Somalia’s al-Shabaab Threatens to Occupy North-Eastern Kenya

Andrew McGregor

April 30, 2009

Kenyan officials claim to have received warnings from al-Qaeda and Somalia’s al-Shabaab movement that they intend to invade Kenya’s North Eastern Province to annex the region to Somalia and implement Shari’a law. Provincial Commissioner Kimeu Maingi expressed concern at the influx of small arms into the dominantly ethnic-Somali region and claimed that the recent kidnappings of Kenyan citizens at the border town of Mandera was intended to provoke a reaction from the Kenyan government. Maingi noted it was unjustifiable for provincial residents to keep demanding food aid from the central government when they are exchanging their livestock for arms, adding that the government had moved extra troops up to the border as part of its continuing disarmament campaign (Kenya Broadcasting Corporation, April 26).

somalia kenya border map(BBC)

Foreign Affairs Assistant Minister Richard Onyonka declared al-Shabaab had little chance of carrying out its plan, stating, “Kenya is a sovereign country and no person or country will come and threaten the government. We have the capacity and ability to stave off any incursions from anybody else” (Capital FM Radio [Nairobi], April 27; Daily Nation [Nairobi], April 27).

The Somali government of President Shaykh Sharif Shaykh Ahmad condemned the threats, noting al-Shabaab’s opposition to government efforts to implement shari’a in Somalia. Somali Minister of Commerce Abdirashid Irro Muhammad said, “Really, we are very sorry and we condemn such actions. Kenya is our neighbor state and our brotherly country, and they have their own constitution. So there is no reason that al-Shabaab should attack them and endorse the Shari’a law… They are getting orders from the outside Islamic world and really they are not interested whether we will implement the Shari’a law or not” (VOA, April 28). So far, al-Shabaab has not commented on the alleged threats, nor has the Kenyan government released the text of the warning.

The chairman of al-Shabaab’s “Islamic administration” in Gedo, Shaykh Isma’il Adan Haji, recently attacked the government’s introduction of shari’a, describing it as an “apostate regime’s” unacceptable attempt to “dupe the people” (Shabelle Media Network, April 26).

Kenya has received threats from al-Shabaab before, in connection with its provision of military training for Somali government troops, its practice of extraditing Somali nationals to Ethiopia for questioning by U.S. intelligence services and its declared intention to send a battalion of Kenyan troops to join the undermanned African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM).

Fighting between ethnic Somali clans in the Mandera region of Kenya’s North-Eastern Province intensified last fall. Kenyan intelligence sources claimed that the arms and funding that the rival groups were receiving from allies across the Somali border constituted a threat to national security (NTV [Nairobi], October 30, 2008).

 

This article first appeared in the April 30, 2009 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor 

Afghan Taliban Reject Claims they are led by al-Qaeda

Andrew McGregor

April 30, 2009

An important interview with senior Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid attracted little attention in Western media despite indications in the interview of several important new directions in Taliban policy (Afghan Islamic Press, April 21). Most notably, Zabihullah appeared to distance the Taliban movement from al-Qaeda. Repudiating the suggestion that the resistance in Afghanistan was led by al-Qaeda rather than the Taliban, Zabihullah declared; “The ongoing resistance against the foreigners in Afghanistan is a pure Afghan resistance. The commanders and leaders of this resistance are Afghans and everything to do with this struggle is led by Afghans… The leader of our resistance is known and he is Mullah Omar Mujahid. Local commanders in each and every province and region are known.” Western media and governments have long regarded the two movements as inseparable.

While conceding the presence of foreign fighters in the Taliban ranks, the spokesman compared the situation to the anti-Soviet jihad of the 1980s, when many foreign fighters were found in the ranks of the mujahideen; “It was obvious that the struggle was a purely Afghan movement. The current ongoing jihad and resistance is also a pure Afghan affair.” Zabihullah ended his comments on al-Qaeda by suggesting that international concerns about the terrorist group had nothing to do with the program and operations of the Afghan Taliban, saying “We are not responsible for the affairs of other parties or the world. We are only concerned about Afghanistan. It is up to al-Qaeda and the rest of the world whether they resolve their problems or not. Such issues have nothing to do with the Taliban.”

A second shift in Taliban policy was outlined in Zabihullah’s remarks on Taliban inclusiveness. The post-invasion movement is generally regarded as exclusive to Afghanistan’s Sunni Muslim Pashtun tribes, but Zabihullah insists, “This is a wrong opinion. The Taliban is composed of all the tribes and nations of Afghanistan. The Taliban appoint their commanders in each province and district from among the inhabitants of those areas. The only condition is that the individual must be a Muslim and Afghan.” Most surprising is Zabihullah’s claim that the Taliban has a growing following in Afghanistan’s Shi’a communities, despite a long history of Taliban animosity for Shi’ism, as expressed in a number of massacres of Shi’a civilians. “[The Shi’a] also do not want the foreigners and infidels to dominate Afghanistan. Therefore, they are also fighting against the foreigners in the ranks of Taliban.”

Lastly, Zabihullah commented on the expansion of the Taliban’s war to parts of northern Afghanistan previously considered stable. “The northern provinces are also part of Afghanistan. When the Taliban declared jihad against the forgoers [of religion] a few years back, some people in the northern provinces came under the foreigners’ influence and were saying that the Taliban were not mujahideen but terrorists, and that the foreign forces were in Afghanistan to help the people. But now people in the north have also realized that the Taliban are fighting and performing jihad just for the sake of Almighty Allah.”

The Taliban spokesman said that suicide bombings would play an important part in the Taliban’s offensive in northern Afghanistan. The expansion of the war to northern Afghanistan will help nullify the impact of the influx of new American troops to Afghanistan while relieving pressure on Taliban operations in other parts of the country. Suicide bombers will also play a role in disrupting the upcoming national elections. During the month of April there were a number of suicide bombings and ambushes of national security forces in the previously secure northern provinces of Balkh, Kunduz, Samangan and Baghlan (Cheragh [Kabul], April 21, Afghan Islamic Press, April 12; Voice of Jihad, April 12, April 19).

 

This article first appeared in the April 30, 2009 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor 

Iraq-Based Komala Party Describes the Struggle for Iranian Kurdistan

Andrew McGregor

April 24, 2009

The leader of an armed Kurdish-Iranian opposition group recently described his group’s continuing struggle for an autonomous Iranian Kurdistan and his views on the future of the Islamist Shi’a regime in Tehran. Details were provided in an interview with Abdullah Mohtadi, the secretary-general of the Komala Party (the short form for the group’s full name, Komalay Shoreshgeri Zahmatkeshani Kurdistani Iran – The Revolutionary Organization of the Toilers of Kurdistan), who spoke from al-Sulaymaniya in Kurdish northern Iraq (al-Sharq al-Awsat, April 1).

Komala 1Iraqi Kurdistan (UNPO)

The party was formed in 1969 by Ibrahim Alizadeh to promote an autonomous status for the Kurdish community in Iran. The group took up arms in 1979 as one of a number of leftist groups to oppose the Shah. Since then it has focused on creating an autonomous Kurdish region based on the northwestern Iranian provinces of Kurdistan, Ilam, Kermanshan and Western Azerbaijan, all of which have significant Kurdish populations, as well as Assyrian and Armenian minorities. The four provinces roughly cover the area included in the short-lived Kurdish Republic of Mahabad (1946).

Komala was driven out of Iran and into Iraq in 1983, where they were initially greeted coldly by the Ba’athist regime, though they were later accepted by Baghdad as a card that could be played against Iran. This did not prevent the group from being attacked with artillery and poison gas during Saddam’s anti-Kurdish Anfal campaign in 1988-89. Today Komala has split into a smaller Communist faction intent on preserving the group’s original Marxist-Leninist orientation and a larger and more moderate socialist faction led by Abdullah Mohtadi.

Inside Iran, the party led a brief rebellion in the largely Kurdish city of Mahabad in 2005 but backed down when it realized the revolt was incapable of toppling the regime and would only bring heavy reprisals (Jerusalem Post, August 23, 2007). As a result of this experience, the movement remains an armed force but concentrates on political activities. Estimates of the number of available fighters range from 200 to 1,000. Komala fighters and officials are based in the Kara Dagh mountains outside the Kurdish city of al-Sulaymaniya in northern Iraq.

Secretary General Mohtadi views the creation of a “Greater Kurdistan” or even secession from Iran as “unrealistic,” preferring the establishment of a “democratic, secular, federal Iran” (komala.org, July 3, 2007). The party blames Tehran for a host of ills in Iranian Kurdistan, including “the military occupation of Kurdistan, widespread poverty… the suppression of Kurdish culture, drug addiction, religious suppression, forced migration, imprisonment, terror, torture, and the killing of whoever opposes these tyrannical policies” (komala.org).

Komala 2Abdullah Mohtadi with Komala Guerrillas

While Mohtadi urged Komala splinter groups to return to the mainstream party during the al-Sharq al-Aswsat interview, he also condemned the activities of the better-known Parti bo Jiyani Azadi la Kurdistan (Party for a Free Life in Kurdistan – PJAK); “PJAK is the other face of the PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party]. It is not an independent party and was not established by the true Kurdish people in Iran. It does not serve the interests of the Kurdish liberation movement…”

Mohtadi opposes the methods and objectives of his fellow leftists in the PKK:

“The problem with the PKK… I mean, the Kurdish toilers have every right to fight for their rights and their freedom. But the PKK as an organization is not reliable. They are very fanatic in their nationalism. They are very undemocratic in nature. They have no principles. I mean, they can deal with Satan. They can fight the Kurds… They have fought the Kurds much more than they have fought the Turks. When you study the history of the PKK, you find out that they have been against every single Kurdish movement in every part of Kurdistan. At the same time they have had good friendly relations with all the states where the Kurds live, where the oppressed live” (komala.org, July 3, 2007).

Komala demanded the overthrow of the Tehran regime in a 2006 manifesto signed by two other Kurdish-Iranian groups, but Mohtadi says the movement no longer wishes to “repeat the Iraqi scenario in Iran by overthrowing the regime.” The Komala leader views the Iraqi decision to expel the Iranian opposition group Mojahedin-e Khalq (MeK) with some alarm, not through any common ideology or objectives, but as a possible precursor to the expulsion of the Iranian-Kurdish opposition groups based in northern Iraq. Mohtadi used the interview to remind Baghdad of the strategic importance of these groups; “The Kurdish forces constitute huge pressure cards against Iran. If these cards are lost, the Iraqi government will not have anything with which to bargain with Iran.” When the Iranian regime “inevitably” collapses, the Iranian-Kurdish opposition groups will have a strong presence on the ground.

Mohtadi maintains that the Iranian reformers led by former President Mohammad Khatami have little chance of taking power after the coming elections in Iran because of the support the current regime has from the armed forces, the Revolutionary Guards, the Basiji paramilitary and the intelligence and security services.

 

This article first appeared in the April 24, 2009 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Chinese Navy Conducts Independent Operations against Somali Pirates

Andrew McGregor

April 24, 2009

A second Chinese naval taskforce under Rear Admiral Yao Zhilou has arrived in the Gulf of Aden off the coast of Somalia to combat piracy in the area (Jiefangjun Bao Online, April 8). The new taskforce replaces the Chinese Navy’s earlier taskforce, consisting of the multi-purpose missile destroyer DDG-169 Wuhan, the destroyer DDG-171 Haikou (equipped with phased-array radar and the latest long-range air defense missiles) and the Qiandaohu class supply ship Weishanhu (Xinhua, December 26, 2008; China Daily, December 26, 2008). Since their arrival on January 6, the Chinese ships rescued three ships from pirates and drove off more than 100 suspicious vessels while providing naval escorts through the region (Xinhua, April 5).

Chinese Navy 1Chinese Frigate FFG-570 Huangshan

The second taskforce consists of China’s most advanced missile destroyer, the DDG-167 Shenzhen, and the FFG-570 Huangshan, the navy’s latest model frigate, which has a structural design intended to reduce its radar profile (Xinhua, April 2). The new task force also includes two helicopters and a contingent of navy Special Forces. Like the earlier taskforce, all the ships are modern products of Chinese naval yards. The ships belong to the South China Sea fleet, based in the port of Zhanjiang in Guangdong Province. The supply ship Weishanhu will remain in the Gulf to service the newly arrived ships.

More than 1,000 Chinese merchant ships pass through the Gulf of Aden each year. Before the Chinese deployment began, as much as 20% of Chinese shipping in the Gulf was attacked in the previous year. Chinese authorities were no doubt alarmed by the hijacking of a Saudi oil tanker earlier this year off the coast of Somalia. Chinese tankers carry the output of the Chinese oil operations in Sudan from Port Sudan on the Red Sea Coast into the piracy zone in the Gulf of Aden. Chinese oil firms have also signed deals with the autonomous government of Puntland (the base of most pirate activities) to exploit potential oil reserves in Somali waters off the Puntland coast (Financial Times, July 13, 2007; AFP December 19, 2007).

According to Rear Admiral Yao Zhilou, the second mission, expected to last six months, may expand its zone of operations in response to adaptations made by the pirates, including greater coordination, upgraded arms and wider areas of operation (China Daily, April 18).

Huang Jiaxiang, political commissar of the South Sea Fleet of the Chinese Navy, outlined the objectives of the Chinese naval deployment;

• Fulfilling international obligations.

• Protecting national interests.

• Demonstrating the “good image of the People’s Army and the Chinese Navy.”

• Raising the navy’s capacity to carry out a variety of assigned duties (Xinhua, April 5).

The Chinese warships operate independently of the 20-nation Combined Task Force 151 (CTF-151), a UN-authorized anti-piracy naval force. China has pledged to share information with CTF-151 ships and provide humanitarian help to foreign vessels in danger of attack (Xinhua, December 26, 2008). The main concern of the mission is the protection of Chinese merchant ships as well as any ship from Hong Kong, Macau or Taiwan that appeals for protection (Xinhua, March 31; China Daily, December 26, 2008). There was initially some political concern in Taiwan after Chinese authorities reported a tanker belonging to Taiwan’s Formosa Plastics Group had requested an escort from the Chinese naval group, but Taiwan’s Mainland Affairs Council later reported the Formosa Products Cosmos was registered in Liberia and no Taiwanese ships had been authorized to seek protection from the Chinese navy (China Post [Taiwan], January 14).

The Chinese naval deployment offers the opportunity to train naval crews in real-life conditions, gain familiarity with the operations of the foreign naval forces comprising CTF-151 (including American ships) and increase their knowledge of African coastal waters in an area of increasing strategic importance for Beijing. The latter, combined with Chinese involvement in a number of African peacekeeping missions, is resulting in a steady supply of intelligence on areas of Chinese interest in the region.

Chinese Navy 2Admiral Zheng He

The importance of the return of the Chinese Navy to African waters after an absence of 600 years was celebrated in a music video produced by the Chinese Navy’s political art troupe (http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XNjE3NjkyMDA=.html ).  The song, entitled “Make Haste to Somalia,” makes reference to the 15th century Muslim Chinese Admiral Zheng He, who took a Chinese fleet of hundreds of ships to the East African coast:

Make haste to Somalia, cruise the Gulf of Aden
With lofty sentiments, the Chinese navy heads for the deep blue
Braving wind and waves, the warship’s flag flutters,
The Chinese navy, a bright sword to harmonize the ocean.

Chinese warriors, valiant men with iron wills,
Intrepid journey, 600 years after Zheng He.
Heroic sailors, forge bravely ahead,
Bearing heavy responsibility, the motherland will see our triumphant return.

(Translation by Blackandwhitecat.org, 2008).

 

This article first appeared in the April 24, 2009 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Saudi al-Qaeda Leader Outlines New Strategy and Tactics of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula

Andrew McGregor

April 10, 2009

In a statement delivered on Saudi Arabia’s state-owned Al-Ikhbariyah TV, a former leading member of al-Qaeda in Yemen, now in detention in Riyadh, described the revised tactical and strategic approach taken by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, a new organization that combines the Saudi Arabian and Yemeni branches of al-Qaeda (Al-Ikhbariyah TV, March 27). Captured in Afghanistan in 2001, Abu Hareth Muhammad al-Awfi was detained as an enemy combatant in Guantanamo under the name Muhammad Atiq Awayd al-Harbi (prisoner no. 333). In November 2007, al-Awfi was transferred to Saudi Arabia, where he entered the Counseling Program run by Saudi Arabia’s Advisory Committee responsible for the rehabilitation of Islamist extremists.

al-AwfiAbu Hareth Muhammad al-Awfi

Shortly after entering the program, al-Awfi fled Saudi Arabia along with Sa’id Ali al-Shihri “Abu Sayyaf,” another former Guantanamo Bay prisoner who was transferred to Saudi custody at the same time as al-Awfi. Al-Shihri became the deputy leader of al-Qaeda in Yemen and is a suspect in last September’s car-bombing outside the American Embassy in Sana’a that killed 16 people.  The two men headed for Yemen, mainly because it was accessible in comparison to Iraq or Afghanistan.

In January, al-Awfi appeared in a 19-minute video with three other al-Qaeda leaders to announce the unification of the Saudi Arabian and Yemeni chapters of al-Qaeda in a new organization, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Others in the video included Sa’id al-Shihri, Qasim al-Rimi “Abu-Hurayrah” (military commander) and Abu Basir Nasir al-Wuhayshi, the group’s leader (Al-Malahim Establishment for Media Production/al-Fajr Media Center, January 24). Aside from issuing warnings to the “Crusader states” and the Saudi security services, al-Awfi warned “the brothers in prison” against participating in the Saudi rehabilitation program, run by “the ignorant oppressor Muhammad bin Nayif” and “the liar Turki al-Uttayan.” He accused the latter of heading a “psychological investigations delegation” to Guantanamo to help extract confessions from prisoners there.

Al-Awfi now maintains he did not want to appear in the January 24 video and argued with the leadership over this issue. Eventually he was ordered to appear in a certain place to make the video, but objected to the message he was told to read. Al-Awfi, who claims the message did not represent his viewpoint or ideas, was told to read it without changes because the wording in the message was carefully chosen. After careful reconsideration of the takfiri approach taken by his al-Qaeda colleagues, al-Awfi crossed back into Saudi Arabia and surrendered himself to authorities in mid-February after first contacting a shaykh at the Advisory Committee (YemenOnline, February 17).

According to al-Awfi, the organization decided on a major change in tactics and strategy, moving away from the methods of former Saudi Arabian al-Qaeda leader Abd al-Aziz bin Abd al-Muhsin al-Miqrin (killed June 18, 2004 after overseeing a number of terrorist blasts and kidnappings). The group’s assessment of al-Miqrin’s campaign declared al-Miqrin had blundered by concentrating his forces in Riyadh. In the new strategy al-Qaeda would mount attacks in Saudi Arabia from bases in Yemen, leaving only a small group of 30 to 40 individuals in the southern mountains of Saudi Arabia to carry out small-scale operations such as assassinations and sniping attacks. For major operations, a reconnaissance and surveillance team would enter Saudi Arabia to collect detailed intelligence before returning to their base in Yemen, where the operation would be carefully planned. After a major strike the attackers would slip back across the border into Yemen, exhausting Saudi security forces in a fruitless search within Saudi Arabia. Training was to be aimed at producing fighters who could operate on various fronts, including guerrilla fighting, mountain warfare and jungle fighting (Al-Ikhbariyah TV, March 27).

The sincerity of al-Awfi’s latest act of repentance was questioned by some in Saudi Arabia; one daily newspaper asked, “How much can we trust Muhammad al-Awfi? … It is an embarrassment when terrorists continue to fool us with naïve justifications and stories, then try to destroy us once more” (Jedda al-Madinah, March 30). Noting his rejection of takfiri ideology, a Saudi economic daily noted: “We hope what al-Awfi has revealed would serve as a clear message to those who might think that al-Qaeda was an organization that seeks jihad in the name of God” (Al-Iqtisadiyah, March 28).

This article first appeared in the April 10, 2009 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Former Militant Describes Decline of Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan

Andrew McGregor

April 10, 2009

A former member of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU), Abubakr Xoldorovich Kenjaboyev, appeared on state-owned Uzbek TV on March 30 to describe the decline of the once powerful IMU.  Kenjaboyev identifies himself as an ideological leader who joined the IMU in 2000 and later left the Waziristan-based group to form a new group opposed to the leadership of IMU co-founder Qari Tahir Yuldash.

IMUMilitants of the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (BBC)

As might be expected, Kenjaboyev devoted much of his interview to attacks on Yuldash (or Yuldashev), a radical preacher and sole leader of the IMU since the death of co-founder Juma Namangani in a November, 2001 U.S. airstrike in Afghanistan. Kenjaboyev alleged that Yuldash and his family enjoyed a life of wealth and comfort, unlike the harsh conditions endured by other members of the movement. The refusal of the IMU leader to adopt the three children of Juma Namangani after his death “tells everything about him.”

The former militant said his dispute with Yuldash began when he objected to the Yuldash-approved curriculum of religious instruction and weapons training used in the children’s schools of the IMU camps: “If the children are taught worldly subjects, there is the risk that they may begin realizing what is right and what is wrong. The result could be that the orders of the leaders of the Islamic movement will be defied, especially as the IMU members are decreasing in number now. The idea is that [lost members] will be easily replaced if the children are trained to be militants at madrassas.”

Since its move to Pakistan’s northwest frontier in late 2001, the IMU has steadily lost its political significance and is further away than ever from its goal of establishing an Islamic Caliphate in Central Asia. Stranded in a strange and foreign land with little more than Islam in common with the local peoples, the IMU has been unable to conduct operations in Central Asia and has likewise failed to integrate itself into the local Taliban movement and join the jihad in Afghanistan or Pakistan in any meaningful way. Lacking purpose, some of the exiled fighters have turned to crime, including those who hire themselves out as assassins. Although they continue to find hospitality from some tribal elements in North Waziristan, the Uzbek militants have suffered steady attrition in numbers from attacks by tribal lashkar-s and government security forces.

After leaving the IMU, Kenjaboyev says he passed through Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan, where he claims he was twice offered the opportunity of leading a U.S.-funded Islamic movement consisting of other former IMU fighters: “They said the U.S.A. was willing to provide every help we would need… The result they wanted was to create conflicts in certain regions… In this way, they tried to use the flag of Islam as a cover to achieve their personal interests.”

Kenjaboyev estimates that only 100 to 150 fighters are left from an original contingent of over 1,000 men. Despite Yuldash’s efforts to create a second generation of jihadis, many of the remaining fighters “are coming to realize that they were wrong.” If the decline in numbers continues, the IMU “will cease to exist by itself.”

Any interview with an IMU militant on state-controlled Uzbek TV is bound to have occurred under strict political supervision. In this sense the content may be less revealing than the decision to bring it to air. The interview may be seen as an acknowledgement by Tashkent that the IMU is no longer an immediate threat to Uzbekistan, a position that was previously maintained by authorities for political reasons.

This article first appeared in the April 10, 2009 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Al-Shabaab Magazine Denounces Somalia’s Islamist President

Andrew McGregor

April 3, 2009

The split between Somalia’s al-Shabaab militant group and the Islamists who have joined the new Somali government continues to deepen, as demonstrated by the fifth issue of al-Shabaab’s Millat Ibrahim magazine, which appeared on various jihadi websites on March 4. The issue contains a number of articles critical of former Islamic Courts Union Chairman Shaykh Sharif Shaykh Ahmad, the new President of Somalia.

Shaykh Sharif Shaykh AhmadShaykh Sharif Shaykh Ahmad

An article by Abu Talha al-Somali makes its view of the “apostate” nature of the new president clear in its title; “Apostate Sharif Is President of the Apostate Government in Replacement of the Apostate [Abdullahi] Yusuf.” Unflattering comparisons are made in “Those Similar to Sharif throughout Islamic History.”

The deepest analysis of the direction of the new government was provided in an article entitled “Message” by Abu al-Hashir al-Salafi al-Sudani, which examined the implications of the appointment of Shaykh Sharif Shaykh Ahmad as president. The author described the challenges al-Shabaab would face from the following aims of this “puppet president”:

1/ Undermining al-Shabaab through the implementation of Shari’a as the legal code of Somalia, which will also decrease the possibility Shaykh Sharif will be considered a tyrant or apostate

2/ The appointment of Shaykh Sharif as leader and the withdrawal of the Ethiopian invaders will remove the raison d’etre of al-Shabaab.

3/ The elimination of piracy on the Somali coasts, which al-Sudani notes will remove a threat which has caused “excessive losses” to the Crusaders     and their apostate supporters.

4/ The forthcoming popular elections will entrench the new government. Al-Sudani argues that they will instead return the rule of tyrants:  “Islamic Shari’a is not established by innovative elections that recognize the false multi-party system with all its forms and colors. The religion is only established by a victorious sword and a guiding book.”

Shaykh Sharif also comes under severe criticism for fleeing Somalia when the Ethiopians invaded in December 2006 and is accused of negotiating with the “enemies” and receiving their financial support during his absence from the battlefield.

A number of other topics are examined in Millat Ibrahim. A “Message to Gaza” calls on Palestinians to use Somalia as a base for the liberation of Jerusalem. Other articles describe the gentle behavior of a mujahid and provide an analysis of the reasons behind the withdrawal of the Ethiopian military from Somalia. There is also a transcript of a February speech on Somalia by al-Qaeda strategist Abu Yahya al-Libi (the organization’s point-man on Somali issues) and a selection of quotations on jihad by the “martyr Abu Musab al-Zarqawi,” the late leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq.

 This article first appeared in the April 3, 2009 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Government Forces Clash with Rogue Islamist Commander in Mindanao

Andrew McGregor

April 3, 2009

Filipino government forces engaged in a major battle last week with rebel forces under the command of a renegade commander of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). The clashes, described as the fiercest this year, occurred on the island of Mindanao, ten kilometers from the provincial capital of Maguindanao, where Philippines president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo was visiting at the time. The clashes began on March 26 near the town of Mamasapano in Maguindanao province, one of six provinces forming the Muslim autonomous region.

MILF - KatoAmeril Umbra Kato

According to an army spokesman, units of the army’s 601st Brigade were checking on reports of a rebel presence in the area (Xinhua, March 28). The troops were attacked by an estimated 60 to 80 rebel fighters under the command of Ameril Umbra Kato, an MILF commander with a 3 million peso reward (U.S. $310,000) on his head. An MILF spokesman maintained the clashes were initiated by government forces, which allegedly attacked a village where many of the families of Umbra Kato’s fighters lived. Kato styles himself commander of the 105th Base Command of the Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (the armed wing of the MILF).

The 601st Brigade engaged the rebels with artillery, mortars and heavy-machine-gun fire from armored personnel vehicles (APVs). The rebels targeted the military with mortar and small-arms fire for eight hours before splitting into small groups and melting into a marshy area where pursuit was difficult (AFP, March 28). Government forces claimed at least 20 rebels were killed while admitting the loss of eight soldiers. An MILF spokesman insisted the rebels had suffered the loss of only one fighter while killing 20 government troops (MindaNews [Mindanao], March 28). The rebels also claimed to have destroyed two APVs and to have seized a weapons cache that included an M-60 machine-gun (Mindanao Examiner, March 27). Eid Kabalu, the MILF’s civil-military affairs chief, declared government troops “encountered our regular forces, not those under Kato” (Philippine Daily Inquirer [Mindanao], March 28).

An agreement between the government and the MILF last year on “ancestral domain” (effectively creating a Muslim homeland) in the historically Muslim southern islands of the Philippines fell through when it was overturned by the Supreme Court. Despite a continuing (but lightly observed) ceasefire, a number of MILF commanders responded by attacking Christian communities in Mindanao last August, killing dozens of people and driving 160,000 others from their homes. Kato became one of the most wanted men in the Philippines when his fighters rampaged through Christian communities in the North Cotabato, Lanao del Norte, and Saranggani provinces of Mindanao. The rebel commander faces scores of criminal charges, including a charge of terrorism under the Human Security Act (Philippine Star [Manila], September 4, 2008). Two other MILF commanders, Abdullah Macapaar (a.k.a. Commander Bravo) and Sulayman Pangalian, are also wanted for their attacks on Christian communities, apparently without the approval of the MILF command. MILF chairman Al-Haj Murad Ebrahim announced that Kato and Macapaar would be charged under the Shari’a in a military court martial for their role in the attacks, but the commanders have yet to be reined in (Sun Star [Davao, Mindanao], August 25, 2008).

In a YouTube video recorded last fall, Kato denied allegations his force was “a lost command,” while accusing the government of terrorism. He described the bounty on his head as a “pre-modern tactic” used by enemies of the Prophet Muhammad and insisted that the President sought to “sow chaos” in Mindanao by ordering military attacks on the MILF (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dU-Se7g1k7U).

Secretary of National Defense Gilberto Teodoro Jr. once said of Kato; “We know the way he thinks and the way he thinks is quite dangerous” (Philippine Daily Inquirer, October 2, 2008). Kato’s progress through remote areas of Mindanao is partially tracked through text messages sent to security forces by civilians (GMANews [Manila], October 2, 2008).

Manila is demanding the surrender of Kato, Macapaar and Pangalian before peace talks can resume with the MILF (Philippine Daily Inquirer, March 1). The government has tried to exploit a divide between the three commanders and the mainstream MILF command, characterizing the three as “renegades” who don’t “honor and respect” MILF members of the ceasefire committee. According to Interior Minister Ronaldo Puno; “The minute the MILF surrenders the three commanders, the Philippine National Police will stop its operation and development will begin in Mindanao. It seems it’s the tail wagging the dog, the criminal elements controlling the central committee” (Philippine Star, September 10, 2008). The struggle for a Muslim homeland in Mindanao is now in its fourth decade and is believed to have claimed the lives of 120,000 people.

 This article first appeared in the April 3, 2009 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Targeting the Khyber Pass: The Taliban’s Spring Offensive

Andrew McGregor

April 3, 2009

Taliban Deputy Leader Mullah Bradar Muhammad Akhand announced “a new series of operations” under the code name “Operation Ebrat” (Lesson) on March 27. The Taliban’s spring offensive is “aimed at giving the enemy a lesson through directing powerful strikes at it, which it can never expect, until it is forced to end the occupation of Afghanistan and withdraw all the occupier soldiers… We will add to the tactics and experiences of the past years new types of operations. The operations will also be expanded to cover all locations of the country, in order for the enemy to be weighed down everywhere” (Sawt al-Jihad, March 28). There are indications that a main target of the offensive will be the Afghanistan/Pakistan frontier, in particular the strategically vital Khyber Pass.

Khyber PassKhyber Pass

Citing an improvement in the skills and capacity of the Afghanistan National Army (ANA), Afghanistan’s Defense Ministry immediately dismissed the announcement as “a psychological campaign and not a reality which could be implemented on the ground” (AFP, March 25). In reality the situation along the border is extremely precarious and threatens the ability of Coalition forces to operate within Afghanistan.

Joint Intelligence Centers on the Border

The first in a planned series of six joint intelligence centers along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border was opened at the Afghanistan border town of Torkham on March 29. When the plan is fully implemented there will be three such centers on each side of the border at a cost of $3 million each. There are high hopes for the centers, which have been described by the U.S. commander in Afghanistan as “the cornerstone upon which future cooperative efforts will grow” (Daily Times [Lahore], March 30). According to U.S. Brigadier General Joe Votel, “The macro view is to disrupt insurgents from going back and forth, going into Afghanistan and back into Pakistan, too. This is not going to instantly stop the infiltration problem, but it’s a good step forward” (Daily Times, March 30).

The centers are designed to coordinate intelligence gathering and sharing between the NATO-led International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) and the intelligence agencies of Afghanistan and Pakistan. The project is an outgrowth of the earlier Joint Intelligence Operations Center (JIOC) established in Kabul in January 2007. This center, comprising 12 ISAF, six Afghan and six Pakistani intelligence officers, was initiated by the Military Intelligence Sharing Working Group, a subcommittee of the Tripartite Plenary Commission of military commanders that meets on a bimonthly basis (American Forces Press Service, January 30, 2007). The JIOC is designed to facilitate intelligence sharing, joint operations planning and an exchange of information on improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The working languages are English, Dari and Pashto, aided by a number of translators.

The new border centers will each be manned by 15 to 20 intelligence agents. One of the main innovations is the ability to view real-time video feeds from U.S. surveillance aircraft. The commander of U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Major General David Rodriguez, described the centers as “a giant step forward in cooperation, communication and coordination” (The News [Karachi], March 29). Despite such glowing descriptions, there remains one hitch—Pakistan’s military has yet to make a full commitment to the project. According to Major General Athar Abbas, the director general of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Public Relations, a military information organization, “At this time this proposal is being analyzed and evaluated by the concerned officials. But Pakistan has not yet come to a decision on this matter” (The News, March 30). General Abbas and other officials have declined to discuss Pakistan’s reservations or even to commit to a deadline for a decision. It is possible that the failure to sign on as full partners in the project may have something to do with the stated intention of Pakistan’s new prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, to pursue a greater focus on negotiation than military action in dealing with the Taliban and other frontier militants. There may also be reservations on the part of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) to share intelligence on their clients within the Taliban.

Actual intelligence cooperation along the border is hampered by a number of factors, not least of which is a basic inability to agree on exactly where the border lies. In the past, Pakistan has responded to complaints from Afghanistan of Taliban fighters infiltrating across the border by threatening to fence or even mine the frontier, a shocking proposal to the Pashtun clans that straddle the artificial divide. Afghanistan’s long-standing policy is simply to refuse recognition of the colonial-era Durand Line, which it claims was forced on it by British imperialists in 1893. Pakistan accepts the Durand Line, but the two nations are frequently unable to agree on exactly where the 1,500-mile line is drawn.

U.S. Intervention in the Frontier Region?

The United States is pursuing a number of initiatives to increase security and diminish the influence of the Taliban in the frontier regions of Pakistan, including a massive economic aid program, counter-insurgency training for the Frontier Corps and enhancement of the CIA’s monitoring and surveillance abilities in the area (Dawn [Karachi], February 26). The CIA already gathers information on the region from over-flights of its unmanned Predator surveillance aircraft, which can also deliver precisely targeted missiles on suspected Taliban safe-houses. Complicating efforts to increase security in the border region is a belief within Pakistan that the United States is preparing to intervene militarily in Pakistan’s frontier region (The Nation [Islamabad], March 24).

In a March 30 interview, CIA Director Michael Hayden declared that the Afghanistan-Pakistan border region would be the most probable source for new terrorist attacks on the United States: “If there is another terrorist attack, it will originate there.” The CIA chief warned that the situation along the border “presents a clear and present danger to Afghanistan, to Pakistan, and to the West in general and to the United States in particular.” Hayden also suggested that Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri were present in the Pakistan tribal frontier, where they were training “operatives who look Western” (NBC, March 30; Dawn, March 31).

A spokesman for Pakistan’s Foreign Ministry responded angrily to the CIA director’s comments, stating that if the United States has information about the whereabouts of the al-Qaeda leadership, it should share it with Pakistan so it can take action. “Such a statement does not help trace alleged hideouts… Terrorists have threatened Pakistan and targeted our people. We are, therefore, combating terrorism in our own interest” (Daily Times, April 3). Syed Munawar Hasan, leader of the Jamaat-e-Islami, Pakistan’s largest Islamic political party, suggested that Hayden’s statements were “white lies,” similar to Washington’s allegations of weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Munawar urged the new government to stand fast in the face of what he described as U.S. threats to invade Pakistan despite the establishment of a democratic government (The News, April 2). The provincial assembly of the North-West Frontier Province issued a unanimous condemnation of Hayden’s remarks (The Post [Lahore], April 2; Geo TV News, April 1).

The Torkham Gate

The location of the first joint intelligence center at Torkham reflects the strategic importance of this border town at the Afghanistan end of the fabled Khyber Pass. It is the main gateway for supplies to U.S. and ISAF forces within Afghanistan and is believed to be one of the main targets for the forthcoming Taliban spring offensive (The Nation, April 2). Linking Afghanistan’s Nangarhar Province and Pakistan’s Khyber Agency, Torkham is traditionally the busiest commercial border post between the two countries. A new round of attacks on Torkham may have already begun—as many as 40 oil tankers destined for Coalition forces in Afghanistan were destroyed in a series of explosions in a Torkham parking lot on March 20 (Dawn, March 24). There were 70 to 100 tankers awaiting clearance to cross into Afghanistan at the time.

Torkham GateThe Torkham Gate

Only a day before the attack on the tankers, an effort by a U.S. Army colonel to expedite border clearances for military transports at Torkham failed when the chief Pakistani customs official refused to meet with her (Daily Times, March 19). Vehicles typically wait in parking lots at Torkham for up to 20 days awaiting clearance to proceed. Part of the problem is due to delays in permits faxed to Torkham from the U.S. base in Bagram—until these are received the vehicles are forbidden to cross into Afghanistan (Daily Times, March 27). There are also accusations that some tanker operators may be selling their fuel along the road in Pakistan before deliberately torching their vehicles at Torkham to claim the insurance on the missing load.

Torkham has also become a nearly unregulated transit point for legal and illegal migrants since the demolition of the border gate by the National Highway Authority of Pakistan two years ago. A series of meetings between Afghan and Pakistani officials—attended as well by NATO officials—have been unable to agree on the design and other details of a replacement gate. Smuggling and illegal crossings have spun out of control while tensions between the respective border authorities nearly erupted into open fighting in September 2006 (Daily Times, April 2).

Conclusion

Pakistan’s reluctance to make a full commitment to intelligence sharing raises a number of difficult questions: Is the ISI still cooperating or even aiding the Afghan Taliban? Do the military and the intelligence services operate outside of political control? Is it possible to collaborate with the Taliban and not the Taliban’s allies, al-Qaeda? Why do the better-armed and -trained regular forces frequently relinquish their security role in the frontier regions to the poorly-equipped Pashtun Frontier Corps?

After a meeting on security and terrorism issues with Chief of Army Staff Ashfaq Kayani on April 3, a spokesman for Prime Minister Gillani stated that the prime minister was formulating a comprehensive terrorism strategy “based on political engagement, economic development and backed by a credible military element” (Daily Times, April 3). Many within the new government believe that Musharraf’s aggressive military approach to the frontier crisis is responsible for the recent rash of suicide bombings and other attacks that have taken scores of lives across the country.

In the meantime there is a dangerous lack of coordination on border issues in which all parties bear responsibility. There is every indication that the Taliban have identified Torkham as a crucial weak point in the supply and logistics system that maintains the international military presence in Afghanistan. The failure to share intelligence combined with bureaucratic delays and infighting along the Afghanistan/Pakistan frontier threatens the entire Coalition mission in Afghanistan

This article first appeared in the April 3, 2008 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Strange Days on the Red Sea Coast: A New Theater for the Israel-Iran Conflict?

Andrew McGregor

April 3, 2009

Over the last few months, the strategically important African Red Sea coast has suddenly become the focal point of rumors involving troop-carrying submarines, ballistic missile installations, desert-dwelling arms smugglers, mysterious airstrikes and unlikely alliances. None of the parties alleged to be involved (including Iran, Israel, Eritrea, Egypt, Sudan, France, Djibouti, Gaza and the United States) have been forthcoming with many details, leaving observers to ponder a tangled web of reality and fantasy. What does appear certain, however, is that the regional power struggle between Israel and Iran has the potential to spread to Africa, unleashing a new wave of political violence in an area already consumed with its own deadly conflicts.

Red SeaIsraeli Air Force F-16I Sufa (Storm)

Airstrike in the Desert

Though an airstrike on a column of 23 vehicles was carried out on January 27 near Mt. Alcanon, in the desert northwest of Port Sudan, news of the attack first emerged in a little-noticed interview carried on March 23 in the Arabic-language Al-Mustaqillah newspaper (see http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=1854). In the interview, Sudanese Transportation Minister Dr. Mabruk Mubarak Salim, the former leader of the Free Lions resistance movement in eastern Sudan, said that aircraft he believed to be French and American had attacked a column of vehicles in Sudan eastern desert after receiving intelligence indicating a group of arms smugglers was transporting arms to Gaza. Dr. Salim’s Free Lions Movement was based on the Rasha’ida Arabs of east Sudan, a nomadic group believed to control smuggling activities along the eastern Egypt-Sudan border.

On March 26, Dr. Salim told al-Jazeera there had been at least two airstrikes, carried out by U.S. warplanes launched from American warships operating in the Red Sea. There was no further mention of the French, who maintain an airbase in nearby Djibouti. After the news broke in the media, Sudanese foreign ministry spokesman Ali al-Sadig issued some clarifications:

The first thought was that it was the Americans that did it. We contacted the Americans and they categorically denied they were involved… We are still trying to verify it. Most probably it involved Israel… We didn’t know about the first attack until after the second one. They were in an area close to the border with Egypt, a remote area, desert, with no towns, no people (Al-Jazeera, March 27).

With the Americans out of the way, suspicion fell on Israel as the source of the attack.

Sudanese authorities later claimed the convoy was carrying not arms, but a large number of migrants from a number of African countries, particularly Eritrea (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 27; Sudan Tribune, March 28). According to Foreign Minister Ali al-Sadig; “it is clear that [the attackers] were acting on bad information that the vehicles were carrying arms” (Haaretz, March 27). Dr. Salim claimed the death toll was 800 people, contradicting his earlier claim that the convoy consisted of small trucks carrying arms and that most of those killed were Sudanese, Ethiopians and Eritreans (al-Jazeera, March 26). There was also some confusion about the number of attacks, with initial claims of a further strike on February 11 and a third undated strike on an Iranian freighter in the Red Sea. The latter rumor may have had its source in Dr. Salim’s suggestion that several Rasha’ida fishing boats had been attacked by U.S. and French warplanes. Otherwise, no evidence has been provided to substantiate these claims.

A Hamas leader, Salah al-Bardawil, denied his movement had any knowledge of such arms shipments, pointing to the lack of a common border between Gaza and Sudan as proof “these are false claims” (Al-Jazeera, March 27).

A Smuggling Route to Sinai?

The alleged smuggling route, beginning at Port Sudan, would take the smugglers through 150 miles of rough and notoriously waterless terrain to the Egyptian border and the disputed territory of Hala’ib, currently under Egyptian occupation. From there the route would pass roughly 600 miles through Egypt’s Eastern Desert, a rocky and frequently mountainous wasteland. Criss-crossing the terrain to find a suitable way through could add considerably to the total distance. North of the Egyptian border the Sudanese smugglers would be crossing hundreds of miles of unfamiliar and roadless territory. The alternatives would involve offloading the arms near the border to an Egyptian convoy or making a change of drivers. Anonymous “defense sources” cited by the Times claimed local Egyptian smugglers were engaged to take over the convoy at the Egyptian border “for a fat fee” (The Times, March 29).

Use of the well-patrolled coastal road would obviously be impossible without official Egyptian approval. The other option for the smugglers would be to cut west to the Nile road which passes through hundreds of settled areas and a large number of security checkpoints. The convoy would need to continually avoid security patrols along the border and numerous restricted military zones along the coast. Either Egyptian guides or covert assistance from Egyptian security services would be needed for a 23 vehicle convoy to reach Sinai from the Egyptian border without interference. Once in the Sinai there is little alternative to taking the coastal route to Gaza, passing through one of Egypt’s most militarily sensitive areas, to reach the smuggling tunnels near the border with Gaza.

Water, gasoline, spare parts and other supplies would take up considerable space in the trucks. Provisions would have to be made for securing and transporting the loads of disabled trucks that proved irreparable, particularly if their loads included parts for the Fajr-3 rockets the convoy was alleged to be carrying, without which the other loads might prove unusable. Freeing the trucks from sand (a problem worsened by carrying a heavy load of arms) and making repairs could add days to the trip. The alleged inclusion of Iranian members of the Revolutionary Guard in the convoy would be highly risky – if stopped by Egyptian security forces, every member of the arms convoy would be detained and interrogated (Israeli sources claimed several Iranians were killed in the raid). It would not take long to separate the Iranians from the Arabs, with all the consequences that would follow from the exposure of an Iranian intelligence operation on Egyptian soil.

Of course most of these problems would disappear if Egypt was giving its approval to the arms shipments. But if this was the case, why not send the arms through Syria and by ship to a port near the Gaza border? Ships are the normal vehicle for arms deliveries as massive quantities of arms are usually required to change the military balance in any situation.

Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reported that the arms were “apparently transferred from Iran through the Persian Gulf to Yemen, from there to Sudan and then to Egypt through Sinai and the tunnels under the Egypt Gaza border” and included “various types of missiles, rockets, guns and high-quality explosives” (Haaretz, March 29). The Yemen stage is unexplained; Iranian ships can easily reach Port Sudan without a needless overland transfer of their cargos in Yemen before being reloaded onto ships going to Port Sudan. Looking at this route (the simplest of several proposed by Israeli sources), one can only assume Hamas was in no rush to obtain its weapons.

Reserves Major General Giyora Eiland, a former head of Israel’s National Security Council, alleged the involvement of a number of parties in the Sinai to Gaza arms trade, including “Bedouin and Egyptian army officers who are benefiting from the smuggling.” He then turned to the possibility of arms being shipped through Sudan to Gaza; “Almost all of the weapons are smuggled into Gaza through the Sinai, and some probably by sea. Little comes along this long [Sudan to Gaza] route” (Voice of Israel Network, March 27).

Video footage of the burned-out convoy was supplied to al-Jazeera by Sudanese intelligence sources. The footage shows only small pick-up trucks, largely unsuitable for transporting heavy arms payloads. If Fajr-3 missiles broken down into parts were included in the shipment, there would be little room for other arms (each Fajr-3 missile weighs at least 550 kilograms). Sudanese authorities described finding a quantity of ammunition, several C-4 and AK-47 rifles and a number of mobile phones used for communications by the smugglers. There was no mention of missile parts (El-Shorouk [Cairo], March 24). No evidence has been produced by any party to confirm the origin of the arms allegedly carried by the smugglers’ convoy.

Assessing Responsibility

Citing anonymous “defense sources,” the Times claimed the convoys had been tracked by Mossad, enabling an aerial force of satellite-controlled UAVs to kill “at least 50 smugglers and their Iranian escorts” (The Times [London], March 29). American officials also reported that at least one operative from Iran’s Revolutionary Guards had gone to Sudan to organize the weapons convoy (Haaretz/Reuters, March 27). According to the Times’ sources, the convoy attacks were carried out by Hermes 450 and Eitan model UAVs in what would have been an aviation first – a long distance attack against a moving target carried out solely by a squadron of remote control drones.

U.S.-based Time Magazine entered the fray on March 30 with a report based on information provided by “two highly-placed Israeli security sources.” According to these sources, the United States was informed of the operation in advance but was otherwise uninvolved. Dozens of aircraft were involved in the 1,750 mile mission, refuelling in midair over the Red Sea. Once the target was reached, F15I fighters provided air cover against other aircraft while F16I fighters carried out two runs on the convoy. Drones with high-resolution cameras were used to assess damage to the vehicles.

The American-made F16I “Sufa” aircraft were first obtained by the IAF in 2004. They carry Israeli-made conformal fuel tanks to increase the range of the aircraft and use synthetic aperture radar that enables the aircraft to track ground targets day or night. The older F15I “Ra’am” is an older but versatile model, modified to Israeli specifications.

The entire operation, according to the Israeli sources used by Time, was planned in less than a week to act on Mossad information that Iran was planning to deliver 120 tons of arms and explosives to Gaza, “including anti-tank rockets and Fajr rockets with a 25 mile range” in a 23 truck convoy (though this shipment seems impossibly large for 23 pick-up trucks with a maximum payload capacity of one ton or less – on paved roads). The Israeli sources added that this was the first time the smuggling route through Sudan had been used.

Israeli officials claimed anonymously that the convoy was carrying Fajr-3 rockets capable of reaching Tel Aviv (Sunday Times, March 29; Jerusalem Post, March 29). The Fajr-3 MLRS is basically an updated Katyusha rocket that loses accuracy as it approaches the limit of its 45km range and carries only a small warhead of conventional explosives. It has been suggested that the missiles carried by the convoy “could have changed the game in the conflict between Israel and Palestinian militants,” thus making the attack an imperative for Israel (BBC, March 26). Yet far from being “a game-changer,” the Fajr-3 was already used against Israel by Hezbollah in 2006. It has also been claimed that the Fajr-3 rockets could be used against Israel’s nuclear installation at Dimona, but Israeli officials reported at the start of the year that Hamas already possessed dozens of Fajr-3 rockets (Sunday Times, January 2). Some media accounts have confused the Fajr-3 Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS), which would seem to be the weapon in question, with the much larger Fajr-3 medium-range ballistic missile.

Reports of the complete destruction of the entire convoy and all its personnel raise further questions. Desert convoys tend to be long, strung out affairs, not least because it is nearly impossible to drive in the dust of the vehicle ahead. Could an airstrike really kill every single person involved in a strung out convoy without a ground force going in to mop up? UAVs with heat sensors and night vision equipment might have remained in the area to eliminate all survivors, but this seems unnecessary if the arms had already been destroyed. The political risk of leaving Israeli aircraft in the area after the conclusion of a successful attack would not equal the benefit of killing a few drivers and mechanics.

What role did Khartoum play in these events? A pan-Arab daily reported that the United States warned the Sudanese government before the Israeli airstrike that a “third party” was monitoring the arms-smuggling route to Gaza and that such shipments needed to stop immediately (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 30). Despite state-level disagreements, U.S. and Sudanese intelligence agencies continue to enjoy a close relationship.

With Sudan under international pressure as a result of the Darfur conflict, Khartoum has sought to renew its relations with Iran. Less than two weeks before the airstrike, Sudanese Defense Minister Abdalrahim Hussein concluded a visit to Tehran to discuss arms sales and training for Sudanese security forces. An Iranian source reported missiles, UAVs, RPGs and other equipment were sought by Sudan (Sudan Tribune, January 20).

An Iranian Base on the Red Sea?

As tensions rise in the region, wild allegations have emerged surrounding the creation of a major Iranian military and naval base in the Eritrean town of Assab on the Red Sea coast. Assab is a small port city of 100,000 people. A small Soviet-built oil refinery at Assab was shut down in 1997. Last November an Eritrean opposition group, the Eritrean Democratic Party, published a report on their website claiming Iran had agreed to revamp the small refinery, adding (without any substantiation) that Iran and Eritrea’s President Isayas Afewerki were planning to control the strategic Bab al-Mandab Straits at the southern entrance to the Red Sea (selfi-democracy.com, November 25, 2008).

Red Sea 2Main Street in Assab: New Iranian Military Base?

A short time later, another Eritrean opposition website elaborated on the original report of a refinery renovation, adding lurid details of Iranian ships and submarines deploying troops and long-range ballistic missiles at a new Iranian military base at Assab. Security was allegedly provided by Iranian UAVs that patrolled the area (EritreaDaily.net, December 10, 2008).

The Israeli MEMRI website then reported that “Eritrea has granted Iran total control of the Red Sea port of Assab,” adding that Iranian submarines had “deployed troops, weapons and long-range missiles… under the pretext of defending the local oil refinery” (MEMRI, December 1, 2008).

The story was further elaborated on by Ethiopian sources (Ethiopia and Eritrea are intense rivals and political enemies). According to one Ethiopian report, Iranian frigates were using Assab as a naval base (Gedab News, January 28). An Ethiopian-based journalist contributed an article to Sudan Tribune in which he again claimed Iranian submarines were delivering troops and long-range missiles to Assab, basing his account on the original report on selfi-democracy.com, which made no such claims (Sudan Tribune, March 30). Israel’s Haaretz noted that Addis Ababa is “a key Mossad base for operations against extremist Islamic groups” in the region, adding that some of the weapons destroyed in the convoy had “reportedly passed through Ethiopia and Eritrea first” (Haaretz, March 27).

Only days ago, a mainstream Tel Aviv newspaper reported that Iran has already finished building a naval base at Assab and had “transferred to this base – by means of ships and submarines – troops, military equipment and long range-ballistic missiles… that can strike Israel.” The newspaper claimed its information was based on reports from Eritrean opposition members, diplomats and aid organizations, without giving any specifics (Ma’ariv [Tel Aviv], March 29). On March 19, Israel’s ambassador to Ethiopia accused Eritrea of trying to sabotage the peace process in the region by serving as a safe haven for terrorist groups (Walta Information Center [Addis Abbab], March 19). In only four months, a minor refinery renovation was transformed into a strategic threat to the entire Middle East.

Conclusion

Questions remain as to how the moving convoy was found by its attackers. Did Mossad have inside intelligence? Did the Israelis use satellite imagery from U.S. surveillance satellites as part of the agreement they signed in January on the prevention of arms smuggling to Gaza, or did they use their own Ofeq-series surveillance satellites? Was an Israeli UAV already in place when the convoy left Port Sudan? A retired Israeli Air Force general, Yitzhak Ben-Israel, recognized the difficulty involved in finding and striking the convoy by noting; “The main innovation in the attack on Sudan… was the ability to hit a moving target at such a distance. The fact that Israel has the technical ability to do such a thing proves even more what we are capable of in Iran” (Haaretz, March 27).

The two-month silence on the attacks from other parties is also notable – it is unlikely U.S. and French radar facilities in Djibouti would have missed squadrons of Israeli jets and UAVs attacking a target in nearby East Sudan. If the Israelis took the shortest route through the Gulf of Aqaba and down the Red Sea they would likely be detected by Egyptian and Saudi radar on their way out and on their way back. According to former IAF commander Eitan Ben-Eliyahu, the attack would require precise intelligence and a two and a half hour flight along the Red Sea coast, keeping low to evade Egyptian and Saudi radar. The aircraft would also require aerial refuelling (Haaretz, March 27).

Even if the aircraft evaded radar, their low flight paths would have exposed them to visual observation in the narrow shipping lanes of the Red Sea.  Israeli aircraft would almost certainly have been tracked by the Combined Task Force-150, an allied fleet patrolling the Red Sea. All other routes would have taken the aircraft through unfriendly airspace. By March 27, an Egyptian official admitted that Egypt had indeed known of the airstrike at the time, but added the Israelis had not crossed into Egyptian airspace (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 27).

If Tehran was involved in this remarkably complicated smuggling operation, it will now be taking its entire local intelligence infrastructure apart to find the source of the leak. Egypt is reported to have deployed additional security personnel along the border with Sudan, effectively closing the alleged smuggling route (Haaretz, March 29). As Sudan revives its defense relationship with Iran it is very likely rumors and allegations will continue to proliferate regarding an Iranian presence on the Red Sea.

 

This article first appeared in the April 3, 2009 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor