MENA UpdateOctober 24, 2013 in Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Tunisia
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.
Egypt Update: Sinai in CrisisJuly 18, 2013 in Egypt
The ousting of Mohamed Morsi on 4 July has caused violent conflicts across Egypt. On 16 July, clashes in Cairo resulted in seven dead and 261 wounded. Leaders of Morsi’s party, the Muslim Brotherhood, have called for a “million-man” demonstration in Cairo on 19 July; it is likely that the march will lead to more hostility. However, some analysts believe that the demonstrations are a diversion.
While protesters are in the streets, anti-government factions appear to be preparing for further violence and the conduct of terrorist activity. Salafist militants in the Sinai, reportedly receiving assistance from Hamas, have already conducted several coordinated attacks in the northern part of the peninsula, and may be intent upon bringing the chaos into mainland Egypt.
Counterfeit Military Uniforms
On 16 July, Egyptian security forces seized a shipment of counterfeit Egyptian uniforms and other equipment worth over a million Egyptian pounds from two tankers at the Ain Sukhna Port in the Suez governate. An unnamed source disclosed that the impounded items were to be used in terrorist attacks within Cairo or in other governorates.
This occurrence marks the fourth discovery of counterfeit uniforms in 2013. In March, Egyptian forces raided a counterfeit military uniform workshop north of Cairo, and also found 10,000 items of military-style clothing with an Egyptian businessman on his way to Benghazi. In another case, 25 tonnes of material, similar to that worn by Egyptian soldiers, was seized from a Chinese shipment to Alexandria.
The seizures have been linked with reports that Hamas is using the material to make counterfeit military uniforms. Hamas has been particularly angered by the removal of Morsi, as they had hoped the Islamist-backed party would provided diplomatic and financial support in its struggle with Israel. However, Hamas has met with growing opposition as the Egyptian media reports that Hamas fighters were and are being smuggled into Egypt to restore and entrench the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood. Hamas denies both claims; however, the Egyptian government remains concerned that any group with the ability to impersonate Egyptian military personnel could cause problems within the nation.
Militant Movement in Sinai
Following the removal of Mubarak in 2011, North Sinai became a hotbed for violent activity. Security forces abandoned the area for several months, leaving militants and smugglers to take advantage of tunnels and above ground systems to enter the region and hide out in secluded caves and mountains.
Despite the return of Egyptian security forces, the vast, predominantly desert area is still under-policed. The sparseness of officers, many of whom are unfamiliar with the region, provides militants with secluded operational space from which to carry out extremist plots. Since Morsi’s removal from office, two Salafi-Jihadist groups have announced their presence in North Sinai, and have taken responsibility for violence in the region: Ansar al-Shari’a in the Land of Kinaanah (Egypt) announced their existence on 5 July, vowing to respond to the “war against Islam in Egypt.” On 6 July, a group called al-Salafiya al-Jihadiyah fi’l-Sinai condemned the military for allegedly firing on demonstrators in al-Arish, and called for the “comprehensive and immediate application of Islamic law,” telling Egyptians to abandon the concept of democracy and resist “the enemies of Islam in Egypt.”
On 8 July, Dr. Muhammad Beltagy, a senior leader in the Muslim Brotherhood, stated that the MB is not responsible for the upsurge of violence in the Sinai, but that the attacks will stop when Defence Minister, General al-Sisi, withdraws the coup and restores Morsi to office. While this statement sparked rumours of MB responsibility for growing violence in the region, the MB as an entity has in fact made little headway in the Sinai. According to prominent North Sinai activist Mos’ad Abu Fajr, individuals associated with Hamas and their military wing, the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades, have been aiding the violence in the Sinai through funds provided by one man, Khayrat al Shater, the deputy leader of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, who is now imprisoned.
Violence in North Sinai
Following Morsi’s removal, hard-line militants have mounted daily attacks against Egyptian security forces in the region. The strikes have increased in intensity and boldness, and show greater coordination and planning. Since the removal of Morsi, the following events have occurred in the Sinai:
- 4 July: Gunmen send rocket propelled grenades toward army checkpoints at al-Arish airport.
- 4 July: Gunmen attack an army checkpoint on a road south of al-Arish.
- 4 July: Police stations and a military intelligence headquarters in Rafah attacked, killing one soldier and wounding two, as Egyptian Army closes over 40 major smuggling tunnels along the Gaza border, and closing the Rafah border itself.
- 5 July: Egyptian border guard killed in a gunfight at Ghornata checkpoint, another wounded hours later.
- 5 July: A series of coordinated attacks throughout North Sinai, presumably by disparate militant groups working in unity.
- 5 July: Morsi supporters attack an administrative building in al-Arish carrying the black flag used by al-Qaeda and its subsidiaries.
- 5 July: Two police officers killed in front of a government building in al-Arish; an additional four officers killed the same day.
- 5 July: Simultaneous attack on five security checkpoints in Sheikh Zweid.
- 6 July: A Coptic Christian priest is killed at an outdoor market.
- 6-7 July: Four simultaneous attacks in Sheikh Zweid.
- 7 July: Egyptian border guards encountered a group of ten militants emerging from a tunnel from Gaza. The group, suspected Hamas fighters, escape back into the tunnel, leaving behind seven boxes of bombs and munitions.
- 7 July: al-Arish pipeline is bombed twice, halting natural gas supplies to Jordan. The pipeline has been struck over a dozen times since Mubarak’s removal in 2011, but had no instances of attack for 10 months.
- 8 July: Israeli sources claim that dozens of Hamas militants crossed into the Sinai and participated in a Muslim Brotherhood attack on an Army post in al-Arish.
- 8 July: A series of attacks are carried out by gunmen on motorcycles and in vehicles. One officer is killed outside a police station in al-Arish. Fourteen suspected militants were arrested.
- 9 July: Militants attack a security checkpoint using RPGs and heavy machine guns in Sadr al-Haytan.
- 10 July 10: Gunmen attempt to assassinate General Ahmad Wasfy, the commander of Egypt’s Second Field Army, responsible for the Sinai.
- 11 July: Militants abduct and decapitate a Christian merchant in Sheikh Zweid.
- 12 July: One Egyptian policeman killed and another wounded by militants who fired rocket-propelled grenades at security checkpoints in al-Arish.
- 13 July: Masked gunmen in an SUV fire at a security checkpoint near al-Arish airport. No injuries reported.
- 13 July: Egyptian security officials arrest a Palestinian man in relation to the al-Arish pipeline bombings. The criminal was detained in the Sinai Peninsula while trying to return to the Gaza Strip.
- 14 July: Militants al-Arish fire RPGs, mistakenly targeting a bus full of workers heading to a cement factory, killing three and injuring 17.
- 17 July: One Egyptian army officer and five soldiers wounded as gunmen attacked three army camps in al-Arish, using mobile anti-aircraft rockets and machine guns.
- 17 July: Egyptian forces seize a cache of handmade weapons in Port Said
- 17 July: Egyptian police officer shot in the neck outside of police station in Al Arish.
- 17 July: Eight people wounded in an attack in Rafah.
- 17 July: Gunmen killed three policemen in al Arish.
- 17 July: Forces intercepted 19 GRAD rockets, with a range up to 10 kilometres, heading to Cairo from Suez. Sources believe the rockets were made and supplied by Hamas and originated from the Gaza Strip.
Egyptian Security Reaction
Egyptian forces are losing troops at a rate of one death and six injuries per day. Per the 1979 peace accord, Egypt has requested and received permission from Israel to send additional troops into the Sinai. Two Egyptian battalions will be deployed: one in Rafah, on the border with Gaza, will focus on smuggling, illegal passage, and the defence of the highly targeted town of al-Arish; another battalion will be established in the centre of the peninsula. Forces intend to protect the peninsula and prevent militant activity from sweeping into mainland Egypt. Patrol has also increased in the Suez region to ensure the safe travel through the Canal Zone.
The offensive is expected to last at least a month, as Egyptian military is determined to eliminate the jihadist presence in the region. On the Israeli side of the border, the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) has chosen to act only if armed individuals or groups attempt to cross the border, and IDF forces are preparing the soldiers for complex tasks and drilling extreme scenarios. The Egyptian army and government have acted quickly to make its position clear to Israel authorities, receiving an Israel representative for security talks in Cairo hours after Morsi’s overthrow.
Because Egypt is working to regain stability, it is expected that for some time, military forces will more than likely be one step behind militant activities without the aid of outside forces. Attacks appear more united and coordinated than previous attacks over the past two years, and militant actors may also take advantage of Egypt’s tenuous relationship with the Bedouin community in the Sinai, who feel they have not received significant attention from the mainland government for several decades. Certain Bedouin tribes in the region have turned to smuggling as pastoral and other income opportunities have dried out. The result is an increased flow of weapons and contraband, particularly from Libya, which could reach the hands of the militants. If the Egyptian government is intent to set a timeframe on offensive activity in the Sinai, it is likely that the militants are prepared to wait them out.