. – Algemeiner

A human rights report released Tuesday accuses both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas of routinely engaging in unwarranted arrests and systematic torture of critics, suspected dissidents and political opponents, and of developing “parallel police states” in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, respectively. – Times of Israel

Jordan will not negotiate with Israel to renew part of the 1994 peace treaty that granted the Jewish state use of two small agricultural areas along the border, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said Monday night, dashing hopes in Jerusalem that Amman could be convinced to reverse course. – Times of Israel

This month, the decision of the Strategic Affairs Ministry to refuse entry to Israel to Alqasem because of previous BDS activity generated international headlines and a heated debate about freedom of expression and the state’s right to refuse entry to people ideologically opposed to its existence or policies. “I think those kind of actions add fuel to those who want to delegitimize Israel,” said Silverman. – Jerusalem Post

Khan al-Ahmar should be the test case by which Israel pushes back against international pressure, including before the International Criminal Court, MK Bezalel Smotrich (Bayit Yehudi) said on Monday evening. “Those who cave to pressure only invite more pressure,” said Smotrich as he stood on a sandy hilltop above the illegal West Bank Bedouin herding village of Khan al-Ahmar. – Jerusalem Post

“The leaders of Hamas and Fatah have failed their people and have turned them into “beggars and street vendors who can hardly earn a living,” senior Hamas official Ahmed Yousef said on Monday. Yousef, who previously served as a senior adviser to Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh, made his remarks in an article he published on the Palestinian Donia Al-Watan website. – Jerusalem Post

Spying is getting harder because the same technologies that catch terrorists can sometimes uncover foreign intelligence operations, the director of Israel’s Mossad said on Monday. – Reuters

Saudi Arabia

President Trump said Monday he wanted to know what happened in the death of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi but also voiced a protective view of the U.S.-Saudi alliance, a perspective also expressed by two of his top aides. – Wall Street Journal

CIA Director Gina Haspel departed for Turkey on Monday amid a growing international uproar over Saudi Arabia’s explanation of the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, according to people familiar with the matter. – Washington Post

Now, as Saudi Arabia struggles to rebut accusations that Crown Prince Mohammed was complicit in the grisly killing of a Saudi dissident, Israel, the United Arab Emirates and the prince’s other allies across the region are starting to worry that damage to him could upend their own plans and priorities. – New York Times

The team of Saudi agents that killed the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul brought a body double who resembled Mr. Khashoggi and wore his clothes as part of a cover-up, Turkish and Saudi officials said Monday. – New York Times

The Trump administration, under pressure to sanction Saudi Arabia over the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, is seeking ways to maintain the two countries’ strategic alliance. – Wall Street Journal

The killing of exiled Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi — a regular presence on the Washington think tank circuit who died after entering the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul — has led to outrage at a level unseen in years against the kingdom. – Agence France-Presse

Saudi Arabia kicks off an investment summit Tuesday despite a wave of cancellations from policymakers and business titans, but Turkey’s threat to reveal the “naked truth” over critic Jamal Khashoggi’s murder is hanging over the gathering. – Agence France-Presse

He ran social media for Saudi Arabia’s crown prince. He masterminded the arrest of hundreds of his country’s elite. He detained a Lebanese prime minister. And, according to two intelligence sources, he ran journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s brutal killing at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul by giving orders over Skype. – Reuters

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin met with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince on Monday despite mounting international outrage over the kingdom’s role in the death of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. – Associated Press

Few details have been released on what U.S. weapons contracts the Saudis have signed or may sign. It could be years before a fuller picture emerges and the president’s claim on the value of those sales can be verified. – Washington Examiner

A website for a high profile Saudi Arabia summit was attacked by hackers. Pictures circulating on Twitter showed the Future Investment Initiative website with a mocked-up photo of the country’s ruler about to execute Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The website was later functioning normally after being inaccessible for at least six hours. – BBC News

Jamal Khashoggi writes: These limited reforms and the general political condition of the Arab world today are adding strength to the argument of the anti-democracy forces. This unfortunate reality puts more responsibility on our shoulders to resume our work and to redouble our efforts to push for democracy in the Arab world as a realistic choice for people and a solution to the failure of many Arab states. – New York Times

James A. Baker III writes: Few will be pleased with the administration’s ultimate response to this crisis, particularly the hard-line realists on one side and the hard-line idealists on the other. Nevertheless, United States officials should consider how President Bush reacted to Tiananmen Square 29 years ago. This is the time for reasoned, careful actions that fully take into account both our national interests and our principles and values. – New York Times

Simon Henderson writes: The traditional way of looking at Saudi Arabia has been that the royal family rules by consensus and with caution, choosing leaders based on experience and seniority. That template has been increasingly invalidated since the accession of King Salman in January 2015 and the emergence of his thirty-three-year-old son Muhammad bin Salman, who has been crown prince and heir apparent since June 2017. – Washington Institute

Gerald M. Feierstein writes: One of the hallmarks of the Trump administration’s handling of the Middle East portfolio has been the central role assigned to Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known in Washington as MbS. Their relationship has revolved around U.S. efforts to encourage Saudi cooperation on the Israeli-Palestinian account. – Middle East Institute

Emma Ashford writes: But it was just that — a marriage of convenience. With changes in the oil market and regional security, the rationale for the relationship has been diminishing for years. […]But the shock of Khashoggi’s death has created an opening to reassess this alliance, highlighting that Americans have no shared values with Saudi Arabia, and perhaps, fewer shared interests than they thought. – War on the Rocks

Middle East & North Africa

The study’s title: “The United States Army in the Iraq War.” It has yet to be published. […] In the past few months alone, Army officials debated whether the study should be embraced or disowned. After a high-level review last month, Army officials issued instructions to remove a foreword noting the study had been “commissioned” by the Army and to scrub it of other signs that it had top-level sponsorship. – Wall Street Journal

Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren is demanding that the Trump administration investigate whether former American service members violated US law in acting as mercenaries to carry out a monthslong, for-profit targeted assassination program in Yemen. – BuzzFeed News

Erin Dunne writes: In short, there are no easy answers in the ongoing war in Yemen, and many complicating factors. But Khashoggi’s disappearance and subsequent international outcry has shed renewed light on the conflict and U.S. involvement and raised new questions. The long shadow of history, however, means that understanding the latest headlines is far more complicated than just a question about how a journalist was murdered. – Washington Examiner

Akbar Shahid Ahmed writes: It’s a stunning situation that underscores how Middle East powers aligned with the Saudis and the U.S. are doing damage control amid the scandal — sustaining their relationship with the biggest player in the Arab world while trying to keep Western partners happy so their own human rights records and behavior don’t come under similar worldwide scrutiny. – Huffington Post

Nabih Bulos writes: The slow-speed admission by Saudi Arabia that journalist Jamal Khashoggi was killed inside its consulate in Istanbul has been more than a begrudging journey toward justice. It has also become the latest front in a battle for regional power between Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, two figures who have sought to stamp their vision on their respective countries as well as the wider region, even as they redefine their relationship with the U.S. and Europe. – LA Times

Simon Frankel Pratt writes: We should very closely watch how the U.S. government responds to these revelations. It’s possible that some corner of the U.S. intelligence community knew about some aspect of it, but I suspect Buzzfeed’s story will come as a surprise to most in government. Will Golan be subject to penalties? Will those who worked for him as hired assassins — veterans of the America’s elite units — be subject to investigation, and face punishment if they have broken the law? – War on the Rocks

Korean Peninsula

The U.S. Treasury Department is “deeply concerned” about planned financial cooperation between North and South Korea and has told South Korean banks that “U.N. and U.S. sanctions on North Korea remain valid”, a South Korean regulatory document has shown – Reuters

North and South Korea have agreed to remove guns and guard posts from Panmunjom, the “truce town” that straddles their border. Also known as the Joint Security Area (JSA), Panmunjom is the only place along the border where troops from the two Koreas face each other. The aim is to reduce tensions between the two countries. – BBC News

North Korea imported at least $640 million worth of luxury goods from China last year, in defiance of U.N. sanctions outlawing such trade over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs, a South Korean lawmaker said on Monday. – Reuters


Two U.S. warships sailed through the Taiwan Strait, U.S. and Taiwan defense officials said Monday, a maneuver intended to signal to China that the U.S. could travel in any international waters. – Wall Street Journal

For the Trump administration, it is like the early 1950s all over again, said one of the president’s top advisers, as a new threat emerged and Washington argued over how, or if, to counter it. But this time Washington does not seem to be consulting its allies. – New York Times

Chinese economic reformer Deng Xiaoping traveled to Tokyo exactly 40 years ago this week to mark the signing of the Sino-Japanese Peace and Friendship Treaty, as the two countries attempted to put the memories of wars behind them. […] Now, in the middle of an increasingly bitter trade war with the United States, Xi will on Wednesday welcome Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for their first bilateral meeting in more than seven years. – Washington Post

A U.S. withdrawal from a Cold War-era nuclear arms treaty with Russia could give the Pentagon new options to counter Chinese missile advances but experts warn the ensuing arms race could greatly escalate tensions in the Asia-Pacific. – Reuters

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is “lying through [his] teeth” when he says China is investing in impoverished countries in order to gain control of strategic ports and other infrastructure, a Beijing-based diplomat argued Monday. – Washington Examiner

China slammed the Trump administration’s announcement that it planned to pull out a Reagan-era anti-missile treaty, saying on Monday that the move was being done to counter Beijing, not Moscow, as the White House has claimed. – Washington Examiner

Adam Taylor writes: When President Trump announced on Saturday that the United States would be pulling out of a landmark nuclear-arms agreement with Russia, he blamed Moscow for the decision. “Russia has violated the agreement. They’ve been violating it for many years,” Trump told reporters in Nevada, referring to the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. “I don’t know why President Obama didn’t negotiate or pull out.” – Washington Post

Yi-Zheng Lian writes: But Confucianism has been co-opted by China’s ruling class over time, and turned into dogma and tool of thought control. Chi, that inner sense of shame, has been debased to mean merely not having face. Who has face now? The rich and powerful. China today is rich and powerful; therefore, it has face and simply cannot be embarrassed. – New York Times

Peter Zwack writes: This year’s edition of Russia’s giant annual joint exercise—Vostok (East) 2018—was notable for its sizable Chinese and small Mongolian contingent, and for its multi-theater strategic scope. […]Now, a month after the exercise’s dust has settled, these new twists invite a few questions. – Defense One

Stephen Joske writes: China does not need a democratic transition to resume economic growth and military spending. We would be dealing with a China that has lost its post-Global Financial Crisis hubris, but which would become harder to deal with as it grows more insular, all the while blaming domestic problems on external forces. – War on the Rocks


A Czech soldier with the U.S.-led international military forces in Afghanistan was killed in an apparent insider attack in the western province of Herat, the third such incident in the past two months. – Wall Street Journal

The death of an Army soldier after a blast in southern Afghanistan this month was the result of a series of oversights by a military unit that frequently used a small strip of desert as a patrol route and observation post, prompting Taliban militants to bury explosives nearby, military officials familiar with the matter said. – New York Times

A US general was shot and wounded in a Taliban-claimed attack on a high-level security meeting last week that killed a powerful Afghan police chief, NATO’s mission in Afghanistan said Monday. – Agence France-Presse

The Afghan security force effort to hold Taliban violence at bay is “working,” a Defense Department spokesman said Monday, amid a spate of insider attacks and violence linked to this weekend’s parliamentary elections. – Defense One


The U.S. is serious about pulling out of a landmark nuclear agreement with Russia, but further discussions are planned before formal notice of the decision would be given to Moscow, national-security adviser John Bolton told The Wall Street Journal. – Wall Street Journal

The future of a landmark Cold War arms control treaty hangs in the balance as White House national security adviser John Bolton prepares to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Tuesday, days after President Trump announced plans to exit the arms control pact. – Washington Post

President Trump’s national security adviser, John R. Bolton, said on Monday that he had directly criticized Russian officials for meddling in United States elections although, he said, their actions had not had any effect on electoral outcomes. – New York Times

Russia said on Monday it would be forced to respond in kind to restore the military balance with the United States if President Donald Trump carried through on a threat to quit a nuclear arms treaty and began developing new missiles. – Reuters

“Fighting terrorism” is how the Kremlin explains its latest effort to broaden its surveillance of Russian society and increase its control over internet content. But the program is also Moscow’s latest step toward digital isolationism. – Defense One

A senior Russian official will be given temporary relief from Crimea-related sanctions so he can visit the United States to talk about improving the two countries’ cooperation on space matters — at least, that’s what Russian state media are saying. – Defense One

Eli Lake writes: According to the Russians, President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF) treaty will bring the world closer to the nuclear apocalypse. “Mankind is facing full chaos in the nuclear weapons sphere,” one high-ranking Russian lawmaker said. – Bloomberg

John Lee writes: While Russia and other European countries will probably loudly voice their views on America withdrawing, Asian countries will be less vocal. But do not read reluctance to comment as indifference. Trump’s decision is likely to have the greater impact on matters with respect to China and other Asian powers than it will Russia and Europe. – Hudson Institute

Alexander Smith writes: The White House’s decision to pull out, so this argument goes, will only allow Moscow to continue its current actions without having to maintain the pretense of compliance. Meanwhile, Russia, which also accuses the U.S. of violating the agreement, can point the finger at the U.S. as the one responsible for the INF’s failure. – MSNBC


Italy’s government vowed to forge ahead with its spending plans Monday, despite warnings by the European Union that its proposed budget would breach the bloc’s fiscal rules, raising the chances of a clash with Brussels. – Wall Street Journal

As President Trump continues to equivocate in his response to the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, European leaders have shown a united front in casting blame on the Saudi government and calling for concrete actions to punish Riyadh for what mounting evidence suggests was a hit job followed by a state-authorized coverup gone wrong. – Washington Post

Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said on Monday that a vote in the Macedonian parliament that backed changing the country’s name was rigged through a combination of blackmail, threats and vote-buying. – Reuters

U.S. and European Union trade negotiators will meet in Washington, D.C., this week to keep the ball rolling on talks first started back in July to reduce nontariffs barriers between the two. Progress may be announced on some minor issues, but other broader agreements are unlikely until next month at least. – Washington Examiner

Edward Lucas writes: Lord Ashdown, the international community’s former High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina, earlier this year dismissed the outside world’s policy as a “disaster.” The EU and the United States used to base their policy on linkages. If you wanted to influence the Bosnian Serbs, you put pressure on them via the authorities in Belgrade. Now, policy focuses on individual countries, and ignores the ways in which they are connected. – Center for European Policy Analysis

Michael A. Hunzeker and Alexander Lanoszka write: Our vision for a permanent U.S. military presence in Poland threads the needle between assurance and deterrence. It also keeps in mind the risks emanating from both Poland and Russia. In charting American military strategy, we have to clearly understand and carefully balance Russia’s threat perceptions with those of the United States’ frontline allies, treating each with the seriousness they deserve. A U.S. permanent presence in Poland is neither costless nor risk-free, but the benefits can certainly outweigh the costs and risks if it is designed right. – War on the Rocks


Missing Nigerian separatist leader Nnamdi Kanu has resurfaced in Israel more than a year after soldiers stormed his home. “I’m in Israel,” Mr Kanu said on Sunday in a broadcast on his outlawed pirate radio station – Radio Biafra. – BBC News

Ethiopia and the separatist Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) have signed a peace deal, ending the ONLF’s 34-year armed rebellion. The deal stipulates that both sides will cease hostilities, with the ONLF agreeing to use peaceful political means to pursue independence for Ethiopia’s Somali-speaking region – known as Ogaden. – BBC News

Health teams responding to Congo’s latest Ebola outbreak are attacked three or four times a week on average, a level of violence unseen in the country’s nine previous outbreaks of the deadly virus, the health ministry said Monday. – Associated Press

The Americas

An explosive device was found on Monday in a mailbox at the Westchester County home of George Soros, the billionaire philanthropist who is a favorite target of right-wing groups, the authorities said. – New York Times

An estimated 5,000 Honduran migrants—some on foot carrying children and some hitching rides on trucks—set out Monday from southern Mexico on a grueling journey toward the U.S. border, as President Trump threatened to end or cut foreign aid to Central American countries for failing to stop the caravan. – Wall Street Journal

A caravan of thousands of Honduran migrants—many of whom crossed the Mexican border illegally—regrouped within Mexican territory and began walking north from this tropical town bordering Guatemala on Sunday. The caravan of migrants, many of whom are fleeing poverty and violence at home, could fuel a fresh political rift between President Trump and the Mexican government just two weeks before U.S. midterm elections. – Wall Street Journal

Cyber Security

Computer hardware maker Super Micro Computer Inc said on Monday it would review its motherboards for any proof of malicious chips as alleged in a recent media report. – Reuters

The upcoming lame-duck session of Congress is poised to deliver the top item on the Department of Homeland Security’s wish list — a bill paving the way for the DHS to create the government’s first cyber-specific agency — but whether that translates into real security improvements remains an open question. – Washington Examiner

Cybersecurity warning and intelligence is nascent and ill-defined, according to an October survey and report from the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, a membership group of national security officials. […]The report showed how the absence of indicators that could warn of an incoming hack was indicative of larger cybersecurity problems. – Defense News


The U.S. will outspend any other nation in building up its nuclear arsenal, President Donald Trump said, in a fresh challenge to Russia and China. “We have more money than anybody else, by far. We’ll build it up,” Trump said after being asked late Monday if he was prepared to build up the U.S.’s nuclear arsenal. “Until they come to their senses. When they do, then we’ll all be smart and we’ll all stop.” – Bloomberg

A Navy SEAL is considering a civil rights lawsuit against Navy investigators after alleging that they “laid siege” to his home and marched his children out of the house during a probe into the SEAL’s actions in Iraq. – Washington Examiner

If the Democrats win Congress, defense spending will almost certainly tumble. The more a prospective blue wave erodes Republican majorities in Congress in midterm elections, the greater the pain is likely to be for military contractors who profited handsomely from the “Trump bump” in U.S. stock markets. – Washington Examiner

The U.S. Space Force will include uniformed service members drawn from the Air Force, Navy and Army — but it is not expected to include the National Reconnaissance Office mission, according an internal draft of the Pentagon’s plan to create a sixth branch of the military. – Defense One

Scott Cuomo, Olivia A. Garard, Jeff Cummings and Noah Spataro write: Regardless of how hard change might be, it’s required. Fortunately, the types of changes required to make the Warbot combat team concept real provide a perfect opportunity for the service to help the Navy and the rest of the joint force accomplish the National Defense Strategy’s intent. – War on the Rocks