Security Brief

Saudi Khashoggi Claims Fall Flat; Riyadh Blindsided; Bolton in Moscow

Everything you need to know about Saudi Arabia’s claim that Khashoggi was killed during a fight inside its Istanbul consulate, the Trump administration’s decision to pull out of a major arms treaty, a new strategy for the war in Syria, and more.

A protester dressed as Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammed bin Salman and another dressed as U.S. President Donald Trump demonstrate outside the White House in Washington on Oct. 19. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
A protester dressed as Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammed bin Salman and another dressed as U.S. President Donald Trump demonstrate outside the White House in Washington on Oct. 19. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Saudi Arabia over the weekend attempted once more to explain the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi as a “rogue operation,” but few are buying it. The killing has shone a spotlight not just on Riyadh’s use of violence to silence its critics, but also its use of a digital army to control the narrative. Meanwhile, Trump confirmed over the weekend that the U.S. is pulling out of a decades-old arms deal that Russia has been violating for years, Turkish and American troops begin joint patrols in the Northern Syrian city of Manbij, Vice President Mike Pence meets with key leaders on Tuesday to talk about Space Force, and more.

Good Monday morning, and welcome to Security Brief. Please send your tips, questions, and feedback to lara.seligman@foreignpolicy.com.

Betrayal. Leaks from the Saudi royal court are making clear that the outraged response to journalist Jamal Khashoggi’s killing has completely blindsided Riyadh.

Over the weekend, Saudi King Salman granted Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman new powers over the country’s intelligence agencies in a bid to reinforce his authority at a time of crisis.

But MbS, as the crown prince is universally known, has been rattled by the crisis. According to the Wall Street Journal, the 33-year-old de facto ruler of Saudi Arabia is spending many nights on his yacht sailing the Red Sea, which he reportedly considers safer than his palaces.

“He was really shocked that there was such a big reaction to it,” a person close to the royal court told the Journal. “He feels betrayed by the West. He said he would look elsewhere and he will never forget how people turned against him before evidence was produced.”

The bee army. Khashoggi’s killing is casting a spotlight not just on Riyadh’s use of violence to silence its critics but also the ways it has deployed sophisticated digital tools to monitor dissent and control the online narrative about the kingdom.

That digital campaign has included the use of advanced Israeli-made spyware that has infected the phones of Saudi civil society activists around the world, including Omar Abdulaziz, a Saudi activist living in exile in Canada.  

In the weeks leading up to his death, Khashoggi worked with Abdulaziz on a project to create a pro-democracy Twitter army to counter Saudi Arabia’s online trolls. They even had a name for it — “the bee army,” a response to Riyadh’s crew of Twitter trolls, which activists have dubbed the “fly army.”

Experts have long suspected that Riyadh has built a team of professional trolls to harass its enemies online and spew pro-regime messages on Twitter. On Saturday, the New York Times confirmed the existence of such a troll factory, reporting that hundreds of employees work as part of the operation.

Even more explosively, the Times reports that Saudi Arabia succeeded in placing a spy inside Twitter to report on critics of the regime.  

The Khashoggi saga. With its admission Friday that Khashoggi was killed during a fight inside its Istanbul consulate, Saudi Arabia has done little to calm the storm roiling the U.S.-Saudi alliance.

Even President Donald Trump, who has steadfastly stood by MbS during the crisis, questioned the explanation. “Obviously there’s been deception, and there’s been lies,” the president told the Washington Post.

Key members of Congress who have long backed Riyadh are abandoning the kingdom, and a growing chorus of voices in Washington are calling for retaliatory measures against Riyadh. “They have lost all credibility as it relates to explaining what has happened,” Sen. Bob Corker, the Republican chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told CNN.

Corker said he believed that MbS was involved in Khashoggi’s murder and that sanctions should be placed on “anybody who’s had anything to do with it.”

Rogue killers. Saudi Arabia deployed a familiar face over the weekend to try and clean up the scandal. Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir told Fox News Sunday that Khashoggi’s killing was a “rogue operation.”

“This was an operation where individuals ended up exceeding the authorities and responsibilities they had,” Jubeir told Bret Baier. “They made the mistake when they killed Jamal Khashoggi in the consulate, and they tried to cover up for it.”

Jubeir is the kingdom’s former Washington ambassador and a well-known figure in the city’s national-security community. He is regarded as fairly credible, and his deployment on Fox News is a clear attempt to bank that credibility and score a PR win.  

The contracts. In standing by Mohammed bin Salman, President Donald Trump has repeatedly said he wants to preserve $110 billion in U.S. military sales to the kingdom. But a year and a half after those contracts were announced, few of those deals have materialized.

According to Pentagon figures, Saudi Arabia has only inked contracts for $14.5 billion of the $110 billion in business described in a 2017 memorandum of intent signed by Washington and Riyadh.

That could give Riyadh a measure of leverage, but in some areas of its military, the kingdom may not have a great number of options to replace American hardware and know-how.

At the same time the kingdom is working hard to curry favor in Washington, finally depositing in U.S. accounts some $100 million it pledged to support the rebuilding of Syria.  

Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel took the step the U.S. failed won’t, vowing Sunday to put a hold on arms exports to the Kingdom for the time being.

‘A very dangerous step.’ Trump confirmed Saturday that the United States is pulling out of the landmark Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces, or INF, Treaty with Russia, a decades-old agreement that prohibits both countries from possessing, producing or test-flying ground-launched nuclear cruise missiles with a range of 500 to 5,500 kilometers (300 to 3,400 miles).

National Security Adviser John Bolton faces two days of tense talks in Moscow this week, where he will meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. U.S. officials say Russia has been violating the treaty for years, citing the development of a new missile system called 9M729. But Russia’s foreign ministry on Sunday condemned the withdrawal, saying it was tantamount to blackmail and warning that it would be “a very dangerous step.”

The treaty helps protect the security of the U.S. and its allies in Europe and the Far East, but has constrained the U.S. from developing new weapons. The worry is that pulling out of the treaty could provoke a new arms race akin to the one that was occurring when the agreement was initially signed in the 1980s. The U.S. has been researching a new missile to counter threats from both Russia and China, which does not face any constraints on developing intermediate-range nuclear missiles in the Pacific.

Turmoil in Kandahar. Afghan General Abdul Raziq, the Kandahar police chief known for his fierce stance against the Taliban, was gunned down on Thursday by a bodyguard in an attack claimed by the Taliban, throwing the already tenuous future of southern Afghanistan—and perhaps the entire country—into even greater doubt, Ashley Jackson writes for Foreign Policy.

The Pentagon has confirmed that U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Smiley was shot in the attack at a security conference, but a spokesman provided no other details. The Washington Post reported earlier Sunday that Smiley was recovering after suffering at least one gunshot wound while he was inside the Kandahar governor’s compound. The top U.S. military commander in the country, Gen. Scott Miller, was also at the conference, but he escaped injury.

Despite the violence, long delayed parliamentary elections took place across the country over the weekend.

In a poignant feature for the Atlantic in 2011 ominously titled “Our Man in Kandahar,” Matthieu Aikins took a deep look at Raziq’s history of cruelty.

A long time coming. Turkish and American troops could finally begin conducting joint patrols in a matter of days around the northern Syrian city of Manbij within the coming days, the top U.S. commander for the Middle East said Sunday. The Manbij patrols are part of a road map that Ankara and Washington agreed on in June to defuse tensions amid Turkish demands for the withdrawal of a U.S.-backed Kurdish militia that freed the town of Manbij from the Islamic State group in 2016.

Arctic muscle. In the latest sign that the Pentagon is looking to flex its muscles during an era of great power competition, the aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman entered the Norwegian Sea on Friday, the first flattop to do so since September 1991. The carrier and select escorts from its strike group are preparing to participate in a massive NATO exercise straddling late October and early November.

Another forever war. The Trump administration is developing a new strategy for the war in Syria that would focus more heavily on pushing Iran’s military and its proxy forces out of the country, NBC News reports. The new strategy would not involve the U.S. military directly targeting and killing Iranian soldiers or Iran’s proxies, since that would violate the current U.S. authorization for using force in Syria. Instead, it would emphasize political and diplomatic efforts to force Iran out of Syria by squeezing it financially.

Meet the other troll farms. Last week, Twitter released about ten million tweets from Russian and Iranian troll farms, providing the most comprehensive to-date look at the online propaganda operations run by Moscow and Tehran.

Researchers at the Atlantic Council got an advanced look at the data, and their analysis finds that the the Russian operation was far greater in magnitude than its Iranian counterpart. Russian troll accounts impersonated American activists on both the right and left, posting divisive messages on controversial topics such as gun control, minority rights, and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia.

The Russian troll operation was developed as a tool to influence the Russian population, and was then turned abroad. That campaign sought to booth prevent Hillary Clinton’s election as president and to sow division in the American electorate. It was opportunistic in nature and tried to capitalize on current events, such as posting about terrorist attacks to promote Islamophobia, and evolved over time.

Though Russian trolls targeted both left- and right-wing American audiences, an analysis of the accounts’ retweet activity reveals that the Kremlin operation sought to promote prominent voices on the alt-right, including the conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.

Another one! American prosecutors indicted a 44-year-old Russian woman for her role in managing the finances of a multimillion dollar effort to sow division online ahead of U.S. midterm elections.

In a statement Friday, American intelligence officials warned that American adversaries may attempt to meddle in U.S. politics. “We are concerned about ongoing campaigns by Russia, China and other foreign actors, including Iran, to undermine confidence in democratic institutions and influence public sentiment and government policies. These activities also may seek to influence voter perceptions and decision making in the 2018 and 2020 U.S. elections,” the joint statement by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Department of Justice reads.

Missing in action. Vice President Mike Pence will convene a space-focused meeting Tuesday with Cabinet secretaries, members of the national space and security councils, and policy officials, but the White House will not be discussing a key provision for establishing the Space Force—one Pentagon officials have been waiting months to address, Oriana Pawlyk reports for Military.com.

Brunson is just the first step. Turkey’s release of American pastor Andrew Brunson is an important step toward thawing relations between the two countries, but there is still a long way to go. U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo last week urged Ankara to release a Turkish-U.S. citizen and former NASA scientist, among other detainees.

Read this. A BuzzFeed investigation published last week, which did not get anywhere near the attention it deserved, reveals that former American Special Forces troops were involved in a secret UAE kill squad that assassinated the Emirates’ political enemies in Yemen.

In the shadows. The latest U.S. airstrikes in Somalia, believed to have killed 60 al-Shabaab militants on Oct. 12, shines a spotlight on America’s shadowy war in Africa, writes Jamie McIntyre for the Washington Examiner.  The Oct. 12 attack reflects the largest body count in a single strike since last November, which killed an estimated 100 enemy fighters.

Tehran rising. Iran has extended the range of its land-to-sea ballistic missiles to 700 km (435 miles), a senior Iranian military official said on Tuesday amid rising tensions with the United States over Tehran’s missile program.

Short list. State Department spokeswoman and former Fox News host Heather Nauert tops the list of candidates to replace Nikki Haley as United Nations ambassador, Politico reports. Nauert has grown close to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and White House aides view her as a capable advocate for the Trump administration’s foreign policy.

Budget cuts. In a surprise announcement, Trump called last week for government spending to be cut 5 percent across every federal department to address the rising deficit. It’s still unclear what this means for Department of Defense funding next year. Defense News explains what we know and what we don’t.

Be all you can be. A fascinating video has surfaced online that purports to be a PLA recruitment ad. With China in the midst of a major military modernization, the video provides a fascinating portrait of the themes of family and country that Chinese authorities are looking to capitalize on and recruit troops for the country’s expanded military.

Electronic warfare. American military authorities are attempting to counter Russia’s growing electronic warfare capabilities, which are being refined by Kremlin troops deployed to Syria, al-Monitor reports. In recent months, the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency has doled out at least $9.6 million in contracts aimed at developing technology to protect American communications gear from jamming.

Sandworm. The Russian hackers suspected of repeatedly striking the Ukrainian energy grid are back and have upgraded their malware toolkit, Reuters reports. Researchers at the cybersecurity firm ESET believe the group best known as Sandworm has upgraded to a new hacking toolkit dubbed GreyEnergy.

The mystery chip. After Bloomberg Businessweek reported earlier this month that an American chip-maker was infiltrated by Chinese intelligence, which reportedly inserted a spy chip in the company’s supply chain, the fall-out has been swift. The companies affected by the reported hack have vociferously denied the report, and now Apple has even demanded a retraction.

“There is no truth in their story about Apple,” Apple CEO Tim Cook told BuzzFeed. “They need to do that right thing and retract it.”

The story in question claimed that chips had been implanted by Chinese intelligence on servers purchased by major American tech companies. These chips reportedly created a backdoor into the affected system, allowing Chinese spies access to highly sensitive computer systems. American intelligence officials have long warned such an attack is possible, but the story claimed to provide the first example of it taking place in the wild.

But in the weeks after the attack, no evidence has emerged to back up the story. In a hardware-based attack such as the one described by Bloomberg, researchers ought to be able to physically find examples of the chips embedded on the servers in question. But no such chips have been found, and American intelligence officials have publicly cast doubt on the Bloomberg report, including Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats just last week.

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @EliasGroll

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