Pentagon officials have indicated that they believe they hit their target – an al-Qaeda-linked commander who led a deadly attack on Algerian gas facility in 2013. However uncertainty surrounds the US airstrike on eastern Libya, and whether Mokhtar Belmokhtar was actually amongst the militants said to have been killed in the bombing, as al-Qaeda and other militants deny that Mokhtar Belmoktar was killed in the US airstrike.
Libyan officials have reported that Sunday’s airstrikes hit a gathering of militants on a farm outside Ajdabiya, a coastal city located about 850 kilometres (530 miles) east of the capital, Tripoli. A US official has indicated that in the airstrikes, two F-15 fighter jets launched multiple 500-pound bombs, with authorities confirming that there were no US personnel on the ground for the assault. However since these reports emerged, there have been conflicting reports on how many were killed, and whether Belmokhtar was amongst them.
An initial assessment indicates that the bombing that targeted Belmokhtar was successful, with Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman, disclosing that “post-strike assessments” were still underway on Monday in order to determine whether the Algerian militant was in fact killed. Maj. Mohammed Hegazi, a military spokesman for Libya’s internationally recognized government based in the eastern region of the country, also disclosed Monday that further tests were needed in order to identify the dead, which numbered at least seventeen. He added that amongst those killed were three foreigners – a Tunisian and two unidentified militants. While Hegazi criticized his own government for rushing to confirm late Sunday that Belmokhtar was amongst the dead, he disclosed that the raid was based on solid intelligence, which indicated that militants forced out of the eastern city of Benghazi by fighting there had taken refuge in Ajdabiya. While both the Libyan and US government are leaning towards Belmokhtar having been killed in the strike, conflicting reports from al-Qaeda and Islamists operating in the region have emerged in recent days.
A Libyan Islamist with ties to militants indicated Monday that the airstrikes missed Belmokhtar but that they had killed four members of a Libyan extremist group that is linked to al-Qaeda, Ansar Shariah, in Ajdabiya. The group has been tied to the 11 September 2012 attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi that killed US Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. Another militant has also reported that Belmokhtar was not at the site of the airstrike. However a news website, which has previously carried statements from Belmokhtar, indicated that he was in Ajdabiya, meeting with affiliates. The Mauritanian website quoted informed sources in Libya stating that six people were killed in the raid and that a Tunisian and Yemeni were wounded.
On Tuesday, Ansar al-Shariah denied that Belmokhtar was killed in the US airstrike. In a statement, the group named seven people it said were killed in the US strike in eastern Libya, however Belmokhtar was not among them, with the statement indicating “no other person was killed.” A second statement released by an umbrella group for militias called the Shura Council of Ajdabiya and its Surroundings also did not list Belmokhtar among the dead.
If officials do confirm Belmokhtar’s death, this would be a major success for US counterterrorism efforts as he is one of the most-wanted militants in the region, with a US $5 million reward for information leading to his capture. However this is not the first time that authorities have claimed to have killed him. He was previously though to have been killed in Mali, however security sources disclosed last year that he had moved to Libya.
Belmokhtar, who is believed to be 43 years old, fought in Afghanistan, where reports emerged that he lost his eye in combat. He was one of a number of fighters who have been battling Algeria’s government since the 1990’s. He later joined al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), before forming his own group, which led the January 2013 attack on Algeria’s Ain Amenas gas complex that killed at least 35 hostages, including three Americans. Reports later emerged that he was in Libya, with US officials believing he was based in the western and southern parts of the country. The US has filed terrorism charges against Belmokhtar in connection to the attack in Algeria, including conspiring to support al-Qaeda, use of a weapon of mass destruction and conspiring to take hostages. Officials maintain that he remains a threat to US and Western interests.
AQAP Confirms Death of Leader
Meanwhile in Yemen, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) has confirmed that Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of the offshoot militant group, has been killed in a US drone strike in Yemen, in what is the heaviest blow to the jihadist network since the death of Osama Bin Laden in 2011.
His death was announced by AQAP in an online video, with prominent al-Qaeda militant Khaled Omar Batarfi, a senior member of the group, stating Wuhayshi “was killed in a US drone attack that targeted him along with two other mujahedeen,’ who were also killed. The video statement was dated 15 June. The militant group, which has been behind several plots against Western targets including the deadly attack on French magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris earlier this year, indicated that it has named its military chief Qassem al-Rimi as its new leader.
Confirmation of Wuhayshi’s death comes after US officials had earlier reported that they are reviewing intelligence to confirm that he was killed in a CIA drone strike that was carried out on 9 June. Yemeni officials have reported that Wuhayshi was believed to have been killed last week in a raid in the al-Qaeda-held Mukalla, in the southeastern Yemeni province of Hadramawt. A Yemeni official further disclosed that last week, a drone had fired four missiles at three al-Qaeda militants, including an unnamed “leading figure,” near Mukalla port, adding that all three were killed on the spot. Witnesses also reported an explosion that killed three men on the seafront last Friday, adding that al-Qaeda gunmen had quickly cordoned off the area and gathered the remains, leading them to believe that a leader was amongst those killed.
Wuhayshi, a Yemeni believed to have been in his 30’s, travelled to Afghanistan in the late 1990’s where he attended al-Qaeda’s Al-Farouk training camp, and fought alongside Bin Laden. He would later become Bin Laden’s close confidante. As US forces closed in the battle of Tora Bora in late 2011, he escaped to Iran, where he was later arrested and extradited to Yemen, where he was jailed until escaping in February 2006. He became head of AQAP in 2007. US officials have indicated that he built one of the most active al-Qaeda branches, with Washington considering AQAP to be al-Qaeda’s deadliest branch. As well as the Charlie Hebdo attacks, which killed 12 people, AQAP was also behind an attempt to blow up as US commercial airline on Christmas Day 2009.
The US State Department had previously offered a US $10 million (£6.4 million) reward for anyone who could help bring Wuhayshi to justice, adding that he was “responsible for approving targets, recruiting new members, allocating resources to training and attack planning, and tasking others to carry out attacks.”
Since late January 2015, AQAP has lost a number of high profile figures in US strikes, including religious official Harith al-Nadhari, ideologue and spokesman Ibrahim al-Rubaish and religious and military official Nasser al-Ansi, along with several other lower ranking figures.
UNHRC: Polisario camps becoming a recruiting ground for terrorists and traffickers
A report released by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has found that refugee camps run by the separatist Polisario Front near Tindouf, Algeria, may have become a recruiting ground for terrorists and traffickers in North Africa.
Reports spanning back to 2009 show Polisario involvement in drugs and arms trafficking throughout the Sahel and Sahara; armed incursions in Mali; mercenary work under Gadhafi in Libya; and kidnappings and collaboration with AQIM. According to reports, the Polisario camps in Algeria have become a recruiting ground for AQIM, a hub for Polisario traffickers, and a threat to the region. Analysts are concerned about an “arc of instability” stretching across Africa, linking militants from AQIM, Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Shabaab in Somalia, and the Polisario. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon recently warned, “inaction could be catastrophic.”
Since 1990, international support for the camps has exceeded $1 billion. The UNHRC report recommends that support for the camps be used for durable solutions to resettle refugees, remove security threats, and improve humanitarian conditions.
Leaked report reveals Bahraini bid to replenish tear gas
A leaked report has revealed that in June, Bahrain’s interior ministry tendered bids for the provision of 1.6 million tear gas projectiles, 90,000 tear gas grenades and 145,000 stun grenades. The bid would replace nearly all of Bahrain’s projectiles used since 2011. The document does not reveal how much money Bahrain is prepared to spend on replenishing its supplies.
Bahraini forces have used tear gas extensively since 2011, as the minority Sunni government struggles faces daily low-level confrontations from a predominantly Shia population. Tear gas is among the most commonly-used methods to disperse protesters. In 2012, the US barred exports of tear gas to Bahrain, citing human rights concerns. Activists claim South Korean companies may be preparing to meet Bahrain’s tear gas requirements. The rise in global activism has spurred sales for non-lethal weapons as governments shift spending from counter terrorism to counter-activist policies.
Bombings in Suez, Sinai; police sent to trial
Two people were killed, and five wounded, when militants set off four roadside bombs targeting a security convoy in the Sinai Peninsula on 22 October. The convoy was travelling from Rafah, on the Gaza border, towards El Arish. The militants then exchanged fire with the security forces and fled. No one has yet claimed responsibility. The same day, militant group Ansar Beit Al Maqdis claimed responsibility for a car bombing on 19 October in Ismailiya that wounded six.
Meanwhile, Egypt’s public prosecutor has sent policemen to trial on charges of manslaughter over the deaths of 37 Islamist prisoners that were tear-gassed in a transport truck in August. The trials will be the first of policemen accused of killings in a massive crackdown of pro-Muslim Brotherhood supporters since army’s July 3 removal of president Mohamed Morsi.
Sectarian violence continues
At least 17 people were killed and 20 wounded in bombings and shootings on 22 October, when Iraqi forces clashed with an Al Qaeda militant hideout in the Himreen Mountains. The clashes resulted in the killing of four militants and the capture of seven others, all of whom were wanted for terrorism charges. A helicopter pilot was also wounded by the gunmen during the operation.
Earlier in the day, a suicide bomber blew up an explosive-laden car at the entrance of the home of Waqass Adnan, mayor of the city of Aana, some 250 km west of Baghdad. The blast was followed by a coordinated attack on the guards of the house, in an attempt to break in. In the process, four policemen and the brother of the mayor were killed, and four policemen were wounded. The mayor himself unharmed.
Meanwhile, in separate incidents, another suicide bomber rammed his explosive-packed car into the entrance of Aana police station and blew it up, killing two policemen and wounding three others. Gunmen fired mortars at a police station in Rawa city, west of Baghdad, killing a policeman and wounding seven others; a farmer was killed and his relative wounded when gunmen fired at them near a bridge northeast of Baquba, and a worker in a Sunni mosque was wounded by gunmen who fired at him in front of his house, about 20 km northeast of Baquba.
Sectarian tension between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in the Diyala province has increased, resulting in violence and reprisal killings. Sunnis and Shiites accuse each other of supporting extremists and militiamen. Across the nation Iraq is witnessing its worst escalation of violence in recent years, causing analysts to fear that the country is returning to the civil conflict that peaked in 2006 and 2007, when monthly death toll sometimes exceeded 3,000.
Missiles from Syria Target Eastern Lebanon City
On 21 October, four rockets launched from Syria hit Hermel. The source was unable to confirm casualties. Hermel and other border areas of Lebanon have suffered frequent attacks since Syria’s uprising escalated into a civil war, sometimes impacting neighbouring Lebanon.
The eastern Lebanese city is a Hezbollah stronghold. Hezbollah, which supports the Syrian government led by Bashar al Assad, has been openly involved in Syria’s war, sending fighters to support the loyalist army on the battlefield.
Lebanon had been dominated politically and militarily by Syria for 30 years, until 2005. The country is heavily divided on pro and anti Assad lines. As a result, the war in Syria has served to escalate Lebanon’s sectarian and political divisions.
Disabled veterans break into Libyan parliament building
On October 22, several disabled former rebels from the Libyan War broke into the parliament building and vandalised parts of the building. The event occurred on the day before the second anniversary of the rebel victory over Gadhafi forces, days after the dictator was killed in Sirte.
The protesters came from the town of Ajdabiya, between Tripoli and eastern Libya. The city was a major battleground in the 2011 war.
An MP stated, “They got into the Congress chamber and smashed some fittings.” The chamber was empty at the time but the act was decried as a “new assault on a state institution.” The vandalism is the latest in a series of security breaches at the General National Congress building.
In an effort to increase security and gain acceptance from rebel groups, the government has given some militia units varying degrees of official recognition. However, their control over the units is minimal. Analysts are concerned about the interim government’s ability to assert its control over militias and security throughout the country. Former rebels units, some sympathetic to Al-Qaeda, have refused to surrender their arms.
Saudi Arabia announces “major shift” in relationship with United States
On 22 October, Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan told European diplomats that the kingdom will make a “major shift” in its relations with the United States.
The prince criticised actions and inactions taken by the United States, including failing to act effectively on the Syria crisis and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; growing closer to the government in Tehran; and failing to back Saudi support for the Bahraini government when it crushed an anti-government revolt during the 2011 uprising. As a result, Prince Bandar has stated that he plans to limit interaction with the US, reportedly adding that there would be no further coordination with the United States over the fighting in Syria.
The report is consistent with Saudi Arabia’s reasons for refusal of a seat on the UN Security Council as a rotating member. Though they have not openly broken ties with the US, Saudi leaders have been quietly critical of several recent US actions in the Middle East.
Prince Bandar’s announcement marks a serious setback to the relationship between the two nations; it spotlights that Saudi and US interests are not aligned on several top issues driving instability in the Middle East. In particular, the Saudi’s point to the US shift toward a containment strategy regarding Iran’s nuclear program, and the US goal of driving Assad out while leaving a Baathist government in Damascus. The Saudi’s have vocally stated that both Assad and his government should be replaced. The US treats Syrian issues as separate from Iranian nuclear issues. The Saudis perceive them as inseparable. The differences in these world views are deep, and unlikely to be overcome easily. The change in stance could result in a strong shift in relations between the Middle East and the West.
Snipers targeting heavily pregnant women
Snipers are playing a “targeting game,” and heavily pregnant women are on the target list. David Nott, a British surgeon who volunteers with charity Syria Relief, says that up to 90% of the surgeries he performs daily are for sniper wounds. In the case of pregnant women, “Most of the children removed were seven, eight, nine month’s gestation, which meant it was fairly obvious to anybody that these women were pregnant.” He added that young children are also being targeted, and on some days, the wounds were “suspiciously similar”, with several victims coming in with shots to the same part of the body on the same day. The similarities suggest a game between the snipers.
Knott says he was told by other local doctors that snipers may receive little presents for people they’d shot during the day.
Mourning period announced for downed officers; Transition negotiations continue
In a televised speech on 23 October, Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki announced three days of national mourning for eight officers killed by suspected militants in the central Sidi Bouzidi province. The announcement was made on the second anniversary of the country’s first free elections. Members of the National Guard were securing a building in the village of Sidi Ali Bououn after receiving a tip-off that a suspicious group was hiding there. A gun battle ensued, killing both security forces and militants.
Marzouki said the militants were retaliating for attacks on 17 October, when nine suspected militants were killed. Authorities say the militants had carried out an attack on police patrols.
The interior ministry believes that the militants belong to the Salafist Ansar al-Sharia group, who were linked to the murders of prominent left-wing figure Chokri Belaid in February and opposition politician Mohammed Brahmi in July.
Their deaths triggered mass protests against the government, and crippled progress between the ruling party and its opposition. While Ennahda condemned the killings, the opposition accused the leading party of failing to rein in radical Islamists.
Earlier in the day, Prime Minister Ali Larayedh addressed the nation to confirm that the government would resign after talks with the opposition on appointing a caretaker administration were complete. Larayedh stated that Ennahda, the current ruling party in Tunisia, is committed to the “principle of relinquishing power in line with the different phases envisaged in the roadmap”.
Larayedh’s speech came following anti-government protests in Tunis, who demanded that the Islamist-led ruling coalition government leave immediately. Ennahda has been accused of stalling talks in order to maintain power in the government. Both Ennahda and the opposition have set a three weeks deadline to appoint the interim cabinet, and a one month deadline to adopt a new constitution, electoral laws and set an election date.