MS Risk Blog

New Military Operations Launched in Mali and in Burkina Faso’s Border Regions

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The Malian army is currently carrying out a massive offensive in the centre of the country, which has helped to put a number of terrorists out of action.  On Monday 11 November, the Malian government released a statement saying that security forces of Mali have been engaged for a few days in a large-scale offensive against terrorist bases in some localities in the central Mopti region of the country. The statement went on to say that several extremists had been killed, without specifying the number, adding that a number of vehicles and motorcycles were burned, identity cards of several nationalities were found and military effects were recovered.    The government indicated that the operation is being carried out with the support of the Malian Air Force.  The operation comes in the wake of two recent deadly attacks that have claimed the lives of a hundred Malian soldiers in one month in what is one of the army’s heaviest losses since the 2013 French-led military intervention to oust extremists in northern Mali.  According to a statement released by Malian officials, faced with mounting pressure to contain the jihadist insurgency, President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita had ordered the development of a “new operational concept that gives an important part to the offensive.”  The Malian government also formally denied the capture, and subsequent depiction on social media networks, of armoured vehicles by jihadists during recent attacks targeting positions of the Malian army.

While limited information has been released regarding the offensive in Mopti region, it coincides with another operation, known as “Bourgou 4,” which is being led by the French force Barkhane alongside local armies in the tri-border region of Burkina Faso, Mali and Niger.  This operation was launched at the request of Burkinabe authorities, who are struggling to contain the growing jihadist threat within the country. French Armed Forces Minister Florence Parly announced the launch of the offensive during a visit to the region on 6 November, though sources in Burkina Faso have suggested that the operation has already started.  The operation represents an expansion of France’s operation in the Sahel region, and while the country has given air support to Burkinabe troops and small numbers of French troops are known to have operated in Burkina Faso for some time, this current operation represents France’s first major commitment of ground troops in the West African country.

Two Pirate attacks Reported in W. Africa in Recent Days

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On Monday 4 November, pirates attacked a Greek oil tanker off the coast of Togo and fled after taking four crewmembers hostage, just two days after a similar attack was carried out in the waters of neighbouring Benin.

Officials have reported that those kidnapped in Monday’s attack include two Filipino nationals, one Greek and one Georgian. One security guard was also shot and wounded in the attack.  A statement released by the Togolese Navy disclosed that “Monday, 4thof November 2019, around 0300, the tanker boat Elka Aristotle (…) was attacked around 18 kilometres (11 miles) from the port of Lomé by armed individuals.”  The vessel’s manager, European Product Carriers Ltd. confirmed the early morning attack, though provided no further details. Greece’s shipping ministry has meanwhile disclosed that it is “closely monitoring the issue.”  The Togolese Navy has also reported that armed guards were present on the Greek vessel and tried to fight off the attackers, noting that one was wounded in the incident.  An investigation into the attack has been opened.

Monday’s attack follows the abduction by pirates of nine Filipino crewmembers from a Norwegian-flagged boat off the coast of Benin on Saturday 2 November.  A vessel owned by Norwegian shipping firm J.J. Ugland was boarded by pirates while at anchor off the coast of Benin on Saturday, with nine crewmembers kidnapped, the company confirmed on Sunday. A statement released by the company indicated that the remaining crew of the Norwegian-flagged MV Bonita notified local authorities and the vessel docked at the port city of Cotonou later on Saturday, adding that the vessel was destined for Benin.  Citing safety reasons, the company did not reveal the crew’s nationalities or how many had avoided capture.

Third quarter figures this year released by the International Chamber of Commerce International Maritime Bureau (IMB) indicate that there were fewer incidents of piracy and armed robbery against vessels than the first nine months of 2018.  So far this year, a total of 119 incidents of piracy and armed robbery against vessels have been reported, compared to 156 incidents for the same period in 2018.  Overall, the 2019 incidents comprised of 95 vessels boarded, 10 vessels fired upon, 10 attempted attacks, and four vessels hijacked. The number of crewmembers taken hostage through the first nine months of this year has declined from 112 in 2018 to 49 in 2019.  While the overall number of incidents has declined, the IMB notes that incidents involving guns and knives remain consistent, stating that there have been 24 knife-related and 35 gun-related incidents reported this year, compared to 25 and 37 for the first nine months of 2018.  The statistics confirm the IMB’s concerns over continued threats to the safety and security of seafarers.

While piracy has decreased worldwide, West Africa’s Gulf of Guinea remains a high-risk area for abductions and armed robbery.  The region accounts for 86% of crewmembers taken hostage and nearly 82% of crewmember kidnappings globally.  So far this year, Lagos, Nigeria has reported 11 incidents – the highest number of any port in the world.  Despite reporting more attacks than any other country, Nigeria saw its attacks reduced in the third quarter of this year from 41 during the same period in 2018 to 29 in 2019.  Nevertheless, the greater Gulf of Guinea region remains the piracy hotspot.  Recent attacks in the region include the July incident of a general cargo vessel that was hijacked approximate 120 nautical miles southwest of Brass.  Ten crewmembers were kidnapped from the vessel and were released four weeks later. In August, a bulk carrier and a general cargo vessel were boarded within ours of each other at Douala anchorage, Cameroon.  A total of seventeen crewmembers were kidnapped from the vessels.  Within six weeks, all kidnapped crewmembers were released. This incidents demonstrates the range of piracy activity in the Gulf of Guinea and that all types of vessels are vulnerable to attack.  ICC IMB Director Pottengal Mukundan notes that “although incidents are down, the Gulf of Guinea continues to be a concern for piracy and armed robbery-related activities with kidnappings of crewmembers increasing in both scale and frequency,” adding that “it is important that shipmasters and owners continue to report all actual, attempted and suspected incidents to ensure that an accurate picture of these attacks emerge and action is taken against these criminals before the incidents further escalate.”

Mexican Cartel Launches Bold Attack to Free El Chapo’s Son

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On Thursday, heavy fighting broke out in northern Mexico after security forces attempted to seize one of the sons of jailed drug kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.

Fighting lasted for several hours after Ovidio Guzmán López was found during a routine patrol in the city of Culiacán, some 1,235 km (770 miles) northwest of Mexico City.  After entering the house, they found four men, including Guzmán, who is accused of drug trafficking in the United States.  Footage depicted heavily-armed men firing on police, with cars, bodies and burning barricades strewn in the road.  According to the country’s Security Minister Alfonso Durazo, a patrol of National Guard militarized police came under intense fire from outside the home where they had located Guzmán, adding that police were forced to retreat from the building without Guzmán in custody for their own safety and “to recover calm in the city.”  A lawyer for the Guzmán family has confirmed that “Ovidio is alive and free.”  The chaos continued as night fell.  A large group of inmates escaped from the city prison while residents cowered in shopping centres and supermarkets as gunfire continued to be heard across the city.  A state police spokesman confirmed that several prisoners escaped from a prison during the chaos, with video footage depicting a group of at least twenty prisoners running in the streets.  It was not immediately clear how many had escaped.  Cristobal Castaneda, head of security in Sinaloa, told the Televisa network that two people had been killed and a further 21 were injured, according to preliminary information, adding that police had come under attack when they approached roadblocks manned by gunmen.  Officials have advised residents not to leave their homes.

Meanwhile Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has disclosed that he would hold a meeting of his security cabinet in order to discuss the incident.

Under El Chapo’s leadership, the Sinaloa cartel was the biggest supplier to the US, according to officials, and with El Chapo currently in prison, the cartel is said to be partially controlled by Guzmán, who has been accused of drug trafficking in the US. He is believed to be in his twenties. El Chapo, who ran the cartel for decades and escaped from prison twice before being arrested and extradited to the US, was found guilty in a US court in February of smuggling tons of drugs and sentenced to life in prison.  He is believed to have twelve children, including Ovidio.  In February, the US Department of Justice unveiled an indictment against Ovidio and another of the brothers, charging them with conspiracy to distribute cocaine, methamphetamine, and marijuana in the US.  The indictment gave Ovidio’s age as 28 and stated that he had been involved in trafficking conspiracies since he was a teenager.

Thursday’s chaos in Culiacan, which has long been a stronghold for the Guzmán’s Sinaloa cartel, will likely increase pressure on President Obrador, who took office in December 2018 on a promise to pacify the country, which is weary after more than a decade of drug-war fighting.  The release of Guzmán however is likely to send the wrong message as it indicates that the state, including the army, could potentially be blackmailed and that overall, officials are not in control.  Reports have indicated that presumed cartel members apparently intercepted a radio frequency used by security forces warning of reprisals against soldiers if Guzmán was not freed.  Overall security in Mexico has declined this year, and officials are already reporting that murder rates for 2019 are set to be at a record high. Furthermore, Thursday’s incident follows the massacre of more than a dozen police in western Mexico earlier this week and the killing of fourteen suspected gangsters by the army a day later.

The Rising Conflict between Israel and Hezbollah

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Israel and Hezbollah have been engaging in fierce fighting this month, with Israel’s military shelling in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley in early September representing the most significant Israeli operation against the terrorist group since the 2006 Lebanon War. Hezbollah is considered a terrorist organisation by Israel and the United States, and is a major political actor in Lebanon. The conflict between the Iranian-aligned group and Israel comes amidst rising tensions between Iran and the US, particularly in regard to the seizure of an Iranian oil tanker at the beginning of July. This has further sparked fear of possible military escalation between Israel and Hezbollah.

Last month, alleged Israeli attacks in Lebanon reinforced existing rifts between the two countries, further building tension between Israel, the US and Iranian-aligned regions. Lebanese President Michael Aoun called the crashing of two Israeli drones near the Hezbollah media office in the Hezbollah-dominated southern Beirut district of Dahia a “declaration of war.” Israeli forces also killed two Hezbollah members in a strike against targets in Syria. After the Lebanese army fired at two Israeli drones in Lebanese airspace, the UN Security Council subsequently warned that violations of the ceasefire between Israel and Lebanon in the latter country’s south could lead to “new conflict that none of the parties or region can afford.”

In September, violence has escalated. On 1 September, Hezbollah fired several anti-rockets into northern Israel in retaliation for the Israeli drone attack in Beirut last month. Israeli military sources confirmed that rockets had been fired at an Israeli army base and military vehicles. The Israeli army responded by attacking targets in southern Lebanon. On 9 September, Hezbollah revealed that it had shot down an Israeli unmanned aircraft outside the southern town of Ramyah. The group said in a statement that it had “confronted” the drone with “appropriate weapons” as it was heading towards the town. Israel has also recently accused Hezbollah of building a precision-missile factory in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, just days after the cross-border flare-up. In a statement accompanied by satellite images, the Israeli military said that Hezbollah, with Iranian assistance, had brought specialised equipment to a weapons factory near the village of al-Nabi Shaith, in the Bekaa Valley, with the intention to set up a production line for precision-guided missiles. Hezbollah has previously admitted to possessing such weapons, which could be used to damage and destroy key Israeli infrastructure.

The fighting has triggered fears of a full-blown conflict. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin has cautioned the Lebanese government that if it doesn’t stop Hezbollah’s aggression against Israel, the terror group will drag both countries into war, stating: “We say clearly to the Lebanese government and its allies around the world: Hezbollah’s aggression must be stopped before we find ourselves dragged into a conflict that neither Lebanon nor Israel want.” Indeed, if the conflicts continue, it is likely that tensions may escalate, marking the start of another military conflict between Israel and the Lebanese Shia militia. Heiko Wimmen, the project director for Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon at the International Crisis Group, said that any miscalculation could spark a war.  Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israel’s Military Intelligence Directorate, agrees that the fighting could lead to another full-blown conflict. “The next war will be devastating for both sides and that’s why both sides want to avoid it,” Yadlin said. “[However], even without planning for a full-scale war, we can find ourselves there.” Others have suggested that Hezbollah fighters are eager to reopen old wounds with the Israelis due to the Syrian conflict winding down.

Indeed, Hezbollah is a formidable opponent both politically and militarily, with an estimated 40,000 to 150,000 rockets and missiles which are said to outmatch the weapons capabilities of most countries. The group also yields significant political clout in Lebanon, having secured a majority in Lebanon’s government where it influences most of the country’s domestic policy. A full-blown conflict would therefore have worrying repercussions for the rest of the Middle East and the worldwide community. The last time hostilities between Hezbollah and Israel flared into open conflict, approximately 1,300 Lebanese and 150 Israelis were killed.

Dissident FARC fighters call to arms

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Some three years after the peace accord between the Colombian government and the leftist guerrilla movement the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC after their Spanish initials, a group of former FARC fighters announced that they will be taking up arms again and launch a new offensive. This is a serious threat to the already highly fragile peace process and could have the possibility of overturning the peace accord if not managed properly by President Ivan Duque and his government. If they act decisively, they might be able to stop the unrest in its tracks. However, it could also trigger a violence escalation and worsen the situation. If they, on the other hand, decide to focus on dialogue, there might be a possibility of reaching an understanding. However, the window of opportunity for dialogue might already have passed.

The peace accord of 2016 was considered a landmark agreement, and the whole world was watching as President Juan Manuel Santos shook hands with the FARC leader Rodrigo Londono, AKA Timochenko. After some debate, the agreement was ratified in November 2016. FARC was founded in 1964 on the basis of a Marxist-Leninist ideology and were formed to fight huge levels of inequality in Colombia. After having been hit hard by Colombian security forces over the years prior to the peace accord, some analysts speculate that FARC could not sustain its mission anymore, whilst FARC themselves insist that they have always wanted peace. The deal that was struck in 2016 included rural reform and development, ensured the political participation of FARC, substitution of illicit crops and the establishment of a truth commission and a commitment to victims’ rights. In return, FARC would disarm, declare all their assets and hand them over and the rebels would provide intelligence on any drug trafficking the may have been involved in.

However, the implementation of the accord has been bumpy and inconsistent, with a surge of violence against social leaders, struggles to adequately reintegrate and protect ex-FARC combatants and concerns regarding the promised rural development and coca crops replacements. Further, after FARC disbanded, the power vacuum left was quickly seized and embattled between criminal groups and other guerrilla movements, most notably perhaps the National Liberation Army (ELN). Dissidents from FARC, who never abided to the peace accord, have been active as well. The August 2018 inauguration of the new government, spearheaded by Ivan Duque, meant substantial modifications of the peace deal. Some progress was made, but the tone and rhetoric seemingly turned colder. Some analysts mean that Duque’s administration’s half-hearted attitude towards the peace process risks putting it in jeopardy.

In a video posted on social media on 29 August 2019, a group of FARC dissidents, led by the group’s former second-in-command Luciano Marin, AKA Ivan Marquez, announced that they will initiate a new offensive, and declared a “new chapter” in FARC’s armed struggles. He said that the Colombian state had abandoned the peace agreement, and thus, FARC would take up arms once again. Marquez was accompanied by the former FARC commander known as Jesus Santrich, who has been in and out of Colombian jail the past couple of months, before he managed to escape, and Hernan Dario Velasquez, AKA El Paisa, who commanded FARC’s strongest military wing. The figures in the video are considered popular and does command respect amongst former FARC fighters. They have allegedly for a year tried to coordinate dissident FARC units, with varying degrees of success. One main point of conflict between FARC units is the role of drugs in a potential new uprising, and some analysts claim that this disagreement can lead to in-fighting. While FARC’s main motivation has always been political, drug trade has been a reliable way to fund their operations.

Even though most of ex-FARC members have abided to the peace agreement, it is estimated that the post-FARC movement is numbering around 2,500 fighters, both former FARC members and new recruits. The Colombian Organized Crime Observatory claims that there are 37 FARC groups spread across the country. There are also urban militias, previously supporters of FARC, that can possibly support a new uprising.

The new call to arms by Ivan Marquez and his rather influential group of FARC dissidents is arguably the single most critical development since the implementation of the peace accord in 2016. The threat of this neo-FARC movement cannot, however, be considered as grave as the threat posed by FARC in its prime. Its fragmentary nature, with considerable risks of in-fighting, and the rise of new armed groups in the vacuum of FARC’s demobilisation makes for a complex situation that will be difficult to navigate. However, if the call to arms catches tailwind and Marquez and his people manages to unite former fighters and new recruits motivated by disappointment of the government’s questionable implementation of the peace process, this could be the initial spark of a highly problematic situation. Not only for the government, but for ordinary citizens as well, who certainly suffers under the threat of renewed turmoil in the country.