After months of fighting, militants of the so-called Islamic State (IS) are on the verge of being completely ousted from their stronghold in Libya’s central coastal city of Sirte.
In May of this year, milita groups aligned to the UN-backed Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) launched an operation aimed at forcing IS from Sirte and regaining control of the city. More recently, after weeks of stagnating, the battle to expel the jihadist group has achieved more success with the held of US air strikes, which were launched at the beginning of this month at the request of the GNA. As of 29 August, the US has carried out 77 air strikes on the city, and while it has damaged the jihadists’ position in Sirte, it does not mean the end for their presence in the North African country.
Why is Losing Sirte Important?
IS took complete control of Sirte in June 2015 after being pushed out of its initial stronghold of Derna, which is located in Libya’s far east, by rival militias aligned with al-Qaeda. The loss of Sirte, which is IS’ stronghold in Libya, would effectively be a blow to the group’s image. In IS propaganda, the jihadist group has repeatedly portrayed the city, which is close to Western Europe, as a key position outside its main areas of operation in Iraq and Syria. As it has held control of the city, IS has transformed buildings in Sirte into its own institutions and prisons and has used the local radio station to air its propaganda. Control of the city also brought IS close to the country’s oil-rich area.
Does IS Have Any Other Strongholds in Libya?
No it does not, however IS remains present elsewhere in the country. In the second city of Benghazi, IS militants have long been fighting other forces and have recently launched a number of attacks on its western outskirts.
How Many IS militants are in Libya?
While there are no reliable figures about the number of IS militants currently in Libya, it has been estimated that the group has about 5,000 fighters in th country, man y of whom are thought to have been deployed in Sirte.
What Does IS Do Next?
IS has been caught on the back foot and the militant group may initially move into desert areas, revert to earlier tactics. Prior to losing its stronghold in Derna, the group made its presence felt elsewhere in Libya by carrying out repeated bombings in the key cities of Tripoli and Benghazi as well as targeting oil installations partly run by Western companies. As it puts up resistance, IS has again been employing suicide bombings as a means of attack.
Where Might IS Go Next?
Some analysts believe that IS fighters may flee to remote areas in the southern region of the country. If they choose this route, they could head for the Sahel-Sahara area, where other jihadists are present and operate relatively freely. However Libya’s importance to IS effectively means that the militant group may eventually regroup and emerge in another part of the country, seeking again to take control of land, which they can then showcase as a major gain. Analysts believe that the town of Bani Walid is one option for IS fighters, with local media recently reporting that air strikes hit a road in th city’s southeast, which reports disclosed was “often used” by is fighters.
The militants make seek to boost their forces in and around Benghazi, or they may head west towards Sabratha. While IS used to run a large training camp in that region, the site may no longer appeal the jihadist group as it was the target of a US air strike in February 2016. Yet another option is the town of Ajdabiya, which is located between Sirte and Benghazi. IS previously had a presence in the town, however it is believed that if they were to establish themselves there, the would have to confront al-Qaeda-linked rivals and the Libyan National Army of the Tobruk-based parliament.
What is evident is that IS is facing mounting pressure and US airstrikes in Libya, which may result in them struggling to create a new stronghold in the country.
Three armed movements from northern Mali have signed a joint statement in Algiers, declaring that they are ready to work for peace with the Malian government. The top leaders of the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), the High Council for Unity of Azawad (HCUA) and the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA) have been in the Algerian capital since Thursday.
Algeria’s foreign ministry confirmed Tuesday that three northern Malian rebels groups have signed an accord in Algiers, pledging to work for peace through inclusive talks in Mali. An Algerian government statement issued Tuesday indicated that the MNLA, HCUA and the MAA signed the “Algiers Declaration” late Monday, effectively pledging their “good faith” to strengthen the process of reconciliation through dialogue. The statement also pledged to support for a dialogue with the Malian government that “takes into account the legitimate desires of the local population while respecting the territorial integrity and unity of Mali.” The dialogue between the government and the armed groups however has yet to begin.
The secular MAA, which seeks sweeping autonomy in Mali’s part of the Sahara and the Sahel, has joined forces with the MNLA and HCUA in order to try and enhance “the momentum under way for peace.” The three groups have indicated that they are seeking a “definitive” solution to the decades of instability that have affected northern Mali by “taking account of the legitimate claims of the local population with full respect for the territorial integrity and the national unity of Mali.”
Mali has been in turmoil since 2012, when Tuareg rebel groups seized control of the northern regions of the country. While the government regained control in 2013, with the help of French and African troops that intervened after al-Qaeda militants took over the Tuareg rebellion, tensions between the Malian government and the rebel groups have not declined. The government in Bamako continues to be an object of resentment, especially in the far northern town of Kidal. This was evidenced in May when clashes erupted between government soldiers and MNLA rebels, leading to a tense standoff.
UNHRC: Polisario camps becoming a recruiting ground for terrorists and traffickers
A report released by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has found that refugee camps run by the separatist Polisario Front near Tindouf, Algeria, may have become a recruiting ground for terrorists and traffickers in North Africa.
Reports spanning back to 2009 show Polisario involvement in drugs and arms trafficking throughout the Sahel and Sahara; armed incursions in Mali; mercenary work under Gadhafi in Libya; and kidnappings and collaboration with AQIM. According to reports, the Polisario camps in Algeria have become a recruiting ground for AQIM, a hub for Polisario traffickers, and a threat to the region. Analysts are concerned about an “arc of instability” stretching across Africa, linking militants from AQIM, Boko Haram in Nigeria, al-Shabaab in Somalia, and the Polisario. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon recently warned, “inaction could be catastrophic.”
Since 1990, international support for the camps has exceeded $1 billion. The UNHRC report recommends that support for the camps be used for durable solutions to resettle refugees, remove security threats, and improve humanitarian conditions.
Leaked report reveals Bahraini bid to replenish tear gas
A leaked report has revealed that in June, Bahrain’s interior ministry tendered bids for the provision of 1.6 million tear gas projectiles, 90,000 tear gas grenades and 145,000 stun grenades. The bid would replace nearly all of Bahrain’s projectiles used since 2011. The document does not reveal how much money Bahrain is prepared to spend on replenishing its supplies.
Bahraini forces have used tear gas extensively since 2011, as the minority Sunni government struggles faces daily low-level confrontations from a predominantly Shia population. Tear gas is among the most commonly-used methods to disperse protesters. In 2012, the US barred exports of tear gas to Bahrain, citing human rights concerns. Activists claim South Korean companies may be preparing to meet Bahrain’s tear gas requirements. The rise in global activism has spurred sales for non-lethal weapons as governments shift spending from counter terrorism to counter-activist policies.
Bombings in Suez, Sinai; police sent to trial
Two people were killed, and five wounded, when militants set off four roadside bombs targeting a security convoy in the Sinai Peninsula on 22 October. The convoy was travelling from Rafah, on the Gaza border, towards El Arish. The militants then exchanged fire with the security forces and fled. No one has yet claimed responsibility. The same day, militant group Ansar Beit Al Maqdis claimed responsibility for a car bombing on 19 October in Ismailiya that wounded six.
Meanwhile, Egypt’s public prosecutor has sent policemen to trial on charges of manslaughter over the deaths of 37 Islamist prisoners that were tear-gassed in a transport truck in August. The trials will be the first of policemen accused of killings in a massive crackdown of pro-Muslim Brotherhood supporters since army’s July 3 removal of president Mohamed Morsi.
Sectarian violence continues
At least 17 people were killed and 20 wounded in bombings and shootings on 22 October, when Iraqi forces clashed with an Al Qaeda militant hideout in the Himreen Mountains. The clashes resulted in the killing of four militants and the capture of seven others, all of whom were wanted for terrorism charges. A helicopter pilot was also wounded by the gunmen during the operation.
Earlier in the day, a suicide bomber blew up an explosive-laden car at the entrance of the home of Waqass Adnan, mayor of the city of Aana, some 250 km west of Baghdad. The blast was followed by a coordinated attack on the guards of the house, in an attempt to break in. In the process, four policemen and the brother of the mayor were killed, and four policemen were wounded. The mayor himself unharmed.
Meanwhile, in separate incidents, another suicide bomber rammed his explosive-packed car into the entrance of Aana police station and blew it up, killing two policemen and wounding three others. Gunmen fired mortars at a police station in Rawa city, west of Baghdad, killing a policeman and wounding seven others; a farmer was killed and his relative wounded when gunmen fired at them near a bridge northeast of Baquba, and a worker in a Sunni mosque was wounded by gunmen who fired at him in front of his house, about 20 km northeast of Baquba.
Sectarian tension between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in the Diyala province has increased, resulting in violence and reprisal killings. Sunnis and Shiites accuse each other of supporting extremists and militiamen. Across the nation Iraq is witnessing its worst escalation of violence in recent years, causing analysts to fear that the country is returning to the civil conflict that peaked in 2006 and 2007, when monthly death toll sometimes exceeded 3,000.
Missiles from Syria Target Eastern Lebanon City
On 21 October, four rockets launched from Syria hit Hermel. The source was unable to confirm casualties. Hermel and other border areas of Lebanon have suffered frequent attacks since Syria’s uprising escalated into a civil war, sometimes impacting neighbouring Lebanon.
The eastern Lebanese city is a Hezbollah stronghold. Hezbollah, which supports the Syrian government led by Bashar al Assad, has been openly involved in Syria’s war, sending fighters to support the loyalist army on the battlefield.
Lebanon had been dominated politically and militarily by Syria for 30 years, until 2005. The country is heavily divided on pro and anti Assad lines. As a result, the war in Syria has served to escalate Lebanon’s sectarian and political divisions.
Disabled veterans break into Libyan parliament building
On October 22, several disabled former rebels from the Libyan War broke into the parliament building and vandalised parts of the building. The event occurred on the day before the second anniversary of the rebel victory over Gadhafi forces, days after the dictator was killed in Sirte.
The protesters came from the town of Ajdabiya, between Tripoli and eastern Libya. The city was a major battleground in the 2011 war.
An MP stated, “They got into the Congress chamber and smashed some fittings.” The chamber was empty at the time but the act was decried as a “new assault on a state institution.” The vandalism is the latest in a series of security breaches at the General National Congress building.
In an effort to increase security and gain acceptance from rebel groups, the government has given some militia units varying degrees of official recognition. However, their control over the units is minimal. Analysts are concerned about the interim government’s ability to assert its control over militias and security throughout the country. Former rebels units, some sympathetic to Al-Qaeda, have refused to surrender their arms.
Saudi Arabia announces “major shift” in relationship with United States
On 22 October, Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief Prince Bandar bin Sultan told European diplomats that the kingdom will make a “major shift” in its relations with the United States.
The prince criticised actions and inactions taken by the United States, including failing to act effectively on the Syria crisis and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; growing closer to the government in Tehran; and failing to back Saudi support for the Bahraini government when it crushed an anti-government revolt during the 2011 uprising. As a result, Prince Bandar has stated that he plans to limit interaction with the US, reportedly adding that there would be no further coordination with the United States over the fighting in Syria.
The report is consistent with Saudi Arabia’s reasons for refusal of a seat on the UN Security Council as a rotating member. Though they have not openly broken ties with the US, Saudi leaders have been quietly critical of several recent US actions in the Middle East.
Prince Bandar’s announcement marks a serious setback to the relationship between the two nations; it spotlights that Saudi and US interests are not aligned on several top issues driving instability in the Middle East. In particular, the Saudi’s point to the US shift toward a containment strategy regarding Iran’s nuclear program, and the US goal of driving Assad out while leaving a Baathist government in Damascus. The Saudi’s have vocally stated that both Assad and his government should be replaced. The US treats Syrian issues as separate from Iranian nuclear issues. The Saudis perceive them as inseparable. The differences in these world views are deep, and unlikely to be overcome easily. The change in stance could result in a strong shift in relations between the Middle East and the West.
Snipers targeting heavily pregnant women
Snipers are playing a “targeting game,” and heavily pregnant women are on the target list. David Nott, a British surgeon who volunteers with charity Syria Relief, says that up to 90% of the surgeries he performs daily are for sniper wounds. In the case of pregnant women, “Most of the children removed were seven, eight, nine month’s gestation, which meant it was fairly obvious to anybody that these women were pregnant.” He added that young children are also being targeted, and on some days, the wounds were “suspiciously similar”, with several victims coming in with shots to the same part of the body on the same day. The similarities suggest a game between the snipers.
Knott says he was told by other local doctors that snipers may receive little presents for people they’d shot during the day.
Mourning period announced for downed officers; Transition negotiations continue
In a televised speech on 23 October, Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki announced three days of national mourning for eight officers killed by suspected militants in the central Sidi Bouzidi province. The announcement was made on the second anniversary of the country’s first free elections. Members of the National Guard were securing a building in the village of Sidi Ali Bououn after receiving a tip-off that a suspicious group was hiding there. A gun battle ensued, killing both security forces and militants.
Marzouki said the militants were retaliating for attacks on 17 October, when nine suspected militants were killed. Authorities say the militants had carried out an attack on police patrols.
The interior ministry believes that the militants belong to the Salafist Ansar al-Sharia group, who were linked to the murders of prominent left-wing figure Chokri Belaid in February and opposition politician Mohammed Brahmi in July.
Their deaths triggered mass protests against the government, and crippled progress between the ruling party and its opposition. While Ennahda condemned the killings, the opposition accused the leading party of failing to rein in radical Islamists.
Earlier in the day, Prime Minister Ali Larayedh addressed the nation to confirm that the government would resign after talks with the opposition on appointing a caretaker administration were complete. Larayedh stated that Ennahda, the current ruling party in Tunisia, is committed to the “principle of relinquishing power in line with the different phases envisaged in the roadmap”.
Larayedh’s speech came following anti-government protests in Tunis, who demanded that the Islamist-led ruling coalition government leave immediately. Ennahda has been accused of stalling talks in order to maintain power in the government. Both Ennahda and the opposition have set a three weeks deadline to appoint the interim cabinet, and a one month deadline to adopt a new constitution, electoral laws and set an election date.
The recent suicide attacks on a French-run mine and a military base in northern Niger have demonstrated how the Islamist threat is spreading across the weak nations that are located within the Sahara. What does this mean for France? The country and its troops may be tied down in the region for years to come. In turn, regional rivalries are aggravating the problem for the French government and its Western allies as a lack of greater cooperation amongst the countries located in the Sahara is only aiding the militants in regrouping in quieter parts of the vast desert. One of these quieter territories is the lawless regions of southern Libya, which security officials have indicated is becoming the latest haven for al-Qaeda-linked fighters after French-led forces drove them from their strongholds in northern Mali earlier this year.
According to a senior adviser to Mali’s interim President Dioncounda Traore, “the south of Libya is what the north of Mali was like before.” This remark comes just days after Niger announced that last week’s suicide raids, which killed twenty-five people at the army base and desert uranium mine run by France’s Areva, were launched from Libya. Libya however has denied these allegations.
Smugglers have long used Libya’s poorly controlled south – a crossroads of routes to Chad, Algeria and Niger – for trafficking drugs, contraband cigarettes and people to Europe. However the overthrow of Muammar Gaddafi in 2011 resulted in a flood of weapons and ammunition being brought into the Sahara. Tuareg separatists used them in order to seize power in northern Mali, only to be ousted by even better-armed Islamists who set up training camps and imposed a harsh form of Islamic law until French forces arrived. In turn, the Islamists have also exploited Libya’s weakness. It is known that former al-Qaeda commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar had purchased weapons there after Gaddafi’s fall and his fighters passed through southern Libya to carry out a mass hostage-taking at an Algerian gas plant in January, in which 37 foreigners died.
With no effective national army, Libya relies on local brigades in order to police its southern border region, where at least one hundred people died in ethnic violence last year. Tripoli’s failure to restore security in the region may only encourage Islamist militants to set up permanent camps and weapons stores in the area. Since the attack on Areva, France has urged regional powers to cooperate in order to tackle the threat that is coming from Libya as the country relies on Niger for one fifth of the uranium in order to power its nuclear reactors. Niger’s long border with Mali, tough line on tackling militants and its role as a supplier of uranium to France have long made the country a target. Since the attacks, US troops have begun to train the army while the government in Niamey has stepped up its security in the northern regions of the country, where French Special Forces went in earlier this year in order to protect the mines. Four French mine workers who were taken hostage in Arlit in 2010 are still being held.
While Paris is keen on decreasing its troop numbers in the region, the persistent arguing and mistrust amongst the regional powers continues to be an issues, with President Francois Hollande admitting last week that French forces may be used elsewhere in the Sahel. European governments, alarmed with the developments, also approved a 110-man mission this week that will focus on improving border security by training Libyan police and security forces.
In a region that mainly comprises of vast desert regions, borders often have little meaning, and militants can blend in with nomads. Consequently hunting Islamist militants requires states riven by mutual suspicion to work together. Officials in the United States have indicated that efforts to tackle the spreading influence of al-Qaeda’s ideology throughout the Sahara has been beset by long-standing rivalries, notably between Morocco and Algeria, coupled with a lack of trust and communication amongst the regional capitals.
Algeria, the Sahara’s main military power, has long bristled at the idea of outside intervention in the region, particularly one led by its former colonial ruler, France. Although the Algerian government allowed French warplanes operating in Mali to fly over its territory, Malian officials have indicated that Algeria should be more active, whether by arresting militants or preventing the flow of fuel that allows them to cover vast desert distance. The northern Malian town of Gao lies about 1,500 km (930 miles) from the border of southern Libya.
Mauritania also needs to place more of an effort on this issue. This is mainly due to the country’s strategic location on the western edge of the Sahara coupled with a high number of its citizens who are senior militants and with its experience in tackling Islamist militants at home.
The rapidly changing face of Islamist militancy also creates problems for the local governments. For years, al-Qaeda’s North African wing, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), relied largely on Algerians. However last year, the militant group was composed of gunmen from across northern Africa along with citizens from West Africa – militants who are more experienced and have a greater knowledge of the territory.
In Mali, drone surveillance and on the ground counter-terrorism teams have put a lot of effort in order to suppress the militants. Suicide attacks around the northern towns of Gao and Menaka this month claimed no victims apart from the bombers themselves. According to officials in France, around 600 Islamists have been killed since Operation Serval was launched in January. In turn, about 200 tonnes of ammunition and dozens of vehicles were seized in operations that scoured the desert regions and mountain bases. This disrupted arms and fuel dumps that militants had prepared during their nine-month occupation of northern Mali. According to a French officer in Mali, “they don’t seem to have the ability to coordinate attacks in Mali anymore…we assume that they will try and regroup but it will take time for them and it is risky as they know we are watching.” The French campaign in Mali has been backed by a British spy plane while the US has drones operating from Niger alongside an established monitoring base in Burkina Faso. But while Islamist militants once traveled in large convoys, they have since adapted and are keeping a low provide. A trend which will likely be seen over the next few years, as militants continue to adapt themselves to nor only the territory, but to the techniques that the West uses in order to track them down.