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 UpdateSeptember 12, 2013 in Egypt
Following two car bombing attacks on 11 September, the Egyptian government has redoubled its efforts to eradicate the terrorist elements in the Sinai Peninsula, and stem the flow of radical ideologies in Nile Valley Egypt.
On 11 September, a car bomb was detonated at the Egyptian Military intelligence headquarters in Rafah, on the border of the Gaza Strip in North Sinai, killing nine and wounded several. Reports indicate that the car bomb was detonated by a suicide bomber following an attack by rocket propelled grenades. The two story-building which housed the Sinai branch of military intelligence collapsed, burying an unspecified number of troops. Among the wounded were ten soldiers and seven civilians, three of which were women.
A second attack occurred at an army checkpoint near the intelligence headquarters, targeting an armoured personnel carrier. The remains of both suicide bombers have been recovered. An unnamed authority has described the remains of the attackers as having “darker skin, implying they may have been of African origin,” and adding that the explosives were complicated and unlikely to be made by Sinai-based terrorist groups. However, the Sinai-based militant group Ansar Beit al-Maqdis has claimed responsibility for the attacks in a statement posted on their website. The statement explains that the group had killed at least six soldiers and also claimed responsibility for the assassination attempt against Egypt’s interior minister last week in Cairo. The group vowed to conduct more attacks in revenge for the military operation against supporters of ousted president Mohamed Morsi on 14 August, and called on all Muslims in Egypt to stay away from military and interior ministry institutions.
Meanwhile, another militant group, Ansar Jerusalem, has claimed responsibility for three additional non-suicide attacks which targeted armoured vehicles with explosive devices. The group has also claimed attacks in the past on Israel, and has ties to militants in the Gaza Strip. In a two page statement, the group accused the Egyptian military of conducting a “dirty war, deputizing all anti-Islam forces in and outside Egypt, especially the Jews.”
Recent attacks have also included a thwarted attempt to detonate mortars on a railway between Suez and Ismailia, and the 19 August killing of 25 off-duty policemen who on their way home on leave from Sinai. The policemen were taken off of mini-buses and shot, with their hands tied behind their backs. The attacks have caused widespread outrage. Al-Nour party leader, Galal Murra, said in a press statement that all parties should work toward rescuing Sinai from a dark future. Members of the Dostor party vowed full support for military efforts to save Sinai from terrorism. Egypt’s top Sunni Islamic institution has called for an immediate move to provide security for the citizens and the state’s vital institutions, saying the government should “hit them with an iron hand to protect Sinai and Egyptian sovereignty.”
On 7 September, the Egyptian military began conducting offensive strikes in the Sinai. A spokesman for the military called it Egypt’s “largest military campaign against the terrorists in the Northern Sinai Peninsula” and vowed the operation would continue until the peninsula is “fully cleansed.” The offensive has unleashed helicopter gunships and tanks, as well as foot soldiers. The troops have targeted suspected militant hideouts and weapons caches, particularly in villages south of Rafah, and near Sheikh Zuweid. Authorities have also closed the Rafah border crossing to the Gaza Strip. War Colonel Ahmed Ali announced that since Saturday, the army has targeted 118 suspected terrorist bases, and destroyed three weapons caches and 33 vehicles with heavy guns placed on them. Officers have reported the capture of missile launchers and other weapons, as well as fuel storage sites. In the assault, dozens of militants have been killed and around 30 low- and mid-level operatives have been arrested. One officer and two soldiers have been killed in the operation.
In previous, smaller sweeps, a significant number of foreign militants were detained, reinforcing the widely-held belief that since 2011, the Sinai has become a safe haven for militants from around the region to train and develop tactics for actions in the area. There are at least six known militant groups comprised of up to 5,000 members in Sinai. The vast desert and mountain region has rugged, harsh terrain, making it difficult to search. Many of the militants operating in Sinai are among those who escaped from Egyptian prisons during the 2011 uprisings, in which approximately 1,000 prisoners were set free.
The military assault has caused conflicting emotions among local residents. On the eve of the offensive, the Egyptian army deactivated all communication facilities in the region, including land line telephones, mobile phones and the internet. This loss of communication, coupled with accusations of military personnel targeting homes and arresting innocent people, has caused frustration. Officials targeted approximately 40 homes in the village of al-Mahdiya, seeking a wanted militant who is known to be in the area. While no one was killed in the search, villagers were “terrorised” by the destruction of property. Some fear that the military’s heavy-handed actions will result in open war with Bedouin tribes in the region; still others support the military efforts.
Ansar Jerusalem is attempting to use the unease to its advantage. In the 11 September statement, they declared that the military had killed civilians, set fire to homes, torched private cars, bombed mosques and stolen possessions, adding that Israeli drones were backing the offensive.
Meanwhile, in Nile Valley Egypt, Minister of Religious Endowments, Mohammad Mokhtar Gomaa has barred nearly 55,000 unlicensed clerics throughout Egypt from preaching in mosques. Gomaa explained that the clerics lack licenses to preach, and are considered a fundamentalist threat to Egypt’s security. The ban will target unlicensed mosques and random praying areas in hopes of delivering moderate messages and preventing radicalised ideologies from affecting the nation.
Finally, Egyptian Minister of Civil Aviation, Abdel Aziz Fadel, has released a press release reassuring that Cairo International Airport is safe following a tip of a possible bomb attack on the plane from Cairo to London on 7 September. An anonymous caller reported to state security that two passengers on the EgyptAir flight were suicide-bombers. The flight’s passengers were de-boarded and searched, and luggage was taken off the plane to be checked by sniffer dogs.
Fadel states that the Cairo airport, as well as those in Sharm el-Sheikh and Borg el-Arab, is equipped with sophisticated equipment to detect explosives, and identify the content of passengers’ luggage, and has a staff of efficient security forces from the Ministry of Interior. The equipment will soon be provided to Hurghada airport as well.