Looking for War in All the Wrong Places: Canada’s Search for a UN Peacekeeping Mission in Africa

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Commentary

July 21, 2016

Canada PK Memorial

Canadian Peacekeeping Memorial, Ottawa (Frank Hudec/DND)

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responded with familiar platitudes following the brutal terrorist attack in Nice, offering “sympathy” while claiming “Canada stands with France as a steadfast ally” that will “continue to work with our allies and partners to fight terrorism in all its forms.” [i]

Yet taking the fight to the enemy is apparently not in the cards; Canada’s Liberals have no taste for a direct confrontation with the Islamic State organization.

Liberal defence policy is grounded in a belief that Canada is a “peacekeeping” rather than “peacemaking” country, and the search is now underway to find a politically appropriate place to resume large-scale peacekeeping duties, preferably African, preferably Francophone and definitely under UN auspices. These parameters immediately disqualify action against Islamic State or al-Qaeda affiliates in the most active fronts; Libya, Nigeria and Somalia. Libya and Nigeria have no peacekeeping missions and Somalia’s peacekeeping mission (actually a European-financed war against al-Shabaab) is conducted by the African Union, not the UN. So what’s left? Let’s have a look at the nine candidate missions in Africa, most of which are dominated by personnel from non-allied nations:

MINURSO – Western Sahara

Going strong since 1991, MINURSO is the African equivalent of the Cyprus peacekeeping operation (1964 to present); a seemingly endless mission with no apparent resolution in sight. Why? Because, like Turkey and Greece in Cyprus, the Western Sahara issue is manipulated by two implacable rivals (Morocco and Algeria in this case) as a form of proxy war that spares the economic and political disruption that would be created by a real war between the two nations. MINURSO is the only UN mission to be distinguished by an absence of any human rights mandate, meaning it can only watch abuses without intervention. However, the end to this mission may be in sight – Morocco has begun shutting down MINURSO operations in Moroccan-occupied Western Sahara, claiming the UN has abandoned its neutral stance in the region.

Experience – Canada contributed 35 peacekeepers to MINURSO between 1991 and 1995.

Mission Fatalities – 15[ii]

Desirability – Minimal

Language Compatibility[iii] – Minimal (Spanish and Arabic)

Risk to Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) personnel – Minimal

Political Payoff – Minimal

 

MINUSCA – Central African Republic

MINUSCA has struggled to cope with savage sectarian violence since April 2014, but its extended mandate is up at the end of the month. France is reducing the size of its own independent deployment though bandits and gunmen still roam much of the nation. A South African effort to intervene in the conflict ended in military disaster and withdrawal in 2013.[iv] The UN mission has been rife with accusations of child sexual abuse and rape, with an entire contingent of 800 Congolese peacekeepers being sent home. Peacekeepers from France, Burundi, Tanzania, Morocco and several other countries are being investigated on similar charges with new cases emerging all the time. MINUSCA is unusual in that it has a mandate to take military action to disarm and neutralize rebel fighters, though this goal sometimes appears to be of secondary importance for the UN peacekeepers.

Experience – Canada contributed an 80-man French-speaking signals unit from 1998-99 to MINURCA, an earlier UN peacekeeping effort in the CAR.

Fatalities – 22

Desirability – Minimal

Language Compatibility – Optimal (French)

Risk to CAF personnel – Significant

Political Payoff – Moderate

Canada PK MINUSMAMINUSMA Patrol, Northern Mali

MINUSMA – Mali

MINUSMA is undoubtedly the most dangerous of all the potential missions, with 101 Peacekeepers killed since April 2013.

France is conducting counter-terrorism operations in northern Mali together with its regional partners Chad and Niger as part of Operation Barkhane. As part of MINUSMA, Canadian troops would not participate in such operations, though it would be able to operate alongside NATO allies Germany (400 troops divided between MINUSMA and an EU training mission) and Holland (400 troops in MINUSMA but in the process of withdrawing four vitally needed Apache attack helicopters plus three utility helicopters). MINUSMA’s mandate has been renewed until June 2017 and it is adding another 2,000 personnel.

Mali is certainly in great need of any professional assistance as terrorism begins to spread into the previously unaffected south, where most of the population lives. Of all the possible operations, this would have the greatest direct impact so far as countering terrorism.

As conditions worsen in Mali, the UN has pledged to take a more “active and robust” approach to applying its mandate of enforcing the peace agreement and restoring government authority.[v] However, whatever good work is accomplished by the UN mission is steadily undone by the Malian Army’s determination to return to the same brutal treatment of civilians that inspired the 2012 rebellion.

Fatalities – 101

Desirability – Optimal

Language Compatibility – Optimal (French)

Risk to CAF personnel – Significant

Political Payoff – Optimal

 

MONUSCO – Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)

Established under an earlier name in 1999 to monitor a peace agreement, this mission has grown into the UN’s largest and most expensive peacekeeping mission with no end in sight. Since its start, MONUSCO has become entangled in a series of new conflicts and now acts more as a support unit for the ineffective Congolese Army than a peacekeeping mission. Even for peacekeepers with access to modern medical facilities (unlike the local population), service in the Congo can be perilous; over half of the mission’s 263 fatalities are from illness.

Canada PK MONUSCOMONUSCO Armor, DRC

MONUSCO peacekeepers have been accused of trading ammunition and rations for ivory, drugs and locally mined gold. In 2012 they abandoned the city of Goma to a much inferior rebel force claiming they were only authorized to protect civilians. The unarmed civilians of Goma were, of course, left to their fate. Despite the formation of a unique UN offensive combat formation known as the Force Intervention Brigade (FIB), UN peacekeepers are no longer trusted locally to provide protection from rampaging rebel groups. In the violence-plagued North Kivu region, the UN’s peacekeepers are referred to as “tourists in helicopters.”[vi]

India, Bangladesh and Nepal are principal contributors to MONUSCO, though India is seeking to separate itself from a mission that has brought criticism and losses of personnel. MONUSCO’s mandate has been renewed until June 2017.

Fatalities – 263 since 1999 (includes MONUC before it was renamed MONUSCO)

Desirability – Minimal

Language Compatibility – Optimal (French)

Risk to CAF personnel – Moderate

Political Payoff – Moderate

 

UNAMID – Darfur

This joint UN/African Union mission has taken a heavy toll of peacekeepers killed (233 since July 2007) but has had little impact on Sudan’s counter-insurgency operations and their attendant atrocities. Its mandate has been renewed until June 30, 2017 despite the objections of Khartoum, which never wanted the mission in the first place. In the meantime Khartoum toys with UNAMID, denying it access to areas of conflict and holding up supply shipments and visas for UN officials.

Small to large scale attacks on peacekeepers in Darfur have been common from the beginning – some of these attacks are believed to have been carried out by government forces or their proxies in an attempt to force the peacekeepers out. UNAMID’s strategic goals are protection of civilians and humanitarian efforts – the mission takes no action against insurgents or government troops. The largest contributors to the mission are Rwanda, Ethiopia and Egypt. Despite having had little impact on the ongoing conflict (a remarkable 2.6 million people are still displaced), UNAMID is now the second largest UN peacekeeping force with an annual budget of $1.35 billion.

Experience – Canada contributed seven military administrators and armor trainers from 2007 to 2009.[vii]

Fatalities – 233

Desirability – Minimal

Language Compatibility – Minimal (Arabic)

Risk to CAF personnel – Significant

Political Payoff – Moderate

 

UNISFA – Abyei (Sudan/South Sudan)

The district of Abyei is home to a nasty little struggle over an oil-rich but otherwise innocuous piece of land on the border between Sudan and South Sudan. Since neither party could agree who owned the land, it was simply left out of the peace agreement establishing South Sudan’s independence– not a good sign that a resolution is impending. In the meantime, civilians take a beating through efforts to depopulate the area.  Established in 2011, UNIFSA is overwhelmingly Ethiopian in composition.

Fatalities – 20

Desirability – Minimal

Language Compatibility – Moderate (English)

Risk to CAF personnel – Moderate

Political Payoff – Minimal

 

UNMIL – Liberia

Established in 2003 UNMIL is an unlikely choice as it is in a draw-down phase after its annual budget reached an unsustainable $340 million. Pakistan, Bangladesh and Ethiopia are the main contributors.

Fatalities – 197

Desirability – Minimal

Language Compatibility – Moderate (English)

Risk to CAF personnel – Moderate

Political Payoff – Minimal

 

UNMISS – South Sudan

Canada PK UNMISSUNMISS Post, South Sudan

In the young nation of South Sudan power still comes from the mouth of a gun, as both the government and the army are divided by differences between the country’s two largest tribes, the Dinka and the Nuer. With nearly all the nation’s oil revenues spent on arms, South Sudan is awash in weapons. Raids, clashes, massacres and ambushes are South Sudan’s reality.

Without a mandate for intervention, UNMISS (formed in July 2011) can do little more than offer refuge in their camps to masses of civilians fleeing certain death. Much of the current struggle is fuelled by the ongoing proxy war between Sudan and Uganda, the latter deploying sizeable numbers of troops and armor in South Sudan. The fact that South Sudan sits on some of the world’s largest oil reserves has done nothing to discourage all manner of small armed movements from trying to seize their slice of petroleum revenues.

The African Union has agreed to deploy thousands more peacekeepers to reinforce UNMISS, though the plan is opposed by South Sudan president Salva Kiir Mayardit (a Dinka).[viii] Local protests against the UNMISS presence are common.

Experience – Canada had a limited contribution (45 peacekeepers) to UNMISS from 2005 to 2009.

Fatalities – 43

Desirability – Minimal

Language Compatibility – Moderate (English)

Risk to CAF personnel – Moderate to Significant

Political Payoff – Moderate

 Canada PK ONUCI

UNOCI – Côte d’Ivoire

These days UNOCI is a generally low-risk operation with a 2004 mandate for assisting the implementation of peace agreements following the 2003 (and later 2011) civil wars and providing disarmament and humanitarian assistance. UNOCI is currently trying to draw attention to the prevalence of rape and other sexual violence in Côte d’Ivoire, where two-thirds of such attacks are on children.

Experience – A small number of Canadian police served with UNOCI

Fatalities – 143

Desirability – Moderate

Language Compatibility – Optimal (French)

Risk to CAF personnel – Minimal

Political Payoff – Minimal

 

Conclusion

Rather than fighting al-Qaeda and the Islamic State organization alongside our allies, Ottawa now prefers to join the ranks of second-rate militaries from third-world countries that rent out ineffective troops for UN cash. Though many UN missions perform important work in both the military and humanitarian fields, the intractability of some conflicts is often aggravated by the UN military presence, which discourages any sense of urgency in reaching reconciliation, particularly if one party believes it can use the presence of a UN mission to further their own strategic goals. While joining a UN African peacekeeping mission satisfies a Liberal nostalgia for a largely mythical golden era of Pearsonian peacekeeping, it is also a means of sidestepping a confrontation with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State for domestic political considerations, a confrontation in which Canada’s professional military and Special Forces could make a meaningful contribution in direct support of our allies beyond meaningless expressions of sympathy and solidarity.

ACRONYMS

MINURSO – Misión de las Naciones Unidas para la Organización de un Referéndum en el Sáhara Occidental

MINUSCA – Mission multidimensionnelle intégrée des Nations unies pour la stabilisation en Centrafrique

MINUSMA – Mission multidimensionnelle intégrée des Nations unies pour la stabilisation au Mali

MONUCO – Mission de l’Organisation des Nations Unies en République démocratique du Congo

MONUSCO – Mission de l’Organisation des Nations unies pour la stabilisation en République démocratique du Congo

UNAMID – United Nations Mission in Darfur

UNIFSAUnited Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei

UNMIL – United Nations Mission in Liberia

UNMISS – United Nations Mission in South Sudan

UNOCI – United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire

 

NOTES

[i] Canadian Press, July 15, 2016 – http://www.cbc.ca/news/trending/bastille-day-nice-attack-canadian-reaction-1.3680263

[ii] Figures used for UN missions in Africa are taken from official UN sources: http://www.un.org/en/peacekeeping/resources/statistics/factsheet.shtml; Fatality statistics are taken from http://www.un.org/en/peacekeeping/fatalities/documents/stats_3.pdf (as of June 7, 2016).

[iii] “Language Compatibility” refers to the language compatibility of the host nation in light of the government’s stated desire to have a French language mission – therefore “Optimal” = French language, “Moderate” = English, and “Minimal” = languages other than French or English.

[iv] See Andrew McGregor:  “South African Military Disaster in the Central African Republic: Part One – The Rebel Offensive,” Terrorism Monitor, April 4, 2013,  http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=238 ; “South African Military Disaster in the Central African Republic: Part Two – The Political and Strategic Fallout,” Terrorism Monitor, April 4, 2013, http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=236

[v] UN News Centre, “Security Council extends mandates of UN peacekeeping operations in Darfur, Golan and Mali,” June 29, 2016;  http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=54357#.V45YkjVqncc

[vi] Al-Jazeera, January 19, 2016, http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2016/01/peacekeepers-drc-longer-trusted-protect-160112081436110.html

[vii] Government of Canada, “Archived – Canadian Forces Launches Contribution to U.N.- African Union Mission in Darfur,” CEFCOM/COMFEC NR 08.008 – February 4, 2008, http://news.gc.ca/web/article-en.do?&nid=376349

[viii] Radio Tamazuj, July 19, 2016, https://radiotamazuj.org/en/article/au-agrees-send-more-peacekeepers-south-sudan-kiir-plans-demonstrations

After Nice: Where and How to Find Islamic State Terrorists in Europe

AIS Special Guest Commentary

By Dr. Emrullah Uslu

Virginia International University

July 16, 2016

In this special guest commentary, Dr. Emrullah Uslu, a former counter-terrorism officer in Turkey and authority on ethnic and religious violence in the Islamic world, addresses the question of why current counter-terrorism efforts are failing to detect the presence of “home-grown” terrorists before they strike. Dr. Uslu believes security resources could be better deployed in spotting radicalization as it happens and suggests several ways in which this can be done.

Emrullah 1

(al-Akhbar)

Following quickly on the attack in Istanbul, yet another terrorist attack in Nice has reminded us to go beyond the everyday discussions on terrorism, assimilation, and immigration to focus on the efficiency of Western counter-terrorism efforts.

Looking at broader issues such as Muslim assimilation, Western imperialism and colonialism will not help in the short-term fight against home-grown terrorism. Focusing on millions of immigrants in Europe and trying to find the terrorist among them is similar to trying to find a needle in the haystacks. Rather, we should focus on jihadist networks, how they operate, where to locate them, and how to prevent them obtaining weapons.

First we need to focus on how and where to find ISIS or Al-Qaeda sympathizers.

Though many believe that conversion of young Muslim men or women to radical Islamic ideologies and subsequent recruitment into terrorist networks happens in remote corners of Western cities, these converts join terror networks right in front of our eyes. They join terror networks under the roofs of maximum-security prisons, fitness clubs and schoolyards.

They metamorphose into monstrous terrorists right in front of our eyes. Many families who do not wish their children to become a member of terror networks are well aware of their children’s transformation into jihadists.

The only terrorist activity conducted in secrecy is planning a terror attack. Before the planning stage, a terrorist can be easily detected in various spots at various times.

What is wrong with our counter-terrorism perspective?

One example appeared in a recent Guardian story that described how many Muslims are radicalized in French prisons. However, immediately after Charlie Hebdo, the French government announced that it was putting €425m into anti-terror measures – mostly personnel and equipment for the security forces. Yet no attention was given to France’s prisons to monitor the transformation of their inmates. Where, then, are these efforts being directed?

After the November attacks, President François Hollande instituted a state of emergency under whose provisions civil administrators – not judges – have ordered more than 3,000 searches of premises and issued 400 house arrests. The targets of these measures have almost all been Muslims (as are most of the subjects of the bag searches and frisking that police carry out in town centres) and almost none have been accused of any terrorism-related crime as a result. The effect on civil liberties has been crushing, and Muslims across the country have complained to human rights organisations that they are being systematically profiled (Guardian, March 17, 2016).

It would have been much effective than bag searches if French authorities were searching the networks inside prisons, and tracking those who were radicalized in prison after they are released.

Whenever, there is a terrorist attack in any Western country the natural reaction is to increase security measures, and send counter-terrorism units to do more searches and more raids into “suspected” neighborhoods.

As a former counter-terrorism officer, I would call such measures a PR campaign rather than counter-terrorism measures. After a horrific terror attack, most politicians feel that they need to calm public anger, and the easy way to do that is to show some muscle by increasing security measures and ordering counter terrorism raids. However, counter-terrorism has more to do brain activities than showing muscle.

Almost no attention is being paid to prisons at this time to understand who reacts and how when they hear news of a terror attack.  For realistic counter-terrorism efforts European nations need to develop programs to train prison staff to identify the radicalization process in prisons.

Second, most radical Islamists are affiliated with boxing and fitness centers or ethnic coffee shops. They are regulars at these facilities.  However, law enforcement agencies focus on mosques and masjids to find terrorists. Of course, some mosques and masjids are preaching radical Islamic ideology, however it is not the preaching that turns a North African Muslim man or women into a terrorist, it is how they socialize and share that teaching that makes them join terror networks.

Therefore, instead of paying more attention to the mosques, law enforcement officers and the public should focus on private sport facilities, such as boxing saloons, fitness centers etc. At least in these centers, it is easy to detect a member’s transformation into radical Islamic ideology.

Emrullah 2Third, most schools in Europe can be a perfect spot for starting counter-terrorism investigations. I am aware of the delicate relationship between law enforcement activities, education, and democratic rights. By no means am I suggesting bringing in police officers, or setting up counter-terrorism offices, or hiring informants from students or teachers at schools.  However, there are ways to establish early warning systems to detect whether a student or his siblings are exposed to radical Islamic ideology.

When a student at a certain age changes his attitude toward national symbols, starts struggling at academic or social activities, missing classes, or reacting to certain issues, there should be a warning system to prevent those students from falling into radical Islamic traps. School officials should be trained to notice the radicalization process at school level and act proactively to prevent these kids from becoming the next generation of terrorists.

Last but not least, most families in Europe don’t want their kids to join terrorist organizations. However, most of them are unfamiliar with the radicalization process. Worse, there is no legitimate authority in the eyes of those families in Muslim ghettos to explain how the radicalization process works.

Most Muslim families in Europe become happy when their naughty kids start praying and attending religious activities. The problem arises when radical Islamists are the ones who convince the kids to pray. Here, by no means am I suggesting every kid who starts praying is affiliated with radical Islamists. However, sudden devotion to the faith, a sudden disappearance from home, unexpected socialization with new social groups or political arguments at home could be signs of the radicalization process at work.

Given the fact that most Immigrant families don’t trust law enforcement agencies, schools can be the only legitimate institutions to inform parents about the radicalization process. I would like to give you an example from Turkey.  When Turkey faced a terrorism challenge in universities where terror networks were operating to recruit ethnic and sectarian minority students, the Turkish National Police cooperated with the Higher Education Council to conduct an information campaign.

The Turkish National Police counter-terrorism department prepared a brochure to inform students and parents of the recruitment strategies and means of approach used by terror networks to draw in new university students, and the Higher Education Council agreed to mail the brochures with the university entrance exam results.

Parents learned how terror networks approach their children and what kind of behavioral changes they can expect and detect if their children are being exposed or swayed by terrorist propaganda. As a result, many families started cooperating with police to prevent their children from joining terrorist organizations.

Terrorism is a full time job for terrorists in that they constantly think of how to kill us. We, our society and our institutions must respond by doing what is necessary to prevent terror networks from stealing our children’s lives from us.

About the Author

Dr. Emrullah Uslu is a full-time professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at Virginia International University. He holds a PhD in Middle Eastern Studies and Political Science from the University of Utah. He also holds an MA in Criminal Justice from the City University of New York, an MA in Journalism from Ankara University in Turkey and a Bachelor of Arts from the Turkish National Police Academy in Ankara, Turkey.

Dr. Uslu is a Turkish terrorism expert who focuses on Islamic and ethnic violence. He worked as a policy analyst for the Turkish National Police’s counter-terrorism units and headquarters; he also served as a researcher for the Ministry of Interior. He has also worked as a policy analyst for the Washington, DC-based Jamestown Foundation.

His Turkish-language book Deep State Threat Map: Kurds and Islamists addresses Turkey’s extra-legal approaches to Kurdish militancy and Islamist groups. Dr. Uslu has published many articles and book chapters on terrorism and Middle East politics; his most recent article, “Jihadist Highway to Jihadist Heaven: Turkey’s Jihadi Policies and Western Security,” appears in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism and addresses the recent terror trend in Europe.

His book in Turkish called Deep State Threat Map: Kurds and Islamists, addresses Turkey’s extra-legal approaches to Kurds and Islamic groups.  Dr. Uslu’s  has been published many articles and book chapters, on terrorism and Middle East politics. recent article  Jihadist Highway to Jihadist Haven: Turkey’s Jihadi Policies and Western Security, in Studies in Conflict and Terrorism addresses the recent terror trend in Europe.

He is often quoted by international media outlets, including the Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, Al-Jazeera, the Guardian, London Times, and the Asia Times, as well as other national and major Turkish media outlets.

The Pursuit of a “New Sudan” in Blue Nile State: A Profile of the SPLA-N’s Yasir Arman

Andrew McGregor

June 30, 2016

Yasir ArmanYasir Arman (Sudan Tribune)

Despite the 2011 separation of South Sudan, Sudan’s civil war continues in Darfur and what has become known as Sudan’s “new South,” Blue Nile State and South Kordofan. Though the fighting has often been intense, government forces in Blue Nile have been unable to overcome rebels of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement-North (SPLA/M-N) led by veteran opposition leader Yasir Arman. Arman claims that many of the troops arriving in Blue Nile State for the current dry season offensive are Darfuri Janjaweed who have been absorbed into Khartoum’s Rapid Support Forces (RSF) and include Arab tribesmen from Chad and Mali (Radio Dabanga, May 14). The conflict has left tens of thousands of displaced civilians without any type of shelter and severe shortages of power, water and medicines are reported in al-Damazin (Radio Tamazuj, May 28; Radio Dabanga, May 23).

Early Influences

Yasir Arman was born the son of a primary school teacher in the al-Jazira region south of Khartoum in October 1961. Arman is a Ja’alin Arab, one of the three Arab tribes which, along with the Sha’iqiya and the Danagla, have dominated Sudanese politics since independence in 1956.

During his time studying law at the Khartoum campus of Cairo University in the 1980s Arman was implicated in the murder of two Islamist students, though he was later acquitted in court. As a student, Arman joined the Sudanese Communist Party, once a powerful political force in Sudan until its eventual repression by President Ja’afar Nimeiri. At the same time, Arman was engaged in political discussions with southern students and became interested in the ideology of South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC), a communist-influenced movement that was, like Sudan, faced with how to build a new nation from a multi-ethnic, multi-confessional population. Arman’s leftist orientation drew the attention of Nimeiri’s security forces and Arman spent parts of 1984-85 in prison, where he was able to have further political discussions with imprisoned southern students (New Sudan Vision, January 15, 2010).

Sudan Map - ConflictsSudan: Regions of Conflict (BBC)

Arman made the unusual and personally momentous decision to leave Khartoum in 1986 and join the almost exclusively non-Arab insurrection in South Sudan led by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M). The young rebel was assigned to the Blue Nile front, led by Commander Salva Kiir Mayardit, the current president of independent South Sudan. As an Arab and a Muslim, Arman endured suspicion from his new comrades, who, unsurprisingly, suspected his motives.

Committing to the “New Sudan”: Yasir Arman and “Dr. John”

Despite the reservations of some of his fellow combatants, Arman rose quickly in the SPLA ranks, coming into close contact with the movement’s leader, Dr. John Garang de Mabior. A Bor Dinka and American educated career soldier, Garang used his considerable charisma and fierce discipline to maintain control of a movement that always seemed ready to fracture due to personal and tribal rivalries as well as inducements from Khartoum. Though the SPLA was widely regarded as a Southern separatist movement, Garang sought the liberation of the whole Sudan from the rule of the riverain Arabs of the north, a “New Sudan” that would bring an end to regional and ethnic marginalization and establish a national unity and identity based on democracy and secularism rather than ethnic and religious differences.  Unlike many SPLA commanders who paid lip service to the “New Sudan” while believing Southern separation would be the ultimate outcome of the war, Arman became deeply dedicated to Garang’s vision, which became his guiding political principle.  In time, Arman became a well-known spokesman for the SPLA/M and a familiar voice on the clandestine SPLA Radio. Arman continued to raise eyebrows in the Arab north by marrying Awuor Deng Kuol, the daughter of Ngok Dinka Sultan Deng Mjok and a former member of the SPLA’s Katiba Banaat (Girls Battalion) (New Sudan Vision, January 15, 2010).

John Garang 1985Colonel John Garang de Mabior, South Sudan, 1985

Arman’s political and diplomatic skills were put to work as one of the main framers of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) that ended Sudan’s long civil war. Only six months after the ratification of the CPA, John Garang died on July 30, 2005 in a still unexplained helicopter crash near the Ugandan border, destroying optimism that a New Sudan could be created. The SPLA/M was taken over by his second-in-command, fellow Dinka and ardent separatist Salva Kiir Mayardit. Disillusioned and marginalized by this turn of events, Arman briefly left the movement in 2007 to study English at Iowa State University, the same institution attended by Garang.

Presidential Candidate

Arman’s has described the international community’s “policy of appeasement” regarding President al-Bashir as similar to that which created Adolf Hitler and has described al-Bashsir as “a racist delusional person who happens to be the president of a state and who is wanted by the International Criminal Court and is committing genocide and crimes against humanity that the world will live to regret.” [1]

The CPA made it possible for Arman to face Bashir in the presidential election of 2010, though the SPLA/M later decided to boycott the presidential contest. Some pro-independence Southerners urged others in the South to vote against Arman on the grounds that, if elected, he would make national unity more attractive to Southerners prior to the independence referendum and might even use force to maintain a unified Sudan (South Sudan News Agency, March 19, 2010). Despite withdrawing, Arman still finished second by taking over 21% of the vote to al-Bashir’s 68% (Sudan Tribune, April 27, 2010).

Juba Waves Goodbye

The CPA’s ill-defined “public consultations” on the political future of South Kordofan and Blue Nile State  were never carried out, the victim of endless obstruction from Khartoum and the NCP-dominated parliaments in both states. The South, however, was not to be denied its chance for independence and a successful referendum was quickly followed by separation from Sudan in 2011. Arman blamed the division of Sudan on political Islam, citing the NCP’s “fascist vision,” intolerance and failure to accept democratic rule and cultural and religious diversity as the source of genocide and war crimes (Sudan Tribune, February 8, 2013). [2]

The South moved on, but left two locally-raised SPLA divisions (the 9th and 10th) stranded on the northern side of the new border. Khartoum demanded the divisions either disarm, be absorbed into the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) or cross the border to rejoin the SPLA, though these units had never actually served in the south. These rebels had fought for Garang’s “New Sudan” rather than Southern independence, and decided to continue the fight against NCP rule under the banner SPLA-Northern Command (SPLA-N).  Arman was dismayed to find the new movement isolated internationally, with both the U.S. and the UK urging South Sudan to end all support to the SPLM-N (Sudan Tribune, March 24, 2012).

The Dry Season Offensive

Shortly after the latest government offensive began in April, Arman’s SPLM-N claimed that Khartoum’s military and paramilitary forces had suffered “their biggest defeat in the six years of their military offensive” in Blue Nile State (Radio Dabanga, April 26).

President Bashir announced a unilateral four-month ceasefire in South Kordofan and Blue Nile in mid-June that would, in the words of an Army spokesman, “give the armed groups a chance to join the peace process and to surrender their arms” (al-Jazeera, June 18). Similar government “gestures of good-will” have failed in the past. Khartoum wants the SPLM-N to sign onto the African Union-brokered Roadmap Agreement, a deal that has been rejected by the movement and its opposition allies in the Sudan Call coalition (formed December 2014).

Conclusion

Amidst suspicions that Khartoum’s ceasefire was only buying time to evacuate trapped wounded and rebuild its forces in South Kordofan and Blue Nile, Arman suggested Khartoum prove its sincerity by immediately sending a delegation to join in comprehensive peace talks in Addis Ababa (Sudan Tribune, June 16). Arman continues to hope for a popular rising in Sudan, one that will embrace the concept of a New Sudan: “The vision of the New Sudan remains valid and in fact, it is the only game in town to build a viable state based on citizenship, recognition of diversity, democracy and social justice, and bringing a just peace and national reconciliation… At the end of the day, the current junta in Khartoum has only two options – they either accept change or they are going to be changed.”   [3]

Note

  1. Yasir Arman, “General Bashir’s Racism and Promotion of Religious Hatred are Behind the Burning Down of the Church in the Heart of Khartoum,” April 24, 2012, http://www.sudanjem.com/_upload/2012/05/04-24-12-General-Bashirs-Racism.pdf
  2. Yasir Arman, “The Sudan Question: A Failure of Nation-building and the Experience of Political Islam,” Speech given at the Monterey Institute of International Affairs, February 15, 2013, http://collectifurgencedarfour.com/yasir-arman-the-sudan-question-failure-nation-building-experience-political-islam/
  3. Ibid

 

This article first appeared in the June issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor

Political Stalemate Heightens Appeal of Religious Extremism for Western Sahara Youth

Andrew McGregor

June 24, 2016

The death from illness on May 31 of the Polisario Front’s long-time leader Mohamed Abdelaziz has brought the exiled Sahrawi independence movement of the Western Sahara to an ideological crossroads. The Polisario nation, known as the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), is effectively a state without land, save for a small strip of desert optimistically known as “the Free Zone.” Nonetheless, the SADR is recognized by 46 nations and is a full member of the African Union.

Western Sahara Map(GlobalSecurity.org)

The Sahrawi community is led by its sole political expression, the secular, left-wing Polisario Front (Frente Popular para la Liberación de Saguia el-Hamra y Río de Oro – Popular Front for the Liberation of Saguia al-Hamra and Rio de Oro), founded in 1973 to combat Spanish colonialism. Ninety-one years of Spanish colonialism in the Western Sahara was replaced in 1975 with a 16-year war against Morocco and Mauritania, who sought to split the former colony between them. Spain effectively abandoned its West Saharan territories, leaving the region of Saguia al-Hamra (The Red Canal) to Morocco and Rio de Oro (The Gold Coast) to Mauritania. The latter eventually withdrew from Rio de Oro, but Morocco quickly occupied the area. Under the terms of a 1991 ceasefire, a UN mission was to register Sahrawis for a referendum on independence or acceptance of a Moroccan offer of autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty. This process has yet to start; in the meantime, Morocco has developed the region’s fisheries and phosphates industry and is now in the early phases of oil and gas exploration, much to the dissatisfaction of the exiled Sahrawi community.

While the Polisario leadership will use a 40-day mourning period to decide whether a leadership change should reflect the desirability of new directions for the movement or the persistence of the status quo, Morocco, which lays claim to Western Sahara, will simultaneously be seeking new openings to break the lingering impasse. During this crucial period, the Sahrawi exile community, most of whom live in a complex of six refugee camps surrounding the southwest Algerian town of Tindouf and are reliant on international donations of food and other aid, must deal not only with leadership succession, but also with:

  • Morocco’s expulsion of the UN mission charged with organizing an independence referendum;
  • The attraction of the Islamic State and other extremist factions to alienated Sahrawi youth; and
  • The political implications of offshore oil exploration contracts negotiated by Morocco without Polisario involvement.

Morocco insists it is merely reclaiming territory (its so-called “Southern States”) that had been occupied by the Spanish up until 1975. Polisario regards the Moroccan presence as colonialism, “an international crime against the Saharawi people, as well as a continuing threat to peace and regional security” (Ennahar [Algiers], June 15).

The dispute has been absorbed into the wider rivalry between Morocco and its Maghreb neighbor, Algeria, contributing to its intractability.

The Leadership Question

Mohamed Abdelaziz was elected as Polisario Front secretary-general and president of the SADR in August 1976, ruling with the help of a small but powerful group of loyalists. At the time of his death, he was serving his 12th consecutive term as president. The interim leader is one of Abdelaziz’s closest associates, Khatri Adouh, the president of the Sahrawi National Council (the SADR’s governing body).

Among the candidates for the SADR presidency are Brahim Ghali, who will likely have Algeria’s approval; Mohamed Lamine Bouhali, the current defense minister and a former Algerian army officer; Prime Minister Abdelkader Taleb Omar; Reconstruction Minister Mohamed Salem Ould Salek; and Bashir Mustapha Sayed, the brother of Polisario Front founder El-Ouali Mustapha Sayed (North Africa Post, June 1).

Polisario has always been as much a social movement as a political one. It has a strong focus on eliminating tribalism through the eradication of tribal identities and the pursuit of Arab nationalism and (at least initially) Marxist-style collectivism and anti-colonial ideology derived from political theorist Franz Fanon and various African liberation leaders of the 1960s. Its claim to a collective purpose expressing the common will of all Sahrawis and its pervasiveness in Sahrawi refugee life precludes for the Polisario leadership any possibility of internal opposition to the movement. Since the SADR’s existence depends on external aid and all such aid is funneled through Polisario-friendly Algeria, the leadership has the means of enforcing this opinion.

Western Sahara FuneralScene from the Funeral of Mohamed Abdelaziz (Ramzi Boudina/Reuters)

Polisario anti-colonialism, however, carries within it a fatal contradiction – the SADR is based on the amalgamation of several territories defined by colonially-imposed boundaries. Rejection of these boundaries as the basis of the SADR would tend to validate the Moroccan position that no state existed in the region prior to Spanish occupation aside from a handful of local tribal chiefs, many of whom at one time or another had pledged allegiance to the Moroccan Sultan or established economic relations with the Kingdom.

In the absence of a political system that accommodates opposition viewpoints, dissenting Sahrawis tend to vote with their feet, defecting into Moroccan-governed territory to reunite their divided families. Morocco claims over 10,000 Sahrawis have done this so far, but the process is strongly discouraged by the Polisario, which recognizes that the only thing keeping the SADR from becoming a purely virtual state is its ability to claim the loyalty of a significant portion of the Sahrawi population. Protests continue in the Moroccan-administered area against rule from Rabat, often resulting in excesses by the Moroccan police.

Failure of MINURSO

Formed in 1991, the UN mission in the Western Sahara, known as MINURSO (Misión de las Naciones Unidas para la Organización de un Referéndum en el Sáhara Occidental – United Nations Mission for Referendum in Western Sahara) continues to fulfill its mandate to monitor the 1991 ceasefire, but it has yet to begin its task of registering voters and preparing a referendum on the Western Sahara’s future. Many officers of this expensive peacekeeping mission have instead passed the time by vandalizing the region’s prehistoric rock art with spray-painted graffiti (The Times, February 7, 2008). Furthermore, thanks to French opposition in the UN Security Council, MINURSO remains the only UN mission without a human rights component, tying its hands when confronted with human rights abuses.

Both the Polisario and Morocco oppose MINURSO efforts at voter registration, given disputes over the eligibility of the large number of Moroccans who have settled in Moroccan-ruled Western Sahara since 1975 and the number of Malians, Mauritanians and Algerians who have joined the SADR camps. A census in the Tindouf camps might also reveal a smaller number of refugees than are currently claimed by authorities, putting at risk the ability of Algerian and Polisario authorities to siphon off an over-supply of humanitarian aid that eventually appears in regional markets. In the event MINURSO is kept from fulfilling its mission, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has warned of “escalation into full-scale war” and the presentation of new opportunities for “terrorist and radical elements” to exploit the situation (al-Jazeera, April 19).

The UN secretary-general enraged Moroccan authorities when he referred to Moroccan “occupation” of the Western Sahara during a March 5 visit to the Sahrawi refugee camps around Tindouf (al-Jazeera, March 29). Following accusations that the UN had abandoned its neutral stance on the issue, Morocco expelled U.S. aid staff from the region, ordered the UN to withdraw civilian personnel, and closed a MINURSO military liaison office despite profuse apologies from the secretary-general’s office.

Ban’s call for negotiations without precondition between the SADR and Morocco seems bound for the same UN black hole in which most calls tend to disappear. No matter what UN officials might say, such negotiations would be widely regarded both internally and externally as Moroccan recognition of the SADR’s existence. Morocco is instead playing out a long-term strategy to create a set of facts on the ground that would make a separate Western Saharan state inconceivable. Most important of these is a 1,250-mile-long sand berm separating the economically useful section of Western Sahara from the lightly populated “Free Zone.” Equipped with radar, motion detectors, rapid response teams, air support, and some of the world’s largest minefields, this sand wall has proved an effective counter to Polisario’s military qualities of mobility and intimate knowledge of local terrain.

Attraction of Islamic State and Other Extremist Groups

More than 50 percent of the population of the Polisario refugee camp is under 18 and few have ever set foot in their “homeland.” Limited employment opportunities mean many young Sahrawis are joining the 6,000 to 7,000 strong Ejercito de Liberación Popular Saharaui (ELPS or Sahrawi People’s Liberation Army), the military wing of the Polisario Front. Deeply unhappy with the lack of diplomatic progress in resolving the independence issue, many young Sahrawis are calling for a return to the battlefield.

Though internal pressure could drive the Sahrawis back to war, the outcome of any conflict with the larger, better armed and better trained Royal Moroccan Army is predictable. With Algeria unlikely to support renewed conflict in any substantial way, there is a danger veteran jihadis might be able to offer valuable battlefield support against a Moroccan regime, while introducing Salafi-jihadist ideology to the struggle. Similar situations have been seen in the past; in the Chechen anti-Russian resistance, jihadism developed at the expense of secular nationalism as a result of an influx of much-needed, but religiously motivated, foreign fighters.

Alternatively, a quick or even extended collapse of Sahrawi military resistance in renewed combat could lead to a loss of faith in the nationalist cause on the part of young fighters and an increase in smuggling, an important source of income for young Sahrawis that inevitably puts them in contact with traffickers from extremist groups. Integration with extremist networks such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) often follows, whether as paid employees or ideologically committed jihadists.

The 2010 Algerian arrest of a Polisario imam discovered with arms, 20 kilograms of explosives, and correspondence with AQIM leader Abd al-Malik Droukdel (a.k.a. Abu Musab Abd al-Wadud) and the kidnapping the next year of three European aid-workers from a Tindouf camp by a Movement for Unity and Justice in West Africa (MUJWA) cell that included Sahrawis were strong indications that extremism has penetrated the Polisario camps. [1]

By July 2012, Sahrawi Defense Minister Bouhali admitted that there were 20 to 25 Sahrawis involved in Islamist militancy, divided between AQIM and MUJWA (ABC.es [Madrid], August 11, 2012). The statement was a break from Polisario’s usual insistence that AQIM holds no attraction to Sahrawis. In March 2013, Mali’s foreign minister insisted that Polisario “mercenaries” had been recruited by the radical MUJWA for monthly salaries running between 200 to 600 Euros (Le Mag [Marrakesh], March 16, 2013).

The best known of the Sahrawis who have committed to religious extremism is Abu Walid al-Sahrawi – a former member of the ELPS, MUJWA, and Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s al-Murabitun organization – who joined Islamic State in 2015 and now calls for Moroccans and Sahrawis to support the Islamic Caliphate in the Maghreb. In May, Abu Walid threatened to launch attacks on MINURSO personnel, tourists and foreign assets in the Sahara (al-Jazeera, May 4; North Africa Post, May 6; al-Akhbar [Nouakchott], May 13, 2015). Like many Sahrawis, Abu Walid was educated in Algeria and Cuba. Algerian universities often expose young Sahrawis to more militant strains of Islam than those that usually prevail in the camps.

Offshore Oil Exploration

When Morocco began awarding contracts for oil exploration in the Western Sahara in 2002, the UN called for a legal opinion to define the legality of such measures in the absence of recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over the area. Known as the Corell Opinion, the statement remains the guiding principle for Moroccan-negotiated foreign investment in the region, but the opinion has been subject to much interpretation and has been used to both justify and condemn Moroccan development undertaken without consultation with the Sahrawi people. [2]

Mustapha al-Khalfi, Morocco’s minister of communications, insists that investment and the region’s natural resource management are driven by the needs of the population. He also maintains that the participation in investment decisions of democratically elected representatives of the Sahrawi community means that “the exploitation of the natural resources in the Sahara takes place within the framework of international law with the involvement of the population and for its benefit” (al-Jazeera, July 10, 2015).

The current controversy over resource extraction is fueled by the Moroccan-authorized offshore exploration activities of Texas-based Kosmos Energy in the Cap Boujdour area, approximately 70km off the shore of Western Sahara and part of the larger Aaiun Basin. Kosmos defends its activities by noting that, at this point, they are “focused solely on exploration and do not involve the removal of resources… We believe, however, that if exploration is successful, responsible resource development in Western Sahara has the potential to create significant long-term social and economic benefits for the people of the territory.” [3]

The absence of substantial international opposition to the operations of foreign resource extraction firms in the contested region constitutes an important step in the explicit or de facto recognition of Moroccan claims in the Western Sahara.

Conclusion: The “Sahrawi State”

With the slow-moving machinations of international diplomacy and commerce working against them, Polisario’s chances of forming a legitimate state diminish with each passing year. The “Sahrawi State” is in the uncomfortable position of existing solely at the sufferance of Algiers. While an Algerian-Moroccan rapprochement seems unlikely in the short term, any future mending of their relationship would make Polisario and all its trappings of a “virtual” state entirely expendable. The future of the republic lies with its restless youth rather than Polisario’s aging first generation. Without jobs or meaningful futures, many desire a return to conflict. However, such a war, like all else, cannot happen without Algerian approval, and this might prove difficult if not impossible to obtain.

Polisario allows Algiers to affect a certain moral superiority over Morocco on the international stage, but a Polisario return to war would immediately be regarded as Algerian-sponsored and would be of little advantage to either party. A more likely scenario is a growing attraction to religious militancy as the foundation of a new state potentially free from both Moroccan and Algerian domination, especially if the option is the perpetuation of a stifling status quo in the isolated camps of Tindouf.

This attraction may co-exist with a greater willingness on the part of other Sahrawis to accept Morocco’s offers of regional autonomy under Moroccan sovereignty, combining to eventually shatter the Polisario’s independence ambitions.

NOTES

  1. “The Algerian Foreign Policy on Western Sahara,” in Anouar Boukhars and Jacques Roussellier (eds.), Perspectives on Western Sahara: Myths, Nationalisms and Geopolitics, Lanham, 2014, p.115, fn.32
  2. Hans Corell, “Letter dated 29 January 2002 from the Under-Secretary-General for Legal Affairs, the Legal Counsel, addressed to the President of the Security Council, United Nations Security Council,” February 12, 2002, http://www.arso.org/UNlegaladv.htm
  3. See position statement: Kosmos Energy: On Hydrocarbon Exploration Offshore Western Sahara, February 2014, www.kosmosenergy.com/pdfs/PositionStatement-WesternSahara-English.pdf

This article first appeared in the June 24, 2016 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

AIS Update, July 13, 2016: Unsurprisingly, a Congress of the Polisario Front chose the candidate with the closest ties to Algeria as the new president of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic and the secretary-general of the Polisario Front on July 9. Brahim Ghali, the new president, promptly announced his first official visit would be to Algiers.

Brahim GhaliNew President of the SADR, Brahim Ghali

Born in 1949, the former ambassador to Algeria was a founding member of the Polisario Front. He began a military career in a Spanish unit of Sahrawi volunteers in the 1960s. By 1969 he was deeply involved in anti-colonial activism and was jailed several times. Shortly after he participated in the founding of Polisario in 1973, he was one of the leaders of the Front’s first raid on a Spanish Army post, a successful affair that helped arm the independence movement.

The Strategic Topography of Southern Libya

Andrew McGregor

Countering Terrorism Center Sentinel

Volume 9, Issue 5 (May 2016)

West Point, N.Y.

Abstract: If the security situation in Libya deteriorates and the Islamic State makes further gains on the southern shores of the Mediterranean, there is the possibility that a coalition of foreign powers will feel compelled to intervene militarily. While such an intervention would likely be focused on the coastal regions, it would also likely have unforeseen consequences for southern Libya, a strategically vital region that supplies most of the country’s water and electricity. Militants could react by targeting this infrastructure or fleeing southward, destabilizing the region. For these reasons it is imperative that policymakers understand the strategic topography of southern Libya. 

Libya CTC MapThe Islamic State has succeeded in establishing a base in Sirte, Libya, on the Mediterranean coast, uncomfortably close to Europe. Unless a new government can unite the nation in deploying state security forces to eliminate the threat posed by the Islamic State, Ansar al-Sharia, and other extremist groups, there is a possibility of foreign military intervention. In this case, extremists could target the lightly guarded oil and water infrastructure in southern Libya essential for the survival of the nation.

Bitter and bloody tribal conflicts have erupted in the south since the 2011 Libyan Revolution, and in the absence of state authority, various militias established their own version of security and border controls. There is a strong danger of further violence in the south spreading to Libya’s southern neighbors or encouraging new independence movements. Identifying specific strategic locations in southern Libya, this article outlines the security challenges posed in each locale by virtue of its geography as well as its ethnic, political, and sectarian rivalries.

Until recently, the inability of Libya’s rival governments—the Tripoli-based General National Council (GNC) and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR)—to cooperate on the terrorism file has hampered the ability of foreign governments to provide military assistance. It has impeded Libya’s ability to tackle Islamist extremist movements as well, but this is beginning to change due to growing support for a unified Government of National Accord. [1]

Libya-based terrorist groups are mainly concentrated in the Mediterranean coastal strip, but they have recognized the importance of Libya’s southern interior and the vast reserves of energy and water vital for Libyan viability. Control of the south determines whether the lights go on in Tripoli or Benghazi, whether water runs from the taps, and whether salaries are paid or not. It also means control of important trade and smuggling routes, the source of narcotics, armed militants, and waves of desperate African refugees risking their lives to reach Europe.

Currently, there are indications that France, Italy, the U.K., and the United States have either initiated limited interventions in the form of small Special Forces units or are contemplating greater military involvement to destroy Libya’s Islamic State group and end the uncontrolled movement of refugees to Europe from the Libyan coast. [2] In March the United Nations’ special envoy to Libya, Martin Kobler, warned Libyans that if they do not quickly address the problems of terrorism presented by Islamist extremists, “others will manage the situation.” [3] However, Libyans’ bitter experience with colonialism makes them highly suspicious of the motives behind any type of foreign intervention.

Geographic Considerations

Libya is composed of three main regions: Tripolitania (the northwest), Cyrenaïca (the eastern half), and Fezzan (the southwest). Most of Libya’s water and energy resources are found in the south, an area of rocky plateaus known as hamadat and sand seas (ramlat), all punctuated with small oases and brackish lakes. Mountainous areas include the Tadrart Acacsus near Ghat in the Fezzan, the Bikku Bitti Mountains along the Chadian border, and Jabal Uwaynat in the southeast. The climate is exceedingly hot and arid with an average temperature of over 30 degrees Celsius; dry river beds known as wadis carry away the limited rainfall and are commonly used to conceal the movements of military or smuggling convoys. Sandstorms and high winds are common in March and April. The severe climate and isolation of Saharan Libya make it difficult to find security personnel from the north willing to serve there.

A Qaddafi initiative, the Great Man-Made River (GMR) taps immense reserves of fossil water (water trapped underground for more than a millennium) contained in the Nubian Sandstone aquifer under the Libyan desert to supply Libya’s coastal cities and various agricultural projects. GMR pipelines are vulnerable to tribal groups angered by government activities. [4]

There are five energy basins (regions containing oil and gas reserves) in Libya: Ghadames/Berkine (northwest); Sirte, the most productive (central); Murzuq (southwest); Kufra (southeast); and the Cyrenaïca platform (northeast). Of these, only the Kufra Basin is not yet in production. [5]

Libya’s oases provide water and resting points in a strategic lifeline through otherwise inhospitable terrain and permit overland contact between the settlements of the Mediterranean coast and the African interior. Today, oil and water pipelines follow these routes, giving them even greater importance in the modern era.

The Tribal Situation

The southern Arabs fear that post-revolutionary demands for citizenship by non-Arab Tubu and Tuareg will make citizens of tens of thousands of non-Arabs from outside Libya’s borders, leaving the Arabs a minority in the region. The Tubu and Tuareg, in turn, fear they are victims of Arab machinations to cleanse Libya of non-Arab groups. The Tubu, an indigenous African group, are found in Chad, northeastern Niger, and southern Libya, with a traditional stronghold in the remote Tibesti mountain range of northern Chad.[6] The Tuareg are an indigenous Berber group organized in various confederations and spread through much of the Sahara/Sahel region, where they traditionally maintained control of trans-Saharan trade routes. In Libya the local Tuareg live in the southwest and are part of the Kel Ajjar confederation also found in eastern Algeria.

Strategic Sites in Southern Libya

In April 2014, French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian described southern Libya as “a viper’s nest in which jihadists are returning, acquiring weapons and recruiting.”[7] Through Ottoman and Italian colonial rule, southern Libya provided a place of refuge for political, tribal, and religious groups that came into conflict with the established powers. More recently, it has offered operating space to extremist groups forced from neighboring areas such as northern Mali. With the development of Libyan plans to assault the Islamic State enclave in Sirte and the possibility of foreign military intervention at some point in the future if those efforts fail, it is worthwhile to examine those strategic sites in southern Libya that might provide new bases for Islamist extremists or those forces involved in combating such movements

GhatThe Ottoman/Italian Fortress in Ghat

Ghat

As a garrison town on the Algerian border and a center for Qaddafi loyalists, Ghat was one of the last urban areas in Libya to fall to rebel forces in late September 2011. Dotted throughout southern Libya are Ottoman and Italian fortresses, built on heights wherever possible to control important oases or the intersection of vital trade routes; many of these now serve as bases for regional militias. In Ghat, Tuareg militias hold the large Ottoman fortress on the Koukemen Hill finished by the Italians in the 1930s. There is also an airport 18 kilometers north of Ghat. The Ghat Tuareg control the Tinkarine border crossing into Algeria. Control of this crossing in the event of a foreign intervention would be essential to prevent cross-border movement of extremist groups. The Algerian Army closed the border with Libya in May 2014 after the In Amenas attacks, which originated in al-Uwaynat (not to be confused with al-Uwaynat in southeastern Libya), northeast of Ghat.[8]

Castle - ZillahItalian-era Fortress at Zillah, al-Jufra

Hun

Hun is the main town in al-Jufra oasis and a former colonial base for long-range patrols by the Italian Compagnia Sahariana. Other settlements in al-Jufra include Waddan, site of a pre-Ottoman Arab fortress; Sokna, the site of an Ottoman castle; Zellah Oasis, which is overlooked by a massive Italian-era hilltop fortress; and al-Fugha, a small oasis devoted, like the others, to date production. Al-Jufra Airbase is a dormant Libyan Air Force facility.

Jalu and Awjala

These oases are not in southern Libya proper, but they form an important link on the Kufra-Ajdabiya road and an entry point to the string of oases in Egypt’s Western Desert, a suspected route for arms traffickers. The town of Jalu, an important center for nearby oil fields, is located some 250 kilometers southeast of the Gulf of Sidra, while Awjala is about 30 kilometers northwest of Jalu. Jalu proved its strategic importance in both World War II and the Libyan Civil War during attempts to outflank opposing forces operating closer to the coast. Its size (19 kilometers by 11 kilometers) and freshwater supplies made it a useful base for military operations. As the dominant group in both oases is Eastern Berber, there is a possibility that ethnic tensions could be inflamed by renewed military activity in this strategically vital locale.

Kufra

The town of Kufra and a surrounding cluster of small oases and agricultural projects have a population of roughly 40,000. Its strategic importance lies in its location between two sand seas, which, with its reserves of fresh water and food, make it an inevitable stop for vehicles making their way between the Cyrenaïcan coast and the African interior.

Zuwaya Arabs are the majority in Kufra, which has a Tubu minority. Both the Tubu and the Zuwaya maintain important communities in Ajdabiya charged with protecting tribal interests at the northern terminus of the trade route from Kufra. Should conflict erupt between these communities as a consequence of foreign military activity in the Ajdabiya region, the result could easily be the spread of communal clashes to the volatile Kufra area.

The route between Kufra and Ajdabiya was the site of numerous skirmishes between Qaddafi loyalists and Libyan rebels during the civil war, with the Qaddafists carrying out a long-range desert attack to seize Kufra before working their way north to the Jalu and Awjala oases, where efforts were made to damage water and oil installations.[9] The limited cooperation between revolutionary Tubu and Zuwaya against the Qaddafi regime did not last, with the Zuwaya describing the Tubu as Qaddafist collaborators or even foreign mercenaries. In 2012, the Zuwaya constructed large sand berms around Kufra to cut Tubu connections with the outside.

Disputes over control of smuggling and trading routes south of Kufra led to clashes between Tubu and Zuwaya in 2011, 2012, and 2013 that left hundreds dead. Mediation brought an end to a further two months of fighting in early November 2015. Isa Abd al-Majid Mansur, leader of the Tubu Front for the Salvation of Libya (TFSL), has promoted the idea of foreign intervention in Libya, suggesting the Tubu would make good partners in international counterterrorism and anti-smuggling operations.[10] While seemingly attractive given the Tubu’s deep knowledge of the little-known region, acceptance would immediately be viewed as unacceptable by rival Arab groups and inevitably regarded as a means of challenging the “Arab essence” of the Libyan state.

The construction of the Trans-Saharan road connecting Darfur to Kufra in the 1980s increased cross-border trade but also opened a reliable route for smugglers, human traffickers, and gunmen. Qatar appears to have used the route from Sudan to ship ammunition to Islamist militias in 2011.[11]

Darfur rebels of the Sudanese Liberation Movement-Minni Minnawi (SLM-MM) were accused by the GNC and the Sudanese government of collaborating with Tubu forces under the direction of General Khalifa Haftar in the unsuccessful September 20, 2015, attack on Kufra.[12] The SLM-MM and Darfur’s Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) were accused of committing armed robberies and setting up illegal checkpoints north of Kufra this year before being driven out by Zuwaya militias in a two-day battle in February.[13] On April 24, 2016, Libya’s new Presidency Council announced it had received information that JEM was collaborating with Qaddafi loyalists to attack and disrupt oil facilities in southern Libya.[14] Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) has repeatedly accused Khartoum of shipping arms and fighters to Islamist groups by air and by the overland route through Kufra.[15]

Ma’atan al-Sarra

Ma’atan al-Sarra Oasis is located in the Kufra district some 60 miles north of the border with Chad. Qaddafi used the remote and rarely visited oasis as a supply base for Sadiq al-Mahdi’s 1976 attack on Khartoum. In the 1987 “Toyota War,” Chadian forces (mostly Tubu) took Ma’atan al-Sarra in a devastating surprise attack.

Castle - MurzuqOttoman-era Fortress, Murzuq

Murzuq

Murzuq, the unofficial “headquarters” of the Fezzan Tubu, is 150 kilometers south of Sabha. Murzuq, like Ubari, lies on the southwest to northeast route that separates the Ubari and Murzuq sand seas. Murzuq is populated by a potentially volatile mix of Tuareg, Tubu, Arabs, and al-Ahali (black Libyans descended from slaves or economic migrants from the African interior), with each community ready to exploit or reject foreign intervention in light of their own interests.

The head of the Murzuq Military Council, Colonel Barka Wardougou, a Libyan Army veteran with experience in Chad and Lebanon and the former leader of a Tubu rebel goup in Niger that joined Niger’s 2007-2009 Tuareg rebellion, has demanded a more equitable distribution of Libya’s oil wealth, threatening to form a federal state if this is not accomplished.[16]

Qatrun

The road south from Murzuq runs through the oasis town of Qatrun, where it splits to run 310 kilometers southwest to the border post with Niger at Tummo, and southeast toward Chad. When the border post at Tummo is closed, travelers from Niger must report to Libyan authorities in Qatrun. The Tubu and Qaddadfa Arabs have a strong presence in the area.

Rabyanah Oasis and Sand Sea

On the western side of the southern route to Kufra is the inhospitable Rabyanah Sand Sea. Toward the eastern end of this feature is the Tubu-dominated Rabyanah Oasis, 130 kilometers west of Kufra, and the home district of several leading Tubu militia and political leaders as well as a Zuwaya minority. In the event of a foreign intervention, this region could provide a base for the development of new Tubu political factions.

Castle - SabhaElena Castle, Sabha

Sabha

Sabha, 500 miles south of Tripoli, is the site of an important military base and airfield. The city of 210,000 people acts as a commercial and transportation hub for the region. During the Qaddafi era, the oasis was used for the development of rockets and nuclear weapons. Sabha is a tinderbox of rival ethnic/tribal communities, including the Arab Qaddadfa, their Awlad Sulayman rivals, Warfalla and Magraha Arabs, Tubu, and Tuareg. According to one Tubu leader, Sabha also serves as a local collection center for al-Qa`ida fighters from Mauritania, Libya, Algeria, and Tunisia.[17] If foreign extremists have already established a presence in Sabha, it would take very little to provoke new clashes that would further destabilize this important region.

Castle - Sabhan under fireSabha’s Elena Castle under fire, January 2014

The revolutionary Awlad Sulayman and the loyalist Qaddadfa confronted each other during the civil war despite a tribal alliance.[18] The largest Awlad Sulayman militia seized Sabha’s airport from a Hasawna Arab militia in September 2013.[19] Clashes between the Tubu and members of the Arab Awlad Abu Seif and Awlad Sulayman tribes in March 2012 killed at least 100 people. By June the Tubu were clashing with the Libyan Shield Brigade that had been sent to restore order. The Tubu and the Awlad Sulayman set upon each other again in 2013 and 2014, while the Qaddadfa Arabs and the Awlad Sulayman clashed in 2012, 2013, and 2014.[20] By July 2015, the Sabha Tubu were involved in new clashes with both Tuareg and Qaddadfa and demanding the expulsion of Awlad Sulayman fighters from Sabha’s Italian-era Elena castle (the former Fortezza Margherita).[21]

Tamenhint airbase, 30 kilometers northeast of Sabha, allowed Qaddafi to project air power into the Sahel and was an important operational base during the conflicts in Chad. The base was occupied by alleged “Qaddafists” in January 2014 who were driven out by government airstrikes and Tubu ground forces, though fighting continued for several days north of Tamenhint.[22]

Salvador Pass

The Salvador Pass lies at the north end of the Manguéni Plateau near the meeting point of Algeria, Niger, and Libya. Remote and unsupervised, the narrow mountain pass is used by well-armed traffickers and rebels to avoid the official crossing at Tummo.[23] Most notable of these is al-Murabitun leader Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who is believed to have used the Pass to flee from French-led forces in early 2013.[24] On the Libyan side, the Pass is nominally held by Tuareg militias that are often reduced to sending in reports of illegal crossings when they are outgunned. In mid-April 2015, the French 2e Régiment étranger de parachutistes (2e REP) met with a detachment of the Nigerien Army and consolidated control of the Pass.[25]

Sarir

The Sarir oil fields (400 kilometers south of Ajdabiya) are among Libya’s most productive and were the scene of heated struggles for control between Qaddafi loyalists and Tubu revolutionaries during the 2011 rebellion. There have since been repeated attacks on the Sarir power station and other facilities, the latest in mid-March 2016 when a suicide bomber and gunman believed to be affiliated with the Islamic State were killed by the Tubu 25th Brigade, affiliated with the Petroleum Facilities Guard (PFG). Other gunmen escaped after damaging power lines, pipelines, and Great Man-Made River facilities.[26] Clashes between Zuwaya gunmen and Tubu guards in 2013 and 2014 caused power shortages in Benghazi and Tripoli.[27]

Hundreds of Tubu fighters from the 25th Brigade and others from the Desert Shield and Martyrs of Um Aranib militias in southwest Libya headed north to Benghazi to join the LNA in their campaign against Islamist groups in Benghazi in 2014.[28] Foreign intervention in Libya could compel these forces to return south to protect local interests with a subsequent reduction of experienced fighters available to combat extremist groups in the north.

Sharara

In the desert outside of Murzuq, 70 kilometers west of Ubari, is the Sharara oil field, Libya’s largest. The area has been the scene of fighting between Tuareg and Tubu groups with production halted repeatedly by armed protesters seizing facilities to press various demands.[29] Al-Sharara and the neighboring al-Fil oil field are guarded by a Tubu-dominated detachment of the PFG that includes Zintanis and a number of Tuareg and Arabs. The PFG shut down al-Fil for a month over unpaid salaries in May-June 2014.[30]

In November 2014, a Tuareg militia attacked Zintani members of the PFG, closing the field and depriving Libya of a third of its production. The Misratan 3rd Force operating out of Tamenhint Airbase joined forces with local Tuareg fighters and retook Sharara on November 7, 2014.[31]

Tazirbu

This group of 14 small oases, located roughly 250 kilometers northwest of Kufra, was formerly the seat of the Tubu Sultan, though the Zuwaya now dominate. Its importance today lies in the 120 wells just south of Tazirbu that pump aquifer water to Benghazi and Sirte through the GMR.

Tummo Pass

South of the Plateau du Manguéni is the Tummo Pass, the official but rarely attended border post between Niger and southwest Libya. In Niger, some 80 kilometers south of the Tummo Pass, French Legionnaires and Nigerien troops have set up a forward operating base and airstrip to conduct surveillance and interception operations at Fort Madama, a colonial-era French fort.[32] Like the Salvador Pass, control of this crossing would be essential to prevent the entry or escape of extremist groups in the event of a foreign intervention, though the French presence has gone a long way to secure the Pass.

Castle - UbariDamage suffered to Ubari’s Ottoman-era Castle during fighting in January 2016

Ubari

A town of 40,000 people, Ubari is in the Targa valley, 200 kilometers west of Sabha. The Tuareg majority were generally cordial with the Arab and Tubu minorities until the arrival of a Libya Dawn-affiliated Tuareg militia from outside the area in 2014. Local Tuareg who had refused to join the group were nevertheless pulled into the fighting when the militia clashed with armed Tubu groups, splitting the town into two parts. After a year of fighting and hundreds of deaths, a peace agreement ended 14 months of conflict in November 2015, but sporadic clashes continue.[33]

The latest of these involved bombardments by Tuareg occupying the Tendi Mountain high ground that damaged Tubu neighborhoods and Ubari’s historic Ottoman castle (now used as a fort by Tubu fighters).[34]

A former military compound in Ubari is used as a base for the Border Guards Brigade 315, an Islamist militia led by Tuareg Salafist scholar and former Ansar al-Din deputy commander Ahmad Omar al-Ansari who operates a religious school in a slum area of Ubari.[35] Brigade 315 serves simultaneously as a border guard and an alleged conduit for extremists crossing into Libya.[36]

Al-Uwaynat

Al-Uwaynat is a mountain complex of 1,200 square kilometers situated at the meeting point of Libya, Egypt, and Sudan and is best known for several small springs in the midst of an otherwise waterless desert. During the Libyan revolution, Sudan set up a military support base for the Libyan rebels at Uwaynat.[37] Today, the route has been revived for commercial traffic, smuggling, human trafficking, tourist expeditions, and the movement of armed groups. Sudan has long feared the entry of al-Qa`ida or Islamic State groups into the unstable Darfur region through this route and would almost certainly bring strong forces into the area to prevent the infiltration of radical Islamists seeking to escape a foreign military intervention in Libya.

Al-Wigh Air Force Base

Strategically located close to the borders with Niger, Chad, and Algeria, al-Wigh is currently held by the Tubu Um al-Aranib Martyrs’ Brigade. In 2013, Prime Minister Ali Zidan rejected rumors al-Wigh was being used for French Special Forces operations or as a base for terrorist operations in Algeria.

Southern Libya’s Borders

Libya’s southern borders include those with Algeria (982 kilometers), Chad (1,055 kilometers), Sudan (383 kilometers), and Niger (354 kilometers). Most of the southern tribes have benefitted slightly, if at all from Libya’s enormous oil wealth, leading to competition over the cross-border smuggling trade that often takes on ethnic or tribal overtones. Sudan and Libya created a joint border patrol in 2013, but Libya pulled out of the joint patrols in the summer of 2015.[38] In the absence of government authority, control of Libya’s southern borders has been divided between Tubu and Tuareg militias. In the west, the Tuareg control the borders with Algeria and Niger as far as the Tummo border crossing; past that the borders with Niger, Chad, and Sudan are controlled by the Tubu as far as Jabal Uwaynat.[39]

Whether Tuareg or Tubu, border patrols in the south are unfunded by Libyan authorities. As a consequence, the patrols claim to focus on “social evils,” such as arms, narcotics, and militants, allowing fuel, subsidized food, cigarettes, and illegal migrants to pass for a fee. Tubu patrols on the western border complain that they receive no response from government authorities when they report terrorist infiltrations, resulting in easy entry to Southen Libya for jihadist groups operating in the Sahel/Sahara region.[40]

Conclusion

 A limited deployment in northern Libya could easily trigger violence in southern Libya that would destabilize the nation as a whole through the uncontrolled infiltration of extremists through a region already notorious for a perilous combination of vital economic installations and a general absence of security. Foreign intervention in a region historically hostile to foreign rule and where the state is already regarded as weak and unsympathetic to local aspirations could also encourage southern separatism. Various groups in the south have pondered the possibility of independence, namely the Tubu centered around Kufra, the Tuareg in the southwestern border regions, and some Arab factions in the Fezzan, alarming Libya’s southern and western neighbors where such movements have been active for decades.

A January Islamic State video statement threatened attacks on “al-Sarir, Jalu, and al-Kufra,”[41] but religious extremism has so far played only a small role in southern Libya’s political and ethnic violence. Porous borders present the possibility of Libya’s south acting as a gateway for jihadis from the Sahara/Sahel to pour into Libya to confront a foreign intervention, while Islamic State fighters might move south from Sirte in the event of an intervention, either with the intention of attacking vital installations, connecting with other Islamist groups in Libya’s southwest, or escaping into the Sahel.

Until the establishment of a representative unity government in Tripoli with the ability to deploy recognized national security units instead of ethnically or regionally based militias, vital southern oil and water infrastructure will present an enticing target for attacks by terrorists, rebels, or criminal organizations.

Dr. Andrew McGregor is the director of Aberfoyle International Security, a Toronto-based agency specializing in the analysis of security issues in Africa and the Islamic world. 

 

Citations

[1] “Majority of HoR members declare approval of national unity government but want Article 8 deleted,” Libya Herald, April 21, 2016.

[2] Missy Ryan and Sudarsan Raghavan, “Another Western Intervention in Libya Looms,” Washington Post, April 3, 2016; “France says be ready for Libya intervention,” Agence France-Presse, April 1, 2016; Mark Hookham and Tim Ripley, “SAS adds steel to Libya’s anti-Isis militias,” Sunday Times, April 17, 2016; Nathalie Guibert,”La France mène des opérations secrètes en Libye,” Le Monde, February 24, 2016; Daniele Raineri, “Esclusiva: una manciata di Forze speciali italiane è in Libia, Il Foglio, December 3, 2015; “Libia: dai parà agli incursori, le forze speciali italiane,” Agenzia Giornalistica Italia, March 4, 2016.

[3] “Presidency Council must go ‘very quickly’ to Tripoli and rebuild army for battle against IS: if not, ‘others’ will carry out the fight: Kobler,” Libya Herald, March 22, 2016.

[4] Seraj Essul and Elabed Elraqubi, “Man-Made River Cut: Western Libya could face water shortage,” Libya Herald, September 3, 2013; “Libya ex-spy chief’s daughter Anoud al-Senussi released,” BBC, September 8, 2013.

[5] Sebastian Luening and Jonathan Craig, “Re-evaluation of the petroleum potential of the Kufra Basin (SE Libya, NE Chad): Does the source rock barrier fall?” Marine and Petroleum Geology 16:7 (November 1999): pp. 693-718; U.S. Department of Energy, “Technically Recoverable Shale Oil and Shale Gas Resources: Libya,” September 2015; Omar Badawi Abu-elbashar, “Recent Exploration Activities in NW Sudan Reveal the Potential of South Kufra Basin in Chad,” American Association of Petroleum Geologists European Region’s 2nd International Conference held in Marrakech, Morocco, October 5-7, 2011.

[6] For more on tribal dynamics in southern Libya, see Geoffrey Howard, “Libya’s South: The Forgotten Frontier,” CTC Sentinel 7:11 (2014).

[7] John Irish, “France says Southern Libya now a ‘viper’s nest’ for Islamist militants,” Reuters, April 7, 2014.

[8] Wolfram Lacher, “Libya’s Fractious South and Regional Instability,” Small Arms Survey Dispatch no. 3, February 2014.

[9] “Gaddafi Attack on Libyan Oasis Town,” Agence France-Presse, May 1, 2011.

[10] “Libya’s Toubou tribal leader raises separatist bid,” Agence France-Presse, March 27, 2012.

[11] Sam Dagher and Charles Levinson, “Tiny Kingdom’s Huge Role in Libya Draws Concern,” Wall Street Journal, October 17, 2011.

[12] “Khalifa Haftar-linked Darfur rebels are behind Al-Kufra attack, official sources confirm,” Libya Observer, September 23, 2015; “Al-Kufra Clashes,” Libyan Observer, September 20, 2015.

[13] “Heavy clashes in southeast Libya, 30 killed,” Reuters, February 6, 2016; “Clashes in Libya: Sudan, Darfur rebels exchange accusations,” Radio Dabanga, February 12, 2016; “Ten more Darfur rebels killed in Libya,” Sudan Tribune, February 6, 2016; “SLM-Minnawi denies clashes in southern Libya,” Sudan Tribune, February 7, 2016.

[14] Ajnadin Mustafa, “Sewehli tells Serraj to liberate Sirte as Haftar gathers forces and Presidency Council warns of possible IS oilfield attacks,” Libya Herald, April 25, 2016.

[15] “Dignity commander claims Ansar and Libyan Brotherhood linked to ISIS,” Libya Herald, September 29, 2014; “Sudan denies arms being shifted between Darfur and Libya,” Sudan Tribune, March 8, 2015.

[16] “Three killed by Qaddafi sympathisers in Revolution Day clashes in Sebha,” Libya Herald, February 17, 2016.

[17] François de Labarre, “Le chef des Toubous libyens le promet ‘Nous combattons Al Qaïda,’” Paris Match, January 20, 2014.

[18] Lacher.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Jamal Adel and Seraj Essul, “Fresh communal clashes in Sabha,” Libya Herald, June 2, 2014.

[21] Mustafa Khalifa, “Four killed in further Tebu-Tuareg clashes in Sebha,” Libya Herald, July 13, 2015.

[22] Jamal Adel, “Libya: Fighting between Misratan forces and Qaddafi supporters at Sebha airbase,” Libya Herald, January 23, 2014; Jamal Adel, “Tamenhint airbase remains under Qaddafi loyalist control as Sebha clashes continue,” Libya Herald, January 23, 2014.

[23] Yvan Guichaoua, “Tuareg Militancy and the Sahelian Shockwaves of the Libyan Revolution,” in Peter Cole and Brian McQuinn eds., The Libyan Revolution and its Aftermath (London, U.K.: Hurst, 2014), p. 324.

[24] Paul Cruickshank and Tim Lister, “Video shows return of jihadist commander ‘Mr. Marlboro’,” CNN, September 11, 2013; “Extremists flock to Libya’s Salvador Pass to train,” Agence France-Presse, October 27, 2014.

[25] Video of the drop taken by a Harfang drone is available on YouTube. See also Andrew McGregor: “French Foreign Legion Operation in the Strategic Passe de Salvador,” Tips and Trends: The AIS African Security Report, May 30, 2015.

[26] “AGOCO officials inspect Sarir damage, pay respect to victims,” Libya Herald, March 21, 2016.

[27] “Attack on Sarir power station: report,” Libya Herald, March 14, 2016.

[28] Jamel Adel, “Tebu troops head to Benghazi to reinforce Operation Dignity,” Libya Herald, September 10, 2014.

[29] “Libya’s El Sharara oilfield ‘shut in,’” Reuters, November 6, 2014.

[30] Jamal Adel, “Production stops at El Fil oilfield,” Libya Herald, November 9, 2014.

[31] Jamal Adel, “Production at Sharara oilfield collapses following attacks,” Libya Herald, November 6, 2014; Jamal Adel, “Sharara oilfield taken over by joint Misratan/Tuareg force,” Libya Herald, November 8, 2014; Saleh Sarrar: “Libya’s Biggest Oil Field to Resume Pumping by Tomorrow,” Bloomberg News, November 9, 2014.

[32] Video of 2e REP in the Salvador Pass is available on YouTube.

[33] “Tebu and Tuareg sign peace deal in Qatar to end Ubari conflict,” Libya Channel, November 25, 2015.

[34] “Historic Obari castle damaged in renewed Tebu-Tuareg fighting,” Libya Herald, January 12, 2016; “More deadly fighting in Obari,” Libya Herald, January 15, 2015.

[35] Mathieu Galtier, “Southern borders wide open,” Libya Herald, September 20, 2013; Rebecca Murray, “In a Southern Libya Oasis, a Proxy War Engulfs Two Tribes,” Vice News, June 7, 2015.

[36] Nicholas A. Heras, “New Salafist Commander Omar al-Ansari Emerges in Southwest Libya,” Jamestown Foundation Militant Leadership Monitor 5:12 (December 31, 2014). 

[37] Rebecca Murray, “Libya’s Tebu: Living in the Margins,” in Peter Cole and Brian McQuinn eds., The Libyan Revolution and its Aftermath (London, U.K.: Hurst, 2014), p. 311.

[38] “Sudanese army says Libya pulled out its troops from the joint border force,” Sudan Tribune, August 2, 2015.

[39] Jamil Abu Assi, “Libye: Panorama des Forces en Présence,” Bulletin de Documentation N°13, Centre Français de Recherche sur le Renseignement, March 13, 2015.

[40] Maryline Dumas, “La situation des frontières au sud est toujours critique,” Inter Press News Services Agency, September 13, 2014.

[41] Ayman al-Warfalli, “Militants attack storage tanks near Libya’s Ras Lanuf oil terminal,” Reuters, January 21, 2016.

Back to the Creeks: A Profile of Niger Delta Militant Government Ekpemupolo, a.k.a. “Tompolo”

Andrew McGregor

May 30, 2016

tompolo 3Government Ekpemupolo, a.k.a. “Tompolo”

Just as the global oil industry begins to show slight signs of recovery, Nigeria, one of its biggest producers (as well as one of its most oil-dependent nations) has been struck yet again by a wave of crippling attacks on its oil infrastructure. At the heart of this disruption, according to many, is a long-time Niger Delta militant, Government Ekpemupolo, better known as “Tompolo.” Others, however, especially those from his own powerful Ijaw ethnic group (14 million people and Nigeria’s fourth-largest ethnic group), maintain that the (alleged) ex-militant is the victim of political and ethnic machinations. Currently a fugitive from serious corruption charges, Tompolo now tries to manipulate his destiny through messages sent from his hideouts in the oil-rich creeks of the Niger Delta, a nearly impenetrable and insurgent-friendly region where creeks rather than roads often provide the only means of access.

Early Career

Tompolo was born in 1970 in the village of Okerenkoko, part of the Gbaramatu Kingdom in Delta State. The future militant’s father, Chief Thomas Osei Ekpempulo, was a successful businessman providing services to the local oil industry and Tompolo followed in his footsteps despite failing to complete his secondary school education. Reputed to be only semi-literate, Tompolo freely admits that he has other people do “anything concerning paper work” (Sahara Reporters, August 16, 2012).

Like many of his fellow Ijaw youth, Tompolo first took up arms in 1997 when the Nigerian government transferred the headquarters of the Warri South Local Government from Ijaw-dominated territory to a site dominated by a rival ethnic group, the Itsekiri. In what became known as “the Warri Crisis,” Tompolo established a reputation as a fierce fighter and capable leader. Newly politicized, Tompolo then became active in Niger Delta militancy directed at remedying the alleged exploitation of the Delta region and its peoples (particularly the Ijaw) by international oil firms and the Nigerian government.

One outcome of the Warri Crisis was the formation of the Federation of Niger Delta Ijaw Communities (FNDIC) under the leadership of Chief Oboko Bello. The movement was intended to advocate for Ijaw autonomy and rights and Tompolo’s appointment as the FNDIC mobilization officer provided a springboard for the young activist. [1]

Tompolo’s personal wealth and reputation as a fighter and follower of Egbesu (the Ijaw god of war) soon enabled him to take a leadership position amongst the Delta militants. A series of successful strikes against foreign-owned oil installations allowed Tompolo to begin collecting “security fees” from firms eager to avoid bombings and shutdowns, though he continued to steal oil by breaking into Shell and Chevron pipelines (an activity known locally as “bunkering”) (Sahara Reporters, September 10, 2013) Bitter fighting in the creeks between Ijaw militants and Nigeria’s Joint Task Force (JTF – a multi-agency special purpose security force) took a considerable toll on helpless civilians caught in the middle while bunkering and attacks on pipelines flooded the creeks with oil, creating environmental devastation. Tompolo purchased a certain amount of indulgence by investing some of his considerable wealth in local health and education infrastructure, while behind the scenes that same wealth was making him an influential force in local Ijaw politics.

The growth of Tompolo’s force allowed him to assist in the creation of new movements such as al-Haji Mujahid Dokubo-Asari’s Niger Delta People’s Volunteer Force (NDPVF) through the provision of arms and other assistance [2] (Sahara Reporters, August 16, 2012).

MEND Leader

In 2006, Tompolo gathered the leading Delta militants at his Camp 5 headquarters in Okerenkoko to form a united front (though maintaining a decentralized command) known as the Movement for the Emancipation of the Niger Delta (MEND). Though Tompolo assumed the role of founder, communications were put in the hands of the better-educated Henry Okah. MEND immediately opened up new revenue streams by kidnapping foreign oil workers in the Delta while further attacks on the oil infrastructure led to a 50% decline in Nigeria’s much-needed oil revenue.

Having carved out a section of the Delta under his personal control, Tompolo demonstrated his power in 2007 when he granted an audience at Camp 5 to then-Vice President Goodluck Jonathan, whose high-ranking escort was compelled to disarm before the meeting could take place (This Day [Lagos], February 8, 2016).

After Tompolo’s men executed 11 soldiers in May 2009, JTF commander Brigadier-General Sarkin Yaki Bello declared Tompolo the most wanted man in Nigeria, but repeated raids on his camps failed to apprehend the elusive militant (Sahara Reporters, August 16, 2012).

The Amnesty Era

On October 4 2009, Tompolo, like many other leading Delta militants, accepted inclusion in the amnesty program advanced by the late Nigerian president, Umaru Yar’Adua, a Muslim Fulani northerner from Katsina State and leader of the People’s Democratic Party (PDP). Tompolo led some 1500 followers into a disarmament camp at Oporoza, all of whom were to be provided with varying levels of assistance in remaking their lives under the terms of the amnesty program.

When Yar’Adua died from an illness in May 2010, he was succeeded by his Vice-President and PCP number two, Goodluck Jonathan, a Christian Ijaw from Bayelsa State in the Niger Delta region.  One result of this unexpected development was a dramatic increase in funds flowing to ex-militant leaders through the amnesty program, allowing many of them to build large mansions and live conspicuously wealthy lifestyles. By 2010, it was reported that Tompolo was making good money assisting the JTF in hunting down other militants still operating in the creeks (Daily Independent [Lagos], April 4, 2015)

Tomposo’s greatest windfall came in November 2011 when he was awarded a 10-year, $103.4 million government contract to provide security for oil facilities in the Delta region. Under the terms of the contract, Tompolo’s Global West Vessel Specialists Ltd (GWVS) would provide services to the Nigerian Maritime Administration and Safety Agency (NIMASA) with a fleet of 20 ships purchased through a public-private-partnership. The NIMASA Director-General who arranged the deal was Dr. Ziakede Patrick Akpobolokem, a friend of Tompolo.

In 2012, Tompolo acquired a small navy purchased from Norway through a British shell company after Norwegian official failed to vet the purchaser, a post-office box in the name of CAS Global.  The private fleet consisted of six Hauk-class missile torpedo boats and the Horten, a 1700 tonne support ship. The sale was disclosed by an investigative reporter two years later and created a political scandal in Norway (Dagbladet [Oslo], June 14, 2014; Maritime First [Lagos], May 5, 2015). Tompolo then added a Canadian-built Lear Jet to his holdings for the sum of $13.3 million in August 2013.

In February 2015, the NIMASA Director-General held a press conference to state that GWVS was involved solely in the provision and maintenance of platforms and had “nothing to do with bearing arms and ammunitions and chasing criminals, bandits, pirates or whatever.” Nonetheless, the Director-General admitted that NIMASA’s relationship with GWVS had brought “wonderful benefits” by bringing in criminals, controlling pollution and handling safety issues (Primetime Reporters [Lagos], February 24, 2015).

The Downfall

Tompolo’s world began to change following the defeat of his patron, Goodluck Jonathan, in the March 2015 presidential election. The new president was Muhammadu Buhari, a retired Major-General, northern Muslim and leader of the All Progressives Congress (APC) who was willing to extend the amnesty program to December 2017, but cut the flow of patronage money to the south.

As part of an anti-corruption initiative introduced by Buhari’s government, Nigeria’s Economic and Financial Crimes Commission (EFCC) charged Tompolo, Akpobolokemi and several others with 40 counts of corrupt practices committed between 2012 and 2015 involving $171 million, but the ex-militant went underground and failed to appear in court on February 14, 2016, leading to an order for his arrest and the seizure of his assets. Tompolo insists all the questionable transactions were approved by the federal government and that the real reason he is being prosecuted is his refusal to join the ruling APC (The Nation [Lagos], December 12). Further charges of attempting to defraud the government were laid in mid-April against Akpobolokemi and Tompolo (the latter in absentia) (Punch [Lagos], April 18).

Tompolo filed a counter-suit through his lawyer seeking a stay in the proceedings against him; the case will be heard by the Federal High Court in Lagos on June 17 (Daily Post [Lagos], May 19). Tompolo blames most of his troubles on Chief Ayiri Emami (a.k.a. Akulagba), an Itsekiri business tycoon, prominent APC member and business rival in the pipeline protection business; “Ayiri Emami and others accusing me of the destruction of oil facilities in part of the Delta are simply looking for relevance, recognition and pipeline surveillance contracts.” (Sahara Reporters, May 16).

Emergence of the Niger Delta Avengers

A new and unexpected campaign of bombings and attacks on oil infrastructure in the Niger Delta began almost immediately after charges were laid against Tompolo. Claiming responsibility was a previously unknown group using the name Niger Delta Avengers (NDA). Gas and oil pipelines were blown up as was Chevron Nigeria’s Okan platform, an attack that impacted roughly 35,000 bpd of Chevron’s net crude oil production (Sahara Reporters, January 15; Channels Television, May 23; AFP, May 7; Center for International Maritime Security, May 5). The Greek-owned oil tanker MV Leon Dias was hijacked on January 29, with militants demanding the release of Nnamdi Kanu, leader of the separatist Indigenous People of Biafra (IPOB). The militants abandoned the ship two days later, taking five crewmen with them as hostages (International Business Times, February 4). Most damaging was the early March destruction of the massive Forcados 48-inch underwater crude oil pipeline, resulting in the loss of 300,000 b.p.d., or $12 million per day (This Day [Lagos], March 10).

Tompolo 2Niger Delta Avengers Attack on a Chevron Pipeline (Daily Post)

The NDA has released a stream of grammatically unsound press releases, usually signed by their spokesman “Colonel” Mudoch Agbinibo. One such statement expressed respect for the previous generation of militant leaders in the Niger Delta, but warned that if they stood in their way, “we will crash you.” The group also emphasizes that they are not solely an Ijaw movement, but also include Isekiri in command positions (Niger Delta Avengers.com, May 12).

The NDA has singled out Chevron as a target, claiming it was ready to take the fight to the firm’s tank farm and headquarters in Lekki (Lagos State) (Niger Delta Avengers.com, May 11). Among its main concerns is the alleged distribution of 90% of the Delta’s oil blocs to individuals from northern Nigeria, a problem the movement suggests it will remedy by demanding the shut-down of operations in these blocs, otherwise they will be “blown up.” The movement further promised that it would unveil “our currency, flag, passport, our ruling council and our territory” by October 2016. (Niger Delta Avengers.com, May 12).

Hidden Hand behind the Niger Delta Avengers?

Given the timing and Tompolo’s fugitive status, suspicion quickly devolved on the ex-militant as the hidden hand behind the NDA.

One of Tompolo’s former MEND colleagues, Africanus Ukparasia (a.k.a. General Africa, now an APC member), accused Tompolo and another former MEND Leader, High Chief Bibopiri Ajube (a.k.a. General Shoot-at-Sight) of organizing the attacks as well as assembling a fleet of ships and men to deter federal prosecution efforts (Sahara Reporters, January 26). Elsewhere, a statement issued by “General” Ossy Babawere of the Lagos and Ogun State-based Forest Soldiers militant group claimed they had declined a request from Tompolo for the group to initiate bombings and pipeline vandalism in the Delta region and instead urged the militant leader to surrender himself for prosecution (Daily Post [Lagos], January 31).

The Egbesu Mightier Fraternity, a militant group dormant since 2011, issued a demand on May 19 for the restoration of Tompolo’s seized bank accounts while claiming: “Tompolo is not responsible for the bombing of oil and gas pipelines in the region. Egbesu Mightier Fraternity is part of the bombings. We are responsible” (Vanguard, May 19).

Tompolo has repeatedly tried to dissociate himself from the NDA, suggesting his accusers are simply looking for “pipeline surveillance contracts” (Vanguard [Lagos], May 16). In mid-March, NIMASA took over GWVS’s fleet of 20 ships, explaining: “These ships are mounted with guns… We don’t want a situation where [they] will be used against the Nigerian state” (Daily Trust [Lagos], March 16).

On April 29, Tompolo sent a warning to President Buhari that some members of his own APC party in Bayelsa and Delta states “are not happy with him because they have not gotten anything from him after almost a year since he assumed office by way of appointments and contracts. Therefore, some of them are involved in nefarious activities in the oil and gas sector…” (Sahara Reporters, April 29).

In a May 2 statement, Tompolo laid the blame for the NDA attacks on oil servicing companies seeking repair contracts and enemies he made “protecting oil facilities”; “It is unfair to link me with this new militant group, which I do not agree with in terms of its philosophy, ideology and mode of operation. I am not part of the Niger Delta Avengers” (The National [Lagos], May 2). Tompolo’s repudiation of the group did not go down well with the NDA and an apology was demanded for this “slap in the face” along with a threat that if such was not issued in three days, the NDA would attack energy infrastructure in Tompolo’s home region. Tompolo refused to apologize and three days later the NDA attacked gas and oil facilities in the Gbaramatu Kingdom (Sahara Reporters, May 5; Niger Delta Avengers.com, May 3; Bella Naija, May 9).

In a May 10 open letter addressed to President Buhari, Tompolo suggested that the EFCC charges against him were inspired by ethnic bias on the part of other “political actors” from the Delta region who would be glad to see the Gbaramatu Kingdom and “by extension, Ijawland” ravaged during the search for him. Tompolo reminded the president that there was nothing criminal about his support for ex-president Jonathan; “I did so out of conviction not because I hate you or because you are a northerner” (The Whistler [Abuja], May 10).

In response to NDA activity, the Nigerian military began putting pressure on illegal refineries and bunkering operations, particularly in the Gbaramatu Kingdom and the Warri South West Local Government Area (Daily Post [Lagos], April 26). The townspeople of Oporoza (Gbaramatu Kingdom) have complained the hunt for Tompolo has led to incursions of heavily armed troops “looking for an excuse to burn out town down” (YNaija, May 15). According to Bibi Oduku, the chief of the Riverine Security force, it is the people of Gbaramatu Kingdom who make up the membership of the NDA, suggesting that “It is not possible for any militia groups to carry out attacks in Gbaramatu without the permission or blessings of the said ex-militant leader [i.e. Tompolo] (Vanguard, May 12).

Conclusion

According to the Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC), Nigeria loses 800,000 barrels of crude oil a day to pipeline vandalism and bunkering and does not have enough vessels to properly patrol the Delta region (The Eagle Online, May 23).

Given Nigeria’s oil-related economic crisis, it is perhaps unsurprising that President Buhari is questioning the value provided by employing ex-militants such as Tompolo as private security forces when the state is already paying for a police and military. When ex-militants flaunt the wealth gained by rebellion and subsequent reconciliation with the government and engage in corrupt practices to further fleece a government that has offered re-entry to society, it rots the core of the public administration, does little to discourage Delta youth from “going to the Creeks” (i.e. rebellion), and nothing at all to further the environmental or political interests of their own communities. In some sense it is irrelevant whether Tompolo is using the NDA to manipulate his own legal proceedings – it is the sum of his career that encourages Delta youth to use violence to further their own aims.

Notes

  1. Patricia Taft and Nate Haken: Violence in Nigeria: Patterns and Trends, Springer, 2015, p.15.
  2. For Asari-Dokubo and the NDPVF see Andrew McGregor, “A Profile of the Niger Delta’s al-Haji Mujahid Dokubo-Asari,” Militant Leadership Monitor, Part One; March 2013; Part Two, April 2013.

 

This article first appeared in the May 2016 Militant Leadership Monitor

Islamic Kingdom vs. Islamic State: Assessing the Effectiveness of a Saudi-led Counter-Terrorist Army

Andrew McGregor

April 16, 2016

After taking the throne in January, the new Saudi regime of King Salman bin Abdulaziz al-Saud seems determined to shake off the perceived lethargy of the Saudi royals, presenting a more vigorous front against a perceived Shi’a threat in the Gulf with the appointment of former Interior Minister Muhammad bin Nayef as Crown Prince and Salman’s son Muhammad as Minister of Defense and second in line to the throne. To contain Shiite expansion in the Gulf region, the Saudis created a coalition of Muslim countries last year to combat Yemen’s Zaydi Shiite Houthi movement, which had displaced the existing government and occupied Yemen’s capital in 2014. Assessing the military performance of this coalition is useful in projecting the performance of an even larger Saudi-led “counter-terrorist” coalition designed to intervene in Syria and elsewhere.

Saudi Border PostSaudi Border Post Overlooking Yemen

As a demonstration of the united military will of 20 majority Sunni nations (excluding Bahrain, which has a Shi’a majority but a Sunni royal family), the Saudi-led Operation Northern Thunder military exercise gained wide attention during its run from February 14 to March 10 (Middle East Monitor, March 3, 2016).[1] The massive exercise involved the greatest concentration of troops and military equipment in the Middle East since the Gulf War. However, Saudi ambitions run further to the creation of an anti-terrorism (read anti-Shi’a) coalition of 35 Muslim nations that is unlikely to ever see the light of day as conceived. Questions were raised regarding the true intent of this coalition when it became clear Shi’a-majority Iran and Iraq were deliberately excluded, as was Lebanon’s Shi’a Hezbollah movement.

Coalition Operations in Yemen

A Saudi-led coalition launched Operation Decisive Storm in Yemen on March 26, 2015 as a means of reversing recent territorial gains by the Zaydi Shi’a Houthi movement, securing the common border and restoring the government of internationally recognized president Abd Rabu Mansur al-Hadi, primarily by means of aerial bombardment.

Nine other nations joined the Saudi-coalition; the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Sudan, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and Senegal, the latter being the only non-Arab League member. Senegal’s surprising participation was likely the result of promises of financial aid; Senegal’s parliament was told the 2,100 man mission was aimed at “protecting and securing the holy sites of Islam,” Mecca and Madinah (RFI, March 12, 2015).

Despite having the largest army in the coalition, Egypt’s ground contributions appear to have been minimal, with the nation still wary of entanglement in Yemen after the drubbing its expeditionary force took from Royalist guerrillas in Yemen’s mountains during the 1962-1970 civil war, a campaign that indirectly damaged Egypt’s performance in the 1973 Ramadan War against Israel. The Egyptians have instead focused on contributing naval ships to secure the Bab al-Mandab southern entrance to the Red Sea, a strategic priority for both Egypt and the United States.

With support from the UK and the United States, the Saudi-led intervention was seen by Iran, Russia and Gulf Shiite leaders as a violation of international law; more important, from an operational perspective, was the decision of long-time military ally Pakistan to take a pass on a Saudi invitation to join the conflict (Reuters, April 10, 2015).

Operation Decisive Storm was declared over on April 21, 2015, to be replaced the next day with Operation Restoring Hope. Though the new operation was intended to have a greater political focus and a larger ground component, the aerial and naval bombing campaign and U.S.-supported blockade of rebel-held ports continued.

The failure of airstrikes alone to make significant changes in military facts on the ground was displayed once again in the Saudi-led air campaign. A general unconcern for collateral damage, poor ground-air coordination (despite Western assistance in targeting) and a tendency to strike any movement of armed groups managed to alienate the civilian population as well as keep Yemeni government troops in their barracks rather than risk exposure to friendly fire in the field (BuzzFeed, April 2, 2015).  At times, the airstrikes have dealt massive casualties to non-military targets, including 119 people killed in an attack on a market in Hajja province in March 2016 and a raid on a wedding party in September 2015 that killed 131 people (Guardian, March 17, 2016).

While coalition operations have killed some 3,000 militants, the death of an equal number of civilians, the use of cluster munitions and the destruction of infrastructure, mosques, markets, heritage buildings, residential neighborhoods, health facilities, schools and other non-military targets constitute a serious mistake in counter-insurgency operations. Interruptions to the delivery of food, fuel, water and medical services have left many Yemenis prepared to support whomever is able to provide essential services and a modicum of security.

A Muslim Army or an Army of Mercenaries?

When the population of Germany’s small states began to grow in the late 18th century, the rulers of duchies and principalities such as Hesse, Hanover, Brunswick found it both expedient and profitable to rent out their small but highly-trained armies to Great Britain (whose own army was extremely small) for service in America, India, Austria, Scotland, and Ireland. Similarly, a number of Muslim-majority nations appear to be contributing troops to the Saudi-led coalition in return for substantial financial favors from the Saudi Kingdom.

Khartoum’s severance of long-established military and economic relations with Iran has been followed by a much cozier and financially beneficial relationship with Saudi Arabia (much needed after the loss of South Sudan’s oilfields). Sudan committed 850 troops (out of a pledged 6,000) and four warplanes to the fighting in Yemen; like the leaders of other coalition states, President Omar al-Bashir justified the deployment in locally unchallengeable terms of religious necessity – the need to protect the holy places of Mecca and Madinah, which are nonetheless not under any realistic threat from Houthi forces (Sudan Tribune, March 15, 2016).

Khartoum was reported to have received a $1 billion deposit from Qatar in April 2015 and another billion in August 2015 from Saudi Arabia, followed by pledges of Saudi financing for a number of massive Sudanese infrastructure projects (Gulf News, August 13, 2015; East African [Nairobi], October 31, 2015; Radio Dabanga, October 4, 2015). Sudanese commitment to the Yemen campaign was also rewarded with $5 billion worth of military assistance from Riyadh in February, much of which will be turned against Sudan’s rebel movements and help ensure the survival of President Bashir, wanted by the International Criminal Court for genocide and crimes against humanity (Sudan Tribune, February 24, 2016). Some Sudanese troops appear to have been deployed against Houthi forces in the highlands of Ta’iz province, presumably using experience gained in fighting rebel movements in Sudan’s Nuba Hills region (South Kordofan) and Darfur’s Jabal Marra mountain range.

The UN’s Somalia-Eritrea Monitoring Group (SEMG) cited “credible information” this year that Eritrean troops were embedded in UAE formations in Yemen, though this was denied by Eritrea’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. (Geeska Afrika Online [Asmara], February 23). The SEMG also reported that Eritrea was allowing the Arab coalition to use its airspace, land territory and waters in the anti-Houthi campaign in return for fuel and financial compensation. [2] Somalia accepted a similar deal in April 2015 (Guardian, April 7, 2015).

UAE troops, mostly from the elite Republican Guard (commanded by Austrian Mike Hindmarsh) have performed well in Yemen, particularly in last summer’s battle for Aden; according to Brigadier General Ahmad Abdullah Turki, commander of Yemen’s Third Brigade: “Our Emirati brothers surprised us with their high morale and unique combat skills,” (Gulf News, December 5, 2015). The UAE’s military relies on a large number of foreign advisers at senior levels, mostly Australians (Middle East Eye, December 23, 2015). Hundreds of Colombian mercenaries have been reported fighting under UAE command, with the Houthis reporting the death of six plus their Australian commander (Saba News Agency [Sana’a], December 8, 2015; Colombia Reports [Medellin], October 26, 2015; Australian Associated Press, December 8, 2015).

There is actually little to be surprised about in the coalition’s use of mercenaries, a common practice in the post-independence Gulf region. A large portion of Saudi Arabia’s combat strength and officer corps consists of Sunni Pakistanis, while Pakistani pilots play important roles in the air forces of both Saudi Arabia and the UAE. As well as the Emirates, Oman and Qatar have both relied heavily on mercenaries in their defense forces and European mercenaries played a large role in Royalist operations during North Yemen’s 1962-1970 civil war.

Insurgent Tactics

The Houthis have mounted near-daily attacks on Saudi border defenses, using mortars, Katyusha and SCUD rockets to strike Saudi positions in Najran and Jizan despite Saudi reinforcements of armor, attack helicopters and National Guard units. Little attempt has been made by the Houthis to hold ground on the Saudi side of the border, which would only feed Saudi propaganda that the Shiites are intent on seizing the holy cities of the Hijaz.

When Republican Guard forces loyal to ex-president Ali Abdullah Saleh joined the Houthi rebellion, they brought firepower previously unavailable to the Houthis, including the Russian-made OTR-21 mobile missile system. OTR-21 missiles have been used in at least five major strikes on Saudi or coalition bases, causing hundreds of deaths and many more wounded.

Saudi ArtillerySaudi Artillery Fires on Houthi Positions (Faisal al-Nasser, Reuters)

The Islamic State (IS) has been active in Yemen since its local formation in November 2014. Initially active in Sana’a, the movement has switched its focus to Aden and Hadramawt. IS has used familiar asymmetric tactics in Yemen, assassinating security figures and deploying suicide bombers in bomb-laden vehicles against soft targets such as mosques (which AQAP now refrains from) as well as suicide attacks on military checkpoints that are followed by assaults with small arms. With its small numbers, the group has been most effective in urban areas that offer concealment and dispersal opportunities. Nonetheless, part of its inability to expand appears to lie in the carelessness with which Islamic State handles the lives of its own fighters and the wide dislike of the movement’s foreign (largely Saudi) leadership.

War on al-Qaeda

With control of nearly four governorates, a major port (Mukalla, capital of Hadramawt province) and 373 miles of coastline, al-Qaeda has created a financial basis for its administration by looting banks, collecting taxes on trade and selling oil to other parts of fuel-starved Yemen (an unforeseen benefit to AQAP of the naval blockade). The group displayed its new-found confidence by trying (unsuccessfully) to negotiate an oil export deal with Hadi’s government last October (Reuters, April 8, 2016).

Eliminating al-Qaeda’s presence in Yemen was not a military priority in the Saudi-led campaign until recently, with an attack by Saudi Apache attack helicopters on AQAP positions near Aden on March 13 and airstrikes against AQAP-held military bases near Mukalla that failed to dislodge the group (Reuters, March 13; Xinhua, April 3, 2016).

Perhaps drawing on lessons learned from al-Qaeda’s failed attempt to hold territory in Mali in 2012-2013, AQAP in Yemen has focused less on draconian punishments and the destruction of Islamic heritage sites than the creation of a working administration that provides new infrastructure, humanitarian assistance, health services and a degree of security not found elsewhere in Yemen (International Business Times, April 7, 2016).

Conclusion: A Saudi-led Coalition in Syria?

The Saudis are now intent on drawing down coalition ground operations while initiating new training programs for Yemeni government troops and engaging in “rebuilding and reconstruction” activities (al-Arabiya, March 17, 2016). A ceasefire took hold in Yemen on April 10 in advance of UN-brokered peace talks in Kuwait to begin on April 18.  Signs that a political solution may be at hand in Yemen include Hadi’s appointment of a new vice-president and prime minister, the presence of a Houthi negotiating team in Riyadh and the exclusion of ex-president Saleh from the process, a signal his future holds political isolation rather than a return to leadership (Ahram Online, April 7, 2016).

If peace negotiations succeed in drawing the Houthis into the Saudi camp the Kingdom will emerge with a significant political, if not military, victory, though the royal family will still have an even stronger AQAP to contend with.  Like the Great War, the end of the current war in Yemen appears to be setting the conditions for a new conflict so long as it remains politically impossible to negotiate with AQAP. However, AQAP is taking the initiative to gain legitimacy by testing new names and consolidating a popular administration in regions under its control. Unless current trends are reversed, AQAP may eventually be the first al-Qaeda affiliate to successfully make the shift from terrorist organization to political party.

The cost to the Saudis in terms of cash and their international reputation has been considerable in Yemen, yet Hadi, recently fled to Riyadh, is no closer to ruling than when the campaign began. Sana’a remains under Houthi control and radical Islamists have taken advantage of the intervention to expand their influence. Perhaps in light of this failure, Saudi foreign minister Adl al-Jubayr has suggested the Kingdom now intends only a smaller Special Forces contribution to the fighting in Syria that would focus not on replacing the Syrian regime but rather on destroying Islamic State forces “in the framework of the international coalition” (Gulf News, February 23, 2016). Introducing a larger Saudi-led coalition to the anti-Islamic State campaign in Syria/Iraq without a clear understanding and set of protocols with other parties involved (Iran, Iraq, Russia, Hezbollah, the Syrian Army) could easily ignite a greater conflict rather than contribute to the elimination of the Islamic State. Saudi Arabia is not a disinterested party in the Syrian struggle; it has been deeply involved in providing financial, military and intelligence support to various religiously-oriented militias that operate at odds with groups supported by other interested parties.

The Saudi-led intervention in Yemen has left one of the poorest nations on earth in crisis, with 2.5 million displaced and millions more without access to basic necessities. With Yemen’s infrastructure and heritage left in ruins and none of the coalition’s strategic objectives achieved, it seems difficult to imagine that the insertion into Syria of another Saudi-led coalition would make any meaningful contribution to bringing that conflict to a successful or sustainable end.

Notes

  1. Besides Saudi Arabia, the other nations involved in the exercise included Egypt, Jordan, Senegal, Sudan, Malaysia, Maldives, Mauritania, Mauritius, Morocco, Pakistan, Chad, Tunisia, Djibouti, Comoro Islands and Peninsula Shield Force partners Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates.
  2. Report of the Monitoring Group on Somalia and Eritrea pursuant to Security Council resolution 2182 (2014): Eritrea, October 19, 2015, 3/93, http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/2015/802

 

An edited version of this article appeared in the April 15, 2016 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor under the title: “Saudi Arabia’s Intervention in Yemen Suggests a Troubled Future for the Kingdom’s Anti-Terror Coalition,” http://www.jamestown.org/programs/tm/single/?tx_ttnews[tt_news]=45324&tx_ttnews[backPid]=26&cHash=e2d5de949e926ff3b5d9228dc4b96af7#.VxfvSkdqnIU

 

Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood and the Struggle for Post-Revolutionary Libya: A Profile of Shaykh Ali Muhammad al-Salabi

Andrew McGregor

March 2016

The rise to power of Mu’ammar Qaddafi (1969-2011) in Libya led to major changes in the observation of Islam in a deeply conservative Sunni Muslim North African nation. While establishing Shari’a as the basis of Libyan legislation, Qaddafi sought to disrupt the dominant Sanusiya and other Sufi orders that dominated traditional Islamic worship in Libya. As the Sufi orders were weakened, Qaddafi adopted an unorthodox approach to Islam in which he was uniquely gifted with the ability to interpret the Quran while diminishing the importance of the hadith-s and Sunna. The result was state-imposed “Islamic socialism,” tightly tied to Qaddafi’s poorly received implementation of the Libyan jamhariya (“state of the masses”) as the national political structure. Unwilling to enter into debate over his controversial interpretations of Islam (likely due to his lack of scholarship in this area as well as his personal arrogance), Qaddafi took harsh measures against Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s, plunging many Brothers into grim prisons while driving others into self-exile in Europe and America. Ironically, it was Qaddafi’s repression of Sufist worship that allowed the Muslim Brothers to fill a void in the spiritual and political opposition to Qaddafi during the 2011 revolution. At the forefront of these efforts was a second-generation Muslim Brother, Shaykh Ali Muhammad al-Salabi.

SalabiShaykh Ali Muhammad al-Salabi (Moises Saman, NYT)

The Libyan Ikhwan

The Libyan Muslim Brotherhood was formed in 1949. Prior to the 2011 revolution, membership was traditionally small and heavily focused on professionals, many of whom were based in the West, with Geneva serving as a type of headquarters for the exiled Brothers. Their first post-revolutionary conference on Libyan soil was held in November 2011.

The development of the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood was strongly influenced by the arrival of numerous Ikhwan [“Brothers”] from Egypt following Nasser’s decision to repress the movement after initially cooperating with it. Many of the exiles were academics and access to educational institutions under King Idris exposed many Libyan youth to the Brotherhood’s ideology. Qaddafi’s 1969 coup brought this period to an end, and the movement henceforth developed largely in exile in Europe and the United States. [1]

Officially, the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood is led by Ahmad Abdullah al-Suqi of Misrata, though al-Salabi is a prominent, if unofficial, intellectual and spiritual leader, largely through his international connections, including a close relationship to Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the Brotherhood’s Qatar-based over-all spiritual leader (Libya Herald, October 5, 2015). Hizb al-Adala wa’l-Tamiyya (the Justice and Development Party) is widely considered to be the movement’s political arm in Libya, though party leader Muhammad Sawan (a former political prisoner) insists that the party is “administratively and financially independent of the Muslim Brotherhood” (al-Jazeera, July 3, 2012).

Early Life in the Qaddafi Era

Born in 1963, al-Salabi is the son of a Benghazi banker and Muslim Brotherhood member who was imprisoned for opposing the Qaddafi regime. Under his influence, al-Salabi joined the movement himself while still a youth. At 18-years of age, al-Salabi was sentenced to eight years in Tripoli’s Abu Salim prison in connection to an alleged role in a plot to kill Mu’ammar Qaddafi, though al-Salabi maintains his only crime was praying at the mosque daily and encouraging others to do so (Washington Post, December 9, 2011). [2]

Over 1200 prisoners (mostly but not exclusively Islamists) were massacred in a single day at Abu Salim prison in 1996 (prior to al-Salabi’s incarceration). Mu’ammar’s son, Sa’if al-Islam al-Qaddafi, made efforts to address the still-simmering anger over the Abu Salim massacre by promising an investigation into the still-taboo subject in 2008. With Qaddafi still in power, the resulting probe found few witnesses or participants willing to discuss what orders were given and by whom. Ultimately, it was small-scale protests over the Abu Salim massacre in Benghazi that sparked the Libyan uprising in 2011.

His sentence done, al-Salabi lost little time in leaving Libya in 1998 to take a bachelor’s degree at the Islamic University of Madinah, followed by a master’s degree and a doctorate from Omdurman Islamic University in Sudan.  Ultimately, al-Salabi settled in Qatar, where the regime was supportive of the Muslim Brotherhood so long as it remained uninvolved in domestic politics. Qatar is host to a significant international Muslim Brotherhood community, though the movement does not operate in Qatar itself, the local chapter of the Brotherhood having shut itself down as redundant in 1999 after first expressing its approval of the state’s religious direction and administration (The National [Abu Dhabi], May 18, 2012).

In 2009, al-Salabi served as a mediator between the regime, as represented by Sa’if al-Islam Qaddafi, and still-imprisoned members of the Jama’a al-Islamiya al-Muqatila bi-Libya (Libyan Islamic Fighting Group – LIFG), most of whom were kept under often brutal conditions in Abu Salim prison.

Headed by al-Salabi, funded by Qatar and drawing inspiration from a similar Egyptian effort (Dr. Fadl’s “Revisions”), the initiative used arguments based on Islamic theology to de-radicalize imprisoned militants and resulted in the production of a book written by Abd al-Hakim Belhaj and five other leading Islamist prisoners, Corrective Studies in Understanding Jihad, Enforcement of Morality and Judgement of People. [3]

It was during this time that al-Salabi began to forge a relationship with Belhaj, a still incarcerated LIFG commander. As a result of the initiative, hundreds of Islamists were released from Libyan prisons after swearing not to take up arms against the regime. Belhaj and several other former LIFG commanders became closely associated with al-Salabi after their release, though their oath meant little in the end.

Scholarship

Salabi’s Master’s thesis, Al-Wasatiyah fi al-Qur’an al-Karim (Moderation in the Noble Quran), was published in Arabic in 2001. The work examines the concept of wasatiyah in Islamic epistemology, a concept that calls on Muslims to adopt a balanced approach to Islam that emphasizes fairness and best practices. [4] After completing a doctorate in Islamic studies at Omdurman Islamic University in the Sudan in 1999, al-Salabi produced a series of biographies (often in multiple volumes) of the Prophet Muhammad, the early Caliphs, crusader adversary Salah al-Din al-Ayubi and others.

All these works (save his master’s thesis) have been translated into English by Saudi publishing houses and garnered general scholarly approval in the Islamic community and wide sales internationally, though the Russian seizure of a single copy of al-Salabi’s biography of the first Caliph, Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, led to a 2014 ban on the unexplained claim the work contained “information aimed at justifying suicidal terrorism and armed struggle (jihad) in the path of Allah under the guise of religious ideology”(Forum 18, March 20, 2015).   Al-Salabi also specializes in the study of hadith-s, accounts of the words or actions of the Prophet Muhammad. Prior to his return to Libya in 2011, al-Salabi was best known to other Libyans by his frequent appearances on Qatar-based al-Jazeera TV.

Revolution

Shortly after the anti-Qaddafi revolution began in February 2011, Qatar decided there was an opportunity to increase its influence in Libya, which is similarly blessed with massive reserves of gas, possibly with a mind to expanding the operations of Qatar’s highly successful natural gas firms (Reuters, June 9, 2011). Al-Salabi returned to Libya to act as the point man for shipments of arms from Qatar and the provision of Qatari intelligence and training from Qatari Special Forces operatives. Qatar’s support for the Salabis and the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood appears to have been more practical than ideological in that the chaotic early days of the revolution offered few (if any) other Islamist groups that could claim to be fully organized with an established hierarchy. Nonetheless, Doha’s preference for Islamist revolutionary groups and al-Salabi’s pre-existing relationship with the Qatari regime sealed the deal, and soon both parties began to build a network of influence funded and controlled from Doha.

Saif al-Islam QaddafiSa’if al-Islam Qaddafi (Guardian)

Contacts between al-Salabi and Sa’if al-Islam Qaddafi appear to have continued well into the revolution; in July 2011, Sa’if al-Islam announced the formation of an alliance with al-Salabi against the rebels. Al-Salabi denied the creation of an alliance, but did acknowledge that he had been in continuing talks with regime representatives (AFP, August 4, 2011). In the course of an interview with the New York Times, Sa’if al-Islam Qaddafi described al-Salabi as “the real leader” of the revolution. (NYT, August 3, 2011).

Post-Revolution Politics

Al-Salabi loudly opposed the appointment of Mahmoud Jibril (a close friend of Sa’if al-Islam al-Qaddafi) to head the Transitional National Council (TNC) during the revolution. Though Jibril had proclaimed Shari’a would be the basis of all Libyan legislation, he remained tainted in the Islamists’ eyes by his former role as a major player in the Qaddafi administration. The pressure from al-Salabi, Belhaj and others eventually compelled Jibril to resign on October 23, 2011.  Ironically, one of al-Salabi’s criticisms was that Jibril was going too far by announcing he would ban all non-Islamic finance, with al-Salabi stating simply that “We are part of international banking systems” (Telegraph, November 10, 2011).

Al-Salabi’s vitriolic personal attacks on Jibril quickly backfired, with some of his own supporters melting away as protests against his remarks broke out in Benghazi and Tripoli. Even Abd al-Hakim Belhaj failed to rally behind the Ikhwan leader. Forced to step back until the controversy subsided, earlier predictions that al-Salabi would emerge as Libya’s first post-revolution leader were proved false. [5]

The Islamist Hizb al-Watan (Homeland Party) was founded by al-Salabi and Belhaj in November 2011 (initially under the short-live name National Gathering for Freedom, Justice and Development. According to al-Salabi, the movement was “not an Islamist party, but a nationalist party… but its political agenda respects the general principles of Islam and Libyan culture” (Telegraph, November 10, 2011). Al-Salabi has been publicly consistent on two principles; first, that the movement is democratic and second, that the movement is focused on the implementation of moderate Islamic politics along the lines of the “moderate” Islamist governments of Turkey and Malaysia. He was supported in this by Belhaj, the allegedly reformed militant, when he stated: “Libyans are Muslims and they call for moderate Islam, so none of us poses a threat to anyone inside or outside Libya” (al-Jazeera, July 3, 2012).

Salabi told a post-revolution gathering that included Islamic scholars critical of his decision to enter politics: “We call for a moderate Islam. But you all have to understand that Islam is not just about punishment, cutting hands and beheading with swords” (Reuters, October 10, 2011).

Contrary to expectations, Hizb al-Watan failed to take a single seat in the Libyan National Assembly election of 2012, which was easily won by Mahmoud Jibril’s National Forces Alliance (39 seats, 48% of the vote). [6] The Muslim Brother’s Justice and Development Party took 10% of the vote, but benefitted from the election of a large number of independent candidates sympathetic to the Brotherhood.

Situating himself as a proponent of democracy, al-Salabi called for general elections in May 2015 “to put an end to the bloodshed and protect Libya,” urging the UN envoy to Libya and Libyan politicians to stop “wasting time and effort and manipulating Libyans’ feelings in preparation to invade their country under the pretext of combating terrorism” (Middle East Monitor, May 5, 2015).

In interviews with Western journalists, al-Salabi inevitably professes an admiration for American-style democracy that he claims began when he read Jefferson in prison (Washington Post, December 9, 2011). Responding to a leaked video showing the beating of Sa’adi Qaddafi in a GNC prison in Tripoli and reports that former regime members were being tortured in revolutionary prisons, al-Salabi denounced the treatment, insisting it repeated the “authoritarian behavior that was ousted in the 17 February revolution” (Middle East Memo, August 6, 2015).

Isma’il al-Salabi

Al-Salabi works closely with his brother Isma’il, who was also imprisoned by Qaddafi in 1997 until his release in 2004. During the revolution, Isma’il took command of the Raffalah Sahati militia, a main recipient of Qatari arms and a part of the February 17 Brigade, a coalition of Islamist militias. The May 2014 launch of Operation Dignity by General Khalifa Haftar quickly led to clashes in Benghazi between Isma’il’s Raffalah Sahati Brigade and Haftar’s Libyan National Army, with tensions between the two groups continuing to this day (al-Hayat, May 19, 2014).

Ali and Isma’il al-Salabi work closely with Jalal al-Dugheily, a politician and former soldier who served as Defense Minister in the post-revolutionary TNC, a position that allowed him to help with the mass transfer of Qatari arms to Islamist revolutionaries.

A third brother, Khalid al-Salabi, left Libya in 1996 and is an imam at a Galway mosque in Ireland and head of the Galway Islamic Society (Irish Times, September 10, 2011).

Conclusion

The influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya is now being challenged by the upstart Islamic State organization. The extremism of the Islamic State is obviously distant from the al-Salabi’s emphasis on moderation; to counter the movement, the cleric has called for a national unity government that possesses a clear mandate to combat terrorism and “is also prepared to cooperate with the international war on terrorism” (Libya Herald, March 1, 2016).

Al-Salabi appears to have pulled back from the political scene to some degree today, but continues to be active in promoting and organizing Islamist forums. The Shaykh may still play a role in restoring Libyan stability, but it has become clear al-Salabi speaks for only a small percentage of Libyans. His professions of moderation in both Islam and Islamist politics brings back unfortunate memories of Egypt’s Muhammad al-Mursi’s embracement of moderation and inclusion in Egypt’s post-revolutionary period before the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood sought to control most elements of Egyptian society and governance, bringing themselves down in the process. Unlike al-Mursi, al-Salabi’s interest in moderation appears sincere and long-held; on the other hand, his close association with Belhaj, a former militant whose disavowal of extremism appears somewhat less certain, and Islamist militias including the one controlled by his brother, lead to inevitable questions about his commitment to democratic ideals. Libyan gratitude for Qatar’s assistance during the revolution has withered into a growing resentment of what is now widely viewed as a prolonged interference in Libya’s domestic politics. Once an asset, al-Salabi’s close relations with the Qataris has begun to work against him in the Libyan political arena.

Al-Salabi recently insisted that both the General National Congress (GNC) government in Tripoli and the rival House of Representatives (HoR) government in Tobruq must resign, as neither institution is legitimate. Only in this way can a real and inclusive national dialogue be initiated to restore Libyan unity (Middle East Monitor, November 23, 2015). With both governments doggedly hanging on to belief in their own legitimacy a month later, al-Salabi issued a call for the leaders of both institutions to meet with Fayez al-Sarraj, head of the new UN-sponsored Government of National Accord (GNA), the latest effort to unite Libya’s political structure (Libya Prospect, December 21, 2015).

For now, al-Salabi’s campaign to promote modernity and moderation in Islamist politics is treated with some suspicion by many Libyans following the Egyptian Brotherhood’s disastrous term as the government of Egypt. However, as Libyans continue to struggle to establish a unity government and bring an end cycles of ethnic and political violence, new opportunities will undoubtedly emerge for al-Salabi and his colleagues to ensure Islamists are well represented in any future government.

Notes

  1. Libya Electoral, Political Parties Laws and Regulations Handbook – Strategic Information, Regulations, Procedures, International Business Publications, Washington D.C., 2015, p.53.
  2. M. Cherif Bassiouni (ed.): Libya: From Repression to Revolution: A Record of Armed Conflict and International Law Violations, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2013, p.444.
  3. An English summary of the 420 page work can be found here: http://www.quilliamfoundation.org/wp/wp-content/uploads/publications/free/a-selected-translation-of-the-lifg.pdf
  4. Mohamed Shukri Hanapi: “The Wasatiyyah (Moderation) Concept in Islamic Epistemology::A Case Study of its Implementation in Malaysia,” International Journal of Humanities and Social Science, Vol. 4, No. 9(1); July 2014, pp. 51-62, http://www.ijhssnet.com/journals/Vol_4_No_9_1_July_2014/7.pdf
  5. Fitzgerald, Mary: “Finding Their Place: Libya’s Islamists During and After the Revolution,” in Peter Cole and Brian McQuinn (eds.): The Libyan Revolution and its Aftermath, Oxford University Press, 2015, pp. 194-95.
  6. Richard A. Lobban Jr. and Christopher H. Dalton: Libya: History and Revolution, Praeger Security International, Santa Barbara, 2014, p.153, fig. 7.1.

This article first appeared in the March 2016 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor.

Update: Unwanted Ally: Hezbollah’s War on the Islamic State

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Commentary, February 15, 2016

The Western-led military coalition operating against the Islamic State organization in Syria and Iraq continues to wrestle with the implications posed by having Hezbollah as an active but entirely unwanted ally in the campaign. (1)

Hezbollah in Syria

Hezbollah Position in Syria

Some indication of how the West intends to deal with the movement considering its designation as a terrorist group by many NATO partners was given in the text of the International Syria Support Group’s (ISSG) agreement to “cease hostilities” in Syria.(2)

Intended to be implemented within days, the agreement, which falls well short of a monitored ceasefire, allows for continued attacks on the Islamic State, al-Qaeda-backed Jabhat al-Nusra “or other groups designated as terrorist organizations by the United Nations Security Council.” (3) Hezbollah is clearly excluded as a continuing target as it is not a UNSC designated terrorist organization. This carefully worded document indicates the West and its ISSG partners will continue to ignore the presence of Hezbollah in the ground war against the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra rather than address the diplomatically difficult but nevertheless essential formation of a policy to deal with the Sunni extremists’ leading opponent on the battlefield. The continued absence of such a policy only invites uncontrolled military interaction that could easily and quickly expand the conflict.

In the meantime, Jordan is leading an ISSG effort to identify terrorist organizations active in Syria, but given the incredible variance among ISSG partners as to who or what actually constitutes a terrorist organization, these efforts are not likely to bear fruit.

Canada is the only coalition state so far to declare a policy on military interactions with Hezbollah in the region, simply stating that there will be no cooperation under a “no contact” policy. Ottawa has withdrawn its CF-18 fighter-bombers from the anti-Islamic State coalition as the new Liberal government of Justin Trudeau backs away from meaningful military commitments alongside Canada’s allies in favor of a “sunny ways” policy that does not involve killing terrorists or even depriving them of Canadian citizenship. Ottawa has announced plans to deploy 100 Canadian troops in Lebanon to act as advisers in the fight against the Islamic State organization. These behind-the-lines advisers in Lebanon and others in Iraq are intended to replace the Canadian bombing mission.

Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan was adamant that the advisers will work only with “the legitimate government of Lebanon,” but not with Hezbollah. Sajjan appeared to be unaware that Hezbollah parliamentarians and two cabinet ministers are part of “the legitimate government of Lebanon.” Although his statement is consistent with Canada’s designation of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, it remains that it is Hezbollah and not the Lebanese Army that is doing the vast bulk of Lebanese fighting against Islamic State forces, meaning the new advisory mission will have little impact and be an ineffective replacement for bombing runs on Islamic State targets. Those Lebanese Army units that are involved in anti-Islamic State activity along the Lebanese-Syrian border tend to operate joint patrols with Hezbollah, suggesting Canadian troops operating under Canada’s “no-contact” policy with Hezbollah will be restricted to advising rear-echelon formations.

Hezbollah’s campaign against Sunni extremists in Syria has received an important statement of support from Lebanese Christian presidential candidate Michel Aoun, a former Lebanese Army commander who noted that the Lebanese Army was simply not strong enough to defend Lebanon without Hezbollah’s assistance (Gulf News, February 7, 2016). Aoun is relying in some degree on Hezbollah support for his presidential candidacy (by constitutional requirement, Lebanon’s president must come from the nation’s Maronite Christian community), but is growing frustrated with Hezbollah’s somewhat leisurely promotion of his candidacy amidst suspicions in some quarters that Hezbollah would prefer to have no president at all.

Recent musings by Ali Akbar Velayati, Iranian adviser to Iran’s supreme leader, on the possibility of a formal alliance between Iran, Russia, Syria and Hezbollah were dampened by Russian officials, though the Russian presidential envoy to Afghanistan conceded: “In the hypothetical sense, [Velayati] is correct: if Hezbollah is doing what we’re doing, then we are principally allies” (Sputnik News [Moscow], February 3, 2016). Russia is still attempting to assure Israel (with whom it signed a defense agreement in September when the Russian intervention in Syria began) that it has no intention of strengthening Hezbollah with heavy weapons, but it clear that it is Russian-Hezbollah-Iranian ground-air coordination on the battlefield that has enabled the Syrian regime to make major strides against both extremists and Western-backed “moderate” rebels in recent weeks.

If the Saudis decide to intervene in Syria militarily in favor of the Sunni rebel groups supported financially by the Kingdom (as they are threatening to do, possibly with military support from Turkey and a number of Arab nations), clashes with Hezbollah and Syria’s Iranian advisers will be inevitable, finally transforming the simmering Sunni-Shiite feud into a full-blown battlefield confrontation. If the “cessation of hostilities” agreement fails, as it seems it must, the potential for massive escalation in Syria holds dire consequences for the entire Middle East.

Notes

1. See original article, “Unwanted Ally: Hezbollah’s War on the Islamic State,” Terrorism Monitor, January 22, 2016, http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=988
2. ISSG members include the Arab League, China, Egypt, the EU, France, Germany, Iran, Iraq, Italy, Jordan, Lebanon, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Oman, Qatar, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, the United Kingdom, the United Nations, and the United States.
3. “Statement of the International Syria Support Group meeting in Munich on February 11 & 12, 2016, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/12/syria-cessation-of-hostilities-full-text-of-the-support-groups-communique.

Mali’s Neo-Jihadi Macina Liberation Front: What do they really want?

Andrew McGregor
Aberfoyle International Security Special Report
January 15, 2016

What is the Macina Liberation Front?

The Macina (or Massina) Liberation Front (MLF – Front de Libération du Macina) is an Islamist extremist organization that exploits grievances amongst Mali’s Fulani (a.k.a. Peul or Fulbe) pastoralists as well as a 19th century tradition of Fulani jihad to recruit militants.

MLF members, who may number less than a hundred active members, are drawn mainly from two principal sources – veterans of the self-defence militias that emerged in Mali’s Fulani community after several decades of political and ethnic violence in Mali’s north, and members of the Movement for Unity and Justice in West Africa (MUJWA), an African-focused Islamist group that was part of the 2012-2013 jihadi occupation of northern Mali.

Fulani Map

Map showing concentrations of Fulani in West Africa

Who are the Fulani?

Since spilling out centuries ago from their homeland in the Senegal-Guinea region, the Fulani are now found across the Sahel from Mauritania to Sudan, a decentralized community of some 30 million who speak a variety of dialects and are known by an assortment of names in their many host countries. There is no common leadership in the present era (Fulani society tends to be internally competitive rather than cooperative), but improved communications and often-violent rivalries with non-Fulani communities have added to an emerging sense of persecution and unity. It is this that the Islamists are eager to capitalize on.

While the Fulani/Peul are best known as pastoralist cattle-herders, settled Fulani/Peul may be found in many professions (especially trade) and have provided presidents to a number of the nations in which they dwell. Most Fulani share a common ethical code, the Lawaal Pulaaku (the Fulani Way), that the extremists would like to replace with a new set of values.

The undeclared war between herdsmen and farmers that is raging across Sahelian Africa is based in part on receding pasture-land and increased competition for resources. The resulting violence can easily take on a religious dimension – most Fulani/Peul herdsmen are Muslim; their rivals are often sedentary Christians.

Typically, the MLF is described as seeking to revive the 19th century Fulani-controlled Islamic state of Macina, though this is as much a nostalgic recruitment tool as an objective. The more immediate objectives of MLF include the elimination of traditional Islam in the region, an effort that embraces the killing of rival imams and Sufi religious leaders. The MLF also seeks to empty the region around Mopti of all traces of government presence through a campaign of assassination and intimidation.

Fulani Hamadou KufaMLF Leader Hamadoun Kufa

How is the MLF Leadership structured?

The MLF leader is Hamadoun Kufa, a veteran jihadist and graduate of a local Koranic school. Kufa joined the Islamic missionary-reformist Tablighi Jama’at in the 1990s, along with Iyad ag Ghali, the now fugitive Tuareg leader of Ansar al-Din. Kufa worked closely with Ag Ghali in the 2012-2013 Islamist occupation of northern Mali and these ties continue to this day. The MLF appears to be intended as a southern arm of Mali’s armed Islamist movement, coordinating with Iyad ag Ghali and others while operating in Bambara-majority areas of southern Mali (including Bamako) where Arab and Tuareg strangers would be conspicuous. Other groups such as “Ansar al-Din in Southern Mali” and the “Katiba Khalid ibn Walid” appear to have been similarly created to bring African Muslims into the militant fold. Boko Haram (dominated by the Kanuri) has tried to make inroads in the Fulani community in Nigeria and the Lake Chad region.

How does the MLF fit into the Malian Jihad?

The MLF insists on a severe Salafist interpretation of Shari’a together with restrictions on women (restricted to home, wearing of a veil when necessary to go out) that would limit the important role played by women in Mali’s largely agriculture-based economy.

The movement, by its own admission or that of its partners, has engaged in a number of military and civilian terrorist attacks in cooperation with Iyad al-Gali’s Ansar al-Din and Mokhtar al-Mokthar’s notorious al-Murabitun organization (now reunited with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb – AQIM). The MLF’s value to the jihadis is its ability to open a new front in Mali’s south (where 90% of the population lives) that can draw off security forces from the north, giving the extremists greater freedom of movement while embarrassing the government and its foreign allies. MLF attacks have a secondary purpose of provoking government retaliation against innocent Fulani, thus radicalizing the community and encouraging jihadist recruitment.

Does the Front truly represent Fulani interests?

Just as many of the victims of the Kanuri-dominated Boko Haram movement are fellow Kanuri, the MLF does not fail to target other Fulani. It is AQIM strategy to form new arms by creating “local” insurgent groups that appear to be responding to domestic concerns while actually working towards the creation of an al-Qaeda-ruled state. Indeed, the MLF’s direct attacks against the state and its Islamist bent set it apart from nearly all other groups professing to represent the interests of Fulani herdsmen.

The group’s use of nostalgia for the jihadist Macina Empire of Shaykh Sekou Amadou was revealed as nothing more than a recruiting tool when the movement attacked the mausoleum of Shaykh Sekou last May. Though not especially grand, the tomb violated the group’s Salafist belief that anything more than a simple grave marker is idolatry.

Where does the MLF go from here?

Islamist extremists will continue to pursue the radicalization of Fulani communities across West Africa, but may ultimately fail in this effort if the MLF is not seen to address issues of concern to the Fulani community rather than those of interest to AQIM’s leadership. The Fulani pastoralists have legitimate grievances but at the same time the community has lost many opportunities to reap popular sympathy through a tendency by some of its members to turn to the AK-47 as a means of solving disputes.

Ultimately, Fulani ethno-nationalism would seem unlikely to play a major part in the larger Islamist movement in Mali, which, officially at least, eschews tribalism and ethnic rivalry in favor of a common status within a Shari’a state.