Fdd's overnight brief

September 13, 2019

In The News


In 2017, Jolie King and Mark Firkin hit the road in a white Toyota Land Cruiser, beginning a journey that over the next two years would take them from their home in Perth, Australia, across large stretches of Asia as they meandered toward Europe. Then, at the end of June, their posts suddenly stopped. On Thursday, officials confirmed that the couple were among three Australian citizens detained in Iran for the past 10 weeks. – New York Times

Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne has said she is trying to secure the release of three of her country’s citizens held by Tehran, one of whom has been imprisoned for nearly a year, Reuters reported. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

President Donald Trump said he believes that Iran’s leadership wants to talk, adding to expectations that he is trying to arrange a summit with his Iranian counterpart at the upcoming UN assembly. – Agence France-Presse 

The United States has evidence that the Iranian tanker Adrian Darya 1 has transferred its crude oil to the Syrian government, breaking assurances it gave not to sell crude to the country, the U.S. State Department said on Thursday. – Reuters 

Israel must be given free rein to act against Iran, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on September 12 as talks concluded in Sochi where he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss security coordination in Syria. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

The Trump administration is not seeking regime change, but rather to maintain its “maximum pressure campaign to get Iran back to the table” for a “better deal than the JCPOA (the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action),” Nathan Sales, a top US state department counter-terror official, told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday. – Jerusalem Post

Texas Senator Ted Cruz said it would be a “serious mistake” for President Donald Trump to ease sanctions against Iran to help secure a meeting with President Hassan Rouhani. – Bloomberg

The Ashura ceremony held annually by the Iranian regime was attended this year by Muqtada Al-Sadr, a senior Shi’ite leader in Iraq known for calling to preserve Iraq’s political independence. Moreover, Al-Sadr was given a place of honor beside Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, taking precedence over high-ranking military commanders such as Qods Force commander Qassem Soleimani, Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commander Hossein Salami, and others. It is noteworthy that Iranian President Hassan Rohani was absent from the ceremony. – Middle East Media Research Institute 

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin (mih-NOO’-shin) says President Donald Trump has no plans to meet with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani (hah-SAHN’ roh-HAH’-nee) while he’s in New York for the United Nations General Assembly later this month. – Associated Press

Editorial: In contrast, Iran right now is the weakest it has been in decades, and manifestly wilting under Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign. Rather than push for an extended sunset, Trump should hold out for a complete termination of Iran’s nuclear activities and an end to its other threatening behavior — such as its ballistic-missile program and its support for terrorist groups across the Middle East — in exchange for readmission into the world economy. – Bloomberg


A widening campaign by Israel to blunt the threat posed by Iran’s ally Hezbollah, and the pushback from beyond Israel’s borders, are raising the risk that the two sides will stumble into another war. – Wall Street Journal

Future U.S. sanctions could target allies of Hezbollah in Lebanon, extending beyond direct affiliates of the Iran-backed Shi’ite Muslim group, a U.S. envoy said on Thursday. – Reuters 

President Reuven Rivlin on Thursday cautioned the Lebanese government that if it doesn’t stop Hezbollah’s aggression against Israel, the terror group will drag both countries into war. – Times of Israel


The Pentagon is preparing to send about 150 troops to northeastern Syria to conduct ground patrols with Turkish forces, reversing at least temporarily a withdrawal from Syria that President Trump ordered last December. – New York Times

The United States’ top envoy for Syria rejected Thursday findings by U.N.-backed investigators that deadly airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition early this year may amount to a war crime. – Associated Press

Air strikes pounded the south of Syria’s Idlib region on Thursday, a rebel official and residents said, despite a ceasefire that had halted a fierce army offensive against the rebel stronghold two weeks ago. – Reuters 


Ankara is planning to open the abandoned town of Varosha on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Thursday. – Agence France-Presse 

Seven people were killed and 10 were wounded in southeast Turkey when an improvised explosive placed on a road went off as a vehicle carrying villagers was passing, a governor’s office in the region said. The explosives were believed to have been placed by Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) militants, the office said in a statement. – Reuters 

Aaron Stein writes: The United States, therefore, cannot count on Turkey to support its effort to confront China and Russia — the underpinning of current U.S. national security policy. Ankara’s point of view differs, considerably, from other U.S. allies.  […]Turkey has changed. Washington has also changed. The trends point to considerable friction and a murky bilateral future. Ankara is not leaving NATO, nor will it turn East. Instead, the current leadership rejects the current rules of the road and wants to change them. That may actually be worse for Washington. – War on the Rocks


Facebook suspended a chatbot operated by the official account of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday for violating hate speech rules after it sent a message saying that Israel’s Arab politicians “want to destroy us all.” – New York Times 

Israel on Thursday denied a report by the Washington-based news site Politico claiming that it had placed cellphone surveillance devices in sensitive locations around Washington, including near the White House. – Washington Post

The U.S. government concluded within the past two years that Israel was most likely behind the placement of cellphone surveillance devices that were found near the White House and other sensitive locations around Washington, according to three former senior U.S. officials with knowledge of the matter. – Politico 

Israel will have no choice but to launch a broad military campaign against Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip, Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday. – Bloomberg

Editorial: Trump needs to be a true friend to Israel, and not a fair-weather friend that would pander to those who seek to destroy us. The Iranian threat not only endangers Israel; it is a matter of national security, and, as Netanyahu said, the way to handle it is through “pressure, pressure and more pressure.” – Jerusalem Post 

Robert Kagan writes: Israel’s new direction is the product of swings in Israeli politics and society, and it is also a course chosen by Netanyahu, pursuing his vision of his own interests and of his nation’s. But it is also a symptom of the liberal world order’s decline. – Washington Post 

Gulf States

Iran and security in the Persian Gulf will be key topics of discussion when President Donald Trump hosts Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa next week at the White House. – Associated Press 

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres says “the world cannot live with a major confrontation in the Gulf.” Guterres was referring Thursday to the escalating crisis between the U.S. and Iran in the wake of the collapsing nuclear deal with world powers. – Associated Press 

Michael Knights and Farzin Nadimi write: If Iraq proves responsive in preventing further Iranian abuses, then Israel could eschew future strikes. And if Iraq fails to respond or misuses the provided intelligence, at least Washington will have discharged its responsibility to mediate between its partners, leaving Baghdad to live with the consequences of its choices. – Washington Institute 

Middle East & North Africa

The U.S. State Department has cleared Morocco to buy almost 8,500 munitions of various types, with a price tag of just under $1 billion. The two packages — a package of weapons used on the F-16 for $209 million and a tranche of TOW missiles for $776 million — were announced Thursday on the website of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency. – Defense News

The UN Security Council on Thursday unanimously adopted a resolution renewing its mission in Libya for another year and pledging to support struggling efforts to build a ceasefire in the war-torn country. – Agence France-Presse

Germany is planning to hold a UN-backed international conference on the future of Libya in an attempt to force the many regional actors to stop funding and arming the country’s warring sides. – The Guardian

Korean Peninsula

Trump’s willingness to publicly side with Kim over a recently departed senior aide marked the latest in a string of extraordinary episodes in which he has aligned himself with one of the world’s most brutal dictators against individual Americans, the intelligence community, the military and U.S. allies. – Washington Post

South Korean President Moon Jae-in and U.S. President Donald Trump are expected to hold a summit at the United Nations this month, Moon’s office said on Friday, amid hopes for a restart of talks aimed at dismantling North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. – Reuters 

U.S. President Donald Trump told reporters on Thursday he would be willing to meet North Korean leader Kim Jong Un to resume denuclearization talks at some point later this year. – Reuters 


The trade war between the United States and China showed signs of easing on Thursday, as China reportedly made its first large purchase in months of American soybeans after President Trump agreed to briefly delay his next round of tariffs. – New York Times 

President Donald Trump signaled Thursday that he would consider an interim trade deal with China, even though he would not prefer it. – CNBC 

Huawei’s chief executive has proposed selling its current 5G know-how to a Western firm as a way to address security concerns voiced by the US and others about its business. – BBC 

James Freeman writes: Many observers have warned that the Chinese could dominate the field of artificial intelligence. Maybe it will dominate them. The potential impact of technology on the Chinese workforce could be driving Beijing to try again for a U.S. trade deal. – Wall Street Journal


The Taliban on Thursday called on the U.S. to restart talks on ending the 18-year-old conflict in Afghanistan, urging the Trump administration to revisit a nearly completed deal after it abruptly withdrew from the process last week. – Wall Street Journal

Afghanistan’s Taliban leaders agreed they wanted a deal with the United States, but some were in more of a hurry than others. Taliban negotiators were at odds with their Council of Leaders, or shura, about whether to travel to Camp David even before President Donald Trump abruptly canceled the high-stakes meeting planned for last weekend . – Associated Press

The U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee said on Thursday it will subpoena President Donald Trump’s special Afghanistan envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, to testify on Sept. 19, after the abrupt cancellation of talks with the country’s Taliban militia. – Reuters 

Yet 18 years later, after the U.S. spent nearly $900 billion and more than 147,000 people died, the Taliban are growing more confident of returning to power. The militant group controls or contests half of the country, more territory than any time since they were toppled in 2001. And they’ve come close to a deal with the U.S. that could give them even more power, even after President Donald Trump abruptly put the talks on hold. – Bloomberg

A suicide bomber targeted an Afghan Special Forces base in Kabul on Thursday, killing at least four commandos, officials said, as violence continued to escalate following the collapse of peace talks between the United States and Taliban insurgents. – Reuters 

Stefanie Glinski writes: While people across the country want peace, many fear a large-scale U.S. troop withdrawal could strengthen Taliban rule and increase violence. A lack of clarity has bothered many who say that the details of the deal were kept secret from almost the entire country, including the majority of the Afghan government, which had been sidelined during the talks.. – Foreign Policy 

James Pardew writes: In the end, Afghans must decide for themselves whether they want to accept future Taliban rule, and whether the leaders and people of Afghanistan can muster the will to defend themselves to insure a more open and democratic future. The U.S. and its allies can help, but the days of American domination of the security of Afghanistan should end soon. – The Hill


A modern submarine force to deter China’s ambitions to take over Taiwan tops the island’s unmet defense needs, its first civilian defense minister told a Washington, D.C., audience on Wednesday. – USNI News

A Solomon Islands task force recommended to the government on Friday that the South Pacific archipelago sever its long-standing ties with Taiwan and normalize diplomatic relations with Beijing. – Reuters 

China has called on its biggest state firms to take a more active role in Hong Kong, including stepping up investment and asserting more control of companies in the financial hub, executives familiar with the matter said, as Beijing attempts to calm months of unrest in the city. – Reuters 

Hong Kong’s special trade relationship with the United States has given China the opportunity to steal sensitive technology it would not otherwise have access to, according to American lawmakers and officials. – Washington Examiner  


An intergovernmental coalition hosted a presentation Thursday about a new U.S. foreign aid initiative intended to help targeted European countries withstand Kremlin interference. – Associated Press

Ahead of Israel’s early parliamentary election next week, Russian President Vladimir Putin says the Kremlin has an interest in who wins power. Putin spoke Thursday at the opening of a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the southern Russian city of Sochi. – Associated Press

A Michigan security executive who has been detained in Russia on espionage charges since December is being held without cause as his health deteriorates under tough conditions, members of Congress said Thursday as they demanded his release. – Associated Press

Russia’s Foreign Ministry says that Moscow has asked the international police agency Interpol for help in locating a former Kremlin official who is alleged to have been a CIA informant and who disappeared in 2017. – Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty

Editorial: Mr. Putin is suffering under sanctions, and economic weakness at home encourages voters to look anew at opposition politicians as they did in Sunday’s local elections. The idea of a Russia fully integrated into the West is a dream that goes back centuries. But a marauding Russia that annexes neighbors and murders with impunity on foreign soil remains more of a threat than a reliable political and economic partner. – Wall Street Journal


EU negotiator Michel Barnier on Thursday expressed pessimism on the prospects of clinching a divorce deal with Britain ahead of its withdrawal from the bloc on Oct. 31. – Reuters 

The Trump administration has released $250 million in military aid to Ukraine that had been held up despite criticism that the money was desperately needed to deter Russian aggression and territorial expansion. – Associated Press

France has said it will block the development of Facebook’s Libra in Europe, dealing the cryptocurrency a fresh blow. – The Guardian

Latin America

President Trump on Thursday argued that his former national security adviser John Bolton was holding him back on foreign policy efforts while speaking out about the former top aide for the second time in as many days. Trump tweeted that his own “views on Venezuela, and especially Cuba, were far stronger than those of John Bolton. He was holding me back!” – The Hill

The new acting head of U.S. diplomacy toward Latin America is a seasoned envoy who once floated the idea of going into Chile unilaterally to snatch a politically powerful general who was behind the murder of a leftist politician in Washington in the 1970s. The State Department announced Thursday that Michael Kozak will take over responsibility for the Western Hemisphere department a month after Kimberly Breier resigned. – Associated Press 

Francisco Toro writes: Latin America isn’t prepared for the dynamic taking shape along the Venezuela-Colombia border. The region hasn’t witnessed serious interstate conflict since the 1930s. Venezuela’s wholehearted embrace of Colombia’s narco-revolutionaries is creating conditions for a kind of clash the region has no memory of. With luck, it’s a scenario that will remain confined to the nightmares of reality-scarred Venezuelans. Except if there’s one thing the past few years have made clear, it’s that reality-scarred Venezuelans can’t rely on luck. – Washington Post 


A Ukrainian national has pleaded guilty to hacking and wire-fraud charges in Seattle in what the FBI says is one of the largest cybercrime cases it has handled, the AP news agency reported. – Associated Press

Maj. Gen. Randy Taylor led the Army’s sustainment efforts for the past two years as leader of Communications-Electronics Command at Aberdeen Proving Ground, Maryland. CECOM works to repair, restore and maintain all the Army’s communications, electronics, cyber and intelligence equipment once it’s been used by soldiers. – C4ISRNET

The Office of Management and Budget cancelled several decade-old policies that required the internet traffic of federal agencies to flow through a physical Trusted Internet Connection, a long-awaited update that’s meant to increase the flexibility of agencies migrating to the cloud while maintaining their cybersecurity posture. – Fifth Domain

The West and Israel must take necessary precautions to prevent terrorists from launching a “dirty” cyber bomb, Lt.-Gen. (ret.) Vincent Stewart, who stepped down a few months ago from his post as deputy head of the US Cyber Command, told The Jerusalem Post in an exclusive interview. – Jerusalem Post


The topic of U.S. President Donald Trump loomed over the confirmation hearing of his nominee for Air Force secretary, as Senate Democrats pressed the nominee to answer for a number of controversies involving the president. – Defense News

Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday sent its $693 billion defense spending bill to the Senate floor and scuttled a Democratic amendment meant to bar Pentagon funds from being diverted to President Donald Trump’s border wall. – Defense News

The U.S. Navy will try to prevent Skynet — the fictional intelligence computer network that attempts to destroy humanity in the “Terminator” series — from becoming a reality as it continues efforts to field evermore capable robots, a Navy official said Monday. – Defense News

Surface escorts from the Harry S. Truman Carrier Strike Group left their homeports today to kick off an overseas deployment. Aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN-75) did not. – USNI News

Long War

The Trump administration turned over a key piece of new information to lawyers for 9/11 victims’ families, a move that could cast light on long-disputed reports of Saudi government involvement in the terrorist attacks. – Wall Street Journal

The United States State Department is offering $15 million in rewards for information leading to the capture of three Al Qaeda terrorists, a senior State Department official announced. – Arutz Sheva

Nathan A. Sales and Marshall Billingslea write: Armed with these new authorities, the Administration has already announced some of the widest-ranging designations of terrorists and their supporters in the past 15 years. However, the United States needs partners to make our sanctions as effective as possible, and we are looking to our allies and partners around the world to adapt and strengthen their own sanctions authorities to protect their own nations, and the integrity of the international financial system. – The Hill

Jessica Trisko Darden writes: Overall, the report argues that a development-based approach to counterterrorism holds promise in shifting popular support among local communities away from terrorism if funds are programmed in a targeted and evidence-based manner. This means that program goals should be clearly defined, program activities should be limited in scope, and effectiveness should drive program design, participant selection, and monitoring and evaluation. Recognizing the connection between security conditions and program effectiveness is also vital; terrorism prevention programs cannot operate effectively in areas with significant ongoing conflict. – American Enterprise Institute

Trump Administration

Senate lawmakers voted Thursday to confirm Thomas Feddo as a Treasury Department leader overseeing national-security reviews of business deals that involve foreign money. […]The changes were driven by growing concerns about China’s efforts to acquire U.S. technology and trade secrets that could compromise the country’s national security. – Wall Street Journal

In the world’s hot spots from Iran to North Korea — and even among allies — some see opportunity in President Donald Trump’s firing of his national security adviser, John Bolton. The hawkish Bolton repeatedly pushed Trump toward using military force and sanctions to accomplish the administration’s foreign policy goals. – Associated Press

US Ambassador Kelly Craft took up her post at the United Nations on Thursday, vowing to defend America’s values and interests nine months after the departure of her high-profile predecessor Nikki Haley. – Agence France-Presse