MS Risk Blog

France Forms New Counter-Terrorism Task Force in Wake of Latest Attack

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France this month created a new counter-terrorism task force, which is comprised of all intelligence services that will coordinate responses to attacks. The formation came just a day after a man carrying Algerian papers attacked police officers outside the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris.

On 6 June, a 40-year-old Algerian student armed with a hammer and kitchen knives shouted “this is for Syria.” A source close to the investigation has disclosed that a video, in which the attacker pledged allegiance to IS, had been found in his flat during a police raid on Tuesday evening. Government spokesman Christophe Castaner disclosed that the assailant had not previously “shown any signs of radicalisation.” Surveillance video near the scene depicted the assailant running up to three police officers in the square outside Notre Dame and attempting to land a blow with the hammer. One officer was hurt before the aggressor was shot in the chest.

Sources have indicated that last month newly-elected President Emmanuel Macron, who was portrayed by rivals a weak on security during the presidential campaign, instructed that the task force be created in order to bring France’s multiple security agencies inside the Elysee presidential palace. On 7 June, President Macron appointed Pierre de Bousquet de Florian to head the new intelligence task force known as the National Centre for Counter Terrorism. It will be under the direct authority of the president. It will include some twenty people representing the various security services and will be operations 24 hours seven days a week. According to a French presidency official, “this has been created to ensure that the intelligence services truly cooperate.” Bousquet de Florian once headed France’s DST regional intelligence service, which was disbanded under former president Nicolas Sarkozy. President Macron also named career diplomat Bernard Emie, who served as ambassador to Britain, Turkey, Libya and Jordan, as head of the DGSE external intelligence service.

The performance of France’s intelligence services have come under close scrutiny since the November 2015 attacks in Paris, when militant gunmen and suicide bombers struck entertainment venues across the capital city, killing 130 people. In total, more than 230 people have been killed in a wave of attacks in France either claimed by or inspired by the so-called Islamic State (IS) group over the past two-and-a-half years.

Survey Shows Europeans Warm Again to EU after Brexit Vote

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A survey released this month has indicated that Europeans think much better of the European Union (EU) now than they did a year ago, when Britons voted to leave the bloc.

The Washington-based Pew Research Centre carried out a survey in 10 of the 28 members – the six biggest EU states and four of the next eight most populous. The survey however did not study reasons for changes in mood. The survey has found that support has surged by eighteen percentage points in both Germany and France, which just elected pro-EU centrist Emmanuel Macron as president. Sixty-eight percent of Germans and fifty-six percent of French had favourable views of the EU this spring. Even the British hold a much more favourable opinion of the EU, with 54 percent of them now viewing the EU positively. This is up ten points on a year ago. Forty percent view the EU unfavourable. In June 2016, Britons voted 52 percent to 48 for Brexit, with negotiations on leaving the bloc beginning on 19 June.

The latest survey also indicated that in none of the other nine countries that were surveyed did more than 35 percent of people want their country to leave the EU. Of those, the Italians, at 56 percent, and the Greeks were the least enthusiastic. Furthermore, despite growing frication between their nationalist governments and Brussels, people in Poland and Hungary remain amongst the keenest EU citizens. The survey also recorded more approval for the bloc’s handling of the economy and migration – two areas where anger has long been directed at Brussels. An EU deal with Turkey a year ago has stemmed chaotic migrant arrivals and along with income growth, opinions about the economy have improved – with the exception of Greece and Italy, where the proportion of people saying that their economy is in good shape declined by eighteen points to 15 percent. A huge 87 percent of the Dutch, whom eurosceptics failed to win over heavily in a March election, think that their economy is doing well. This is up by 25 points from a year ago. There was a 15-point upturn in Spain, even if still only 28 percent have a positive view.

Pew researchers wrote in a report that “the European Union has rebounded dramatically from its recent slump in public approval,” noting an “up-and-down cycle over the past decade.” The findings, which are in line with other research, will hearten EU leaders who are due to meet this month. Some had initially feared that the bloc’s survival was in doubt after the Brexit vote and following grave crises in the euro zone economy and irregular immigration.

Arab States Issue Ultimatum to Qatar

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On Friday 23 June, four Arab states – Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – who imposed a boycott on Qatar earlier this month, issued an ultimatum to Doha to close Al Jazeera television, curb ties with Iran, shut a Turkish base and pay reparations.

The 13-point list of demands is apparently aimed at dismantling the small but wealth neighbour’s two-decade-old interventionist foreign policy, which has incensed them. Kuwait is currently helping mediate the dispute. An official from one of the four nations has disclosed that the offer would be “void” unless Qatar complied within ten days. Regional analysts have already warned that the uncompromising demands leave little prospect for a quick end to the diplomatic crisis, which is the biggest to take place for years between Sunni Arab Gulf states.

In response to the list, a Qatari government spokesman has disclosed that Doha is reviewing the list of demands and that a formal response would be made by the foreign ministry and delivered to Kuwait, noting however that the demands were not reasonable or actionable. In a statement, Sheikh Saif al-Thani, director of Qatar’s government communications office, disclosed “the list of demands confirms what Qatar has said from the beginning – the illegal blockade has nothing to do with combating terrorism, it is about limiting Qatar’s sovereignty, and outsourcing our foreign policy.” A Qatar semi-government human rights body has stated that the demands were a violation of human rights convention and should not be accepted by Qatar. Last week, Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani stated that Qatar would not negotiate with the four states until economic, diplomatic and travel ties, which were cut earlier this month, were restored.

The countries that imposed the sanctions have accused Qatar of funding terrorism, fomenting regional unrest and drawing too close to Iran. Qatar however rejects those accusations, stating that it is being punished for straying from its neighbours’ backing for authoritarian hereditary and military rulers.

Qatar has only 300,000 citizens who enjoy the riches produced by the world’s largest exports of liquefied natural gas. The rest of its 2.7 million people are foreign migrant workers, who are mostly manual labourers employed on vast construction projects that have crowned the small desert peninsula with skyscrapers as well as stadiums for the 2022 soccer world cup. While the sanctions have disrupted its main routes to import goods by land from Saudi Arabia and by sea from big container ships docked in the UAE, so far Qatar has avoided economic collapse by quickly finding alternative routes and stating that I has huge financial reserves that will meet any challenges. Qatar has also indicated that the sanctions have brought personal hardship for its citizens who live in neighbouring countries or have relatives there. The countries that imposed the sanctions gave Qataris two weeks to leave, which expired on Monday.

Points Included in the List

The official from one of the sanctioning states has disclosed that the demands tell Qatar to stop interfering in the four nations’ domestic and foreign affairs and refrain from giving Qatari nationality to their citizens. The lists also includes a demand for severing ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamic State (IS) group, al-Qaeda, Hezbollah, and Jabhat Fateh al Sham, formerly al-Qaeda’s branch in Syria, as well as the surrender of all designated terrorists on Qatari territory. Qatar denies that it has relationships with terrorist groups or that is shelters terrorists. The country was also ordered to scale down diplomatic relations with Iran, limit its commercial ties and expel members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, which Qatar has denied that they are there. According to the official, the sanctioning countries further demanded that Qatar pay them reparations for any damage or costs incurred due to Qatari policies. Compliance with the demands would be monitored, with monthly reports in the first year, then every three months the following year, then annually for ten years.

Russia Military States it May Have Killed IS Leader

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On 16 June, Russia’s Defense Ministry disclosed that it was checking information that a Russian air strike near the Syrian city of Raqqa may have killed Islamic State (IS) leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi in late May.

In a statement, the Ministry disclosed that the airstrike was launched after Russian forces in Syria received intelligence that a meeting of IS leaders was being planned. The statement indicated, “on May 28, after drones were used to confirm the information on the place and time of the meeting of IS leaders, between 00:35 and 00:45, Russian air forces launched a strike on the command point where the leaders were located.” The statement went on to say that “according to the information which is now being checked via various channels, also present at the meeting was Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who was eliminated as a result of the strike.” The Russian Defense Ministry statement further disclosed that the strike is believed to have killed several other senior leaders of the group, as well as around thirty field commanders and up to 300 of their personal guards, adding that IS leaders had gathered at the command centre, in a southern suburb of Raqqa, in order to discuss possible routes for the militants’ retreat from the city. So far the US-led coalition that is fighting IS has disclosed that it could not confirm the Russian report that Baghdadi may have been killed. The Russian military however has stated that the United States was informed in advance about the place and time of the strike.

While the world awaits confirmation on whether IS’ elusive leader has been killed or not, Rami Abdulrahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, has already cast doubt on the report, stating that according to his information, Baghdadi was located in another part of Syria at the end of May, when the strike occurred. Abdulrahman disclosed that “the information is that as of the end of last month Baghdadi was in Deir al-Zor, in the area between Deir al-Zor and Iraq, in Syrian territory.” When questioned what Baghdadi would hae been doing in that located, he stated, “it is reasonable that Baghdadi would put himself between a rock and a hard place of the (US-led) coalition and Russia?”

Born Ibrahim al-Samarrai, Baghdadi is a 46-year-old Iraq who broke away from al-Qaeda in 2013, just two years after the capture and killing of the terrorist group’s leader Osama bin Laden. The last public video footage of Baghdadi shows him dressed in black clerical robes declaring his caliphate from the pulpit of Mosul’s medieval Grand al-Nuri mosque back in 2014.

IS fighters are close to being defeated in the twin capitals – Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria – of the group’s territory. Russian forces support the Syrian government, which is fighting against IS mainly from the west, while a US-led coastline supports Iraqi government forces who are fighting IS from the east.

US Could Target North Korean Trade Allies with Sanctions

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This month, United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warned that the US is considering sanctions on countries that do illegal business with North Korea stating that the White House would soon have to decide whether to impose “secondary sanctions” on those nations.

Mr Tillerson’s warning came during a hearing at the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday 13 June during which he stated, “we are in a stage where we are moving into this next effort of ‘Are we going to have to, in effect, start taking secondary sanctions because countries we have provided information to have not, or are unwilling, or don’t have the ability to do that?’” While Mr Tillerson did not name any countries, Washington currently has no trade links with North Korea, and it has been considering sanctioning companies from third countries who deal with the secretive regime of Kim Jong-un in violation of UN resolution. Mr Tillerson did however disclosed that the North Korea issue would be discussed with China, which is Pyongyang’s major ally, during high-level talks this week. Asked whether China has been fulfilling its pledges to put more pressure on North Korea, Mr Tillerson responded by stating that “they have taken steps, visible steps that we can confirm.”

The Trump administration has sought to increase pressure on North Korea over its nuclear and missile activities. Pyongyang’s recent missile tests, which are banned by the United Nations, have sparked international alarm. It is believed that North Korea is making progress towards developing a ballistic missile that is capable of reaching the US.