The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has ordered a probe into the sabotage operation against four vessels off its coast on Sunday 12 May 2019. The incident occurred at around 0600 h local time (02:00 GMT), east of the UAE emirate of Fujairah, which is close to Hormuz, between Iran and Oman. In a statement released on Sunday, the UAE foreign ministry warned that “subjecting commercial vessels to sabotage operations and threatening the lives of their crew is considered a dangerous development.” The statement reported that four commercial vessels had been targeted near its territorial waters, though it did not identify the vessels beyond stating that they were of various nationalities. No injuries or fatalities on board the vessels have been reported and as well as no spillage of harmful chemicals or fuel. On Monday 13 May, ship management company Thome Ship Management confirmed that the hull of a Norwegian-registered product tanker was damaged by an unknown object off the coast of Fujairah port on Sunday. In a statement, Thome reported that “the master of MT Andrea Victory reported the crew were unharmed but there was a hole in the hull area of the aft peak tank. The ship is not in any danger of sinking.” A statement released by the Saudi Press Agency on Monday, citing the energy minister, confirmed that two Saudi oil tankers faced a “sabotage attack” off the coast of Fujairah, adding that the tankers were on their way to cross into the Persian Gulf and had suffered “significant damage.” According to the country’s energy minister Khalid al-Falih, “one of the two vessels was on its way to be loaded with Saudi crude oil from the port of Ras Tanura, to be delivered to Saudi Aramco’s customers in the United States.” Industry sources are reporting that the Saudi tankers affected were the Amjad and Al Marzoqah. The fourth vessel is reportedly UAE-flagged.
The UAE ministry statement was released after reports emerged on Sunday of an explosion inside Fujairah port during the morning hours. A senior Iranian lawmaker and head of parliament’s national security committee, Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh disclosed on Sunday that reports of “explosions” near Fujairah port showed that the security situation of Gulf states was fragile. The media office of the Government of Fujairah however denied in a tweet that blasts had occurred inside Fujairah port, disclosing that the facility was operating normally. The UAE ministry statement, which also denied that any incident had taken place inside the port, disclosed that the government had taken all necessary measures and launched an investigation in coordination with international authorities. The statement went on to say that “the international community should carry out its responsibilities to prevent any parties trying to harm maritime security and safety, which would be considered a threat to international safety and security.” In another statement released overnight, the GCC secretary-general, Abdul Lateef Al Zayani, described the sabotage as a “serious escalation,” adding, “such irresponsible acts will increase tension and conflicts in the region and expose its peoples to great danger.” Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon and Yemen’s internationally-recognized government have also condemned the attacks. Meanwhile Saudi Arabia on Monday expressed support for the UAE following the attacks, with the Saudi foreign ministry disclosing in a statement that the attacks constitute a “dangerous threat to the safety of navigation and affects negatively regional and international security.”
While it currently remains unclear who is behind Sunday’s incident, with the UAE so far not blaming any country or other party for the operation, analysts are reporting that they suspect Iran of being behind the operation as the country has continuously threatened to disrupt shipping in the strategic Strait of Hormuz. While Iran has called for an investigation, with Iran’s Foreign Ministry calling it “worrisome and dreadful,” the incident comes amidst increasing tensions in the region. Last month, Iran threatened to “close” the Strait of Hormuz if it was prevented from using the waterway. This followed a US decision to end exemptions from sanctions for major importers of Iranian oil, which came into effect on 2 May. Washington has also stated that it was deploying a US aircraft carrier and other forces to the Middle East as a result of what it said were Iranian threats. Tehran meanwhile has called the US military presence “a target” rather than a threat. Sunday’s incident may therefore be an attempt to convey a message to the international community that Iran’s threats should be taken seriously. Likewise, the incident may be a way of testing Washington and its allies in a bid to see how they will react. The US ambassador to Saudi Arabia has disclosed that Washington should take what he called “reasonable responses short of war” after it had determined who was behind Sunday’s attack. In remarks published on 14 May, Ambassador John Abizaid told reporters in the Saudi capital Riyadh “we need to do a thorough investigation to understand what happened, why it happened, and then come up with reasonable responses short of war.” A US official familiar with American intelligence disclosed on Monday that while Iran was a prime suspect in the sabotage, Washington had no conclusive proof.
Sunday’s incident raises concerns relating to the safety of vessels transiting the region and that the shipping lanes in the Gulf region could become a flashpoint as tensions continue to escalate between the US and Iran. On 13 May 2019, the US issued a new alert to maritime traffic in regard to the alleged “acts of sabotage” of vessels off the coast of the UAE. The US Maritime Administration warned shippers to exercise caution when travelling past Fujairah. MS Risk advises all vessels transiting the Strait of Hormuz to maintain heightened security levels and to be wary of any suspicious activity.
Amid the Presidential conflict in Venezuela between de facto President Nicolas Maduro and self-proclaimed Interim President Juan Guaido, the pressure on Maduro seems to hold steady. On 30 April, Guaido called on the military to rise against Maduro and oust him. Maduro later claimed to have thwarted the attempted overthrow. The military leadership still appear to be loyal to Maduro, however, there are a number of reports detailing military desertions to Guaido. But Maduro has another ace up his sleeve. He is increasingly relying on a trusted, parallel security structure set in place in the early 2000s by former President Hugo Chavez. The ‘Colectivos’, a group of armed leftist gangs who functions as government “enforcers”, have on several occasions proved valuable to the preservation of the socialist order through their use of force to beat down on the opposition, and is continuing to show its significance. On 2 April 2019, the opposition-controlled National Assembly declared the Colectivos as terrorist groups. The threat of Colectivos is likely to, to some extent, impede the moral and ability of citizens to protest. It is probable that the Colectivos is a factor to Maduro’s ability to remain in power and is almost certainly a part in the fight against the new uprising that started 30 April. However due to their relatively small numbers, the Colectivos is not likely to have any decisive influence and if the military leadership turns against Maduro, the Colectivos will likely easily be subverted.
The appearance of Colectivos and their loyalty to the President is no coincidence. In 2002, after former socialist President Hugo Chavez successfully thwarted an attempted coup d’état, he realized the need for new security structures in the country that could counterbalance the army. He turned to the “Bolivarian Circles”, grassroot movements set up to support the 1999 Bolivarian Revolution. They had proven valuable in beating anti-government protests. After the coup, the Bolivarian Circles became known as Colectivos. In 2006, they were granted legitimacy and real influence. The Colectivos, consisting of some 5,000-7,500 people nationwide, engage in a multitude of activities. Some are genuine, like bookshops, summer camps and study groups, but they also engage in kidnappings, robbery, extortion and drug dealing seemingly with impunity. In the midst of the current economic crisis, they have even started trafficking food and medicine. There is little doubt about government ties with the Colectivos. There are several reports on the Venezuelan government funding the Colectivos’ activities and some Colectivos have formal links to the government. Further, certain members of Colectivos work for the Venezuelan armed forces. In some parts of the country, the Colectivos even have some state powers and act as a form of police. It is also reported that the government directly arm the groups.
The Colectivos is arguably a factor as to why Maduro has managed to cling to power. Former Minister of Correctional Services Iris Varela has said that they were a “fundamental pillar in the defense of the homeland”. On several occasions, they have been on the frontline against anti-Maduro protests. In the 2014 anti-government protests, the Colectivos were a big part in violently subverting the uprising, completely without impunity. Their role was repeated in the 2017 demonstrations, where they were, according to the New York Times, “key enforcers” for Maduro. They did, in one instance, storm the opposition-controlled National Assembly and assaulted lawmakers.
Following Guaido’s presidential challenge at the beginning of this year, the Colectivos have had several roles to play. In February, there were several reports of Colectivos reinforcing the border between Venezuela and Colombia amid the attempts to deliver humanitarian aid. They allegedly attacked people on both sides of the border and fired weapons at crowds. On 1 April, as he announced the electricity rationing following the devastating blackouts in the country, President Maduro called on the Colectivos to “defend the peace of every barrio, of every block”.
The fact that Colectivos are not official security forces has both positive and negative consequences for the government. By instilling fear in the opposition, the Colectivos can quite effectively thwart protests and demonstrations in a way the regular armed forces cannot. Because they are a paramilitary group, not officially controlled by the government, they can, with a little encouragement, do things that a government cannot officially endorse. A Venezuela expert said that “They fulfill the classic work of paramilitaries, doing violent security tasks that security agents in uniform would be held accountable for”. But the government ties are, nevertheless, obvious, and if Maduro encourages and deploy the groups to overtly, he risks further damaging his already tainted reputation.
The relationship between the Colectivos and the government seem to be on the decline, both due to the economic crisis making funding difficult and reported discontent with the Maduro leadership, but the loyalty of the Colectivos does seem somewhat intact. The survival of the Colectivos largely depends on keeping the socialist regime in power. If Maduro falls, and Guaido comes to power, the groups will likely face massive pressure to disarm and disband. Thus, for the Colectivos, fighting to keep the regime in place might be purely out of self-preservation and an ideological belief in the Bolivarian revolution rather than loyalty to Maduro himself.
No matter why they fight, the Colectivos are a valuable, if risky, asset of the Bolivarian revolution and Maduro’s government. As they can do things that regular armed forces cannot, with impunity, the Colectivos can be used as a tool to instill fear within the opposition. Indeed, they are almost certainly an asset, however not a decisive one, in Maduro’s ongoing subversion of the new uprising starting on 30 April. But their reputation of brutality makes them a risky asset to employ for Maduro. With the international community scrutinizing the Venezuela situation, the more directly Maduro encourage the Colectivos, the more hits his reputation takes.
On 8 April, US President Donald Trump designated Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organisation. The unprecedented move against Iran’s armed forces has expectedly elicited a strong reaction, including deep apprehension and reproach from nations, organisations and analysts. It will undoubtedly rack up pre-existing tensions between the US and the Islamic Republic, sharpening the sting of Trump’s recent proclamation which recognises Golan Heights as Israeli territory.
In a statement on Monday, Donald Trump said: “This unprecedented step, led by the Department of State, recognises the reality that Iran is not only a state sponsor of terrorism, but that the IRGC actively participates in, finances and promotes terrorism as a tool of statecraft.” He added that the decision is expected to significantly increase pressure on Iran, stating: “If you are doing business with the IRGC, you will be bankrolling terrorism.” Reuters have reported that previous administrations considered designating the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organisation but decided the risk to US forces overseas outweighed the benefit of doing so.
According to the BBC, the IRGC is Iran’s most elite military unit and was established soon after the 1979 Iranian revolution to defend the country’s Islamic system and to provide a counterweight to the country’s regular armed forces. Since then, it has evolved into a major military, political and economic force in the country, with close ties to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and other senior figures in the government. The IRGC is thought to consist of more than 150,000 active personnel and has its own ground forces, navy and air force. It also oversees Iran’s strategic weapons, including its ballistic missiles. It exerts influence elsewhere in the Middle East; it provides weapons, technology, training, money and advice to Iranian-aligned governments and armed groups.
The Counter Extremism Project states that the IRGC has links with Iran’s terrorist proxies. According to the non-profit NGO, within the IRGC exists the Basij militia and the Quds Force. The Basij are a paramilitary organisation which is in charge of channelling popular support for the Iranian regime; it is famous for its recruitment of volunteers. The Basij has two missions; providing defensive military training to protect the regime against foreign invasion and to suppress domestic anti-regime activity through street violence and intimidation. The Quds force on the other hand, specialise in foreign missions, providing training, funding and weapons to extremist groups, including Hezbollah and Hamas. They also play a key role in support of Syrian regime forces in the country’s civil war.
Since Trump’s arrival into office, he has taken a hard stance with Iran. The implementation of US sanctions, with the toughest ones targeting Iran’s financial and oil sectors in November last year, have resulted in the Islamic Republic facing economic difficulties, compounding the abysmal relationship between the two countries.
Over the past few months, tensions have been steadily building, particularly in light of Trump’s recent proclamation in March which recognised Golan Heights as Israeli territory. Towards the end of March, the US imposed new sanctions on a network of companies and individuals in Iran, Turkey and the UAE it said was transferring billions of dollars to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, further angering Iran. The targeted institutions include banks and other financial companies, including Ansar Bank, Atlas Exchange and Iranian Atlas Company.
Preluding this, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani threatened that Iran would file a legal case against the US for the sanctions, stating that Iran will pursue the case in international courts of justice. Iran have also said that they are determined to boost their defence capabilities despite pressure from the US to curb its ballistic missile programme. Earlier last month, the US accused Iran of rejecting a UN Security Council resolution in regard to their recent ballistic missile test and satellite launches, urging the Council to bring back tougher international restrictions on Tehran. The sanctions and threats have only further deepened the pre-existing rift between the countries and boosted current hatred.
Iran has unsurprisingly condemned the US move. In a direct response to the proclamation, the Iranian Supreme National Security Council have designated US military forces as a terrorist organisation, according to Iranian state-run TV. President Rouhani has criticised the US decision in a speech broadcast live on state television, accusing the US as being the “leader of world terrorism” in response. Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi has named the US decision a “major strategic mistake” and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has described it as a “gift” to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Other leaders and organisations have additionally expressed their disapproval; Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi has stated that the designation could result in detrimental consequences for Iraq and the Middle East. Lebanon’s Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has also condemned the US decision, stating that the move “humiliates” an entire nation and reflects Trump’s “disappointment” over the strength and influence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The move has garnered some concern, particularly pertaining to potential retaliatory attacks on US forces. BBC Defence Correspondent Jonathan Marcus argues that the measure is likely to be ineffective as it is unlikely to have a significant impact upon the IRGC’s activities. Furthermore, it could even backfire, with the decision encouraging the organisation or its proxies to target US personnel in Iraq, spilling into open military conflict. This is a view which has been endorsed by many, including some officials in the State Department and the Pentagon. The CIA is also reported to have opposed Trump’s move.
According to reporting by Reuters, Jason Blazakis, a former State Department official who oversaw the process for labelling foreign terrorist organisations, argues that the designation was done for purely symbolic reasons. It could have however, deadly consequences for US troops. He argues that it could trigger Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, to allow IRGC-controlled Shi’ite Muslim militias to retaliate against US forces in Iraq.
The State Department have said the measure will take effect on 15 April.
Peru’s government launched operation Mercurio 2019 in February to once and for all curb the illegal mining in Madre de Dios. The illegal mining in Madre de Dios is centered around the ad-hoc gold rush town La Pampa near the Tambopata National Reserve. The main goal is to rid the area of the more than 5,000 illegal miners and several thousands of merchants and other people working in the area in supporting roles. It is likely that the operation will have some success in ridding the area of the illegal miners. Positive results from the initial phase foster some optimism, however, it is unclear if the operation will yield any major long-term success. If the government manages to sustain the military operation and follow up with good policy initiatives, the intervention does have a chance of success where previous similar operations have failed. However, there are a series of pitfalls and risks facing the operation.
Illegal gold mining badly hurt the environment, and the fragile ecosystem in the Tambopata National Reserve is at great risk. The reserve is one of the most biodiverse areas in the world, spanning around 1,000 square miles, and it is estimated that more than 5,000 illegal miners are active within the buffer zone around the reserve. The environmental hazards are several. Besides the deforestation of the mining area, miners use toxic mercury in the separation process, leading to an intoxication of the soil. According to a report in 2016, 41 % of the population in Madre De Dios was affected by this, mostly in terms of contaminated water and fish. As illegal mining is inevitably unregulated, the 2015 ban on mercury had no effect on the illegal miners, who are reportedly importing black-market mercury from Bolivia.
Operation Mercurio 2019 consists of several phases; an initial intervention phase, followed by a consolidation phase before moving on to sustained work planned until 2021. The initial phase pertained a raid against the town and illegal mining hub La Pampa on 19 February, resulting in some 40 women rescued from sex trafficking and 30 illegal mining camps dismantled. Some 1,500 security personnel, both military and police, was dispatched to the region to take part in the raid. The second phase is due to last for six months, and is aimed to relocate residents, rid La Pampa from crime and establish a security presence through four military bases. The first of the bases was inaugurated on 5 March near the Tambopata National Reserve. The last phase, set to last for two years, is designed to reintroduce some of the miners but legalize and regulate the mining. Through these efforts, the government wishes to assure that the mining is done in an environmentally responsible manner. Further efforts to diversify the economic activities are also planned.
The policy initiatives set to follow on the military operation aims to replace the illicit mining activity with legal commerce such as tourism, forestry and agriculture. The goal is also not trying to eradicate gold mining, but to steer it away from the national reserves and register and regulate it. On paper, these initiatives seem like good solutions to reinvent the area, however, these policies are facing a host of problems. The long-standing issues in Madre De Dios, such as its reputation as a crime-ridden and mercury polluted area, will likely weaken the attraction of these alternative industries. Further, as gold prices globally keep soaring, the appetite for gold mining is unlikely to diminish. Trying to replace this highly lucrative source of income with legal activities will be very difficult. The announced policy efforts might also not provide sufficient options for the thousands of people who are losing their livelihood and need to relocate. Thus, the operation risks driving the miners further into the rainforest, where they are likely able to continue the illegal mining.
The style of the operation is by no means a novel measure taken against the illegal miners, as previous operations, reaping little success, have shared many characteristics. However, this operation appears to be bigger and more resolute. Defence Minister Jose Huerta said, in a statement, that the troops will not leave the area until it is as green as it always was. But troops are not enough, and the potential success of the operation will highly likely lie in the implementation of long-term replacement policy.
Despite all pitfalls and risks, Mercurio 2019 appears to be a decent attempt to rescue Madre De Dios from the immense environmental hazard illicit gold mining causes, and the other illegal activities following it. There will be many bumps ahead, but if the operation does reap long-term success, and manages to turn the Madre de Dios region around, it can provide useful lessons to subsequent operations, both in Peru and internationally.
On 27 March 2019, migrants hijacked a merchant vessel which had rescued them off the coast of Libya. In what appears to be the first such incident, officials have reported that 108 migrants were picked up by the cargo vessel El Hiblu 1, a Palau-flagged tanker that had diverted from its course from Turkey to Libya after being asked to rescue the migrants. The migrants however later hijacked the vessel when it became clear that it was planning to take them back to Libya, managing to force the vessel’s captain to steer the ship towards Europe. On Wednesday, a spokesman for Malta’s armed forces confirmed that the vessel had been hijacked and that Maltese authorities were monitoring its progress and that officials would not allow the vessel to dock in Malta. On Thursday 28 March, a Maltese special operations team boarded the tanker and returned control to the captain, before escorting the vessel to a Maltese port. The vessel eventually docked at Boiler Wharf in the city of Senglea. A number of migrants were taken for investigation and five suspected ringleaders were led off in handcuffs. In all, the Turkish tanker rescued 77 men, 19 women and 12 minors, including toddlers. The vessel had been heading towards Italy’s southernmost island of Lampedusa and the island of Malta when Maltese forces intercepted it. On 30 March, three teenage migrants from Guinea and Ivory Coast, aged 15, 16 and 19, were charged in a court in Malta with hijacking a small commercial oil tanker that had rescued them and others off the coast of Libya. The act is considered a terrorist crime under Maltese law, carrying a punishment of between seven years and life in prison. The suspects have pleaded not guilty and they have been denied a bail request.
While Italy’s hard-line interior minister has indicated that the migrants in this incident are pirates, aid groups have rejected the label, stating that the European Union’s policy of sending migrants back to Libya was the reason for the migrants taking control of the vessel. Humanitarian organizations maintain that migrants are being mistreated and even tortured in Libya and have protested protocols to return migrants rescued offshore to the lawless country. Both Italy and Malta continue to refuse to open their ports to humanitarian vessels that rescue migrants at sea, which has resulted in a number of standoffs as European governments try to agree on who will take them in.
This incident highlights migrant’s desperation to avoid being returned to Libya, and may have further consequences that are likely to spread across the wider shipping community, as vessels transiting the Mediterranean Sea may now be reluctant to aid stranded migrants. Initial reports indicated that the rescued migrants aboard the vessel had threatened crewmembers and had stated that they would jump off the ship unless it changed course. The Times of Maltahowever reported on Saturday that police had expressed doubts about the hijacking incident, reporting that authorities believe the captain may have said he was not in control of his ship in a bid to gain permission to dock in Malta, which has in the past refused ships carrying rescued migrants. What is certain is the difficulties that merchant vessels are now faced with: the need to fulfil the legal requirement to rescue anyone in distress at sea coupled with an increasing threat of hijacking by migrants desperate to reach Europe. The incident also comes just hours after the EU announced that it will suspend vessel patrols that have rescued tens of thousands of migrants in the Mediterranean and brought them to Italy. The rescues were part of the EU’s Operation Sophia, which diplomats have decided to extend by six months beyond the 31 March 2019 expiry date, but without new ship deployments. Instead, the operation will now rely on air missions and close coordination with Libya. This inevitably will place increased pressure on merchant vessels transiting the Mediterranean Sea and may result in further similar attempts and successful hijackings by migrants attempting to reach Europe.