Beginning yesterday, the Loya Jirga, a council of Afghan tribal elders and other influential individuals, is currently considering the proposed pact between the United States and Hamid Karzai’s government regarding the future of foreign troops in Afghanistan. While the Loya Jirga is widely expected to approve the pact, negotiations over the security arrangement have exposed the serious divides and tensions between the US and the Afghan government. Similar issues torpedoed the proposed pact between the US and Iraq, leading to the eventual withdrawal of all foreign combat troops in 2012.
The Loya Jirga consists of 2500 senior Afghan figures, including tribal elders, politicians, civil servants and NGO representatives. While its decision is not normally binding, President Karzai has announced that the security pact will only be signed if ratified by both the Loya Jirga and the Afghan parliament. The meeting will continue for four days, after which the delegates will vote. Currently, the delegates have split into many smaller sections to discuss and debate the pact. Reports from the scene suggest that while some of these debates are peaceful, others are extremely heated, and a small number of delegates have left the Loya Jirga in protest already. Nevertheless, the Loya Jirga is still expected to approve the decision, and subsequently the Afghan parliament will likely rubber stamp the pact. A rejection of the pact would likely see the complete withdrawal of ISAF forces at the end of 2014.
President Karzai appears have called the Loya Jirga in an effort to shift responsibility for the decision away from himself – the continuing presence of foreign troops in Afghanistan is extremely unpopular with significant sections of the Afghan populace. Another recent move by Karzai would have the pact signed by his Presidential successor following elections next year, something else that would likely protect his own position and has strained relationships with Washington.
The whole process of negotiating and signing the pact has in fact exposed the divides between the United States and Karzai’s government. The US wanted the pact signed by the end of last month, and continues to maintain that it’s timetable requires an agreement by the end of 2013. Particularly problematic areas have included criminal jurisdiction over American troops, and the ability of ISAF forces to enter Afghan homes without consulting Afghan authorities. Karzai’s relationship with Washington overall has been extremely problematic – the President’s frequent criticism of ISAF forces and about-turns on policy have created problems, while Karzai himself has often been placed in awkward situations domestically caused by the actions of US forces, such as in causing the deaths of civilians. The President recently announced that there was “no trust” between Washington and himself.
While the Taliban has rejected the Loya Jirga, and attacked a previous one in 2011, no attacks directed against the meeting have occurred amidst extremely high security in Kabul. However, last week, a bombing directed at the compound prior to the delegate’s arrival killed ten. The security implications of the Loya Jirga are more long term – the government of Afghanistan remains reliant on foreign aid, and would find it extremely difficult to support its security apparatus if relations with Washington disintegrated. The successful signing of the security pact is a key part of preserving this relationship for the next decade.
Yesterday, October 15th, the governor of Afghanistan’s strategically crucial Logar province was assassinated as he was due to make a speech marking the holiday of Eid al-Adha. This killing is one of few major assassinations of prominent government officials this year; however it highlights the continued goal of insurgents in Afghanistan to deprive the coalition-backed government of competent officials in light of coming elections and the withdrawal of ISAF forces in 2014.
Governor Arsallah Jamal was preparing to give a speech at a mosque in Logar province, when a bomb apparently planted inside the microphone he was due to use was detonated, killing him instantly. At least 15 others were injured, 8 of whom remain in a critical condition. No group has yet claimed responsibility for the attack, however a faction of the Taliban insurgency is almost certainly responsible.
Though Arsallah Jamal had only been appointed as governor of Logar in April, he had previously served as governor of the province of Khost, which shares a border with Pakistan’s tribal region of Waziristan. He was an expert in rural development, and had worked for numerous NGOs, most recently in Canada. He was a close friend of President Hamid Karzai, and managed his 2009 election campaign. Arsallah Jamal had also survived assassination attempts in the past.
The attack took place in Logar’s provincial capital, Pul-e-Alam, a mere 37 miles south of Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul. Logar is a strategically vital province sometimes referred to as the “gate to Kabul”, lying as it does directly to the south and controlling many of the major road approaches to the capital. Insurgents have stepped up their campaign in the province this year, which has seen violence skyrocket and large swathes of Logar fall under Taliban control. Taliban control of Logar would make it far easier for them to launch attacks in Kabul.
Logar province is also the location of the world’s second biggest copper mine, Aynak, the mining rights to which were awarded to a Chinese firm in 2009. Getting the mine up and running was one of Jamal’s major priorities, and may have contributed to his death. Alternatively, Jamal also made the news recently when he revealed that the US military had recently arrested Latif Mehsud, a senior commander in the Pakistani Taliban (TTP), something else that may have made him a target.
Insurgents in Afghanistan have also waged a long running campaign targeting government officials, in hopes of reducing the ability of Hamid Karzai’s government to function. Over 1000 mid-level officials have been assassinated in the past ten years, while several high profile officials, including numerous provincial governors, have also been murdered. With the state bureaucracy and military of Afghanistan weak, the removal of competent officials, leaders and managers could have serious long-term implications on the sustainability of state institutions. Leadership of provincial governors is also regarded as a key factor in delivering next year’s presidential election.
Yesterday, October 7th, two people were killed in a terrorist attack on a polio vaccination campaign in the troubled frontier city of Peshawar in Pakistan. Despite being one of the few nations in the world were polio remains endemic, attacks on vaccination workers are not uncommon. Rumours and distrust of the vaccines are spread by fundamentalist clerics in the country, and large swathes of the country remain unvaccinated despite the authorities’ desire to eradicate the disease and amidst continuing warnings from the World Health Organisation. Recent weeks have seen numerous serious terrorist attacks in Pakistan, raising fears of further destabilisation surrounding the nation’s already acute security challenges. In particular, further moves to attack aid organisations and ethnic minority groups are particularly concerning.
The blast happened outside a health clinic in Sulemankhen, on the outskirts of Peshawar, yesterday. Two people were killed, one a police officer and the other a local member of a ‘volunteer peace committee’. 20 people, mainly members of the police, were also injured in the attack. A second, larger, device was found at the scene and diffused. Monday was the third and final day of a campaign aiming to vaccinate 10’000 children through Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, and the bomb was detonated remotely when police gathered to protect the vaccination teams.
A faction of the Pakistani Taliban, Jundullah, has claimed responsibility for the attack, releasing a statement saying “Jews and the United States want to stamp out Islamic beliefs through these drops”. Jundullah is a prolific terrorist organisation, and has been connected with numerous attacks throughout Pakistan in recent months, including the murder of climbers in Gilget-Baltistan in June and last month’s attack on the Christian community in Peshawar.
Vaccination campaigns have come under attack in Pakistan before. Earlier this year, also in Peshawar, two female aid workers were shot dead, while another 8 vaccination workers were murdered in December last year. The use by the CIA of a fake hepatitis vaccination program to gather intelligence about the whereabouts of Osama Bin Laden in 2011 has reportedly damaged the reputation of aid and vaccination programs in Pakistan. However, issues with vaccinations have been fermenting for several years outside of this, with Islamist propaganda in Pakistan often claiming vaccination programs are attempts by the West to sterilise Muslim populations, or that the vaccines are ‘un-Islamic’ as they supposedly contain pork derivatives. This phenomenon has manifested in other countries with similar strains of Islamist militancy such as Nigeria, which saw the murder of nine vaccination workers earlier this year.
Largely seen as an anachronism in the West, polio remains endemic in only three countries worldwide – Nigeria, Afghanistan and Pakistan. Amidst increasing rates of the disease in Pakistan and the warnings of international health organisations, the Pakistani authorities have launched campaigns in attempts to eradicate the disease in recent years, but have faced widespread resistance in the fractious and restive border and tribal areas.
This recent attack comes amidst a spate of serious attacks throughout the country in recent weeks that have killed over 150 people. Despite the government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif making overtures to militants late in August, the security situation in Pakistan appears to be becoming increasing unstable, with the country’s regular terrorist attacks showing no sign of abating. The Pakistani authorities have been criticised in the past for the lack of a coherent or robust national security strategy, and with elements of the Pakistani state widely seen as collaborating with some terrorist movements, serious doubts remain about their ability to contain the violence. Currently, all the indications are that the security situation in Pakistan is only likely to deteriorate further in the foreseeable future.
A particularly concerning trend is a diversification of the victims targeted in terrorist attacks, as opposed to the traditional targets of Shia Muslims or the Pakistani security forces. Recent months have seen the murder of foreign mountaineers at the base of Nanga Parbat, attacks on Pakistan’s tiny Christian minority and yesterday’s targeting of an UN-backed health campaign. As such, the security risks for foreigners in Pakistan remain severe and are only set to increase if, as seems likely, this trend continues.
On Monday, United States Secretary of State John Kerry defended the capture of an alleged al-Qaeda leader who was apprehended on Saturday during two raids that were carried out by US commandos in Libya and Somalia. The US Secretary of State has indicated that the operations in Libya and Somalia showed that the US would never stop “in its effort to hold those accountable who conduct acts of terror.”
On Saturday, the Pentagon confirmed that US commandos captured an alleged al-Qaeda leader, Anas al-Libi, who has been suspected of masterminding the 1998 bombings of two US embassies in Africa. His capture was confirmed by his son, Abdullah al-Raghie, who stated that his father was seized by masked gunmen in Tripoli early on Saturday as he was parking outside his house after returning from morning prayers. He has claimed that the Libyan government was implicated in his father’s disappearance, however officials in Tripoli have denied any involvement.
Amidst calls by officials in Libya on Sunday to receive an explanation pertaining to the special forces raid on its territory, US Secretary of State John Kerry defended the capture, stating on Monday that Anas al-Libi was a “legal and appropriate target.” Speaking to the media on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation (APEC) summit in Indonesia, the Secretary of State further noted that “with respect to Anas al-Libi, he is a key al-Qaeda figure, and he is a legal and an appropriate target for the US military.” When questioned whether the United States had informed Libya prior to the raid, Kerry refused to confirm or deny, stating only that “we don’t get into the specifics of our communications with a foreign government on any kind of operation of this kind.” The operation to capture Libi has drawn fury from the Libyan government, which has since stated that the operation was unauthorized and that Libi had been kidnapped. Libyan Prime Minister Ali Zeidan’s office has also stated that the Prime Minister has requested full clarification on the raid, stressing that Libya was “keen on prosecuting any Libyan citizen inside Libya.”
According to sources, Anas al-Libi, 49 and whose real name is Nazih Abdul-Hamed al-Ruqai, was married with a daughter and three sons, one of whom was killed in a battle with pro-Kadhafi forces when the rebels entered Tripoli in October 2011. Libi, a computer specialist, left Libya during the early 1990’s when Kadhafi was cracking down on Islamist groups. During that time, Libi joined Bin Laden’s terror organization in Sudan and would later follow the group to Afghanistan before securing political asylum in Britain in 2000. He is believed to have been one of the masterminds behind the 1998 US embassy attacks, which killed more than 200 people in Kenya and Tanzania. On 7 August 1998, a car bomb explosion outside the American embassy in Nairobi killed 213 people, and wounded 5,000. Almost simultaneously, a truck laden with explosives detonated outside the US mission in Tanzania, killed 11 people and leaving another 70 wounded. Al-Qaeda later claimed responsibility for both attacks. When a US court indicted him in connection with the bombings, he fled to Pakistan. Sources have indicated that he returned to Libya shortly after the outbreak of the revolt against Kadhafi, and probably would have fought against the rebels who ousted the longtime dictator.
Libi has been on the FBI’s most wanted list for more than a decade with a US $5 million (£3.1 m) bounty on his head. The raid to capture him came as Western Intelligence agencies increasingly feared that he had been tasked with forming an al-Qaeda network in Libya. According to a US official, shortly after the raid, Libi was taken to a US Navy warship in the region, where he was being questioned. This was confirmed by the Pentagon, which stated that he was being “lawfully detained under the law of war in a secure location” outside Libya. The operation in Tripoli ended a thirteen-year manhunt for Libi who was one of the last remaining high-level operatives from the core terror network that was established by bin Laden in the 1990‘s. His arrest paves the way for his extradition to New York to face trial.
With authorities and officials in Libya insisting that they were unaware of the US operation, the capture of the senior al-Qaeda militant is definitely an embarrassment for the fledgling government and could result in outrage amongst the country’s Islamist extremists. While authorities in Libya have been struggling to assert control over the countless numbers of militias that emerged during the 2011 uprising against Moamer Kadhafi, many militias have refused to disarm and effectively now control large portions of the country. Some of the militias in question include hardline Islamists who have accused the post-Kadhafi government of being too close to the West. In turn, reactions to his capture in Libya have been mixed, effectively demonstrating the divide in the country amongst Islamists and their secular opponents.
While the operation in Libya achieved its objective, it remains unclear whether the raid on a beachfront villa in southern Somalia was a success.
On Saturday, US commandos carried out an operation to capture one of the leaders of al-Shabaab however unconfirmed reports have indicated that SEAL commandos were forced to withdraw before confirming the kill. Reports have indicated that the mission was aborted after the commandos encountered fierce resistance from al-Shabaab fighters. The operation, which was carried out by members of SEAL Team Six, the same unit that killed Osama Bin Laden, occured Barawe, which is located 180 kilometers (110 miles) south of the capital city of Mogadishu. A US official has identified the militant as Ikrima, a Kenyan of Somali origin, however Washington has yet to formally name the intended target. When asked on Sunday as to whether officials in Somalia had been aware of the raid, Prime Minister Abdi Farah Shirdon Saaid stated that “our co-operation with international partners on fighting against terrorism is not a secret.”
In response to the raid, an al-Shabaab military operations spokesman, Sheikh Abdiasis Abu Musab, a fighter was killed during the raid. Al-Shabaab’s commander in the southern Somali port of Barawe, Mohamed Abu Suleiman, also noted that “the enemy of Allah tried to surprise the mujahedeen commanders with a night attack using a military helicopter, but they were taught a lesson and they have failed.” Residents of Barawe reported they were woken by heavy gunfire before dawn prayers and some of them saw commandos, presumed to be from a Western nation, rappelling from a helicopter and attempting to storm a house belonging to a senior al-Shabaab commander. Local media has also reported that two helicopters were involved in the raid. By Saturday morning, residents reported that al-Shabaab militants were heavily deployed on the streets of the town.
The raid comes shortly after al-Shabaab confirmed that it had carried out last month’s attack on the Westgate shopping centre in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, leaving at least sixty-seven people dead. Sources have indicated that while Ikrimah was not linked to that attack, the raid has prompted fears that the target could be planning a similar assault on other Western targets in the region.
Multiple nations currently operation Special Forces in the wider Horn of Africa region, and many have carried out similar missions in the past. In recent years, both US and French Special Forces have carried out raids on coastal targets in Somalia. Last year, US Navy Seals flying at least six military helicopters carried out an operation to rescue two aid workers held by pirates in northern Somalia. Washington has also used drones in Somalia to support the local government and African Union (AU) forces in their battle against al-Shabaab militants. And earlier this year, France carried out an unsuccessful raid to free a French intelligence agent. On 12 January, elite French forces carried out an overnight operation, involving some fifty troops and at least five helicopters, in southern Somalia. Two French commandos were killed and al-Shabaab later reported that it had killed the agent. With minimal information being released pertaining to Saturday’s raid, it currently remains unclear whether either of these countries was involved. Furthermore, Western navies are present in the region, patrolling the seas off Somalia, which has been beset by conflict for more than two decades. While they have been tasked with fighting piracy, in 2009, US Navy commandos attacked and killed an al-Qaeda leader, Kenyan-born Saleh Ali Nabhan, during a daylight raid on Barawe.
An al-Qaeda-linked militia that was founded by Islamist commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar announced on Thursday that it would be joining forces with another armed group in order to take revenge against France for its military offensive in Mali. While this move is no surprise to analysts, as the two groups have previously collaborated in carrying out regional attacks, it does cement the fact that the Sahel region will remain the new focal point for global counter-insurgency efforts.
Reports surfaced on Thursday that Belmokhtar’s Mauritanian-based al-Mulathameen Brigade (the Brigade of the Masked Ones) along with Malian-based terrorist group Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), which is believed to be led by Ahmed Ould Amer, have joined forces under one banner in a bid to unite Muslims and to target French interests in the West African region. In a statement that was published by Mauritanian news agency Nouakchott News Agency (ANI), the two groups indicated that “your brothers in MUJAO and al-Mulathameen announced their union and fusion in one movement called al-Murabitoun, to unify the ranks of Muslims around the same goal, from the Nile to the Atlantic.” Belmokhtar and Ould Amer are said to have ceded control of al-Murabitoun to another leader. Although he has not been named, reliable sources indicate that the new commander has fought against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the 1980’s and the US-led invasion of Afghanistan in the 2000’s. Reports also indicate that unlike the leaders of most of the armed organizations in the region, this new leader may not be Algerian.
The merger between the two groups was first reported by ANI, which has long been a reliable source of information pertaining to jihadist activities in West Africa. In an excerpt of the group’s statement, Belmokhtar indicates that he decided not to assume the leadership of al-Murabitoun in order to “empower a new generation of leaders.” Further excerpts of al-Murabitoun’s first statement also threaten France and its allies in the region and call upon Muslims to target French interests everywhere. The document states that “we say to France and its allies in the region, receive the glad tidings of what will harm you, for the mujahideen have gathered against you and they pledged to deter your armies and destroy your plans and projects. By the grace of Allah, they are more firm and strong in your face, and your new war only increased their certitude, resolve and determination.”
Previously believed to have been killed, Belmokhtar is a one-eyed Algerian former commander of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). In 2003, he was designated a foreign terrorist by the United States, with the State Department offering a US $5 million reward for information that would lead to his capture. He broke away from AQIM in 2012 in a bid to form a new group that would expand its beliefs of forming an Islamist state. In March of this year, it had been reported that he was killed in action in northern Mali. Although the reports of his death were announced by the Chadian military, they were never confirmed by France or the United States. Currently Belmokhtar remains at large. He is believed to be the mastermind behind January’s siege of an Algerian gas plant in which thirty-eight hostages were killed. MUJAO is though to be led by Mauritanian ethnic Tuareg Ahmed Ould Amer, who goes by the nom de guerre “Ahmed Telmissi.” The group also broke away from AQIM in mid-2011 with the apparent goal of spreading jihad into areas outside of AQIM’s scope. It was one of a number of Islamist groups that occupied northern Mali last year and was responsible for imposing a strict interpretation of Islamic Sharia Law.
Despite previously separating themselves from AQIM, citing leadership issues and desires of expanding their control, both groups continued to cooperate and fight alongside AQIM fighters in Mali and in other regions of West Africa. In late May of this year, the two groups targeted a military barracks in Agadez, Niger and a uranium mine in Arlit which supplies French nuclear reactors. The attack in Agadez was reportedly executed by a five-man suicide assault team which resulted in the deaths of at least twenty people. The attack in Arlit was reportedly carried out as a means of attempting to cripple France. Shortly after the attacks, Belmokhtar indicated that the incidents had been carried out as a form of avenge for the death of Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, an AQIM commander who was killed by French forces in northern Mali earlier this year. Consequently this merger comes with minimal surprise as MUJAO and Belmokhtar’s forces have already forged a working relationship. Thursday’s announcement just makes this relationship official. However many questions still linger as to whether such a merger will have any impact within a region that continues to be rocked by instability.
On the one hand, in examining Mali, the country no longer seems to be the central hub it was a year ago. The recently held peaceful presidential elections, which resulted in the election of President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, coupled with 12,600 UN troops that are stationed on the ground, are a move to fill the security vacuum and to stabilize the country by uniting the north and south. However when looking at the greater Sahel region, many vulnerabilities continue to exist in a region of Africa that is sparsely populated and prone to poverty, food insecurity and estrangement from regional governments. The Sahel region continues to see high threats of kidnap and terrorist attacks. These threats, which were further heightened following the French military intervention in Mali, are highly likely to occur again. Furthermore, there are currently at least thirteen hostages being held in the Sahel and surrounding regions, which includes Algeria, Cameroon, Libya and Nigeria. Over the years, many have been killed and threats of kidnappings, especially of French and Western nationals, will likely continue. The surrounding areas also contain threats that may lead to a further destabilization of the region. Terrorist groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria are waging their own wars at home. While reports that Boko Haram militants may have been trained by al-Qaeda-linked operatives in Mali further fuels the notions the movement of terrorists in the Sahel and surrounding regions continues to be unaffected. The militant groups now joining forces have gained reputations for evading capture and continuing to launch attacks despite security forces’ concentrated efforts to stop them.
On the other hand, given the long history of al-Qaeda-linked forces making and breaking alliances, the real question remains whether this official union will change anything. Many doubt that al-Murabitoun can bring anything new to the table and that instead this could signify another reorganization in an attempt to strengthen the group, remain relevant and give it a new and better direction. The timing of this announcement is also critical as it comes just two weeks after elections were held in Mali and a new President was selected. This alliance may be an attempt to remind regional actors and international officials that while Mali has won a victory by carrying out successful elections, the war is far from over.