Security Brief

Security Brief: Yemen Refueling Halt Won’t Satisfy Critics; Israeli Covert Operation Exposed

Critics urge the Trump administration to do more to end the violence in Yemen, a covert Israeli operation into Gaza turns deadly, China reveals the missiles on its J-20 stealth fighter jet, and more.

A Yemeni child suffering from severe malnutrition is weighed at a treatment centre in a hospital in Yemen's northwestern Hajjah province, on November 7, 2018. ESSA AHMED/AFP/Getty Images
A Yemeni child suffering from severe malnutrition is weighed at a treatment centre in a hospital in Yemen's northwestern Hajjah province, on November 7, 2018. ESSA AHMED/AFP/Getty Images

The United States’ decision on Friday to stop refueling Saudi and coalition aircraft involved in the three-year Yemen civil war will do little to assuage the critics, who over the weekend continued calls for President Donald Trump’s administration to do more to end the violence. Two miles inside the Gaza strip, Israeli undercover forces exchanged deadly fire with Hamas gunmen after their covert operation was exposed. Meanwhile, Democrat Kyrsten Sinema and Republican Martha McSally are still neck-and-neck in the Arizona Senate race, The Washington Post reports from the southern border, new signs that North Korea has continued to make improvements at 16 ballistic missile bases, and more.

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Tapping the brakes. The Trump administration is suspending aerial refueling aid to the Saudi-led military coalition fighting in Yemen, the Department of Defense and the Saudi government confirmed late Friday. But the decision, which the parties say was made at the request of the coalition, fell well short of a bipartisan view in Washington that the United States should end all support for the war and press for a cease-fire, Lara Seligman and Robbie Gramer write for Foreign Policy.

The move ends one of the most contentious aspects of U.S. involvement in a conflict that has stoked the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. But Trump is not halting other U.S. support of the campaign—including intelligence assistance, training and arms sales—despite recent tensions over the civilian casualties in Yemen and the killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Indeed, more than two dozen senior Obama administration officials, including former National Security Adviser Susan Rice and former CIA Director John Brennan, over the weekend called on the Trump administration to do more.

“We welcome Secretary Mattis’ announcement that the United States will no longer conduct in-flight refueling for the coalition,” the officials wrote. But the measure “should be accompanied by more comprehensive action, namely a suspension of all U.S. support for the campaign in Yemen, a clear demand for an immediate and comprehensive ceasefire, and increased U.S. investment in the high-level diplomacy needed to end this war.”

Complete collapse. Despite the move to end U.S. refueling support to the coalition, peace is no closer at hand in Yemen. With no sign in sight that fighting will abate, the country is slipping further toward famine and complete collapse, Der Spiegel reports.

“Since the coalition under the leadership of Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates began trying to push back the Shiite-connected Houthi rebels, with a heavy reliance on air strikes, more than 15,000 people have been killed in the violence. But many more—tens of thousands, according to estimates—have likely died from starvation, cholera and as a consequence of the catastrophic healthcare situation,” the magazine reports.

Yukon Journey. The Pentagon launched a classified program dubbed “Yukon Journey” this year to provide support to Saudi military operations in Yemen, according to a document obtained by Yahoo News after it was apparently posted inadvertently online.

Exposed. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rushed back to Israel on Monday, hours after an Israeli army officer and seven Palestinians, including a local Hamas commander, were killed after after an incursion by Israeli special forces into the Gaza Strip.

The army confirmed a covert operation had been taking place at least two miles inside the Gaza Strip when the unit’s presence was somehow exposed. An exchange of fire between the troops and a group of Palestinian fighters ensued, turning deadly.

The hostilities could undermine what had been promising signs in recent days of calm returning to the region after more than six months of heightened tensions, writes The New York Times.

The latest shoe to drop. Officials close to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman inquired about the possibility of hiring a private company to assassinate the country’s Iranian enemies, the New York Times reports.

Meanwhile, officials from Saudi Arabia, the United States, Germany, France and Britain have listened to audio recordings related to the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey’s president said Saturday, in the first public acknowledgment of the existence of tapes of the slaying.

Invasion? With a pair of bulldozers rumbling in front of him through muddy terrain, Staff Sgt. Kevin Barr observed as the austere beginnings of an Army headquarters camp at the southern border. The Washington Post’s Dan Lamothe reports on the active-duty U.S. troops deployed to the southern border as part of Trump’s plan to deter a caravan of migrants.

Rain on Trump’s parade. Trump flew 3,800 miles to this French capital city for ceremonies to honor the military sacrifice in World War I. But early Saturday, the White House announced Trump and the first lady had scuttled plans, due to bad weather, for their first stop in the weekend’s remembrance activities, drawing an outcry from critics.

Amid the uproar, Trump also made some very misleading claims that French President Macron wants a European military “to protect itself from the U.S.” The Washington Post fact checks.

The diplomatic front. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with their Chinese counterparts Friday in a bid to ease tensions between the two countries. Amid a trade war, a recent close call between a Chinese and an American vessel in the South China Sea, and tensions over Taiwan, divides were on full display, CNN reports.

Real Chinese influence. Chinese operatives have funneled cash to U.N. officials in a bid to boost influence at the world body and promote Chinese foreign policy, a Yahoo News investigation reveals.

“Western intelligence officials say [Hong Kong government official Patrick Ho’s] case fits a broader pattern. Beijing, they argue, is deploying private companies, billionaires, spy agencies, and even charities to achieve its political agenda abroad,” Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian, Nick McKenzie and Zach Dorfman report.

In breach. A senior American intelligence official accused China of being in violation of a 2015 agreement signed by Washington and Beijing outlawing commercial espionage by digital means.

“It’s clear that they are well beyond the bounds today of the agreement that was forged between our countries,” National Security Agency official Rob Joyce said.

Gun show.  China has shown the missiles in its advanced J-20 stealth fighter jet to the public for the first time at its largest airshow. Two J-20 fighter jets reportedly opened their missile bay doors during a flypast on Monday, revealing that each jet had four missiles in its fuselage and one on either side of the aircraft.

Asia Pacific. Australia and Japan are forging closer defense ties with an expected agreement to carry out larger, more frequent military exercises, the Australian Financial Review reports.

Exposure. U.S. Cyber Command posted samples of malware linked to Russian-state backed hackers, Motherboard reports. The files were uploaded to VirusTotal, a malware database for researchers and security firms, and their exposure will likely decrease the malware’s effectiveness.

Ballot counting. Democrat Kyrsten Sinema has pulled ahead of Republican Rep. and Trump darling Martha Mcsally  in the Arizona Senate race, but days of ballot-counting remain. How did we get here?

ISIS offensive resumes. U.S.-backed Syrian fighters resumed their ground offensive Sunday against the Islamic State group in the last territories controlled by the extremists in eastern Syria, weeks after the campaign was temporarily suspended due to threats from Turkey against the Kurdish-led force.

The campaign bogged down last week after Syrian Democratic Forces suspended fighting following Turkish attacks on Kurdish positions where in Syria. Counterattacks by Islamic State forces and a sandstorm contributed to the loss of momentum. At the same time, the militant group appears to be regrouping and embracing guerrilla tactics elsewhere in Syria and in Iraq, the New York Times reported.

After victory. Since January, rescue workers in Raqqa, Syria have pulled the remains of 2,600 people, most of them likely civilians, from the rubble that now blankets the city, NPR reports. A year after the Islamic State was expelled from the city, the recovery efforts indicate the civilian death toll may be much higher than American forces have so far acknowledged.

GPS jamming. Finland is investigating whether Russia jammed civilian GPS systems earlier this month in conjunction with the NATO wargame Trident Juncture, Bloomberg reports. On Nov. 6, Finish aviation authorities warned pilots of unstable GPS signals in the country’s north.

“It’s possible Russia was behind the interference,” Prime Minister Juha Sipila said. “We’re now investigating it and will react accordingly. It’s no small matter, since civilian flights have been put in danger.”

The Facebook problem. New research from scholar Jonathan Albright paints a dire picture of the information landscape on Facebook, despite the company’s efforts to clean up the platform of radical content, Neiman Lab reports.

Among his findings: Radical groups appear to be moving from pages to closed groups, Facebook’s political ad transparency tools are falling fall short of their stated goals, and influential political pages are being managed by accounts based abroad.

Missile bases. New commercial satellite imagery indicates North Korea has continued to make improvements at 16 ballistic missile bases, the New York Times reports.

The report is the latest setback for the Trump administration’s diplomatic initiative with North Korea, which hit another snag last week when Pyongyang canceled a scheduled meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in New York.  

Payout. North Korean hackers are hitting global ATMs in an effort to secure hard cash and evade U.S. sanctions, according to new research from Symantec. Pyongyang’s hackers have simultaneously hit ATMs in at least 23 countries, netting at least tens of millions of dollars.

Cost of war. The U.S.-led war on terror has resulted in the violent deaths of as many as 507,000 people in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, according to a study from Brown University. If indirect deaths are counted, the figure rises to more than 1 million.

Afghanistan latest. Taliban militants struck a small army post in Baghlan province on Saturday, killing 12 government troops and abducting two others, according to the Associated Press. The militants collected ammunition from the base and left behind explosives that killed 4 elders that came to collect bodies.

On Wednesday, the Taliban launched a major assault to claim control of Jaghori district, a previously secure, rural area of Ghazni, TOLO News reports.

On Tuesday, dozens of Afghan police and soldiers were killed when Taliban militants mounted at least 9 different attacks in a 24-hour period, hitting and over-running several different outposts, the New York Times reports.

And early Monday, a suicide bomber blew himself up in the Afghan capital of Kabul, killing at least six people near a police checkpoint, including policemen, officials said, but no militant group has yet claimed responsibility.

Elite units. Across Afghanistan, groups of Afghan paramilitary policemen, advised by NATO instructors, are cropping up to take on combat missions. Afghanistan hopes to double the number of crack units such as the National Mission Unit in Herat, a city of about 400,000 and the country’s third-largest. But some analysts warn that emphasizing development of elite Afghan units to the detriment of common soldiers and police officers may repeat of mistakes made by Western forces throughout the war.

Ruse. Hackers targeted a U.S.-based Saudi dissident with malicious malware by posing as journalists in their communications with the man, the Associated Press reports.

“One attempt involved the fabrication of a fake BBC secretary and an elaborate television interview request; the other involved the impersonation of slain Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi to deliver a malicious link,” according to the AP.

Sanctions dodge. Russia is reaping the benefits of renewed American sanctions on Iran, the Wall Street Journal reports. Russian oil exporters are picking up refinery clients in Europe and Asia that were once reliant on Iranian crude. Moscow is also stepping in to buy oil directly from Iran, “offering to pay only in the form of barter, and then process the crude for domestic use,” according to the Journal. “That would free up its own oil for more-lucrative crude export markets.”

SNAFU. The Air Force cancelled a $76 million dollar contract with Boeing for a radar upgrade on AWACS surveillance planes after the defense contractor ran into hardware and software development problems, Bloomberg reports.

Hypersonics. The Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency wants proposals for how to shoot down hypersonic weapons. The Pentagon’s tech incubator last week put out a call for proposals for technology that would shoot down a hypersonic weapon in the upper atmosphere, Flight Global reports.

Military justice. Navy investigators have wrapped up their probe of the 2017 strangling death of an Army Green Beret in Mali, the New York Times reports. The report will now go up the chain of command to Rear Adm. Charles W. Rock, who will determine whether to recommend criminal charges in the case.

Dollars for donuts. German appropriators handed the country’s military an extra $6.5 billion in funding for 2020, Reuters reports. The move comes with Berlin under heavy pressure from Washington to step up funding for its military to meet NATO’s 2% of GDP goal for military spending.

Lara Seligman is Foreign Policy's Pentagon correspondent. @laraseligman

Elias Groll is a staff writer at Foreign Policy covering cyberspace. @EliasGroll

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