On Monday 2 September, militants in the Niger Delta threatened to cause collateral damage to oil installations and facilities in the region in the event that the Nigerian Federal Government proceeds with the purported plan to take away supervision of the Niger Delta Development Commission (NDDC) from the Ministry of Niger Delta to the Office of the Secretary to Government of the Federation (OSGF).
In a statement issued by the leader of the group, “General” Johnmark Ezonbi, the Reformed Niger Delta Avengers (RNDA), which is in a coalition with nine other militant groups, warned that “we will bring the nation to its knees and return Nigeria to the era of another recession if the Secretary to Federal Government and so-called selfish self-centred, greed power-drunken politicians refuse to stop their evil arrangement.” The statement went on to say that “it has come to our notice that there was an ongoing meeting initiated by some power-drunk and self-centred leaders from the region, who have lost control of the affairs of the NDDC. They are collaborating with some top officials in the Presidency to transfer the supervision of the NDDC to the OSGF all in a bid to divert the fund for their personal gains towards 2023,” adding “we sternly warn those behind this evil plot to retrace their steps or live to regret their actions as they will not be spared in the onslaught christened ‘Final Battle to Rescue NDDC from the Hawks, Blood for Oil.’” The militants, which had been supportive of President Muhammadu Buhari’s administration, added that “any attempts to remove the NDDC, from the supervision of Niger Delta Ministry to OSGF would be met with stiff resistance not minding the negative impact our action would have on the nation’s economy.” RNDA leader Ezonbi asserted that the fact that militants had accepted a ceasefire agreement did not mean that civilians living in the Niger Delta region would accept whatever the government decided, stating “they want to render the NDDC meaningless to the region when efforts should be geared to strengthen and release all funds accruing to the Commission, rather they want to reduce it to a mere bureaucratic office, we will not allow that to happen.”
So far, the Nigerian government has not responded to the coalition’s demands, though ignoring any such threats might prove problematic, particularly in a country which is already dealing with continued instability in its north-eastern region, where Boko Haram remains active. Furthermore, Nigeria’s economy is overall recovering from recession, though according to officials growth levels remain constrained and reforms must be carried out to catalyse higher levels of growth and employment. Any attacks carried out in the Niger Delta region will not only further destabilize the area but will most likely impact the economy and will further fuel tensions amongst the local populations, who despite the region’s oil wealth, have seen minimal funds coming back to the local communities.
The Yemen conflict has been ongoing since 2015 marked by consistent fierce fighting between the Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi led Yemeni government and the Iran-backed Houthi movement. Last year, the UN declared that Yemen was on the verge of a major catastrophe and that conditions had hugely deteriorated since previous visits to the region. However, the fighting has taken an unexpected turn this month, with sharp divisions surfacing between factions within the Sunni Muslim military coalition led by Riyadh battling the Houthi movement. The port city of Aden has suffered the majority of violence. It has been controlled by the Saudi-backed government since the Houthi movement overruled Sanaa in 2014 but recently has been overpowered by the separatist movement.
The Southern Transitional Council (STC) or separatists and the internationally recognised government of President Hadi are by name part of the Western-backed coalition fighting the Houthis. However, this unity has rapidly broken down in August. The separatists and Hadi’s government both have rival agendas, with the separatists demanding self-rule in the south. There have also been disagreements over the Islamist Islah party, a key part of Hadi’s government. The UAE views Islah has connected to the Muslim Brotherhood, a transnational Sunni Islamist organisation founded in Egypt, which the Arab nation has banned. Islah is tolerated by Saudi Arabia due to their contribution in propping up Hadi.
Violence has erupted throughout the port city of Aden during August. The deadliest day in Aden in nearly 2 years was seen on 1 August. The Houthi movement launched missile and drone attacks on a military parade in the city, killing 36 people. An explosive hit a military camp belonging to the Yemeni Security Belt forces backed by the UAE. Suicide bombers further blasted a police station in another of the city’s neighbourhoods. The attacks killed dozens of separatist soldiers, raising intense friction between the groups and prompting several days of violence in the city. The STC accused the Islah party of complicity in the Houthi missile attack on southern forces and Hadi’s government of mismanagement. As a result, on 7 August, southern separatists clashed with presidential guards in Aden, killing three people and injuring nine others. Fighting continued for a third consecutive day, with reports of at least 20 people killed. At least five civilians were amongst the dead and dozens were wounded in the violence, according to doctors and security officials. On 10 August, separatist forces seized military camps and other state institutions in the city, prompting Saudi Arabia to call for an urgent meeting. However, despite earlier statements from separatist leaders that they are ready for peace talks, the separatists have refused to hand back control of Aden port to the Saudi-backed government. This has delayed a summit in Saudi Arabia that will discuss reformation of Yemen’s government in order to include the separatists and halt the clash.
The situation in Aden has severely ruptured the military coalition led by Riyadh and complicated UN efforts to host political talks, with fighting between the groups wasting time and money which could be better spent on working towards an overall ceasefire agreement in Yemen. The likelihood of the groups rekindling appears low. According to a Yemeni official, the summit’s inclusion of the STC is only linked to them fully withdrawing from Aden first. However, the STC have said its forces will remain in Aden until the Islah party and northerners are removed from powerful positions in the south. A delay is likely to further increase tensions, violence in Aden and even incite the Houthis to launch further attacks. Amidst the conflict, the Houthis have targeted Saudi energy infrastructure. On 17 August, a drone attack launched by the Houthis on an oilfield in eastern Saudi Arabia caused a fire at a gas plant. The group targeted the Shaybah oilfield with 10 drones. However, there were no injuries and no interruptions to oil operations. The UN has called for a de-escalation of violence, with UN Special Envoy Martin Griffiths requesting the parties to honour their commitment to peace and put more efforts towards a political solution to the conflict. The recent conflict is only likely to further extend the bloody war in Yemen. Any chance of a coveted ceasefire between the Saudi-led coalition and Houthi movement appears low as long as the violence between the separatist movement and the Hadi government continues.
The United Arab Emirates (UAE) has ordered a probe into the sabotage operation against four vessels off its coast on Sunday 12 May 2019. The incident occurred at around 0600 h local time (02:00 GMT), east of the UAE emirate of Fujairah, which is close to Hormuz, between Iran and Oman. In a statement released on Sunday, the UAE foreign ministry warned that “subjecting commercial vessels to sabotage operations and threatening the lives of their crew is considered a dangerous development.” The statement reported that four commercial vessels had been targeted near its territorial waters, though it did not identify the vessels beyond stating that they were of various nationalities. No injuries or fatalities on board the vessels have been reported and as well as no spillage of harmful chemicals or fuel. On Monday 13 May, ship management company Thome Ship Management confirmed that the hull of a Norwegian-registered product tanker was damaged by an unknown object off the coast of Fujairah port on Sunday. In a statement, Thome reported that “the master of MT Andrea Victory reported the crew were unharmed but there was a hole in the hull area of the aft peak tank. The ship is not in any danger of sinking.” A statement released by the Saudi Press Agency on Monday, citing the energy minister, confirmed that two Saudi oil tankers faced a “sabotage attack” off the coast of Fujairah, adding that the tankers were on their way to cross into the Persian Gulf and had suffered “significant damage.” According to the country’s energy minister Khalid al-Falih, “one of the two vessels was on its way to be loaded with Saudi crude oil from the port of Ras Tanura, to be delivered to Saudi Aramco’s customers in the United States.” Industry sources are reporting that the Saudi tankers affected were the Amjad and Al Marzoqah. The fourth vessel is reportedly UAE-flagged.
The UAE ministry statement was released after reports emerged on Sunday of an explosion inside Fujairah port during the morning hours. A senior Iranian lawmaker and head of parliament’s national security committee, Heshmatollah Falahatpisheh disclosed on Sunday that reports of “explosions” near Fujairah port showed that the security situation of Gulf states was fragile. The media office of the Government of Fujairah however denied in a tweet that blasts had occurred inside Fujairah port, disclosing that the facility was operating normally. The UAE ministry statement, which also denied that any incident had taken place inside the port, disclosed that the government had taken all necessary measures and launched an investigation in coordination with international authorities. The statement went on to say that “the international community should carry out its responsibilities to prevent any parties trying to harm maritime security and safety, which would be considered a threat to international safety and security.” In another statement released overnight, the GCC secretary-general, Abdul Lateef Al Zayani, described the sabotage as a “serious escalation,” adding, “such irresponsible acts will increase tension and conflicts in the region and expose its peoples to great danger.” Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon and Yemen’s internationally-recognized government have also condemned the attacks. Meanwhile Saudi Arabia on Monday expressed support for the UAE following the attacks, with the Saudi foreign ministry disclosing in a statement that the attacks constitute a “dangerous threat to the safety of navigation and affects negatively regional and international security.”
While it currently remains unclear who is behind Sunday’s incident, with the UAE so far not blaming any country or other party for the operation, analysts are reporting that they suspect Iran of being behind the operation as the country has continuously threatened to disrupt shipping in the strategic Strait of Hormuz. While Iran has called for an investigation, with Iran’s Foreign Ministry calling it “worrisome and dreadful,” the incident comes amidst increasing tensions in the region. Last month, Iran threatened to “close” the Strait of Hormuz if it was prevented from using the waterway. This followed a US decision to end exemptions from sanctions for major importers of Iranian oil, which came into effect on 2 May. Washington has also stated that it was deploying a US aircraft carrier and other forces to the Middle East as a result of what it said were Iranian threats. Tehran meanwhile has called the US military presence “a target” rather than a threat. Sunday’s incident may therefore be an attempt to convey a message to the international community that Iran’s threats should be taken seriously. Likewise, the incident may be a way of testing Washington and its allies in a bid to see how they will react. The US ambassador to Saudi Arabia has disclosed that Washington should take what he called “reasonable responses short of war” after it had determined who was behind Sunday’s attack. In remarks published on 14 May, Ambassador John Abizaid told reporters in the Saudi capital Riyadh “we need to do a thorough investigation to understand what happened, why it happened, and then come up with reasonable responses short of war.” A US official familiar with American intelligence disclosed on Monday that while Iran was a prime suspect in the sabotage, Washington had no conclusive proof.
Sunday’s incident raises concerns relating to the safety of vessels transiting the region and that the shipping lanes in the Gulf region could become a flashpoint as tensions continue to escalate between the US and Iran. On 13 May 2019, the US issued a new alert to maritime traffic in regard to the alleged “acts of sabotage” of vessels off the coast of the UAE. The US Maritime Administration warned shippers to exercise caution when travelling past Fujairah. MS Risk advises all vessels transiting the Strait of Hormuz to maintain heightened security levels and to be wary of any suspicious activity.
Amid the Presidential conflict in Venezuela between de facto President Nicolas Maduro and self-proclaimed Interim President Juan Guaido, the pressure on Maduro seems to hold steady. On 30 April, Guaido called on the military to rise against Maduro and oust him. Maduro later claimed to have thwarted the attempted overthrow. The military leadership still appear to be loyal to Maduro, however, there are a number of reports detailing military desertions to Guaido. But Maduro has another ace up his sleeve. He is increasingly relying on a trusted, parallel security structure set in place in the early 2000s by former President Hugo Chavez. The ‘Colectivos’, a group of armed leftist gangs who functions as government “enforcers”, have on several occasions proved valuable to the preservation of the socialist order through their use of force to beat down on the opposition, and is continuing to show its significance. On 2 April 2019, the opposition-controlled National Assembly declared the Colectivos as terrorist groups. The threat of Colectivos is likely to, to some extent, impede the moral and ability of citizens to protest. It is probable that the Colectivos is a factor to Maduro’s ability to remain in power and is almost certainly a part in the fight against the new uprising that started 30 April. However due to their relatively small numbers, the Colectivos is not likely to have any decisive influence and if the military leadership turns against Maduro, the Colectivos will likely easily be subverted.
The appearance of Colectivos and their loyalty to the President is no coincidence. In 2002, after former socialist President Hugo Chavez successfully thwarted an attempted coup d’état, he realized the need for new security structures in the country that could counterbalance the army. He turned to the “Bolivarian Circles”, grassroot movements set up to support the 1999 Bolivarian Revolution. They had proven valuable in beating anti-government protests. After the coup, the Bolivarian Circles became known as Colectivos. In 2006, they were granted legitimacy and real influence. The Colectivos, consisting of some 5,000-7,500 people nationwide, engage in a multitude of activities. Some are genuine, like bookshops, summer camps and study groups, but they also engage in kidnappings, robbery, extortion and drug dealing seemingly with impunity. In the midst of the current economic crisis, they have even started trafficking food and medicine. There is little doubt about government ties with the Colectivos. There are several reports on the Venezuelan government funding the Colectivos’ activities and some Colectivos have formal links to the government. Further, certain members of Colectivos work for the Venezuelan armed forces. In some parts of the country, the Colectivos even have some state powers and act as a form of police. It is also reported that the government directly arm the groups.
The Colectivos is arguably a factor as to why Maduro has managed to cling to power. Former Minister of Correctional Services Iris Varela has said that they were a “fundamental pillar in the defense of the homeland”. On several occasions, they have been on the frontline against anti-Maduro protests. In the 2014 anti-government protests, the Colectivos were a big part in violently subverting the uprising, completely without impunity. Their role was repeated in the 2017 demonstrations, where they were, according to the New York Times, “key enforcers” for Maduro. They did, in one instance, storm the opposition-controlled National Assembly and assaulted lawmakers.
Following Guaido’s presidential challenge at the beginning of this year, the Colectivos have had several roles to play. In February, there were several reports of Colectivos reinforcing the border between Venezuela and Colombia amid the attempts to deliver humanitarian aid. They allegedly attacked people on both sides of the border and fired weapons at crowds. On 1 April, as he announced the electricity rationing following the devastating blackouts in the country, President Maduro called on the Colectivos to “defend the peace of every barrio, of every block”.
The fact that Colectivos are not official security forces has both positive and negative consequences for the government. By instilling fear in the opposition, the Colectivos can quite effectively thwart protests and demonstrations in a way the regular armed forces cannot. Because they are a paramilitary group, not officially controlled by the government, they can, with a little encouragement, do things that a government cannot officially endorse. A Venezuela expert said that “They fulfill the classic work of paramilitaries, doing violent security tasks that security agents in uniform would be held accountable for”. But the government ties are, nevertheless, obvious, and if Maduro encourages and deploy the groups to overtly, he risks further damaging his already tainted reputation.
The relationship between the Colectivos and the government seem to be on the decline, both due to the economic crisis making funding difficult and reported discontent with the Maduro leadership, but the loyalty of the Colectivos does seem somewhat intact. The survival of the Colectivos largely depends on keeping the socialist regime in power. If Maduro falls, and Guaido comes to power, the groups will likely face massive pressure to disarm and disband. Thus, for the Colectivos, fighting to keep the regime in place might be purely out of self-preservation and an ideological belief in the Bolivarian revolution rather than loyalty to Maduro himself.
No matter why they fight, the Colectivos are a valuable, if risky, asset of the Bolivarian revolution and Maduro’s government. As they can do things that regular armed forces cannot, with impunity, the Colectivos can be used as a tool to instill fear within the opposition. Indeed, they are almost certainly an asset, however not a decisive one, in Maduro’s ongoing subversion of the new uprising starting on 30 April. But their reputation of brutality makes them a risky asset to employ for Maduro. With the international community scrutinizing the Venezuela situation, the more directly Maduro encourage the Colectivos, the more hits his reputation takes.
On 8 April, US President Donald Trump designated Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as a foreign terrorist organisation. The unprecedented move against Iran’s armed forces has expectedly elicited a strong reaction, including deep apprehension and reproach from nations, organisations and analysts. It will undoubtedly rack up pre-existing tensions between the US and the Islamic Republic, sharpening the sting of Trump’s recent proclamation which recognises Golan Heights as Israeli territory.
In a statement on Monday, Donald Trump said: “This unprecedented step, led by the Department of State, recognises the reality that Iran is not only a state sponsor of terrorism, but that the IRGC actively participates in, finances and promotes terrorism as a tool of statecraft.” He added that the decision is expected to significantly increase pressure on Iran, stating: “If you are doing business with the IRGC, you will be bankrolling terrorism.” Reuters have reported that previous administrations considered designating the IRGC as a foreign terrorist organisation but decided the risk to US forces overseas outweighed the benefit of doing so.
According to the BBC, the IRGC is Iran’s most elite military unit and was established soon after the 1979 Iranian revolution to defend the country’s Islamic system and to provide a counterweight to the country’s regular armed forces. Since then, it has evolved into a major military, political and economic force in the country, with close ties to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and other senior figures in the government. The IRGC is thought to consist of more than 150,000 active personnel and has its own ground forces, navy and air force. It also oversees Iran’s strategic weapons, including its ballistic missiles. It exerts influence elsewhere in the Middle East; it provides weapons, technology, training, money and advice to Iranian-aligned governments and armed groups.
The Counter Extremism Project states that the IRGC has links with Iran’s terrorist proxies. According to the non-profit NGO, within the IRGC exists the Basij militia and the Quds Force. The Basij are a paramilitary organisation which is in charge of channelling popular support for the Iranian regime; it is famous for its recruitment of volunteers. The Basij has two missions; providing defensive military training to protect the regime against foreign invasion and to suppress domestic anti-regime activity through street violence and intimidation. The Quds force on the other hand, specialise in foreign missions, providing training, funding and weapons to extremist groups, including Hezbollah and Hamas. They also play a key role in support of Syrian regime forces in the country’s civil war.
Since Trump’s arrival into office, he has taken a hard stance with Iran. The implementation of US sanctions, with the toughest ones targeting Iran’s financial and oil sectors in November last year, have resulted in the Islamic Republic facing economic difficulties, compounding the abysmal relationship between the two countries.
Over the past few months, tensions have been steadily building, particularly in light of Trump’s recent proclamation in March which recognised Golan Heights as Israeli territory. Towards the end of March, the US imposed new sanctions on a network of companies and individuals in Iran, Turkey and the UAE it said was transferring billions of dollars to Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, further angering Iran. The targeted institutions include banks and other financial companies, including Ansar Bank, Atlas Exchange and Iranian Atlas Company.
Preluding this, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani threatened that Iran would file a legal case against the US for the sanctions, stating that Iran will pursue the case in international courts of justice. Iran have also said that they are determined to boost their defence capabilities despite pressure from the US to curb its ballistic missile programme. Earlier last month, the US accused Iran of rejecting a UN Security Council resolution in regard to their recent ballistic missile test and satellite launches, urging the Council to bring back tougher international restrictions on Tehran. The sanctions and threats have only further deepened the pre-existing rift between the countries and boosted current hatred.
Iran has unsurprisingly condemned the US move. In a direct response to the proclamation, the Iranian Supreme National Security Council have designated US military forces as a terrorist organisation, according to Iranian state-run TV. President Rouhani has criticised the US decision in a speech broadcast live on state television, accusing the US as being the “leader of world terrorism” in response. Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araqchi has named the US decision a “major strategic mistake” and Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has described it as a “gift” to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Other leaders and organisations have additionally expressed their disapproval; Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi has stated that the designation could result in detrimental consequences for Iraq and the Middle East. Lebanon’s Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah has also condemned the US decision, stating that the move “humiliates” an entire nation and reflects Trump’s “disappointment” over the strength and influence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
The move has garnered some concern, particularly pertaining to potential retaliatory attacks on US forces. BBC Defence Correspondent Jonathan Marcus argues that the measure is likely to be ineffective as it is unlikely to have a significant impact upon the IRGC’s activities. Furthermore, it could even backfire, with the decision encouraging the organisation or its proxies to target US personnel in Iraq, spilling into open military conflict. This is a view which has been endorsed by many, including some officials in the State Department and the Pentagon. The CIA is also reported to have opposed Trump’s move.
According to reporting by Reuters, Jason Blazakis, a former State Department official who oversaw the process for labelling foreign terrorist organisations, argues that the designation was done for purely symbolic reasons. It could have however, deadly consequences for US troops. He argues that it could trigger Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, to allow IRGC-controlled Shi’ite Muslim militias to retaliate against US forces in Iraq.
The State Department have said the measure will take effect on 15 April.