Romolo Gessi Pasha: Early Counter-Insurgency Lessons from an Italian Soldier of Fortune’s Campaign in Central Africa

Andrew McGregor

Military History Online, August 21, 2016

Gessi portraitRomolo Gessi Pasha

Successful counterinsurgencies typically combine the deployment of superior weapons, competent logistics, advanced tactics and the ability to win the “hearts and minds” of the non-insurgent population.  What is striking about the success of Italian soldier-of-fortune Romolo Gessi Pasha (1831-1881) against insurgent Arab traders and slavers in the south Sudan was his ability to overcome a much larger group of fighters who possessed similar weapons, had greater experience in both irregular and conventional warfare, held fortified positions, were at home in the terrain and had wide public support in the most influential parts of Sudanese society, including the military. Ultimately, Gessi Pasha would go down in history as the relentless weapon used by Sudanese governor-general Charles “Chinese” Gordon to smite the Arab slavers of Bahr al-Ghazal and destroy their expanding influence.

Early Career

Gessi is believed to have attended military schools in Germany and Austria before finding work as an interpreter for British forces in the Crimean War, where he would first meet Captain Charles Gordon of the Royal Engineers, later governor of Sudan’s Equatoria Province (1874-76) and governor general of the Sudan (1877-79).

Dr. Robert W. Felkin, an English medical-missionary and occultist, described the nervous energy that propelled Gessi, “a small wiry man, very impulsive and vivacious. He had grey hair, bright lively eyes and highly nervous hands; he seemed as if he could not sit still for a moment, but was always on the move, and continually occupied in making cigarettes… I think I never met a more entertaining companion.” [1] Gordon later described Gessi in his journal in 1881, when Gessi was 49-years-old: “Short, compact figure; cool, most determined man. Born genius for practical ingenuity in mechanics. Ought to have been born in 1560, not 1832. Same disposition as Francis Drake.” [2] Gessi’s colleague and sometime antagonist Carl Christian Giegler Pasha, the German deputy governor-general of the Sudan until 1883, remarked after Gessi’s death that he had been “one of the most striking figures in the Sudan.” [3] According to Giegler:

When [Gordon] went to the Sudan, he took Gessi with him, for he had a fancy for daredevils like Gessi… He knew how to tame such people and make them useful… Anyone was good enough for the wilds of Central Africa. It was of no importance to Gordon whether the people had previously been honest citizens or rogues. [4]

Giegler claimed Gordon once told him that “Gessi was a fellow capable of the worst and basest actions. Gordon once said to me in the course of conversation, ’Do you know Gessi yet? If I were to order him to kill his own mother, he would certainly do it.’” [5]

When Gessi accepted Gordon’s offer of a staff position in the Sudan in 1873 he was 42-years-old. Though the multilingual Gessi had only an acquaintance with Sudanese Arabic, he did speak Turkish, the command language of the Egyptian Army. While he was now under the authority of the Muslim Egyptian Khedive (Turkish – “viceroy”) and thus an official of the Ottoman Sultan, Gessi had a very low opinion of Islam, which he characterized as only “the first step from fetishism.” [6] Gessi once recommended “colonization on a large scale” to Christianize the Sudan, citing as a model the Protestant Dutch Boers in South Africa.  [7]

Gessi - Giegler PortraitCarl Christian Giegler Pasha

In 1875 Gessi led a mission to Uganda’s Lake Albert conducted on a lice-ridden open boat through continual storms; bananas were often their only food. Gessi feuded with an Italian compatriot on the expedition, beat his Arab sailors with a cudgel and made no useful contacts with the natives. [8]  Gessi claimed to have circumnavigated the lake, but according to Giegler, no one in Khartoum believed him. [9] Gessi was often consumed with sketchy money-making enterprises; Giegler and another official lost a substantial sum of money in Gessi’s attempt to speculate in sorghum, an incident that may have helped color much of Giegler’s later negative assessments of Gessi’s character. [10]

Gessi resigned after Gordon presented him with only a minor Ottoman decoration for his work on Lake Albert. [11 ]An 1878 mission to the Upper Sobat region followed and Gessi was planning yet another venture in the southern Sudan when news came that Sulayman Bey Zubayr had revolted in Bahr al-Ghazal Province, massacring the Dem Idris garrison and 400 loyal Arab traders before proclaiming the independence of Bahr al-Ghazal. Despite Gessi’s resignation, Gordon asked him to mount an expedition against the powerful rebels.

Bahr al-Ghazal in the Age of Slavery

After its conquest by Egypt in 1821, Sudan was ruled by elements of the non-Arab Turco-Circassian elite that dominated Egypt’s Arab majority. Though the Egyptian Khedive ruled largely independently of his nominal master, the Ottoman Sultan, the Egyptian administration in Sudan was dominated by Turks, Circassians and other peoples of the far-flung Ottoman Empire. Of local importance were the three powerful Arab tribes of northern Sudan, the Danagla, the Ja’aliyin and the Sha’iqiya.

In the mid-19th century so much of Sudan’s economy was built around slave labor that any attempt to simply abolish it would mean the ruin of the country and certain revolt. From 1837 to 1848, the Egyptian government maintained a monopoly on the south Sudan slave trade. This trade was eventually turned over to private merchants before Cairo yielded to international pressure in 1869 and engaged Sir Samuel Baker to abolish slavery in Egypt’s southern dominions. Baker’s often brutal methods succeeded mostly in displacing the slave trade from Sudan’s Equatoria Province to the less accessible Bahr al-Ghazal Province.

Prior to 1850, trade in the Bahr al-Ghazal was largely carried out by itinerant Arab and Arabized-Nubian traders from north Sudan known as jallaba. However, as ivory began to dry up, the traders turned to “black ivory” – slaves. Up to this point, the jallaba (not all of whom were slavers) had paid local rulers for trading rights and protection, but now aligned themselves with the armed trading establishments run by Khartoum-based trading houses.

Europeans and Levantines were also important as ivory traders in Bahr al-Ghazal, but most had sold their interests to Arabs by 1862 as a result of the depletion of ivory stocks, the undesirability of being associated with the expanding slave trade and the increasing violence in the region. [12 ]The slave markets in Khartoum were closed in 1857 but reopened in more inaccessible places in the south. Nonetheless, the European traders based in Khartoum continued to profit from the trade by offering high-interest loans to Arab slavers. [13]

In 1877 the Egyptian Khedive signed an anti-slavery agreement with the British government that called for an immediate end to the slave-trade and the gradual elimination of slavery over seven years in Egypt and twelve years (i.e. 1889) in the more slave-dependent Sudan. Gordon maintained that the agreement could never be properly implemented in that time-frame: “No man in the place of a governor would plunge the whole country into revolt on this question…” [14]

Most slaves were women who performed domestic tasks or were destined for harems in Cairo, Istanbul and other parts of the Ottoman Empire. Corvée labor was usually preferred to slave labor on large projects and plantation labor was rarely performed by male slaves, who were instead diverted to the army for training before being sent back to the Sudan as soldiers. Manumission, susceptibility to disease (particularly Cairo’s regular plague epidemics) and low fertility rates meant that the slave population was constantly in need of replenishment.

Most of the leading traders in Sudan established zariba-s, trading settlements initially fortified by encirclements of thorn bushes and later by earth berms and timber. The traders deployed thousands of armed men, many of them bazinqir-s, former slaves who were allowed a share of the profits in return for their service. Maintaining private armies was not cheap, however, and the traders increasingly focused on expanding the slave trade with the connivance of officials of the Turco-Egyptian government. Unable to assert its authority in the region, the government attempted to integrate the traders into the official administration, giving their activities a degree of immunity.

With the main occupation of Egyptian Army detachments in the region being the collection of slaves and ivory, the traders began sending their illicit cargos north through desert routes to avoid the Nile. Mortality rates were now far higher, making it necessary to send greater numbers of slaves north in order to maintain the normal profit margins. Sulayman’s powerful father, Zubayr Rahma Mansur Pasha (c. 1831 – 1913), attempted several times to negotiate right-of-passage treaties with the Baqqara (cattle-raising) Arabs of southern Darfur, but despite agreeing to a pact in 1866, the Arab tribesmen could not in the end be persuaded that receiving payment for passage would ultimately be more profitable than raiding slave caravans. These difficulties eventually inspired Zubayr to invade Darfur and add it to his personal empire.

The slavers’ private armies were no mere rabble; in most cases they were as disciplined as government troops, often better fed and supplied, at least as well armed and frequently more experienced in combat and the use of firearms. The men were fiercely loyal to their commanders and were paid in goods, including cattle and slaves. [15]

Zubayr Pasha and Sulayman Bey

By 1865, Zubayr controlled most of the Dar Fertit region of Bahr al-Ghazal. Following a successful thirteen-month war with the militarily powerful Zande peoples, Zubayr found himself the strongest force in the region by early 1873. In the meantime, Zubayr had angered authorities in Khartoum in May 1873 by killing the government-appointed ruler of Dar Fertit, an adventurer from Baguirmi (a slave-raiding sultanate in southern Chad) who had tried to seize Zubayr’s goods on a pretext.

Gessi - Zubayr 2Zubayr Pasha

In December 1873 the Khedive issued a royal decree making Zubayr governor of Bahr al-Ghazal with the Ottoman rank of Bey (a high Ottoman administrative rank, second to Pasha). [16] With his status vis-à-vis the government now normalized, Zubayr began to use his ever-increasing wealth to bribe all levels of officialdom, making himself one of the most powerful men in Sudan.

After a series of disputes with the Khedive’s appointee as Darfur governor, Zubayr decided to travel to Cairo in 1875 to lay his case before the Khedive personally, leaving a force of 6,000 men under the command of his son Sulayman (Zubayr maintained Sulayman was 15-years-old at the time; Gordon believed he was 21, a more likely age). [17] Though he was initially received with great ceremony, Zubayr eventually learned that the Khedive intended his stay in Cairo to be permanent to sideline the possibility that Zubayr might create a mighty empire in Darfur that could eventually threaten Egypt. [18]

While in Cairo, Zubayr met with Gordon, who was on his way back to the Sudan. Zubayr entrusted his son’s safety to Gordon while writing to Sulayman to remain loyal. Shortly after Gordon’s arrival in Khartoum he succeeded in quelling a revolt by Sulayman, but rather than executing the young man, Gordon exacted a promise of future loyalty and released the would-be rebel. The governor-general’s decision to free Sulayman was calculated rather than based on moral softness; Gordon expected reciprocity when he was magnanimous and, in this sense, Sulayman’s days were numbered once he decided to launch a new revolt. [19]

An unconfirmed story claims Zubayr had gathered his officers under a Tamarind tree near Shakka (a town in south Darfur Zubayr had seized from the Baqqara Arabs) and instructed them to revolt if they received a message from Cairo to “carry out the orders given under the tree.” Gordon believed such instructions were sent after he refused to assist Zubayr’s return from Cairo. [20]

Gessi - GordonCharles George Gordon Pasha in Ottoman Uniform

Meanwhile, Zubayr’s empire had been damaged by the misadministration of Idris Abtar, a Danagla slave-trader and merchant who had been appointed in Zubayr’s absence. Rightfully sensing trouble with Sulayman and his Ja’aliyin following, Idris convinced Gordon that Sulayman was in revolt. Idris was given command of Bahr al-Ghazal and set out with some 200 regulars to bring Sulayman to heel. Sulayman reportedly wrote to Gordon, expressing his willingness to submit to a Turk or European, but not to Idris, whom he regarded as a mere servant of his father. [21]  Sulayman now seized Dem Idris and slaughtered the garrison, which brought support from other leading slave-traders opposed to the government’s anti-slavery measures. However, as Gessi noted, “Gordon Pasha was not the man to leave acts of revolt and the massacre of his soldiers unpunished.” [22]

Sulayman’s Revolt

Prior to Sulayman’s revolt, Bahr al-Ghazal, a massive province of over 48,000 square miles at the time, was held for the Egyptian government by only two companies of Egyptian Army regulars, 2 cannon and 700 irregulars, the latter including Arab Sha’iqiya horsemen, local slave-troops and a mixed bag of adventurers and bashi-bazouq (“cracked brains”), Ottoman mercenaries who worked mainly for loot. Sulayman, on the other hand, had four “superior” cannon (with ample supplies of shells and grapeshot), Congreve rockets, ammunition in “enormous quantities” and thousands of well-trained troops. [23]

If Gessi was unaware of the hopelessness of his task, there were many in Khartoum who were ready to remind him: “When, solicited by Gordon, I accepted my mission, everybody began to laugh, saying that Gordon wished at all costs to get rid of me, and that he was sending me to certain death.” [24]

Sulayman’s appeals for fighters brought in thousands of recruits eager to preserve their slice of the lucrative slave trade. According to Gessi, Sulayman had some 700 wives, concubines and slaves, his lieutenant Rabih Fadlallah had 400 slaves, individual Arabs typically had 50 to 100 slaves, and even the lowly bazinqir-s could expect to own five to ten slaves each.

Many of Gessi’s troops were former slaves purchased by Gordon, a recruitment method that earned Gordon the ire of the politically influential London-based Anti-Slavery Society. Gordon did not have great confidence in the rough types of dubious loyalty of the Egyptian Army in the Sudan commanded by Gessi, noting in his diary that: “I am very anxious about him, amid all that gang of scoundrels.”  [25]

Though a loyal servant of the Khedive, Gordon was at all times aware of the corruption and brutality that characterized the Turco-Egyptian administration of the Sudan, suggesting that had Zubayr’s group not been slave-traders it might have been better for the people if the revolt had been successful. [26]

In Pursuit of the Slavers

Gessi left Khartoum on July 15, 1878 on the steamship Burdayn with 40 soldiers before spectators entranced by the sight of men heading to a certain death. [27] The strategic goal was to prevent Sulayman’s forces from joining in the north with the 5,000 men under Amir Muhammad Harun al-Rashid, a Fur prince who was seeking the expulsion of Egyptian troops from Darfur and the re-establishment of an independent Fur sultanate. [28] Gessi believed that Sulayman was intent on using Darfur as a base to seize Khartoum and force the Khedive to free his father, though this was only conjecture.

Gessi - BordeinThe Burdayn on the Nile

The difficulty faced in eliminating the deeply entrenched slave trade was apparent when Gessi detained a two-masted dahabiya (a shallow-bottomed boat designed for use on the Nile) carrying 92 slaves crammed below decks. The ship was government-owned, the slaves were in the care of an officer of the regular army, and the cargo allegedly belonged to Colonel Ibrahim Fawzi Bey, governor of Equatoria Province and a favorite of Gordon. The captain of the ship was the brother-in-law of Yusuf Bey al-Shallali, Gessi’s Nubian second-in-command. [29]

Gessi expected to collect more troops on the way, but when he reached the garrison at Fashoda, he found only sick and convalescent men, of whom “the greater part were afflicted with syphilitic diseases, festering wounds, and the itch.” [30] The Fashoda arsenal was empty; at Lado, officials made 240 antique firearms available, but hid from Gessi all the modern Remingtons and ammunition.

By October 1878, Gessi could only muster 3,000 of the 7,500 troops he expected to command. At Rumbek, he obtained four companies of regulars and 1,000 irregulars of questionable loyalty, most having friends and relatives in the rebel camp. Arabs enticed many of the men to desert, a practice Gessi inhibited by publically executing a deserter and flogging others.

The annual floods in the region that inhibited campaigning began to fall, and by mid-November 1878, Gessi was ready to march against the rebels. Once the fighting had started, Sulayman received a telegram from his father urging submission, an approach also favored by a council of 12 elders established to advise the young Sulayman. This advice was dismissed, with Sulayman convinced that he and all the leading men under him would be executed if they surrendered. [31 ]Nonetheless, Sulayman consented to sending two delegations to Gordon; all members were executed by Gordon as spies on Gessi’s advice.[32] This marked the end of any possibility of a negotiated settlement. Success would now be the only means of survival.

From the beginning, Gessi’s advance overland was slowed by thick vegetation and the soldiers’ insistence on bringing their women, children and slaves with them, a practice Gessi knew would hamper his progress but felt unable to correct without provoking dissent in the ranks. [33] The camp followers left the columns in a “perpetual turmoil which at times threatened a hopeless confusion.”  [34]

Terrain was near impassable at times; one particular five-hour “march” through waist-high swamp water underlain by thick, boot-sucking mud was called “the Devil’s Walk” by Gessi’s men. Forty-two men declined to answer the roll-call that night, “lying in the mud, preferring to die rather than go on, as they had no more strength.” [35] Powerful lightning storms lit up the nights and rain fell “with such force that it took one’s breath away.” [36] Villages on the way had been emptied by the slavers, who also burned grain-stores and the boats needed to cross crocodile-infested rivers.

Fatal illnesses such as smallpox and dysentery struck with frequency, while Gessi complained it was difficult to convince fatalistic Muslims of the wisdom of preventative health and sanitation measures. Lack of medical treatment meant an agonizing death was the most common fate of the wounded on both sides. The methods of the few Egyptian doctors under Gessi’s command was eye-opening: “Never have I seen doctors beat sick soldiers!” [37]

Constant ammunition shortages were another problem. Sulayman’s Arabs made their own copper bullets with metal from southern Darfur and traded slaves for ammunition and food. At time, Gessi had to order his troops to gather spent rebel bullets to be recast into ammunition for government rifles, sometimes in the midst of a firefight. When ammunition did arrive, it was in the form of ingots of lead and barrels of powder. Paper for making cartridges was in short supply, with official stationary and books from Gessi’s baggage being pressed into use during one crisis.

When supplies of meat and salt expired, Gessi noted that Zande troops under his command remained healthy, “owing to the feeding on human flesh. Directly after a battle they cut off the feet of the dead as the most exquisite dainties, opened the skulls and preserved the brains in pots.” [38] What is implicit here is that Gessi, like the later Congo Free State army of the 1890s, tolerated such practices, preferring to reserve the use of authority for measures directly concerned with military success while enjoying the psychological threat cannibalism imposed on the enemy.

By December 12, Gessi had gathered 2400 soldiers under his command at Wau, thanks in part to the decision of trader Abu Amuri to join the government side, bringing with him 700 armed men. [39] This force enabled Gessi to advance on Dem Idris, which under Sulayman had been commanded by ‘Abd al-Qassim, “a wild beast in human form” alleged to have conducted human sacrifices. [40]

If he tried to assault Dem Idris directly, Gessi was guaranteed a ferocious fight from a defending force at least as large as his own when assaults on fortified positions usually dictated a minimum of a three-to-one advantage over the defenders. Gessi dictated a message to a captured spy warning of the imminent arrival of large numbers of government troops at Dem Idris. The letter, written in the spy’s own hand to guarantee its acceptance, was entrusted to a slave to deliver to Dem Idris. By dawn the next morning, the Dem Idris garrison was falling back on Dem Sulayman, leaving Gessi in control of the fortified position without firing a shot. [41] When the deception was discovered, Sulayman hurled wave after wave of fighters against Dem Idris, whose fortifications had been quickly improved at Gessi’s order. A thousand rebels fell in the 3 ½ hours of continuous assaults against the government troops, most of whom were facing gunfire rather than spears and arrows for the first time. Gessi was astonished by the determination of the rebel fighters: “The best European soldiers could not have shown a greater contempt of death.”

In late December, 1878, Sulayman again turned his forces against Dem Idris, so confident of victory that some of his 10,000 men had been issued with ropes to tie their captives. The Arabs and bazinqir-s stormed the zariba four times before being driven off with the loss of another thousand men. [42]

After receiving reinforcements, Sulayman determined to put an end to Gessi on January 12, 1879, swearing on the Quran with his officers to succeed or die. The rebels made two fierce assaults on Gessi’s defenses with the Arabs driving the attack forward by decapitating black troops who faltered. The rebels returned to the attack the next day, but Gessi’s outnumbered troops managed to repel the rebels after an exhausting seven hour battle. Sulayman’s force returned to the attack twice more and his artillery set fire to the government camp, but Gessi advanced into the open and defeated the rebels in a further three-hour battle.

By March 1879, food was running short in the rebel camp and Sulayman had begun executing both Arabs and bazinqir-s who expressed dissent. [43] On March 16, Gessi launched four columns against the rebel camp after receiving a much-needed supply of powder and lead. Gessi’s guns and Congreve rockets (still useful, but already a military antique in Europe) set fire to the camp and its tree trunk barricades. Five rebel sorties were driven back, with Sulayman and the surviving rebels forced to abandon the blazing zariba: “The dead lay one upon the other, most of them reduced to a cinder… Our nostrils were offended by the odor of burning flesh, which flamed as if it were fat.” [44]

Gessi - Dem Sulayman battleEgyptian Troops Attack Dem Sulayman

By now, Sulayman had only 1,000 soldiers left while Gessi had begun striking those zariba-s that served as the prime rebel recruitment centers. After ordering local shaykh-s to kill any jallaba they could catch, Gessi’s native allies began arriving with numerous baskets of heads. [45] Unfortunately, this had the effect of driving the remaining unaligned jallaba into Sulayman’s camp for safety. With the addition of a column of Arab and Zande reinforcements (the Zande were present on both sides), Sulayman was now able to muster over 3,000 men. [46] Though troubled by an outbreak of smallpox and the question of how to feed some 12,000 camp followers, Gessi had received reinforcements and supplies of ammunition. Mass public hangings of captured slavers continued to rouse local support. [47]

After four and a half months at Dem Idris, Gessi’s small army left on May 1, 1879 to take the rebel headquarters at Dem Sulayman. Gessi’s troops defeated a group of rebels outside the camp before storming it on May 4. Sulayman and the rebels fled but pursuit was halted because Gessi’s troops were busy looting Dem Sulayman’s considerable wealth. Gessi later claimed to have found a letter there from Zubayr to Sulayman instructing his son to “free Bahr al-Ghazal from the Egyptian troops…” [48]

Gessi - slaversSlaver Killing an Exhausted Slave

Gessi was now pursuing Sulayman’s forces through uncharted territory as they tried to make for Darfur. Sulayman’s progress was marked by wounded bazinqir-s whose throats had been cut. When Gessi’s advance encountered the bodies of small slave children slaughtered by the traders because of their inability to keep up due to fatigue and hunger, his sorrow “soon gave way to indignation” and some thirty captured slavers were brought up to witness the sight before their execution; according to Gessi, “God punished them by my hand.” [49]

Sensing the time had come to destroy the rebels, Gessi, now made a general by Gordon, assembled a group of chosen men consisting of two companies of regulars and 400 bazinqir-s. The force was small, but von Clausewitz’s maxim was to hold true: “The weaker the forces that are at the disposal of the supreme commander, the more appealing the use of cunning becomes.” [50] Departing on May 9, Gessi’s talent for deception soon brought results.

Gessi avoided the usual roads as he closed in on Sulayman’s chief lieutenant, Rabih Fadlallah. While camped in a glade, several men approached Gessi’s camp shortly after midnight. Mistaking the camp for Rabih’s in the darkness, the men revealed they were an advance party from a group led by Idris al-Sultan, a leading slaver and ally of Sulayman. Staying out of sight, Gessi ordered his men to tell the advance party that they would wait for Idris further on the next day. In the early morning Gessi fell upon Rabih’s camp, killing many, though Rabih himself escaped. The area was cleared of all signs of a battle and Rabih’s flag was re-hoisted beside his tent. Encouraged by some of Gessi’s men posing as Rabih’s followers, Idris al-Sultan’s group was led into a massive ambush outside Rabih’s former camp that began just as a storm broke. Confused and disoriented, most of al-Sultan’s group was annihilated despite repeated attempts to break out. Gessi “felt sorry for these soldiers, but though I admired their pluck I was obliged to order the firing to be continued against those who obstinately refused to surrender.” [51] With food short, Gessi’s men now returned to Dem Sulayman with vast stores of seized ivory and many leading slavers in chains. [52]

Despite promises of great riches and future victories, the shattered morale of Sulayman’s men soon led to acts of insubordination and a rise in desertions. [53] Sulayman had roughly 20,000 people with him at the time, all of them hungry. Native tribespeople removed all the grain in the path of the column, forcing the rebels to subsist on leaves and roots. Hundreds died from hunger daily and those jallaba who fell out encountered the lances of vengeful tribesmen. [54]

The campaign slowed for several weeks as Gessi fell ill and devoted most of his time to sending in great amounts of captured ivory. Gordon, who had occupied Shakka to the north to stop reinforcements from reaching Sulayman, was able to meet with Gessi on June 25. The governor-general remarked that Gessi was “looking much older,” [55] but was able to give Gessi the news of his elevation to pasha, the award of a major Ottoman decoration and a cash bonus of £E 2000.

Constant shortages meant that Gessi was usually in greater need of supplies than men. Even when desperately under strength, Gessi chose not to take untrustworthy irregulars: “The irregular soldiers… were the scum of all that is bad. The greater part, escaping the justice of the Soudan Government, committed the vilest actions; every day they were intoxicated, ravished the native women and carried away everything that fell into their hands.” [56]

The campaign’s pace picked up in early July when a deserter informed Gessi that Sulayman was encamped at three days’ distance. Gessi hastened to catch the rebel, but Sulayman’s spies informed their leader and his force departed in three columns led by Sulayman, ‘Abd al-Qassim and Rabih to join Harun Rashid’s rebels in Darfur. To prevent this rendezvous Gessi led 290 men through rain and mud in three days of forced marches. Meanwhile, Sulayman was having his own problems, with his right-hand man Rabih arguing against the advance into Darfur (Rabih was proved right – Harun Rashid’s rebellion was crushed in March 1880).

As Gessi’s column neared Darfur, the terrain began to change. This region was dry and often waterless. Massive and isolated Baobab trees replaced the forest and the tracks of elephants, giraffes, gazelles and buffalo could be seen everywhere. The men often resorted to drinking stagnant pond water that made many of them ill, though food became less of a problem with the presence of game.

The Destruction of Sulayman

By mid-July, 1879, Gessi had finally caught up with Sulayman’s column at a place called Gara. Gessi encamped several hours away, instructing his men to avoid lighting fires and to maintain absolute silence to prevent Sulayman’s scouts from discovering their position.

Sulayman commanded some 700 men at this time, while his lieutenant Rabih had a similar number nearby. At daybreak on July 16, Gessi concealed his force of 275 men in the woods and sent a message to Sulayman’s camp that they were surrounded and had five minutes to lay down their arms and surrender or they would be destroyed. It was yet another example of deception as a weapon; Gessi actually feared that surrounding the much larger group would allow his force to be overrun and instead kept his detachment intact. Believing that Gessi had 3,000 troops and that their own end was imminent, the rebel camp broke into mass confusion, with some fighters fleeing into the woods while most, including the leaders, laid down their arms and surrendered. Sulayman was visibly dismayed when he realized the actual size of Gessi’s force, exclaiming to his captor: “What! Have you no other troops?” [57]

What happened next is still a matter of controversy. The leading prisoners, Sulayman and eleven of his chief advisors, were oddly not bound, the usual practice, suggesting there was some type of agreement between the antagonists. Austrian Rudolf Slatin Pasha (governor of Darfur, 1881-1883) claimed that an officer in the government expedition told him that Gessi had offered Sulayman a pardon in return for his surrender, but this has never been confirmed and is only a matter of speculation now. [58] In the night Gessi claimed to have received reports that Sulayman and his chiefs were conspiring to escape; according to Gessi, the slave-traders’ horses were found to have been saddled and supplied with food and arms. This uncommon lack of security seems strange, but it supplied Gessi with a justification “to have done with these people once and for all.” [59]

Gessi - execution of SulaymanExecution of Sulayman Pasha

Sulayman and the chiefs were lined up in front of a firing squad. The young Sulayman reportedly fell to his knees in shock and anguish, but most of the chiefs met their death with dignity and defiance. [60] Gordon took full responsibility for the killings; “I have no compunction about [Sulayman’s] death… Gessi only obeyed my orders in shooting him.” [61] Gessi makes only a fleeting reference to the most important incident in his career in his posthumously published memoir, noting he ordered the executions after an escape attempt. [62] Meanwhile, Rabih had moved off to Dar Banda in the Zande country, going on to carve out his own slave-based empire in central Africa before he was killed and decapitated by French colonial troops and their Baguirmi allies in 1900.

Governor of Bahr al-Ghazal

Having eliminated Sulayman, Gessi was now compelled to turn his attention to the development of Bahr al-Ghazal. His first step was disarming many of his own troops, “who were no less brutal and savage than Suleiman’s troops.” [63] Harsh penalties were promulgated for all slavery-related offences. Public hangings were meant as a deterrent, but much of Gessi’s time was occupied in expeditions against the region’s remaining slavers with only 150 regulars:

I am obliged to rule by fear, and it is quite a miracle that I am still alive. My whole strength lies in the inhabitants, who obey me as if I were their Deity, and, if necessary, I should have more than ten thousand armed men ready to defend and die with me. [64]

Gessi spent over two months of the summer of 1880 bed-ridden by an extremely painful Guinea Worm infection that also brought down many of his officers. During this time, Gessi stopped sending reports to Khartoum and failed to organize the administration, creating strains with the administration of Gordon’s replacement, Governor-General Muhammad Ra’uf Pasha, which would result in a demotion and cut in pay. [65]

The Death Ship

Departing Bahr al-Ghazal on his own initiative on September 25, 1880, Gessi left for Khartoum on the steamer Safiya to defend his actions to Ra’uf Pasha. Gessi ignored advice not to attempt the passage through the 30,000 square kilometer Sudd swamp of south Sudan without a trained crew, proper equipment and a steamer with sufficient power. [66] The Sudd is famous for vast islands of floating vegetation that impede navigation and can easily trap a ship.

Gessi - SafiyaThe Safiya in the Sudd

Carrying two companies of troops and their families as well as many Danagla Arab traders, the Safiya was a small wood-burning steamer equipped with a 40 horsepower engine, insufficient to force its way through the Sudd. The ship’s tackle and equipment, essential to working the ship through the swamp, had been allowed to rot with neglect. Giegler maintained (likely on the basis of the subsequent inquiry) that the ship’s crew insisted on returning until a better-equipped ship could be sent to cut the way, but Gessi demanded the attempt be made, wanting “to waste no time in reaching Khartoum and Cairo in order to give [Muhammad] Ra’uf and me [Giegler] a slap in the face, as he put it!” [67]

Most of the soldiers and crew believed Gessi’s return to Khartoum was a result of official recall, making it difficult for Gessi to assert his authority aboard the Safiya, especially when food became scarce after the Safiya predictably became trapped in the Sudd.

Sleep on the ship in the midst of clouds of malarial mosquitos was nearly impossible and starving and exhausted men were asked to perform the brutally hard work of entering the swamp to break through the bars of vegetation. Fuel for the steamer ran out while the captain began selling ship’s stores to starving men at extortionate prices. After having eaten their shoes the lethargic men laid still on the deck to await their death. Accused of hoarding food, Gessi was forced to keep his weapons close while his native bodyguards slept in the doorway of his cabin. According to Giegler, it was only the protection offered by ivory trader Abu Amuri that kept Gessi from being murdered by his own soldiers. [68]

Passengers and crew alike began to die at an alarming rate and were simply pushed overboard, where the stench of their rotting corpses and the arrival of hordes of feeding vultures only increased the misery of those still trapped onboard. By mid-December, nearly three months after departure, Gessi recorded only eight of his 149 Sudanese soldiers still alive:

We have reached the worst. I cannot remember anything like it in all my life. Scarcely does someone die than he is devoured during the night by the survivors. It is impossible to describe the horror of such scenes. One soldier devoured his own son. [69]

On January 5, however, the Safiya was rescued by the steamer Burdayn, sent out by Giegler. Over 430 people had died on the Safiya and Gessi, a “living skeleton,” was held responsible. [70] Results of an investigation considered embarrassing to reputation of the Egyptian Army were eventually filed away in a dark corner in Cairo. Giegler claimed it was “clear that Gessi and Gessi alone was responsible for the misfortune but this did not worry him at all.” [71]

Desperately sick in Khartoum, Gessi sought to head north to put his case before the Khedive. According to Slatin, Gessi insisted on being accompanied to Cairo by his eunuch al-Mas (likely one of the young eunuchs seized during a raid on a eunuch manufacturing operation that Gessi claimed was run by his second-in-command Yusuf Bey al-Shallali [72]), but Ra’uf Pasha, fearing a scandal, forbade it. [73]

Gessi was still sick and weak when he set out and had to be carried across the burning desert to the port city of Suakin on a litter suspended between two camels. By the time he arrived in Cairo he was clearly dying, and even a last minute personal visit from Khedive Muhammad Tawfiq was not enough to provoke his recovery. He expired on April 30, 1881; in his last note to a friend, Gessi remarked: “I have suffered too much. I have been exposed to too many fatigues. The last catastrophe of the voyage has quite crushed me. Another in my place would have died of horror.” [74]

Was Gessi Actually Responsible for the Conduct of the Campaign?

One of the lingering questions regarding Gessi’s Bahr al-Ghazal campaign is the degree of success attributable to Gessi’s second-in-command, Colonel Yusuf Bey al-Shallali (later made a Brigadier and Pasha). Hailing from the village of al-Shallal on the First Cataract of the Nile, Yusuf had worked for Zubayr in Bahr al-Ghazal before receiving a military appointment from the Egyptian government.

According to Giegler Pasha, Yusuf was the “main-doer” on the campaign; “Though Gessi’s name is always connected with the history of the Zubayr Pasha revolt on the Bahr al-Ghazal, it was in fact Yusuf Bey who directed the whole operation. Gessi was responsible only for the end; he had Sulayman al-Zubayr captured and shot after the latter had acted so wildly.” [75] Giegler, like many in the Sudan administration, was not overly fond of the Italian mercenary, but neither did he hold a brief for Yusuf Pasha, who served the government under a certain degree of suspicion due to his reputation as a major slaver.  The matter seems fated to remain unresolved; Gessi himself gave Yusuf little credit for his role in the campaign, noting that “my faith in Yusuf Bey as an officer was not great.” [76] Elsewhere Gessi accused Yusuf of the greatest crimes, including murder, slave-raiding, and rampant corruption.

Nonetheless, Yusuf’s performance in the campaign brought him promotion in Khartoum and appointment as governor of Sinnar Province. [77] Yusuf replaced Giegler as military commander under the orders of a new governor-general, ‘Abd al-Qadir Pasha. In May 1881, Yusuf Pasha left Fashoda for the Nuba Mountains with 3500 mostly unwilling troops, four field guns and a rocket battery to put down the incipient Mahdist revolt.  Near Jabal Qadir, Yusuf uncharacteristically failed to post sentries around his zariba, allowing thousands of Mahdist troops to infiltrate the camp before attacking the still-sleeping soldiers. Yusuf, still in his underclothes, was killed in front of his tent and the entire Egyptian force wiped out.

Aftermath and Legacy: Tactical Victory, Strategic Failure

Bahr al-Ghazal only remained in government hands for five years after Gessi’s campaign, which inadvertently laid the foundation for the collapse of Turco-Egyptian rule in the region by disrupting the slave-based economy (for which no immediate alternative existed) and alienating many Arab groups. Those who joined the Mahdist rebellion were not, however, the Ja’aliyin Arabs who followed Sulayman Pasha, but rather Danaqla and Baqqara Arabs who had been promised much by Gessi for their support, but ultimately received nothing.  Other groups that had been provided arms by Gessi for use against the slavers turned these same arms against Gessi’s successor. Soon after Gessi’s departure Arab slavers and government troops alike began to re-indulge in the slave trade in Bahr al-Ghazal. Nonetheless, Gordon was pleased with Gessi’s efforts: “He has done splendidly, and I am greatly relieved… Gessi had most inadequate means for his work – at least five-sixths of those with him were, in their hearts, friends of Zubayr’s son…” [78]

Gessi was hailed by Italian colonialists shortly after his death as a model anti-slaver and notable explorer. Gessi’s remains were repatriated to Italy in 1883 and laid to rest in Ravenna. The transfer was used by pro-colonialist Italian factions to promote new 19th century Italian colonial adventures in Eritrea and Somalia. Gessi’s legacy was again revived in the 1930s by Fascist leaders seeking to build a new “Roman Empire” in Libya and Ethiopia. World War II’s Battaglione “Romolo Gessi” was an Italian combat unit formed in May 1941 from Italian and Libyan members of the Polizia dell’Africa Italiana (Italian Africa Police), a colonial police force. It was disbanded less than a year later after suffering heavy losses. [79]

In the post-WWII era, Gessi’s accomplishments were folded into an embarrassing and ultimately self-destructive colonial past that most Italians preferred to ignore. The availability of previously unexamined correspondence and documents in the 1980s shed a negative light on Gessi’s work and his often tempestuous relations with colleagues. More recent treatments of Gessi’s life have emphasized his weaknesses as an explorer, administrator, businessman and, most harshly, as a soldier. [80]

Conclusion: Lessons Learned in Counter-Insurgency

Though Gessi never described the actual lessons he might have learned over a year in the bush fighting highly capable and well-supplied insurgents, it is nevertheless possible to list those principles which served Gessi (and Yusuf) in their campaign:

  • Make liberal use of intelligence gained from deserters, prisoners and civilians hostile to the enemy
  • Impose iron discipline tempered by regard for local habits and customs
  • Adapt to local means of warfare by using ambushes, guerrilla tactics and mobile strike forces
  • Keep your force lean and avoid the use of undisciplined irregulars whenever possible
  • Employ ruthlessness as a force multiplier
  • Use deception whenever possible to even the odds against a superior enemy
  • Exploit local grievances to cut support for the insurgents
  • Improvise to cover weaknesses in supply and logistics systems
  • Offer economic alternatives to cooperation with the insurgents

Gessi was often hard-pressed to assert his authority over his own men as well as the enemy. In the circumstances, Gessi turned to severe discipline in the first case and ruthlessness in the second. Gessi later remarked:

I was the only Christian among all the Mohammedans whom I led against other Mohammedans, and who at any moment might have revolted and left me at the mercy of the enemy. Notwithstanding this exceptional positon, I used the utmost rigor against everyone. This discipline, and above all, Divine Providence, enabled me to succeed. [81]

As far as Gessi’s campaign was remembered at all in the U.K., it was mainly as an episode of the larger 19th century anti-slavery movement, while in Italy it was (in the pre-WW II era at least) an example of Italian superiority over the “lesser races” of Africa. The campaign’s controversies, the absence of European troops, Gessi’s own death and the subsequent collapse of Egyptian authority in the Sudan did little to recommend its study in European military academies. As a result, many of the lessons that could have been drawn from the campaign had to be relearned later, initially by Belgian forces fighting their own war against Arab slavers in the Congo in the 1890s, and later by French officers like Colonels Roger Trinquier and David Galula, who developed modern counter-insurgency strategies during the bitter Indo-Chinese and Algerian insurgencies.

Colonel Galula described victory in counterinsurgency as “the permanent isolation of the insurgent from the population, isolation not enforced upon the population, but maintained by and with the population.” [82] In this sense, Gessi fell well short of ultimate victory; dissatisfaction created by Gessi’s failure to follow through on promises to his Arab allies helped promote the broader, religiously-inspired Mahdist rebellion that killed Gordon and expelled the “Turks” from the Sudan only a few years later. As the U.S. counterinsurgency manual notes, “killing insurgents—while necessary, especially with respect to extremists—by itself cannot defeat an insurgency.” [83]

Bibliography

Abbas Ibrahim Muhammad Ali: The British, the Slave Trade and Slavery in the Sudan 1820-1881, Khartoum University Press, 1972

Azevedo, M. J.: The Roots of Violence: A History of War in Chad, Routledge, 2005

Barrows, Leland: Review of Zaccaria, Massimo, “Il Flagello degli schiavisti” Romolo Gessi in Sudan (1874-1881) con trentatre lettere e dispacci inediti. H-Africa, H-Net Reviews. November, 2001, http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=5654

Berlioux, E. Felix: The Slave Trade in Africa in 1872 (Trans. Joseph Cooper), London, 1873

Casati, Gaetano: Ten years in Equatoria and the return with Emin Pasha, 2 volumes, Brothers Dumolard, Milan, 1891

Chenevix-Trench, Charles: The Road to Khartoum: A Life of General Charles Gordon, Norton, New York, 1978

Clausewitz, Carl von: On War, Princeton University Press, 1989

Cordell, Dennis: Dar Al-Kuti and the Last Years of the Trans-Saharan Slave, University of Wisconsin Press, 1985

Crociani, P., and P.P. Battistelli, Italian Army Elite Units & Special Forces 1940-43, Osprey Publishing, London, 2011

Ewald, Janet J.: Soldiers, Traders and Slaves: State Formation and Economic Transformation in the Greater Nile Valley, 1700-1885, University of Wisconsin Press, 1990
Fawzi, Ibrahim, James Davidson Deemer and Zohaa el Gamaal: Kitab al-Sudan bayna aydi Gordon wa Kitchener: 1291-1302, (The History of the Sudan between the Times of Gordon and Kitchener: 1291-1302), al-Bayt University, Mafraq (Jordan), 1997. (First publication Cairo 1901)

Gessi Pasha, Romolo: Seven Years in the Soudan; Being a Record of Explorations, Adventures and Campaigns against the Arab Slave Hunters,  (Sette anni nel Sudan egiziano), London, 1892

Giegler Pasha, Carl C.G (ed. By R.L. Hill): The Sudan Memoirs of Carl Christian Giegler Pasha 1873-1883, Oxford University Press, London, 1984

Gray, R: A History of the Southern Sudan, 1839-1889, Oxford University Press, 1970

Hill, George Birkbeck: Colonel Gordon in Central Africa, 1874-1879, Thos. De La Rue & Co., London, 1881

Hill, Richard: Egypt in the Sudan, 1820-1881, Oxford, 1959

Hill, Richard: Biographical Dictionary of the Sudan, (2nd ed.), Oxford, 1967

Hill, Richard L.: “A Register of Named Power-Driven River and Marine Harbour Craft Commissioned in the Sudan, 1856-1964,” Sudan Notes and Records 51, 1970, pp. 131-146.

Hinde, Sidney Langford: The Fall of the Congo Arabs, Methuen, London, 1897

Jackson, HC: Black Ivory: The story of El-Zubeir Pasha as told by himself (Trans. and recorded by HC Jackson), Khartoum, 1913

Mire, Lawrence: “Al-Zubayr and the Zariba Based Slave Trade in the Bahr al-Ghazal, 1855-1879,” in: John Ralph Willis (ed.): Slaves and Slavery in Africa Volume Two: The Servile Estate, Frank Cass and Co., London, 1985, pp. 101-12

Mohamed Omer Beshir: The Southern Sudan: Background to Conflict, C. Hurst & Co., London, 1968

Moore-Harell, Alice: Gordon and the Sudan: Prologue to the Mahdiyya, 1877-1880, Frank Cass, London, 2001

Mowafi, Rita: Slavery, Slave Trade and Abolition Attempts in Egypt and the Sudan, 1820-1882, Lund Studies in International History 14, Scandinavian University Books, Maimö, 1981

Powell, Eve Troutt: A Different Shade of Colonialism: Egypt, Great Britain, and the Mastery of the Sudan, University of California Press, 2003

Reis, Bruno C.: “David Galula and Roger Trinquier: two warrior-scholars, one French late colonial counterinsurgency?” in: Andrew Mumford and Bruno C. Reis (ed.s), The Theory and Practice of Irregular Warfare: Warrior-scholarship in counter-insurgency, Routledge, London, 2014, pp.35-69

Schweinfurth, G: The Heart of Africa: Three Years Travel in the Unexplored Regions of Central Africa (2 vol.s), Harper and Brothers, New York, 1874

Shaw, Flora L.: “The Story of Zebehr Pasha as told by himself: Part III,” Contemporary Review 52, 1887, pp. 658- 682.

Shukry, MF: The Khedive Ismail and Slavery in the Sudan, 1863-1879, Cairo, 1938

Slatin Pasha, Rudolf: Fire and Sword in the Sudan (Trans. by FR Wingate), London, 1896 (page numbers in footnotes refer to the Arnold edition of 1930)

Theobald, A.B.: The Mahdīya: A History of the Anglo-Egyptian Sudan, 1881-1899, Longman’s, London, 1951

Thomas, Edward: The Kafia Kingi Enclave: People, Politics and History in the North-South Boundary Zone of Western Sudan, Rift Valley Institute, 2010

Thomas, Frederic C.: Slavery and Jihad in the Sudan: A Narrative of the Slave Trade and its Legacy, iUniverse, 2009

U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2007, http://usacac.army.mil/cac2/Repository/Materials/COIN-FM3-24.pdf

Udal, John O.: The Nile in Darkness Volume II: A Flawed Unity, 1863-1899, Michael Russell, Norwich, 2005

Zaccaria, Massimo: “Il Flagello degli schiavisti” – Romolo Gessi in Sudan (1874-1881) con trentatre lettere e dispacci inediti, Fernandel scientifica, Ravenna, 1999

Zaghi, Carlo: Vita de Romolo Gessi, ISPI, Milan, 1939

Zavatti, Silvio: “Giovinezza di Gessi”, Corriere Padano, August 1939

NOTES

[1] Cited in Udal, vol. ii, p. 346

[2] GB Hill, p.373

[3] Giegler, p.163

[4] Ibid, p. 28

[5] Ibid, p. 28

[6] Gessi, p.316

[7] Ibid, p.317

[8] Ibid, p. 125

[9] Giegler, p. 110

[10] Ibid, p. 49

[11] Ibid, p. 104

[12] Mowafi, p.56

[13] Berlioux, p.20

[14] Cited in Udal, p. 338

[15] Gessi, pp. 51-52

[16] Udal, vol.II, p. 170

[17] Shaw, p.674

[18] Ibid, p. 681

[19] Gessi, pp. 247-50

[20] GB Hill, p.372; Gessi, p.305

[21] Shaw, p.677

[22] Gessi, p.301

[23] Ibid, p.186

[24] Ibid, p. 344

[25] GB Hill, p. 343

[26] Ibid, p.373

[27] Gessi, p. 187; Giegler, p.117

[28] Gessi, p.288

[29] Ibid, p.190, pp. 355-57

[30] Ibid, p.194

[31] Shaw, p. 678

[32] Gessi, p.27; GB Hill, p.350

[33] GB Hill, p.370

[34] Schweinfurth, Vol. II, p.423

[35] Gessi, pp. 234-35

[36] Ibid, p.235

[37] GB Hill, p.375; Gessi, p.289

[38] Gessi, p.255

[39] Gessi, p.240; GB Hill, p.377

[40] Ibid, pp. 241-42

[41] Ibid, 242-43

[42] GB Hill, p.378

[43] Gessi, p.263

[44] Ibid, p.263

[45] Ibid, p. 268

[46] Ibid, p. 271

[47] Ibid, p. 270

[48] Ibid, p.307

[49] Ibid, p. 282

[50] Von Clausewitz, p.203

[51] Gessi, p. 286

[52] GB Hill, pp.384-385

[53] Gessi, p. 328

[54] Ibid, pp. 328-29

[55] GB Hill, p.370

[56] Gessi p. 350

[57] GB Hill, p.387

[58] Udal, v.ii, p.351

[59] GB Hill, p.387

[60] Ibid, p.387

[61] Cited in Udal, vol.ii, p. 351

[62] Gessi, p. 329. The number of chiefs arrested by Gessi differs from eight to eleven according to various accounts.

[63] Ibid, p. 359

[64] Ibid, p. 365

[65] Giegler, p.158

[66] Ibid, p.158

[67] Ibid, pp. 158-59

[68] Ibid, p. 159

[69] Gessi, p. 401

[70] Austrian Consul Martin Hansal, cited in Udal, Vol. II, p.369

[71] Giegler, p.160

[72] Gessi, pp. 355-357

[73] Slatin, p.35

[74] Gessi, pp. 416-17

[75] Giegler, pp. 117, 147

[76] Gessi, p. 207

[77] Giegler, p.117, fn. 11

[78] GB Hill, p. 348

[79] Crociani and Battistelli, p. 20

[80] See esp. Zaccaria.

[81] Gessi, p. 346

[82] Galula, p.57

[83] U.S. Army/Marine Corps, p.1-14

This article first appeared in Military History Online on August 21, 2016: http://www.militaryhistoryonline.com/19thcentury/articles/inventionofcounterinsurgency.aspx#

‘The Spielberg of French Islamism’: A Profile of Omar Diaby (a.k.a. Omar Omsen)

Andrew McGregor

July 30, 2016

The Islamic State-inspired Bastille Day atrocity in Nice that killed 84 people and injured over 300 more has brought new awareness of a strain of radical Islam that thrives behind the lights and glamour of life on the French Riviera. Nurtured in hidden mosques in an alienated and unassimilated Muslim community, Islamist extremism has produced scores of jihadists from the Nice region, most of whom have traveled to Syria to take up arms in al-Qaeda or Islamic State combat groups. Most prominent of the recruiters responsible for this flow of French residents to the battlefields of the Middle East is Omar Diaby (a.k.a. Omar Omsen), a Senegalese-born extremist who eventually left for Syria himself to take command of a group of Francophone jihadists.

Diaby 1Omar Diaby: Cyber-Jihadist (CNN)

Early Life

Born in Dakar in 1976, Diaby arrived in the Nice region of France at the age of five. Nice is home to a large Muslim community, many of whom are Tunisian in origin. Though many have poor employment prospects and depend on state assistance, there is also a growing Muslim middle class. Nonetheless, radical preachers find an interested audience for their views in the Islam du caves, mosques that operate out of sight in underground parking garages in heavily-Muslim banlieus (suburbs) like Ariane and St. Roch.

Marine Le Pen’s anti-immigration Front National and right-wing French nationalism are particularly strong in the Nice region, partly as a legacy of French pieds noirs settlers expelled from Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia settling there after those nations reached independence. Their proximity to Islamists in the Ariane and Saint Roch districts perpetuates a certain amount of inter-communal tension (Guardian, July 18). Jihadist recruiters exploit these tensions to convince young Muslims to abandon their mundane lives in France to take up a more glorious existence as jihadis and martyrs in Syria and elsewhere.

Nice has taken steps to address the problem, providing teams of social workers and psychologists to persuade would-be jihadists to abandon their plans. The city also provides counseling programs to reintegrate returned jihadis (France24.com, July 15). The threat from returnees is serious; in February 2014 one such returnee from the Syrian jihad, an Algerian native who had received bomb-making training in Syria, was arrested after planning to detonate bombs during Nice’s popular carnival (France24.com, July 15).

Diaby was known in the Riviera region as a violent gangster, imprisoned for a 1995 gang-related murder (Diaby deliberately ran the victim down with a car) and again for the 2002-2003 armed robberies of two jewelers in Monaco. In prison, that great incubator of jihadists, Diaby became fascinated with radical Islamist ideology and took the new name Omar Omsen. After his release, Diaby took up preaching and the production of Islamic-themed videos until he joined a group of Salafi extremists using the name Fursan Alizza (The Knights of Pride), a move that brought him new attention from French counter-terrorism forces (Fursan Alizza is now a banned organization in France after a wave of arrests in 2012) (Dakar Actu, June 13). Diaby was again detained in 2011 after a French investigation suggested the recruiter was planning to join the jihad in Afghanistan via Tunisia and Libya (Le Nouvel Observateur, August 10, 2015).

In Nice, Diaby operated a snack bar and football club, which brought him into contact with young men to whom he could distribute jihadist literature and videos (Independent, July 17). Diaby is believed to be responsible for sending as many as 40 Nice residents to Syria before his own departure. Diaby appealed to young men by asserting they would never succeed in France and must go to a Muslim country to thrive. He also justified assault and robbery of non-Muslims in France, “a land of unbelievers,” thus providing religious sanction to petty criminals (BBC, July 16).

Former jihadists recruited by Diaby have described his recruiting methods during their trials in France. Whether early contacts were made in person or by internet, Diaby and fellow recruiters like Fares Mourad would begin by speaking of the importance of making hijra (emigration to Muslim lands), followed by discussions of religious points and end-times prophecies, but jihad was rarely if ever discussed in these initial contacts. Only later did the recruits realize Diaby, a self-styled “preacher,” could not read the Koran in Arabic or even lead his followers in prayer (Le Point, April 6).

“The Spielberg of French Islamism”

To create the right conditions for recruitment, Diaby drew on his talents as a graphics designer and video editor in creating a series of slick, professional looking video productions designed to encourage young Muslims to pursue a more militant response to the West’s alleged persecution of Islam (RFI, August 9, 2015). These videos were part of a project named “19HH” which stands for the 19 terrorists who carried out the 9/11 attacks, with the ‘HH’ acting as a symbol for the twin towers of the World Trade Center.

Diaby’s French-language video productions include “The Truth about Islam” and the three-hour “The Truth about the death of bin Laden,” [1] but it was an April 2013 release that would become famous in jihadi recruitment circles and bring him a reputation as “the Spielberg of French Islamism.” “Histoire de l’Humanité,” as its name suggests, is a broad examination of several themes, including millenarian prophecies, accusations of Christian and Jewish persecution of innocent Muslims, charges of media control, 9/11 conspiracy theories and a defence of Salafism and Takfir (the practice of one Muslim condemning another for apostasy, a basic element in Salafi-Jihadist ideology). The video stitches together various French-language news accounts, movie excerpts and found footage through the use of sophisticated special effects and graphics, the whole overlain with Arabic religious singing. [2]

Diaby uses the video to claim the U.S. government fakes criminal charges to “liquidate [American Muslims] and get them out of the scene,” giving two examples:

  • Imam Jamil Amin (the former H. Rap Brown), a Black-American nationalist militant serving a life sentence for shooting two Black-American police officers in 2000, killing one. Amin converted to Islam while serving an earlier prison sentence in the 1970s for armed robbery, eventually becoming an important figure in the American Muslim community. Famous for once saying “Violence is as American as apple pie,” the evidence in the murder case that brought him a life sentence was overwhelming despite Amin’s claims of a “government conspiracy.”
  • Humeidan al-Turki, a Saudi national living in Denver, was convicted in 2006 of the repeated rape and four-year captivity of a young female Muslim Indonesian house-servant. Sentenced to 28 years (later reduced to eight after Saudi intervention), al-Turki’s defense that he was the victim of American bias against Arab and Muslim cultural norms did nothing to save him from prison, but the charges gained some traction overseas, particularly in Saudi Arabia, where the case became an irritant in U.S.-Saudi relations. At the time he was charged, al-Turki was being investigated at the same time by the FBI in an unrelated terrorism case.

Diaby also uses extensive footage of a 2012 speech by then-French presidential candidate François Asselineau, a veteran politician who indulges in U.S. conspiracy theories while demanding a French exit from the EU and NATO together with a military withdrawal from Syria and Iraq. Asselineau’s claim that Europe is not really menaced by Islam is followed by footage of “European terrorists” from the Basque and Corsican communities.

The moral decay of the West is defined by toleration of incest and homosexuality before praise for the “Minhaj Salafiya,” a discussion of Quranic creationism and suggestions that 9/11 was an American false-flag operation that included a cover-up that required the death of Osama bin Laden. Most importantly, it makes the claim (over footage of maimed and bleeding children) that “defensive jihad” is fard ayn (mandatory) for all Muslims. The video concludes with a display of Diaby’s personal email address to obtain further information or subscribe to Diaby’s newsletter.

Diaby 2Omar Diaby: Jihad in Syria (Le Monde)

The Syrian Hijra

Fearing further arrest, Diaby slipped away to Dakar. After arrival in Senegal, Diaby was arrested by the Division des investigations criminelles (DIC), who after a hearing, released him and returned his passport. With ten others, Diaby then travelled via Mauritania and Tunis to Turkey and on to the Aleppo region of Syria. (DakarActu, June 13)

The former recruiter now turned Amir and formed his own katiba (brigade) in the Latakia governorate of Syria, a group composed of some 80 to 100 jihadis of French origin (many from Nice) allied with the Islamist Nusra Front, eventually a rival to the Islamic State organization. After arriving in Syria, Diaby was able to being eight members of his family to Syria from Senegal (Diaby is married and the father of two children) (DakarActu, June 13)

It was not until February 2014 that Diaby finally appeared in a video in person. In footage aired by al-Jazeera, the black-clad jihadist, Kalashnikov at his side, claimed that the Caliphate would be established in Damascus “as the Prophet said” (Le Monde, February 12, 2014). [3] According to Diaby, Muslim armies will use the Syrian capital as a base for operations in other countries. Diaby added that his group was “for the time being” allied with neither the Islamic State or the Nusra Front due to questions regarding their assaults on Muslim civilians: “We have learnt our religion and know that the Prophet warned us against any Muslim killing his Muslim brother. This is a very serious offense as they will both go to hell.” Nonetheless, Dibay insists that hijra is compulsory: “If someone comes to see me to tell me that he wants to go back [to France], I am going to tell him that going back to infidel land is forbidden, that God forbids it. What’s going to happen to them if they go back? They’re going to be arrested.”

Death and Resurrection

Twitter reports from Diaby’s family claimed that the jihadist had been shot and mortally wounded on July 29, 2015 during an attack on Aleppo, with Diaby succumbing to his injuries after a week-long coma (Dakar Echo, August 8, 2015). According to Diaby, the rumors of his death had been spread to allow him to leave Syria for four months of medical treatment in an un-named Arab country he entered under a false identity (L’Express, June 27). Nothing was heard from the jihadist until April 2016, when, after hearing from his cousin that journalist Romain Boutilly was preparing a video feature on jihadi recruiters in France, Diaby contacted Boutilly to announce he was still alive and would like to be included in the France2 documentary broadcast on June 2. [4] A Syrian cameraman was hired to shoot the footage, consisting of an interview with Diaby and views of his katiba’s camp. Once shooting began, Diaby exercised tight control on who and what was shown. (FranceTVInfo.com, June 2).

Relations with the Islamic State

Diaby appears to view al-Qaeda (and the related Nusra Front) as a more serious, intellectually-based movement than the Islamic State organization, whose fighters he characterizes as “ignorant youths without serious religious training [much like Diaby himself] whose deviant behavior springs forth as soon as you put weapons in their hands” (Le Nouvel Observateur, August 10 2015). He also objects to their methods of occupation:”Their understanding of Shari’a is different from ours” (Le Monde, May 29). Despite Diaby’s criticism of the Islamic State, there are indications that the movement is draining off jihadis from Diaby’s katiba to new Francophone Islamic State units (Libération [Paris], August 9, 2015).

Diaby derides the Islamic State’s videos of graphic cruelty as targeting “a reactionary, impulsive audience” through “five-minute clips that merely inspire rage” (France24.com, June 1). Nonetheless, Diaby justified the Islamic State’s November 13, 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris (which included the mass shooting at the Bataclan Theatre): “They were made in retaliation for French strikes on women and children… therefore we cannot condemn them, because Allah said “transgress for equal transgression” (Le Monde, May 29).

Al-Qaeda’s January 2015 Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris also met with Diaby’s approval:

If defending his Prophet is terrorism, then all Muslims who know their religion are terrorists. Those who insult the Prophet are to be executed, it is Islamic law. The fact that Kouachi brothers [Saïd and Chérif] applied this law does not make them terrorists, but real Muslims… Those who insulted the Prophet were executed. I wish I’d been chosen to do that” (Le Monde, May 31; AFP, May 29).

Conclusion

Breaking new ground in the use of video as a recruitment tool, Omar Diaby bears a large share of responsibility for the recent terrorist outrages in France as well as the emigration of scores of young French Muslims to Syria’s battlefields, from which many will never return. Diaby’s propaganda efforts have fostered a climate of fear and resentment amongst French Muslims, some of whom have become convinced that powerful forces in the Western world are determined to eliminate Islam and slaughter its followers, a belief that can have only one response – jihad against the infidels.

Notes

  1. For the latter, see: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kqtODX02TZA
  2. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wT_vJcw39zw
  3. For the video, see: https://www.youtube.com/v/kAtmbfilCjM
  4. The full video is available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i8OR77WMO7A

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

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

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Commentary

July 21, 2016

Canada PK MemorialCanadian Peacekeeping Memorial, Ottawa (Frank Hudec/DND)

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

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

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

MINURSO – Western Sahara

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

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

Mission Fatalities – 15[ii]

Desirability – Minimal

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

Risk to Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) personnel – Minimal

Political Payoff – Minimal

 

MINUSCA – Central African Republic

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

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

Fatalities – 22

Desirability – Minimal

Language Compatibility – Optimal (French)

Risk to CAF personnel – Significant

Political Payoff – Moderate

Canada PK MINUSMAMINUSMA Patrol, Northern Mali

MINUSMA – Mali

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

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

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

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

Fatalities – 101

Desirability – Optimal

Language Compatibility – Optimal (French)

Risk to CAF personnel – Significant

Political Payoff – Optimal

 

MONUSCO – Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)

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

Canada PK MONUSCOMONUSCO Armor, DRC

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

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

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

Desirability – Minimal

Language Compatibility – Optimal (French)

Risk to CAF personnel – Moderate

Political Payoff – Moderate

 

UNAMID – Darfur

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

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

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

Fatalities – 233

Desirability – Minimal

Language Compatibility – Minimal (Arabic)

Risk to CAF personnel – Significant

Political Payoff – Moderate

 

UNISFA – Abyei (Sudan/South Sudan)

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

Fatalities – 20

Desirability – Minimal

Language Compatibility – Moderate (English)

Risk to CAF personnel – Moderate

Political Payoff – Minimal

 

UNMIL – Liberia

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

Fatalities – 197

Desirability – Minimal

Language Compatibility – Moderate (English)

Risk to CAF personnel – Moderate

Political Payoff – Minimal

 

UNMISS – South Sudan

Canada PK UNMISSUNMISS Post, South Sudan

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

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

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

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

Fatalities – 43

Desirability – Minimal

Language Compatibility – Moderate (English)

Risk to CAF personnel – Moderate to Significant

Political Payoff – Moderate

 Canada PK ONUCI

UNOCI – Côte d’Ivoire

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

Experience – A small number of Canadian police served with UNOCI

Fatalities – 143

Desirability – Moderate

Language Compatibility – Optimal (French)

Risk to CAF personnel – Minimal

Political Payoff – Minimal

 

Conclusion

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

ACRONYMS

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

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

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

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

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

UNAMID – United Nations Mission in Darfur

UNIFSAUnited Nations Interim Security Force for Abyei

UNMIL – United Nations Mission in Liberia

UNMISS – United Nations Mission in South Sudan

UNOCI – United Nations Operation in Côte d’Ivoire

 

NOTES

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Al-Qaeda, Anti-Colonialism and the Battle for Benghazi

Andrew McGregor

Terrorist Research & Analysis Consortium

July 17, 2016

Islamist resistance to the efforts of anti-extremist government troops and militia allies to expel the radicals from the Libyan city of Benghazi has entered a crucial stage in which suicide bombers and desperate gunmen engaged in urban warfare imperil the lives of troops and civilians alike. In the midst of this conflict, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has attempted to intervene on the side of the Islamists by an unusual resort to historical anti-colonial rhetoric to rally support for the besieged fighters.

Trac 1 al-AnaabiA Message from Abu Ubaydah Yusuf al-Anabi

Abu Ubaydah Yusuf al-Anabi, head of AQIM’s Council of Notables and AQIM’s second-in-command, posted an audio message on June 27 urging “the descendants of Omar al-Mukhtar” to rush to Benghazi to relieve the Islamic extremists trapped there by Libyan National Army (LNA) forces and allied militias. Abu Ubaydah called on Libyans to join the fight against the LNA and “French forces” said to be assisting the LNA campaign.[1]

The Situation in Benghazi

Most of the Islamist forces in Benghazi have joined together in the Shura Council of Benghazi Revolutionaries since June 2014. Along with Ansar al-Shari’a, the council includes the February 17 Martyrs Brigade, the Rafallah Sahati Brigade and the Libya Shield 1 militia. The Islamic State organization is also active in the remaining areas of Benghazi still held by Islamist radicals.

AQIM has never established a real presence in coastal Libya, though some members appear to have established bases in Libya’s remote south-west, intended more as refuges and jumping-off points for operations in Algeria and the Sahelian regions of Niger and Mali rather than Libya. Instead, AQIM formed ties with Ansar al-Shari’a, an al-Qaeda-inspired Islamist militant group formed in the eastern cities of Derna and Benghazi during the 2011 revolution. Leadership difficulties and military pressure in the east led some Ansar members to abandon the loosely-formed group in favor of the more focused Islamic State group centered on Sirte. AQIM tends to regard Libya’s Islamic State as a rival rather than a partner, an observation seemingly confirmed by Abu Ubaydah’s failure to use his message to call for support for the Islamic State extremists currently besieged in Sirte in the same way he called for support for the Islamist militants in Benghazi.

Trac 4 - Fighting in BenghaziLNA Operations in Benghazi, July 12, 2016 (Libyan Express)

AQIM’s leader Abd al-Malik Droukdel (a.k.a. Abu Mu’sab Abd al-Wadud) attempted to co-opt the Libyan Revolution from afar when he claimed in 2011 that the revolution was nothing more than a new phase of the Salafist-Jihadi struggle against Arab tyrants, an assertion made once more by Abu Ubaydah in 2013.[2]

Ansar al-Shari’a has battled General Khalifa Belqasim Haftar’s “Operation Dignity” forces (the so-called Libyan National Army [LNA] and its allies) for control of Benghazi since May 2014. At the time of writing, the area controlled by Ansar al-Shari’a and other Islamist groups has been reduced to roughly five square kilometers near the port area.

Who is Omar al-Mukhtar?

Libya’s most prominent national hero is without a doubt the Islamic scholar turned independence fighter Sidi Omar al-Mukhtar. Well versed in tactics learned opposing the Italian invasion of Libya in 1911 and during Sayyid Ahmad al-Sharif al-Sanusi’s failed invasion of British-occupied Egypt during World War One, al-Mukhtar began an eight-year revolt against Italian rule in 1923 using the slogan “We will win or die!” Shortly after the wounded guerrilla leader was captured in 1931, he was hung by Italian authorities in front of a crowd of 20,000 Libyans as a demonstration of Italian resolve and ruthlessness. The resistance collapsed soon afterwards, with some 50% of Libya’s population either forced into exile or dead from starvation, exposure and battle wounds.

Trac5 - al-Mukhtar hangingThe Execution of Omar al-Mukhtar

Abu Ubaydah’s invocation of Omar al-Mukhtar was not unprecedented; during the 2011 revolution al-Qaeda spokesman Abu Yahya al-Libi urged Libyans to follow the example of al-Mukhtar, “the Shaykh of the Martyrs” while claiming al-Qaeda had inspired the revolution by shattering “the barrier of fear” that preserved Muslim regimes that ruled without sole reliance on Shari’a.[3]

Al-Mukhtar’s memory was suppressed during post-WWII Sanusi rule but was enthusiastically revived by Colonel Mu’ammar al-Qaddafi after the 1969 officers’ coup as a means of giving his regime and its anti-Western policies legitimacy by drawing on Libyans’ shared experience of resistance to colonialism. Qaddafi’s first post-coup speech was given in front of al-Mukhtar’s Benghazi tomb, and soon the guerrilla leader’s image was everywhere, including on Libya’s currency. In 1981 Qaddafi financed a big-budget film biography with Anthony Quinn playing al-Mukhtar and a grim-faced Oliver Reed as his deadly enemy, Italy’s Marshal Rodolfo Graziani.

Qaddafi gradually developed a highly individualistic amalgam of Islam, socialism and anti-colonialism that, to his disappointment, failed to gain traction outside of Libya, where it became the dominant political ideology only due to the weight of the state and its enforcement agencies. Qaddafi, however, continued to claim Omar al-Mukhtar as his prime inspiration.

Al-Qaeda and Anti-Colonialism

Due to its close links to nationalism, anti-colonialism has typically been treated carefully by al-Qaeda, whose goal is the creation of a pan-Islamic Arab-led Sunni caliphate rather than the perpetuation of Muslim-majority nations whose boundaries were defined by colonial powers. Recalling the examples of earlier Islamic anti-colonial movements presents al-Qaeda’s takfiri Salafists with an undesirable minefield of ideological dangers and contradictions. To cite only a few examples; Imam Shamyl’s mid-19th century jihad in the North Caucasus was entirely Sufi-based (Sufism being rejected in its entirety by modern Salafi-Jihadists), Sufi Ahmad al-Mahdi’s 19th century jihad in Sudan was meant to overthrow rule by the Ottoman Caliph and his Egyptian Viceroy rather than a European power, while Libya’s own anti-colonial Sanusi movement evolved by the end of World War II into a British-allied monarchy of the type rejected by jihadists throughout the Middle East. Al-Qaeda’s ability to find ideological, ethnic or religious failings in every Islamic movement but its own often strangles its ability to communicate its message; when it does relax its ideological firewalls enough to make historical reference to earlier Muslim leaders outside their usual pantheon it often sounds insincere, even desperate. As might be expected, the vital role played by Western-educated anti-colonial Muslim modernists in establishing today’s post-colonial nation-states is beyond al-Qaeda’s religious frame of reference and, beyond condemnation, remains an unmentionable topic in their public statements.

The most notable exception to this approach is in AQIM’s home turf of Algeria, where the al-Qaeda affiliate has always identified its main enemy as former colonial power France, issuing repeated calls for the death of French citizens and the destruction of their assets and interests in northern Africa. The origin for this lies in both AQIM’s relative isolation from al-Qaeda-Central and in the bitter experience of French colonial rule in Algeria, culminating in the brutal 1954-62 struggle for independence (inspired to a large degree by the success of the Marxist Viet Minh’s armed rejection of French colonialism in Indo-China). The Algerian independence movement was a product of its time, and identified closely with the secular socialism promoted by China, the Soviet Union and influential anti-colonial theorists such as Franz Fanon, marginalizing more Islamic trends of resistance in the process. These trends became submerged in Algeria, where they became a type of unofficial opposition to Algeria’s growing authoritarianism and reliance on the military to preserve the post-independence regime. When a brief experiment with multi-party democracy appeared to be leading to an Islamist government in the 1991-92 elections, the regime promptly cancelled the elections, allegedly at the instigation of Paris. As a consequence, Abu Ubaydah refers to the Algerian regime as “the sons of France”. The Islamists launched a new insurgency whose vicious and callous treatment of innocent civilians (possibly with the participation of government-allied provocateurs) eventually led to a crisis within the armed Islamist movement and an eventual identification with the ideals of Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda movement that led to the creation in 2007 of an Algerian-based affiliate, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

Due to its unique history and antecedents, AQIM is more likely to incorporate more traditional strains of anti-colonial thought into its messaging than other al-Qaeda affiliates in which historical references tend to hearken back to the glorious days of the mediaeval Islamic Empire rather than the more ideologically problematic colonial era. In the fierce fighting for Benghazi, it is somewhat natural then that AQIM ideologues like Abu Ubaydah would be more likely to turn to more-recent resistance leaders like Omar al-Mukhtar for inspiration than their fellow al-Qaeda affiliates.

Notably, Abu Ubaydah singles out French support for anti-terrorist operations in Benghazi, failing to note that the vast majority of those fighting and dying to retake the city from Islamist extremists are in fact Libyan Muslims. Though progress is slow, the ultimate defeat of the extremists (who have little popular support) seems certain – al-Ubaydah’s message is therefore not entirely focused on rallying his Islamist comrades, but also on persuading Benghazi’s Libyan assailants to abandon efforts to seize those parts of the city still under IS/Ansar al-Shari’a control.

The Italian Legacy

In response to the alleged presence of a small number of Italian Special Forces operatives in Libya, Abu Ubaydah claimed in a January audio message entitled “Roman Italy has occupied Libya” that the Italians had re-occupied Libya: “To the new invaders, grandchildren of Graziani, you will bite your hands off, regretting you entered the land of Omar al-Mukhtar and you will come out of it humiliated.”[4] Abu Ubaydah consciously usurped al-Mukhtar’s famous slogan “We will win or die” in his message in an attempt to align AQIM with the Islamist forces in Libya: “We are people who never give up, you will have to walk on our dead bodies. Either we win or we die.”[5] AQIM first encouraged the Libyan thuwar (revolutionaries) to use the slogan in a 2011 message addressed to “the progeny of Omar al-Mukhtar.” [6]

In a further effort to compare the current struggle with al-Mukhtar’s anti-Italian revolt, the AQIM leader also referred to “an Italian general who now rules in Tripoli,” likely describing Italy’s General Paolo Serra, a veteran of Kosovo and Afghanistan and currently the military advisor to Martin Kobler, the UN’s special envoy to Libya.[7]

In March, Abu Ubaydah again referred to “the re-colonization of Libya, now ruled by an Italian general from Tripoli.” He went on to describe how colonialism had returned to North Africa:

After the Arab revolutions and the fall of dictatorships, the West cross saw the return of Muslims to their religion and their commitment to implement sharia, he added. He had no choice but to re-colonize their territory, get hold of their resources and the oil that continues its domination and our marginalization.[8]

Trac 3 - GrazianiNew Mausoleum of Marshall Graziani

In an entirely different approach to Italy’s colonial legacy, Graziani, a convicted war criminal who flew to Libya to interview al-Mukhtar before his execution, was recently honored with a taxpayer-funded mausoleum and memorial park south of Rome.[9] Through his enthusiastic use of poison gas, chemical warfare, civilian massacres and massive concentration camps to impose Italian rule in Africa, Graziani gained the undesirable distinction of being remembered in Libya as “the Butcher of Fezzan” and in the Horn of Africa as “the Butcher of Ethiopia.”

Operation Volcano of Rage

An Islamist relief column of thirty to forty vehicles seems to have been spurred to relieve Benghazi not by al-Qaeda’s Abu Ubaydah, but rather by Libya’s Chief Mufti, Shaykh Sadiq al-Ghariani, under whose authority they claim to be fighting. The Shaykh has been Libya’s top religious cleric since February 2012, but has since become a divisive political figure generally siding with the Tripoli-based General National Congress government, also supported by Ansar al-Shari’a and the rest of the Shura Council of Bengazhi Revolutionaries.

The self-styled Benghazi Defense Brigade (BDB) began its march on Benghazi (named “Operation Volcano Rage) in late June by warning all residents of towns between Ajdabiya and Benghazi to stay out of their way or face destruction.[10] Nonetheless, the BDB had difficulty getting past Ajdabiya, where they met resistance from the LNA. Clashes around Ajdabiya were said to be responsible for disabling pumps in the Great Man-Made River Project that supplies water to Benghazi, which is already suffering from power cuts seven to eight hours a day.[11]

trac sharkasiBDB Leader Brigadier Mustafa al-Sharkasi

The alleged leader of the BDB offensive is Misrata’s Brigadier Mustafa al-Sharkasi. Other leading Islamist militants said to be with the BDB column include al-Sa’adi al-Nawfali of the Adjdabiya Shura Council, Ziyad Balham, the commander of Benghazi’s Omar al-Mukhtar Brigade and Ismail al-Salabi, commander of the Rafallah Sahati militia and brother of prominent Libyan Muslim Brotherhood member Ali Muhammad al-Salabi.

The Grand Mufti’s intervention in the ongoing battle for Benghazi is not surprising; al-Ghariani has in the past referred to those serving under General Haftar as “infidels” and has denied Ansar al-Shari’a is a terrorist group: “There is no terror in Libya and we should not use the word terrorism when referring to Ansar al-Shari’a. They kill and they have their reasons.”[12] Al-Ghariani also declared “the real battle in Libya is the one against Haftar. Only when he is defeated will Libya find security and stability.”[13] The BDB takes a similar view of General Haftar, accusing him of hiring mercenaries and collaborating with former regime members to kill innocents, steal goods and money, destroy homes and displace thousands of Benghazi residents.[14] Both the BDB and their mentor al-Ghariani profess to be opposed to the Islamic State, with some BDB members and leaders having fought the group around Sirte as part of the GNC’s Operation Dawn.

Trac 2 - Usama JadhranUsama Jadhran (al-Jazeera)

Despite a string of victory announcements by the LNA, the BDB still appears to be active some 30 km south of Benghazi (particularly in the region between Sultan and Suluq) as it continues to try to batter its way into the city. A sensational LNA pronouncement on July 10 claimed LNA airstrikes and attacks had devastated the BNB column, with radical Islamist Usama Jadhran (brother of powerful Petroleum Facilities Guard chief Ibrahim Jadhran) being killed and BNB commander al-Sharkasi being captured and removed to General Haftar’s headquarters. To date, the LNA have yet to confirm these claims, while the BNB insists al-Sharkasi remains free and that the BNB had actually overrun an LNA camp at al-Jalidiya on July 10, capturing significant arms and munitions.[15]

Conclusion

Drawing on the radical inspiration of Egypt’s Sayyid Qutb, al-Qaeda rejects independent Muslim nation-states as long as they continue to adopt the forms of governance introduced by colonial regimes rather than governance drawn strictly from Shari’a in its Salafist interpretation, i.e. the sovereignty of God (al-hakimiya li’llah) over the sovereignty of man. Until this is achieved, according to Qutb, Muslim society will continue to exist in a state of jahiliya (the state of ignorance that prevailed in pre-Islamic society). Though the Grand Mufti’s appeals for anti-LNA intervention in Benghazi have had some limited success, calls from Abu Ubaydah for Muslims to flock to the aid of Benghazi’s hard-pressed Islamist militants have produced not even a noticeable trickle in comparison, suggesting that AQIM’s desire to influence Libya’s future remains largely disconnected most of the diverse political and religious approaches favored by Libya’s Muslims. Abu Ubaydah’s attempt to invoke the spirit of Omar al-Mukhtar to rally support for Benghazi’s Islamist militants is more likely to remind most Libyans of the abuse al-Mukhtar’s legacy suffered under Qaddafi than it is to launch new waves of dedicated jihadists. Unlike Abu al-Ubaydah, Omar al-Mukhtar did not need to invent an Italian occupation of Libya to rally his people against colonialism.

This article was originally published at: http://www.trackingterrorism.org/article/al-qaeda-anti-colonialism-and-battle-benghazi/executive-summary

NOTES

[1] Libya Herald, June 27, 2016, https://www.libyaherald.com/2016/06/27/substantial-bombardment-of-benghazi-terrorist-positions/.

[2] Abu Mu`sab Abd al-Wadud, “Aid to the Noble Descendants of Umar al-Mukhtar,” Ansar1.info, March 18, 2011. For a discussion of these efforts, see Barak Barfi: “Al-Qa’ida’s Confused Messaging on Libya,” Center for Countering Terrorism, West Point N.Y., August 1, 2011, https://www.ctc.usma.edu/posts/al-qaida%E2%80%99s-confused-messaging-on-libya ; Abu Ubaydah Yusuf al-Anabi: “The War on Mali,” April 25, 2013, http://www.as-ansar.com/vb/showthread.php?t=88988.

[3] Ansar1.info, March 12, 2011 (no longer available on the web).

[4] ANSA [Rome], January 14, 2016, http://www.ansa.it/english/news/world/2016/01/14/al-qaeda-threatens-italy_bf3677bf-a525-45c2-ab8a-9d39f8fc448a.html .

[5] ANSA, January 14, 2016, http://www.ansa.it/english/news/world/2016/01/14/al-qaeda-threatens-italy_bf3677bf-a525-45c2-ab8a-9d39f8fc448a.html.

[6] Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, “In Defense and Support of the Revolution of Our Fellow Free Muslims, the Progeny of Omar al-Mukhtar,” al-Andalus Media Foundation, February 23, 2011; English translation available here: http://occident2.blogspot.ca/2011/02/english-al-qaida-in-islamic-maghreb_27.html

[7] ANSA, January 14, 2016, http://www.ansa.it/english/news/world/2016/01/14/al-qaeda-threatens-italy_bf3677bf-a525-45c2-ab8a-9d39f8fc448a.html.

[8] Al-Akhbar [Nouakchott], March 7, 2016, http://fr.alakhbar.info/10874-0-Aqmi-Laccord-inter-libyen-est-un-complot-italien.html .

[9] BBC, August 15, 2012, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-19267099 .

[10] Libya Herald, June 19, 2016, https://www.libyaherald.com/2016/06/19/new-benghazi-militant-unit-issues-ajdabiya-warning/.

[11] Libya Herald, June 20, 2016, https://www.libyaherald.com/2016/06/20/benghazi-without-water-following-power-cuts-to-soloug-reservoir-tripoli-in-fourth-day-of-water-shortages/.

[12] Magharebia, June 12, 2014, http://allafrica.com/stories/201406130754.html.

[13] Libyan Gazette, June 13, 2016, https://www.libyangazette.net/2016/06/13/grand-mufti-of-libya-calls-on-libyan-army-to-move-on-to-benghazi-after-defeating-isis/.

[14] Libya Observer, June 22, 2016, http://www.libyaobserver.ly/news/brigadier-al-shirksi-we-are-not-warmongers-we-came-defend-benghazi; July 12, 2016, http://www.libyaobserver.ly/news/defend-benghazi-brigades-our-battle-aims-regain-rights-displaced-and-thwart-haftar%E2%80%99s-project.

[15] Libya Herald, July 17, 2016, https://www.libyaherald.com/2016/07/17/police-arrest-alleged-bdb-supporters-in-soloug-and-yemenis-report/ ; July 10, 2016, https://www.libyaherald.com/2016/07/10/army-claims-capture-of-sharksi-his-bdb-militia-deny-it/; Libya Observer, July 10, 2016, http://www.libyaobserver.ly/news/defend-benghazi-brigades-confirm-control-sultan-district-western-benghazi.

 

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

AIS Special Guest Commentary

By Dr. Emrullah Uslu

Virginia International University

July 16, 2016

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

Emrullah 1

(al-Akhbar)

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

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

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

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

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

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

What is wrong with our counter-terrorism perspective?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

About the Author

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew McGregor

June 30, 2016

Yasir ArmanYasir Arman (Sudan Tribune)

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

Early Influences

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

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

Sudan Map - ConflictsSudan: Regions of Conflict (BBC)

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

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

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

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

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

Presidential Candidate

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

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

Juba Waves Goodbye

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

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

The Dry Season Offensive

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

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

Conclusion

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

Note

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

 

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

Political Stalemate Heightens Appeal of Religious Extremism for Western Sahara Youth

Andrew McGregor

June 24, 2016

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

Western Sahara Map(GlobalSecurity.org)

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

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

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

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

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

The Leadership Question

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

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

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

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

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

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

Failure of MINURSO

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

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

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

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

Attraction of Islamic State and Other Extremist Groups

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

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

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

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

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

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

Offshore Oil Exploration

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

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

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

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

Conclusion: The “Sahrawi State”

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

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

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

NOTES

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

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

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

Brahim GhaliNew President of the SADR, Brahim Ghali

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

The Strategic Topography of Southern Libya

Andrew McGregor

Countering Terrorism Center Sentinel

Volume 9, Issue 5 (May 2016)

West Point, N.Y.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Geographic Considerations

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

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

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

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

The Tribal Situation

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

Strategic Sites in Southern Libya

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

GhatThe Ottoman/Italian Fortress in Ghat

Ghat

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

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

Hun

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

Jalu and Awjala

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

Kufra

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ma’atan al-Sarra

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

Castle - MurzuqOttoman-era Fortress, Murzuq

Murzuq

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

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

Qatrun

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

Rabyanah Oasis and Sand Sea

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

Castle - SabhaElena Castle, Sabha

Sabha

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

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

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

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

Salvador Pass

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

Sarir

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

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

Sharara

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

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

Tazirbu

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

Tummo Pass

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

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

Ubari

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

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

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

Al-Uwaynat

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

Al-Wigh Air Force Base

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

Southern Libya’s Borders

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

 

Citations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[18] Lacher.

[19] Ibid.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew McGregor

May 30, 2016

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

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

Early Career

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

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

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

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

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

MEND Leader

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

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

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

The Amnesty Era

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

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

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

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

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

The Downfall

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

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

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

Emergence of the Niger Delta Avengers

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

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

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

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

Hidden Hand behind the Niger Delta Avengers?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Notes

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

 

This article first appeared in the May 2016 Militant Leadership Monitor

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

Andrew McGregor

April 16, 2016

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

Saudi Border PostSaudi Border Post Overlooking Yemen

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

Coalition Operations in Yemen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Muslim Army or an Army of Mercenaries?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Insurgent Tactics

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

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

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

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

War on al-Qaeda

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

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

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

Conclusion: A Saudi-led Coalition in Syria?

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

 

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