MENA UpdateApril 13, 2013 in Algeria, Egypt, Libya, MENA, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Terrorism, Tunisia
Al Qaeda Rebranding
The emir of al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), Abu Bakr al Baghdadi (a.k.a Abu Dua), announced a new brand for AQI’s: the “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant.” The new name replaces all previous brands used by al Qaeda’s affiliates in Iraq and Syria, including the Al Nusrah Front. The new name was announced in an audio message released online on April 8.
Al Baghdadi also confirmed that the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda’s chief fighting force inside Syria, has always been a creation of his terrorist organization, but was not announced for security reasons. The Front’s leader was deputized, and sent, along with other members “from Iraq to the Levant so as to meet our cells in the Levant.”
“We laid for them plans, and drew up for them the policy of work, and gave them what financial support we could every month, and supplied them with men who had known the battlefields of jihad, from the emigrants and the natives,” al Baghdadi continues.
Al Qaeda uses multiple brands to mask its operations. The name often reflects how the organization views allied organizations and prospects in a specific geographic venue.
Egypt: On 11 April, armed Bedouin tribesmen released a Hungarian peacekeeper in Egypt’s Sinai after briefly detaining him on Thursday. The captive soldier was released after intervention from tribal leaders.
The Bedouin were pushing for the release of a jailed relative, and did not realise they had captured a member of the Multinational Force of Observers (MFO) stationed in the peninsula.
The soldier was on leave and travelling to Cairo when forced to stop at a makeshift checkpoint the kidnappers had set up.
South Sudan: On April 9, authorities in Unity State confirmed the release of eight women who were abducted from Payinjiar County on 1 April by a group of 350 civilian cattle raiders allegedly from neighbouring Lakes state. The women were searching for food near a river when they were taken, and had been tortured and interrogated during their detention.
The raiders also stole nearly 800 cattle. Payinjiar county officials believe that the cattle rustlers come from Maper County. The 741 cows taken were later recovered in a battle on the same day. Three of the cattle rustlers were killed.
Although cattle raids are commonplace in the region, this event marks the first time that raids have been combined with abductions of people.
Payinjiar County Commissioner Biel called on the commissioners of counties across the border in Lake State to stop the cycle of cattle raiding by convincing them that they are all South Sudanese citizens.
Syria: The release of Lebanese man who was kidnapped in the border with Syria was freed on 13 April. His release prompted the release of 11 other people who were abducted in a string of retaliatory kidnaps.
Hussein Kamel Jaafar, a Shiite from an area near the northern Lebanese town of Arsal, was kidnapped last month and taken into Syria. In response, members of his family took captive several local Sunnis. Those families in turn carried out retaliatory kidnappings.
A security force said that a delegation of Arsal residents paid a $150,000 ransom and returned from Syria at dawn with the former captive, Hussein Kamel Jaafar.
Jaafar said, “I was kidnapped by bandits and thieves, not the Free Syrian Army,” adding that his captors “beat me and tortured me.”
Arsal is a majority Sunni Muslim town whose inhabitants generally support the revolt in Syria. Nearby Hermel and Baalbek are largely Shiite strongholds of Hezbollah, which backs the Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Syria: On 13 April, four Italian journalists who had been kidnapped and held in Syria for nine days were released, according to Italy’s interim Foreign Minister, Mario Monti. The journalists were in Syria to film a documentary about a rebel faction close to al Qaeda. The group had been reportedly been held by an armed Islamist group; none were wounded and all are in good health.
The Minister’s statement did not reveal details about the captors who had taken the reporters, or information regarding their release. Italian state news agency ANSA reported the reporters are now in Turkey, and will return to Italy on Saturday evening.
Monti thanked those involved in securing the reporters’ release “which was particularly complicated because of the dangerous context”, adding that he had personally followed the situation since the reporters were taken hostage. He thanked the media for respecting a blackout requested by RAI state television, who employs one of the four journalists.
The Foreign Ministry has not released the names of the journalists, however they have been widely reported to include be RAI journalist Amedeo Ricucci, freelancers Elio Colavolpe and Andrea Vignali, and Italian-Syrian reporter Susan Dabbous.
Algeria – Riots in Southern Algeria
On 10 April, at least 40 people, including 22 riot police, were injured in clashes in the city of Ouargla in southern Algeria. Police fired rubber bullets into the crowd, which hurled stones, set fire to car tires, and blocked roads.
The chairman of the National Committee for the Unemployed Taher Belabbas said, “The cause behind the protests in the city of Ouargla is the false promises made by the government about housing the poor, employing the unemployed, and solving the problems around development in the Southern region in general”.
A spokesman for the Islamic Renaissance Movement said this occurrence is “similar to what happens before every political event, authorities seek to offer ‘social bribes’ to people, to license their political projects”.
The riots indicate a growing rift between Northern and Southern Algeria, the latter complaining of years of political neglect.
Bahrain – Petrol Bombs Hurled at Bahraini Ministry
On 11 April, four suspects were arrested after throwing homemade Molotov cocktails at the foreign ministry in an escalation of anti-government protests. There were no injuries or serious damage from the firebomb. The attack was a rare attempt to strike government offices during the 2-year-old uprising, led by majority Shiites who are seeking a greater political voice in the Sunni-ruled kingdom.
In the past, police stations, security vehicles and personnel have been targeted, but government or royal compounds have been largely untouched. The ministry offered few details of the arrests. Online activists, however, said police stormed areas of the capital, Manama, at dawn.
Egypt – Morsi Meets with SCAF
On 11 April, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi met with the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces for an hour and a half. The army commanders expressed frustration that political forces are attempting to distort the image of the Armed Forces, specifically offended by findings that it used torture and murder during the 2011 revolution.
Morsi reportedly denounced the findings, saying they are an attempt to drive a wedge between the army and the presidency. A fact-finding committee found the allegations against SCAF were substantiated. The report was submitted to the Morsi, but was leaked to the media on 10 April. SCAF leadership used the leaked report as leverage to force Morsi to side with the military leaders and promote certain among them beyond good practice. Morsi promoted the heads of Egypt’s Air Force, Air Defence Forces and Navy to the rank of Lieutenant-general during the meeting.
Qatar to give $3 billion to Egypt
On 10 April, Qatar’s Prime Minister announced that the nation will give Egypt an additional $3 billion to bolster Egypt’s ailing economy and help rebuild key industries. The funds are in addition to Qatar’s promises to invest up to $18 billion in Egypt over the next five years.
Analysts suspect that Egypt is becoming a dependency of Qatar, as imports continue to decline and the nation’s currency reserves are reportedly able to cover no more than three months.
Coptic Pope Condemns Morsi
Coptic Pope Tawadros II has strongly condemned Mohamed Morsi for failing to deal properly with sectarian violence in early April that resulted in the death of six Christians and the country’s largest cathedral besieged by police and armed civilians.
Thousands of Christians had gathered at Egypt’s largest cathedral, St Mark’s, on 7 April to mourn the death of four Copts who were killed in earlier sectarian clashes north of Cairo. Attendees said they were attacked as they tried to leave the cathedral. They were forced them back inside in a siege that lasted into the night. Police fired teargas over the cathedral walls and looked on as civilians armed with birdshot, knives and Molotov cocktails scaled nearby buildings, attacking those inside the church grounds. Two Christians were killed and at least 80 injured.
On 9 April, Pope Tawadros II called a live current events news show to criticise Morsi for what he sees as negligence. The previous day, Morsi had claimed that any attack on the cathedral was an attack on him personally, and even telephoned Pope Tawadros, promising to do everything he could to protect it. However, after Morsi’s call, police continued to fire teargas into the cathedral.
Analysts believe the Pope’s tactics show a change in the Coptic Church, saying it was “interesting that he called in to a television show. He hasn’t used a sermon. He is trying to reach as large an audience as possible.” Tawadros may have been angered by a statement by a Morsi aide that laid the blame for Sunday’s cathedral siege at the feet of Copts.
For over a millennium, Egypt’s Christians lived peacefully among Egypt’s Muslim population. Sectarian tensions have risen over the past four decades, heightening by the elevation of Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. Egypt’s new constitution inadequately protects the rights of Christians and other minorities.
On Sunday, a crowd of Muslims gathered outside the cathedral in support of Christians, and chanted anti-Brotherhood slogans. “Christians and Muslims are from one hand,” they sang. Muslims and Christians marched together to the cathedral on Thursday in solidarity with those who died.
Egyptian Legislature Approves Election Law
On 11 April, Egypt’s legislature approved a revised version of the law organizing the country’s parliamentary elections, which were scheduled to start in April. The elections were delayed because earlier versions of the law were declared invalid. The Shura council asked had asked for amendments to the earlier draft, and approved the changes on Thursday. The text has been sent to the Supreme Constitutional Court for review, which could take up to 45 days to rule on the new law. President Mohammed Morsi has said he expects the elections to be held in October.
Egypt’s opposition said it was not consulted on its drafting and had said before it would boycott the vote. The opposition has expressed concerns over gerrymandering by the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups. In televised sessions, members of the Shura council voted over the redrawing of districts, one of the changes the Supreme Court had asked for.
Libya – Libya and Egypt Sign Military Cooperation Agreement
On 11 April, Libya and Egypt signed an agreement for military cooperation, focusing on training, illegal immigration, illegal fishing operations and drug trafficking.
The agreement was made as the Chief of Staff of Egypt’s Armed Forces Sedki Sobhi and a delegation visited Libya. Libyan Ministry of Defence, Al-Bargati said that the visit “is the beginning of cooperation between the two countries to protect the region and achieve the revolution’s objectives of stability and development.”
UN Panel Report: Libyan Weapons Spreading at Alarming Rate
On 9 April, a UN Panel report indicated that Libyan weapons are spreading at to new territory in West Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean at “an alarming rate,” fuelling conflicts and increasing the arsenals of armed groups and terrorists.
The panel said cases of illicit transfers from Libya are under investigation, involving more than 12 countries and including heavy and light weapons such as portable air defence systems, explosives, mines, and small arms and ammunition. Since the 2011 Civil war, Libya has become a black market for those wishing to purchase weapons throughout the region.
The increased access to Libyan weapons has empowered “non-state actors” who are engaged in conflicts against national authorities. The panel expressed concern that extremist armed groups are strengthening their position.
In Libya, trade flourishes from weakened political and security infrastructure, an absence of control over stockpiles, and delays in disarmament and weapons collections. These encourage illegal trade and, “have generated considerable money-making opportunities for traffickers,” the panel said.
Sudan – Sudan and South Sudan Seek to Normalise Relations
On 12 April, Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir made his first visit to South Sudan since July 2011 when the south seceded and became an independent state. The aim of the visit is to start cooperation and normalisation between the two countries.
South Sudan’s Salva Kiir agreed with continue a dialogue address outstanding conflicts between the nations, who agreed in March to resume cross-border oil flows, and work toward reducing tensions since the secession. They nations have yet to agree on who owns certain regions, including the Abyei province, along their disputed 2,000km border.
South Sudan shut down its entire oil output of 350,000 barrels a day in January 2012 during a dispute over pipeline fees. The move devastated economies in both nations. South Sudan re-launched oil production in early April. The first oil cargo expected to reach Sudan’s Red Sea export terminal by the end of May.
In addition, each nation has agreed to grant each others’ citizens residency, increase border trade and encourage close cooperation between their central banks.
Syria – Suicide bomber kills 14 in Damascus
A suicide bomber detonated an explosives-packed vehicle in central Damascus, killing 16 people and wounding over 140. The attack is the third in the Damascus in 18 days. The dead were mostly civilians, and four from regular forces.
No group has claimed credit for the bombing, but it was likely executed by the the Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant, which has claimed credit for 57 of the 70 suicide attacks that have been reported in Syria since December 2011.
Tunisia – Islamists Storm Tunisian School after Superintendent Bars Entry to Veiled Student
On 10 April, radical Muslims entered a school in Manzel Bouzelfa, 28 miles east of Tunis, and assaulted the superintendent after he barred entry to a teenage girl who was wearing a face veil. A witness says Salafists stormed the compound, smashing cars on the way in, and “tried to kill the director for refusing the entry of a schoolgirl dressed in niqab into the classroom.”
School superintendent Abdelwahed Sentati suffered several broken bones after being beaten with stones and sticks. Teachers claim that dozens of radicals remained on the premises, chanting anti-secular slogans. There have been no arrests yet in the incident. Classes at the school and others in the area have been suspended in protest at the assault, and the teachers union was considering a strike.
Tunisia is experiencing an increasing power struggle between moderate secularists, which have long dominated the country, and radical Islamists, whose influence is increasing. In 2012, the Education Ministry decided to preserve a classroom ban on women wearing the full face veil of strict Muslims. Hundreds of Islamists demanded segregated classes and the right for women to wear full-face veils.
Hardline Salafists want their form of Islam to be the law of the land, raising secularist fears women’s rights and democracy. Last year, Salafists prevented concerts and plays from being staged in across Tunisia, declaring that they violated Islamic principles.
“Topless Jihad” sparks controversy
In late March, a Tunisian woman who goes by the name of Amina Tyler angered Islamist groups by posting topless photos of herself online with the words “My body belongs to me” and “F(expletive deleted) your morals” written across her bare chest, as homage to the women’s power group, Femen.
Tyler disappeared from public view shortly after the photos gained widespread attention, and fears of reprisal sparked rallies around the globe in solidarity. On 6 April, Tyler reappeared on a special reports show, “Effet Papillon”, fearing for her and her family’s safety in Tunisia. Tyler had received several death threats by telephone and on her Facebook account – statements like, “You will die” and “We will throw acid at your face.”
Tyler explains that after the photos appeared, her family drove her home, where her cousin “destroyed her telephone SIM card” and “beat her”. The family then relocated to a town three hours from Tunis where she was forced to stay at her home.
On 4 April, Femen activists conducted a “topless jihad” in front of Tunisian embassies, mosques and Islamic associations across Europe to show their support for Tunisian activist Amina. Tyler said she did not regret baring her breasts, but she did condemn the burning of an Islamic flag by three feminists in front of Paris’s Great Mosque on Thursday. “Everyone is going to think that I encouraged it. That is unacceptable.”
The flag burning incident sparked further controversy, as it made stereotypical links to Islam and religious prejudices. One citizen said, “I personally consider going naked or wearing the niqab part of personal freedom and anyone has the right to wear what he or she wants, but the infringement and provocation of the feelings of others is vile.”
Tunisian women are some of the most free in the Arab world but have limited inheritance rights, which women’s groups say have been further abused by the ruling Islamist party Ennahda.
Tunisian Government Releases Controversial Imam
On 5 April, the Tunisian government released a controversial Salafist accused of forging passports for jihadists seeking to wage war in Syria.
Imed Ben Saleh, (a.k.a Abou Abdullah Ettounsi), appeared in court on Friday morning, to answer questions about why he was deported from Egypt the previous day. Ettounsi was apprehended at an Egyptian airport, accompanied by a Libyan known for committing passport fraud. The Egyptian judiciary did not prove the involvement of Abou Abdullah Ettounsi in this case, but he was returned to Tunisia and informed that he was not welcome in Egypt.
“This man should not be freed until proven innocent from shipping jihadists and committing passport fraud,” Mouna Rabhi said. “After he was released, the judiciary opened for him the doors in Tunisia so he could send the rest of our young people to Syria to die.”
The case comes as the Tunisian government increases measures to stop the recruitment of young people for jihad in Syria.
Tunisian Girls Provide Sex to Syrian Extremists
On 7 April, a report indicated that at least 13 Tunisian girls have reportedly travelled Northern Syria to offer themselves as sex workers to opposition fighters. The announcement follows extremist “fatwas” that have circulated the internet, which calls on women to perform jihad through sex.
Last week, a Tunisian minister for religious affairs appealed to girls not to be influenced by extreme Islamic preachers outside of Tunisia who made a number of “sexual fatwas”.
A video widely circulated on the internet in Tunisia shows the parents of a veiled girl called Rahmah, 17, who disappeared one morning, her parents later learning that she went to Syria to carry out sexual jihad. Rahmah has returned to her family, who said that their daughter is not a religious fanatic “but was influenced by her fellow students who are known for their affiliation with the jihadist Salafist.” Stories like this are increasingly common in Tunisia. Parents are concerned about the influence charismatic Islamic leaders in other Arab countries can wield over their children.
The initial fatwa was attributed to sheikh Mohamed al-Arifi; however, sources close to the sheikh denied that he had issued the fatwa. Al-Hadi Yahmad, a researcher on the affairs of Islamic groups, said, “The issue of sexual jihad was initially attributed to a Saudi sheikh who denied it, and this fatwa is abnormal and not endorsed by religious scholars.”
Reports in Tunisia stress though that the fatwa had gained attention on pro-Syrian regime websites, with the intention of tarnishing the image of the Islamic fighters. This propaganda would support Assad’s assertion that fundamentalists, supported by Salafist groups, are amongst the Syrian rebels.
Tunisia recovers $29 Million “Stolen” by Ben Ali
Tunisia has received $29 million (£19 million) “looted assets” held by former President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali. The United Nations’ Stolen Asset Recovery team, who are responsible for to recovering money from leaders overthrown in the Arab spring, presented a check to President Moncef Marzouki.
The money had been held in a Lebanese bank account in the name of Laila Trabelsi, the wife of Ben Ali. Both Trabelsi and Ben Ali are believed to have fled to Saudi Arabia after the Tunisian uprising.
Tunisia’s government faces pressure to recover the remaining money to ease stressful economic times, but there are political and legal difficulties in accessing accounts where the money is thought to be held.
Yemen – Military Restructuring in Yemen
On 10 April, Yemeni President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi issued decrees to restructure the country’s military.
President Hadi removed the former President Saleh’s son, Brigadier General Ahmed, from his post as commander of the elite Republican Guard, appointing him ambassador to the United Arab Emirates. In addition, two of Saleh’s nephews who had served in the Presidential Guard and the intelligence service have been appointed as military attaches in Germany and Ethiopia. A commander from an armoured division that split from the army in 2011 was made a presidential advisor.
Human rights observers are concerned that while the restructure is a positive step, placing Saleh’s allies in diplomatic posts could render the men immune from prosecution.
The restructure is a critical step in a US-backed transfer of power, which is intended to ease deposed president Ali Abdullah Saleh out of power and transition to his deputy, Hadi.
Saudi Arabia Builds Fence on Yemen Border
In an effort to tighten security, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) building a fence along its southern border with Yemen, spanning from the Red Sea coast to the border with Oman. Saudia Arabia began constructing in 2003 but halted a year later after protests from the Yemeni government. As turmoil has increased in Yemen, KSA has decided to proceed with its construction.
The fence, which will span 1,800 km and stand three metres high, will consist of a network of sandbags and pipelines, fitted with electronic detection systems. The first section of the fence has already been built along the coast in order to halt the flow of illegal immigrants, but the border remains a dangerous zone.