Security Brief

Inside the Raid That Killed Baghdadi

Information from the Syrian Kurds and Iraqi security officials was key to the CIA-led intelligence gathering operation.

Syrians gather amid the rubble of a building at the site of helicopter gunfire which reportedly killed nine people near the northwestern Syrian village of Barisha in Idlib province along the border with Turkey, where "groups linked to the Islamic State  group" were present, according to a Britain-based war monitor with sources inside Syria, on Oct. 27.
Syrians gather amid the rubble of a building at the site of helicopter gunfire which reportedly killed nine people near the northwestern Syrian village of Barisha in Idlib province along the border with Turkey, where "groups linked to the Islamic State group" were present, according to a Britain-based war monitor with sources inside Syria, on Oct. 27. IBRAHIM YASOUF/AFP via Getty Images

Welcome to Foreign Policy’s Security Brief. What’s on tap today: How U.S. commandos took down Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a lucrative cloud computing contract goes to Microsoft and not front-runner Amazon, and Russian influence operations are expected to intensify leading up to the 2020 U.S. presidential election.

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The Takedown

Under the cover of darkness on Saturday night, American commandos flew in helicopters to the compound in northwestern Syria where Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was hiding. Thousands of miles away, in the White House Situation Room, President Donald Trump and his senior national security advisers watched as U.S. soldiers blasted into the hideout and chased Baghdadi into a network of tunnels, where he detonated his suicide vest, killing himself and three children.

Intelligence work. The raid that killed the world’s most wanted terrorist “was the culmination of years of steady intelligence-gathering work—and 48 hours of hurry-up planning” after a tip on Thursday that Baghdadi would be at the compound, writes the Associated Press in a behind-the-scenes look at the operation. Information provided by the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Iraqi security officials were key to the CIA-led intelligence gathering effort that led to the raid.

What Trump knew. But plans to take out Baghdadi, which Trump had set as the top national security priority, were complicated by the president’s abrupt decision to withdraw from northern Syria earlier this month, a move that was widely seen as greenlighting a crossborder Turkish invasion. Trump knew about plans for the raid, but made the decision to pull out anyway, writes the New York Times.

Baghdadi dead, but ISIS lives. Baghdadi’s death is undeniably a victory for Trump and a blow to the Islamic State. But the group still poses a threat in Syria, particularly since hundreds of its fighters and their family members escaped detention during the Turkish military operation this month that upended months of relative calm in the northeastern part of the country, writes Lara Seligman. Officials and experts said Baghdadi’s death would not undo the damage caused by the president’s early October decision.


Microsoft Snatches Defense Cloud Contract From Amazon 

The Pentagon announced on Friday that it will award a 10-year, $10 billion cloud computing contract to Microsoft, confounding widespread expectations that Amazon had the massive contract all but sewed up.

Defense and technology officials have privately described the contract as tailor-made for Amazon, and the decision to award the deal to Microsoft will inevitably raise questions about whether President Donald Trump intervened in the award process in an attempt to hurt Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

Trump v. Bezos. Bezos’s purchase of the Washington Post, which has reported aggressively on Trump, has turned Amazon into a favorite Trump target. Earlier this year, Trump ordered that the bidding process for the cloud computing contract, known as the Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, be reviewed. According to a former speechwriter for Defense Secretary James Mattis, Trump demanded the Pentagon “screw Amazon” on the contract.

Amazon emerged as the undisputed front-runner for the contract in no small part because of its experience in building the CIA’s classified cloud computing system. Last year, its rivals Microsoft and Oracle—which went so far as to protest the competition even before the contract announcement—launched desperate PR and legal campaigns in an effort to wrest the competition from Bezos. Just last week, Defense Secretary Mark Esper recused himself from the bidding process, as his son had worked for IBM, another company bidding for the contract.

Defense dollars. Winning the contract represents a major windfall for Microsoft, which is in line to earn in the neighborhood of $40 billion that the Pentagon plans to spend in coming years on the JEDI contract.


What We’re Watching 

Impeachment inquiry. House committees will hear from another half dozen witnesses in their impeachment inquiry this week, including the Pentagon’s top official for international security affairs, Kathryn Wheelbarger. The Wall Street Journal has a breakdown of the schedule.

Meanwhile, a key National Security Council aide has asked a federal court to rule on whether he can comply with a congressional subpoena to provide his testimony to an ongoing impeachment inquiry. Charles Kupperman served as an aide to former National Security Advisor John Bolton, and the court ruling could have major implications for Bolton’s future testimony. Both men are believed to be key witnesses to Trump’s attempt to push Ukrainian officials to launch politically motivated investigations.

Bolton-watch. Whether Bolton will testify before the impeachment inquiry represents a hot topic of conversation in Washington. Bolton found himself at odds with Trump on multiple policy issues and fell out with the president in dramatic fashion. According to the evidence presented so far to investigators, Bolton was a central figure in the move to pressure Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden’s son. The New York Times’s Peter Baker examines the swirling drama around Bolton.

S-400. Russia is sending its advanced S-400 missile system abroad for a military exercise for the first time. The Kremlin is dispatching the weapon to an exercise in Serbia as that country is considering closer links with the European Union and NATO, Reuters reports.

Mystery spacecraft. The Air Force’s secretive X-37B spacecraft broke its own endurance record on Sunday, when it landed at Cape Canaveral after 780 days in space. While the exact nature of the spacecraft’s mission remains closely guarded, Air Force officials said the plane carried experiments into space and deployed small satellites.

Ukraine pressure. The Trump administration’s effort to pressure Ukraine to unearth political dirt on Trump’s rivals extended beyond security aid and included withholding the restoration of trade privileges for Ukraine, the Washington Post reports.

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Technology & Cyber 

Political meddling. Russian influence operations targeting Americans are continuing and the U.S. intelligence community expects those operations to intensify as the Kremlin targets the 2020 election, according to an intelligence assessment obtained by Yahoo News.

Infowars. Facebook debuted its long-awaited news tab, part of the company’s efforts to improve news offerings on the platform amid attempts by state-backed actors to influence the views of users. But the company is now drawing criticism for including far-right outlet Breitbart among its approved offerings.

Kremlin web. Russia has developed a system for disconnecting the country’s internet from the global web and will begin testing it after Nov. 1, Defense One reports.

Spear-phishing. A pervasive spear-phishing operation is targeting human-rights organizations around the world, including several U.N. agencies and the Red Cross, ZDNet reports.

Butt dial. Rudy Giuliani is the president’s lawyer and also claims to be a cybersecurity expert and runs a company offering computer security services. And yet he managed to butt dial an NBC reporter, and left a long message discussing his need for cash.


Quote of the Week 

“I worked with John Kelly, and he was totally unequipped to handle the genius of our great president.”

White House Press Secretary Stephanie Grisham describes the retired Marine Corps general, secretary of homeland security, and White House Chief of Staff. 


Essay Contest—Foreign Policy has partnered with the Carnegie Corporation to launch an essay contest. Do you know how U.S. engagement with Russia should change in order to best improve global security? We want to hear from you. Applications close Nov. 1. Learn more: https://carnegie.io/2UMG0mx


Foreign Policy Recommends 

Unreality. Peter Pomerantsev examines how contemporary forms of propaganda and unreality have their roots in Russia: “This approach to exerting mass influence is one that controls people not through insisting on a single truth they should adhere to but that says, instead, that truth is unknowable.”


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 securitybrief@foreignpolicy.com.

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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