The Early Edition: November 13, 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

An audio recording shared last month with the C.I.A. Director Gina Haspel allegedly provides some of the strongest evidence to date linking Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salaman (M.B.S.) with the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who disappeared on Oct. 2 after visiting the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. According to three people familiar with the recording, the audio features a member of the kill team posted to Istanbul to murder Khashoggi instructing a superior over the phone to “tell your boss” that the operatives had carried out their mission; the recorded telephone conversation is thought to be between security officer Maher Abdulaziz Mutreb and one of M.B.S.’ aides, Julian E. Barnes, Eric Schmitt and David D. Kirkpatrick report at the New York Times.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has commented that the recordings related to Khahsoggi’s killing are “appalling.” Erdogan told reporters today on his return from a weekend visit to France that he discussed Khashoggi’s killing with the U.S., French and German leaders in Paris: “we played the recordings regarding this murder to everyone who wanted them from us … our intelligence organization did not hide anything,” Al Jazeera reports.

 Erdogan claimed that the recordings had even surprised a Saudi intelligence officer, adding: “in fact, when the […] officer listened to the recording he was so shocked that he said ‘this one probably took heroin … only someone who took heroin would do it,” the AP reports.

 Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said yesterday that Canadian intelligence agencies have heard the recordings provided by Turkish intelligence, marking the first time a leader of a Western nation has acknowledged receiving them. “Canada has been fully briefed up on what Turkey had to share,” Trudeau commented during a press conference at the Canadian Embassy in Paris, adding that he had not himself listened to the recordings, Bill Chappell reports at NPR.

 U.K. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt met yesterday with Saudi King Salman in Riyadh, with Hunt expected to press the kingdom to fully cooperate with the Turkish investigation into Khashoggi’s death. Hunt – the first British minister to visit Saudi Arabia since Khashoggi’s death – is also scheduled to meet the Crown Prince, with U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May having rebuffed calls from opposition lawmakers to end weapons sales to the kingdom in the wake of Khashoggi’s killing, the AP reports.

 Turkey reacted with fury yesterday after French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Erdogan was playing a political game over sharing intelligence about Khashoggi’s murder. Le Drian said he was not aware that France had any tapes and when asked if Erdogan was lying, he said: “he has a political game to play in these circumstances;” the comment provoked an incensed reaction from Ankara, with Turkish Foreign Minister Cevlut Cavusoglu claiming “our intelligence shared information with them on Oct 24, including the voice recordings … it is very impudent for them to accuse our president of playing political games,” Reuters reports.

About 200 people gathered in Istanbul Sunday to honor Khashoggi’s memory and demand justice over his killing.  Supporters met to talk and watch videos of eulogies for the journalist, with his fiancée Hatice Cengiz in attendance, Al Jazeera reports.

Top Saudi intelligence officials close to the Crown Prince asked a small group of businessmen last year about employing private companies to assassinate Iranian enemies of the kingdom, according to three people familiar with the discussions. Mark Mazzetti, Ronen Bergman and David D. Kirpatrick report at the New York Times.

An analysis of the role of Saudi consul in Istanbul Mohammad al-Otaibi, who left Turkey after Khashoggi’s killing and seems to have escaped punishment by the Saudi regime, is provided by Tamer El-Ghobashy and Loveday Morris at the Washington Post.

The Crown Prince’s authority is under threat as he faces domestic attempts to curb his wide-ranging powers in the wake of Khashoggi’s killing, according to western officials. Simon Kerr and Andrew England provide an analysis at the Financial Times.

The U.S. Middle East strategy of collaborating with the kingdom in order to contain Iran’s influence in the Middle East has been undermined by Khashoggi’s killing, Vali R. Nasr comments at the New York Times, arguing that “the weakening of confidence in Saudi Arabia throughout the region is more likely to confirm to Iran’s leaders the wisdom of their own current strategy.”

The KOREAN PENINSULA

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe today reaffirmed the need to keep sanctions on Pyongynag to achieve its denuclearization during bilateral talks in Tokyo. Pence said the U.S. will continue to put diplomatic and economic pressure on North Korea and urged all Indo-Pacific nations to maintain sanctions until complete denuclearization of North Korea is achieved, Mari Yamaguchi reports at the AP.

Washington-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies yesterday announced that it has identified 13 of the estimated 20 undeclared missile-operating bases in North Korea, although it noted the limited capabilities of the sites. “Missile operating bases are not launch facilities,” the report states, adding that “while missiles could be launched from within them in an emergency, Korean People’s Army (K.P.A.) operational procedures call for missile launchers to disperse from the bases to pre-surveyed or semi-prepared launch sites for operations,” Megan Keller reports at the Hill.

Characterizing the missile bases’ existence as a “great deception” is wrong, according to several analysts, with nuclear expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies Jeffrey Lewis commenting that Kim never agreed to dismantle his nuclear program, and adding that “Kim didn’t deceive anyone … Trump deceived himself.” David Axe provides an analysis at The Daily Beast.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

Israel launched more air strikes on Gaza today as Palestinians maintained rocket fire on Israeli territory in the “worst surge of violence” since the 2014 war. The fighting – that has left six Palestinians (including five militants) and an citizen dead as of yesterday – threatens to derail efforts by the U.N., Egypt and Qatar to broker a long-term truce and prevent another conflict in the deprived enclave. Reuters reports.

Militant Palestinian Hamas group who control the strip – along with other armed factions – launched more than 400 rockets and mortar bombs across the border after carrying out a surprise guided-missile attack yesterday on a bus, wounding an Israeli soldier, according to the Israel Defense Force (I.D.F.) Hamas claimed it is retaliating for a botched Israeli commando raid in Gaza that killed one of its commanders and six other gunmen Sunday, AFP reports.

The motivation for Sunday’s operation and its nature remain unclear. Reports in the Israeli news media generally described it as an intelligence mission that went awry, David M. Halbfinger reports at the New York Times.

The armed wing of Hamas claims that it will step up attacks and fire rockets at the Israeli towns of Ashdod and Beersheba if Israel continues to carry out air raids on civilian buildings in the strip. “Occupied al-Majdal (Ashkelon) is now in our cross hairs in response to the shelling that targeted civilian buildings in Gaza … Ashdod andBeersheba are the next targets if the enemy continues to bombard civilian buildings,” spokesperson Abu Ubaidah stated in a message on Twitter, Al Jazeera reports.

U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres yesterday urged all sides to hold back from violence. “He urges all parties to exercise maximum restraint … the U.N. Special Coordinator, Nickolay Mladenov, is working closely with Egypt and all concerned parties to restore calm,” Guterres’ deputy spokesperson Farhan Haq commented in a statement, Reuters reports.

The man killed in the Palestinian rocket attack in southern Israel has been identified as a 48-year-old Palestinian laborer who had been working in the city of Ashkelon. Live Updates on the escalating violence at the AP.

Sunday’s operation “ fits a pattern of targeted assassinations of Hamas commanders and affiliates,” Al Jazeera explains, providing a timeline of key Israeli assassinations targeting Palestinian military commanders and individuals with ties to Hamas.

YEMEN

Two Saudi-led air strikes hit the main entrance to the rebel-held port of Hodeidah yesterday but the docks were still operating normally today, according to the port’s deputy director. Yesterday’s assault was the first to hit the docks in 12 days of intensified bombardment and ground fighting in the Red Sea port sea, AFP reports.

Last night saw an apparent lull in the violence at Hodeidah, with military sources telling news agencies that at least 149 Yemenis – including seven civilians – had been killed in the previous 24 hours. However, according to coalition spokesperson Colonel Turki al-Malki, the offensive on the Houthi-held city “is still ongoing … it’s not true that there is a ceasefire in Hodeidah,” Al Jazeera reports.

U.K. Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt today claimed prospects for talks to end Yemen’s 3-1/2-year-old war were “more real” after Saudi Arabia confirmed to him its willingness to evacuate 50 wounded Houthi fighters as a confidence-building measure. Reuters reports.

The Trump administration’s decision last week to halt refueling Saudi-led coalition aircraft engaged in the Yemeni conflict “fell well short of a bipartisan view” that the U.S. should end all support for the war and press for a cease-fire, Lara Seligman and Robert Gramer explain at Foreign Policy.

AFGHANISTAN

The Trump administration is discussing whether to press the Afghan government to suspend upcoming presidential elections, in a move aimed at engaging the Taliban in talks to end the country’s 17-year war, according to people briefed on the discussions. Jessica Donati, Craig Nelson and Dion Nissenbaum report at the Wall Street Journal.

Insurgents killed at least 20 Afghan policemen between Sunday and Monday in eastern Ghazni province, according to an Afghan lawmaker, with a suicide bomber also killing at least four people at an anti-Taliban rally in Kabul yesterday, Rahim Faiez and Amir Shah report at the AP.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker has told associates that he will not reduce special counsel Robert Mueller’s budget as he had previously suggested, according to a source. Mueller is investigating Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election; Whitaker –a known critic of the probe – has reportedly said he will allow Mueller’s investigation to progress, Chris Strohm reports for Bloomberg.

Whitaker is consulting with ethics officials regarding possible recusal from overseeing the Mueller’s investigation, the Justice Department announced yesterday. “Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker is fully committed to following all appropriate processes and procedures at the Department of Justice, including consulting with senior ethics officials on his oversight responsibilities and matters that may warrant recusal,” Department spokesperson Kerri Kupec said in a statement, Brent D. Griffiths and Quint Forgey report at POLITICO.

Longtime ally of President Trump associate Roger Stone – Jerome Corsi – said yesterday that he expects to be indicted by Mueller for perjury. Corsi, who has been meeting with Mueller‘s team for two months, said that he spoke to prosecutors for around 40 hours but that talks had “all blown up,” Kyle Cheney and Darren Samuelsohn report at POLITICO.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The U.S. yesterday declined to sign the “Paris Call for Trust and Security in Cyberspace” – a “vaguely worded” international call to protect civilians against cyberattacks and discourage digital inteference in elections. David E. Sanger reports at the New York Times.

Iran has stayed within the limits set by the 2005 international nuclear deal, even as the U.S. has withdrawn from the accord, according to media reports. Michael Burke reports at the Hill.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 100 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria between Oct. 28 and Nov. 3. [Central Command] 

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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).