On Monday evening 12 November, a car-bomb explosion in northern Mali killed three civilians, with a terrorist group claiming that Canadian soldiers and other foreign forces operating in the area were targeted.
The Canadian Armed Forces have confirmed the attack, which occurred in the city of Gao, adding that all Canadian personnel were safe. The Ministry of Security and Civil Protection of Mali has disclosed that around 19:15 GMT, a 4×4 vehicle burst into flames in a courtyard in 8thdistrict the city. At least three Malians were killed, and four foreigners (two Cambodians, a South African and a Zimbabwean) working for a subcontracting company of the UNMAS (the UN Mine clearance service) were injured, adding that neighboring homes were damaged in the attack.
SITE is reporting that Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wal-Muslimin (JNIM) has claimed responsibility for the attack, stating that “a suicide bomb blast on the headquarters of foreign forces, including British, Canadian and Germans, in Gao.” The Canadian peacekeeping contingent took over from Germans and Belgians in Mali in early July, and its main mission is to evacuate wounded peacekeepers by helicopter.
On 7 November 2018, reports emerged that JNIM announced the forthcoming official release of its new video entitled “Go forth whether light or heavy,” featuring the first audiovisual speech as part of JNIM by Katiba Macina founder Amadou Kouffa. The video reportedly calls on the Fulani in West Africa and in Cameroon to wage “jihad.”
This new video demonstrates how terrorist groups operating in the Sahel region have increasingly sought to integrate themselves within the local communities, particularly the Fulani ethnic group, which is one of the largest in West Africa and which is spread across the Sahel region. The Fulani have traditionally been cattle herders and have been engaged in a struggle with farmers across the Sahel region as pasture-land and resources in the region have diminished. They are increasingly being pushed deeper into poverty and feelings of political exclusion may result in a rebellion that could destabilize the West African region. There are growing concerns across the region that jihadist groups like al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and others, such as JNIM, could use ties into the Fulani community in a bid to exploit their anger and expand their areas of operations in the Sahel region. This has been seen in the past, with AQIM tapping into Tuareg networks to advance its objectives in West Africa.
This video also shows how terrorist groups are aware of regional issues, both on the local and national scale, and how they may attempt to exploit these situations in a bid to further push their ideologies and expand their areas of operation. In particular, the mention of Cameroon is of concern. While the African country has been affected by terrorism, particularly in its Far North region, where Nigerian-based terror group Boko Haram has carried out numerous deadly attacks and kidnappings, Cameroon has been spared from the destabilizing situation that is affecting Mali and regional countries, in particular Burkina Faso and Niger. Nationally however Cameroon is in turmoil as separatists in the North West and South West regions, which are the English-speaking areas of Cameroon, have destabilized the region in their bid to create a breakaway republic, which they have named The Federal Republic of Ambazonia. The current crisis affecting these two regions erupted in October 2016 in Bamenda, the capital of the North West region, with a strike by English-speaking lawyers demanding respect of the Common Law and the translation into English of the Code of the Organization for the Harmonization Business Law in Africa and other laws. Weeks later, teachers joined the move as they organized a rally against the lack of English-speaking teachers and the non-respect of the “Anglo-Saxon” education system in the English-speaking regions. Many locals joined the cause, driven by numerous demands ranging from a lack of decentralization of power as well as a lack of investment in infrastructure in the region. The strikes that began in the North West region would later spread into the South West region and police clampdowns have only further fueled tensions. Clashes between the insurgents and security forces have killed scores of people and have displaced tens of thousands more since the conflict intensified late last year. Insurgents have abducted and killed soldiers, policemen and local politicians in hit-and-run guerrilla raids, while Cameroonian forces have been accused of burning down villages and opening fire on fleeing residents, accusations which the army has denied. The conflict gained world-wide attention with the killing of an American missionary in late October and the unrest now threatens the stability of one of Africa’s larger economies. Tensions are likely to remain heightened in the wake of incumbent Paul Biya winning another term in office in the 7 October 2018 presidential election.
JNIM was formed on 2 March 2017, with the merger of three regional jihadist groups: the Saharan branch of AQIM merged with Ansar al-Dine and al-Mourabitoun to form Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam was Muslimeen (JNIM). JNIM’s call for Fulani to wage “jihad” in Cameroon in particular can be seen as an attempt to benefit from the instability in the North West and South West regions. The militant group will likely attempt to infiltrate some of the local populations, further fuel discord between the separatists and the Cameroonian government, and eventually openly call for attacks against the central government in the capital Yaoundé. JNIM and other regional terror groups may also use the situation in this region of Cameroon to recruit new forces while at the same time spreading their influence and areas of operation. Gaining a foothold into Cameroon will likely result in the further destabilization of the Central African region, which is currently affected by a number of conflicts, including ongoing crises in the Central African Republic and in the Democratic Republic of Congo, both of which have forced thousands of people to flee the region. JNIM’s call for “jihad” in the West African region and in Cameroon therefore poses a serious threat not only in West Africa, but to the stability of the greater African continent, especially Central Africa.
The Yemeni port city of Hodeidah remains the focus of intense clashes between Houthi fighters and forces belonging to the Saudi-UAE led coalition. As the battle for control of the city and its port increasingly intensifies, it is worth considering the implications on shipping, particularly in the aftermath of the battle for Hodeidah.
Hodeidah is a vital gateway for some 80 percent of the country’s food imports, humanitarian aid, fuel and other commercial goods. The port is also a critical financial and military asset for Houthi rebels; it provides the Houthis with millions of dollars a month through the taxation of ships and goods and plays an important role in their military anti-shipping capabilities. Vessels using the port are forced to allow the use of their maritime radar to assist in the targeting of other military and commercial vessels in the waters off the coast of Yemen. The Saudi-led coalition seeks to restore control of Yemen, including this vital port, to President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi and his Western-backed government.
A Limit to Coalition Patience?
Despite Hodeidah’s importance efforts to recapture the city and its port had been put on pause. The anti-Houthi coalition has been unable to persuade Western powers that the UAE-led ‘Operation Golden Victory’ can take the city without massive destruction to the port or the exacerbation of an already catastrophic humanitarian situation. As a result, although these forces succeeded in reaching the city’s outskirts and securing control of its airport they are now forced to engaged in a difficult battle for the villages and roads to the east in an effort to cut rebel supply-lines and establish a siege. However, in the face of stalled progress and mounting casualties it is possible that the UAE and its allies may perhaps seek to use their overwhelming advantage in numbers and firepower to storm the city and bring the battle to an end. The Houthi have an estimated 2,000 defenders while coalition forces include approximately 25,000 Yemeni troops and 1,500 UAE troops backed by artillery and airpower. A further factor that may encourage such an attempt would be the possibility that coalition forces could be aided by a civilian uprising, as the defending Houthi force is seen as ‘foreign’ because its fighters are not local to the city or the surrounding region.
Hodeidah May Fall, but the Threat to Shipping Will Persist
Whether Hodeidah falls to coalition forces after a street-by-street campaign of urban warfare – the Houthi excel at using well-supplied individual or small groups of fighters to hold positions against superior forces – or through negotiation its loss is unlikely to bring the war in Yemen to an end. Further, the city lies well outside of the rebel movements traditional strongholds in the provinces of Amran and Saada and any loss in port revenue will likely be made up for by taxing goods, including humanitarian aid and supplies, when they enter territory under their control. Should control of the city change hands this could result in an increased risk to both military and commercial vessels in the waters of the Bab al-Mandab Strait and Red Sea off the coast of Yemen.
Next Target: the Highly Strategic Coastal Region between Hodeidah and Midi
The loss of Hodeidah and its port may hamper the ability of the rebels to strike at civilian and military vessels operating off the coast of Yemen but will be insufficient to eliminate this threat. After the battle approximately 200km of Yemen’s coastline between the city and the northern port city of Midi will still remain under the control of Houthi forces. Access to civilian maritime radar will also likely continue so long as the Houthi maintain control over the port of Salif located approximately 60km north of Hodeidah. The strategic value of this coastal territory can also be understood due its use by Iran to smuggle boatloads of weapons and related illicit technology which, in addition to supporting their conventional forces, also allow them to maintain their strategic ballistic missile capabilities. Should coalition forces succeed in capturing Hodeidah it is can be anticipated that securing control over this region will become an immediate key military objective.
A Matter of ‘Use it or Lose It’ for Houthi anti-Ship Capabilities
A military offensive targeting the coastal region between Hodeidah and Midi would not only force Houthi leaders to plan for its defence but also face the strategic question of when, or even if, to use their remaining anti-ship capabilities against military and/or commercial vessels. While some of these weapons are dependent on direct access to the ocean. Examples of these include naval mines, water-borne improvised explosive devises (WBIEDS; aka ‘drone boats’),’low profile speed boats equipped with heavy-machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades. Rebel forces also possess HSY-2 “Silkworm”/ P21 “Styx”, C-801 “Sardine” and C-802 “Saccade” anti-ship cruise missiles as well as weaponized drones such as the “Qasef-1” / “Abadil”. While the loss of this territory – and access to civilian vessels in the port of Salif – could be compensated by the continued activity of the Iranian “mothership” Saviz, which has been accused of using its own onboard maritime radar to participate in previous attacks on military and commercial vessels, the further Houthi forces are forced from the coast will diminish their ability to effectively use these assets against maritime targets.
Although it cannot be discounted that an attempt may be made by rebels to repurpose their remaining anti-ship assets for use against land-based targets or even choose to destroy or abandon them in the face of advancing coalition forces there is a risk that a decision to ‘use it or lose it’.
Faced with a deteriorating strategic situation it is possible that the leadership of the Houthi movement would be able to obtain the support of the Iranian Government to resume targeting military and commercial vessels in either an attempt to bring about a halt to the advance of coalition forces or else engage in their own campaign of retaliation for losses suffered. However, any decision by policy-makers in Tehran to permit, or even order, is unlikely to be motivated solely by events on the ground in Yemen. Instead, this could represent an attempt to achieve a number of different objectives. These could range from the basic desire to force both sides to the negotiating table or, in what could be considered a worst-case scenario, employ a proxy to retaliate against what are seen as attacks against Iran’s own political, economic and military interests.
The nature of the threat to shipping that may emerge as a consequence of the battle for Hodeidah demands the attention of ship owners and operators of vessels flagged to countries participating in the anti-Houthi coalition. Likewise, in addition to the general risk of target misidentification other vessels transiting through the Bab al-Mandab Strait and the Red Sea should be equally vigilant. Such caution should especially apply to vessels flying under the flag of countries whose governments sell weapons to coalition forces or have recently participated in actions hostile towards Iranian interests.
Overnight on Wednesday 3 October to Thursday 4 October unidentified gunmen launched an attack on the security post of Inata gold mine, located about 60 km (35 miles) from Djibo, the provincial capital of Soum province. Significant material damage has been reported, including five burned mine vehicles. The attack is believed to have been carried out by an insurgent cell composed of several armed men, transported by at least two vehicles and motorcycles. The gendarmes fought back for several hours. Calm has since returned to the region after the intervention air support provided by Operation Barkhane.
Initially, a number of international security companies had mis-reported this incident as an attack at the Essakane gold mine – which has now been confirmed as a false reporting and was confused with an unrelated robbery incident in the Essakane hamlet and not at the mine. Given the fluid security situation in Burkina Faso, particularly in the northern region, and across the wider Sahel, it is necessary to ensure the validity of all incidents being reported. Failure to do so will only promote fear and distrust, which may lead to further chaos. The escalations in attacks and the increasing use of kidnapping and IEDs has elevated concerns to those watching the region closely.
Further incidents are likely to occur as the area has seen a number of attacks in recent weeks, including the 23 September incident involving the kidnapping of three mine workers – a Burkinabe national, a South African, and an Indian who is reportedly a member of the family who earlier in the year purchased the Inata mine out of financial distress – who were taken by armed men between Djibo and the mine. Three police officers were later killed during the search for the kidnapped mineworkers, whose current whereabouts remain unknown. Days later, on 26 September, eight members of the Burkina Faso security forces were killed when a roadside bomb hit their patrol vehicle on the road between Djibo and Baraboule.
MS Risk currently advises against all travel to the following parts of the Burkina Faso:
- All areas of the country north of the town of Boulsa
- Areas within 40 kilometres (24 miles) of the western border with Mali
- The W National Park in the southeast of the country, bordering Benin and Niger
MS Risk currently advises against all but essential travel to the rest of Burkina Faso, including the provinces of Tapoa, Kompienga, Gourma, and Komondjari, and the capital Ouagadougou. All travellers to Burkina Faso should remain vigilant at all times as militants may be planning further attacks that could target areas that are popular with foreigners, including hotels, cafes and restaurants, and resorts. Western interests across the region, including in Burkina Faso, may also be targeted.
Beijing’s maritime presence means not only its Navy, which experienced an astonishing development in the last two decades. China has built a large coast guard, a merchant fleet and it has one of the biggest shipbuilding industry as well. Its finishing fleet and the building of ships capable of moving under arctic conditions also should not be forgotten. Consider the state-owned China National Nuclear Corporation’s (CNNC) tender published in June 2018 to build nuclear-powered icebreakers.
To meet the ever-increasing demand of the Chinese economy, the country created the Road and Belt initiative, to try securing its land-based supplies. These infrastructural projects may conflict with the interests of Russia or Central Asian countries, therefore China cannot rely solely on land-based trade routes, it has to have maritime routes as well, which needs to be protected.
The Navy has multiple roles, such as to assert and enforce China’s territorial claims in the East and South China Seas, to gain maritime control over the South China Sea, to deny any military activity within its 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) and the Nine-Dash Line or the chain of islands also called the Chinese pearls, despite lacking any internationally recognised right to do so, and to protect Chinese commercial sea lines and communication. Especially in case of the Malacca Strait and the Persian Gulf. The Navy also helps to demonstrate China’s status as a leading regional power and an equal global power to the US.
In a little more than two decades, from a largely coastal force, the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) became a modern force of multiple classes of ships, not based on obsolete Soviet technology. The Navy has destroyers, corvettes, frigates and all of these classes are in serial production. According to the US Office of Naval Intelligence, Beijing was focusing on the quality improvement of its Navy, not the quantity. With the established shipbuilding industry, the focus is now on to build those ships required to achieve aims of the PLAN.
These objectives are impressive, the Chinese Navy has some strategic weaknesses. It has only two aircraft carriers at the moment, with the third is under construction, therefore the Navy does not have comprehensive fleet air-defence system, It can operate effectively within the range of land-based air support. The other weakness is, that it is focusing on anti-surface warfare and its anti-submarine forces are poor. Its commercial fleet is vulnerable to submarine attacks. One should not forget about the human factor of the Navy. No one really knows the true capabilities of the Navy commanders or the quality of the training of the crew.
Although Chinese leaders expressed it several times that their military development is peaceful, it leads to an arms race in the region. Japan, South Korea, Vietnam and India are just a few of those countries concerned about the continuously growing Chinese naval presence.
Chinese geopolitical intentions and objectives are not always clear. It may want to rival the US in the region and be the dominant sea power; it may use its economic power to change the global political and economic order to its favour or it may try to create a regional trade block stretching from Japan to the Persian Gulf. Whichever is the true aim of China, it sees its maritime power as an essential tool to achieve regional or global power.