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.
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.
After nearly two months of fighting, French President François Hollande has announced that French troops are currently engaged in the final phase of fighting Islamist militants in the northern region of Mali. French officials have confirmed that over the past weekend, there has been an increase of fighting in the Ifoghas mountains where a number of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) militants are reportedly hiding. Fighting continued into Sunday when French warplanes targeted an Islamist base in Infara.
Speaking in Paris on Saturday, President Hollande indicated that Chadian troops had launched an attack on Friday which resulted in significant loss of life. According to the Chadian army, thirteen soldiers from Chad and some sixty-five militants were killed in clashes that occurred on Friday. This latest fighting, between the Islamist militants and ethnic Tuaregs, occurred in the In-Khalil area, which is situated near the northern border town of Tessalit. Security sources have confirmed that four members of the Arab Movement of the Azawad (MAA) were wounded on Sunday after French warplanes launched an attack on an Islamist base in Infara, which is located 30 km (19 miles) from the border of Algeria.
With airstrikes continuing throughout Mali, and especially in the northern mountainous regions of the country, it is likely that hit-and-run attacks may be staged in a number of towns over the coming weeks. In turn, with France slowly wrapping up its military intervention, and with operations being handed over to the African Union forces, militants may use this opportunity in order to clash with locals and army forces in a bid to exploit the fluid security situation. Furthermore, any militants who have fled the airstrikes in Mali may be regrouping in other countries and may attempt to stage hit-and-run attacks in neighbouring countries and/or in those African states that have provided troops for the intervention. The United States Embassy in Senegal has warned its citizens of a possible attack in the capital city of Dakar. Although no further information has been provided, any such attacks may be carried out by Islamist militants from Mali or may be indirectly linked to the Malian intervention.
Meanwhile in Algeria, the gas plant that was at the centre of a deadly hostage-taking last month has partially resumed production. Ever since al-Qaeda-linked gunmen stormed the plant and took hundreds of local and dozens of foreign workers hostage, the Tiguentourine plant has been closed. The hostage crisis ended after four days when the Algerian army stormed by complex. The incident left twenty-nine insurgents and at least thirty-seven hostages dead. Officials have indicated that the plant is now operating at about a third of capacity. Since the incident, the plant has increased its security, with armed guards being deployed in order to help protect Algeria’s remote desert energy installations.
Algeria: Algeria and the US agreed to work together to prevent criminal access to black market nuclear materials, citing fears that supplies from Gaddafi’s stock are within reach of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
Officials from both nations discussed security measures including border patrol, strategic trade controls and illicit transfer of conventional weapons, as well as constant monitoring of smuggling threats and trends.
Algerian Colonel Djamel Abdessalem Z’ghida announced that ground border surveillance in the southwest has been strengthened for the fight against trafficking and other criminal networks. Ground forces are supported by daily aerial surveillance.
The agreement between Algeria and the US is an unusual act of cooperation for Algeria, whose government prefers to conduct domestic security affairs unilaterally. US officials hope these efforts increase cooperation on a regional and international scale.
Internal reports by British Petroleum (BP) in 2011 and 2012 warned of risk of attack against gas plants in Africa. The reports anticipated the increasing likelihood of attacks in Africa following the killing of Osama bin Laden.
A May 2011 report, distributed immediately following bin Laden’s death, indicated that renewed terror activity could arise from within Algeria’s Al Qaeda franchise. The BP internal newsletter stated, “[Al Qaeda] affiliates and other groups will seek to fill the leadership and motivational void left by OBL.” However a report from January 2012 made no indication of threats to Algeria, rather focusing on other African and Middle Eastern nations, warning of a new brand of Islamic terrorism and “fostered by weak or nonexistent central governments, easily-crossed borders, ready availability of weapons and explosives, and simmering ethnic, religious and economic fissures.”
The militant group which conducted the terrorist storming of the Ain Amenas gas compound are led by Mokhtar Belmokhtar, a breakaway commander from AQIM. Both AQIM, and Belmokhtar’s group, called “Those Who Sign With Blood” originated in Algeria.
BP’s latest security assessment focuses on a standoff between Iran and the West, suggesting that Iran could use militia’s controlled by Irack to attack Western interests in Iran.
Bahrain: Rioters have blocked roads and clashed with security forces following the death of a teenage boy during the protests for second anniversary of Bahrain’s uprising. The boy is reported to have died from “close range birdshot”. Hundreds of opposition demonstrators threw petrol bombs at police, who responded with tear gas.
On Saturday, police discovered a bomb on the Bahraini end of the King Fahd causeway, a 25km stretch which links Saudi Arabia to the island country. The route is used by thousands of people each day.
The protests occur in the midst of reconciliation talks between the predominantly Sunni government and Shi’ia opposition parties. The opposition wants to put an end to the Bahraini monarchy’s political domination and full power in parliament. The next round of talks is scheduled for Sunday, yet there is no word from either side whether the discussions will continue in the wake of the protests.
Egypt: On Friday, Egyptian security officials seized two tons of explosives hidden in a truck carrying fruits and vegetables. The explosives were confiscated in the main Suez Canal transport tunnel which connects Sinai to the rest of Egypt. The explosives were packed in 100 plastic bags, and are a type used for demolishing stones in quarries. The driver was been taken in for questioning, and said he was unaware he was transporting explosives. A businessman had asked him to take the goods to Sinai for collection.
Since the 2011, and particularly the Libyan revolution, Egypt’s Interior Ministry has confiscated hundreds of weapons smuggled from Libya, some of which are meant to be delivered to Gaza. Sinai has increasingly become a haven for Islamist militants who have benefitted from lack of security in the area following the Egyptian Revolution.
The explosives designed for demolishing stones may be an indication that Egyptian attempts to block smuggling tunnels in the Sinai are being met with strong resistance. On Wednesday, Egyptian security forces began flooding smuggling tunnels between Sinai and the Gaza Strip, in an effort to shut them down. The network of tunnels provides an estimated 30% of all goods received into the region, circumventing a blockade imposed by Israel since 2007.
Hamas released a statement Saturday condemning the Egyptian government for the actions. Khalil El-Haya, a senior Hamas official, added that people in Gaza consider Egyptian actions equal to a renewal of the Israeli blockade.
Iran-Israel: Brigadier General Hassan Shateri (also known as Hessam Khoshnevis), of Iran’s Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, was killed on Tuesday in Syria, while heading back to Lebanon. Shateri had been engaged in civilian reconstruction in Lebanon for the last seven years, and is the first Iranian general killed in Syria. The Iranian government has accused opponents of Syrian leader Bashar al Assad of the murder. Syrian rebels have accused Iran of sending forces to assist Assad in suppressing the uprising.
An Iranian envoy to Beirut has connected the killing with the Israeli government, stating that the killing had strengthened Iran’s resolve against Israel. Ali Shirazi, a representative of Ayatollah Khomenei to the Guards’ elite Quds force, stated, “Our enemies should also know that we will quickly get revenge for (the death of) Haj Hassan (Shateri) from the Israelis, and the enemies cannot shut off the Iranian people with such stupid acts.”
The Israeli government has not commented on the killing; however Israel has considered military action against Tehran if the Iranian government continues with a nuclear program. Iran claims that the nuclear program is peaceful.
On Friday, the chief UN nuclear inspector announced hopes to reach an agreement with Iran in March which allows them to probe into Iranian nuclear research activities.
Tunisia: Thousands of Tunisians responded to a call by the ruling Islamist Ennahda party and poured into the streets to support the ruling party. Demonstrators denounced Prime Minister Jebaili’s plans for a temporary “technocratic” government and chanted against the secular opposition parties.
The rally was called by Ennahda to denounce Prime Minister Jebali’s suggestion following the assassination of opposition leader Shokri Belaid on 6 February, which resulted in bloody classes between government supporters and opposition. Jebaili has threatedn to resign if he fails to gain support to form a new government.
Religious and political tensions have risen over several months in what was a “proudly secular” Muslim nation. Talks regarding a new administration have been rescheduled for Monday. A previous deadline for a new administration had been cancelled with no new date scheduled as of yet.
The hostage crisis at Ain Amenas gas complex in January placed a spotlight on Algerian foreign policy and security measures. Although unilateral Algerian security tactics frustrated international governments, authorities in many nations still believe Algerian support is necessary for security in North Africa. Yet President Bouteflika and the Algerian government are unlikely to provide extensive cooperation beyond their borders; Algerian policy is isolationist at the core.
The Algerian government has long held a “non-interference” foreign policy strategy. Historically, President Bouteflika has been a vocal opponent of foreign intervention, believing in particular that Western foreign military spending in North Africa allows too much leverage and insight into domestic militaries. The January attacks highlighted the extent to which Algeria is ready to act unilaterally. When Islamic militants took several hostages, including 48 foreign nationals, the Algerian military acted quickly to end the siege. This decision, made without the advice or support of other nations, aggravated world leaders who commonly cooperate in such situations. However, to the Algerians, these dialogs appear time-consuming and intrusive.
Algerian reluctance to invite coalition cooperation within its borders is equally matched by an unwillingness to interfere beyond its borders, as evidenced during the2011 Libyan Revolution. Though the Algerian government did not support the Gaddafi regime, they were reluctant to become involved in NATO-supported operations to remove the dictator. Rather, the Algerian government focused on the potential volatility in Libya, fearing that instability would create pockets of opportunity for increased weapons trafficking and radicalised groups to take hold. The Algerian government fortified its borders, shutting down crossings between the two nations. Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci stated, “We can only say that the relationship between us will improve with the return of stability to Libya.” Further, the Algerian government believes that those who aided in the overthrow of Gaddafi, particularly NATO, are responsible not only for the resulting instability, but are beholden to guide Libya’s new government through course-correction as it makes its way into democratic polity.
The nature of this “fortress-like” philosophy dates back to Algerian independence from France in 1962, when the Algerian government became determined to become a pillar of sovereignty. Decades later, in 1992, Algeria suffered a coup d’etat which led to a decade long civil war between the Algerian military and two Islamic parties; the Islamic Salvation Front, and the considerably more radical Armed Islamic Group (GIA). The GIA carried out a series of massacres, and Algeria found itself alone in struggling with militant Islamic insurgencies, relatively unaided by Western forces. By the end of the war, insurgencies cost the lives of almost 200,000 people, yet the terrorist threat in the Middle East was not fully acknowledged by Western forces until the attacks in the US on September 11, 2001. As a result, Algeria’s experiences have reinforced the government’s conviction to remain solidly independent in dealing with domestic security issues, and non-intrusive in events beyond its borders.
Complicating matters for Algeria, however, are contentious neighbours along those borders. Algeria is the largest country in Africa (five times the size of France) and has a 2,500 mile land border. Six hundred of those miles are shared with a still-unstable Libya, and a further nine hundred of those miles are shared with Mali, where Islamist militants have taken over the northern region of the country, threatening to impact security along Algerian borders. Still more troublesome, a large section of the nation borders fall deep within the Sahara. In that vast, secluded space, many militant groups have taken residence in the areas bordering Algeria, particularly in northern Mali.
In April 2012, an offshoot group of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) kidnapped seven people from an Algerian consulate in northern Mali. The militants executed one hostage and released three in the summer. The three remaining are reportedly still in captivity. Despite these affronts, the Algerian government has been loath to cooperate in actions against militants in Mali, acutely aware of their direct impact on security within Algerian borders. Algerian officials fear that military involvement might push the radicals further north into domestic territory. Further still, Algerian actions may cause radicalisation of the nomadic Taureg Bedouins, whose territory resides on the borders of Algeria, Mali, and Niger.
While the Algerian government is adamant that they will not send troops to Mali, it has granted permission for French fighters to use Algerian airspace, and has reinforced military presence along the Malian border. The attackers at Ain Amenas gas complex claimed that the siege was a direct result of Algerian cooperation. Attacking Algeria’s gas complex is a significant step for militant Islamists; the assault was more sophisticated than bombings in public places, and sources confirm that the attack has been planned for some time, with the help of individuals working inside the complex. AQIM and other radicalised groups have historically profited from ransoming hostages, and a complex with foreign nationals would possibly provide income to spend on achieving goals in northern Mali. In addition, the attack sends a message. Sonatrach, Algeria’s nationalized oil and gas company, is the tenth largest in the world. The hydrocarbon industry provides the bulk of the nation’s wealth. An attack within such an infrastructure signals an attempt to cripple the Algerian economy.
However, a large percentage of Algerian revenue supports its defence spending. Algeria has the 16th largest defence budget in the world (primarily purchasing weaponry from Russia), and a highly proficient military, adept after years of experience, at securing its borders and ensuring safety to its hydrocarbon profit sectors. Algeria will continue to secure and reinforce its borders from within, but are unlikely to provide more than airspace permissions in affairs beyond its borders.