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UK Votes No; US and France Still Pushing For Military Campaign Against Assad’s Regime

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In a stunning defeat for British Prime Minister David Cameron, British lawmakers voted late on Thursday against military action in Syria.  Despite the surprise vote outcome, US President Barack Obama and French President Francois Holland announced that the UK vote did not change their resolve for firm action against the Syrian Government, which has been accused of using chemical weapons on its own people.  Despite reports earlier in the week suggesting that a Western strike on Syria was imminent, questions have been raised about the quality of the intelligence linking Assad to the attack.

Despite Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) releasing evidence on Thursday stating that chemical weapons had undoubtedly been used on August 21, adding that it was “highly likely” that the Syrian government was responsible for the attack, late Thursday night the UK government was defeated in its bid for a “strong humanitarian response” to the alleged use of chemical weapons by the Syrian regime.  The UK government was defeated by just thirteen votes in a 285-272 result in the House of Commons.  Minutes laters, Prime Minister Cameron told lawmakers that “it is clear to me that the British parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action…I get that, and the government will act accordingly.”  Shortly after the surprise result, British Defence Secretary Phillip Hammond confirmed that Britain would not be involved in any military action, further noting that he expected “that the US and other countries will continue to look at responses to the chemical attack.”

According to reports, seven hours of debates in the House of Commons had revealed deep divisions on whether military strikes against Assad’s regime would deter the further use of chemical weapons or simply worsen the conflict.  Sources also indicate that the specter of the Iraq war also came up a number of times during the debate.  Although the Prime Minister had made the case for targeted strikes, insisting that Britain could not stand idle in the face of “one of the most abhorrent uses of chemical weapons in a century,” he was faced with strong resistance from the opposition Labour party and by many within his own Conservative party, who expressed fear that Britain was rushing to war without conclusive evidence that Assad had gassed his own people.  Russia, which has close ties with the Assad government, has welcomed the UK’s decision to reject a military strike.

US and France May Act Together

Cameron’s defeat significantly raises the possibility that the United States may act alone against the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which it states is responsible for horrific gas attacks that are believed to have killed at least 355 people in the Ghoua area, which is located on the outskirts of the capital of Damascus.  However even before the surprise British vote, the White House had already signaled that it was ready to act regardless of UN or allied support.

In response to yesterday’s UK vote, US National Security Council spokeswoman, Caitlin Hayden stated that “we have seen the result of the Parliament vote in the UK tonight,” adding that “as we’ve said, President Obama’s decision-making will be guided by what is in the best interests of the United States…he believes that there are core interests at stake for the United States and that countries who violate international norms regarding chemical weapons need to be held accountable.”  The White House did indicate however that despite the UK vote, officials in the US would “continue to consult” with the UK over Syria, describing London as “one of our closest allies and friends.”

While no further comments in regards to a decision on military action against Syria were made by the Obama administration, a defense official confirmed on Thursday that the United States Navy had deployed a fifth destroyer to the eastern Mediterranean.  According to the official, the USS Stout, a guided missile destroyer, is “in the Mediterranean, heading and moving east” to relieve the Mahan.  Although he did specify that both ships may remain in the region for the time being, he did not indicate how long the Mahan would stay in the area before returning to its home port of Norfolk, Virginia, which it left in December 2012.   The other destroyers in the region, which include the Ramage, the Barry and the Gravely, are currently criss-crossing the region and may launch their Tomahawk missiles towards Syria if directed so by the US President.  Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who is currently on a week-long trip to Southeast Asia, has stated that US forces are in place and “ready to go” if Obama hives the order, however he stipulated that no such decision has yet been made.

Meanwhile on Friday, French President Francois Hollande announced that a military strike on Syria could come by Wednesday, and that Britain’s surprise rejection of armed intervention would not affect his government’s stand on the issue.  In an interview to Le Monde daily on Friday, Hollalde stated that “France wants firm and proportionate action against the Damascus regime.”  The French Parliament is due to meet on Wednesday for an emergency Syria session.  The President’s remarks signal that his government may seek military action alongside the US.

Bashar al-Assad Responds

With Western states and the United Nations debating possible military action against Syria, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad announced on Thursday that his country will defend itself against what he called Western “aggression.”  According to Syria’s Sana news agency, Assad told a group of Yemeni MP’s that his country would defend itself against any aggression, noting that “Syria, with its steadfast people and brave army, will continue eliminating terrorists, which are utilized by Israel and Western countries to serve their interests in fragmenting the region.”

Meanwhile the situation in Damascus remains tense.  Reports have indicated that senior military commanders are reportedly staying away from buildings thought likely to be targeted if a Western intervention is launched.  Furthermore, many of Damascus’ residents have begun to flee the city in fear of an impending attack.  Although witnesses have reported long lines of cars loaded with suitcases that have been waiting at the main Masnaa border that crosses into Lebanon, Syria’s state television is portraying citizens as going about their normal lives, seemingly unperturbed by the prospect of military strikes.  More than 100,000 people are estimated to have died since the conflict erupted in March 2011, which has also produced at least 1.7 million refugees.

UN at a Deadlock

The United Nations continued to be deadlocked in regards to the case in Syria, with diplomats indicating that the views of the five permanent members remain “far apart.”  On Thursday, the five permanent members of the UN Security Council held new talks on the Syria chemical weapons crisis, however no apparent progress on UN action was achieved.  According to officials, the 45-minute meeting is the second to occur since Britain proposed a draft Security Council Resolution that would allow “all necessary measures” to protect Syrian civilians.  After concluding the meeting, none of the envoys from Britain, China, France, Russia or the US made any comments as they left.  However diplomats have noted that there had been “no meeting of minds,” during the session as Russia and China are on one side while the US, UK and France remain on the other.

Meanwhile UN Inspectors headed out on Friday for their last day of investigations.  Security officials have indicated that they were going to a military hospital in an eastern district of the Syrian capital.  Samples taken during their site visits will be tested in various European laboratories in order to examine whether an attack took place and what form it took, however the inspectors‘ mandate does not involve apportioning blame for the attacks.  Preliminary findings are expected to be delivered to UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon over the weekend.

Shadow of Iraq

With the US mounting its power in the region, a number of critics have sparked a debate about whether or not the conflict in Syria could turn into another Iraq if a decision to launch military action is agreed upon.

As the US and France now look to find a diplomatic consensus on the issue without the UK, a number of critics have identified elements that echo those that occurred in the run-up to the 2003 war in Iraq.  With a number of components being present in both cases, specifically the work of weapons inspectors; the intelligence gathered to make the case; and denials from the regime at the centre of the issue; Iraq is very much on the minds of those international officials who have expressed level-headed caution over Syria.

With UN inspectors still in Syria conducting an investigation, Britain’s case for military intervention in Syria is based on a “limited but growing body of intelligence,” which suggests that it is “highly likely” that the Syrian regime was responsible for last week’s devastating chemical weapons attack.  An intelligence dossier that was released by the Prime Minister, which was used by Cameron to form the basis for the case to attack Syria, depicts the JIC indicating that the chemical attack was “probably” delegated by Assad to one of his commanders, however the JIC was unable to establish the motive behind last week’s attack.  In a letter written by JIC chairman Jon Day to the Prime Minister, the chairman concluded that there are “no plausible alternative scenarios” other than the attack being an attack of the Syrian regime.  The two-page letter was accompanied by a short summary of the intelligence case, which runs to just 313 words.  The summary is also dated as the “JIC’s assessment of August 27 on reported chemical weapons use in Damascus,” however it is not known why later intelligence, if it exists, was not included in the document.

With the JIC’s findings being debated in yesterday’s House of Commons’ session, remarks made by David Davis, a former shadow home secretary, depict that British MP’s are hesitant to base their decision for military action in Syria solely on the intelligence that is available.  During yesterday’s debates, Davis stated that “we must consider, being where we’ve been before in this House, that our intelligence as it stands might be wrong because it was before and we have got to be very, very hard in testing it.”  Echoing the weeks of debates in the lead up to the 2003 war in Iraq, it is clear the officials in the UK and elsewhere are willing to wait for more intelligence and the UN inspectors findings before making any other decisions.

Meanwhile officials in the US have also admitted that they have “no smoking gun” proving that President Assad personally ordered his forces to use chemical weapons.  While US intelligence sources indicated yesterday that its agencies had intercepted communications discussing the chemical attack between officials in Syria’s central command and in the field, it is understood that these remarks do not clearly implicate Assad or his entourage in ordering the use of chemicals.

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Cisse Admits Defeat in Mali’s Presidential Elections

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Mali’s presidential elections have been won by Ibrahim Boubacar Keita after his rival admitted defeat just one day after the second round of elections were held.

Although official results have not been announced, former Malian Finance Minister Soumaila Cisse conceded defeat against ex-Prime Minister (1994 – 2002) Keita on Monday, announcing that he had “went to see him to congratulate him and wish him good luck for Mali.”  His defeat  came hours after electoral and security sources had indicated that Mr. Keita had pulled ahead with two-thirds of the votes counted after Sunday’s second round of the election.  This was confirmed by Mr. Cisses’ spokesman, who indicated that his candidate had admitted defeat after it became clear the Mr. Keita had won the polls in Gao, which is the largest town in northern Mali.  Both Mr. Keita and Mr. Cisse had lost out in the 2002 presidential elections to Amadou Toumani Toure, who was overthrown by a military junta in March of last year, just weeks before the end of his final term in office.  Mr. Keita will now face the daunting task of rebuilding a country that is still reeling from more than a year of turmoil.

During weeks of campaigning, Mr. Keita became known for his blunt speech, his refusal to compromise and his reputation for toughness.  Throughout his campaign, he vowed to unify Mali if elected, stating that “for Mali’s honor, I will bring peace and security.  I will revive dialogue between all the sons of our nation and I will gather our people around the values that have built our history:  dignity, integrity, courage and hard work.”  His top priority will be to secure lasting peace for northern Mali, which has seen five violent rebellions since the country gained its independence from France in 1960.  The 68-year-old will now oversee more than US $4 billion (£2.6 billion) in foreign aid promised to rebuild the country after a turbulent eighteen months.  The new government which he will lead will also be obliged to open peace talks with the separatist Tuareg rebels within two months following a ceasefire that enabled voting to take place in the northern regions of the country.  Cementing national reconciliation will likely be a challenge for the newly formed government as many in the southern regions of the country continue to be hostile towards funneling more of Mali’s already scarce resources to a region they see as being responsible for the country’s plight.  In turn, there is a continued unease between a number of ethnic groups, not only between the north and south, but also within the north itself.

The European Union’s election observation mission has given the elections a positive assessments, stating that it complied with international standards in “99 percent” of Mali’s polling stations.  European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton has welcomed what she calls “a credible and transparent” election.  A statement released by her office also noted that the EU pledged to support efforts to “build a durable peace and restore national unity” in the West African country.  Meanwhile the United States has signaled that it was prepared to resume aid to Mali following the election.  Marie Harf, deputy spokeswoman at the State Department, hailed Mali’s interim government for “securing a peaceful and orderly environment in which Malians were able to vote,” further adding that “we’ve made clear that following the return of a democratically elected government, we will seek to normalize our foreign assistance to Mali.”  The United States was legally forces to suspend military aid to Mali after the coup in March of last year.

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Interpol Issues Global Security Alert while the US Extends Embassy Closures

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Interpol has issued a global security alert linked to a suspected al-Qaeda involvement in a string of recent prison outbreaks that have taken place in Iraq, Libya and Pakistan.  The alert comes just days after the United States State Department issued a global travel alert and closed a number of Embassies because of fears of an unspecified al-Qaeda attack.

Citing prison breaks in three countries, Interpol has requested that its members examine whether or not al-Qaeda militants were behind the prison breaks.  The police agency is also asking that member countries “swiftly process any information linked to these events.”  In a statement that was released on Saturday, the French-based agency stated that “with suspected al-Qaeda involvement in several of the breakouts which led to the escape of hundreds of terrorists and other criminals, the Interpol alert requests the organizations 190 member countries‘ assistance in order to determine whether any of these recent events re coordinated or linked.”  It also calls for Interpol to be informed “if any escaped terrorist is located or intelligence developed which could help prevent another terrorist attack.”  The most recent escape occurred in north-west Pakistan, in which 248 prisoners escaped from a jail.  On 30 July, Taliban militants used automatic weapons and bombs in order to break down the walls of the jail in Dera Ismail Khan.  At least thirteen people, including six police officers, were killed during the attack.  Authorities have since indicated that thirty of those who fled were “hardened militants” who were jailed for their involvement in a number of suicide bombings and other serious attacks.  Meanwhile on 22 July, hundreds of inmates escaped from two jails in Iraq:  Abu Ghraib, located to the west of Baghdad; and Taji, located to the north.  Bombs and mortar fire were used to break into those two prisons in which al-Qaeda members were amongst those being housed in the facility.

US Extends Embassy Closure

Meanwhile the United States has announced that it will keep a number of embassies in northern Africa and in the Middle East closed until Saturday, due to a possible militant threat.  After an announcement on Friday pertaining to a possible threat, twenty-one US embassies were closed on Sunday.  On Monday, the State Department in Washington indicated that the extension of closures were “out of abundance of caution,” and not in reaction to a new threat.  With the State Department announcing that the potential for an al-Qaeda-inspired attack being particularly strong in the Middle East and North Africa, the global travel alert will be in force until the end of August.  Although US diplomatic missions in Algiers, Kabul and Baghdad remained open on Monday, its diplomatic posts in Abu Dhabi, Amman, Cairo, Riyadh, Dhahran, Jeddah, Doha, Dubai, Kuwait, Manama, Muscat, Sanaa and Tripoli will remain closed until Saturday.  African missions including Antananarivo, Bujumbura, Djibouti, Khartoum, Kigali, and Port Louis are also on the list of closures.  The US embassy in Tel Aviv, along with two consulates in Jerusalem and Haifa, were also closed on Sunday.

 US Embassies

It is evident that security at US diplomatic facilities remains a concern following last year’s attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, where the US ambassador, along with three other Americans, were killed.  Officials in the United Kingdom also announced over the weekend that its embassy in Yemen would remain closed until the Muslim festival of Eid which will occur on Thursday.  The UK Foreign Office is also advising against all travel to Yemen and is strongly urging British nationals in the country to leave.  Several other European countries have also temporarily closed their missions in Yemen.

The embassy closures and US global travel alert came after the US reportedly intercepted al-Qaeda messages suggesting that they were between senior figures within the militant group who were plotting an attack against an embassy.  While the details of the threat have remained unspecified, it is evident that those members of Congress who have been briefed on the intelligence, seem to agree that it amounts to one of the most serious in recent years, effectively pointing to the possibility of a major attack which may coincide with the end of the holy month of Ramadan, which ends this week.

In recent years, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Yemen, which is known as al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has attempted to carry out several high profile attacks, including one on Christmas Day in 2009 in which a man attempted to blow up a trans-Atlantic jet over Detroit, using explosives that were sewn into his underwear.  Months earlier, the militant group had also attempted to assassinate the Saudi intelligence chief by using a bomb that was attached to the attacker’s body.     

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Terrorism and Oil

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Islamic Terrorism and Oil

 

For over a decade, terrorist groups have focused particularly on the oil industry. In 2004, Osama bin Laden declared energy installations to be a legitimate target for militants, as the resultant increase in oil prices could damage Western economies. Yet the link between terrorism and oil is cyclical: in many cases, the money required to carry out these acts are derived from profits gained from oil sales to the West. In order to understand the cycle, it is necessary to understand the actors and the process.

Understanding Extreme Wahabism

 

Two centuries ago, a peaceful yet ultra-conservative reformist movement within Sunni Islam began in Saudi Arabia. Known amongst themselves ad dawa lil tawhid (Call to Unity), this faction is more commonly known by its more derogatory name “Wahabi”. The original goal of Wahabists was to abolish cultural practices that have permeated Islamic societies since the 3rd century.

Since the 1920s, Wahabists have established a new ideology, characterised by extreme views and interpretations of the Quran and Hadith. In the 1970s, the movement began to gather momentum with aid from wealthy benefactors. As the movement grew, factions mutated and splintered, some becoming radicalised in their beliefs. These factions became increasingly confrontational in attempting to impose their ideology around the world.

These extreme sub-sects of Wahabists believe that fundamental Islam can be implemented “by means of the sword”. Today, the Wahabist movement has manifested itself through armed terrorist attacks and insurrections, and has spread beyond Saudi Arabian borders through many parts of the Middle East and North Africa.

The majority of Muslims find the Wahabist use of the world “Islamic” grossly offensive, as these groups selectively misinterpret passages of the Quran and Hadith, and conveniently use the guise of Islamic faith to carry out actions such as fatwas (Islamic religious rulings), terror tactics, or legitimising the use of laundering, drug money, or ransoms to finance their activities.

Financing Wahabi Extremism

While a portion of Wahabi extremism is funded by illicit activities, Wahabi groups such as al-Qaeda have amassed millions of dollars through seemingly legitimate business ventures, including charitable organisations and non-governmental institutions. A great deal of the funding for these groups comes through profits from oil exports to the West.

A good example of this can be found in Saudi Arabia. The oil-rich nation is a rentier state, meaning a substantial portion of the governments profits are generated from the allowing international access to indigenous resources. In Saudi Arabia, 90-95% of total export earnings come from oil revenue. Oil also accounts for around 55% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). Saudi Arabian citizens do not pay taxes; rather, they pay zakat, one of the five Islamic pillars, which requires that individuals to give to charity.

Each Saudi citizen is required to give at least 2.5% of his income in zakat. In most instances, the charitable organizations are genuinely dedicated to good causes. However a small portion of these charities are fronts with dubious undertones, serving as money laundering organizations which finance terrorist operations. While many citizens contribute to these charities in good faith, they may not realize that their money is not going toward their intended cause.

In most Islamic nations, the payment of zakat is voluntary, with the exceptions of Libya, Malaysia, Pakistan, Sudan, Yemen, and Saudi Arabia. However, because it is an Islamic pillar, voluntary donations in other countries are high, which allows for similar charitable front organizations to crop up and receive funding from unwitting donors. In some instances however, individuals are fully aware of the funds ultimately land.

A 2010 WikiLeaks cable identified Qatar, Kuwait, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia as nations which are weak in preventing citizens from financing terrorist activities. Saudi Arabia received the harshest assessment, citing the Hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca that is a pillar of the Islamic faith, as a security loophole. Pilgrims travel with large amounts of cash, and cannot be refused entry for the Hajj. Following the release of the cable, a council of top Saudi clerics issued a fatwa against terrorist funding, and increased financial monitoring, however many terrorist supporters use other means to deliver funds, including Hawala transactions.

The ancient and common Arabic tradition of Hawala-transactions is a record-free system. Money is moved through an honour-system based on verbal agreements, and debts are settled on a personal level, rather than through a traditional banking system. The transactions rely on a password for funds to be delivered. Often, if a recipient has a password, no further information is necessary to receive the funds. Money has historically been distributed this way throughout the Arab world, and through these means, it becomes difficult to assess the initial sources of funding for terrorist activities.

The Cycle of Radicalism and Oil

Oil-rich regimes in the Middle East have historically been oppressive, resisting progress or power-sharing with emerging parties. As tensions increase from radicalised groups, some regimes have given a blind-eye to certain terrorist fundraising activities. In turn, radical organisations may focus on conducting activities away from domestic soil, sometimes targeting nations with weaker governments or lax security. The intention for the extremists is two-fold: to increase Wahabi influence, and disrupt profit sectors which benefit Western nations; specifically the oil and energy industries.

In war-weakened Libya, security analysts have issued elevated warnings about possible threats to oil installations, similar to those that occurred in Algeria. Libyan oil and natural gas makes up nearly all of the nation’s export revenues, and account for 80% of government revenues.

Despite Algeria’s strong government and security infrastructures, weakened security around the gas complex allowed an opportunity for the January attack at Ain Amenas gas complex. The normally secluded nation became victim to an international terrorist incident because the Algerian government granted airspace permissions to French forces as they fight separatists in Northern Mali. Algeria’s hydrocarbon sector accounts for 98% of the nation’s exports.

In rare instances, regimes may provide direct yet concealed assistance to these groups if there is an opportunity for profit. For instance, in January, French officials accused Qatar of providing material support to Islamists in northern Mali. If successful, Qatar would benefit from supporting separatist allies in Mail because the African nation has huge oil and gas potential, as well as gold and uranium deposits. A good relationship with an Islamist ruled Northern Mali would provide Qatar the opportunity to develop the infrastructure and gain profit. Analysts believe that the Qatari government is placing itself in a position to act as a mediator, and possible beneficiary, in future negotiations between the rebels and the Malian government. This positioning by Qatar is not unfamiliar to Western Intelligence; in 2012, Washington raised alarms that Qatari arms shipments were being redirected to Libyan Rebels. Should the rebels become installed in powerful political seats; Qatar would find itself in a prime position to negotiate the development of infrastructure for Libya’s newly discovered oil reserves in the Ghadames Basin, about 370 miles southwest of Tripoli.

Increasing Security

Trends from the International Energy Agency estimate that the international demand for oil will continue to grow through 2035. Although nations outside of the Middle East and North Africa have increased oil production, the world is still heavily reliant on oil from the region. Likewise, these oil-rich nations rely on this resource as a primary component of GDP.

Many oil companies are reviewing security arrangements, seeking to tighten restrictions and strengthen weak areas. Sonatrach, the Algerian national oil company has identified the lack of armed guards as a critical weakness which allowed terrorists access to the complex. In Libya, more guards and military personal had been deployed to oil sites, as security patrols intensified around the clock. Similar security estimates are being conducted in Nigeria, Egypt and other nations, however US intelligence has indicated that nations hosting Western companies with significant hydrocarbon reserves may be vulnerable to disruptions in North Africa and sub-Saharan operations. Among those listed are installations in Egypt, Libya, Angola, Nigeria, and DR Congo.