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

Militant Leadership Monitor, 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-Salafi (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.

Unwanted Ally: Hezbollah’s War against the Islamic State

Andrew McGregor

January 26, 2016

“There is no future for ISIS. Not in war and not in peace.” These words were spoken not by Barack Obama or Vladimir Putin, but rather by Hezbollah leader Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, whose Lebanese Shi’a supporters are engaged in a growing battle against the Sunni militants inside Syria (Press TV [Tehran], November 14, 2015). Despite this, few analysts have considered how Hezbollah’s commitment to defeat Sunni extremists in Syria would fit into a larger Western and/or Russian-directed military intervention to destroy the Islamic State terrorists, especially when the movement is itself considered a terrorist organization by many Western states.

Hezbollah Patrol in SyriaHezbollah Patrol in Syria

Nasrallah insists his movement is conducting pre-emptive military operations designed at preventing Sunni extremists from entering Lebanon, but many Lebanese (including some Shi’a) accuse Hezbollah of drawing the terrorists’ attention to Lebanese targets by acting at the command of the movement’s Iranian sponsors (Reuters, September 6, 2013; Jerusalem Post, September 6, 2013) .

Hezbollah (“the Party of God”) addresses these accusations in two ways: by stating that the Syrian intervention is intended to defend all Lebanese, and by describing the Islamic State and al-Qaeda affiliated al-Nusra Front as tools Israel uses to destroy regional opposition, thus bringing the intervention within the larger anti-Israel “Resistance” agenda that has formed the movement’s core ethos since its formation (Reuters, August 15, 2014).

Hezbollah is correct in one sense; Lebanon and its delicate ethnic and religious balance will indeed be in the Islamic State organization’s gun-sights if it succeeds in establishing a secure base in neighboring Syria. Nonetheless, since joining the war in 2013, Hezbollah has lost lives, resources, and most of the moral authority it once commanded even in Sunni communities in the Middle East after repelling an Israeli incursion into southern Lebanon in 2006.

There was relatively little in the way of confrontation between Hezbollah and the Islamic State organization for some time as Hezbollah tended to operate mainly in western Syria while the Islamic State is strongest in the more lightly populated east. This all changed when the Islamic State took the war to Hezbollah on November 12, 2014 by deploying a pair of suicide bombers against the Burj al-Barajneh district of southern Beirut, a mixed but largely Shi’a neighborhood where Hezbollah has a strong presence, killing and wounding scores of civilians. Eager to punish Hezbollah for its Syrian intervention, the Islamic State promised “the Party of Satan” much more of the same (al-Manar TV, November 12, 2015).
On December 3 2015, US Secretary of State John Kerry admitted that the Islamic State cannot be defeated without ground forces, but suggested these should be “Syrian and Arab” rather than Western in origin (Reuters, December 23, 2015). Washington’s efforts so far to assemble and train a politically and religiously “moderate” rebel army have been “a devastating failure” according to Nasrallah, who insists that air strikes alone will do nothing to eliminate the Islamic State organization (AP, September 25, 2015).

Who, then, should these ground fighters be? They will certainly not be British Prime Minister David Cameron’s mythical 70,000 “moderate” rebels (Independent, December 1, 2015). Saudi Arabia and the Gulf nations regard American-led efforts to restore order in Syria as ineffective and are unlikely partners in a Western-led military initiative; besides, their own resources are currently committed to the ongoing military struggle for Yemen. Syria’s Kurdish militias are capable, but have displayed little interest in campaigning outside their own traditional territories. This leaves regime forces and their allies as the only local groups currently capable of tackling the Islamic State in the field.
Saudi Arabia’s clumsy attempt to create a Saudi-led anti-terrorist military alliance of 34 Islamic nations – mainly by announcing its existence to the surprise of many nations the Kingdom claimed were members – further escalated tensions between Shiite and Sunni communities when it was observed that majority Shi’a nations like Iraq and Iran were noticeably absent from the list of members.

Though Lebanon’s Sunni prime minister Tammam Salam declared Lebanon was part of the alliance, membership was immediately rejected by Hezbollah and most Lebanese Christian parties, the latter correctly pointing out that Lebanon had no status as an “Islamic nation.” A Hezbollah statement claimed the Saudis were unsuitable as leaders of an anti-terrorist coalition as they were involved in state terrorism in Yemen and supported terrorist organizations there as well as in Syria and Iraq. The statement went on to question whether the new alliance would confront “Israeli terrorism” or instead target “the Resistance” (Hezbollah, Iran and Syria) (Al-Manar, December 17, 2015; AP, December 17, 2015). Salam claims to have since received assurances from the Kingdom that the Islamic State and not Hezbollah will be targeted, but vital questions remain concerning how the Sunni alliance would interact with Hezbollah and other Shiite forces on the Syrian battlefield (Daily Star [Beirut] Dec 16 2015). Saudi Arabia’s recent decision to execute Shaykh Nimr al-Nimr, a leading Shiite opposition leader, will only embitter the struggle between Shiites and Sunnis in Syria – Nasrallah described it as “an appalling event” (Reuters, January 3, 2016).

Hezbollah Fighter in Syria

Hezbollah Fighter in Action against Free Syrian Army (AP)

With growing calls for greater Western military intervention in Syria and even to set aside the anti-Assad rebellion in order to allow the Syrian Army to focus on the elimination of the Islamic State, it must be understood that at this point of the war there is no functioning Syrian Army that can be separated and deployed independently of Hezbollah and the Iranian military advisers now running Syrian Army operations.

With few exceptions, Syria’s war does not unfold in a series of set-piece battles, but rather in small actions, “a battle of ambushes, of surprise attacks” as one rebel colonel described it (Reuters, October 30, 2015). This daily war of attrition and a rash of desertions has greatly reduced the size and effectiveness of the Syrian national army. Now most operations are planned by Iranian and Hezbollah advisors using well-trained Hezbollah fighters to stiffen Syrian units in the field.

Hezbollah now has an estimated 6000 fighters in Syria, mostly experienced light infantry well-suited to the war’s pattern of small-level clashes punctuated by the occasional major battle. While losses have been heavy at times, the deployment has given Hezbollah valuable battlefield experience in operating on unfamiliar terrain and in cooperation with the regular forces of other nations (Syria, Iran and Russia).

Hezbollah’s war aims are both declared (protecting Shi’a shrines in Syria) and undeclared, the latter including keeping supply lines from Iran open, preserving the friendly Assad regime and keeping Sunni extremists (al-Nusra, Islamic State, etc.) from entering Lebanon. To mollify those who claim the Syrian adventure has little to do with the anti-Israel “Resistance” agenda, Nasrallah claims that Zionists and Sunni extremists have the same goal – “destroying our peoples and our societies” (AFP, October 18, 2015). The Hezbollah leader also insists that any political solution in Syria “begins and ends” with President Bashar al-Assad (AFP, June 6, 2014).

Though Hezbollah has a polarizing effect on Lebanese politics and a record of terrorist attacks, the movement, unlike the Islamic State organization, is no wild-eyed band of religious fanatics ready to slaughter everyone that does not share their religious preferences. As a political party with a strong social-welfare arm, Hezbollah’s leaders have deftly created a political alliance with Maronite Christian factions, secular Druze and even Shi’a of the Amal Movement with whom Hezbollah waged a bitter war in the 1980s.Lebanese sources indicate that Hezbollah began recruiting Christians, Druze and Sunnis for the fight against the Islamic State in late 2014 (Daily Star [Beirut], November 12, 2014). Nonetheless, opposition to Hezbollah within Lebanon cannot be understated.

To counter the political “normalization” of the movement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has proclaimed Hezbollah a global threat that has organized, with Iran, a terrorist network spanning 30 countries on five continents (AFP, July 28, 2015). Nasrallah, in turn, has emphasized the “ISIS monster’s” threat to Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, some of them important sources for private donations to the Islamic State and other Sunni extremist groups. According to Nasrallah: “This danger does not recognize Shiites, Sunnis, Muslims, Christians or Druze or Yazidis or Arabs or Kurds” (Reuters, August 15, 2015). Jews are notably absent from the Hezbollah leader’s list of ethnicities under threat as Hezbollah considers Israel’s Jews to be in league with the Islamic State terrorists.

Last month, President Netanyahu abandoned Israel’s traditional policy of refusing to confirm or deny involvement in foreign air-strikes, acknowledging that Israel was targeting Hezbollah arms shipments to prevent the transfer of “game-changing” weapons from Syria to Lebanon. When Israel believes it has missed a weapons transfer, it attacks Syrian arms stocks, inhibiting the Syrian Army’s ability to combat the Islamic State and other rebel groups (DefenceNews, November 18, 2015). Israeli airstrikes have not targeted Islamic State forces or installations in Syria; like al-Qaeda, ISIS appears reluctant to attack Israel directly, insisting that America must first be weakened and an Islamic state established in Iraq and Syria before Israel can be addressed (Arutz Sheva 7, October 7, 2014).

This reluctance to strike Israel only reinforces Hezbollah’s belief that there is cooperation between Israel and the Sunni extremists (Tasnim News Agency [Tehran], December 10, 2015). Bashar Assad himself has joked that no one can say al-Qaeda doesn’t have an air force when they have the Israeli Air Force to attack regime and Hezbollah positions (Foreign Affairs, January 25, 2015).

Last summer, Hezbollah and Syrian government forces succeeded in driving rebel forces from their last positions in the Qalamun region alongside the border with Lebanon after nearly two years of fighting. Islamic State and al-Nusra fighters had used the region for attacks within Lebanon. Since then, Hezbollah has intensified its war against the Islamic State and Assad’s other enemies in coordination with Russian airstrikes. Though initially criticized for focusing on Syrian Turkmen communities and American-supported units of the Free Syrian Army, Russia has expanded its target list to include the Islamic State, the Nusra Front and the Jaysh al-Islam militia.

So far, Russia appears to be tolerating Israeli strikes on Hezbollah targets, but has also been accused by Israeli military sources of supplying anti-ship cruise missiles to Hezbollah, whether directly or indirectly through Syrian middlemen (al-Manar TV [Beirut], January 15; Jerusalem Post, January 14). Moscow’s deployment of powerful S-400 ground-to-air missiles in Syria means Russian objections to specific air operations over Syria will have to be taken seriously. Russia and Israel have made extraordinary efforts to avoid running in to each other in Syrian airspace – the consequences of an accidental clash could be significant; a Russian military alliance with the “Resistance Axis” of Hezbollah, Syria and Iran would change the strategic situation of the Middle East. Russia has indicated it considers Hezbollah to be a “legitimate socio-political force” rather than a terrorist group, suggesting it is prepared to work with the group in Syria (Reuters, November 15, 2015).

Regardless of the number of “moderate” rebels in Syria, Hezbollah remains better trained, better armed and better led. The moderates cannot operate effectively against the Islamic State until and unless they can disengage from their conflict with the Syrian Army and the rest of the “Resistance Axis.” The West’s contradictory war aims in Syria have been noted by former UK chief of defense staff General David Richards, who suggests that the anti-Assad rebellion needs to be set aside in order to allow the Syrian Army, Hezbollah and their Iranian backers to focus on the elimination of the Islamic State (Guardian, November 18, 2015). However, this plan would require somehow persuading anti-Assad factions to abandon or postpone their struggle as well as cooperation with anti-Assad Kurdish forces to be successful, not to mention a degree of political flexibility in the Western allies that does not exist at present.

So what are the West’s options? Hezbollah might be persuaded to leave Syria if it was guaranteed that capable military forces (preferably not Western in Hezbollah’s view) would serve as their replacement in the defense of the Assad regime. There is little political appetite for this proposition in the West at the moment, despite an increasing number of voices suggesting that the Islamic State organization rather than Assad might be the most pressing problem in Syria.

An alternative is to try to find a means of combating the Islamic State on the ground without recognizing or coordinating with Assad/Hezbollah forces engaged in the same battle, a tricky bit of military manoeuvering that is likely to end badly.

A third option would be to confront Assad regime/Hezbollah/Iranian forces simultaneously with attacks on the Islamic State to create a “New Syria,” a move that would run a high risk of confrontation with Russia and Iran, incite international opposition and the expansion of the conflict well beyond Syria’s borders. The resulting power vacuum in the ruins of Syria would be worse than that experienced in Libya and would in the end pose a direct security threat to both the West and the Middle East.

To resolve the Syrian crisis it is essential either to come to terms with Hezbollah or to confront it, knowing in the latter case that the bulk of the movement and its leadership will remain in Lebanon with the means to strike back at its international antagonists. Ignoring its existence or its role in confronting anti-Shi’a Sunni extremist groups like the Islamic State will not be an option in any ground-based effort to crush Islamic State terrorists.

(This article first appeared in the January 26, 2016 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor)

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.

Beyond the Brotherhood: Egypt’s Yasir Hussein Borhami and the Salafist Revolution

Andrew McGregor

Militant Leadership Monitor, January 2016

With a growing debate over the role of Saudi-inspired Salafism in the development of Islamist extremism, it is worth examining the career and continuing influence of Yasir Hussein al-Borhami, one of Egypt’s most prominent Salafists. Despite the rigid ideology associated with Salafism, Borhami has proved flexible and pragmatic in ensuring a continued political presence for Egypt’s Salafists in a politically volatile atmosphere. Nonetheless, opposition to his approach has led to threats of violence from both Brotherhood supporters and fellow Salafists. Copts and more secular Egyptians also oppose Borhami’s intention to apply Shari’a across Egypt.

BorhamiYasir Hussin Borhami. The bump on his forehead is known as a zabiba (“raisan”), caused by repeated contact of the forehead with the ground during prayer and is regarded as a sign of piety by some Egyptian Muslims.

Early Years

Borhami was born in the Beheira region of the Nile Delta in 1958, the son of a member of the Muslim Brotherhood who imprisoned by President Gamal Abd al-Nasser. The young Borhami pursued degrees in medicine (pediatrics) at Alexandria University and aqida (“creed”) studies (which focus on the essential beliefs of Islam) at Cairo’s al-Azhar University. While still in college, Borhami performed the pilgrimage to Mecca, where he encountered a Salafist scholar who would be a great ideological influence, Abd al-‘Aziz bin Baz (Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia – 1993-1999) (Ahram Online, December 19, 2011). Borhami opened a clinic in Alexandria and preaches at Alexandria’s al-Khulafa al-Rashidun mosque. [1]

The Salafist Call

In 1984, Borhami became one of the six founders of Alexandria’s Da’wa al-Salafiya (Salafist Call), a movement that would borrow aspects of the Muslim Brotherhood’s preference for social organization and action, but not its structure or political aims.

Though there are many schools of Salafism even within Egypt, there is a shared trend towards a literal interpretation of core Islamic texts (the Qu’ran, Sunna, hadith-s, etc.) supplemented by the work of a few later scholars who sought to eliminate religious innovations (bidah) from Islamic practice. In this sense, Salafists view themselves as rational modernists rather than the popular Western perception that they are arch-conservatives seeking to live in the past. This approach to Islam, which habitually puts the movement at odds with many other Islamic trends, began to gain currency in Egypt in the 1970s, particularly in Alexandria. Traditionally, the Salafists have been apolitical based on a tradition of obedience to rulers, giving them a certain room in Egyptian society unavailable to other religious trends viewed as a challenge to the state (such as the Muslim Brotherhood). The movement has proved attractive to professionals and uses modern technology (such as its Ana Salafi website) to disseminate its message.

During the Mubarak era, the Alexandria Salafists were watched carefully but tolerated so long as they steered clear of violence and politics. Travel restrictions and occasional arrests served as reminders of the regime’s watchful eye. In 1987, Borhami was arrested in connection with the attempted assassination of former Interior Minister Hassan Abu Basha, though he was only held a month (Ahram Online, November 19, 2011). In 1994, the government decided the Salafist Call was posing a threat to the existing order and cracked down, imprisoning hundreds and banning the group’s activities. Borhami responded by lowering the group’s profile until restrictions eased in 2004. With the movement reinforced by newly-freed preachers and activists, Borhami now began an intensive period of organizing, leading to the Salafist Call finally obtaining state recognition as a legitimate social organization in April 2011. [2]

The Formation of al-Nur

Borhami is closely associated with Egypt’s leading Salafist political party, al-Nur (“the Light”), formed in June 2011 by Imad Abd al-Ghaffour. By December 2012, leadership had passed under pressure into the hands of Yunis Abd al-Halim Makhyoun, a Borhami loyalist, with al-Ghaffour and 150 members resigning to form the Watan Party. With loyalists in place in top party positions, the move gave Borhami effective control of the Party without being part of its official leadership. In theory, the Salafist Call pursues a more cooperative and collective method than the more hierarchal Muslim Brotherhood; in practise, personal loyalty to Borhami is almost essential to penetrate the leadership of both the movement and its political expression, the Nur Party.

By leading his movement into politics, Borhami intended to press for a Shari’a state without reliance on the Muslim Brotherhood while attempting to diminish the appeal of radicalism in the movement’s younger members.

Salafism and the Egyptian Revolution

The Salafists played only a minor role in the 2011 Revolution, most preferring to maintain a traditional apolitical stance, though individual members joined the protests in Tahrir Square that ultimately compelled the overthrow of President Mubarak by the Egyptian military.

In the parliamentary elections that followed the Revolution, al-Nur shocked the nation by forming a coalition with three smaller Salafist parties to take 24% of the vote, making the party the second-largest block in parliament after the Muslim Brothers’ Freedom and Justice Party. Though Borhami opposed the participation of women and Christians in politics, he opened up the doors of the Nur Party to both as candidates in the election after their inclusion became legally required.

In the first round of the presidential election, Borhami steered al-Nur into support of Abd al-Moneim Fotouh rather than the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, Muhammad al-Mursi. In the run-off, however, al-Nur switched its support to Mursi against the candidacy of Mubarak-era premier Ahmad al-Shafiq in the second round, won handily by Mursi.

Borhami played a major role in drafting a new constitution, but initiated a bitter dispute with the shaykhs of al-Azhar when he claimed the institution was trying to ensure its supremacy in the new constitution, accusing it further of advocating too forcefully for Christian rights in the document (Daily News Egypt, December 24, 2012). Borhami ultimately backed off, recognizing the importance of al-Azhar to most Egyptian Muslims. During the constitutional discussions, Borhami emphasized the necessity of curbing rights and freedoms, though “this doesn’t mean cancelling rights and freedoms” (Daily News Egypt, December 25, 2012). To the alarm of many Egyptians (even within the Nur Party), Borhami interpreted Article 10 of the constitution as allowing Salafis to establish Saudi-style Committees for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, religious police entitled to punish or arrest civilians believed guilty of Shari’a violations (Daily News Egypt, December 25, 2012). Others involved in the constitutional process did not share Borhami’s enthusiastic view that the draft constitution would implement restrictions on “freedom of thought, expression and creativity” and could eventually be used to strip apostates of their human rights (Daily News Egypt, December 24, 2012).

The Presidency of Muhammad al-Mursi

As the post-Revolution Mursi government faltered under economic and security pressures, Borhami’s feud with the Brotherhood intensified, with the Salafist leader warning the Brotherhood would pay the price for Mursi’s stubbornness in rejecting Salafist attempts to mediate a solution to the crisis (al-Masry al-Youm, March 15, 2013).

Under Borhami’s influence, the Nur Party approached the demonstrations against Mursi with caution, staying aloof but ready to join the opposition to the Brotherhood if the winds proved favorable. By the time Mursi was overthrown by General Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi on July 3, 2013, al-Nur was ready to display its full backing of the coup on public television. The decision to stand side-by-side with the Coptic Pope and human rights advocate Muhammad al-Baradei was met with outrage by both the Brotherhood and fellow Salafists outside the Nur Party who viewed Mursi as al-wali al-amr, a community guardian legitimized by Shari’a. Borhami considered Mursi to be a mere political figure and dismissed the opposition to al-Nur’s stance: “Maybe we lost some support from within the Islamic movement, but many have admired the party’s policies” (Reuters, January 23, 2014). [3]

After the Egyptian military’s slaughter of hundreds of Brotherhood supporters at two Cairo sit-ins, Borhami absolved al-Sisi of any blame, saying it was impossible for the general, “a religious man of high ability and competency,” to have issued a command to kill all protesters (Ahram Online, January 21, 2014; al-Masry al-Youm, January 26, 2014). Borhami laid the blame directly at the feet of the Brotherhood, saying they had encouraged their members to face bullets to create massive casualty counts that would discredit the army (Ahram Online, January 21, 2014).

Borhami opposed Islamist protests against al-Sisi in the summer of 2013 and claimed Western criticism of the general’s methods was in fact an attack on Egypt and Islam as a whole: “[The Islamists] should admit that the military saved the people from civil war in which millions of people were against Islamists” (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], August 27, 2013). By early 2014, the rift with the Brotherhood had grown so much that calls to attack Borhami began to appear on Brotherhood Facebook sites (al-Sharq al-Awsat, January 4, 2014).

In early February 2014, Borhami declared that the Salafist Call would not support al-Sisi’s candidacy for president, though it would not oppose him (Ahram Online, February 1, 2014).

Borhami’s Religious Rulings

There is often some confusion regarding the actual content of Borhami’s fatwa-s as he commonly backs away from controversial rulings when they appear to be out of step with the rest of Egyptian society, including the religious current. One such example was Borhami’s fatwa against the 2014 FIFA World Cup, which the shaykh claimed would distract Muslims from their prayers and encourage Muslims to admire non-believers playing for foreign teams. When his ruling was widely ridiculed in soccer-mad Egypt, failing even to gain support from other religious leaders, Borhami backed away, claiming he only meant to say “don’t waste your time” (International Business Times, April 27, 2014; al-Masry al-Youm, June 15, 2014).

Other rulings that have, at times, gained international attention, include:

  • A ruling that a man can abandon his wife to rapists if his own safety was threatened. Borhami claimed that the ruling was “woefully distorted” by the media and concerned only “absolving from sin those incapable of defending themselves” (Al-Monitor, October 21, 2015).
  • A fatwa calling on Muslims to refrain from congratulating Coptic Christians on their religious feast days led to a police report being filed by both Muslim and Coptic leaders accusing Borhami of contempt of religion and inciting sectarian violence (al-Masry al-Youm, April 27, 2014).
  • In February 2012, Borhami used the Salafi Call’s website to issue a fatwa pronouncing the impermissibility of standing for the national anthem (com, February 25, 2012). Borhami later admitted that he found it “unwise” to follow this fatwa in the face of a possible six-month stretch in prison for disrespecting national symbols (Al-Monitor, October 21, 2015).
  • In August 2012, Borhami clashed with other Salafists by issuing a fatwa that said an International Monetary Fund loan to Egypt at 1.1% interest was not usury (collection of interest is forbidden in Islamic finance) (al-Masry al-Youm, August 28, 2012).
  • Borhami was seen in a December 14, 2013 video explaining the permissibility of demolishing Christian churches, an activity that is generally understood to be impermissible in all but the most radical Islamist circles (com, March 18, 2015). Borhami’s remarks on this issue were condemned by al-Azhar and many leading Egyptians, leading him to deny he had ever issued a fatwa on this subject (Al-Monitor, October 21, 2015).

Among Borhami’s most pressing concerns are “radical secularism” and fears that Iran will spread Shi’ism to Egypt, where the small existing Shi’a community is closely monitored by the Salafi Call in cooperation with security services.  This collaboration with security forces has opened rifts with the rest of Egypt’s Islamists, including some members of the Nur Party.

Parliamentary Campaign – 2015

Al-Nur was targeted by the “No to Religious Parties” campaign that preceded the election. Supported by Egypt’s Ministry of Endowments, the campaign collected 1.25 million signatures in support of its claim that religious parties violated the section of the Egyptian constitution banning the formation of political parties “on a sectarian basis…” (Daily News Egypt, October 11, 2015). Borhami’s view was that the new constitution declared Egypt was an Islamic nation, making Islamic political parties permissible.

In contrast to their earlier success, the Nur Party was crushed in the 2015 election. After a poor showing in the election’s first phase, Borhami pleaded with Salafi leaders to urge their followers to the polls, but many Egyptian Salafists had had enough of politics. With only nine seats taken by the election’s conclusion, Borhami accused the government of detaining Salafist candidates and orchestrating a hostile media campaign, but many former party members cited the party’s political flexibility as the real reason for the party’s poor performance (al-Masry al-Youm, November 25, 2015; Reuters, November 23, 2015). One failed Nur candidate blamed the controversial fatwa-s issued by Borhami and other Salafist Call leaders for the failure (al-Masry al-Youm, October 25, 2015).

Relationship with the Islamic State

The Salafist Call has publicly condemned Salafi-Jihadism and radical Qutbist ideology, preferring a method of collective action over violence in the establishment of a Shari’a-based state. The movement believes greater religious education is the key to prevent radicalization of the sort that has led to the creation of an Islamic State chapter in the Egyptian Sinai.

Borhami insists the Salafi-Jihadis of the Islamic State do not belong to any particular Islamic trend, preferring to believe they are the natural result of human rights violations. Salafi preacher Muhammad al-Abasiry recently claimed that Borhami’s students have already joined Islamic State forces in Syria (Daily News Egypt, December 20, 2015).

Conclusion

Borhami has undoubtedly committed many missteps that have damaged the popularity of the Nur Party and the Salafist agenda, though some of these are no doubt due to the difficulty of forming political policy in a party based on a traditionally apolitical sector of Egyptian society. What is perhaps more damaging is public realization that the Salafist Call is prepared to use democracy in order to institute non-democratic reforms. Borhami has asked “Is anyone afraid of Shariʿa, the Shariʿa that achieves justice, welfare, and wisdom?” (al-Shorouk [Cairo], June 30, 2012).  The better question might be, “Is anyone afraid of a religious minority eager to impose their own version of Shari’a on a multi-confessional Egyptian state?” Last year’s election results appear to give the answer as “Yes.”

NOTES

  1. Stéphane Lacroix, “Yasser Borhami,” in: Bernard Rougier and Stéphane Lacroix (Ed.s), Egypt’s Revolutions: Politics, Religion and Social Movements, Palgrave MacMillan, 2015.
  2. Ashraf El-Sherif, “Egypt’s Salafists at a Crossroads,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, April 29, 2015, http://carnegieendowment.org/2015/04/29/egypt-s-salafists-at-crossroads/iir4
  3. Ibid, fn. 57

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

Ahmad Qadhaf al-Dam and the Qaddafist Shadow over Libya

Andrew McGregor  

Militant Leadership Monitor, September 2015

Given that many might think Qaddafism as a political ideology died along with Mu’ammar Qaddafi in his hometown of Sirte at the hands of Libyan revolutionaries in October 2011, the announcement of a neo-Qaddafist Nidal (“Struggle”) Front by pro-Qaddafist exiles in Cairo on September 20 was not as surprising as it might seem, given the strong financial basis and apparent political protection that this group currently enjoys in al-Sisi’s Egypt. Though nominally led by former Libyan ambassador to Saudi Arabia Muhammad Sayyid al-Qasbat, the new movement’s driving force is Ahmad Qadhaf al-Dam, a cousin of the late Libyan leader who serves officially only as a member of the Front’s central committee despite being the leader of the pro-Qaddafist community in exile (Libya Herald, September 20, 2015).

Qadhaf al-Dam ((Qadhaf al-Dam with strategically placed portrait of Libyan anti-colonial hero Omar al-Mukhtar (Reuters)

Qadhaf al-Dam has summed up the revised approach of the neo-Qaddafists (though they do not refer to themselves as such): “We do not desire a Libya governed by Islamists… but we reject also the idea of a return to the past” (L’Express, September 25, 2014).

Though other factions now dominate Libya’s internal agenda, the deposed Qaddafists have demonstrated they still have some bite, as seen in the September 9 car-bombing of Tripoli’s Hadba prison where eight condemned Qaddafists (including Qaddafi’s son Sa’adi and former Libyan intelligence chief Abdullah Sanusi)) are being held. News of the death sentences issued against the men on July 28 were met by protests by pro-Qaddafists in Cairo (Libya Herald, July 29, 2015). The prison is run by Islamist militant Khalid Sharif and the bombing followed the release of videos showing a blindfolded Sa’adi being beaten by prison staff as well as other Qaddafist prisoners being tortured (Libya Herald, September 9, 2015; September 10, 2015).

Early Career

Ahmad Qadhaf al-Dam was born in the Mediterranean coast town of Mersa Matruh inWestern Egypt in 1952 to a family of Libyan Bedouin who, like most of their formerly nomadic neighbors, had roamed on the Egyptian side of the Libyan/Egyptian border for hundreds of years. Ahmad and his brother Sayyid began long and powerful careers in Libya after their cousin Mu’ammar Qaddafi seized power in 1969, with Ahmad serving at times as Qaddafi’s personal envoy, chief bodyguard and international fixer. Qadhaf al-Dam resembles the late Libyan leader so much that he was frequently mistaken for his cousin at international gatherings (RFI, February 25, 2011).

During the 1973 Ramadan War with Israel, Qadhaf al-Dam was a senior officer alongside Khalifa Haftar in a Libyan contingent that failed to arrive in Egypt in time to take part in the main campaign, mostly due to Egypt’s decision not to inform Qaddafi in advance of the Egyptian plan to cross the Suez Canal and retake Sinai from Israeli occupation (Middle East Monitor, May 21, 2014).

Following a series of attempts on his life by Libyan Army officers, Qaddafi began in 1978 to place important military commands in the hands of his extended family and fellow members of the Qaddadfa tribe. Among those benefitting from the new arrangements were his cousins, the brothers Ahmad and Sayyid Qadhaf al-Dam, by now prominent members of Libyan military intelligence. [1]

By the mid-1970s Qaddafi had become obsessed with eliminating opposition to his rule within the Libyan exile community. Pledging to pursue these “stray dogs” to the North Pole if necessary, Qaddafi launched his intelligence services and revolutionary committees on an often inept but frequently deadly campaign of murder abroad. The campaign intensified in 1983 as Qadhaf al-Dam and four other senior intelligence figures were entrusted with eliminating Libyan dissidents abroad under the oversight of intelligence chief Younis Bilgasim. [2]

As a Brigadier Qadhaf al-Dam was appointed commander of the Tobruq military region, then commander in Cyrenaica, and later as Qadhafi’s special representative for relations with Egypt, a role that brought with it control of vast sums of Libyan oil cash being invested in Egypt, making Qadhaf al-Dam an influential player in Egypt as well as Libya. [3] For a time after 1995, Qadhaf al-Dam was also commander of a battalion of troops detailed to provide security for Qaddafi while still playing an important role in the direction of external operations of the Jamahiriya Security Organization (Hai’atamn al-Jamahiriya). [4]

The Sarkozy Controversy – 2007

One of the lasting controversies of the NATO intervention in Libya revolves around the personal relationship between Mu’ammar Qaddafi and former French president Nicolas Sarkozy (2007-2012), who was responsible for rallying NATO to help overthrow Qaddafi. As one of Libya’s leading diplomats, Qadhaf al-Dam met Sarkozy in person in Tripoli in 2005 (“he came to sell us arms and surveillance equipment”) and again during Qaddafi’s visit to Paris in 2007 (Le Monde, March 15).

According to Qadhaf al-Dam, Qaddafi believed the creation of a “United States of Africa” could never be completed without French cooperation and thought that Sarkozy was “a friend at the Elysée” who could help the project, telling Qadhaf al-Dam that “We must help Sarkozy become president” (Le Monde, March 15). Qadhaf al-Dam claims that Qaddafi provided Sarkozy’s successful presidential campaign with “tens of millions of Euros,” a charge vehemently denied by Sarkozy’s camp (L’Express, September 25, 2014).

A story that persists in Libya concerns allegations that Qaddafi sexually harassed Sarkozy’s ex-wife Cécilia (a former fitting model for a French fashion house) when she went to Libya to appeal on behalf of the one Palestinian and five Bulgarian nurses sentenced to death for allegedly infecting Libyan babies with the HIV virus. When questioned during a television interview, about the possibility of a personal motive for Sarkozy’s military intervention in Libya, Qadhaf al-Dam described the allegation as an obvious “fabrication”: “This Cécilia… she looks like a ghoul… This is not even a woman, so how could anyone desire her?” (Dream2 TV [Cairo], January 17, 2015). Qadhaf al-Dam did not comment on his late cousin’s well-established propensity for sexual harassment and worse.

The Revolution: Playing Both Sides

Only days after the start of the Libyan Revolution Qadhaf al-Dam made a stunning resignation from all functions within the Libyan regime on February 24, 2011 that took many observers by surprise, though the ambivalent statement from his office announcing the resignation (merely calling it a protest “against the handling of the crisis”) led some to question whether this was simply a tactic to assist the establishment of a Qaddafist support group outside Libya (RFI, February 25, 2011). It was reported that Qadhaf al-Dam’s defection was spurred by news that he was to be included in a travel ban associated with an International Criminal Court (ICC) investigation into possible war crimes. After the “defection,” Qadhaf al-Dam’s name was dropped from the list of those named for a travel ban (The Guardian, March 3, 2011).

Qadhaf al-Dam I

Sunny Days: Qadhaf al-Dam with Cousin Mu’ammar

There were numerous reports that Qadhaf al-Dam had initially gone to the Egyptian/Libyan borderland that was his family home to recruit members of the cross-border Awlad Ali tribe to help repress the Libyan revolutionaries. Qadhaf al-Dam was reported to have gained influence within the tribe through his involvement in local real estate and tourism investments (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], February 25, 2011). The Awlad Ali were regarded with suspicion by successive Egyptian governments as possible Qaddafists, being essentially Libyan Arab tribesmen living in the Libyan Desert region of Egypt (known better to Cairo as the “Western Desert,” a region only effectively occupied by Egypt in the 19th century). Qaddafi’s promotion of a small-scale revolutionary movement amongst the border Bedouin tribes in the 1970s did nothing to alleviate government suspicions.

Unfortunately for Qadhaf al-Dam, the leaders of the Awlad Ali and other cross-border Libyan tribes quickly declared in favor of the revolution despite reported offers of millions of dollars and called for the Qadhaf al-Dam’s expulsion from Egypt (al-Arabiya, February 24, 2011). With a disapproving Egyptian intelligence establishment fully aware of his activities in the Western Desert, Qadhaf al-Dam headed for more favorable surroundings in Cairo, the center of the Qaddafist financial empire in Egypt.

Qadhaf al-Dam claims to have urged Qaddafi to enter a dialogue with the Libyan rebels, but the latter refused until French fighter jets began to hit Tripoli on March 19, 2011. Qadhaf al-Dam says he called Qaddafi from Egypt and now received a green light to negotiate with Qaddafi promising to withdraw from power if the bombing was stopped (L’Express, September 25, 2014). The account remains unconfirmed.

Qadhaf al-Dam’s financial establishment in Egypt allowed the alleged defector to live comfortably and surrounded by bodyguards under the name of Ahmad Muhammad al-Kazim on Hassan Sabry Street near the Marriot Hotel in Cairo’s fashionable Zamalek district, an island in the Nile that is home to many embassies, Egyptian officers’ clubs and some of Cairo’s wealthiest residents (Egypt Independent [Cairo], September 6, 2012). In August 2011, Qadhaf al-Dam emerged to deny speculation that he had not actually defected but was working as an agent of the Qaddafi regime in Egypt. Qadhaf al-Dam maintained his ambiguous “neutral” stance on the revolution, claiming that he had defected as a protest against both sides in the civil war (al-Arabiya TV, August 25, 2011).

While insisting that Qaddafist Libya was stable, safe and prosperous, Qadhaf al-Dam has suggested that Libyans had a right to rebel against the regime if they did not share the dreams and vision of Mu’ammar Qaddafi, “But what happened in Libya – and this is a shameful thing in our history – is that treachery became a legitimate point of view. All of a sudden, we sought help from foreigners. We befriended the Jews and the Christians – like Bernard-Henri Levy [a French and Jewish philosopher who played an important role in convincing his friend Nicolas Sarkozy to intervene in the Libyan Revolution], France and Italy…” (Dream2 TV [Cairo], January 17, 2015).

Post-Revolution Political Activism in Egypt

Following his “defection,” Qadhaf al-Dam’s Cairo home became a hub for Qaddafists in exile and various tribal leaders disenchanted with the results of Libya’s Revolution. Many of the exile community were major figures in the police, intelligence groups and the powerful Revolutionary Committees, numbering about 200 persons in all.

A significant scandal broke out in Tripoli in June 2012 when members of Libya’s ruling Transitional National Council (TNC) learned that TNC chairman Mustafa Abd al-Jalil had sent an envoy to Cairo to explore reconciliation efforts with the exiled Qaddafist community, most notably Qadhaf al-Dam, whom several sources identified as the initiator of the talks (AFP, June 7, 2012).

Qadhaf al-Dam’s Zamalek residence was raided by Egyptian police in March 2013. The police were fired on from within the residence, leading to the wounding of one officer before Qadhaf al-Dam and his entourage were disarmed (Daily News Egypt, December 9, 2013).

The raid, part of a Qaddafist round-up by the Islamist government of Egyptian president Muhammad Mursi, led to Qadhaf al-Dam being charged with attempted murder of police officers, resisting arrest and possessing unlicensed weapons, as well as being faced with a Libyan request for extradition.

In March 2013, Libyan authorities decided to essentially purchase the extradition of the detained Qaddafist leaders, depositing $2 billion in Egypt’s central bank as a kind of open loan during a foreign currency reserves crisis affecting Muhammad Mursi’s government. Libyan officials apparently understood that a reciprocal decision had been reached to extradite Qadhaf al-Dam, but they were to be sorely disappointed (al-Arabiya, March 25, 2013; AFP, March 23, 2013).

Cairo’s Administrative Court brought an end to Qadhaf al-Dam’s extradition proceedings on April 3, 2013, partly through his lawyer’s claim that Qadhaf al-Dam had Egyptian citizenship through his Egyptian birth, though former ambassador to Egypt Ali Marya and pro-Qaddafist Libyan businessman Muhammad Ibrahim Mansour were less fortunate, being returned to face Libyan corruption charges on March 19 and 26 respectively (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], April 3, 2013). In the meantime, Qadhaf al-Dam remained in the notorious Tora prison just south of Cairo to face charges related to the raid on his apartment.

Despite the apparent seriousness of the charges, Qadhaf al-Dam was acquitted on all counts on December 9, 2013 to the applause of relatives and supporters after the prosecution’s main witness (the police officer wounded in the raid) testified he was unable to identify the shooters (al-Masry al-Youm, December 9, 2013). Qadhaf al-Dam’s lawyer claimed that his client had been the victim of a deal between Libya and Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood organization during the rule of deposed Egyptian president Muhammad Mursi (June 30 2012 to July 3, 2013) (Youm 7 [Cairo], December 10, 2013). The decision shocked Libyan political leaders and a major political spat followed.

Qadhaf al-Dam’s extensive media activities in Egypt were also condemned by Libya’s GNC government in December 2013. The GNC described Qadhaf al-Dam’s frequent television appearances as “unacceptable behavior” and a “provocation” that threatened relations between Libya and Egypt (PANA, December 17, 2013).

The European Union’s General Court lifted the sanctions against Qadhaf al-Dam in September 2014 on the grounds that the regime which had led to the imposition of the sanctions no longer existed and that even though the EU maintained that Qadhaf al-Dam continued to “represent a threat to restoring civil peace” it had provided no proof for the claim (AFP, September 24, 2014). The next day a statement from the Libyan Embassy in Paris asserted that Qadhaf al-Dam had “continued to destabilize Libya since the period of the Revolution,” adding that he had also participated in inciting murder and the misuse of public funds (L’Express, September 25, 2014).

Qadhaf al-Dam and the Islamic State

In a January 2015 television interview, Qadhaf al-Dam expressed support for the Islamic State organization despite the protests of an astonished interviewer who expressed his surprise at Qadhaf al-Dam’s support for a “Satanic terrorist organization” and offered his interviewee numerous opportunities to retreat from his position: “I support Daesh (the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State organization). I support its establishment…. This enterprise should have been carried out 50 years ago… [young men] had nowhere to go, so they fled to Allah… I am blaming our governments, not the boys. We did not offer another way of confronting the West” (Dream2 TV [Cairo], January 17, 2015).

Elsewhere, Qadhaf al-Dam has claimed that the West and NATO created the Islamic State organization, adding: “There was no extremism in Iraq, Syria or Libya before the NATO intervention in these countries… [The extremists] came from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and several other countries and foreign states provided them air support… Their main objective was to kill Muammar Qaddafi, because he wanted to unify the continent” (Sputnik News, June 18, 2015). In yet another interview, Qadhaf al-Dam insisted that the Islamic State organization was a conspiracy against the Libyan nation and Islam itself (Assarih [Tunis], June 3, 2015).

Though General Khalifa Haftar, Qadhaf al-Dam’s former military colleague and now the leader of the internationally recognized Tobruk government’s “Operation Dignity,” is generally viewed by the Qaddafi clan as a traitor turned CIA asset, Qadhaf al-Dam has expressed support for Haftar’s campaign against Islamist factions and the rival General National Congress (GNC) government in Tripoli:  “Thanks to these heroes, we shall soon crush the NATO revolution and all those claiming to be Islamists” (Middle East Monitor, May 21, 2014).

Conclusion

A savvy and experienced political operator with a great instinct for self-preservation and a Qaddafi-like ability to catch his opponents off-guard, Ahmad Qadhaf al-Dam is at the center of a neo-Qaddafist movement poised to exploit any available opening in the political chaos that has enveloped Libya. There remain pockets of Qaddafi loyalists in many parts of Libya, though in the current environment they have typically kept their heads down. An exception is the city of Sabha in the Fezzan, where Qaddafists have made repeated and often provocative demonstrations that occasionally deteriorate into violence, most recently in August (Libya Herald, August 7, 2015).

The Nidal Front calls for a truth-and-reconciliation program (perhaps conveniently, given the record of human rights abuses by its proponents), the reformation of the security establishment, including the army and a rejection of violence, terrorism and religious extremism (Libya Herald, September 20, 2015). What is implied by their founding statement is that ruling Libya would be best left to the experienced hands of the Qaddafists, who, with a little democratic polish, might one day be acceptable to Libya’s war-weary populace. Having survived a number of critical legal challenges, Ahmad Qadhaf al-Dam now appears secure in his Egyptian base where he will continue to attempt to insert himself back into Libyan divided political structure in the name of Libyan reconciliation.

While Qadhaf al-Dam now serves up counter-extremism rhetoric he hopes will find resonance in both Libya and the West (where he remains relatively unknown), his ambivalent and at times self-contradicting views on the desirability of the Islamic State organization and his record of eliminating Qaddafi-era dissidents will prove a hard sell within Libya. However, as Libya’s economy and security enter a phase of near-total collapse, Qadhaf al-Dam may find that both time and the substantial funds under his control are on his side as he attempts to restore Cairo’s exiled Qaddafist community to power in a politically volatile Libya.

Notes

  1. David Blundy and Andrew Lycett: Qaddafi and the Libyan Revolution, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London, 1987, p.127.
  2. Ibid, p.163.
  3. M. Cherif Bassiouni, Libya: From Repression to Revolution: A Record of Armed Conflict and International Law Violations, 2011-2013, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, 2013, p.69.
  4. Official Journal of the European Union, “Judgment of the General Court 24 September 2014 – Kadhaf Al Dam vs Council,” http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/PDF/?uri=CELEX:62013TA0348&rid=2

This article first appeared in the September 2015 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor

Conflict at a Crossroads: Can Nigeria Sustain Its Military Campaign Against Boko Haram?

Andrew McGregor
June 26, 2015

Expectations that the election of new Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari would lead to effective military measures against northeast Nigeria’s Boko Haram militants have been dashed in recent weeks as the terrorist group carried out strikes on Chad and Niger, in addition to an intensified campaign of suicide bombings within Nigeria.

Nigeria - Buhari 1983General Muhammadu Buhari in 1983

Buhari, who once served as the military governor of Borno State, the region most affected by the Boko Haram insurgency, is determined to open the troubled Lake Chad region, the focus of the militants’ recent activities, up to oil exploration, but this requires a stable environment in the region first (Vanguard [Lagos], April 20, 2015). Buhari led a lightning strike against Chad in 1983 on several Lake Chad islands whose sovereignty was disputed by Nigeria, but did so without the authorization of civilian president Shehu Shagari. [1]

In the meantime, the newly elected president used his first trips abroad as president to visit his counterparts in Niger and Chad, a clear sign that Buhari intends to make a break from the relatively uncooperative approach of ex-President Goodluck Jonathan that helped breed distrust and even personal animosity among the region’s leaders. Talks were focused on security issues and the necessity of improving cooperation in this area.
Boko Haram leader Abubakr Shekau meanwhile, in March, pledged his movement’s allegiance to the Islamic State at the same time that Boko Haram was suffering serious reverses on the battlefield due to an infusion of new weapons and foreign military trainers in the lead-up to Nigerian elections. The movement now uses the official name Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP).

Problems of the Nigerian Military Inherited by President Buhari

Most of the fighting in the last two years has been carried out by the Nigerian Army’s 7th Division, specifically created from three armored brigades in August 2013 for use against Boko Haram and headquartered in Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State. The 7th Division replaced the multi-service Joint Task Force (JTF), which had been criticized for its indifference to civilian casualties in the battle against Boko Haram. However, certain problems have remained endemic to the Nigerian military, including:

• Poor air-ground operational coordination; air assets routinely fail to provide battlefield support;
• Demoralization to the point of mutiny in some units, often linked to insufficient training and a failure to pay salaries;
• Failure to keep Nigerian arms, ammunition and armored vehicles out of the hands of militants;
• Poor leadership that blames undertrained and under-equipped troops for their failure;
• Rampant corruption, even leading to battlefield shortages of arms and ammunition despite one of the largest defense budgets in sub-Saharan Africa, and political indifference. Ethnic rivalries also persist in the officer corps;
• Inferior logistics, an inability to maintain or at times operate complex equipment and a slow medical response on the battlefield;
• Indifference to civilian lives or human rights issues, a reliance on civilian vigilante groups and the penetration of the intelligence services by militants;
• Poor intelligence work, based partly on poor relations with local groups;
• A generally compliant media that encourages false confidence in the military;
• Unwillingness to cooperate in the field with regional allies, who are generally regarded by the Nigerian military as junior partners regardless of the reality on the ground.

While Chadian and Nigérien forces made substantial gains against Boko Haram earlier this year, there were still complaints that Nigeria was preventing hot pursuits of retreating militants that would have ultimately resulted in their destruction (Vanguard [Lagos], June 11, 2015). However, with President Jonathan in a tight race for re-election, the Boko Haram fight took on a new urgency, with Jonathan’s administration turning to Eastern European mercenaries to improve air-ground coordination and South African private military contractors to provide training in new weapons and tactics. The latter contractors were part of a company known as Specialized Tasks, Training, Equipment and Protection (STTEP), headed by Colonel Eeben Barlow, a widely-known private military contractor and former commander of the South African Defense Force’s 32 Battalion. STTEP concentrated on creating a mobile Nigerian strike force “with its own organic air support, intelligence, communications, logistics and other relevant combat support elements.” [2]

During their three-month contract, Barlow’s tactical approach, known as “relentless offensive action,” helped reverse recent gains by Boko Haram. Unfortunately, these gains appear to be in remission following the departure of the South Africans in late March.
In an effort to maintain the momentum, Buhari used his May 29 inauguration speech to announce he was shifting the command center for military operations against Boko Haram from Abuja (the Nigerian capital) to Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State and a frequent target for Boko Haram attacks since the election (Vanguard [Lagos], June 5, 2015).

Post-Election Attacks

Following the elections, Boko Haram launched an offensive using terrorist tactics almost immediately after Buhari took power. Since then, the group has also responded to increasing military pressure by shifting away from trying to occupy a “caliphate” in the Borno/Yobe/Adamawa States region of northeast Nigeria to the renewed use of terrorist methods, such as slaying inhabitants of defenseless villages in raids and hitting urban centers with suicide bombers targeting concentrations of people at markets, checkpoints and weddings. As well as mass raids on Maiduguri, Boko Haram has expanded its suicide bombings to the previously untouched city of Yola, the capital of Adamawa State (Vanguard [Lagos], June 5, 2015; Daily Trust [Lagos], June 6, 2015).

A Regional Solution: Reviving the Multi-National Joint Task Force

Though the Nigerian security forces found themselves hard-pressed after Buhari’s election, on a larger scale, there were signs that Boko Haram’s regional opponents were now ready to work out a common strategy through the revitalization of the Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF), an anti-terrorist alliance of Nigeria, Chad, Niger and Cameroon, with a non-military representation from Benin. The move promised to reverse the isolated efforts of alliance members during the Jonathan regime, with Chadian President Idriss Déby Itno complaining that, two months into the war, Chad’s military still had insufficient contact with the Nigerian military: “The Nigerian Army and the Chadian Army are working separately in the field. They are not undertaking joint operations. If they were [carrying out] joint operations probably they would have achieved more results” (Punch, [Lagos], June 9, 2015).

Nigeria - TroopsNigerian Troops with Captured Boko Haram Banner

Participating nations will begin deploying troops to the MNJTF on July 30, 2015. The force has a planned strength of 8,700 personnel while its operational zone will be split into three sectors. Each contributing nation will be responsible for equipping and maintaining their own units (Vanguard [Lagos], June 11, 2015). The post of MNJTF commander will be filled by a Nigerian until the end of the conflict with Boko Haram (a point Buhari insisted upon), while a Cameroonian will hold the post of deputy force commander and a Chadian will be the chief-of-staff. The latter two positions will rotate every 12 months. The task force’s headquarters will be located in N’Djamena, the Chadian capital and headquarters for France’s African security operations known as Operation Barkhane (Punch [Lagos], June 11, 2015).

The first MNJTF commander is Major General Tukur Yusuf Buratai, whose most notable former posting was as the commander of Joint Task Force, Operation Pulo Shield, which targeted oil thieves and pirates in the Niger Delta region (Daily Post [Lagos], June 3, 2015). General Buratai may have a personal interest in destroying Boko Haram; while he was away commanding Joint Task Force operations in the southern Niger Delta in 2014, his large Borno State home was attacked and burned by Boko Haram militants, who also killed one guard (Premium Times [Abuja], February 20, 2015). Under President Jonathan, Nigeria pledged to cover the main cost of funding the MNJTF, a pledge President Buhari renewed in June with an offer of $100 million (Vanguard [Lagos], June 11, 2015; This Day [Lagos], June 11, 2015).

Nigeria’s Demoralized Army

Poor morale has inhibited a strong Nigerian military response to Boko Haram. In late May, some 200 Nigerian soldiers were dismissed from service for cowardice, with many likely relating to the fall of the town of Mubi (Adamawa State) to Boko Haram in late October 2014. Troops in Mubi bolted for the state capital of Yola when Boko Haram attacked, and Nigerian authorities claimed to have “video evidence of their cowardice” (This Day [Lagos], May 28; Premium Times [Abuja], October 29, 2014). One of the dismissed soldiers claimed that they had only followed orders from their officers to withdraw from Mubi due to inadequate weapons (This Day [Lagos], May 28, 2015). Another sacked soldier claimed troops were given only five bullets each as well as expired bombs made in 1964. The troops’ heaviest weapons only had a range of 400 meters while they were facing militants using anti-aircraft weapons with a range of over 1,000 meters (Vanguard [Lagos], May 28, 2015 This Day [Lagos], May 28, 2015).

As of May 21, Nigerian military authorities were able to confirm that no less than 579 officers and soldiers were facing courts martial in Abuja and Lagos for offenses including indiscipline, refusal to obey orders, insubordination and cowardice (This Day [Lagos], May 21, 2015). Sixty-six other soldiers have already been condemned to death for mutiny and their failure to confront Boko Haram, though these sentences might be revisited by the new president.

New Equipment to Turn the Tide

Nigerian Ambassador to the United States Adebowale Adefuye expressed his government’s displeasure with what they perceived as the United States’ unwillingness to support the struggle against Boko Haram or provide lethal military equipment based on “rumors, hearsays and exaggerated accounts” of human rights abuses by Nigerian forces in Borno (Punch [Lagos], November 13, 2014). After Nigeria’s attempt last year to purchase U.S.-made Bell AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters from Israel (which had replaced their Cobra fleet with newer AH-64 Apache helicopters) was blocked by the United States, which retains control over resale of such equipment, Nigeria turned to other suppliers for its needs:

• Nigeria began to deploy newly acquired French-made Aérospatiale Gazelle attack helicopters in February, though it was unclear how many were purchased or from whom (DefenceWeb, March 16, 2015). What was clear, however, was that the helicopters were flown at first by foreign military contractors in support of operations carried out by Nigeria’s 72 Strike Force in Borno State;
• Two Eurocopter AS-332 Super Puma helicopters in storage since 1997 are being refurbished and upgraded by Eurocopter Romania. One of two existing Nigerian Super Puma helicopters was lost in a crash in Lagos on April 11 (This Day [Lagos], April 11, 2015);
• Nigeria’s air force will reportedly soon deploy Russian-made attack helicopters ordered in August 2014 (DefenceWeb, March 16, 2015). The new acquisitions include six Mi-35 (NATO reporting name “Hind-E”), an updated export version of the well-known Mi-24 (NATO reporting name “Hind”) designed for harsh climates. Besides its attack capabilities, the Mi-35 can also act as a transport, carrying eight fully equipped soldiers. Nigeria is also obtaining twelve Mi-17Sh (NATO reporting name “Hip”) helicopters, an export version of the multi-purpose transport/gunship Mi-17;
• Nigeria appears to be using five Chinese-made CASC CH-3 Rainbow UAV’s in combat missions against Boko Haram. A photo of one such craft downed in Borno State in January shows the drone is equipped with a variety of missiles, most likely YC-200 guided bombs and AR-1 air-to-ground missiles; [3]
• The United States has also permitted the sale of two Dassault/Dornier Alpha light attack/trainer jets to help replace losses (DefenceWeb, March 30; May 26).

Training on the new equipment, especially helicopter gunships and armored vehicles, was provided in part by South African private military contractors (BBC, March 13). Both air and land forces are being upgraded with night vision equipment.

Nigeria has also embarked on a major arms acquisition program that includes procuring 16 T-72 tanks and rocket launchers from the Czech Republic and armored personnel carriers from Ukraine, China, South Africa and Canada to provide greater battlefield mobility, firepower and security. Buhari’s election has also allowed the United States to reappraise its relations with Nigeria, deeply strained by the corruption and human rights abuses of the Jonathan regime (Reuters, June 5, 2015).

Regional Dimensions of the Conflict

Boko Haram is now targeting Chadian and Nigérien communities in response to the participation of these nations in the anti-Boko Haram military coalition. On June 18, militants crossed the border from Borno into the Diffa region of Niger, where they slaughtered at least 38 people, mostly women and children (AFP, June 19, 2015). Only days earlier, motorcycle-riding suicide bombers struck a police training college and the central police station in the Chadian capital of N’Djamena on June 15, killing 27 people. Boko Haram’s message was clear: despite Chad’s military offensive against the group, the group remained capable of striking the city, which serves as headquarters for the revamped MNJTF and France’s counter-terrorism Operation Barkhane (Reuters, June 15, 2015).

Vowing that “spilling the blood of Chadians will not go unpunished,” Chad’s air force claimed to have carried out airstrikes on six Boko Haram bases in Nigeria in retribution (Reuters, June 18, 2015). However, these claims were quickly rejected by Nigeria’s military, which insisted the air strikes must have been carried out in Niger. The inability of Nigeria and Chad to even agree on where air strikes were carried out demonstrates that cooperation is still in short supply. The somewhat testy statement issued by Nigerian Director of Defense Information Major General Chris Olukolade spoke to continued resentment of the military coalition among Nigeria’s military leadership: “Although the terms of the multilateral and bilateral understanding with partners in the war against terror allow some degree of hot pursuit against the terrorists, the territory of Nigeria has not been violated as insinuated in the reports circulated in some foreign media” (Premium Times [Abuja], June 18, 2015). Other measures announced by Chadian authorities included a round-up of foreigners and bans on the burqa and niqab (Nigerian Guardian [Lagos], June 20, 2015).

In addition, recognizing that underlying the Boko Haram rebellion is the extreme poverty of northeast Nigeria and neighboring regions around Lake Chad, the Lake Chad Basin Commission (consisting of Nigeria, Chad and Cameroon) is implementing an emergency $65 million development initiative in the region to “combat the causes and conditions that favor the development of insecurity” (Vanguard [Lagos], June 11, 2015).

Conclusion

Part of the reason the Nigerian military has had difficulty in establishing firepower superiority against the insurgents is that most of Boko Haram’s military equipment has been seized from Nigerian Army stocks, leaving both sides similarly equipped in terms of weapons. The Nigerian military must thus use the other advantages available to state actors, such as effective use of airpower, organized supply systems, troop rotation and employment of foreign technical experts where necessary.

Nigeria’s counter-insurgency efforts seem to have improved, notably through greater use of small numbers of better-trained Special Forces personnel rather than the deployment of large numbers of poorly-trained and poorly-equipped regular army personnel on the frontline. However, the inability of Nigeria’s security forces to prevent or even stem the growth of urban terrorism in the northeast speaks to the continued failure of Nigerian intelligence services to gather actionable intelligence in the region.

At the moment, Nigerian Special Forces personnel and Air Force assets appear to be leading the effort to clear Boko Haram from their bases in the Sambisa Forest. Losses are reportedly heavy (precise figures are hard to come by), and there are still problems in the supply chain, with troops in the field going for days with little water or food (Daily Trust [Lagos], June 6). However, new weapons and tactics will inevitably prove to be only part of a more comprehensive military and economic solution to Nigeria’s expanding Boko Haram insurgency. President Buhari’s new administration can either exploit the renewed goodwill it has encountered from the United States and an eagerness amongst its regional military partners for greater military and economic cooperation, or it can fall back into the familiar patterns of negligence and corruption that have so hampered the struggle against Boko Haram. In this sense, the crisis in the Lake Chad region has reached a crossroads for the Nigerian government.

This article first appeared in the June 26, 2015 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Notes
1. See Jack Murphy, “Eeben Barlow Speaks Out (Pt. 2): Development of a Nigerian Strike Force,” April 6, 2015, http://sofrep.com/40623/eeben-barlow-speaks-pt-2-development-nigerian-strike-force/.
2. See Adeoye A. Akinsanya and John A. Ayoade, An Introduction to Political Science in Nigeria, Rowman & Littlefield, 2013, p. 272; Adekeye Adebajo, Liberia’s Civil War: Nigeria, ECOMOG, and Regional Security in West Africa, Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2002
3. See http://www.airforceworld.com/blog/ch3-uav-drone-crashed-in-nigeria/.

French Foreign Legion Operation in the Strategic Passe de Salvador

Andrew McGregor

Tips and Trends: The AIS African Security Report, May 2015

The Passe de Salvador runs past the northwest side of north-eastern Niger’s Plateau du Manguéni, near the frontier between Libya, Algeria and the Agadez region of Niger. On the Niger side, the pass connects to the smugglers’ route running across the Ténéré du Tafassâsset desert parallel to the Algerian border in northern Niger, a route used by veteran Algerian jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar when he withdrew his forces from northern Mali to southern Libya in early 2013. The Salvador Pass has traditionally been controlled by Adrar Tuareg centered on the south-western Libyan town of Ubari, unlike the Passe de Toummo on the southern side of the Plateau du Manguéni, which is controlled by the Tuareg’s traditional nomad rivals, the Tubu, who operate on both sides of the Libya-Niger border.

Salvador Pass 2Passe de Salvador, top left; Fort Madama, bottom right.

The 2e Régiment étranger de parachutistes (2e REP) was originally raised from Foreign Legion troops in 1948 for use in the French colonies of Indochina. Few members of the regiment survived the French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 (in which the “paras” played a prominent role) and the subsequent imprisonment of the small number of survivors by the Viet Minh. Since then, the rebuilt airborne unit has served on numerous operations in the Balkans, Afghanistan and across a host of Middle Eastern and African countries. Now based in Corsica, 2e REP is likely to be the first unit deployed in foreign operations as the lead unit of France’s Rapid Reaction Corps and is kept at a stage of alertness that allows it deploy within 24 hours of receiving orders.

In a world where helicopter-borne air assault operations have largely replaced airborne operations and there is criticism in some Western nations that paratroopers are expensive and little-used, France continues to be an exponent of airborne operations, though it has not carried out such an operation during hostilities for over 35 years (the last being at Kolwezi, Zaïre, in 1978). Since that time, two French airborne divisions have been reduced to a single brigade, the 11e Brigade Parachutiste, consisting of roughly 8500 men organized into eight regiments, only one of which is composed of Legionnaires. Participation in hard fighting in Afghanistan helped sharpen the combat skills of the 11th Brigade and other French military units. [1]

2e REP arrived in northern Mali from a French base in Côte d’Ivoire in dramatic fashion on January 28, 2013 with a parachute drop of a company-size unit into the region just north of Timbuktu to cut off retreating jihadists being pushed north by French armor, marine infantry and Chadian forces during Operation Serval (in the event, no jihadists were encountered by the 2e REP). [2] An unidentified French Special Forces unit (possibly elements of the Commando parachutiste de l’air n°10 (CPA 10 – No. 10 Air Parachute Commando) carried out another drop on northern Mali’s Tessalit Airport on the evening of February 7, 2013 as part of a complex land-air operation involving Chadian troops and helicopter-borne French troops of the 1er régiment de chasseurs parachutistes (1er RCP) and the 21e Régiment d’Infanterie de Marine (21e RIMa – actually a light armored unit despite its name) as well as elements of other units formed into a combined-arms tactical battle group (L’Express, February 21, 2013). [3] Since then, 2e REP has continued operations in northern Mali as part of France’s military strategy for northern Africa, Operation Barkhane.

Operation Kunama II

In mid-April, perhaps as much in an attempt to engage in high-level training in oppressive conditions as from operational concerns, 2e REP made a daring night jump into the unfamiliar terrain of the Salvador Pass linking Libya to Niger, a desolate but strategically important site frequently used by Saharan smugglers, terrorists and insurgents. [4] There are unconfirmed reports that French Special Forces were inserted into the Pass in the early days of Operation Serval and even mounted cross-border operations against jihadists who had fled to the ungoverned regions of south-western Libya.

Rather than drop the paras into the Pass itself, it was decided to land them on the adjacent Manguéni Plateau five kilometers from the Pass. There they were met by their operational partners, 50 men of the much lower-budget Nigerien Army who were forced to drive rather than fly to the rendezvous. Food and water were supplied to the French troops on pallets dropped by C-130 cargo aircraft.

After consolidating control of the Salvador Pass, the French and Nigerien troops left on a long and challenging drive to the old colonial-era Legion fort at Madama on the Djado Plateau, near which French forces set up a forward operating base and airstrip in October 2014.  The fort still has a garrison of Nigerien troops tasked with controlling the smuggling and trafficking routes that run through the area, some of which are used by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the related al-Murabitoun.

Salvador Pass 1French Legionnaires and Nigerien Troops at Fort Madama

The drive to Fort Madama exposed some weaknesses in the six-wheeled Panhard ERC 90 Sagaie armored all-terrain vehicles used by the French in northern Mali, as they began to quickly break down in the harsh conditions and terrain; according to the unit’s colonel, “Our vehicles are designed for Europe. Here, we are left with temperatures rising to 40-45 degrees maybe even 50 degrees. Our tanks are not designed for that and also suffer from the sand. It creeps everywhere and everything deteriorates” (RFI, April 23, 2015).

While no contact was made with jihadist forces or the region’s elusive smugglers during Operation Kunama II, it provided necessary field experience, training opportunities and logistical support practice for French military forces in some of the world’s most hostile terrain. Though jihadist activities were not interrupted by the operation, it nevertheless sent a clear signal to jihadis and smugglers alike that powerful French forces can be deployed in the Niger-Libya border region within hours if the presence of armed groups in the area is detected by French Harfang drones based in the Nigerien capital of Niamey.

Notes

  1. Pp. 38-39, http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/research_reports/RR700/RR770/RAND_RR770.pdf
  2. Footage of the drop shot from a Harfang drone can be viewed here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ElySEd8MOw . Footage of an airdrop of heavy equipment the next day at Timbuktu Airport by the 17e Régiment du Génie Parachutiste (17e RGP – 17th Parachute Engineer Regiment) can be viewed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u8vDElXEMWw
  3. These improvised formations with integrated fire support are known in the French Army as Groupement tactique interarmes (GTIA). French troops typically train and operate in such formations.
  4. Video of 2e REP in the Passe de Salvador can be seen at: https://www.youtube.com/user/FORCESFRANCAISES

Two Months to War? The Return of RENAMO

Andrew McGregor

From Tips and Trends: The AIS African Security Report, May 2015

Over two decades after the end of the Cold War, nearly all the African guerrilla movements of that era have perished, been absorbed or made the transition to political party. Mozambique’s Resistência Nacional Moçambicana (RENAMO) is one of the few such movements to have never tasted power yet still retain an active armed (albeit aged) wing. Mozambique’s vast size, poverty and inefficient security forces allow a few hundred armed men to apply a disproportionate degree of pressure on the governing party, RENAMO’s long-time rival the Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (FRELIMO). FRELIMO has ruled Mozambique without interruption since independence from Portugal in 1975.

mozambiqueIndependence was followed by a 16-year civil war that ended in 1992. Portugal’s African colonies were notorious for their general disregard for projects such as education, development and the creation of a political and judicial infrastructure that had any other purpose than the furtherance of Portuguese interests. The civil war destroyed the nation’s economy and it was generally assumed that what had long been interpreted as a proxy conflict (RENAMO/the West vs. FRELIMO/the Communist bloc) would quickly collapse as in so many other places. While RENAMO did make the transition to opposition political party, the disarmament and integration process was never completed, leaving RENAMO with an armed wing able to apply political pressure on authorities in Maputo, the capital. Many of the RENAMO fighters are now in their forties and fifties and are growing impatient with the inability of movement leaders to take power and reward their loyalty. From April 2013 to July 2014 there were small-scale clashes between RENAMO fighters and government forces in Sofala province as well as blockades of roads and rail-lines before a ceasefire agreement led to a commitment from RENAMO to contest October 2014 elections.

Suddenly, however, Mozambique’s future looks a little brighter, due to evidence that the nation may be sitting on important offshore and inland energy reserves. Exploration in the Rovuma Basin off the coast of northern Mozambique’s Cabo Degado province (a FRELIMO stronghold) has yielded exciting results, with speculation that desperately poor Mozambique could become one of the world’s top three producers of liquefied natural gas (LNG). Italy’s Eni SpA and the American Anadarko Petroleum Corporation are prepared to take the finds into production, though political instability could force a revision in plans.

The current crisis in Mozambique began, oddly enough, with RENAMO leader Afonso Dhlakama’s surprisingly successful showing in last October’s general election. While still losing the national vote to FRELIMO’s candidate, former defense minister Filipe Jacinto Nyusi, RENAMO improved its share of the national vote from 17% in 2009 (the last general election) to 37% overall despite numerous irregularities in the voting process. The expected negative influence of several years of clashes with the ruling party and the national army did not appear to shape the vote significantly, partly because FRELIMO was viewed as having started the confrontations and because RENAMO restricted its armed opposition to attacks on military personnel rather than the civilian population (Africasacountry.com, November 5, 2014). The unpopularity of FRELIMO’s cronyism and high unemployment rates for graduates has enabled RENAMO to begin drawing support from younger voters, even in FRELIMO strongholds like Maputo.

Mozambique - RENAMOAn Aging Movement: RENAMO guerrillas in the field

Nonetheless, RENAMO rejected the election results as tainted and its MPs refused to attend parliament until a “gentleman’s agreement” was forged between Nyusi and Dhlakama that specified Dhlakama’s demand for autonomous RENAMO administrations in the six north and central provinces that voted in a majority for RENAMO would be considered in parliament (the six provinces claimed by RENAMO include Sofala, Manica, Tete, Zambezia, Nampula and Niassa).When the RENAMO-sponsored bill to create autonomous regions finally came up in parliament on April 30, it was quickly and decisively defeated by the FRELIMO majority (APA, May 1, 2015).

Eduardo Namburete, head of external relations for RENAMO, said the movement felt the ruling party had not honored the spirit of the agreement by treating it seriously and issued a deliberately ambiguous warning in response:

To our surprise, the ruling party in parliament did not even consider discussing this bill. They just voted it out… In our view what was defeated was not RENAMO, what was defeated was the will of the people… We are not proposing war. People are taking our stance very wrongly. But we are saying we are not just going to cross our hands and wait and just watch things happening. Of course the ultimate decision will be the people’s decision. If the people decide that they don’t want a FRELIMO government in those provinces where RENAMO won, then the people will take that decision (VOA, May 6, 2015).

Dhlakama has since given Nyusi and FRELIMO a two-month deadline to reconsider their position or face unspecified consequences.

The FRELIMO leader has suggested opposition to his plan emanates from a “radical” faction within FRELIMO (LUSA, April 27, 2015). The opposition leader is under pressure within his party after RENAMO has failed in every multi-party election since they were introduced in 1994. Patience is running out, and Dhlakama appears to view the autonomous provinces proposal as his party’s best chance at getting their hands on the levers of power. So far, the RENAMO leader is trying to give the impression he does not accept failure as an option: “I, Dhlakama, shall form a government by force, even if I have to use a Plan B to reach power without FRELIMO’s approval” (AIM, April 7, 2015).

FRELIMO still appears to be willing to used its armed wing to apply pressure on the national government – in recent weeks RENAMO gunmen have been observed moving south from their bases in Sofala Province into the pro-FRELIMO southern provinces of Gaza and Inhambane, even attacking an FADM position in strength in the Guija district of Gaza in early April (AIM, April 3, 2015). RENAMO also threatened to create a new general staff headquarters in central Sofala, a RENAMO stronghold and the center of the movement’s 2013-14 insurrection (AIM, April 6, 2015).

The Armed Forces

The Mozambique Armed Defense Forces (Forcas Armadas de Defesa de Moçambique – FADM) was formed in 1994 and was intended to incorporate fighters from both FRELIMO and RENAMO. The armed forces continue to be undermanned with an estimated strength of 13,000 (the post-civil war army was intended to have 24,000). This is due to several factors, including the underfunding of the military, poor pay and career prospects and a failure to attract ex-RENAMO fighters. The military is possibly better known for corruption and indiscipline than for fighting prowess and most of its equipment is unserviceable due to lack of maintenance. So little progress has been made on the integration of RENAMO personnel into the armed forces that an international team of observers tasked with monitoring the process has largely dissolved as there was nothing to observe (AIM, April 6, 2015). Talks between FRELIMO and RENAMO have ground to a standstill after over 100 largely fruitless sessions. One of the major problems facing FADM Chief of General Staff General Graca Thomas Chongo is the question of whether former RENAMO fighters in the FADM are willing to confront their former comrades in the event of an internal conflict.

PROJECTIONS

In the current political-economic climate, RENAMO’s ability to muster external support for a wide-scale rebellion has been severely downgraded. Despite its weaknesses, FRELIMO has succeeded in making the jump from communist-allied Cold War pariah to a reliable partner for Western investors, particularly in the emerging and promising energy sector. In the event of open conflict with RENAMO, FRELIMO might conceivably attract foreign military support (arms, equipment, logistical support, intelligence, etc.) but would far more likely be encouraged to find a negotiated solution with foreign diplomatic support. Mozambique’s ports are essential to the prosperity of its land-locked neighbors, making it likely that Maputo would face intense pressure from the 14 other members of the South African Development Community (SADC) to do whatever is necessary to ensure the security of transport routes cutting through Mozambique.

Neither the government nor RENAMO has the strength and firepower that would necessarily encourage them to engage in a prolonged test of arms. RENAMO’s demands are unconstitutional and the institutionalization of another level of government outside the control of the national ruling party would do much to discourage new foreign investment or the development of Mozambique’s promising energy sector. While RENAMO does not have the strength to rule in the six provinces “by force,” as it has promised, it does have the potential to create economic havoc by cutting roads and other transportation routes. In this scenario, some form of international intervention (diplomatic, economic or military) should be expected before Mozambique’s political paralysis is allowed to disrupt the economic life of the entire southern region.