According to a new report compiled by a Cluster Munitions Coalition, more than 400 people were killed by cluster bombs in 2015, with most of the deaths being reported in Ukraine, Syria and Yemen.
Cluster bombs scatter explosives a wide area and often fail to detonate on impact. The report indicates that 248 deaths were recorded in Syria, followed by Yemen (104); and Ukraine (19). Civilians made u 97% of the death toll while more than a third of the casualties recorded from 2010 – 2015 have been children, who are at a particular risk. The report indicates that the weapon is not banned in all three of these countries, adding that they are not signatories of the Convention on Cluster Munitions, which prohibits the use, stockpiling, production and transfer of the weapons.
The Syrian military has denied possessing or using cluster munitions and in December 2015, the Russian Defense Ministry, which supports the Syrian government, also insisted that “Russian aviation does not use (cluster munitions).” The report however suggests that despite Russia’s denial, “there is compelling evidence that it is using them” in Syria.
According to the United States State Department, there was a marked fall in the number of terror attacks that occurred around the world in 2015.
In a newly released report this month, the State Department attributed the 13% decline from 2014 to fewer attacks in Iraq, Nigeria and Pakistan, which are three of the five countries that have been the worst affected by terrorism. The other two are Afghanistan and India. Together, more than half of the 11,000 attacks that occurred last year happened within the borders of these five countries.
Data compiled by the University of Maryland indicates that more than 28,300 people died – a 14% decline – and about 35,300 others were wounded in 11,774 terrorist attacks that occurred worldwide last year. State Department Acting Co-ordinator for Counterterrorism Justin Siberell notes that attacks and deaths increased in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Egypt, the Philippines, Syria and Turkey. The State Department also reported that figures indicate that the terror threat “continued to evolve rapidly in 2015, becoming increasingly decentralized and diffused,” adding that extremists were exploiting frustration in countries “where avenues for free and peaceful expression of opinion were blocked.” The State Department highlighted that the so-called Islamic State (IS) group is the biggest single threat, adding that the group has attracted affiliates and supporters in Asia, Africa and the Middle East. It noted that while IS was losing territory in Iraq and Syria, it was gaining strength in Libya and Egypt. The United Nations has also warned that IS is increasingly focusing on international civilian targets. The UN has reported that over the past six months, IS had carried out attacks in eleven countries. This does not include the militant group’s ongoing activity in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Yemen.
The State Department report also disclosed that Iran was the biggest state sponsor of terrorism, stating that it supported conflicts in Syria and Iraq and that it was also implicated in violent Shia opposition raids in Bahrain. Bahrain has accused Iran of supplying weapons to Shia militants behind bomb attacks on security forces however Iran has denied this.
We assess that the situation in Yemen has gone beyond the scope of aid. Yemen is facing the catastrophic reality of famine unless people can return to the fields, imports resume enabling markets to trade at normal prices. The United Nations estimates 9,000 casualties, including over 3,000 civilian deaths in the Yemeni conflict from March 2015 to 2016. The Houthis, a rebel group composed of Shiite Muslims, feel marginalized in the majority Sunni country and have loyalties to an ex-president of Yemen. The situation led to one of the world’s deadliest yet least reported conflicts.
One third of fighters in Yemen are children, many of whom have been captured and are now subject to an agreement between the warring sides. It is unclear how many child prisoners are being held. According to Yemeni political sources Houthis, the government submitted a list of almost 7,000 prisoners they say are held by the other side. Children can be seen manning check points in many cities in Yemen, recruited by the warring parties in the conflict. The UN’s child agency UNICEF counted 738 minors were recruited with children as young as ten taking up arms. It marks a five-fold increase from 2014. However, they admitted this was a conservative estimate and there were likely many more.
A Saudi-led coalition has been carrying out airstrikes against Houthi militias, who are aligned with Iran. The airstrikes have been condemned by the U.N. human rights chief for killing civilians. The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon publicly acknowledged on Thursday that he removed the Saudi-led coalition currently bombing Yemen from a blacklist of child killers (72 hours after it was published) due to a financial threat to defund United Nations programs. Saudi Arabia denies the threats. The U.N.’s 2015 “Children and Armed Conflict” report originally listed the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen under “parties that kill or maim children” and “parties that engage in attacks on schools and/or hospitals.” The report, which was based on the work of U.N. researchers in Yemen, attributed 60 percent of the 785 children killed and 1,168 injured to the bombing coalition.
Children growing up in Yemen face multiple threats. If they escape recruitment by one of the warring factions, they may be one of the victims of the fighting or the deepening humanitarian crisis. Children are disproportionately the victims of the war. Civilian infrastructures are not safe from attacks with schools and hospitals finding themselves in the firing line. In 2015 alone, 900 children were killed and 1,300 wounded. The UN calculates that six children have been killed or maimed every day since March. Yemen is in the throes of an acute humanitarian crisis. According to UNICEF 178,600 children under 5 were treated for severe acute malnutrition and another 10,000 Yemeni children died from preventable diseases in 2015, due to what the UN called ‘the total collapse of the health system’.
Since the Arab Spring in 2011, Yemen has fallen off the media’s radar but it has a strong democratic movement which is being hampered by third world conditions. Already one of the poorest countries in the Middle East before the fighting began in March 2015, Yemen has always relied heavily on imports. Around 90% of its food comes from abroad, including 85% of its staple grain crops. Airports, ports and land routes have now been forced to close, either due to damage or blockades. A food crisis seems to be pushing almost a quarter of the population to starvation. Of its 24 million people, over 80% are in need of assistance in order to survive. Yemen, once known as “Happy Arabia” it is heading towards poverty, malnutrition in one of the biggest crises of our time. The security to citizens, visitors, organizations and infrastructures cannot be guaranteed. Yemen is currently the poorest country within the Arab world. As well as the lack of supplies coming into the country, Taiz, one of its biggest cities, has been sealed off since September 2015. This has resulted in the loss of livelihoods for tens of thousands of families. Production has declined and mass internal displacement has severely disrupted an already limited agriculture. The overall scenario caused prices of basic commodities to sky-rocket. The cost of a minimum staple food basket for an average family has doubled since the crisis began. The number of people begging on the street has increased, while food prices are through the roof. Even when other essential goods are available, people are being forced to travel long distances to get them. Families are travelling up to 30km on foot, along treacherous mountain routes, just to reach the nearest affordable market. For those not able to make the trip, the only hope is to count on the good nature of neighbors, skip meals, beg or starve.
The first of May 2016 marks five years of the death of al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden, however the network that he founded is far from dead despite suffering a series of setbacks.
While al-Qaeda has been replaced as the preeminent global jihadist power by the so-called Islamic State (IS) group, which has held on to territory in Syria and Iraq and has a foothold in Libya, experts maintain that al-Qaeda nonetheless remains a potent force and dangerous threat. Attacks, such as the January 2015 attack on the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris, France, and a string of shootings in West Africa over the last several months have shown that al-Qaeda continues to maintain the capabilities to carry out large-scale attacks. Furthermore, in Syria and Yemen, al-Qaeda militants have taken advantage of the continued chaos to take control of significant territory, in some instances presenting themselves as an alternative to the brutality of IS rule.
When United States Special Forces killed bin Laden in Pakistan on 2 May 2011, the militant group that he had founded in the late 1980s had been baldy damaged as many of its militants and leaders had either been killed or captured during the US’ “War on Terror.” Dissention grew within the jihadist ranks as al-Qaeda’s new chief, Ayman al-Zawahiri, struggled to replace bin Laden. One of the militant group’s branches, originally al-Qaeda in Iraq, would later break away to form the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). After successfully capturing parts of Syria and Iraq in 2014, the group declared an Islamic “caliphate” in areas under its control, and would later call itself the Islamic State. Since then, IS has eclipsed its former partner, and many other global militant groups. It has drawn thousands of jihadists, both local and foreigners, to its cause and has claimed responsibility for attacks in Brussels, Paris, Tunisia, Turkey, Lebanon, Yemen, Saudi Arabi and on a Russian airliner over Egypt – All of which have left hundreds dead. It continues to threaten European states with attacks such as those that were carried out in Paris and in Brussels. IS’ self-declared “emir” Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi has also won pledges of allegiance from extremist groups across the Middle East and in Africa. Powerful IS affiliates operating in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and in Libya have carried out a string of deadly attacks, with growing international concerns that the jihadist group is spreading from the Middle East into Africa and beyond. Experts have noted that IS has been especially effective at using new technology to surpass al-Qaeda, which has been less tech-savvy. According to Jean-Pierre Filiu, a Paris-based expert on Islam and jihadist groups, “al-Qaeda propaganda has become invisible on social networks thanks to the media war machine that Daesh (IS) has managed to successfully create,” adding, “al-Qaeda has lost everywhere to Daesh, except in the Sahel” desert region of northern Africa.
Other experts however, such as William McCants of the Brookings Institution in Washington, note that while al-Qaeda has lost some ground to IS, the organization has recovered, noting that “al-Qaeda has a strong showing in Syria and in Yemen.” In Syria, the group’s local affiliate, Al-Nusra Front, is one of the strongest forces that is fighting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The group also holds large parts of the northern province of Idlib. Meanwhile in Yemen, the local branch, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), has seized significant territory in the south and southeastern regions of the country as the Yemen government struggles against Iran-backed Shi’ite insurgents who have taken control of the capital city Sanaa and other areas of the country. AQAP did however suffer a significant setback in late April 2016 when Yemeni troops recaptured the key port city of Mukalla, which it had occupied for more than a year. McCants notes that despite this loss, AQAP remains the key jihadist force in Yemen as it has thousands of members compared with only several hundred who are affiliated with IS. AQAP, which is considered by Washington to be al-Qaeda’ most well-established and dangerous branch, has also claimed responsibility for one of the group’s most important attacks abroad in recent years. In January 2015, gunmen stormed the Paris offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. That assault, which was claimed by AQAP, killed 12 people.
Since November 2015, Al-Qaeda’s branch in the Sahel region, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), has carried out a string of deadly assaults on hotels and restaurants in Mali, Burkina Faso and Ivory Coast, which have left dozens dead, including many foreigners. In March, New York-based intelligence consultancy The Soufan Group disclosed that the attacks in West Africa “have reasserted the regional presence of AQIM and shown its expanding reach…AQIM has used the attacks to challenge the influence of the Islamic State, to demonstrate and build its local support and to show that it is united after earlier damaging divisions.”
The International Crisis Group notes that while IS has reshaped the jihadist landscape, al-Qaeda “has evolved,” noting that its branches in North Africa, Somalia, Syria and Yemen “remain potent, some stronger than ever.” The United States also continues to see al-Qaeda as a major threat, as has been exemplified in Yemen, where the US is pursuing a vigorous drone war against the group. The strikes have killed many senior operatives, including al-Qaeda’s second-in-command Nasir al-Quhayshi in June 2015. In March, a US strike on an AQAP training camp in Yemen killed at least 71 recruits. In Somalia, the US has also carried out a string of drone strikes against al-Shabaab, an al-Qaeda affiliate that is trying to topple the western-backed government in the capital Mogadishu.
On 18 February, the United States Department of Homeland Security announced that the US has added Libya, Somalia and Yemen as “countries of concern” under its visa waiver programme. The three additional nations join Iran, Iraq, Sudan and Syria as countries that are subject to restrictions for those seeking to travel to the US. The move will effectively make US visa procedures more stringent for those individuals who have visited these countries in the past five years.
The new restrictions were imposed under a law that was passed in the wake of the November 2015 attacks in Paris, France, which were attributed to the so-called Islamic State (IS) group. According to the new regulations, citizens of US allies who previously had been able to travel to the US without first obtaining a visa will now have to apply to US consulates for such visas if they have travelled to those designated countries in the past five years. The Homeland Security Department has disclosed that the new requirements will not automatically affect nationals from visa-waiver countries who also are dual nationals of Libya, Somalia and Yemen. The department did note however that under the new procedures, the Homeland Security secretary can waive the more stringent visa requirements on a case-by-case basis, adding that such waives would primarily be available to journalists or individuals travelling on behalf of international organizations of humanitarian groups.
The latest visa waiver restrictions were imposes as US agencies sharpen their focus on the threat posed by Islamist foreign fighters and seek to make it more difficult for them to take advantage of the US visa waiver programme. Under the current programme, citizens of thirty-eight, mainly European countries, are allowed to travel to the US for up to ninety days without a visa. Prior to travelling to the US, citizens of visa waiver countries must register online using a US government system, known as ESTA. This system effectively gives US agencies the opportunity to check out visa waiver applicants’ backgrounds through intelligence and law enforcement data bases before giving them permission to board US-bound flights.
After the November 2015 Paris terror attacks, the US visa waiver programme came under harsh scrutiny in the US Congress as some of the militants behind the attacks were European nationals, who had become radicalized after visiting Syria and who were theoretically eligible for US visa waives. Homeland Security has disclosed that it will continue to work with the State Department and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence in order to determine whether additional countries should be added to the list.