Early Edition: July 26, 2021 | #cybersecurity | #cyberattack


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A curated guide to major national security news and developments over the weekend. Here’s today’s news.

U.S. RELATIONS

President Biden is to host Iraqi Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi at the White House today, with attaining a more concrete timeline for the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops top of al-Kadhimi’s agenda. Joseph Stepansky reports for Al Jazeera.

The U.S. military carried out a second air strike in Somalia within a week last Friday, following a months-long gap in air strikes. Pentagon spokesperson Cindi King said U.S. forces conducted a strike against militants from the al Qaeda-linked al Shabaab terrorist group near Qeycad, Galmudug, Somalia. The U.S. forces were “conducting a remote advise and assist mission in support of designated Somali partner forces,” King said, adding “there were no U.S. forces accompanying Somali forces during this operation.” Rebecca Kheel reports for The Hill.

The Biden administration is weighing imposing new sanctions against Belarus and its authoritarian leader Alexander Lukashenko, after Belarusian opposition leader Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya pressed for tougher sanctions in meetings with lawmakers and senior administration officials in Washington last week. Brett Forrest and William Mauldin report for the Wall Street Journal.

Venezuela has said that a U.S. military plane violated its airspace along its border with Colombia in what it called a “flagrant provocation.” Venezuela said that on last Thursday evening a C-17 plane from the U.S. Air Force flew over the Perija mountains in western Zulia state for three minutes. “They are performing reconnaissance tasks on Venezuelan geophysical space, and thus we do not rule out other possible hostile actions that violate our sovereignty and territorial integrity,” the Venezuelan armed forces said in a statement. The U.S. State Department did not immediately respond for comment. Reuters reporting.

al-Kadhimi has announced to Iraqi media that his visit to Washington would “put an end to the presence of combat forces” in Iraq, however little is expected to change with the U.S.’s military’s presence in Iraq. American officials have said that the United States is likely to oblige to Iraq’s request with a deadline of the end of the year. “Pentagon and other administration officials say they will achieve this by removing a small but unspecified number of the 2,500 American forces currently stationed in Iraq, and by reclassifying on paper the roles of other forces. al-Kadhimi will have a political trophy to take home to satisfy anti-American factions in Iraq and the U.S. military presence will remain,” Jane Arraf and Eric Schmitt report for the New York Times.

al-Kadhimi has said in an interview that Iraq no longer requires U.S. combat troops to fight ISIS. “There is no need for any foreign combat forces on Iraqi soil,” al-Kadhimi told the Associated Press. “What we want from the U.S. presence in Iraq is to support our forces in training and developing their efficiency and capabilities, and in security cooperation,” the prime minister added. Qassim Abdul-Zahra and Samya Kullab report for AP.

India is ready to engage with Secretary of State Antony Blinken on human rights during his visit tomorrow, Indian foreign ministry sources have said. The comments follow the State Department saying that Blinken intends to discuss India’s human rights record as well as a religion-based citizenship law that the Indian government enacted two years ago that Muslims see as discriminatory. Sanjeev Miglani reports for Reuters.

AFGHANISTAN

Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, head of the U.S. Army Central Command, has vowed that the U.S. will continue airstrikes in support of Afghan forces fighting the Taliban. Speaking to reporters McKenzie said that “the United States has increased airstrikes in the support of Afghan forces over the last several days, and we are prepared to continue this heightened level of support in the coming weeks if the Taliban continue their attacks.” McKenzie stressed that a “Taliban victory is not inevitable” and added that the U.S. military will continue giving logistical support, “generally…from over the horizon,” to the Afghan Air Force even after its foreign forces are expected to leave the country on August 31. Samantha Beech reports for CNN.

The U.S. has intensified airstrikes against the Taliban in southern Afghanistan, amid growing apprehension over a Taliban offensive threatening Kandahar, the country’s second-largest city and spiritual capital of the Taliban movement. There have been about a dozen airstrikes in recent days, which “point to a continuing role for the U.S. military in Afghanistan,” Alan Cullison and Gordon Lubold report for the Wall Street Journal.

At least four air strikes were carried out Wednesday and Thursday, including some in Kandahar, one U.S. official has said. “The airstrikes were conducted at the request of Afghan forces under attack by the Taliban or to destroy equipment stolen by the militants, including artillery and vehicles, according to the two U.S. officials,” Alex Horton, Dan Lamothe and Susannah George report for the Washington Post.

Civilian casualties in Afghanistan have hit a record high, the U.N. has said. The U.N. report, The Protection of Civilians in Armed Conflict, notes near-record levels of civilian casualties in the first six months of the year and says that the “acute rise” in the two months since May 1 is of particular concern. The heavy toll since May 1 comes largely from battles in rural areas and results from intense fighting following the latest major offensive from the Taliban. If the conflict were to spill into more densely populated towns and cities, the consequences could be catastrophic, the U.N. said in its report. Emma Graham-Harrison reports for the Guardian.

President Biden has authorized up to $100 million emergency funds to meet “unexpected urgent” refugee needs resulting from the situation in Afghanistan, including Afghan special immigration visa applicants. “Biden also authorized the release of $200 million in services and articles from the inventories of U.S. government agencies to meet the same needs, the White House said,” Reuters reports.

The first task for Afghan forces is to make sure that they can slow the Taliban’s momentum before attempting to retake territory, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Saturday. Idrees Ali reports for Reuters.

Biden assured Afghan President Ashraf Ghani of the continuation of U.S. diplomatic and humanitarian support on Friday, as the last U.S. forces leave Afghanistan and the recent Taliban advances increase pressure on the Afghan government. In the phone call Biden and Ghani also “agreed that the Taliban’s current offensive is in direct contradiction to the movement’s claim to support a negotiated settlement of the conflict,” a White House statement said. Reuters reporting.

Forty-six Afghan soldiers have sought refuge in Pakistan after losing control to Taliban insurgents of military positions across the border, Pakistan’s army has said today. “Afghan soldiers have been provided food, shelter and necessary medical care as per established military norms,” the Pakistan army said in a statement. Asif Shahzad reports for Reuters.

Canada has announced plans to relocate Afghans who assisted the Canadian military and embassy in Afghanistan amid a “rapidly deteriorating” security situation. Canada’s “path to protection” will be open to Afghans with a “significant and enduring relationship” with the Canadian government and the program will include “special immigration measures that will offer a path to protection in Canada for those at risk due to their work,” the statement said. Amanda Coletta reports for the Washington Post.

The latest piece by Lisa Curtis in a Just Security series reflecting on Afghanistan considers how the: Taliban ascendance in Afghanistan risks return of global terrorist hub.

CHINA

China has said that China-U.S. relations are in a “stalemate.” Readouts in Chinese media of the meeting with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman mentioned each side making requests for cooperation, however U.S.-China relations faced serious difficulties, partly because the United States treats China as an “imagined enemy,” Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng said, according to a statement from the Chinese Foreign Ministry. Xie said the United States was seeking China’s cooperation on climate change, Iran and North Korea issues, according to Chinese news outlet the Paper. “But it’s not going to work if the U.S. asks for cooperation on the one hand and damages China’s interests on the other,” he said. Eva Dou reports for the Washington Post.

China has told the U.S. to stop “demonizing” Beijing, with Xie saying that the U.S. wants to “blame China for its own structural problems,” according to a statement by China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “It is as if when China’s development is contained, all U.S. domestic and external challenges would go away, and America would become great again,” the statement said. BBC News reports.

In talks with Sherman, China has asked the U.S. to remove visa restriction on Chinese students and Communist Party members, Chinese state media has reported. Reuters reporting.

Sherman is reportedly planning to stress to China the importance of “guardrails” being in place to ensure that the U.S. and China do not end up in conflict and for both countries to find responsible ways to control their competition. Sherman is scheduled to meet Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi today in Tianjin. “She’s going to underscore that we do not want that stiff and sustained competition to veer into conflict,” a senior U.S. administration official has said. Michael Martina, Yew Lun Tian and David Brunnstrom report for Reuters.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will become the first member of President Biden’s cabinet to visit Southeast Asia this week. Austin will be seeking to emphasize the importance Washington places on fortifying ties in the region while pushing back against China. “You’ll hear me talk a lot about partnerships and the value of partnerships,” Austin told reporters. It is expected that “in a keynote speech in Singapore on Tuesday and meetings in Vietnam and the Philippines, Austin will call out aggressive Chinese behavior in the South China Sea and stress the importance of keeping the wider region free and open,” Idrees Ali reports for Reuters.

The Justice Department has dropped its fraud cases against five visiting Chinese researchers who were accused of hiding their affiliations with China’s military. Court papers filed earlier last week for one of the visiting scientists, Tang Juan, who had been scheduled to go to trial today, show that some Federal Bureau of Investigation analysts had casted doubt on the value of the cases. The moves marks a “significant setback to [the Justice Department’s] effort to stop alleged Chinese intelligence-gathering at U.S. universities,” Aruna Viswanatha reports for the Wall Street Journal.

The U.K. government is exploring ways to remove China’s state-owned nuclear energy company, China General Nuclear, from all future power projects in the U.K., according to sources close to the discussions. The change in the U.K.’s approach follows the chilling in relations between London and Beijing in recent years and affects a number of current plans for nuclear power stations in the UK, raising “questions about the future of the U.K.’s nuclear energy program,” Jim Pickard and Nathalie Thomas report for the Financial Times.

DOMESTIC DEVELOPMENTS

The National Guard is cancelling trainings after Congress failed to reimburse the force for its months-long deployment at the U.S. Capitol following the Jan. 6 attack. “National Guard Bureau spokesman Wayne Hall told The Hill that six events from the Nebraska National Guard have been canceled to save money because Congress has still not reimbursed the branch for its deployment,” Lexi Lonas reports for The Hill.

House Speak Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) has formally nominated Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) to the Jan. 6 select committee to investigate the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. Kinzinger will join Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) in serving on the Democratic party-led panel. Pelosi in a statement said Kinzinger “brings great patriotism to the Committee’s mission: to find the facts and protect our Democracy.” Jesse Naranjo and Olivia Beavers report for POLITICO.

The Jan. 6 select committee is scheduled to start its work this week amid political chaos and controversy. It is unclear when the panel may be finalized, however, tomorrow “four police officers — two from the Capitol’s protection squad and two from D.C. police — are set to provide the first public testimony before the select committee,” Karoun Demirjian reports for the Washington Post.

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) has criticized Pelosi for her choice of nominees to the Jan. 6 select committee, claiming in a statement that Pelosi’s picks “share her pre-conceived narrative,” and that they will not yield a serious investigation.” Mychael Schnell reports for The Hill.

Following ransomware attacks, companies, such as Colonial Pipeline, are now being sued by consumers and workers claiming they were hurt by lax cybersecurity. Gerrit De Vynck reports for the Washington Post.

NSO GROUP – PEGASUS

WhatsApp head Will Cathcart has said that ranking government officials around the world, including individuals in high national security positions who are “allies of the U.S.,” were targeted by governments using spyware from NSO Group. Cathcart speaking to the Guardian said that the senior individuals were targeted by governments with NSO Group spyware in a 2019 attack against 1,400 WhatsApp users. Stephanie Kirchgaessner reports for the Guardian.

French President Emmanuel Macron has reportedly pushed for an Israeli inquiry into spyware concerns relating to NSO Group. Macron reportedly spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett “to ensure that the Israeli government is ‘properly investigating’ allegations that the French president could have been targeted with Israeli-made spyware by Morocco’s security services,” Bethan McKernan reports for the Guardian.

GLOBAL DEVELOPMENTS

Fighting between Rwandan forces and insurgents linked to the Islamic State has broken out in Mozambique, fueling fears of escalating conflict in the country. The fighting was the first time that foreign troops sent to reinforce local security forces in Mozambique have clashed with the Islamist militants. “Rwandan soldiers who recently arrived in Mozambique fought a series of engagements against the extremists last week. Few reliable details of the fighting, which took place near Mozambique’s border with Tanzania, have emerged, but officials claim the insurgents suffered dozens of casualties,” the Guardian reports.

Mozambique President Filipe Nyusi has said in an address to the nation that troops fighting the Islamic State-linked insurgency in its northern province of Cabo Delgado were gaining ground and the enemy was retreating. The insurgents in March attacked the coastal town of Palma, near natural gas projects worth $60 billion, and have caused paralysis in mineral activity, agriculture and infrastructure development in the region. Reuters reports.

Angry protests before and during the funeral of assassinated Haitian President Jovenel Moïse, exposed further the rifts in the country. Foreign dignitaries, including an American delegation led by the U.S. ambassador to the U.N., also left early less than half an hour into the funeral over safety concerns following gunshots fired outside the event. Catherine Porter reports for the New York Times.

Tunisian President Kais Saied has fired Tunisia’s prime minister and frozen the country’s parliament’s activities following violent demonstrations over the country’s Covid-19 pandemic and economic situation. “We have taken these decisions … until social peace returns to Tunisia and until we save the state,” he said in a televised address after an emergency security meeting. AP reports.

The move by Tunisia’s president, a political outsider, has been described by his foes as a coup, however as tens of thousands of people flooded the streets of major cities to celebrate the firing of the prime minister, Saied appears “to be riding a wave of popular anger against a political elite that has for years failed to deliver the promised fruits of democracy,” Angus Mcdowall reports for Reuters.

The former prime minister of Samoa has conceded defeat in an election held in April today, ending months of political instability and his 22 years in power. Prime Minister Tuilaepa Sailele Malielegaoi had refused to give way after losing a parliamentary election to former Deputy Prime Minister Fiame Naomi Mata’afa. However, “Samoa’s Court of Appeal ruled last week that a makeshift swearing in ceremony was legal, officially installing Mata’afa as the country’s first female prime minister and her Fa’atuatua i le Atua Samoa ua Tasi (FAST) Party in power,” Colin Packham reports for Reuters.

Mata’afa Has said that her government will formally take office tomorrow. Speaking to the media the new prime minister of Samoa said that “parliament would meet at the earliest opportunity next week to pass a temporary budget to keep the government running, giving her and her Cabinet time to review the country’s financial and economic circumstances,” Reuters reports.

At least six Cameroonian soldiers have been killed and four wounded during an attack by Islamist insurgents on an army outpost in the far north of the country, state media has said. Reuters reporting.

New Zealand is to allow a woman suspected of being an Islamic State member to be repatriated from Turkey. The woman grew up in New Zealand and Australia and held citizenship in both countries until Australia revoked it last year. Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who has previously accused Canberra of “abdicating its responsibilities,” said that the decision to allow the 26-year-old and her two young children to return was not “taken lightly.” BBC News reports.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that the Russian navy can detect any enemy and launch an “unpreventable strike” if needed. The remarks were made during a speech Putin made during a parade to mark the 325th anniversary of the navy in St Petersburg, which also included ships from the navies of Iran, Pakistan and India. Reuters reporting.

CORONAVIRUS

The coronavirus has infected over 34.40 million and has now killed close to 610,900 people in the United States, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Globally, there have been over 194.10 million confirmed coronavirus cases and over 4.15 million deaths. Sergio Hernandez, Sean O’Key, Amanda Watts, Byron Manley and Henrik Pettersson report for CNN.

Russia has sent a shipment of Covid-19-related aid to Cuba, including 1 million medical masks, the Russian defense ministry said on Saturday. “On the instructions of the Supreme Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, military transport aircraft are delivering humanitarian aid to the Republic of Cuba,” the ministry said. Reuters reporting.

A map and analysis of the vaccine roll out across the U.S. is available at the New York Times.

A map and analysis of all confirmed cases of the virus in the U.S. is available at the New York Times.

U.S. and worldwide maps tracking the spread of the pandemic are available at the Washington Post.

A state-by-state guide to lockdown measures and reopenings is provided by the New York Times.

Latest updates on the pandemic at the Guardian.



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