MS Risk Blog

Security Situation in Mali (28 January 2013)

Posted on in Mali, Region Specific Guidance title_rule

Over the past 48 hours, French-led troops in Mali have managed to take over the key town of Gao and the airport of Timbuktu from Islamist rebels.  By Monday afternoon, French and Malian military sources confirmed that the troops had entered the historic city of Timbuktu, encountering minimal resistance from the militants.  However it must be noted that while the towns of Gao and Timbuktu are currently under the control of French troops, travel to these areas continues to be unadvisable as the security situation may change at any moment.  There continues to be a high level of terrorism and threat of kidnapping.  As such, MS Risk advises against all travel to the region.

The advance into Timbuktu, which lies 1,000 km (600 miles) north of the capital city of Bamako, comes just one day after French and Malian soldiers seized control of another Islamist stronghold, the eastern town of Gao.  French and Malian troops, along with soldiers from Chad and Niger, regained control of Gao on Saturday.

By Sunday, French paratroopers had swooped in to attempt to block the fleeing militants while on the ground troops, coming in from the south, seized the ancient city’s airport, which up until now had been one of the strongholds of the militant groups who have controlled the northern region of the country for the past ten months.  Colonel Thierry Burkhard, a French army spokesman, confirmed that in less than 48 hours, the troops, backed by helicopters, had seized control of the Niger Loop, which is the area located alongside the curve of the Niger River that flows between Gao and Timbuktu.  On the ground sources have also confirmed that the ground force units and paratroopers were dispatched to surround the city of Timbuktu in an attempt to cautiously enter the city.

On Monday afternoon, the French military confirmed that the troops had moved into Timbuktu after blocking all the roads surrounding the city.  It was also confirmed that “substantial airpower” had been used in order to support the 1,000 French and 200 Malian forces in their offensive against the rebels in Timbuktu.  A Malian army colonel has indicated that “the Malian army and the French army are in complete control of the city of Timbuktu.”   However reports have already emerged that while the town remains to be under the control of the allies, a severe amount of damage was caused to some of the historic sites located throughout this ancient town.  Mali’s culture ministry has confirmed that prior to escaping the town, the militants burnt the Ahmed Baba Centre for Documentation and Research, which housed between 60,000 and 100,000 manuscripts from Greece and the ancient Muslim world.  Reports have also indicated that Islamists have been fleeing from Timbuktu towards the city of Kidal, which is located more than 500km (300 miles) to the northeast.

Gao is the largest of the six towns which have been seized by French and Malian troops since France launched its military intervention on 11 January.  The largest town yet to be recaptured is Kidal, which is located close to the Algerian border.  It was also the first town that was seized by an alliance of Tuareg rebels and Islamist extremists last year.

It is currently believed that once Timbuktu is secured, French-led troops will focus on retaking Kidal.  Preparations for this final takeover have already been launched as Malian officials have confirmed that Kidal, which is the home of the head of Ansar Dine, was bombed overnight by French forces.  Once Kidal is taken, the first phase of the French operation will be over, while the second phase, which will strictly focus on tracking down the militants in their desert hideouts, will commence.  This phase, however, will likely prove to be a more complex task then the first as, according to French foreign minister Laurent Fabius, the militants have adopted a “strategy of evasion and some of them could return in the north.”

On Sunday, France also confirmed that it has now deployed 2,900 troops to Mali, with another 1,000 troops supporting the operation elsewhere, and that there currently are 2,700 African soldiers on the ground in Mali and in Niger.  However French Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault has appealed for more aid for the ongoing efforts in Mali.

Mali

Security Situation in Mali (25 January 2013)

Posted on in Mali, Region Specific Guidance title_rule

The French-led military intervention in Mali has entered into its third week with French and Malian troops currently advancing towards the town of Gao after earlier retaking the northern town of Hombori.  Meanwhile, militant extremists have struck back with the bombing of a strategic bridge in the region.


Official reports have confirmed that French and Malian troops have retaken the town of Hombori, which is located 160km (100 miles) from the Islamist stronghold of Gao.  The movement towards Gao follows several days of air strikes which targeted Islamist bases, fuel stock and weapon dumps near the town.  While troops are currently on their way to regain Gao, in the west, the French-led forces who recaptured the town of Diabaly on Monday are pushing towards the town of Lere, with the eventual plans of taking control of Timbuktu which lies further north.  Gao is just one of three major northern towns, along with Kidal and Timbuktu, where al-Qaeda-linked Islamists have imposed a strict form of Sharia law over the past ten months..

Meanwhile, reports have indicated that rebels have blown up the Tassiga bridge which links Gao to neighbouring Niger.  The bridge likes on the quickest route from Niger to Gao.  More than 2,000 Chadian soldiers and 500 troops from Niger were planning to use this route in order to deploy and open a second front against the Islamists from the east.  Although there is a detour, which is an additional three to six miles, that eventually links to the Niger-Gao road, it is currently unknown which direction these troops will take in order to link up with AU forces in Mali.

A large international troop-build up will continue over the weekend, ahead of a probable French-led air and ground offensive that will take place in Gao and other desert cities.  Currently, France has 2,000 troops in Mali.  More than 1,000 soldiers from Nigeria are expected to arrive in Mali within the coming days.

Map - Mali

Security Updates for Algeria and Libya

Posted on in Algeria, Libya title_rule

Algeria

Unidentified sources told Verdens Gang (VG), a Norwegian newspaper, that the Islamist militants had placed inside knowledge of the Ain Amenas gas plant, and were able to place weapons inside the complex ahead of their 16 January attack. Hostage witness accounts also state that the attackers knew exactly where to find foreign workers inside the complex. An Algerian security official confirmed on Wednesday that one of the assailants had been employed as a chauffeur at the site up until last year.

Analysts suspect the Algerian government grew complacent in security at oil and gas installations in recent times, and the militants took advantage of the lapse in security. If the attacks were assisted by insiders, or succeeded due to complacency, a similar attack is less likely to be repeated elsewhere, as the conditions which allowed this attack are unlikely to be recreated. However, if the capability of the terrorists is greater than the security precautions in place, likelihood for attacks may increase.

Companies are now trying to determine whether the attacks at Ain Amenas were an isolated incident, or a paradigm shift for security in North Africa.  As Militant Islamists are increasingly present and active in the region, it is possible they may now target energy facilities, especially in countries where the security is not as tight as it has been in Algeria.

Libya, which has a well-developed hydrocarbon sector, but a very week security infrastructure, is at particular risk, as well as other extractive industry installations in Mauritania or Niger.

It is unlikely that attacks will occur at similar facilities in the immediate future. Belmokhtar, mastermind of the raid, may take time to replace people and equipment that were lost in last week’s attacks. However, because the region is vast, and targets are increasingly scarce and difficult to attack, it is likely that militant groups will continue to expand their range of operations for new kidnapping victims. Ransoms from these victims would replace the resources lost in the attack.

Further complicating matters, following the Libyan revolution, an abundance of shoulder-fired missiles have become available in the region, adding to the risk that in lieu of kidnapping, militants may choose to conduct surface to air terrorism, such as attacking aircraft used to transport Westerners to extraction installations.

As smuggling operations in Mali become increasingly difficult and insurgents are driven further north, it is possible that the Islamist extremist groups will retreat into Mali’s Kidal region, Niger’s Air region, or as far back as Libya, where relative lawlessness allows operations to be conducted with comparative ease.

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Libya

Canada, Britain, and several European countries have urged their nationals to leave Benghazi on Thursday, citing “specific and imminent” threats to Westerners days. The warning occurs a week after the attack at Ain Amenas gas complex in neighbouring Algeria, and was made due to a “credible threat” picked up by MI6 that was linked to last week’s raid. The threat was described as “specific” and “imminent”, however details have not been released.

Few Westerners are believed to be in Benghazi, the tumult in the city following the Libyan revolution saw an increase in violence toward diplomats, military, and police, including the September attack on the US Embassy which resulted in four deaths.

The British ambassador in Tripoli called each British national and told them to leave immediately, stating that there are threats of attack on foreign institutions run by foreigners, including schools and hospitals. Experts believe the warnings are likely from groups angered by the French operation in Mali, and inspired by last week’s events.

These warnings have shocked the Libyan government, who have not received formal information regarding the threat, and raised the ire of Deputy Interior Minister Abdullah Massud, who wants an explanation as to the nature of the threats. “If Britain was afraid of threats to its citizens,” he stated, “it could have pulled them out quietly without causing all the commotion and excitement.”

Libya is in the process of rebuilding its nation following the revolution, and warnings of this nature can cause foreign investment to drop at a time when building and strengthening foreign relationships is critical to the Libyan economy.

Travel advice:

No restrictions in this travel advice

Avoid all but essential travel to part(s) of country

Avoid all but essential travel to whole country

Avoid all travel to part(s) of country

Avoid all travel to whole country


The UK Foreign Commonwealth office advise: “We are aware of a specific, imminent threat to Westerners in Benghazi. We advise against all travel to Benghazi and urge any British nationals who are there against our advice to leave immediately.” The FCO further advise against all but essential travel to Tripoli, Zuwara, Az Zawiya, al Khums, Zlitan and Misrata, and the coastal towns from Ras Lanuf to the Egyptian Border, with the exception of Benghazi. Finally, the FCO advise against all travel to all other areas of Libya, including Benghazi. Travellers to the region are warned of high threat from terrorism and kidnapping, as well as retaliatory attacks targeting Western interests in the region following the French intervention in Mali.

Security Update for Algeria (23 January 2013)

Posted on in Algeria title_rule

Algerian forces are combing the Sahara desert for five foreigners who remain missing from the attacks at Ain Amenas gas complex last week. It is unknown whether they were able to flee the complex and are perhaps lost in the vast desert region.  The plant is located deep in the Sahara with few population centres nearby. Evening temperatures in the region can drop as low as 3° Celsius.

Algeria - mapThe attack last week left 38 workers and 29 militants dead. The al Qaeda-linked group reportedly demanded the release of two well-known, linked jihadists in exchange for American hostages. The two jihadists are Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman (a.k.a. the “Blind Sheikh”) and Aafia Siddiqui (a.k.a. “Lady Al Qaeda”). The request for their release, however unlikely, remains a common refrain by Al-Qaeda linked groups.

Of the three militants taken into custody, one stated under interrogation that some Egyptian members of the group were involved in the terrorist attacks at the US Mission in Benghazi. The attacks left four dead, including US Ambassador Chris Stevens, in September of last year. It is not known whether this confession was obtained under duress or should be deemed trustworthy. However, if confirmed, the link underscores the transnational characteristic of the jihadist groups now occupying the Sahara and Sahal regions.

US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, believes that the Islamist militant takeover of northern Mali had created a haven for terrorists to extend their reach in North Africa. Algerian officials believe the gas complex plot was devised by groups in northern Mali, where Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the leader of the group claiming responsibility, is believed to be based. Further reinforcing this notion, US intelligence officials believe that some members of Ansar al-Shariah, the group that carried out the attack in Benghazi, has connections to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Algerian officials say the Ain Amenas attackers travelled through Niger and Libya, whose border is only 30 miles from the plant. It is believed that the arms for the assault were purchased in Tripoli. The hostage takers converged in the southern Libyan town of Ghat, just across the border. Algerian officials believe the nation can expect more terrorist attacks, despite having delivered sharp blows to militants over a period covering nearly 15 years.

Belmokhtar, mastermind of the Ain Amenas attack, may have once worked as an agent for Algeria’s secretive internal security agency (Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité or DRS).

A 2009 cable describes a conversation with a prominent Tuareg leader assigned to the Malian consulate, who professed to be “as confused as everyone else regarding the Algerian government’s reticence to go after [Belmokhtar’s] camps in northern Mali”, presuming that Belmokhtar may have been receiving support from certain quarters of the Algerian government.

A senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies stated, “You have a number of jihadi figures who have approached intelligence agencies about serving as double agents, not because they wanted to betray the jihadi cause, but rather because they thought they could play the agencies and get more information about their thinking about the jihadis.”

Update on MENA (22 January 2013)

Posted on in MENA title_rule

Egypt – On Sunday, Egyptian authorities seized one ton of explosives that were in route to the Sinai Peninsula. The driver of the truck has been detained, along with the 50 crates of explosives. Egyptian officials are concerned that militants from Algeria and Libya are now operating in the Sinai Peninsula.

In recent weeks, Egyptian authorities have seized a number of weapons, including short range rockets, anti-craft and anti-take missiles believed to be destined for the Gaza Strip.

Sinai PeninsulaOn 10 January, Egyptian security forces arrested four people in the Matrouh province bordering Libya for attempting to smuggle arms to the Sinai Peninsula. Security forces found in the vehicles 2,084 rounds for anti-aircraft guns, 15 rocket-propelled grenades, 12 RPG launchers, and 12 TNT charges.

The smuggling of weapons has been prevalent since the 2011 Libyan Revolution. Officials estimated that during the revolution, approximately 20,000 missiles went missing from Libya’s weapons cache, while at the same time an influx of missiles appeared on the Sinai black market.

Lawlessness in the Sinai resulting from the 2011 Egyptian Revolution generated a sharp increase in radical activities and militant groups seeking covert training grounds. Since June 2011, radicalized foreigners have been known to be present in the region; however, in recent weeks officials have increasingly noted the existence of foreigners among the jihadist groups, estimating several hundred, many of whom are from Yemen and Somalia, operating in the Sinai.

Egyptian authorities issued a security alert for the Sinai as intelligence services received information about potential attacks by extremist groups in the Sinai. Egyptian authorities are worried that Islamist militants in the Sinai may soon resume attacks in response to statements by the Egyptian army proclaiming that it will not stop its operations or negotiate with militants.

Egypt Travel Advice:

No restrictions in this travel advice

Avoid all but essential travel to part(s) of country

Avoid all but essential travel to whole country

Avoid all travel to part(s) of country

Avoid all travel to whole country

 

The UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) advise against all travel to the Governorate of North Sinai due to the significant increase in criminal activity. The FCO also advises against all but essential travel to the Governorate of South Sinai, with the exception of Red Sea Resorts including those in the entire region of Sharm el Sheikh, Taba, Nuweiba and Dahab; road travel between these resorts; and transfers between the resorts and the airports of Taba and Sharm el Sheikh. Although security is tight throughout the country, especially in resort areas, there is a high threat from terrorism, and there remains a high risk of attacks which could be indiscriminate, including in public places frequented by foreigners. Following French military intervention in Mali, there is a possibility of retaliatory attacks targeting Western interests in the region. Avoid all demonstrations and large gatherings.

Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi has declared that he is against French military intervention in Mali, saying it could create further unrest in the region. Speaking at an Arab economic summit Riyadh, Morsi said he had hoped for a more “peaceful and developmental” approach to the crisis in Mali.

“We do not accept at all the military intervention in Mali because it will fuel conflict in the region,” Morsi said.

Morsi’s comments may increase tension between Egypt and France ahead of his visit to Paris on 1 February. Other members of the international community have distanced themselves from the Morsi’s position, offering their support to France.

Morsi’s statement came as Malian and French troops appeared to have recaptured the central towns Diabaly and Douentza from Islamist militants, halting their advance towards the south.

Libya – Weapons looted from Libya were among the arms that militants used to attack Ain Amenas gas facility in Algeria, according to Algerian officials and weapons experts. Assault rifles and hand-held rocket launchers used in the assault came from stockpiles that were looted by Libyan militias and arms traffickers in the chaos following Gadhafi’s overthrow in 2011.

Post-revolution Libya is struggling to transform itself into a faltering democracy, yet it has been deemed an “ammunition supermarket” for al Qaeda-linked militants in the North African deserts linking Libya, Chad, Niger, Algeria and Mali.

Algerian officials have vocalized concern about hundreds of miles of largely unguarded border with Libya. These borders have been frought with arms traffickers and criminal smugglers since the fall of Gadhafi. Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zidan declared the border a closed military zone in December 2012, and this month he met with his Algerian counterpart to work in an effort to increase border surveillance.

A US official sees the weapons transactions as a force multiplier that empowered rebels in Mali and “tipped the balance”. In November 2011, members of AQIM told African journalists that weapons from Libya would give them an advantage in their insurgencies.

Further complicating matters, security concerns are shifting to Libya following the hostage crisis at Ain Amenas gas plant in Algeria, as porous borders and unreliable armed forces leave the oil and gas industry vulnerable. Analysts suggest that while the Algerian government will be able to step-up security and contain threats to their oil and gas complexes, similar attacks are likely in other countries which support French actions in Mali. The most vulnerable of these is Libya, which is just beginning to reach pre-revolution oil output of 1.6 million barrels per day. Libya is still in the process of reassembling security forces.

Libya Travel Advice:

No restrictions in this travel advice

Avoid all but essential travel to part(s) of country

Avoid all but essential travel to whole country

Avoid all travel to part(s) of country

Avoid all travel to whole country

The UK FCO advises against all but essential travel to Tripoli, Zuwara, Az Zawiya, al Khums, Zlitan and Misrata, and the coastal towns from Ras Lanuf to the Egyptian Border, with the exception of Benghazi. The FCO also advises against all travel to all other areas of Libya, including Benghazi. There is a high threat of terrorism, including indiscriminate attacks in places frequented by expatriates and foreign travellers. There is also a threat of retaliatory attacks following French intervention in Mali, as well as a threat of kidnapping. Avoid any demonstrations or large gatherings of people, and be weary that violent clashes between armed groups are possible across the country, particularly at night.