The Early Edition: October 31, 2018

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Before the start of business, Just Security provides a curated summary of up-to-the-minute developments at home and abroad. Here’s today’s news.

JAMAL KHASHOGGI KILLING

Saudi Arabia’s Chief Prosecutor Saud al-Mojeb has met with Turkish intelligence officials to discuss the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, paying a midnight visit to the Turkish intelligence agency’s Istanbul headquarters today, according to private D.H.A. news agency. Ankara is seeking the extradition of 18 Saudi suspects detained in Saudi Arabia Khashoggi’s murder in the Saudi Consulate after he entered the building on Oct. 2, and pressing Saudi Arabia for information concerning Khashoggi’s remains, the AP reports.

Senior member of the Saudi royal family Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz flew back to Riyadh from London yesterday, in the most significant move within the Saudi monarchy since Khashoggi’s killing. The return of Prince Ahmed, who had allegedly feared returning to the kingdom, follows his public criticism of de facto ruler Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and could serve to “bestow legitimacy on any family response to the furor over … Khashoggi’s killing,” David D. Kirkpatrick and Ben Hubbard report at the New York Times.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis yesterday commented that he considers U.S. support for Saudi Arabia in Yemen’s civil war to be a separate issue from the ongoing fallout over Khashoggi’s killing – an indication that the cessation of U.S. support for the Saudi coalition in Yemen is not on the table as a U.S. response to Khashoggi’s death. “The murder of Khashoggi is, I would separate it out from the Yemen situation,” Mattis stated at the United States Institute of Peace, adding: “that stands unique, by itself … the president said we want to get to the bottom of it … we will get to the bottom of it,” Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet has stressed that a full examination of human rights violations committed against Khashoggi be carried out. Bachelet welcomed the steps taken by Turkish and Saudi authorities to investigate and prosecute the alleged perpetrators, but added that “given the information that high-level officials in Saudi Arabia were apparently involved, and it took place in the Consulate of Saudi Arabia, the bar must be set very high to ensure meaningful accountability and justice for such a shockingly brazen crime against a journalist and government critic,” the U.N. News Centre reports.

A group of five Republican senators led by Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) is pressing the Trump administration to halt civilian nuclear talks with the kingdom in the aftermath of Khashoggi’s death. In a letter to the president, the lawmakers claim: “the ongoing revelations about the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, as well as certain Saudi actions related to Yemen and Lebanon, have raised further serious concerns about the transparency, accountability, and judgment of current decision makers in Saudi Arabia… we therefore request that you suspend any related negotiations for a U.S.-Saudi civil nuclear agreement for the foreseeable future,” Josh Lederman reports at NBC.

The Saudi administration and its “de facto accomplices” in the Trump administration have fallen silent over Khashoggi’s killing, the Washington Post editorial board comments, arguing that to secure accountability “Congress should … summon [C.I.A. Director Gina] Haspel and other senior U.S. officials and determine what they know about the killing … then it should take decisive action to impose sanctions on those responsible — including, if the available evidence points to him, Mohammed bin Salman — and reshape U.S. relations with Saudi Arabia.”

TRUMP-RUSSIA

The F.B.I. has been asked to investigate whether a hoaxer offered women money to make false allegations about special counsel Robert Mueller, investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election. Several U.S. journalists and bloggers reportedly received an email this month purporting to be from a woman who had been offered financial reward to smear Mueller with claims of inappropriate sexual conduct decades ago; once informed, Mueller’s office referred the matter to federal investigators who are now likely to examine whether the scheme described in the woman’s email is genuine, Jon Swaine reports at the Guardian.

Longtime G.O.P. operative Roger Stone is “gearing up for battle” with Mueller, with a series of witnesses having been questioned by the special counsel’s grand jury regarding their relationship with Stone during the 2016 presidential campaign. Stone has reportedly expanded his legal team in recent months, hiring prestigious Florida attorney Bruce Rogow; his attorneys have also claimed that Stone voluntarily took two polygraph tests, which they claim will show Stone passing with flying colors, Ali Dukakis reports at ABC News.

Former White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon reportedly met Friday with special Mueller’s team in an interview connected to Stone’s links to the Trump campaign, with Bannon claiming that he will not discuss the interview “out of respect for the process,” adding that “Mueller’s team has been very professional and courteous.” Stone has claimed that he had “no communications with Mr. Bannon or anyone else in the Trump campaign including the candidate himself regarding the Wikileaks disclosures,” Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

An analysis of Mueller’s strategy in the run-up to the Mid-Terms is provided by Nelson W. Cunningham at POLITICO Magazine, explaining that “since mid-August, [Mueller] may have been locked in proceedings with Trump and his lawyers over a grand jury subpoena – in secret litigation that could tell us by December whether the president will testify before Mueller’s grand jury.”

RUSSIA, N.A.T.O. AND NUCLEAR CONTROLS

A force of N.A.T.O. warships and aircraft yesterday stormed a Norwegian beach to practice resisting an invader – part of the bloc’s largest military exercises since the Cold War. The show of strength serves both as a warning to Russia and as a reminder to Norway and other N.A.T.O. members that security costs; N.A.T.O. Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg commented yesterday: “of course, I also expect that Norway will make good on their commitments to N.A.T.O. and to all their N.A.T.O. allies, Jason Marson reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Stoltenberg claimed that Russia’s deployment of new nuclear-capable missiles in Europe is jeopardizing the terms of the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (I.N.F.) treaty – the treaty that President Trump announced the intention of withdrawing from on Oct. 20. “The problem is the deployment of new Russian missiles,” Stoltenberg stated, adding: “there are no new U.S. missiles in Europe, but there are more Russian missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, and those missiles put the I.N.F. treaty in jeopardy … therefore we call on Russia to ensure that they are in full and transparent compliance with the I.N.F. treaty,” Reuters reports.

U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis commented yesterday that “diplomats are still trying” to find options on the way forward on the I.N.F. “We have done everything we can diplomatically … the diplomats are still trying, by the way, as we speak,” Mattis said at the United States Institute of Peace, adding that “we are doing everything we can to try to find any option,” Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

One person has been killed and three others injured after an explosive device went off inside a building housing Russia’s security service in the northern city of Arkhangelsk, Al Jazeera reports.

U.S.-CHINA RELATIONS

The U.S. Department of Justice (D.O.J.) has charged two Chinese intelligence officers. Zha Rong and Chai Meng – both officers with the Jiangsu provincial branch of the Ministry of State Security (M.S.S) – are accused of attempting to hack and infiltrate private companies over the course of five years in an attempt to steal the details for a type of jet engine technology from US-based companies; U.S. Attorney Adam Braverman claimed in a statement that “this action is yet another example of criminal efforts by the M.S.S to facilitate the theft of private data for China’s commercial gain,” Ben Westcot and Mary Kay Mallonee report at CNN.

The U.S. today told Taiwan that it will offer protection amid increased threats from China against the self-governing island. Washington’s de facto ambassador to Taiwan Brent Christensen told reporters that efforts to decide Taiwan’s future by anything “other than peaceful means” are a “grave concern” to the U.S., Al Jazeera reports.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

North Korea is preparing its Punggye-ri nuclear test site for international inspectors, the Yonhap news agency announced today citing South Korea’s spy agency. The announcement follows commitments made at the summit between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in September, Reuters reports.

The U.S. military is moving ahead with “renewed vigor” to acquire at least three new foreign-made versions of the weapons for its artillery, following the Trump administration’s cancelation of a Defense Department policy curtailing the military’s ability to use cluster munitions. Deputy Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan has specifically attributed the decision to the perceived threat posed by Pyongyang, John Ismay reports at the New York Times.

SYRIA

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan commented yesterday that Ankara has finalized plans for a “comprehensive and effective” operation targeting U.S.-backed Kurdish militia in Syria east of the Euphrates River, in a move that could potentially increase tension in the area where U.S.-led coalition forces are based. Erdogan’s remarks came days after the Turkish military shelled Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (Y.P.G.) militia positions, Suzan Fraser reports at the AP.

Training for joint patrols between Turkish and U.S. forces in Syria’s Manbij is completed, Turkish Defence Minister Hulusi Akar was quoted as saying by state-owned Anadolu news agency yesterday, adding that patrols would begin imminently. “The training process has been completed and joint patrols will begin today or tomorrow,” Askar said, adding that after Manbij, Turkey would focus on the area east of the Euphrates River, Reuters reports.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres has informed the Security Council that he intends to appoint veteran Norwegian diplomat Geir Pedersen as U.N. special envoy for Syria, replacing Staffan de Mistura who announced this month that he will be leaving the post at the end of November, the AP reports.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 188 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between Oct. 21 and Oct. 27. [Central Command]

YEMEN

The U.S. has called for a rapid cessation of hostilities in Yemen, where three years of civil war have led to the world’s “worst humanitarian crisis.” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis stated that all parties must take part in U.N.-led peace talks within the next 30 days; Secretary of State Mike Pompeo urged the U.S.-backed, Saudi-led coalition fighting the Iran-aligned Shi’ite Houthi rebel movement to end its air strikes on populated areas, the BBC reports.

The U.S. commission on international religious freedom has denounced Yemen’s Houthi rebel movement for charging 24 Baha’is with espionage and apostasy – charges that carry the death penalty. Those accused include women and a teenager, Samy Magdy reports at the AP.

AFGHANISTAN

An Afghan army helicopter carrying senior officials has crashed killing all 25 on board, according to officials. A spokesperson for the governor of western Farah province has said that two army helicopters were on their way to neighboring Herat province when one lost control, adding that among the dead were the deputy army corps commander for western Afghanistan and head of the Farah provincial council, Al Jazeera reports.

A suicide bomber today attacked a bus carrying employees of Afghanistan’s largest prison killing at least seven people, according to officials. AFP reports.

CYBERSECURITY, TECHNOLOGY AND PRIVACY

The SamSam hacking group behind the cyberattack that shut down of many of Atlanta’s computer systems in March is predominantly targeting U.S.-based organizations, according to a new report released yesterday by Cybersecurity firm Symantec. Olivia Beavers reports at the Hill.

An analysis of Twitter data suggests that the Kremlin-backed troll farm’s English-language propaganda is nine times more effective than its disinformation in Russian, rendering Americans easy targets for internet trolls. Kevin Poulsen explains at The Daily Beast.

A single message on Twitter sent in 2016 illustrates how Russia’s disinformation campaign was able to seize on online political content in order to spread distrust.  Brandy Zadrozny and Ben Collins explain at NBC.

“This is what the internet has come to: thugs like [Saudi Crown Prince] Mohammed bin Salman funding tech companies to host the vitriol of thugs like [mail-bombing campaign suspect] Cesar Sayoc and [Pittsburgh synagogue attack suspect] Robert Bowers” Kara Swisher argues, providing an analysis of the state of the world wide web at the New York Times.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

Denmark announced yesterday that it suspects an Iranian government intelligence service tried to execute a plot to assassinate an Iranian Arab opposition figure on Danish soil. Reuters reports.

The number of U.S. troops being deployed to the Mexican border will reportedly grow beyond 5,239—the figure officials announced on Monday.
Air Force Gen. Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy yesterday claimed that “5,239 is not the top line” but rather an initial request from the Department of Homeland Security in response to the caravan of migrants from Central America that has been progressing northwards, Nancy A. Youssef reports at the Wall Street Journal.

State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert is under consideration to replace Nikki Haley  as U.S. ambassador to the U.N., according to a new report. Megan Keller reports at the Hill.

An analysis of President Trump’s intentions to scale back U.N. resolutions on sexual health and violence against women is provided by Robbie Gramer and Colum Lynch at Foreign Policy. 

About the Author(s)

Robbie Stern

Assistant News Editor at Just Security and Legal Researcher at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK - Follow him on Twitter (@robbieguystern).