MENA Security Update (1 April 2013)April 1, 2013 in Africa, Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Terrorism, Tunisia
Al-Qaeda Names Replacement Leader for North Africa
Al-Qaeda has named a replacement for Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, a key commander of its North African branch who was killed in fighting with French-led forces in northern.
Djamel Okacha, also known Yahia Aboul Hammam, is a 34-year-old from Reghaia, Algeria. His new position, which includes responsibility for AQIM operations in southern Algeria and northern Mali, still has to be approved at a meeting of AQIM leaders. Okacha is a close aide of AQIM chief Abdelmalek Droukdel and considered the “real leader” of the group.
His predecessor Abou Zeid, 46, was credited with having significantly expanded the jihadist group’s field of operation to Tunisia and Niger, and for kidnapping activities across the region.
Okacha, despite not having gone to Afghanistan, has had a meteoric rise in the group. Okacha spent around 18 months in prison in Algeria in the 1990s. As a member of extremist organisations the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) and the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GPSC), he was active in northern Algeria, and condemned to death by a court in southern Algeria for acts of terrorism.
AQIM Opens Official Twitter Account
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has opened an official Twitter account on 16 March. Their first messages, sent on 28 March, targeted France, specifically threatening to kill French nationals that they have been holding hostage. At least 14 French nationals have been kidnapped between September 2010 and February 2013, and are currently being held hostage by militant groups in North Africa.
Their first tweet reads, “Will the French people succeed in convincing Hollande to save the lives of the hostages? @Andalus_Media.” A tweet the following day stated that AQIM cannot guarantee their safety to infinity.
Twitter accounts for AQIM have existed prior to this one, but the latest account is the first to be recognized by al-Fajr Media Center, al Qaeda’s propaganda group. The account gained over 2,000 followers in its first few days.
Libya: Two men arrested in the kidnap of Humanitarian Activists
On 29 March, Libyan security officials announced the arrest of two men in the kidnapping of five British humanitarian activists in Eastern Libya. At least two of them were women who had been sexually assaulted. Authorities did not release the identities of the suspects, but did state they were Libyan soldiers. Officials also believe they are close to a third arrest.
The activists, all British citizens of Pakistani origin, were travelling with a convoy which had started in London and travelled through several North African countries, attempting to aid to Gaza. The travellers had no visas, according to Western authorities. At the Egyptian border, Egyptian guards refused to let the convoy enter. After five days of being stranded at the Egyptian/Libyan border, the five activists, including a father and two daughters, headed to Benghazi airport to leave Libya. The activists were abducted in a taxi at a checkpoint near Benghazi.
A diplomat stated that the men were beaten up and the women were sexually assaulted. Four captives were free soon after their abduction, however, the fifth, a woman, was found several hours later. Libya’s deputy prime minister, Awad al-Barassi, visited the victims in the hospital, and stated that the father saw his daughters being raped. The activists were given shelter at the Turkish Consulate in Benghazi, and left for Britain on Friday.
A Libyan defense official, Abdul Salam Bargathi, believes the episode was an “individual, isolated attack.”
Sudan: 31 Kidnapped Darfuris Released after a week
On 30 March, Sudanese rebels released 31 Darfur is who were kidnapped on their way to a conference for people displaced by the Sudanese decade-long war.
The joint African Union-United Nations peacekeeping mission (UNAMID) was escorting three buses carrying the Darfur is when it was stopped by a “large unidentified armed group in military uniforms and seven jeep-mounted guns.” The armed group took the hostages to an unknown location.
The incident occurred in on the border between Central and South South Darfur State. UNAMID has conflicting reports about whether the displaced people have been released. Government sources have not confirmed any release.
Algerian activists barred from World Social Forum
On 25 March, Algerian barred 96 civil activists from travelling to Tunisia without reason, illegally restricting rights to free movement. The activists intended to attend the World Social Forum, a global gathering of around 50,000 activists on areas such as human rights and the environment.
Activists included members of the Algerian League for Human Rights, the National Autonomous Union of Public Administration Staff (SNAPAP), and other non-governmental organizations. After a three hour delay at the Layoun border crossing, Algerian officials would not let them through, claiming “that they have instructions”, according to Mourad Tchiko, a member of SNAPAP
A similar incident occurred in February; Algerian police arrested and expelled 10 foreign nationals from the Association of Unemployed Workers of the Maghreb in February. The travellers, five Tunisians, three Mauritanians and two Moroccans, were planning to attend the first Maghreb Forum for the Fight against Unemployment and Temporary Work in Algiers. They were held at the local police station for several hours before being taken to the airport to return home.
“The Algerian authorities are disrupting the legitimate activities of local human rights and civil society activists, as they have so many times before,” said Eric Goldstein, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “It is high time they end their campaign of harassment and intimidation of reform advocates, and observe their obligations under international law.”
Wife and Children of Gadhafi Missing in Algeria
The wife of late dictator Moammar Gadhafi, and three of his children, have gone missing from their Algerian home, where they have taken refuge since 2011. Safia Gadhafi, the dictator’s second wife, their daughter Aisha, and two of their sons, Hannibal and Muhammad, appear to have fled their home in the coastal community of Staoueli.
Algerian political spokespeople believe it is possible they have joined with former Gadhafi fighters in Mali, however it is also likely that the family has taken offers for asylum from Oman and Venezuela. Aisha and Hannibal Gadhafi are on an Interpol list which calls for their immediate arrest.
Kabylie: Algerian security forces kill Islamists
On 28 March, Algerian special forces killed five Islamists in a raid in Attouche, near the Kabylie city of Tizi Ouzou.
Among those killed were Badache Said, 39, who led the Ibn el-Moqafa militia, and Nouali Hamza. Both were were handed death sentences in absentia last week along with 33 others, including AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droukdel.
All five were implicated in an attack on an Algerian army barracks at Azazga near Tizi Ouzou in April 2011, in which 17 soldiers were killed.
Qatar-Algeria Joint venture for Steel Production
On 27 March, Industries Qatar announced that the governments of Qatar and Algeria have entered into a joint venture to build a steel production plant in Algeria. Industries Qatar has interests in petrochemicals, fertilisers and steel products. The planned steel complex will have a total annual production capacity of 4 million metric tonnes. The steel complex will cost $2bn in its first phase.
The project is anticipated to create over 1,000 direct jobs and thousands of indirect jobs. Algeria, represented by Sider and Fonds National D’investissement, will hold 51 percent of the new company, while Qatar Steel International will hold the remaining 49 percent. The facility is expected to take 42 months to construct, and commercial production is expected to start in 2017.
Three Divers Arrested for Attempting to Cut Undersea Internet Cable
On 27 March, Egyptian authorities arrested three divers who were trying to cut through an undersea internet cable in the waters of Alexandria. The damaged cable caused a drop in the speed of online services in Egypt and some other countries.
The divers were arrested while attempting to cut the undersea wires of the main telecommunications company, Telecom Egypt. The damaged cable was the South East Asia Middle East Western Europe 4 (SEA-ME-WE 4), a critical cable under the Mediterranean. Cable operator Seacom said several lines connecting Europe with Africa, the Middle East and Asia were hit, slowing down internet services.
The arrested men are due to be interrogated. Their motive has not been made public.
Egyptian Satirist Arrested, Released on Bail
On 1 April, Bassem Youssef, the Middle East’s most popular TV satirist, was issued with an arrest warrant and questioned by Egypt’s top prosecutor for allegedly insulting Islam and the Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi. Youssef, regarded as Egypt’s Jon Stewart, turned himself in following the issue of an arrest warrant by prosecutor general Talaat Abdallah. He was released on bail of 15,000 Egyptian pounds (£1,500) after being questioned for three hours. According to Heba Morayaf, director of Human right watch in Egypt, it heralds the most serious affront to free speech since associates of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood assumed power.
Youssef became an increasingly notable figure following Egypt’s 2011 uprising. His show, “al Bernameg” humorously critiques politics, fundamentalist clerics, and Morsi. With over than 30 million viewers across the Middle East, the show is a beacon for free-speech in the region. Youssef has been sued several times by private individuals, but this is the first time that the prosecutor general followed up one of the complaints with legal action, a signal that President Morsi’s Brotherhood-backed regime is now prepared to take a harsher stance against its critics.
Mohamed ElBaradei, the leader of Egypt’s main opposition coalition, said on Twitter, “Pathetic efforts to smother dissent and intimidate media is a sign of a shaky regime and a bunker mentality”
Youssef, however took a light-hearted approach, arriving at court in a comically large version of a graduation hat worn by Morsi at a ceremony in Pakistan, and tweeting (and later deleting) comments such as, “Police officers and lawyers at the prosecutor-general’s office want to be photographed with me, maybe this is why they ordered my arrest?”
Last week, Morsi promised to take necessary measures against opposition figures that incited what he called violence and rioting, but also has spread his targets to vocal members of the media. Youssef’s arrest comes just a day after nine opposition activists and four lawyers were arrested in Alexandria, and a week after legal proceedings against five activists for inciting violence against the Muslim Brotherhood.
The prosecutor-general, who is considered politicized in his support for Brotherhood, was appointed after Morsi circumvented constitutional protocol to promote him in November. Last week, a judge this week ruled that Abdallah’s appointment was illegal – but he has refused to step aside.
Parliamentary Elections Possible for October
On March 27, President Morsi said that Egypt’s parliamentary elections are likely to be held in October. While in Doha, Qatar, for the Arab League Summit, Morsi met with overseas Egyptians and revealed that the first session of the People’s Assembly (the lower house of the parliament) would be held before the end of 2013.
Morsi also stated that he expected that the Shura Council (upper house of the parliament) to complete drafts of parliamentary election law within two weeks, to deliver to the Supreme Constitutional Court for approval. On Tuesday, the Shura Council approved a new draft for regulation of parliamentary elections “in principle.”
On March 6, the Supreme Administrative Court suspended a presidential decree of holding parliamentary elections on April 22, citing fourteen claims against the constitutionality of the newly- drafted election law to Supreme Constitutional Court. The Court will review the appeal against the suspension of parliamentary elections on April 7.
Egyptian Government Plans to Ration Subsidized Bread
The Egyptian government has announced plans to start rationing subsidized bread. The plan has outraged bakers and millions of families with few other food options than state-subsidized pita.
The announcement comes in the wake of cuts of State payments to private bakers, which are intended to keep the price of bread low. Egypt has subsided bread since the 1950s. The current administration has said the country’s weak economy has made the subsidies too expensive to keep up.
Hundreds of bakers travelled to Cairo in protest. Without the subsidies, they will be unable to stay in business. Subsidized bakers are required by law to sell a large portion of their production at low prices set by the state.
In an effort to appease the bakers and limit demand for cheap bread, the government has limited purchase of the commodity to three loaves per customer. Rationing has stirred up anger among low-income Egyptians who rely on the cheap bread as critical part of their diet. A similar attempt at rationing in 1977 resulted in riots throughout Egypt. Threats of a similar event caused the government to postpone implementing rationing last week.
Post-Revolution Egypt sees Spike in Tomb Raiding
Since the 2011 revolution, Egypt has seen a spike in illegal digging near tombs in hopes of accessing rare archaeological treasures. Recently, large holes have been appearing in the ground at the Great Pyramids of Giza, and In Dahshur, near the Bent Pyramid.
Gunmen have also attacked storehouses at Saqqara and Abusir, which held yet-unregistered antiquities recovered from excavations. It is unknown how much has been stolen.
In Luxor, police have discovered vast tunnel networks, starting within a compound close to the ancient sites or even inside a home.
Libyan Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff Feared Abducted
Officials in Libya have report that the Libyan prime minister’s chief of staff has disappeared and may have been abducted during a series of confrontations between the government and militiamen in Tripoli.
The prime minister’s office lost contact with Mohamed Ali Ghatous on Sunday. Ghatous’ car was found on the side of a road in the outskirts of Tripoli. Security forces are searching for him; officials say he may have been abducted.
Since the civil war, Libya has been working to rebuild a unified security force, however the government depends on militias to fill the security vacuum. Recently, militias, some who act with impunity, have taken offense at statements by ministers suggesting they needed to be brought under control.
Earlier in March, Prime Minister Ali Zidan was besieged in his office by militiamen who demanded his removal over remarks in which he threatened to summon outside help to confront the armed groups. On the same day that Ghatous disappeared, dozens of militiamen conducted a day-long siege, surrounding the Justice Ministry and calling for minister Salah al-Marghani’s resignation. Al-Marghani said on Libyan TV that some of the militias were illegitimate and were operating illegal prisons, and he demanded that the militias relinquish control to the Justice Ministry.
Zidan and al-Marghani held a joint news conference on Sunday, emphasizing that militias would be held accountable for any attacks.
Gunmen attack Libyan Airbase
On 30 March, more than 150 gunmen attacked an air base in Libya’s southern desert about 30 miles north of Sabha. The attackers were heavily armed and clashed with government forces, killing a colonel and a soldier, and wounding two troops.
The assailants were identified as Libyan, but an investigation is underway to determine who they were.
Extremists bomb 500-year-old Sufi shrine in Tripoli
A Libyan security official says that suspected Islamic extremists have bombed an ancient Sufi shrine in Tripoli. The attackers planted explosives inside the Sidi Mohammed al-Andalousi, and detonated them from a distance early on March 28.
Hard-line Salafis, an offshoot of Islam, oppose the veneration of saints, believing it to undermine the Islamic belief in monotheism. Salafis in Mali, Somalia and Tunisia have targeted the tombs of saints. The country’s grand cleric has since issued a religious edict against such assaults.
Egyptian Government extradites Gadhafi- era Libyan Officials
In Egypt’s first high-profile extradition in years, Egyptian authorities extradited two Libyan officials from the regime of deposed dictator Moammar Gadhafi back to Libya on 26 March. The 71-year-old former ambassador to Cairo, Ali Maria, and 44-year-old Mohammed Ibrahim Gadhafi, were handcuffed after resisting the extradition.
Last week, Gadhafi aide and cousin Ahmed Qaddaf al-Dam, a former high-ranking intelligence official, surrendered to police in Cairo after hours-long siege at his home. He remains in detention in Egypt.
Libya has demanded that Egypt extradition of officials from the former regime over various charges, including corruption and involvement in the country’s civil war. On 28 March, a Libyan intelligence delegation provided Egyptian officials a list of 88 names for extradition. A previous list included 40 names.
Saudi Arabia considers banning Skype, WhatsApp, and Viber
Saudi Arabia considering a potential block of messaging and real-time chat services. “Some telecom applications over the Internet protocol currently do not meet the regulatory conditions” in the kingdom, said the Communications and Information Technology. These apps— which include Skype, Viber, and Whatsapp— allow voice, video and text communication over the internet, but do not allow exchanges to be monitored by government agencies.
Industry sources said that authorities asked telecom operators to furnish a means of control that would allow censorship in the absolute monarchy. The providers have been given a week to comply. One source claims that telecom operators were behind the move, asking the commission to impose censorship because of the “damage” caused by free applications.
Recent political protests, which are illegal in Saudi Arabia, have been partially organized via WhatsApp. When the same issue arose with BlackBerry in 2010, it resulted in temporary suspension of Blackberry Messenger services, until an eventual deal between RIM and the Saudi government removed the suspension. The details of the agreement are not public
If similar deals are struck with these currently private apps, it is anticipated that individuals who people wish to maintain private communications will move on to other tools.
Tunisia Salafists threaten Ennahda
On March 27, the leader of Tunisia’s Salafist jihadist movement threatened to topple the prime minister. It is the first direct threat to Tunisia’s Islamist-led government, Ennahda.
Saif Allah bin Hussein (aka Abou Iyadh), leader of Ansar al-Sharia, addressed a message to Ennahda published on Ansar al-Sharia’s Facebook page. “Hold back your sick person from us or else we’ll wage a war against him until we topple him and throw him into the dustbin of history.” It continued, “We won’t talk much, you’ll see and not just hear the response… if you don’t hold him back.” Abou Iyadh is wanted in connection with the deadly attack on the US embassy in Tunis last September.
The threat came a day after Prime Minister Ali Larayedh blamed Abou Iyadh for the spread of arms and increase of violence in Tunisia. In the past months, Tunisian security forces have found several weapons caches, detained many Salafist jihadists, and clashed with militants on the Algeria border.
Tensions between Ennahda and Ansar al-Sharia have been escalating since December, when embassy attack suspects Bechir Golli and Mohammed Bakhti died in Mornaguia prison after a 50-day hunger strike. Salafist jihadists blamed the government for their deaths.
“Our relations with Ennahda [have] been severed in full because that party is not Islamist as they so claim,” said Ansar al-Sharia spokesperson, Mohamed Anis Chaieb. “This is because they embrace the civil state concept, and there is nothing in their programmes indicating that they are adopting the Islamic rule model.”
al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri attacked Ennahda for failing to use Islamic Sharia as a main source of legislation. Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi responded strongly, calling al-Zawahri, a catastrophe for Islam and Muslims.
Tunisian citizens are concerned that the conflict between the Salafists and Ennahda will threaten the country’s political and social stability. There is fear that the increasing enmity on both sides will have serious repercussions in the country.