Donald J. Trump and Mohammed bin Salman have a similar outlook when it comes to Iran. Both see the Islamic Republic as a threat that needs to be contained. What then does the elevation of Mohammed bin Salman, commonly known as MBS, to the role of crown prince of Saudi Arabia mean for the Sunni kingdom’s relationship with Shi’ite Iran?

“Nothing good,” said F. Gregory Gause III, head of the international affairs department at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service.

“I do see the likelihood of an American-Iranian confrontation, whether it is in Syria, whether it is on the water in the Gulf, whether it is in Iraq after the campaign in Mosul is concluded,” said Gause. The US administration, including President Trump and Defense Secretary James Mattis, “came into office with a view that Iran was the major issue in the region,” he noted.

Read More

True national reconciliation and inclusiveness are necessary ingredients for ending the cycle of statelessness and radicalization that has created a fertile ground for terrorist groups, including the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), to flourish in Libya, according to a new Atlantic Council report.

“People who fought in Syria, we call that the undergrad for jihad, they went to Libya to get their post-grad degree in jihad,” said Jason Pack, founder of Eye on ISIS in Libya and executive director of the US-Libya Business Association.

“By coming from what they gathered in Syria to their post-grad in Derna and Sirte they founded their own brigades,” said Pack referring to mostly Tunisian jihadis who initially trained in Syria where a civil war has raged for the past six years. “The porosity of the Tunisian-Libyan border has been a real plague for Libya, and it has been a plague for Tunisia,” he added, pointing to high-profile terrorist attacks in Tunisia in 2015 at the Bardo National Museum in Tunis and on British holidaymakers in Sousse.

Read More

Using fake social media accounts to attract real users

Social media “bots” have repeatedly made headlines over the past year, accused of driving traffic and distorting debate on social media platforms, especially Twitter, in the US, French, and UK elections. But what are bots, and how do they work?

In social media terms, a bot is an automated account set up to make posts without human intervention. Such bots can play a range of roles, including sharing poetry, spreading news or attempting satire; many accounts make explicit that they are bots.

One sort of bot is created to have a political effect. Political bots typically do not acknowledge that they are automated. Instead, they masquerade as human users, often with a made-up screen name and stolen photo. They artificially amplify political messages, for example by automatically retweeting posts from a set of accounts, liking any tweet which includes certain words, or following a specific set of users.

The effect is to make a user, message, or policy appear more popular and influential than it actually is.

Read More

Disinformation has become a hot topic since Russia’s interference in the US presidential elections in 2016. As seventeen US intelligence agencies agreed in December of last year: “Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election.” This influence operation aimed to undermine faith in democracy and the credibility of the Western institutions.

Cyberattacks played a key, but relatively small part in this operation. Kremlin-backed hackers used targeted phishing e-mails to steal troves of documents and communications between Democratic Party operatives, but the bigger, and more sophisticated, part came later. Rather than using the stolen information for intelligence gathering—a normal and expected technique in the world of spycraft—the data instead appeared on WikiLeaks and other sites beginning in July 2016. It was at this point that an intelligence-gathering operation turned into an influence operation.

Read More

Three-and-a-half years ago, Russia illegally annexed Crimea and launched its campaign to destabilize eastern Ukraine. Russian aggression prompted the biggest increase in NATO’s collective defense capabilities since the Cold War—including the historic deployment in June of four multinational battlegroups in the three Baltic States and Poland.

But deterring military aggression is only half the battle. Russia has also engaged in political aggression against our societies, using cyberattacks, disinformation, propaganda, and influence operations (what the Soviets called “active measures”) to affect the outcome of elections and to undermine confidence in our democratic institutions.

Read More

French President Emmanuel Macron would like to work with Russian President Vladimir Putin in an effort to seek mutually acceptable solutions to crises that have bedeviled ties between the West and Russia over the past few years, France’s ambassador to the United States, Gérard Araud, said in an Atlantic Council phone briefing on June 19.

Unlike the Soviet Union, Russia “is not an existential threat” to Europe, said Araud.

“Russia has done things that we don’t accept, but at the same time Russia has its own legitimate interests, so let’s talk with the Russians to see whether we reach compromise deals which are mutually acceptable,” he said.

Read More

The title of Sir Peter Westmacott’s new paper, Turkey’s European Journey, does not indicate where he thinks the country stands on that path, whether he believes Ankara is still headed toward Europe or whether it has turned off that road permanently. A conversation with Westmacott, a distinguished ambassadorial fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Future Europe Initiative who has served as the United Kingdom’s ambassador to France, Turkey, and the United States, sheds more light on how he sees Turkey’s current status under President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

Read More

On June 3, US Defense Secretary James Mattis stepped into the spotlight at Asia’s premier annual security gathering to reassure America’s Asian friends about our commitment to regional peace and prosperity. His remarks at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore sent a much-needed message of commitment to a jittery region. But in the halls, questions lingered over the US administration’s broader Asia strategy and, specifically, its approach to economic engagement.

The Trump administration has distanced itself from its predecessor’s “rebalance” to Asia.  In the era of “America First,” what will replace it?  We have seen some hints about the US security role in Asia, but fewer details on trade and economics.

Read More

A resolution to the diplomatic fallout between Qatar and other Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries will only come from the nations themselves, until which time the United States must avoid being dragged into the fray, according to an Atlantic Council analyst.

Solutions “lie in the region,” and will only come about “when all… sides are tired of fighting” each other, said Amir Handjani, a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center. Meanwhile, the United States, navigating between allies on both sides of the conflict, must avoid being “caught in the firefight.”

Handjani joined Rachel Ansley, editorial assistant at the Atlantic Council, for a Facebook Live interview on June 14 to explain the implications of the rising tensions between Qatar and other GCC countries.

Read More

Even as US President Donald J. Trump touts the creation of coal jobs, 2016 energy trends indicate a sharp decline in the demand for coal worldwide, according to Spencer Dale, group chief economist at BP.

Overall, according to Dale, these energy trends also indicate a plateau in carbon emissions. In fact, he added, despite Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris Climate Accord—a pact aimed at reducing global greenhouse gas emissions—carbon emissions will steadily decrease thanks to strides made in the developing world toward renewable energy technologies.

The United States’ role in Paris was primarily one of leadership, “galvanizing the international community and bringing them to the table,” said Dale. While Washington’s decision to back away from that role will not have a major impact on the fight against climate change in terms of percentages of global greenhouse gas emissions, it could hinder the momentum of other signatories to the agreement, he said. 

Read More