Three Tuareg and Arab rebel movements announce their merger. Meanwhile insecurity continues to destabilize the country with a new attack occurring in northern Mali.
On Monday 4 November 2013, three Tuareg and Arab rebel movements in northern Mali announced their merger to form a united front in peace talks with authorities in the Malian capital city Bamako. According to reports, after several days of talks in Burkina Faso, which is the regional mediator for the conflict, representatives of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) along with the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA) and the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA) adopted a “political platform,” a “negotiating committee,” and a joint “decision-making body.” The three rebel movements further indicated that the decision to merge was “guided by a common political will to prioritize the best interests of the people” of the vast northern desert region they call Azawad, adding that a political solution was the only option in securing peace. According to the groups, the merger will go ahead “within 45 days” after the membership of each of the groups had approved the move, adding that no name has yet been chosen for the new movement.
Meanwhile in the latest insecurity to hit the country, on Monday four people were killed in northern Mali after their truck ran over a land mine. According to a local government official in Menaka, four passengers were killed when a pick-up, which was transporting thirty-eight people between the desert towns of Ansongo and Menaka in the region of Gao, drove over the explosive device. Ibrahim Ag Moha further indicated that ‘four people died on the spot and eight others were injured, and are currently being taken to hospital in Menaka.” Two of the injured are reported to be in critical condition. The truck was a public transport vehicle. It currently remains unknown who is responsible for laying the mine however a report released by the United Nations earlier this year indicated that unexploded ordnance and land mines littering the West African nation remained a “significant threat.”
The latest unrest comes as the United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon arrived in Mali late on Monday to begin a regional tour that will highlight the battle against poverty. The Secretary General, along with World Bank President Jim Yong Kim and top officials from the African Union, African Development Bank and European Union are scheduled to meet in Mali on Tuesday before travelling to Niger later that day and Burkina Faso and Chad on Wednesday. They are scheduled to meet the presidents of each country. Ahead of his visit to Mali, Mr. Ban stated that eleven million of the 80 million people living in the Sahel countries lack sufficient food.‘ According to a statement released by World Bank chief Jim Yong Kim, “the people of the Sahel region desperately need more secure living standards, and our hope is this funding helps build a new path for economic growth in the region.” The European Union and the World Bank have pledged more than US $8 billion in fresh aid for the Sahel region countries which have been affected by conflict.
The Secretary General’s official visit to Mali comes at a time when French and Malian troops are searching for the killers of Ghislaine Dupont and Claude Verlon, who were kidnapped and shot dead by suspected terrorists on Saturday in the northeastern town of Kidal. The deaths of the two French journalists have further highlighted the ongoing security threat just three weeks ahead of parliamentary elections which are meant to mark the completion of Mali’s transition back to democracy following a military coup in March last year.
Libyan Man Accused of Links to al-Qaeda Appears in Public for First Time Since Being Captured Ten Days AgoOctober 18, 2013 in Uncategorized
Ten days after being seized during a US raid in Tripoli, Abu Anas al-Libi, the alleged architect of al-Qaeda’s bombing of two US embassies in 1998, plead not guilty in a New York courtroom. If convicted, he faces a sentence of up to life in prison.
Appearing in public for the first time since being captured by US forces in Libya earlier this month, Abu Anas al-Libi, whose real name is Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, appeared in a federal court in Manhattan on Tuesday. After spending a week aboard a US Navy ship in the Mediterranean, Mr. Al-Libi, 49, appeared exhausted and frail. Speaking Arabic through a translator, he asked to be addressed by his real name and confirmed that he understood that he had been accused of planning the August 1998 attacks. After denying a series of terrorism charges, that date back twenty years, Mr. Al-Libi entered a not guilty plea through his lawyer. Presiding Judge Lewis Kaplan has adjourned the hearing until 22 October, noting that the suspect must be kept in detention as a flight risk.
In the weeks since the 5 October mission, which simultaneously saw US Commandos attempt to track down a top al-Shabaab commander in Somalia, anger has been rising in Libya over the raid, with many viewing it as a breach of Libyan sovereignty. Although US Secretary of State John Kerry has defended the capture of Mr. Al-Libi, calling him a “legal and appropriate target,” the Libyan government has demanded a full explanation of the raid from the officials in the US. This resulted in Libya’s justice minister summoning the US ambassador to the country for questioning last week. In turn, Libya’s Prime Minister Ali Zeidan has also voiced his concerns, noting that his country was “keen on prosecuting any Libyan citizen inside Libya.” Shortly after being captured, Mr. Al-Libi was taken to a US navy vessel in the Mediterranean. According to reports, Mr. Al-Libi was interrogated by intelligence officials on board the USS San Antonio for a period of a week after his capture. Court details have also indicated that Mr. Al-Libi was not formally arrested until a week after being seized. This has prompted critics in the US to accuse President Barack Obama of continuing controversial detention policies that had been introduced by former President George W. Bush.
Mr. Al-Libi was wanted in connection to the 7 August 1998 bombing of a US embassy in Nairobi and of America’s diplomatic mission in Dar es Salaam. The attacks were carried out when trucks laden with explosives detonated almost simultaneously. More than 200 people died in the Kenyan capital, with at least 11 dead in Dar es Salaam. Thousands others were injured in the bombings. The majority of the victims were civilians.
For the past decade, Mr. al-Libi has been on the FBI’s most wanted list, with a US $5 million (£3.1 million) bounty on his head. He was formally charged with conspiracy to murder, kidnap and maim Americans, to damage and destroy US buildings and property, and to attack US national defence facilities. The charges against him also include discussing a possible al-Qaeda attack against the US embassy in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, in retaliation for the American military intervention in Somalia. In a 157-page indictment, prosecutors allege that from 1993, he carried out surveillance on the US embassy in Nairobi, Kenya, where he took photographs that were later inspected by Osama bin Laden. The former computer programmer is also alleged to have “reviewed files” concerning possible attacks on Western interests in East Africa.
The second US command raid on 5 October was carried out in southern Somalia however that mission failed to capture its target – Abdukadir Mohamed Abudkadir, a Kenyan al-Shabaab commander who is also known as Ikrima. That raid came in the wake of the attack on the Westgate shopping centre in Nairobi, which left at least 67 people dead, and which was claimed by al-Shabaab militants.
Salahuddin Quader Chowdhury, a prominent member of Bangladesh’s leading opposition party the BNP, was this morning sentenced to death for war crimes committed during the country’s 1971 war of independence from Pakistan. The on-going war crimes trials of numerous individuals who resisted separation has already caused disorder and violence across the nation, exposing deep divisions in Bangladeshi society. Following Chowdhurys sentencing, security has been increased across the country including in his home region of Chittagong, with potentially violent strikes and protests both for and against the verdict now expected.
Established in 2009 by the then recently elected Awami League (AL), the Bangladeshi International Crimes Tribunal (ICT) has been investigating and prosecuting individuals for involvement in genocide and mass killings perpetrated by those who rejected independence and collaborated with the Pakistani military during Bangladesh’s 1971 Liberation War. The 1971 war lasted 9 months, with eventual Indian intervention in favour of the separatists inflicting a humiliating defeat on the Pakistani army. The campaign was marked by brutality, mass murder and atrocities on both sides, but the Pakistani armed forces and their supporters are widely regarded as being among the worst offenders. The ICT has however faced accusations of human rights violations and a disregard of due process in its activities from various international organisations, with opponents within Bangladesh claiming the trials are politically motivated.
12 individuals have so far been indicted by the tribunal. 10 of these are members of Bangladesh’s leading (and now banned) Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, while the other two are members of Bangladesh’s largest opposition party, the Bangladesh National Party. Salahuddin Chowdhury is the first of the BNP members, and the first sitting MP, to be sentenced by the court. He was found guilty of 9 of 23 charges, including genocide, abduction, atrocities against Hindus and the forcible conversion of Hindus to Islam, and has been sentenced to death. He is expected to appeal against the decision.
So far, the court has also convicted four members (and two former members) of Jamaat-e-Islami, which is a political ally of the BNP. All have been sentenced to death or life imprisonment for killings committed during the war. Another 5 trials remain currently.
The trial has revealed deep divisions at the core of Bangladeshi society that stem from the country’s birth over 40 years ago. Each verdict from the ICT has been marked by large protests both for and against the decisions. Those opposing the verdicts have been led largely by members of Jamaat-e-Islami, with demonstrations frequently turning violent and leading to deaths and the necessitating robust responses from the security forces. Major protests in favour of the trial earlier this year led to widespread disorder across the nation, and the eventual banning of Jamaat-e-Islami party by the Supreme Court.
Anticipating disorder, the Bangladeshi government has deployed paramilitary security forces to the city of Chittagong, Chowdhurys home region from which he has been elected as an MP six times, as well as in the capital city Dhaka. Anger and violent disorder is expected, with the broader politically unstable situation likely to continue for the foreseeable future. Foreigners in Bangladesh should remain highly aware of the dangerous security situation, and the potential for all political demonstrations to turn violent extremely quickly.
In South East Asia, the vast majority of piracy incidents, and commensurately the level of law enforcement response and international attention, currently occur around the Straits of Malacca, in the numerous islands of the Indonesian archipelago and the South China Sea. However, Bangladesh has seen a continuing, and significant, level of piracy as well, though the most serious incidents are primarily targeted against local fishermen and similar. This has included two extremely serious incidents within the past month. Of particular concern is the pirate’s methodology – kidnap for ransom and a high degree of violence is extremely common.
Incidents against foreign vessels in Bangladesh take much the same form as in the rest of South East Asia. This involves opportunistic armed robbery against ships, almost always berthed in the Chittagong anchorage. Robbers, sometimes armed, board ships and attempt to steal stores, cargo and valuables. They commonly flee when confronted by crewmembers. The overall rate of piracy against foreign vessels however remains relatively low, with a small number of incidents each month, particularly when compared with Indonesia, by far the most afflicted country in the region. Rates have remained relatively stable and even seen a slight decrease in the past few years. A high degree of security awareness on behalf of law enforcement and shipping is widely credited with helping keep the situation under control.
It is attacks against local fishermen and trawlers in the Bay of Bengal that are a potentially a much more concerning phenomenon. There are numerous active pirate gangs that operate in Bangladeshi waters, particularly around the Sundarbans mangrove forest which was home to at least ten separate pirate gangs late last year. Other regions throughout the country, including along rivers far from the coast, are also plagued by pirate activity.
As opposed to the opportunistic ‘smash-and-grab’ robberies that target foreign vessels in port, piracy targeting local fishermen tends to involve kidnap for ransom as standard. The most common period for attacks is between April and August, the fishing season. The scale of this activity is also dramatic. In addition to regular demands for protection money, often from numerous different gangs, attacks are commonplace. According to the local District Fishing Trawlers Owners Association (DFTOA), between January 2011 and November 2012 over 1000 fishing trawlers were attacked, with thousands of fishermen taken hostage for various periods. This reportedly led to ransom payments totally $1.28 million. In August 2012, over 60 fishermen were taken hostage in a single incident, while the first 3 months of this year reportedly saw 90 attacks in one coastal region alone. Last month, (August, 2013) in two separate incidents over 30 fishermen were taken hostage. Attacks of this scale are standard, and occur monthly.
The law enforcement response to these activities is of varying effectiveness. Last year, a large co-ordinated operation between the Coast Guard and Navy led to the release of nearly 40 hostages, while police operations in the past weeks in response to recent incidents saw several pirates killed in shootouts and secured the release of two-thirds of the hostages. However, the long term effectiveness of this law enforcement activity remains doubtful – many locals report that the pirates simply remain dormant and re-emerge after the operations. Alternatively, they flee across the border into India, where a lack of regional co-operation makes it difficult to apprehend them. The Bangladeshi navy and coast guard are weak – the coast guard has only 11 boats, most nearly 3 decades old and several unusable during the monsoon season. The effect on the economy can be huge – with coastal fishing contributing 30% of the nation’s total catch, during 2012-2013 this had dropped from 108’000 metric tons to 39’000.
Particularly concerning is the high level of violence that occurs in these incidents. Pirates are usually armed, and beatings of captive fishermen are a common occurrence. Murder of hostages is also frequent, with many killed every year either during or after attacks. In a single incident in April of this year, 31 fishermen were tied up and tossed overboard to drown after being robbed by pirates.
While currently this activity does not commonly target international vessels, the trend is particularly concerning. With growing rates of low-level, violent hostage taking and piracy throughout the Bay of Bengal, combined with a lower level of international attention and a weaker law enforcement presence than in other regions of South East Asia, the phenomenon has the potential to evolve into one of substantially greater threat. Some analysts believe Bangladeshi pirates will become a threat to global shipping within the next two years. While currently the threat to international vessels does still remain relatively low, a high level of security awareness should be maintained by all vessels in the Bay of Bengal.
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.