Terror in Pittsburgh; John Doe goes free; How alleged pipe-bomber was radicalized; Big cut for DoD? Not so fast; and just a bit more…

Homegrown terrorism strikes Pittsburgh. The man who assaulted a Jewish synagogue in a murderous rage Saturday morning is due in court today, the Associated Press reports from Pittsburgh.

The deadliest attack on the Jewish community in the history of the United States” is how the Anti-Defamation League described Saturday’s attack.

The attacker “opened fire with an AR-15 rifle and other weapons, killing eight men and three women before a tactical police team tracked him down and shot him,” AP writes. He also wounded six others, including four of those armed police officers. 

His purported reason for violence: He “blamed Jews for the migrant caravan that is now moving through Mexico, according to his social media posts,” CNN terrorism analyst Peter Bergen writes in a piece sounding the alarm for greater awareness of the threat of homegrown terrorism inside America in 2018.

Taking the threat seriously: Since 9/11, far right wing attackers have killed 86 people in America versus 104 killed by jihadists, according to data maintained by New America.

Worth noting: now-POTUS45 trafficked in white nationalist themes just two years ago. In his own words, then-candidate Trump said to a crowd in Palm Beach, Fla., “Hillary Clinton meets in secret with international banks, to plot the destruction of U.S. sovereignty in order to enrich these global interest powers, her special interest friends, and her donors.”

As The Atlantic’s Yoni Applebaum reminds us, “however it was intended, this language has a very specific history within the United States.”

That history included famous speeches by populists in the 1890s and the Great Depression.

The net result, writes Applebaum, “there are Americans who will find it frightening to hear these images revived—and others who will feel emboldened by their use to go where Trump himself did not.”


From Defense One

What Mattis Said in the Middle East // Katie Bo Williams: The defense secretary said he pressed his Saudi counterpart on the murder of a U.S.-based journalist, but U.S.-Saudi relations appear little changed.

The Pentagon’s Getting More Secretive — and It’s Hurting National Security // Rep. Adam Smith: Trump’s DoD is rolling back the kind of basic transparency that prevents waste and fraud, enables Congressional oversight, and promotes public trust.

Defense One Radio Ep. 26. // Defense One Staff: The pipe-bomber and the presidency; More US troops at the border; Exiting the INF and more…

The Fiscal Calm before the Storm // Frederico Bartels: Next year’s budget will face three pressures that make it unlikely to be characterized as sustained or predictable.

Mattis Treads Carefully on Khashoggi Crisis // Katie Bo Williams, Defense One: The defense secretary condemned the killing of the Washington Post columnist but did not accuse Saudi Arabia, in keynote speech at security conference on the Persian Gulf.

This Army Missile Might be the Pentagon’s First Post-INF Weapon // Patrick Tucker: The U.S. has already held discussions with defense firms about extended-range modifications.

Will Trump Really Cut Defense Spending by 5%? It’s Way Too Early To Say // Marcus Weisgerber: The Pentagon’s No. 2 confirms that the president’s surprise order will affect the military, but experts say there may ultimately be no decline at all.

In a Post-Khashoggi World, Impunity Will Reign // Uri Friedman, The Atlantic: The ugly geopolitics in the wake of the Saudi journalist’s death point to a new era of impunity.

If Not Pipe-Bombs, What Counts as Terrorism in 2018? // Kathy Gilsinan, The Atlantic: There is no consensus—in academia, law, or common usage—on when an attack is more than just a crime.


Welcome to this Monday edition of The D Brief by Ben Watson and Bradley Peniston. If you find this useful, please consider forwarding it to a friend or colleague. On this day in 1956, Israeli troops advanced into Egypt, followed later by French and British ones, in an offensive that dramatically escalated the Suez Crisis three months after Egypt’s Gen. Nasser nationalized the canal. Kept out of the loop: U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who threatened to sanction the UK, France and Israel if they did not turn back.

Thanks to the war against ISIS, we may have an unsettling new U.S. court precedent for terrorism suspects: “The American government locked up a citizen for more than a year without charging him with a crime,” The New York Times trio of Charlie Savage, Rukmini Callimachi and Eric Schmitt reports this morning.

The American concerned has been known in court filings and in the wider public as John Doe. But the Times reports his real name is Abdulrahman Ahmad Alsheikh, and he’s a dual American and Saudi citizen. He’s now been released to Bahrain and the State Department has cancelled his passport.

If you’re just catching up to his story: the U.S. military’s Syrian partnered forces snatched him off the battlefield in September 2017. According to the Times, “He was carrying thumb drives with files about weapons and internal ISIS administrative records” when he was captured. But what was on those thumb drives may not have passed the threshold for admissible evidence in a U.S. trial.

And that’s just the beginning of the ways that the U.S. government failed to serve due process. As Nate Christensen predicted last June in Defense One, “An accused terrorist may go free because the Trump administration demanded an end-run around the rule of law.” Now that it’s happened, the Times has more on the broader implications of the detention, here.

While we’re talking about Trump-era secrecy, here’s Rep. Adam Smith: The Pentagon’s Getting More Secretive — and It’s Hurting National Security.” The ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee writes that Trump’s DoD is rolling back the kind of basic transparency that prevents waste and fraud, enables Congressional oversight, and promotes public trust. Read that on Defense One, here.

Mattis in Manama. The defense secretary said he pressed his Saudi counterpart on the murder of a U.S.-based journalist, but U.S.-Saudi relations appear little changed. Read Katie Bo Williams’ dispatches from the road, here and here.

How to radicalize an American man. The 56-year-old man who sent last week’s package-bombs was apprehended Friday in West Palm Beach, Florida. He was spinning records in a nightclub as a DJ when the FBI was closing in on him Thursday night, the Associated Press reported this weekend.

How he was found: DNA left behind on the bombs; fingerprints left behind, too; and his social media history/language/spelling habits.

About his recent past, the Washington Post reports he “Had no interest in politics, was always at the night clubs, the gyms, wherever he thought he could meet people, impress people. And along came the presidential campaign of Donald Trump.”

Some things we learned about his trajectory, because it’s a familiar one, according to terrorism researcher Amarnath Amarasingam:  

  1. “An individual floundering about. Struggling.
  2. Perhaps some family issues that continue to linger.
  3. Looking for some sense of meaning. Taking a scattershot approach to things — an ongoing quest for significance.
  4. Getting wrapped up in a charismatic leader and charismatic movement, which suddenly brings order and purpose to everything he’s feeling.
  5. Drops everything. Dedicates life to this movement.
  6. But it’s not enough to do it quietly. He has to proselytize. Not enough to be a simple devotee. Has to be the greatest devotee…
  7. The van is his way of ‘witnessing’ (to put it Christian terms). Telling the world he is not shy to face ridicule and alienation because of his dedication to this new cause. He is willing to go the extra mile. Not a free-rider.”

The big challenge, Amarasingam writes, is “none of this is so out of the ordinary to arouse concern. And it shouldn’t. We don’t want [people] calling cops because someone is interested in politics or Trump. It may start to make sense in hindsight. Predicting it is extremely difficult.”

Big cut for Pentagon? Not so fast. Friday’s big news was DeSecDef Patrick Shanahan appearing to confirm that Trump’s 5%-cut would indeed affect the military, but experts say that’s just the opening shot in a longer battle over teh 2020 budget — and there may ultimately be no decline at all. Read Marcus Weisgerber for more, here.

And finally: RAND study says the U.S. military can have about 10% fewer generals and still be fine, Federal News Network reported late last week.

Background: “In the 2017 defense authorization act, Congress also told DoD to find areas where it can cut its flag officer assignments by 10 percent.”

Fortunately, FNN writes, “The study revealed that after looking at the requirements for general and flag officer positions, about 132 of the 615 positions didn’t meet the need for such a high ranking official.” More here.

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