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Islamic State on its West Africa Province

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Videos featuring the Islamic State’s ‘West Africa Province’ (ISWAP) are released infrequently making each one a notable occurrence. What was particularly noteworthy about the video released on 11 July 2018, titled “Tribulations and Blessings”, was the fact it represented the first official confirmation by the group of armed conflict with the break-away faction Jamaa’at Ahl as-Sunnah lid-Da’wah wa’l-Jihad (JASDJ) led by former leader Abubakar Shekau. Of additional interest was the fact that the video also featured the first evidence of the group using an up-armoured suicide car bomb (SVBIED). Nevertheless, despite being interesting revelations the release of this video was quickly overshadowed by news of a series of deadly attacks by jihadist insurgents targeting military convoys and bases in Nigeria’s Borno and Yobe states.

Perhaps the video was overlooked because neither revelation adds materially to what is known about the group. The rivalry between ISWAP and JASDJ has been well documented since their split in August 2016 after the Islamic State moved to remove Abubakar Shekau as leader for his use of violence, including suicide-bombings and kidnapping, against Muslim civilians. After Shekau refused to accept this decision reports soon began to emerge of clashes between the factions. While hundreds of fighters are believed to have been killed during this in-fighting the situation did not erupt into open warfare as both forces concentrated on consolidating their forces in differgent regions of Nigeria. For ISWAP this was around Lake Chad and the region along the Nigeria-Niger border while for JASDJ this was the centred on the Sambisa forest from which then extended its influence across the central and southern regions of Borno State as well as across the border into Cameroon. Likewise, the up-armoured SVBIED demonstrates either the transfer of technical expertise from Syria and Iraq – which would not be a surprise – or else it indicates an ability to adopt and adapt tactics that are well documented in Islamic State propaganda.

But to allow this video to be shelved alongside all the other propaganda churned out by the Islamic State’s media department is to miss its actual message and purpose. That is, to lay out a justification for the beginning of open warfare, a type of jus ad bellum, against Abubakar Shekau and his faction should there be no reconciliation between them. This is evident in the general order and content of each major ‘theme’ addressed in the video namely: governance, military operations, remaining and expanding; and martyrdom.

The first major theme of the video is governance. This is depicted through scenes of crops, market activity, the catching and smoking of fish as well as the testimonies of a farmer and herdsman regarding life under the rule of ISWAP . Each of these represent the primary economic activities engaged in by communities in areas under the influence or control of the group. This demonstrates ISWAP efforts to develop an effective system of administration in areas under its influence and control. It also underscores the ongoing attempts to differentiate itself from its JASDJ rival, which maintains a reputation for extreme violence in its search for food and other supplies.

The second major theme concerns military operations and can be seen in footage of attacks targeting forces belonging to the Nigerian military and the Multinational Joint Task Force (MNJTF). The use of an up-armoured jeep as an SVBIED is indicative of the group learning from and adopting tactics employed in Syria and Iraq. However, it is the use of suicide-bombers against military targets that serves as a contrast to JASDJ, which uses them to target civilians; often Muslims themselves. This serves to emphasize the point that ISWAP is targeting the ‘correct’ enemy and in doing so has enjoyed success on the battlefield.

The third theme regards ‘remaining and expanding’ (baqiya wa-tatamaddad). This is seen in the decision to emphasize attacks on the Nigerian military encampment in Buni Yadi (Yobe State) and Faruk – located south of Goniri and east of Buni Yadi in Yobe State. This demonstrates the continued expansion by ISWAP into the region south of the cities of Damaturu and Maiduguri. As recently as April, the presence of ISWAP in this area was believed to be weak or else absent. In contrast, the strength of JASDJ in adjoining region which lies south of Maiduguri and runs eastwards from Chibok towards Buni Yadi was assessed as moderate to strong. This will lead to a further reduction in the geographical separation between the operational areas of both factions and is likely to result in an increase in violence between them.

But it is in the fourth and final theme, martyrdom, that the Islamic State offers the clearest indication that it has run out of patience with Abubakar Shekau, and may be prepared to declare open war on him and his faction. This can be found in the eulogy for the ISWAP commander Abu Fatima al-Lagosi, who was reportedly killed in a battle with JASDJ . As part of a description of the exploits of this jihadi the narrator, speaking in Hausa, states: ‘He made the khawaarij of Shekau and the apostates of Africa drink from a bitter cup’. This comparison between JASDJ and the historic Kharijite movement may have some legitimacy due to the extreme position both have adopted on the matter of ‘excommunication’ (takfir) as it applies to fellow Muslims. However, by making this association the Islamic State is not only attempting to undermine the religious legitimacy of Abubakar Shekau and his supporters, but also establish a legitimate basis for attacking them should they not ‘repent’ and seek a reconciliation (tawba).

Observers of the jihadist insurgency in Nigeria may disagree on the meaning behind this video, and it is possible some will view it as a typical example of the propaganda churned out by the Islamic State’s media team. However, this video was released only weeks after the publication online of the book “Taking Out the Tumor of Shekau’s Khawarij Through Pledging Alliance to the People of Benevolence”. This book (which has fortunately received been translated for those interested) was allegedly written by the sons of Muhammed Yusuf, the founder of the Boko Haram movement, and presents a version of the two factions shared history and seeks to undermine reputation of Shekau leader as well as the religious legitimacy of his ideology, strategy and tactics.

Taken together it would appear that the Islamic State has finally grown tired of the game Abubakar Shekau has attempted to play by not revoking his oath of allegiance but still defying the orders of its central leadership.  This raises a number of important questions: In an open conflict would ISWAP or JASDJ be more likely to prevail? What impact could an increase in inter-jihadi violence have on other conflicts eg herdsmen v farmers? Could an expanded conflict force one or both factions to try and expand into new regions? Are the Nigerian and other regional military forces capable of successfully exploiting any opportunities presented by inter-jihadi conflict?  Could an expanded conflict actually encourage or force a reconciliation between the factions?  … These are questions that will not only present a challenge for both local and foreign policy-makers as well as military planners but also intergovernmental organizations, government aid agencies, multi-national companies and non-government organizations that are active in Nigeria, neighbouring countries and the wider region. It will remain important for each of these actors to continue to monitor the state of the ‘Boko Haram’ insurgency, as the campaigns of both factions continue to be populalry refered to as, in order to ensure their activities, operations and interests are not threatened or negatively impacted.

Ability of Islamic State to Exploit Conflict in Northern Somalia – Less Certain than First Feared?

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Concern continues to be raised about the potential ability of jihadist actors to exploit the on-going stand-off between Somaliland and Puntland over the town of Tukaraq. The town which is at the centre of this crisis is located in the Sool region was (re)captured by forces belonging to the self-declared region of Somaliland in January 2018. Highlighting the importance with which regional and international actors view the situation – not only in regards to this threat but the wider impact that a worsening conflict may have on these two regions and their inhabitants – was the recent 28-30 July visit to Garowe and Hargeisa by the United Nations Special Representative for Somalia, Mr. Michael Keating, and the the Intergovernmental Authority on Development’s Special Envoy for Somalia Dr. Mohamed Ali Guyo. The town itself has has been a frequent flashpoint in a two-decades long dispute between Puntland and Somaliland over the regions of Sool, Sanaag and Cayn. Puntland has also sought to assert its own right to govern them based on the clan affiliation of local inhabitants; this being primarily Dhulbahante and Warsangali who are part of the Darod/Harti clan family to which the dominant clan in Puntland, the Majerten, also belongs This latest episode in the long-standing conflict between Puntland and Somaliland over these regions has brought them both to the brink of open war and caused thousands of civilians to be displaced.

Rise of terror groups in the region

It is in the context of this already complex and volatile environment that concerns have been raised by observers such as the International Crisis Group that the local affiliate of the Islamic State in Puntland- known variously as Abnaa al-Khalifa (sons of the caliphate), Islamic State in Somalia and Wilayat as-Somaal (meaning the Somali Province of the Islamic State) – could exploit the crisis to strengthen and expand its own presence in northern Somalia.

Such concern is not without cause

The Bari region of Puntland, which lies on the north-eastern corner of Somalia on the tip of the Horn of Africa, has remained a poorly governed space. Local authorities and their security forces have been able to maintain only a weak presence in this region allowing a mixture of jihadist insurgent groups, including both al-Shabaab and the Islamic State, along with clan militias and criminal networks with considerable freedom to operate. Puntland has had limited success in containing this threat and there are genuine reasons to be concerned that a worsening of the crisis, especially if it became open war, could lead to further strain on its already overstretched military resources. This could not only lead to a lessening of military pressure  but also result in a worsening of existing inter and intra-clan rivalries and conflicts all of which may create openings that the Islamic State could be expect to exploit. However, even in the ever of such developments the local operational context in Puntland may not on fact be as permissive as may be first feared.

Can Islamic State thrive in Northern Somalia?

This is not to say that the group is not well positioned to try and take advantage of a worsening of the current crisis. Although still relatively small the group under the leadership of its leader Abdul Qadir Mu’min has already displayed a remarkable level of resilience. It has grown in size from several dozen men when it first defected from al-Shabaab in 2015 in response to the announcement by the Islamic State that it had re-established the Caliphate and now has an estimated 200-300 fighters. Since first emerging as a separate jihadist faction the Islamic State in Puntland has also managed to successfully maintained good relations with local clans in the Bari region despite military and diplomatic pressure from both al-Shabaab and the Puntland administration. Nevertheless, there are three key factors that could limit – perhaps even threaten – the ability of the Islamic State to exploit an eroding security situation and expand beyond its existing area of operations in the Golis and Bari mountains.

Shifting clan loyalties could mitigate support for IS

The first of these factors is the continued reliance of the Islamic State group on the hospitality (perhaps better described as tolerance) given to it by the Majerteen/Ali Saleeban and other minority clans. This hospitality has been offered to the group because of kinship ties and the belief that its activities serve local interests. Other groups, such as al-Shabaab, Abdisamad Mohamed Gallan (former governor of Bari in an ongoing state of semi-rebellion), and the Qandala-Hafun network of pirates and smugglers also rely on these local clans for support. Support is given to these groups, including the Islamic State, because local clans are engaged in their own long-standing dispute with the Puntland administration over issues of political and economic marginalization. The Islamic State affiliate in Puntland is seen as one of several useful proxies and a potential future bargaining chip by local clans in their conflict with Garowe. In the context of Somali clan politics, it would not be unheard of to see the loyalty shown Puntland’s IS leader Abdul Qadir Mu’min (a member of the Ali Saleeban clan) superseded by other loyalties and interests.

For this reason any success by the Islamic State in strengthening and expanding its presence in the Bari region could be seen by local clans as upsetting the current balance of power between jihadists, clan militias, and criminal networks operating in the region. This could provoke resistance from these same clan actors if it is felt that their own interests and influence are threatened by this development. Such a desire to maintain a balance between the various forces operating in their territory may have been the reason behind the seemingly reckless and ultimately disastrous attempt by al-Shabaab in May 2016 to send hundreds of fighters from south-central Somalia by boat to the region. If local clans welcomed, or at least were willing to tolerate, the establishment of the Islamic State as another anti-government actor then the leadership of al-Shabaab may have felt that its hand was forced to act. This would explain why al-Shabaab attempted reinforce its local branch in Puntland with hundreds of fighters despite already possessing an overwhelming advantage in numbers and firepower over its jihadist rival. It may have been feared by al-Shabaab that it would not be ‘allowed’ to destroy Abdul Qadir Mu’min and his (then) small band of fighters and that it would also need to guard itself against any potential backlash from local clans; not only for being seen to act against their political interests but for killing their relatives who are members of the group.

IS could no longer be viewed as supporting local interests

A second factor that may threaten the ability of the Islamic State to exploit a worsening of the conflict between Puntland and Somaliland concerns the potential of the group to try and organize and influx of foreign fighters. This been a long-standing concern since the emergence of the Islamic State as a separate jihadist faction in Puntland and has been raised by various observers including the United Nations Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea. Such a development would further reduce the groups reliance on the Ali Saleeban and other local clans for recruits; representing an acceleration of a process already underway as it draws fighters from across a broader range of clans and sub-clans. But this would not be without its own risks.

The greater the reliance on non-local leaders and fighters, the less the Islamic State will be seen as a representing local interests. This may already be a growing problem as the group has drawn increasing numbers of fighters from other clans and sub-clans from across Somalia. There is a risk that this could place the group in a situation similar to that experienced by al-Qaeda when it first attempted to establish and embed itself in Somalia during the early 1990’s. Even if Islamic State were to be successful in adding dozens if not hundreds of new fighters to its ranks such an influx of foreign fighters could actually undermine its position as it faces an increasingly lukewarm or even hostile reaction from local clans because of being seen as ‘foreign’. Not only would this present al-Shabaab with an opportunity that present itself as a defender of local interests but also undermine what protection (or tolerance) the Islamic State has enjoyed because of the ties of kinship enjoyed by Abdul Qadir Mu’min and other members of the group.

Other groups seeking growth amid the security vacuum

A third factor that needs to be considered is that the Islamic State is not the only group that would be well positioned to take advantage of a worsening of the security situation in the Bari region. Any vacuum emerging in the wake of the redeployment, retreat or defeat of  Puntland’s military and security forces in the region would also offer similar opportunities to these other actors. This would not only include Abdisamad Gallan and his militia but also smugglers and arms dealers like the members of the Qandala-Hafun network.These other actor s, unlike al-Shabaab, may choose to ally themselves (if only temporarily) with Puntland authorities in order to protect their own interests. But perhaps of greater concern would be the problem of al-Shabaab almost certainly devoting significant political and military efforts to contain (and if possible, destroy) its Islamic State rival while taking advantage of its own opportunities to expand its presence across the region.

It is also important to note that even in an environment in which Puntland’s military and security forces have been significantly weakened, this would not necessarily present equal opportunities to each group. Some (including the Islamic State) may face advantages or indeed disadvantages due to the current location of their forces, relations with local clans, financial resources and access to arms. These would also be important factors that may limit the ability of the Islamic State to exploit any worsening of the current crisis.

As such, although there is no question that a conflict between Puntland and Somaliland ‘could’ be exploited by the Islamic State, the actual ability of the group to do so may in fact be more limited than observers and analysts have feared. The local factors that may advantage or disadvantage a group such as the Islamic State in the Somali context are highly complex, and may shift quickly in response to local, regional and sometimes even external developments. This may present challenges to external observers but it is important that they are understood and included in any assessment of the Islamic State and current efforts to establish a sustained presence not only in Puntland but across other regions of Somalia as well.

Major outbreaks of African swine fever detected in Latvia and Lithuania

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African swine fever (ASF) is highly contagious and deadly disease that affects both domestic pigs and wild boars and is arguably the most dangerous and emerging swine disease worldwide. It is transferred via direct contact or with excretions from infected animals, or through ticks. The ASF virus is endemic to infected wild animals in Africa, mainly in many countries located south of the Sahara, but there have also repeatedly been outbreaks in southern Europe. The pathogen has been spreading north-westwards since 2007 from Georgia through Armenia.

On 2 August 2018 ASF was detected  on a farm in the western Latvian district of Saldus. The company which owns the farm reported that there was  15,570 pigs on the farm, all of which will be culled.  A quarantine zone has been designated 10 km around the affected farm and biosafety requirements and inspections have been implemented on surrounding farms within zone.  This is the eighth outbreak of African swine fever in domestic pigs in Latvia this year. In all the previous cases the disease had affected small farmsteads. However, it  has been reported in the media that the 2 August outbreak of the disease is the biggest Latvia has seen since 2014, when it for the first time hit Latvia. A pan European ASF outbreak could have severe socio-economic impact: both, in areas where it is newly introduced and where it is already endemic.  ASF also threatens food security and limits pig production in affected countries

On 13 July 2018 the Lithuanian State Food and Veterinary Service (VMVT) confirmed that an ASF outbreak had been detected at a pig farm in central Lithuania containing 23,464 pigs. All the animals were culled and a quarantine zone was established. Vidmantas Paulauskas, the deputy head of VMVT, told Lithuanian national radio LRT that he suspected had a “human error” was behind the ASF case at the farm. The financial damage to the farm is estimated to be around four to five million euros (4.55 to 5.69 million U.S. dollars). Seven out of 60 Lithuanian municipalities have been in a state of emergency over the disease for more than two years. At the end of last year, the Lithuanian government revoked the state of emergency, claiming the virus has been tackled.

On 6 May 2018 Belarus has been accused of hiding cases of African swine fever (ASF) after products containing the virus genome were discovered in Russia. Strict sanctions were immediately imposed on Belarus pig farmers; as Russian veterinary watchdog Rosselhoznadzor banned the import of pork and live pigs, by-products, sausages, semi-finished products and even cans with the content of pig-derived products. Rosselhoznadzor blamed Belarus for hiding ASF outbreaks, although the Belarus Government denied the claims, issuing a statement saying: “The situation in regard to the animal diseases, including ASF, is sustainable with no registered outbreaks”. However, there have been a number of reports of pig mortality and subsequent culls on farms in Belarus, with no official explanation.

Denmark has decided to build barriers along the border of the country in order to prevent the spread of ASF into Denmark. On 5 June 2018 the Danish Parliament approved a 70 kilometre long and 1.5-metre high fence across to be built on the Danish-German border.

An ASF outbreak can kill a high number of animals in a matter of days.  Currently the infection does not affect humans. Although a person can become a mechanical vector of the virus. Also domestic and wild animals, skin parasites, rodents can become carriers. Latvian virologist Vaira Irisa Kalnina, has warned that ASF could mutate and become dangerous to humans if the spread of the virus is not controlled. Kalnina explained that the wider the spread and the longer it remains among animals, the bigger the possibility that the virus could mutate and become dangerous to other animals. Climatic changes, including the recent anomalous summer heat experienced throughout Europe, and the growing inflow of tourists are some of the main factors why Europe is experiencing sudden outbreaks of exotic viruses not typically seen in the region. The pathogen is very stable and can remain infectious in food over several months. If unheated food or food scraps from infected animals are fed to non-infected animals, the virus can therefore spread to previously ASF-free regions, thus infecting domestic pig herds too. Presently, there is no vaccine, or cure, for ASF virus.

Haitian Prime Minister Jack Lafontant Resigns Following Violent Protests

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Haiti’s Prime Minister, Jack Lafontant, has resigned from his post following widespread protests against proposed fuel price rises. The Prime Minister is the second highest official in Haiti, only falling under current President Moïse who took office in March 2017.  Haiti has had a significant number of changes to its Prime Minister, having had 21 since 1988. The unrest broke out after Lafontant announced there would be significant price hikes on fuel, proposing to raise them by 38% for gasoline and 47% for diesel respectively. The fuel hikes were recommended by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and were said to be needed for Haiti to be able to balance its budget. The proposed plan was for fuel subsidies to be scrapped in return for more assistance for Haiti by the IMF. When the price hikes were announced, plans for how the money would be spent on social services and compensating the poor and working classes were bizarrely not mentioned, further exacerbating the anger from the public.  The IMF says it is still expecting Haiti to lower fuel subsidies, but instead in a gradual manner and plans to create a revised reform plan in order to do so.

In response to the price hikes, protests began on July 6thand continued over the course of four days, with protestors burning cars, looting shops and lead to the closing off much of the country due to road blocks. Despite Lafontant cancelling the proposed price hikes, protests continues demanding his resignation and for President Moïse to cancel the price hikes permanently. A general strike then begun across the nation which ultimately shut down most of the country, with many Haitians refusing to go to work due to the dangers of being outside during the violent unrest. There have reportedly been seven deaths due to the violence. Journalists report seeing two people having been shot, however it is unclear who fired the shots. A former political candidate’s security guard also died in the violence, having been beaten to death after firing shots into the air at a roadblock in order to disperse protestors in attempts to pass through. The unrest caused a number of embassies to close, with the US embassy in Haiti having requested additional US Marines and State Department security personnel for protection. Airlines were also forced to suspended flights to Haiti amid the chaos, but were eventually restarted on July 10th.

Lafontant was summoned on July 14thto appear inform of the Chamber of Deputies for a vote of confidence, but instead used the opportunity to deliver his resignation speech. In the speech, Lafontant attacked the National Police of Haiti (PNH), and placed the blame on them for the events during riots. With Haiti’s army having been abolished in the 1990’s, the underpaid police were the only ones available to attempt to enforce order and were, unsurprisingly, unable to do so. The matter was made worse by the fact the police were given no prior warning of the announcement to increase fuel prices and were therefore utterly unprepared to deal with the unrest the announcement caused. There are conflicting reports as to when exactly Lafontant tendered his resignation. Whilst he himself claimed to have given his resignation to President Moïse prior to the parliamentary meeting. Other’s however speculate that he was forced to resign during the break in the meeting due to his abrupt change in demeanour upon his return. The unrest is estimated to have caused damages of 2% to Haiti’s GPD.

The unrest has been about much more than increasing fuel prices, but instead about issues of government corruption and anger towards foreign involvement in the Caribbean nation in general. For example, President Moïse was previously under investigation for money laundering prior to his inauguration in February 2017. The investigation was terminated after Moïse fired the head of the anti-corruption agency leading the inquiry. President Moïse is yet to announce who will be replacing Lafontant as the country’s Prime Minister almost two weeks after his resignation, with the country still waiting for a replacement.

Maritime Border Issues in the East and South China Seas

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There is a saying, good fences make good neighbours. Unfortunately, it seems impossible to build fences on water and the neighbours of the littoral states of the East and South China Seas are definitely not the best neighbours. There are at least eight countries in the region stretching from Japan and the Korean Peninsula to the North to Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia to the South, with countries in between like China, the Philippines, Vietnam and Brunei. These countries have several economic and other interests which are overlapping each other, which indicates they hopefully have the intention to settle their disputes through negotiations. The Seas are rich in hydrocarbons and natural gas and have also become the busiest maritime routes in the last fifty years, supplying the raw material demand of China, Singapore and Japan and transporting the manufactured goods of factories of China, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam.

The growing economic power of China and its maritime presence is met with growing assertiveness from neighbours like Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines. The three main disputed regions are the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, the Paracel Islands and the Spratley Islands.

The Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands are causing tension between Japan and China. They are located north of the island of Taiwan, between China and Japan. They are composed of five uninhabited islets, three of them purchased by Japan from a private owner in 2012. The surrounding waters are rich in fish and almost certainly have huge deposits of oil and gas deep down.

The Paracels are off the coast of Vietnam and to the south of the island Hainan, belonging to China. The islands have been occupied by French Indochina in 1932 and 1974 and recently China have built an airfield and a harbour on the islands. The area is estimated to be a great fishing area and the sea ground is full of natural resources.

The Spratley Islands consist of more than a hundred reefs and islets on a 3.1 square miles territory, east from the Philippine island of Palawan. The territory is rich in fishing grounds and oil and gas deposits. The islands are claimed by China, Malaysia, Vietnam and the Philippines. Several of the islands are occupied by the claimants.

The resources and the fishing grounds are not the only reason these islets, rocks and reefs are disputed. Having sovereignty over these grounds would mean that the maritime traffic of the area can be controlled and monitored by the owner of the islands. According to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) littoral states can consider a 12 nautical mile (little more than 22kms) zone from their shores their territorial waters, but regarding the resource rich area, the 200 nautical miles (more than 370kms) Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) makes these waters even more enticing. The EEZ gives rights to the littoral state to explore and use resources below the surface.

Due to the fact that there are thousands of ships crossing the contested waters, a multilateral framework is more than necessary. Although all of the littoral states have agreed upon multilateral risk reduction and confidence-building measures in the 2002 Declaration on the Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea, none have implemented its trust-building proposals or adhered to its provisions. Sadly, China prefers to settle its border issues bilaterally, yet it does not mean it will keep itself to the stand of a court. In July 2016 a tribunal ruled in favour of the Philippines in a dispute which was dismissed by China saying it had no binding force.

The constantly increasing military spending of the littoral states is not a sign of the parties planning to settle their disputes around the negotiating table, yet their long-term interests would dictate the countries to find a peaceful solution for their conflicts.