The Cable

SitRep: Suspected Russian NSA Hack Worst Ever

The coming air war in Afghanistan; U.S. drone strikes in Somalia; Did SEALs Kill Green Berets over money?

President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin wave at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Vietnam on November 10. (Mikhail  Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images)
President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin wave at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Summit in Vietnam on November 10. (Mikhail Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images)


By Paul McLeary with Adam Rawnsley

Moscow in the machine. A hack, or leak — or both — of some of the National Security Agency’s most sensitive cyber tools by a group calling itself the Shadow Brokers is continuing to have disastrous effects on governments, corporations, and individuals. But a team of New York Times reporters says the worst is likely yet to come.

Russian-backed hackers are the prime suspect, and “there is broad agreement that the damage from the Shadow Brokers already far exceeds the harm to American intelligence done by Edward J. Snowden, the former N.S.A. contractor who fled with four laptops of classified material in 2013.”

Trump sides with Russia. It was quite a weekend for U.S. President Donald Trump in Asia. The president had largely stuck to the script during his 11-day swing through Japan, South Korea, China, and Vietnam, but things appeared to go off the rails after he met with Russian President Vladimir Putin several times while at an economic summit in Vietnam.

Following that meeting, he said he believed Putin when he said Russia didn’t tamper with the U.S. presidential elections, called several former top intelligence and law enforcement officials “political hacks,” and jumped into another adolescent name-calling feud with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

UAE and U.S. vs. Iran. In a speech during the Dubai Air Show, a top United Arab Emirates official warned Sunday that Iranian-sponsored terror, while “similar” to al Qaeda and the Islamic State, “has greater potential” for impacting negatively on the region and the world.

The top U.S. Air Force commander in the Middle East, Lt. Gen. Jeffrey L. Harrigian, also said in Dubai that he believes Iran manufactured the ballistic missile fired by Yemen’s Houthi rebels toward the Saudi capital last week. It bore “Iranian markings,” he said. “To me, that connects the dots to Iran.”

Border tensions. Israeli officials said Sunday that since they’re not a party to the truce talks between the United States, Russia and Jordan for a ceasefire in southwest Syria, they’re not bound by the agreement and will continue to hit Iranian-backed militias operating near its border, according to the Times of Israel.

The new air war in Afghanistan. President Donald Trump’s decision to send thousands of additional troops to Afghanistan “has paved the way for a major expansion of the U.S. air war against the Taliban and will involve more American forces working directly with Afghan troops in combat to call in airstrikes,” report Foreign Policys Paul McLeary and Dan De Luce.

As hundreds of American troops head into the field to accompany Afghan forces on combat missions, they will be able to directly request bombing raids and artillery fire for their Afghan partners, current and former Pentagon officials told FP.

“The tactic will allow commanders to widen an already intensifying air campaign that has seen more strikes taken this year than at any point since 2012. Senior military officers say the approach of embedding American forces with Afghan units in the field is modeled on the U.S.-led air war in Iraq and Syria, where American commandos dialed in heavy firepower while local Iraqi and Kurdish forces fought the Islamic State on the ground.”

And U.S. air war in Somalia. For those keeping score, American drones launched three airstrikes against al-Shabab fighters in Somalia over the past several days, upping the tempo of a fight there that now has at least 400 American troops on the ground. There were three strikes on Sunday, one on Thursday, and two more on Nov. 3, according to the U.S. Africa Command. The command estimates over 100 al-Shabab fighters were killed in the strikes.

Murder in Mali. The Green Beret allegedly strangled to death by his two Navy SEAL roommates in Mali had discovered that the men were secretly pocketing money from an informant fund shortly before his death, according to a scoop from The Daily Beast. The SEALs reportedly offered to cut Staff Sgt. Logan Melgar in on their illicit scheme, but Melgar refused, offering a possible motive for the SEALs’ assault on Melgar that ended his life.

Welcome to SitRep. As always, please send any tips, thoughts or national security events to or via Twitter: @paulmcleary.

Why do we always do this? If it’s ASEAN, that means it’s time for the ritual humiliation of the awkward handshake group photo.

Donald and Duterte. President Trump was all smiles with the volatile Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte during their meeting on Monday, making sure to studiously avoid the subject of human rights and Duterte’s bloody campaign of encouraging vigilante murder of drug addicts. A Duterte spokesman said the Philippine leader raised the country’s problem with Trump, who “appeared sympathetic and did not have any official position on the matter but was merely nodding his head.”

Pivot to video. A Russian troll factory has been cranking out fake videos of extremist groups in order to delegitimize the Ukrainian government and its war against Russian-backed rebels in eastern Ukraine. The BBC discovered that the videos, purporting to show extreme right wing anti-Russian nationalists pledging their support for the Ukrainian cause and falsely claiming attacks in Russia, were produced by the same St. Petersburg-based troll farm responsible for publishing fake news on Twitter and Facebook during the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Blink twice if you’re okay. Lebanon’s erstwhile prime minister, Saad Hariri, gave a somewhat bizarre interview from Saudi Arabia, insisting he was free to leave as he pleased after reports that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman forced him to resign and held him against his well in the kingdom. During a TV interview in which Hariri appeared haggard and anxious, the former prime minister declared he would return to Lebanon shortly but offered no further details on the reasons behind his resignation.

How Niger became a home for the Islamic State. How did Niger become host to the Islamic State militants who killed four U.S. soldiers in October? Reuters takes a deeper look at the issues driving Islamist militancy in the country and finds that disputes over cattle herding morphed into a religious conflict. Over the past few years, members of Niger’s Fulani tribe turned to the Islamic State after clashing with Nigerien Tuaregs, freshly armed with weapons from Libya’s looted arsenals, over watering rights and business deals.

Sharks vs. Jets. A new war is playing out in Egypt’s prisons between the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamic State as the two groups compete for recruits and power behind bars, and observers see a worrying trend of disillusioned would-be Brotherhood supporters falling prey to the Islamic State’s appeals.

Another critic of Kaspersky. The British government is starting to echo American concerns about the security of Russian-based Kaspersky Labs cybersecurity products. Senior British government sources tell the Financial Times that the country’s intelligence services were troubled by banks like Barclays offering free downloads of Kaspersky software to clients, fearing that Russian intelligence could leverage the product to spy on intelligence or military personnel.

B-21. The U.S. Air Force’s B-21 Raider stealth bomber program is already starting a mini-aerospace boom in southern California, reviving a small piece of what was once a lucrative defense industry in the region as new jobs and training programs spring up north of Los Angeles.

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