Security Brief

Security Brief: Terror in Sri Lanka, Zelensky Cruises to Victory

Massive bombings strike island nation, leaving nearly 300 dead.

Security personnel inspect the interior of St. Sebastian's Church in Negombo on April 22, 2019, a day after the church was hit in series of bomb blasts targeting churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka. (ISHARA S. KODIKARA / AFP)
Security personnel inspect the interior of St. Sebastian's Church in Negombo on April 22, 2019, a day after the church was hit in series of bomb blasts targeting churches and luxury hotels in Sri Lanka. (ISHARA S. KODIKARA / AFP)

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Terror in Sri Lanka. Nearly 300 people were killed in a series of simultaneous bombings at churches and hotels in Sri Lanka, the worst spate of violence Sri Lankans have seen since the end of its decades-long civil war in 2009.

Foreign Policy has you covered with background on the country’s political turmoil and decades of sectarian violence.

The attacks targeted the country’s minority Christian population of 1.5 million with eight bombings in churches major hotels on Easter. At least 290 people have been killed and some 500 injured. Among the dead are “several” American citizens, according to the State Department.

The Sri Lankan government has blamed a little-known group, National Thowheed Jamath, for carrying out the attack. A government spokesman said the attack was connected to an international network but hasn’t offered many details beyond that. Police discovered 87 bomb detonators at a bus-station in Colombo Monday.

We have a winner. A comedian and political novice has won Ukraine’s election in a landslide. Volodymyr Zelensky will be Ukraine’s new leader after beating President Petro Poroshenko with over 70 percent of the vote.

Poroshenko, who has led the country since 2014 in the war against Russian-backed separatists, warned an “inexperienced” president could mean Ukraine is “quickly returned to Russia’s orbit of influence.”  But Ukrainians didn’t buy it, spurning him with a protest vote for a political novice who promises to root out endemic corruption.

Zelensky’s prior presidential experience entails playing Ukraine’s president on a satirical television show, Servant of the People.

The peninsula. North Korea announced last week that it tested a “new-type tactical guided weapon” and American intelligence officials believe the weapon was an anti-tank system, CNN reports. A South Korean military assessment made a similar conclusion, describing the weapon as one for ground-based combat, Bloomberg reports.

While the weapon test sends an unmistakable signal to Washington of Pyongyang’s frustration with the stalled diplomatic process, the weapons test appears to not run afoul of international sanctions and is unlikely to result in a major escalation of tensions on the Korean peninsula.

Summit politics. Russian President Vladimir Putin is getting in on the North Korea summit game. He and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un are slated to meet for the first time in Russia, with all signs pointing to a meeting in the eastern city of Vladivostok at the end of the month.

Reminder: Alongside China, Russia helps prop up North Korea with limited food aid, exports, and hosting North Korean laborers who funnel cash back to Pyongyang. Analysts say a Putin-Kim meeting won’t make or break the Trump-Kim negotiations, but Putin could still play spoiler to a big U.S. diplomatic effort.

“For the U.S. this could go well if Putin reiterates Trump’s message about doing the big deal of all-the-nukes-for-all-the-sanctions,” said Victor Cha, an expert on Asian security at Georgetown University. “Otherwise Putin can play spoiler by promising energy infrastructure assistance to [North Korea]–a long sought Russian desire for an energy stake in northeast Asia from Siberia.

Washington

It’s here. Special Counsel Bob Mueller released his long-awaited report on the Trump campaign’s ties to Russia, and it confirmed much of what was already known about the effort to destabilize the election. The Washington Post’s Rosalind Helderman goes inside the investigation to nail down whether the Trump campaign collaborated with the Kremlin.

Waivers. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is expected to announce later this morning that the United States will no longer issue sanctions waivers to countries seeking to import oil from Iran, in what is a major escalation of U.S. pressure on Tehran, the Washington Post reports.

On the other hand. The State Department is issuing sanctions waivers to groups who have dealings with Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps, granting exceptions to business leaders and humanitarian organizations who come into contact with the group following its designation as a terrorist organization, Reuters reports.

Tough customer. After a bruising 106 days in limbo, Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan is not only still standing but is also making a real imprint on U.S. foreign policy, writes Foreign Policy’s Lara Seligman.

Perhaps more important to his future at the Pentagon, Shanahan is bringing a new negotiating style to the job, particularly in dealings with Turkey over an advanced U.S. weapon system, leveraging his experience as a business executive in ways that his bellicose boss can’t fail to appreciate.

Shanahan still has his critics, who say he lacks the foreign policy chops for the permanent job. But there are new signs the former Boeing executive will ultimately get the nod, once he clears a Pentagon Inspector General investigation into his ethics.

Funny how that works. The Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska is campaigning to have the last of the American sanctions on him lifted, and this week the aluminum company that he all but controls announced that it would invest $200 million in an aluminum plant in Kentucky, Newsweek reports. The United States has lifted sanctions on Rusal, Deripaska’s aluminum firm, a move backed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican.

From DHS to DOD. The Pentagon is getting a new chief spokesperson, Jonathan Rath Hoffman, who is moving over from the Department of Homeland Security. Hoffman’s official title will be assistant to the secretary of defense for public affairs, a post that has been filled by an acting official, Charlie Summers, since Dana White departed in January following the resignation of Pentagon Chief James Mattis.

Moving out. Trump’s pick for the top US diplomat overseeing the Middle East, David Schenker, is finally set to move forward, Al-Monitor reports. Schenker’s nomination to be assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs more is expected to move out of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee after being blocked for more than a year by Sen. Tim Kaine over the administration’s failure to get congressional approval before launching airstrikes on Syria in 2017, FP reported in September.

The veto. Washington’s progressive foreign-policy community considered it a major victory when the House and Senate passed a resolution to end U.S. support of the Saudi-led war in Yemen, but that effort reached its expected denouement this week with President Trump’s veto of the measure, which was the first time in history Congress had invoked the 1973 War Powers Act.   

Backfiring. Chinese telecom giant Huawei recently tried to pick up a bit of Washington muscle by hiring Samir Jain, a top Obama administration cybersecurity official. That caught President Donald Trump’s attention. “This is not good, or acceptable!” he tweeted.

So this happened. Former CIA Deputy Director David Cohen scored a cameo in last night’s episode of Game of Thrones.

Americas

Malware? U.S. Prosecutors are backtracking from their claim that Yujing Zhang, who was arrested late last month trying to enter President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort, was carrying a thumbdrive containing malware, Bloomberg reports.

Boeing. Workers at a Boeing plant in South Carolina that assembles the 787 Dreamliner tell the New York Times that the factory has seen repeated safety problems, particularly with debris left in airplanes, but that the company has done little to correct the problem and has often retaliated against whistleblowers.

Disinformation

Running disaster. Major technology companies say they are taking steps to tackle disinformation on their platforms, but if last week was any indication, the problem isn’t getting better at a rapid clip. The disastrous fire at the Notre Dame cathedral sparked a wave of politically tinged hoaxes, as BuzzFeed reports. And YouTube’s breaking news algorithm managed to confused the fire with the attacks of September 11, 2001, and displayed a banner on the attacks under a livestream of the video, the Verge reports.

And with Indians going to the polls in what will be the largest election in history, the video-sharing app TikTok is displaying a warning to its users to use the app responsibly and not spread fake news, according to Quartz. WhatsApp, which is massively popular in India and has been previously used to spread viral hoaxes, announced that it has launched a tip line for users to report fake news, but that initiative appears more geared toward gathering research than responding to fake news, BuzzFeed reports.

Indeed, WhatsApp’s anti-disinformation efforts in India don’t appear to be paying off. The Wall Street Journal reports that antivaccine hoaxes are spreading on the platform and that some schools in the country are now refusing to administer the measles vaccine.

Following deadly terrorist over the weekend in Sri Lanka, the government there moved to block WhatsApp and other social media sites, citing the threat posed by the spread of “false news.”

U.S. Military

Must read. “After a long night of drinking in Mali’s capital, two Navy SEALs and two Marine Raiders smashed their way into Army Staff Sgt. Logan J. Melgar’s room with a sledgehammer.” That’s the astounding lede to Dan Lamothe’s new report on a murder in Mali that has uncovered a shocking list of misdeeds among the United States’s most elite military units.

Mystery at Vandenberg. California’s Vandenberg Air Force base has a massive unused hanger that was envisioned for use as part of the Air Force’s space shuttle program. Now, it is unclear what is happening at the hangar. The Air Force won’t say, and the Drive delves into the myriad possibilities of what could be happening inside the secretive facility.

Africa deployments. Using a combination of leaks, FOIA requests, and interviews, Yahoo News has put together a list of 36 code-named U.S. military operations in Africa, illustrating just how extensive the American military presence is on the continent.

The Black Sea. The U.S. guided-missile destroyer Ross arrived in the Bulgarian port of Varna this week for military exercises in the Black Sea, the fourth U.S. warship to visit the area since Jan. 1. Moscow is watching the ship’s movements closely, as tensions with Washington continue to simmer.

Grounded. Nearly a month after it was grounded amid safety concerns, the U.S. fleet of B1-B bombers remains grounded, the Aviationist reports.

Modernization. The U.S. Army wants to spend some $8.4 billion to modernize its battlefield network over the next five years, C4ISRnet reports.

Asia

Peace talks stall. Landmark talks between the Taliban and senior Afghan officials abruptly stalled on Thursday after the insurgent group objected to the guest list prepared by the Afghan government, according to the Wall Street Journal. The news is a setback for the Trump administration, which is trying to broker peace and an end to the 18-year war.

Visa wars. China is retaliating against U.S. moves to block academics with purported links to Chinese intelligence from traveling to the United States by declining to provide a visa Mike Pillsbury, a Washington-based analyst and China expert with close ties to the Trump administration.

Middle East

Libya. Fighting escalated in and around Tripoli over the weekend, where the warlord Khalifa Haftar escalated his assault on the country’s capital by launching airstrikes there, the Guardian reports.

Saudi. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for an attack on a Saudi Arabian domestic intelligence office in Riyadh province, Reuters reports. Saudi security officials said the attack was thwarted.

Referendum. Egyptians are voting in a three-day referendum that could keep President Abdul Fattah al-Sisi in power until 2030.

Down but not out. Attacks blamed on the Islamic State left at least 35 members of the Syrian army and its allied militias in recent days, Reuters reports.

Europe

IRA. Police in Northern Ireland released two teenagers detained in connection with the murder of journalist Lyra McKee, NBC reports. Authorities there have described the killing as an act of terrorism and have blamed the New Irish Republican Army, a dissident offshoot form the IRA.

Kafka meets 2019. Former U.S. Marine Paul Whelan has been held in Moscow’s notorious Lefortovo prison for over 100 days now, but the Russian authorities have yet to offer a shred of evidence in the case against him. FP spoke with Whelan’s twin brother, who said the family are caught in a catch-22 as they contend with a vindictive investigator from the Russian FSB and the glacial pace of U.S. diplomatic efforts to get him out.

Hit men. Authorities in Ukraine said they had detained a group of Russian hitmen sent to the country to kill a Ukrainian military spy ahead of Sunday’s election, Reuters reports.

Private intelligence. The Associated Press uncovered a campaign to collect dirt on critics of Kaspersky Lab, the Russian antivirus firm, that bears a remarkable resemblance to a recent effort to smear the cybersecurity watchdog Citizen Lab.

Africa

Bailout. Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates said they would deliver aid worth $3 billion to the military rulers of Sudan struggling to hold on to power after deposing former leader Omar al-Bashir, Reuters reports. $500 million of the aid will be delivered in cash, the rest in food and medicine. Protesters are pushing for a civilian government to lead the country’s political transition.

Mali. Gunmen killed 11 Malian army soldiers in a dawn raid on a military base in west-central Mali, Reuters reports.

Cyber and technology

Gloves off. A new legal framework for launching offensive cyberattack is resulting in quicker decisions and has already yielded “operational success,” a top White House official said in remarks reported by CyberScoop.

Life comes at you fast. The British computer security researcher credited with halting the spread of the WannaCry ransomware pleaded guilty to two charges of writing malware, Reuters reports.

Big settlement. Apple and Qualcomm have settled a long-running legal dispute, with Apple agreeng to pay royalties to the chipmaker and suggesting that it will use the company’s products in future iterations of the iPhone, CNBC reports. The settlement is a major development for Apple’s 5G plans as it appears to give the company access to chips developed by Qualcomm for 5G phones.

2020. Despite warnings that Russia is likely to attempt a repeat in 2020 of its 2016 effort to meddle in the American election, political campaigns are doing little to prepare for the expected onslaught, Time reports.

Google in the desert. The killing of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi resulted in many companies abandoning their plans to expand into Saudi Arabia. But that hangover now appears to have lifted, with Google planning to build a major datacenter in the country, the New York Times reports.

Regrets. Former FBI Director James Comey said it was “dumb” to launch an all-out push to convince Silicon Valley to offer law enforcement access to encrypted technology products, the Washington Post reports.

Tip of the iceberg. Hackers working on behalf of nation states are increasingly going after the central nodes of the global information technology industry, and the Indian IT outsourcing giant Wipro appears to be the latest victim, as Brian Krebs reports.  

Nation-states. Microsoft announced it will start warning users of its email products when it suspects state-backed hackers are trying to break into their accounts, Reuters reports.  

DNS. A major new hacking campaign, apparently carried out by an unidentified intelligence service, is hijacking domain name systems in an attempt to target intelligence agencies, energy firms, and the defense industry for espionage, CyberScoop reports.

The big picture. Southeast Asian nations are increasingly following China’s lead and adopting a censored, highly regulated model of internet governance, Bloomberg reports.

Robbie Gramer and Audrey Wilson contributed to this report.

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

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