Security Brief

A weekly digest of national security, defense, and cybersecurity news from Foreign Policy reporters Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer. Delivered Thursday. Available only to FP subscribers.

Trump Says U.S. ‘Locked and Loaded’ for Military Action

The administration is building a case that Tehran is to blame for a series of strikes on Saudi oil infrastructure.

A picture taken on September 15, 2019 shows an Aramco oil facility at the edge of the Saudi capital Riyadh.
A picture taken on September 15, 2019 shows an Aramco oil facility at the edge of the Saudi capital Riyadh. FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP/Getty Images

What’s on tap: A strike on Saudi oil facilities has Trump threatening military action; who will build the next American ICBM; and a Russian breach in an FBI communication system.

U.S. Blames Iran for Saudi Strikes

Dueling narratives. A series of coordinated strikes on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure over the weekend significantly inflamed tensions between the United States and Iran, with President Donald Trump on Sunday raising the prospect of military action in retaliation.

But exactly who carried out the strikes, which have crippled Saudi oil production, remains unclear. Iran-backed Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for the attack, but Trump administration officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, pointed the finger at Tehran. Meanwhile, analysts argue that the Houthis lack the capability to pull off an attack of such sophistication.

‘Massive attack.’ Consensus seems to be building that the strikes came from inside Iranian territory, with a senior Trump administration official telling Foreign Policy that Tehran launched “over two dozen” cruise missiles and drones in total in a “massive attack” against the facilities. For their part, Iranian officials have denied that their military was behind the attack.

U.S. military strikes coming? Trump so far hasn’t weighed in on who he believes was responsible but raised the possibility of U.S. military action on Twitter, writing ominously that America is “locked and loaded” but still waiting to hear from the Saudis “as to who they believe was the cause of this attack, and under what terms we would proceed!”

Energy markets. The strikes on Saudi oil infrastructure sent the price of oil soaring, with the price of Brent crude spiking well above $70 dollars a barrel on Monday, a more than 20 percent increase, before prices settled slightly. Trump announced Sunday that he would open U.S. strategic reserves to help stabilize markets, and Keith Johnson explains how the strikes were able to take half of Saudi Arabia’s oil output offline.

Tanker wars. Iranian state media reported on Monday that authorities in the country had seized another tanker and its crew in the Strait of Hormuz. The identity of the tanker remains unclear, but if the report is confirmed it would further add to tensions.

Diplomatic implications. The firing of National Security Adviser John Bolton, an ardent Iran hawk, provided some hope that a meeting between Trump and his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Rouhani, might take place. But the strikes on Saudi Arabia are unlikely to be a boon to diplomacy–Trump on Sunday backtracked from his earlier offer to meet Rouhani without preconditions.

What We’re Watching

ICBM replacement wars. The race to build a replacement for America’s aging intercontinental ballistic missile fleet just got even more heated, with Northrop Grumman rebuffing a request by rival Boeing to team up on the project, the Ground Based Strategic Deterrent, which is expected to cost about $85 billion. The latest development will likely complicate a competition that has already drawn scrutiny after Boeing dropped out of the running, with experts raising concerns that Northrop being the sole bidder could lead to increased costs or delays.

Hamza bin Laden. Trump confirmed Saturday that Osama bin Laden’s son Hamza, the probable heir to the al-Qaeda terrorist network, was killed in an American operation in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.

Death sentence. In an exclusive interview with Foreign Policy, the Belgian Islamic State member Bilal al-Marchohi tells the story of his escape from Raqqa, his capture, and his interrogation by U.S. and Iraqi officials. Abandoned by his country of origin, al-Marchochi stood trial in Iraq and was sentenced to death–a fate that awaits thousands of other foreign ISIS fighters, who have become pawns in an international political chess match, writes Pilar Cebrian.

Spy wars. The FBI discovered a breach of its communications system that appears to have allowed Russian agents in the United States to understand the location of bureau surveillance teams and listen in on FBI communications, Yahoo News reports.

Summit politics. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un sent a letter last month inviting President Donald Trump to a summit meeting in Pyongyang, according to a South Korean media report.

Canadian leak case. A top intelligence official within the Canadian Royal Mounted Police was arrested on Friday and charged with leaking sensitive information. Details on the case remain closely held.

World leaders soon convene in New York for the 74th U.N. General Assembly and from Sept. 23 to 27, Foreign Policy will publish a one-week-only newsletter devoted to on the ground coverage and in-depth analysis of the goings-on at UNGA. Sign up here for U.N. Brief, written by FP’s Colum Lynch and Robbie Gramer.

Technology & Cyber 

Election interference. American technology companies and the U.S. government are struggling to get on the same page in their efforts to combat election interference. Earlier this month they clashed over access to user data, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Down under. An Australian government report concluded that China was behind a cyberattack on the country’s parliament and three major political parties ahead of elections in May, according to Reuters.

Sanctions. The U.S. Treasury Department imposed sanctions on a group of North Korean hacking groups responsible for a string of high-profile, lucrative heists that have targeted international financial institutions. The sanctions come as cyber crime has become an increasingly significant way for North Korean operatives to generate income for the country and evade international sanctions.

Huawei in the Gulf. U.S. officials have informed their counterparts in Gulf states that they are concerned about the presence of Huawei equipment in those countries’ communications networks.

For more news and analysis from Foreign Policy and around the world, subscribe to Morning Brief, delivered weekday mornings.

Movers & Shakers 

Army, Air Force nominees. Trump’s nominees to head the Air Force and Army, Barbara Barrett and Ryan McCarthy, respectively, had their confirmation hearings before the Senate last week. McCarthy, who is currently acting as Army Secretary, got through mostly unscathed, but Barrett, former chair of the Aerospace Corporation, faced questions from lawmakers over a report that airmen routinely spend the night at Trump’s luxury Turnberry resort in Scotland.

In a heated exchange, Sen. Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, pressed Barrett to ban airmen from staying at Trump properties. Barrett declined to say she would prohibit the practice, but promised she would “take a look” at the regulations, Politico reports.

Quote of the Week 

“Where’s my favorite dictator?” –Trump asked about the whereabouts of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi while waiting for him to arrive at a meeting on the sidelines of the recent G7 summit. 

FP Recommends 

The Dems. Foreign policy will never take center stage in the 2020 presidential election, but the Democratic field shows how the party is moving to the left and espousing an increasingly progressive vision of America’s role in the world. But that also poses a dilemma if they take the White House. As Tom Wright puts it in the Atlantic: “They would have to make major sacrifices on alliances, nuclear proliferation, and spheres of influence that no Democratic commander in chief seems likely to want to make.”

That’s it for today. To get this newsletter in your inbox, subscribe here or sign-up for our other newsletters. Send your tips, comments, questions, or typos to

 Twitter: @EliasGroll

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