Mali Rebels Offer Freedom Deal for Algerian Hostages
23 June, 2013- The Mali-based al-Qaeda affiliate, Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) has offered to release one individual from a group of Algerian diplomats which were kidnapped last year, in exchange for the release of three “mujahedeen” currently held in Algeria. A statement sent to the Algerian government said, “If Algeria rejects the proposal, the Algerian hostages’ lives will be in danger.” The group did not release the names of the three prisoners they wish to have released, nor where they were being held.
MUJAO abducted a group of seven people, including the Algerian diplomats, on 5 April, 2012 in Gao, northern Mali. The kidnappers initially asked for €15 million to release the group, however, they released three of those hostages months later in July. In September 2013, MUJAO announced that the group had killed one of the hostages, however, this has not verified by the Algerian government.
Bahraini Security Arrests 9 in Prison Break Plan
25 June, 2013- Bahrain announced the arrest of nine Shiites members of the group Jaish al-Imam (Army of the Imam) thought to be linked to Iran, that were planning, among other things, to attack a prison to facilitate a jail break. Arms, ammunition and a plan for attacking the prison were seized. Those arrested were intending to carry out attacks on key installations in the country, the ministry said.
Bahrain is a country with a Shiite Muslim majority population that is ruled by a Sunni Muslim dynasty. Relations between Bahrain and overwhelmingly Shiite Iran have been tense since the authorities in Manama, with the help of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf neighbors, suppressed a pro-democracy movement largely led by Shiites.
Egypt Reinforces Military Presence in Suez Region ahead of Protests
27 June, 2013- The Egyptian army has reinforced its presence in the Egyptian Suez Canal city of Port Said ahead of national anti-government protests on 30 June. Several armoured vehicles toured the city’s streets before parking in front of the governorate headquarters. The forces were received with cheers by residents. Egypt is bracing for the protests on 30 June, called for by signature drive ‘Tamarod’, which aims at withdrawing confidence from the president and holding early elections.
The campaign’s petition to remove Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi from office has gathered 15 million signatures, more than the number of votes amassed by Morsi last year. The petition accuses the president of “failing to implement policies to improve the life of ordinary people,” citing Egypt’s critical economic situation. Some Egyptians are calling for the army to take over power for a temporary period and appoint a new government, in the event that Morsi resigns.
In preparation for June 30 demonstrations, army troops have started to take over the assignment of safeguarding vital facilities, including Martyr Ahmed Hamdi Tunnel and the banks of the Suez Canal.
Meanwhile, early clashes north of Cairo resulted in one person killed and more than 200 injured as opponents of President Morsi pelted his supporters with garbage as they gathered outside a mosque to stage a march in support of the president. This clash is probably an omen of larger clashes likely this weekend.
Bombs Target Protesters, 14 Dead
25 June, 2013- Bombs targeting Shiite protesters and pilgrims killed 14 people in northern town of Tuz Khurmatu, a day after 35 people were killed nationwide, most of them in a wave of car bombings in the capital. The death toll for June is now over 350. No group has claimed responsibility for the attacks, but Sunni militants linked to al Qaeda frequently target Shia Muslims.
Two suicide bombers blew themselves up inside a tent filled with Shia Turkmen protesters in the town, killing at least 11 people and wounding 55. The protesters had been rallying over poor security in the town, which is regularly hit with attacks.
Tuz Khurmatu lies in a tract of territory in the north that Kurdistan wants to incorporate into its three-province autonomous region over Baghdad’s objections. The unresolved dispute over the territory, which stretches from Iraq’s eastern border with Iran to its western frontier with Syria, is cited by diplomats as one of the biggest threats to the country’s long-term stability.
Also on 25 June, a “sticky bomb” attached to a minibus went off as Shiite pilgrims were on their way to the central shrine city of Karbala for Shabaniyah commemorations. Three people were killed and 15 wounded when the bomb went off near the town of Iskandiriyah. In east Baghdad, gunmen wounded two guards outside an Assyrian church.
Iraq is struggling with a prolonged political deadlock and violence at its worst levels since 2008. Attacks have increased considerably since the beginning of the year, coinciding with rising discontent among the Sunni Arab minority that erupted into protests in late December.
Libya Deemed Major Transit Hub for Terrorists
An African Union (AU) leader has warned that Libya has become a major transit hub for terrorists. AU representative Fransisco Cetano Jose Madiera stated that he has reports which indicate that Libya has become a major transit hub for the main terrorist groups travelling from one country to another. In addition, Libya is seen as a refuge and point for terrorists to “reorganize”
Following the removal of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011, Libya’s weakened security and porous borders make it a prime location for rebel groups to transit through. This was a key concern at the two-day regional security meeting in Oran, Algeria. Libya is a key component to stabilising the Sahel region, however few countries in the region have the means to protect their borders. The EU has offered to work with Libya to tighten border security but the lack of organization in the country makes the endeavor very difficult. The European bloc believes that development of the region could be a solution to fighting the problem of porous borders.
Libya is working in close collaboration with Algeria and Tunisia to secure their borders and to fight against terrorism and organised crime. Algerian Foreign Affairs Minister has said that officials are “in a constant contact with the Libyan government”, including Algerian contributions to the training of the Libyan police and army.
Qatar’s New Emir to Follow in Father’s Footsteps
25 June, 2013- In his first speech as the new emir of Qatar, 33 year-old Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, announced that he plans to follow policies established by his father and the country’s last government. The emir signalled that Qatar would undergo drastic change in domestic or foreign policy despite new leadership. The new emir’s father announced the end of his 18-year rule the day before, an unprecedented move for the country.
During the previous emir’s rule, Qatar spread its wealth through foreign investments, largely financed by its vast natural gas sources, to increase its political and economic influence in the region.
While Qatar supported the Arab Spring and has maintained an alliance with the United States, critics worry that the nation’s open support of the Syrian opposition could mean financial support of al Qaeda-linked groups. Further, some Westerners fear Qatar’s friendly terms with the Muslim Brotherhood.
The new emir reaffirmed his country’s wish to remain on peaceful diplomatic terms with all governments. “We respect all the influential and active political trends in the region, but we are not affiliated with one trend against the other. We are Muslims and Arabs who respect diversity of sects and respect all religions in our countries and outside of them.”
During his speech, Sheikh Tamim refrained from mentioning the Syrian war, instead expressing his support for the Palestinians’ struggle against Israel. The sheikh also unveiled his cabinet reshuffle; outgoing Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheik Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani is to be replaced by Sheik Abdullah bin Naser Al Thani and Khalid al-Atiyah, respectively. Qatar has been dominated by the Al Thani family for nearly 150 years.
Qatar holds the world’s third largest gas reserves and produces around 77 million tons of liquefied natural gas annually, making it the largest supplier on the planet. According to the International Monetary Fund, Qatar has the highest per capita income in the world.
Saudi Arabia Changes Start of Weekend
Saudi Arabia will change the start of its two-day weekend from Thursday to Friday, in order to bring it into line with other countries in the region and coordinate business and banking days. The royal decree takes effect this week.
Last month Oman switched to a Friday-Saturday weekend, making Saudi Arabia the only country left among the six-member Gulf Co-operation Council to persist with the old format. The change means that Saudi businesses will now have four working days overlapping with Western and regional businesses rather than three. Friday remains a holiday in Muslim countries because it is a holy day set aside for communal prayer.
Spain uncovers al Qaeda network for Syrian Militants
21 June 2013- Spanish authorities arrested eight suspected members of an al Qaeda network who are allegedly involved in training, funding, and facilitating travel for Islamic radical fighters to Syria. The network is based in the Spanish territory of Ceuta and in the city of Fnideq in neighboring Morocco. The names and nationalities of those arrested have not been disclosed, but they are all Spanish citizens. The network has apparently funneled “dozens” of fighters to Syria, where some have taken part in suicide attacks and others have joined training camps. The network recruited fighters from various parts of Spain as well as Morocco and Ceuta.
According to Spain’s Foreign Ministry, investigations are underway for other groups which are still preparing to travel to Syria. Although separate investigations of al Qaeda networks were begun in 2009 and 2011 by the National Guard and the Civil Police, the two agencies began collaborating this year. Spain is one of many European countries from which an estimated 700 fighters have traveled to join the rebels in the Syrian conflict.
Al Qaeda has been active in Spain since the 1990s, when the Spanish cell was headed by a Syrian named Imad Eddin Barakat Yarkas, a.k.a. Abu Dahdah. Yarkas was later found to have had foreknowledge of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the United States, although the full extent of his involvement was never determined. He was arrested in late 2001 and sentenced to 27 years in prison for conspiracy in the 9/11 attacks, but his sentence was later reduced to 12 years for lack of proof on the conspiracy charge. He was released on 23 May. The US has been seeking to monitor Yarkas for some time. Although Yarkas has not been added to the US or UN lists of global terrorists, a 2003 UN designation of an Indonesian al Qaeda-linked terrorist notes that Yarkas was instrumental in establishing al Qaeda training camps in Indonesia for European recruits.
Al Qaeda has been linked to Spain’s worst terrorist attack, the Madrid train bombings of March 2004, which killed 191 people. The cell phones used to detonate the bombs were provided by Jamal Zougam, yet another member of Yarkas’ al Qaeda cell, and Zougam’s accomplices included members of a known al Qaeda affiliate, the Moroccan Islamic Combatant Group.
Algeria builds military zone along Tunisian Border
9 June 2013- Algeria has made plans to build 20 military zones along the Algerian-Tunisian border to minimize terrorist infiltration and arms smuggling. The move comes after success following similar efforts along the Libyan and Malian borders. The military zones are off-limits to civilians without a permit. In mid-May, Algerian military leadership began implementations of plans to protect over 80 border crossing points, covering 956 kilometres. Algerian-Tunisian Security agreements include military cooperation and exchanges of information, and well as tracking of suspects and mutually aiding in investigations related to “Jihadist” networks.
Bouteflika Suffered Full Stroke
13 June 2013- A statement released by the Algerian government admits that President Abdel Aziz Bouteflika suffered a full stroke, rather than the “mini-stroke” that was officially reported. Bouteflika suffered the event on 27 April and was immediately flown to France for treatment at Val de Grace Hospital. In early June, he was relocated for recuperation. Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal and Army Chief of Staff, General Gaid Salah have visited Bouteflika, and report he is in good condition. The Algerian president gave orders to ensure that markets have adequate food supplies as the month of Ramadan approaches in three weeks time. A portion of the meeting was released on Algerian national television in order to show that Bouteflika is improving, in hopes of quelling growing rumours that the president was in grave condition. Despite the images of Bouteflika’s improving condition, speculation is increasing that he will not run for election in April of 2014.
44 Terror Suspects arrested
13 June 2013- The Bahraini Interior Ministry announced the arrest of forty-four suspects, including two women, for committing terrorist activities in Bahrain. The investigation led to the identification of members and leaders of the terrorist group, the February 14th organization, as well as the “Al Imam Army”, which has trained others in the use of weapons and explosives with the aim of disrupting security and endangering lives.
The arrested individuals are suspected of a list of charges including: conspiring to plant a bomb during the recent Formula One race, blowing up ATMs, conducting arson attacks on car showrooms, and placing explosives around Manama, which have resulted in the deaths of two Asian expats. Three were arrested for using a homemade bomb planted in a car near the Bahrain Financial Harbour.
The February 14 organisation was created following incidents stemming from the uprising in Bahrain in February 2011. The Bahraini Interior Ministry have also named the cell’s masterminds in Bahrain and in London. The masterminds are known to frequently travel between Iran, Iraq and Lebanon to obtain financial and moral support.
Nationwide Protests Scheduled for 30 June; Interior Ministry Closes Routes between Sinai and Mainland
18 June 2013- Egypt’s Interior Minister has announced the closing of tunnels and ferries across the Suez Canal and the halt of any traffic between the Sinai Peninsula and mainland Egypt ahead of the upcoming anti-government protests on 30 June. The move is an effort to prevent the crossing of militants into the mainland of Egypt.
Nationwide protests against president Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood are expected across Egypt on 30 June, the anniversary of his first year in power. Opposition groups have joined together to call for his removal.
Interior Minister Mohamed Ibrahim is specifically concerned with the possible invasion of prisons and subsequent release of prisoners, which has occurred several times during protests since the ousting of former president Hosni Mubarak in 2011. Ibrahim is also concerned with securing Itihadiya Palace, where the president resides, and pre-empting clashes between supporters and opposition to President Morsi.
Security forces will also be deployed to the Egyptian Media Production City on the outskirts of Cairo, however national security services will not be provided to offices of any political parties.
Opponents of President Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood come from both liberal and secular movements, and believe that the 30 June protests are the last opportunity to drive him from power. Public discontent is widespread, ranging from concerns over failed infrastructure, food shortages, high prices and lack of security. One protest campaign has started a petition drive called “Tamarod” (Translation: “Rebels”) which has collected over 15 million signatures calling for Morsi to step down and early elections to be held.
Many of Morsi’s backers are planning counter-protests, calling the planned demonstrations an attempt to overturn democracy. A senior Brotherhood leader has stated that the protests are not actually backed by genuine popular support, and believes that the Tamarod signatures are forged. Some hard-line clerics have also issued fatwas, calling organizers and participants in the protests “kuffar,” or non-believers, who deserve to be killed.
Egyptian police, who have been angry with Morsi’s administration for being treated like a “tool of the political party”, have intoned that they wish to stay out of the conflict. The Egyptian military has not voiced an opinion, but has been visibly at odds with the ruling party.
Morsi names ex-militant as governor of Luxor
17 June 2013- Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has appointed Adel el-Khayat as the new governor of the ancient city of Luxor, raising anger among Egyptian tourism workers and residents. El-Khayat is a member of the political arm of ex-Islamic militant group Gamaa Islamiya. In 1992, the group staged an insurgency against the state, attacking police, tourists, and Coptic Christians. In 1997, Gamaa Islamiya claimed responsibility for what became known as the “Luxor Massacre”, when 58 tourists and four Egyptians were killed at the 3,400 year old Temple of Hatshepsut outside Luxor. In the 2000s, Gamaa Islamiya renounced violence and in 2011, the group turned to politics, aligning themselves closely with Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Leaders of the organization have threatened an “Islamic revolution” if liberals try to unseat the Islamist president.
Workers and political opposition to the appointment have planned to seal off the governor’s office to prevent Adel el-Khayat from entering. Tourism workers fear that el-Khayat’s ties to the former militant group and his hard-line Islamist stance will deter tourists, which are the lifeblood of the region.
El-Khayat’s appointment is one of several new appointments for provincial governor positions. On 16 June, Morsi made seventeen appointments, including eight from his party, the Muslim Brotherhood. The appointments mean that the Brotherhood controls 10 of Egypt’s 27 provinces. Nine additional provinces are still run by military and police, stemming from the Mubarak era.
Hassan Rouhani wins Iranian election, replaces Ahmadinejad
14 June 2013- In a relatively calm election process, Hassan Rouhani has won the Iranian elections, and will be replacing outgoing President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Rouhani was a participant in the Islamic Revolution of the 1970s and was linked to Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic republic. Rouhani was the secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council for 16 years, and the nation’s chief nuclear negotiator from 2003 to 2005. Rouhani won just over 50% of the vote, and called his election a “victory of moderation over extremism.” After his victory was announced, Iranians took to the streets in tens of thousands, wearing purple, the colour of Rouhani’s election campaign.
Rouhani’s election brings a shift in Iran’s power structure, as he ushers in a mix of both conservative and moderate beliefs. As the former chief nuclear negotiator, Rouhani is supportive of Iran’s nuclear agenda, pledging in the run-up to elections to try to ease international sanctions imposed over Iran’s nuclear programme. His dealings with the West are expected to be significantly different from those of Ahmadinejad, whose brand of ultimatums and threats increased tensions with the West, resulting in heavy sanctions and economic strain for Iran. Rouhani is expected to take a more pragmatic tact in dealing with both foreign and domestic powers.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu maintains that Iran’s nuclear program should be stopped “by any means.” He added, “The international community should not fall into wishful thinking and be tempted to ease pressure on Iran to stop its nuclear programme.” Israeli President Shimon Peres is more hopeful, believing that Rouhani will not go toward extreme policies.
Although Israel will still consider military action if Iran continues its nuclear program, Western powers have indicated that they are willing to engage with Rouhani, providing he lives up to his obligations under the UN security council resolutions.
Rouhani has already begun discussions on his cabinet with Ali Larijani, speaker for Iran’s parliament. The Iranian Parliament must approve his selections when he takes office in August.
Suicide Bombers Target Mosque; 24 dead, 52 wounded
17 June, 2013- Two suicide bombers blew themselves up inside and near a Shiite mosque in Baghdad, killing 24 people and wounding 52. The bombing is the latest in a string of escalating sectarian violence over recent months. Since April 2013, nearly 2,000 have been killed, including over 220 in June.
The first bomb was detonated at a security checkpoint near a mosque in Baghdad’s Qahira district, a predominantly middle class, Shiite-majority neighbourhood. It is believed the first bombing was an attempt to distract the authorities as a second bomber went into the mosque and blew himself up while worshippers were performing midday prayers.
While no party has claimed responsibility yet, al Qaeda’s Iraqi division has conducted suicide bombings and attacks against Shiite citizens frequently.
On 16 June, 51 people were killed in coordinated bombings. On Monday, fifteen people were killed in bomb attacks, including deaths caused by a suicide bomber who set off his explosives among a group of policemen in Fallujah.
Bombings kill 13 ahead of vote
19 June, 2013– A provincial party leader and four of his relatives were killed in a suicide bombing attack in northern Iraq. Yunus al-Ramah, the leader of the United Iraq party, was hosting an event at his home in Al-Hadhr when a suicide bomber targeted people gathering in his garden. The attack happened just days before local elections are to be held on Thursday in Sunni-majority Nineveh and Anbar provinces, where polls had been delayed since 20 April due to security concerns. Ramah was not running in the upcoming election, although several members of his party are.
Later in the evening, back-to-back roadside bombs killed eight youths and wounded 25 near a football pitch in Muqdadiyah.
No group has claimed responsibility for the attack; however Sunni militants linked to Al-Qaeda previously attempted to intimidate candidates in order to derail elections in majority Sunni provinces. Analysts believe that Shiite-led authorities are not exerting enough effort to address the underlying causes of the demonstrations. This lack of action has given militant groups opportunities to carry out terrorist tactics.
Libyan Judge Assassinated; Clashes in Benghazi
17 June, 2013- Unidentified militants have assassinated Judge Mohammed Naguib in a drive-by shooting in front of a courthouse. Naguib was a senior Libyan judge in the eastern city of Derna, which is a known stronghold of Islamic militants, including Ansar al-Shariah, the group suspected of involvement in the September 11 attacks on the US mission in Benghazi.
In Benghazi, Libya’s General National Congress has postponed the vote on a new president following another round of clashes in Benghazi, which erupted in the early hours of 15 June near the city centre. Libyan Special Forces battled gunmen, resulting in six soldiers dead and several injured. An explosion also occurred at the headquarters of the National Oil Corporation. Authorities are working to identify perpetrators of the pre-dawn assault, through license plates and photographs. One group has been identified; investigations are on-going.
Some Libyan activists believe that the national congress lost credibility by adopting the political isolation law at gunpoint and that the government was now losing its credibility as well, as “the state has failed Benghazi.” Locals say the city has become a place to settle accounts, and call on the government to come and conduct affairs in the city. One witness stated, “If Benghazi does not settle down, then Libya will not settle down. The state must meet its responsibilities.”
US- Taliban Talks Cancelled in Doha
20 June, 13- Talks scheduled for Thursday between US officials and Afghan Taliban representatives in Doha have been cancelled due to the Afghan government’s anger at the opening of a Taliban office in Qatar.
The opening of the Taliban office was intended to be a step toward paving the way for peace talks, however, protesters in Kabul argued that the office would develop into a Taliban government-in-exile. US Secretary of State, John Kerry, has been in talks with Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who accused the Obama administration of duplicity. Karzai was particularly infuriated by Taliban officials displaying white Taliban Flag and referring to the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”, and suspended talks on a long-term security deal to keep US troops in Afghanistan after NATO leaves in 2014. The US has asked the Qatari government to remove the sign outside the new office in Doha that claims to represent the “Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan”.
Though the office in Doha is meant only as a base for talks rather than a political platform, Karzai felt the Tuesday press conference was a violation of that agreement. Further, the Afghan government prefers the US to refrain from broad negotiations with the Taliban. Although Washington agrees that the process must be Afghan-led the delegates want to discuss issues including renouncing violence, links with al-Qaida and women’s rights in the country.
On Wednesday, the US suspended plans to attend the talks. Meanwhile, the Taliban also claimed responsibility for a rocket attack on the Bagram air base that killed four Americans on the same day that the tentative deal about talks was announced.
Yemen market suicide bomber kills two
A suicide bomber has struck a market in the north Yemen town of Saada, about 80 miles north of Sanaa. The bomber detonated a bomb-laden motorbike in the town, killing himself and at least two civilians, and injuring eight.
Saada is a mainly Shia city in the north of majority Sunni Yemen. The town has been controlled by the Houthi Shia rebels for years. Fighting between the rebels and government forces had killed thousands of people over the course of a decade, until a truce was agreed upon in 2010. The rebels are involved in a national dialogue, however tensions have recently escalated as the Sunni-dominated government makes claims that the Houthi are backed by mainly Shia Iran. The rebels, who are also in conflict with AQAP, feel they are politically and socially marginalised.
In a statement that was published on Sunday, Al-Qaeda’s north African branch has confirmed that one of its top leaders, Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, was killed in fighting in Mali. The confirmation from the terrorist group comes three months after officials in Chad and France announced the leaders’ death.
Algerian-born Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, considered to have been one of the most radical leaders of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), was killed “on the battlefield defending Umma (the Muslim community) and Sharia law.” This is according to a statement that was released on Sunday and carried by ANI, which is a private Mauritanian news agency. According to ANI director Mohamed Mahmoud Ould Abou Al-Maali, “it is the first time that an AQIM statement officially referred to the death of Abou Zeid.” The statement however provided no date for his death. Back in March, officials in Paris had announced that Abou Zeid was killed after France led an offensive to remove al-Qaeda-linked groups from the northern regions of Mali. Both France and Chad have indicated that the 46-year-old militant was killed at the end of February.
Born in Debdeb, Algeria, which is located close to the border with Libya, Abou Zeid was a young activist in the FIS Islamist movement which won the country’s first democratic elections in 1991 but which was denied power. He then disappeared underground and remained in silence for most of the 1990’s. He re-emerged in 2003 as second in command of the GSPC, which kidnapped dozens of foreigners in southern Algeria. The group, along with several other organizations, would later evolve into AQIM. According to court documents Abou Zeid, whose real name was Mohamed Ghdir, was considered to be a deputy to AQIM’s “Saharan emir” Yahia Djouadi. He commanded a battalion of fighters from Algeria, Mauritania and Mali, which was known as Tareq ibn Ziyan, named after an eighth-century Muslim military commander.
Meanwhile in Mali, a female lawmaker is set to run for President in elections which are due to be held next month. Aissata Cise Haidara, 54, announced her candidacy on Saturday at a rally which was attended by several thousand supporters, composed mainly of women and young people. During the rally, she stated that “I am a candidate, not just to make up the numbers but to play a role in the rebuilding of Mali, which has become an unrecognizable country today.” She further indicated that “we must develop all of Mali although more must be done in the north. But we have to be careful because if you focus development in the north, the south will itself revolt.” Ms. Haidara is an MP for Bourem, which is situated in northern Mali. Amongst other candidates in the running for the presidency are former prime ministers Soumana Sacko and Ibrahim Boubacar Keita.
International mediators have so far failed to secure an agreement between Mali’s Interim President and the northern rebels. Although talks last weekend have brought the two groups closer, an agreement is necessary in order to enable elections to go ahead as planned on 28 July. The MNLA indicated last week that it was ready to sign an accord proposed by Burkina Faso, which is the regional mediator, however current Mali President Dioncounda Traore has yet to agree. Consequently the talks are continuing between the two groups. The coming presidential elections are seen as a key step in the recovery of Mali.
On the ground sources have indicated that gunfire broke out at a paramilitary barracks in Niamey, the capital of Niger, with sporadic shots lasting for about one hour. According to statements from local residents, “the shooting began around 21:30 local time (2030 GMT).” Sporadic gunfire could be heard for an hour and then the sounds of shooting stopped. At the beginning of this year, the camp hosted troops from Chad who were at the time on transit to Mali where they have since fought jihadist militants alongside French and West African forces.
Military and government officials could not be reached in order to provide further details, and it was not immediately possible to indicate whether the gunfire was linked to a number of recent attacks in the country which have been carried by Islamist militants. Since the incident, the area around the gendarmerie camp in the northern regions of the capital has been almost deserted. A jeep carrying paramilitary members was seen travelling in the direction of the city centre. A road block has also been set up at the road which heads to the northern part of the city.
With a number of violent attacks occurring in northern Niger of the past month, citizens of the country have begun to express fears of a “war on terror” in their homeland. Tensions were raised by two suicide bombings on May 23 in the north of Niger. The attacks targeted an army base in Agadez and a uranium mine at Arlit which is run by French nuclear giant Areva. More than twenty people were killed in those attacks. Earlier this month, government officials confirmed that twenty convicts escaped during a jailbreak from a prison in Niamey.
Responsibility for both suicide attacks, the first to have occurred in the west African country, have been claimed by two armed Islamist groups: the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and Signatories in Blood. Algerian militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar, reported to have organized the two bombings, has threatened to attack Niger again, together with any other country that has troops stationed in Mali, where a French-led military intervention launched in January has seized back control of the northern towns from groups linked to al-Qaeda.
The recent suicide attacks on a French-run mine and a military base in northern Niger have demonstrated how the Islamist threat is spreading across the weak nations that are located within the Sahara. What does this mean for France? The country and its troops may be tied down in the region for years to come. In turn, regional rivalries are aggravating the problem for the French government and its Western allies as a lack of greater cooperation amongst the countries located in the Sahara is only aiding the militants in regrouping in quieter parts of the vast desert. One of these quieter territories is the lawless regions of southern Libya, which security officials have indicated is becoming the latest haven for al-Qaeda-linked fighters after French-led forces drove them from their strongholds in northern Mali earlier this year.
According to a senior adviser to Mali’s interim President Dioncounda Traore, “the south of Libya is what the north of Mali was like before.” This remark comes just days after Niger announced that last week’s suicide raids, which killed twenty-five people at the army base and desert uranium mine run by France’s Areva, were launched from Libya. Libya however has denied these allegations.
Smugglers have long used Libya’s poorly controlled south – a crossroads of routes to Chad, Algeria and Niger – for trafficking drugs, contraband cigarettes and people to Europe. However the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 resulted in a flood of weapons and ammunition being brought into the Sahara. Tuareg separatists used them in order to seize power in northern Mali, only to be ousted by even better-armed Islamists who set up training camps and imposed a harsh form of Islamic law until French forces arrived. In turn, the Islamists have also exploited Libya’s weakness. It is known that former al-Qaeda commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar had purchased weapons there after Gaddafi’s fall and his fighters passed through southern Libya to carry out a mass hostage-taking at an Algerian gas plant in January, in which 37 foreigners died.
With no effective national army, Libya relies on local brigades in order to police its southern border region, where at least one hundred people died in ethnic violence last year. Tripoli’s failure to restore security in the region may only encourage Islamist militants to set up permanent camps and weapons stores in the area. Since the attack on Areva, France has urged regional powers to cooperate in order to tackle the threat that is coming from Libya as the country relies on Niger for one fifth of the uranium in order to power its nuclear reactors. Niger’s long border with Mali, tough line on tackling militants and its role as a supplier of uranium to France have long made the country a target. Since the attacks, US troops have begun to train the army while the government in Niamey has stepped up its security in the northern regions of the country, where French Special Forces went in earlier this year in order to protect the mines. Four French mine workers who were taken hostage in Arlit in 2010 are still being held.
While Paris is keen on decreasing its troop numbers in the region, the persistent arguing and mistrust amongst the regional powers continues to be an issues, with President Francois Hollande admitting last week that French forces may be used elsewhere in the Sahel. European governments, alarmed with the developments, also approved a 110-man mission this week that will focus on improving border security by training Libyan police and security forces.
In a region that mainly comprises of vast desert regions, borders often have little meaning, and militants can blend in with nomads. Consequently hunting Islamist militants requires states riven by mutual suspicion to work together. Officials in the United States have indicated that efforts to tackle the spreading influence of al-Qaeda’s ideology throughout the Sahara has been beset by long-standing rivalries, notably between Morocco and Algeria, coupled with a lack of trust and communication amongst the regional capitals.
Algeria, the Sahara’s main military power, has long bristled at the idea of outside intervention in the region, particularly one led by its former colonial ruler, France. Although the Algerian government allowed French warplanes operating in Mali to fly over its territory, Malian officials have indicated that Algeria should be more active, whether by arresting militants or preventing the flow of fuel that allows them to cover vast desert distance. The northern Malian town of Gao lies about 1,500 km (930 miles) from the border of southern Libya.
Mauritania also needs to place more of an effort on this issue. This is mainly due to the country’s strategic location on the western edge of the Sahara coupled with a high number of its citizens who are senior militants and with its experience in tackling Islamist militants at home.
The rapidly changing face of Islamist militancy also creates problems for the local governments. For years, al-Qaeda’s North African wing, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), relied largely on Algerians. However last year, the militant group was composed of gunmen from across northern Africa along with citizens from West Africa – militants who are more experienced and have a greater knowledge of the territory.
In Mali, drone surveillance and on the ground counter-terrorism teams have put a lot of effort in order to suppress the militants. Suicide attacks around the northern towns of Gao and Menaka this month claimed no victims apart from the bombers themselves. According to officials in France, around 600 Islamists have been killed since Operation Serval was launched in January. In turn, about 200 tonnes of ammunition and dozens of vehicles were seized in operations that scoured the desert regions and mountain bases. This disrupted arms and fuel dumps that militants had prepared during their nine-month occupation of northern Mali. According to a French officer in Mali, “they don’t seem to have the ability to coordinate attacks in Mali anymore…we assume that they will try and regroup but it will take time for them and it is risky as they know we are watching.” The French campaign in Mali has been backed by a British spy plane while the US has drones operating from Niger alongside an established monitoring base in Burkina Faso. But while Islamist militants once traveled in large convoys, they have since adapted and are keeping a low provide. A trend which will likely be seen over the next few years, as militants continue to adapt themselves to nor only the territory, but to the techniques that the West uses in order to track them down.