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Security Brief

Security Brief: India and Pakistan Trade Barbs; Violence Escalates in Libya

Islamabad and New Delhi trade barbs, a Libyan strongman advances on Tripoli, Washing and Beijing signal progress on trade deal.

Pakistani Rangers and Indian Border Security Force personnel perform during a flag lowering ceremony at the Wagah border area between Pakistan and India in eastern Pakistan's Lahore on March 30, 2019. (AAMIR QURESHI / AFP)
Pakistani Rangers and Indian Border Security Force personnel perform during a flag lowering ceremony at the Wagah border area between Pakistan and India in eastern Pakistan's Lahore on March 30, 2019. (AAMIR QURESHI / AFP)

Islamabad and New Delhi could be on the brink of another conflict just days before India’s 900 million eligible voters are set to begin participating general elections. A U.S. citizen is at the heart of a crisis in Libya. Meanwhile, Trump’s Secretary of Homeland Security, Kirstjen Nielsen, is out (expected), as is his nominee to lead U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (unexpected).

Good Monday morning and welcome to Security Brief.

A new tiff (with nukes). Tensions between India and Pakistan escalated again over the weekend, after Islamabad accused New Delhi of planning a “new aggression” between April 16 and April 20. The two sides traded barbs just days before the start of India’s general elections, in which Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi  is looking to win another term in office.

In remarks on Pakistan’s state broadcaster PTV Sunday, Pakistan’s foreign minister, Shah Mehmood Qureshi, said Modi has given his armed forces the green light for attacking targets both in Kashmir and Pakistan. Indian authorities immediately rejected the claims, accusing Qureshi of a “public gimmick” designed to “whip up war hysteria.”

The news signals that the two nuclear powers are again at each other’s throats. In the weeks leading up to the election, tensions spiked to levels not not seen in decades after a Pakistan-based militant group killed more than 40 Indian security officers in a Feb. 14 suicide bombing in India-controlled Kashmir.

It also comes on the heels of Foreign Policy’s report that an on-the-ground examination of Islamabad’s F-16 fleet by U.S. authorities pours cold water on India’s claim that one of its pilots shot down a Pakistani jet, before taking a missile hit and ejecting. U.S. officials found all jets “present and accounted for.”

Crisis in Libya. Intense fighting has left 21 people dead and 27 injured near Tripoli, as forces led by an aspiring strongman advanced on the Libyan capital Sunday. The violence led the U.S. military to pull its small contingent of American forces from the country, marking the latest turn in the troubled history of American military involvement in Libya.  

At the center of the clash is Gen. Khalifa Haftar, a striking figure who supported Moammar Gadhafi in his 1969 coup, before relocating to Langley, Virginia, in the 1990s where he gained U.S. citizenship. He returned to Libya to overthrow Gadhafi in the 2011 conflict. Since then, he has been one of many strongmen claiming dominance in the nation’s descent into disarray, writes CNN, which calls Haftar “the ultimate pragmatist.”

Another day in Trumpland

Nielsen out. Secretary of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen submitted her resignation late Sunday, with President Donald Trump growing increasingly angry over the large number of migrants arriving at the U.S.-Mexico border, CBS reports.

According to CBS, Nielsen’s departure comes as part of “a massive DHS overhaul engineered and directed by top Trump adviser Stephen Miller.”

ICE nominee sidelined. Trump’s pick to lead U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement, longtime border official Ron Vitiello appeared to be cruising toward confirmation. But suddenly the president pulled his nomination, saying “we want to go in a tougher direction.”

Trump gave no explanation. But the decision comes as his administration is struggling to deal with an influx of Central American migrants, straining the U.S. immigration system, writes the AP.

#Swagger. “President Donald Trump’s administration is considering reducing its diplomatic footprint in Afghanistan as part of a broader effort to extricate the United States from its costly and deadly 18-year conflict,” FP’s Robbie Gramer reports.

“The State Department is preparing to cut by half the number of U.S. diplomats posted in Kabul in 2020, according to three U.S. officials familiar with internal deliberations. It may also advance plans to reduce the number of diplomats posted to the U.S. Embassy in Iraq as Washington winds down its war footing in the Middle East and South Asia to prepare for what it calls an era of ‘great-power competition’ with China and Russia.”

Mar-a-Lago. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo linked the arrest of Yujing Zhang, who was arrested last week at President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence in Florida carrying a large number of electronic devices and a thumbdrive containing malware, to Chinese espionage activities.

In a court appearance over the weekend, Zhang described herself as a consultant for a Shanghai private equity firm. The FBI is examining whether Zhang is a Chinese intelligence operative, the Miami Herald reports.


Deep dive. Huawei’s growing dominance of the 5G equipment market has Washington prodding its allies to ban the company from their networks, but how did a modest, private Chinese firm that started out three decades ago importing basic telecoms equipment emerge as the arbiter of what is arguably one of the world’s most important technologies? FP’s Keith Johnson and Elias Groll examine the company’s history and how it came to be a market leader for a technology likely to determine the coming shape of the global economy.

‘Shoddy.’ Regulators in Britain are raising the possibility that the company may be excluded from 5G networks because of “shoddy” engineering, the BBC reports. At issue is a report by Britain’s top cybersecurity body that found extensive security problems in the company’s products–not as a result of backdoors for the sake of espionage but because of poor engineering.

5G launch. Not everyone is banning Huawei from its networks, and over the weekend the company notched a major victory with the launch of a 5G network in South Korea.

But not so fast. While mobile carriers are hyping their latest features as part of a next generation “5G network,” the technology remains somewhat ill-defined and every company wants to be the first to launch it. Hours after Reuters published a story quoting South Korea officials claiming victory in the launch of 5G, spokesmen for Verizon and AT&T got in touch to bitterly complain that their companies had in fact been the first to launch the technology.

Niger investigation

Another look. Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan has appointed a four-star officer to take another look at the military’s investigation into the 2017 attack in Niger that killed four U.S. soldiers, and review whether additional punishments are needed. In a statement Thursday, the Pentagon said the investigating officer will do a “new, narrowly-scoped review” and give Shanahan recommendations on whether the reprimands already made were appropriate.

That four-star is… Gen. Robert Brown, the commanding general of U.S. Army Pacific, according to Defense One’s Katie Bo Williams.


Trade war. American and Chinese officials signal they are making progress in negotiations to ease trade tensions between China and the United States. President Trump’s top economic advisor, Larry Kudlow, told CBS on Sunday that negotiators are moving “closer and closer” to an agreement and that the two sides have made significant progress on the issue of intellectual property theft, Bloomberg reports.

“What wasn’t on the table is on the table,” Kudlow said, indicating that Chinese negotiations have backed down from their previous refusal to link trade and IP theft and technology transfer issues.

Chinese state media also noted progress in the talks, noting that negotiators had discussed the text of a draft agreement on technology transfers, IP issues, and the trade balance. Xinhua cautioned that the remaining issues to be tackled in negotiations are “hard nuts to crack.”

Those talks wrapped on Friday, with President Donald Trump saying earlier in the week that he expects to hold a summit meeting with President Xi Jinping if a deal can be reached.

DPRK diplomacy. South Korean President Moon Jae-in is in Washington for a meeting with President Donald Trump, and the Korea Times reports that the South Korean leader plans to pitch his American counterpart on easing sanctions on North Korea.

It’s the economy, stupid. With South Korean officials pressing the United States to ease sanctions pressure on North Korea, the isolated country’s leader is making a show of visiting large scale economic projects. In recent days, Kim Jong Un has been reported visiting construction sites and tourist areas, the Korea Times reports.

Sanction busting. Japanese and British authorities published evidence that North Korea continues to evade sanctions by engaging in ship-to-ship transfers of goods for export, NK News reports.

This is fine! The Indian anti satellite test missile test last month has resulted in a large amount of debris in a variety of orbits, Breaking Defense reports. The U.S. Air Force has identified at least 400 pieces of debris associated with the test, and NASA officials say the risk of debris impacting the International Space Station has significantly increased following the missile test.

More on India’s election. India’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party announced on Monday it would remove decades-old special rights for the people of Jammu and Kashmir, making an election promise that could provoke a backlash in the country’s volatile only Muslim majority state, Reuters reports.  

U.S. Military

Blackhawk replacement. The U.S. Army released its requirements for what it is billing as its Future Long Range Assault Aircraft, the workhorse helicopter that will replace the Blackhawk and which the service aims to field by 2030, Defense News reports.

Coming attractions. It’s a packed week of hearings on Capitol Hill for the military-focused committees as members prepare for another two-week recess. A slew of budget-related hearings are capped by testimony from acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan alongside outgoing Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson on the Trump Administration’s Space Force proposal.

Our kind of mystery. An exotic Scaled Composites prototype has turned up at the Navy’s test base in Patuxent River in Maryland, the Drive reports. The stealthy jet appears to be a derivative of Scaled’s stealthy close-air support plane, but what the plane, Scaled Composites Model 401, is doing in Maryland is a mystery.

F-15X. U.S. Air Force officials faced intense questioning on Capitol Hill last week over their request to spend $1.1 billion on the fourth-generation F-15X fighter jet in 2020, Defense News reports.

Counter drone ops. The U.S. Navy is putting together a team of hackers and technologists to develop technologies to counteract swarms of small drones, Defense One reports.

Ban Beijing. Six high-profile retired US military leaders, including former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former NATO Supreme Allied Commander in Europe James Stavridis, have issued a statement calling on America’s allies to ban Chinese technology giants from outfitting their 5G networks, citing “grave concerns” over security.

Europe & Russia

F-35 vs S400. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said his country remains committed to purchasing Russian anti-aircraft missile, the purchase of which has Pentagon officials threatening to exclude Turkey from the F-35 fighter jet program, Defense News reports. Cavusoglu said Turkey remained adamant in Turkey’s desire not to “choose between Russia and any others” and that the purchase of the S-400 is a “a done deal.”

While the Pentagon has consistently pushed Turkey not to purchase the S-400, Cavusoglu described divisions within the Trump administration and said that President Donald Trump had told President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in a recent phone call that he  “would take care of this issue.”

“Different statements are coming from different institutions of the United States as well… different and contradictory statements are coming,” Cavusoglu said.

Meanwhile… Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development party on Sunday called on the country’s top electoral board to recount all votes cast in Istanbul’s mayoral election, which looks like it could hand Turkey’s biggest city to opposition candidate Ekrem Imamoglu.

Liftoff. The United Kingdom’s F-35B fighter jets are set to deploy to Cyprus, marking the first overseas deployment for Britain’s new fleet of Lockheed Martin-made aircraft. The deployment is an  “important milestone in this game-changing aircraft’s journey to becoming fully operational,” UK Secretary of State for Defence Gavin Williamson tweeted on Monday.  

Brexit. Prime Minister Theresa May is travelling to Paris and Berlin in a bid to secure another extension to the deadline for Britain to exit the European Union, the Guardian reports. Her trip comes ahead of an emergency summit Wednesday of European leaders and amid attempts to forge an agreement on a Brexit deal with the opposition Labour party.

VIP protection. Researchers at a Washington-based think tank have noticed that a funny thing happens whenever Russian President Vladimir Putin gets close to a harbor: The GPS of the ships moored there go haywire, placing them many miles away on the runways of nearby airports. The phenomenon suggests that Putin travels with a mobile GPS spoofing device and, more broadly, that Russia is manipulating global navigation systems on a scale far greater than previously understood, FP’s Elias Groll reports.

Macedonia. Between internal divisions, a showdown with Russia, and constant jabs from Trump, NATO doesn’t have much to celebrate on its 70th birthday. One thing it does have is a success story in the Balkans: After settling a historic name dispute with Greece, North Macedonia got its first glimpse at NATO membership during a meeting of foreign ministers in Washington last week. Foreign Policy sat down with North Macedonia’s foreign minister to discuss his country joining the alliance, and the looming threat of Russia in the Balkans.

Shanahan, call your office. The Kremlin immediately welcome an apparently off-hand proposal by President Trump to reduce arms spending as a follow-up agreement to a trade deal with China, Reuters reports.

“Any call in favor of disarmament deserves attention and high regard. It’s very important that this call is not limited to declarations,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters

Kuznetsov. The Russian military is considering decommissioning its only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov, a Soviet era ship that has been beset by maintenance problems and whose reliability is so questionable that a tug boat follows it around on deployments.

The oligarch beat. The comedian Volodymyr Zelensky stunned Europe with his victory earlier this month in the first round of Ukraine’s presidential election. That political coup would have been impossible without the backing of the oligarch Igor Kolomoisky, who controls the television empire that catapulted Zelensky to stardom and hosts his hit television show—in which he plays a teacher improbably elevated to the presidency. A Financial Times profile describes Kolomoisky as a corporate raider—he has fled the country amid massive fraud accusations—and as a political figure motivated by an intense desire for revenge against his principal political nemesis, President Petro Poroshenko.

Oligarch rehab. Having convinced American officials to lift sanctions on his business empire and escaped charges in Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe, Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska is back and trying to rehabilitate his image. In an interview with the New York Times he reveals that he received written questions from Mueller’s investigators but declined to answer them and that he is seeking to have personal sanctions on him also lifted.

Nightmare intern. The UK’s Prince William spent the last three weeks working at GCHQ, the British signals intelligence agency, in an effort to better understand its work, Gloucestershire Live reports.

Whoops! A civilian riding along in a French Rafale fighter jet sustained back injuries after his ejection accidentally fired, Foxtrot Alpha reports.


Anti-Maduro protests. After weeks of power cuts and limited access to water, tens of thousands of Venezuelans took to the streets over the weekend to back opposition leader Juan Guaido and protest against President Nicolas Maduro.

Direct flights from Iran. Iran’s second largest airline has begun direct flights to Venezuela, as the two countries cultivate closer ties in the face of U.S. sanctions, the AP reports.

Middle East

Escalation. The Trump administration is preparing to escalate sanctions on Iran by designating the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a foreign terrorist organization, the Wall Street Journal reports. The move may be announced as early as Monday, and has divided the administration. National Security Advisor John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo support the move, but military officials and the CIA are concerned about possible blowback and whether the measure will deliver concrete results.

Iran. International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors have visited the Iranian warehouse identified in a speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a repository for nuclear research, Reuters reports.

Leaks. Senior Israeli intelligence officials tell Haaretz that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to make public Israel’s theft of a cache of Iranian nuclear research undermined Israeli national security.

Annexation. With Israel heading to the polls on Tuesday in a pivotal election, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that if elected he would annex territory in the West Bank occupied by Israeli settlers, an apparent bid at shoring up support for Netanyahu on the right, the New York Times reports.

Betrayal. The New Yorker’s Robin Wright goes deep on how a scrappy Kurdish militia teamed up with U.S. Special Forces to oust the Islamic State from Syria only to be betrayed by the Trump administration.

“We didn’t believe that in the middle of the battle, when we’re fighting against ISIS, when we’re fighting against all the others, that our partners would abandon us,” General Mazloum Kobani Abdi, the reclusive politician turned commander who led the campaign against isis in Syria, told Wright, about the moment Trump decided to pull U.S. troops from Syria, a decision he later partially reversed.

“How could a great country behave like that and abandon its allies in the middle of the fight? And, from that time on, how are people going to trust in the Americans or partner with them in any fight in the future?”


Content police. British authorities unveiled a new proposal to police online content and force technology companies to more aggressively take down offending material, reports the Wall Street Journal, which describes the measure as “one of the most far-reaching legislative proposals from a host of countries trying to put a tighter leash on global technology companies.”

Supply chains. The Defense Department is considering releasing a list of companies with supply chains considered too sketchy for them to business with the U.S. government, Yahoo News reports.

It’s only going to get worse. Israeli researchers say they’ve discovered a way to manipulate medical CT scans allowing them to add and remove malignant growths on the images, the Washington Post reports.

Wicked Panda. The German drugmaker Bayer said it discovered an attempt to break into its computer networks and that it traced the attack back to a Chinese hacking group known as Wicked Panda, Reuters reports.

Well then. Twitter has taken down dozens of Hebrew-language accounts “affiliated with the Church of Almighty God (CAG), a Christian sect that’s banned in China and which believes that Jesus Christ has been reincarnated as a Chinese woman currently living in Queens, New York,” BuzzFeed reports. It’s at least the second takedown of Twitter accounts ahead of Israeli elections later this month.

Exits. Google’s top Asia executives keep heading for the door. The latest is Rajun Anandan, its top official for India and South East Asia, the Financial Times reports. Google brass have been considering a plan in recent months to expand the company’s offerings in China.

Myanmar. One of the investigators who worked on the landmark 2018 U.N. report documenting violence against Myanmar’s Rohingya minority and Facebook’s role in stoking that violence thinks the company still isn’t doing enough to stop the promotion of hate in the country, Gizmodo reports.

Surprise! The Justice Department’s Inspector General found that the FBI needs to improve the way it informs the victims of cyberattacks that their computer systems have been compromised, CyberScoop reports.

From the Emirates with love. Reuters reveals additional targets of the UAE’s Project Raven to target perceived opponents of the regime: “A group of American hackers who once worked for U.S. intelligence agencies helped the United Arab Emirates spy on a BBC host, the chairman of Al Jazeera and other prominent Arab media figures during a tense 2017 confrontation pitting the UAE and its allies against the Gulf state of Qatar.”

Blame game. Facebook, Amazon, and a group of app developers are all pointing the finger at one another after researchers discovered a huge trove of user data publicly available online, ThreatPost reports.

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

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

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