The Soufan Group Morning Brief


Thursday, May 3, 2018

U.S. Transfers First Detainee Out of Guantanamo Under Trump

The Pentagon has transferred a Guantanamo Bay prisoner to the custody of Saudi Arabia, a spokeswoman announced on Wednesday. The handoff is the first time a detainee has left Guantanamo under President Trump. Ahmed Muhammed Haza al-Darbi, a Saudi citizen, was captured in Baku, Azerbaijan, and handed over to the U.S. military in Afghanistan in 2002. He pleaded guilty in 2014 to terrorism-related offenses involving a 2002 Al Qaeda attack on a French-flagged oil tanker off Yemen’s coast and was sentenced to 13 years. He is expected to serve the roughly nine years remaining of his sentence in Saudi Arabia.

As part of his guilty plea in 2014, the Pentagon prosecutor agreed that, in exchange for truthful testimony, he would return to Saudi Arabia on February 20, 2018, to serve out his prison sentence in a rehabilitation center for captured jihadists. But the deal was made under the Obama administration when the State Department had an office to negotiate transfers. The Trump administration closed the Office for Guantanamo Closure at the State Department.

In his testimony, Darbi said he had been tortured in U.S. custody. “My words will not do justice to what I lived through in these years and to the men I leave behind in prison,” Darbi said in a statement provided on Wednesday through his volunteer lawyer, Ramzi Kassem, a law professor at the City University of New York. “No one should remain at Guantanamo without a trial. There is no justice in that.” Darbi’s departure brings the population at Guantanamo to 40 detainees. New York Times, Miami Herald

Also on Wednesday, the Pentagon delivered its recommendations for new policies regarding detainees captured on the battlefield and the transfer of those individuals to Guantanamo Bay, a day after the deadline set by a January 30 executive order signed by President Donald Trump. “The Secretary of Defense has provided the White House with an updated policy governing the criteria for transfer of individuals to the detention facility at U.S. Naval Station Guantanamo Bay,” a Pentagon spokesperson said. The Pentagon has not made the details of the recommendations public. CNN, The Hill


The game theory of a Trump subpoena: “What is going on now between the Mueller camp and the Trump camp is a complicated multi-level game of chicken that is best understood not in terms of law but as a structured game,” Benjamin Wittes writes in Lawfare. “How it plays out will depend on a key variable into which there is little publicly available insight: How much does Mueller actually want an interview with Trump?”

Did bin Laden’s death help the Islamic State? “On the basis of our research into bin Laden’s leadership using the declassified documents from his compound as well as the extensive secondary literature on him, we propose that, unlike his successor, Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden was sufficiently capable as a leader that he may have been able to prevent the rupture with the Islamic State,” Tricia Bacon and Elizabeth Grimm Arsenault write in the Washington Post.

Gina Haspel is the rare CIA director nominee that both parties should love: “Our future will pivot on our ability to confront the challenges posed by Russia, China, North Korea, Iran and the ever-changing tactics of terrorists all over the world,” Jeremy Bash writes in NBC News. “All of these challenges require intelligence professionals willing to step forward, serve and give our nation’s leaders their best and most candid advice. We need more people like Gina Haspel.”

Who can prevent a war between Israel and Iran? Russia: “The key to preventing the Syrian civil war from splintering into an even more chaotic and deadly phase will be Russia, whose September 2015 military intervention gave it control of Syrian airspace and placed it politically in the driver’s seat,” Joost Hiltermann writes in the New York Times.

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Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani sketched out a set of terms on Wednesday for a potential interview between Trump and Special Counsel Robert Mueller in an interview with The Washington Post. Giuliani, who joined the president’s legal team about two weeks ago, said that an interview with Mueller would need to be no longer than “two to three hours” and be limited to a “a narrow set of questions.” But Giuliani told The Hill that Trump’s legal team is still “several weeks away” from determining whether the president will consent to an interview with Mueller. Giuliani said the decision would be determined in large part by how “objective” he and his colleagues perceive Mueller to be. “The more objective [Mueller] is, the more likely we would be willing to cooperate. The less objective, then we would be foolish to do that,” he said. CNN, The Hill, Washington Post

A 17-year-old boy in Plano, Texas, has been arrested and charged with plotting a mass shooting inspired by ISIS at a shopping mall, law enforcement agencies said on Wednesday. The FBI and police said high school student Matin Azizi-Yarand had planned the attack for mid-May and had sought to recruit others for the shooting. Authorities also said he had drafted a “Message to America” justifying his planned attack. The FBI and local authorities said that at the time of his arrest, Azizi-Yarand had sent “more than $1,400 to others” to buy weapons and tactical gear. According to an affidavit, Azizi-Yarand began communicating online with an FBI source last December about his desire to travel abroad or to conduct an attack in the U.S., comparing himself to other recent “lone wolf” attackers.

While the FBI and a Joint Terrorism Task force conducted the investigation leading to Azizi-Yarand’s arrest, so far he has only being charged under Texas state law. Authorities said if he is convicted, he would face up to life in prison for soliciting others to participate in his planned attack, and up to 10 years in prison for making a terroristic threat. Reuters, CBS News, Dallas News

The Las Vegas Police Department on Wednesday released the first body-camera video of officers breaching and entering the hotel room that Stephen Paddock used as a perch to kill 58 people on October 1, the largest mass shooting in modern American history. Paddock wounded more than 700 in the attack at the Route 91 Harvest music festival that was attended by about 22,000. The release came after police failed to convince the Nevada Supreme Court to overturn a lower court decision that ordered authorities to make the hundreds of hours of body-camera video and 911 calls public. Police officials said because of the volume of videos, 911 calls, and documents, the public release of the items will continue on a rolling basis over the coming months. Los Angeles Times, Associated Press

Trump hires Clinton impeachment lawyer to handle Mueller probe: President Trump has tapped Emmett Flood, who advised Bill Clinton during his impeachment proceedings, to assist in the Russia investigation after the lead White House attorney handling the probe, Ty Cobb, announced plans to retire, the White House said Wednesday. White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said in a statement that Cobb had been discussing his plans to retire with Trump and White House chief of staff John Kelly for the last several weeks. NBC News

Ukraine halted cooperation with Mueller investigation: In the U.S., former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort is facing prosecution on charges of money laundering and financial fraud stemming from his decade of work for a pro-Russian political party in Ukraine. But in Ukraine, where officials are wary of offending President Trump, four cases that involving Manafort have been effectively frozen by Ukraine’s chief prosecutor. The decision to halt the investigations by an anticorruption prosecutor was handed down just as the Trump administration was finalizing plans to sell the country sophisticated anti-tank missiles. New York Times

Cambridge Analytica shuts down: Cambridge Analytica, the political consultancy that worked for the Trump campaign and came under attack for its use of personal Facebook data, announced on Wednesday it would cease operations and declare bankruptcy in the United States and United Kingdom. The firm said it had lost clients because of revelations in March that it had improperly obtained the personal information of millions of Facebook users. Cambridge Analytica defended its use of Facebook, saying it was “vilified for activities that are not only legal, but also widely accepted as a standard component of online advertising in both the political and commercial arenas.” Wall Street Journal, Washington Post

U.S. weighs curbs on Chinese telecom firms over national security concerns: The Trump administration is considering executive action that would restrict some Chinese companies’ ability to sell telecommunications equipment in the U.S., based on national-security concerns. The move would represent a significant escalation of a trade feud between the U.S. and China over tech and telecommunications. Wall Street Journal


For years, the American military has sought to distance itself from the civil war in Yemen. But late last year, a team of about a dozen Green Berets arrived on Saudi Arabia’s border with Yemen, in a continuing escalation of America’s secret wars. The Army commandos are helping locate and destroy caches of ballistic missiles and launch sites that Houthi rebels in Yemen are using to attack Riyadh and other Saudi cities.

Their presence appears to contradict Pentagon statements that American military assistance to the Saudi-led campaign in Yemen is limited to aircraft refueling, logistics, and general intelligence sharing. There is no indication that the U.S. commandos have crossed into Yemen as part of the secretive mission. But sending American ground forces to the border is a marked escalation of Western assistance to Saudi Arabia in its war against the Houthis. New York Times

ISIS suicide bombers attacked Libya’s election commission on Wednesday, killing at least 14 people in an attempt to disrupt a nation-wide vote planned for later this year. ISIS claimed the attack via its Amaq news agency, which said the two bombers infiltrated the building in the capital of Tripoli and fired on people inside before detonating their explosives when their ammunition ran out.

U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert condemned the attack in a statement and said the U.S. is committed to working with Libya’s UN-backed Government of National Accord to deny ISIS “safe haven in their country.” Earlier this week, the international Quartet trying to help bring order to Libya said it supports holding presidential and parliamentary elections this year, and promised to provide observers and electoral assistance. Associated Press, New York Times

North Korea possibly preparing to release US detainees: North Korea is preparing to release three U.S. detainees ahead of President Trump’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. The three Korean-American detainees, Kim Dong Chul, Kim Sang Duk and Kim Hak Song, are staying in a hotel outside of Pyongyang, and the U.S. and North Korea are reportedly close to reaching a deal on their release. U.S. officials have been pushing the detainees’ release as recently as newly appointed Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's visit to North Korea early last month. The Hill

Germany arrests suspected member of ISIS: German authorities say they have arrested a 25-year-old Syrian man on suspicion of being a member of ISIS. Federal prosecutors say Faisal A.H., whose full name was withheld on privacy grounds, was detained Wednesday in the southwestern city of Tuebingen. Prosecutors said the man is suspected of joining a militia in 2013 that fought against the Syrian government and joined with ISIS later that year. He allegedly left Syria for Germany at the end of 2014. Associated Press

Iran arrests British Council employee as she visits home country: A London-based British Council employee has been arrested during a family visit to Iran. The detention of Aras Amiri, a 32-year-old Iranian national, is the latest in a string of recent arrests involving British dual nationals or Iranians linked with British institutions. The Guardian

North and South Korea combine teams at table tennis championship: North and South Korea have combined their women’s teams at the table tennis world championships. The neighboring nations’ women’s teams declined to play each other in the quarterfinals on Thursday in Sweden, instead asking to join together in a combined team that would advance to Friday’s semifinals. South Korea’s team said the move is “an important statement to promote peace between our countries through table tennis.” Associated Press


For cutting-edge analysis of the geopolitical events shaping global affairs, read today’s TSC IntelBrief.
Editor-in-Chief, Karen J. Greenberg, Center on National Security, Fordham Law School

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