Is the Curtain Dropping on Africa’s Oldest Conflict? Senegal’s Offensive in the Casamance

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, February 21, 2021

(Seneweb)

Thirty-nine years of insecurity in Senegal’s southern Casamance region may be coming to an end after a Senegalese army offensive against the most intransigent elements of a heavily factionalized armed separatist movement, the Mouvement des forces démocratiques de Casamance (MFDC – Movement of Democratic Forces in Casamance). Launched on January 26, the offensive used superior firepower to overwhelm the rebels, some of whom fled across the border to Guinea-Bissau, though they were unlikely to find a warm welcome there. For decades the MFDC took advantage of friction between Senegal and its neighbors, Gambia and Guinea-Bissau to find support and refuge when under pressure from Senegal’s army. Conditions have changed, however, with new leaders in both states friendly towards current Senegalese president Macky Sall (Pulaar [Fulani]/Serer) and less sympathetic to Casamance’s separatist movement.

The Jola (or Diola) people (4% of Senegal’s population) dominate the MFDC and its armed wing, Atika, though Jola support is far from unanimous. The Jola are also found in Gambia and Guinea-Bissau, but they are a minority among the 1.9 million people of Casamance, where they live alongside groups of Mandinka (Mandingo), Mankanya, Pulaar (Fulani), Manjak, Balanta, Papel, Baïnuk, and a small number of Wolof. The latter are the largest of Senegal’s ethnic groups, comprising roughly 43% of the population, nearly all found north of the Gambia. Resentment against the Muslim Wolof, who dominate the government, is common even among those residents of Casamance who oppose separation.

Many Jola and other Casamance groups see the prolonged existence of the MFDC as a barrier to development and the resettlement of internally displaced peoples (IDPs) in the region. Religious differences exist as well, though they do not appear to be a large irritant in relations between the Christian and animist Casamance and Senegal’s majority Muslim population (92%).

Former Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade promised to bring an end to the long-standing conflict in just 100 days in 2000; his successor, Macky Sall, promised to bring a swift end to the conflict in 2012 and repeated his pledge after re-election in 2018.

Background

A movement for regional autonomy in Casamance began under French occupation in 1947 and continued through independence in 1960. Efforts to consolidate various movements into a single body resulted in the founding of the MFDC in 1982 under the leadership of Abbé Augustin Diamacoune Senghor (Jola, 1928-2007). The armed wing of the MFDC, Atika, was formed three years later. The discovery of significant oil and gas reserves off the coast of Casamance in 1992 led to an intensification of the struggle for control over the region.

When Abbé Augustin died in Paris in 2007, the MFDC split into several factions, most of which now favor the negotiation of a final peace accord (Senego.com [Dakar], February 24, 2020). Even the movement’s hard-line factions have observed a unilateral ceasefire since 2014, though incidents of violence have occurred and the forests of Casamance remain a dangerous place.

The Changing Roles of Gambia and Guinea-Bissau in the Casamance

The MFDC used to receive substantial assistance from Gambian president Yahya Jammeh, a Jola Muslim who took power in a 1994 coup d’état and maintained it through the deployment of death squads and the systematic use of torture. Jammeh’s depraved rule ended when he lost the 2016 presidential elections to Adama Barrow, and was followed by his flight to Equatorial Guinea in January 2017. Adama Barrow, by contrast, is considered to be politically close to Macky Sall.

Revelations about Jammeh’s rule presented to Gambia’s ongoing Truth, Reconciliation and Reparations Commission (TRRC) have shocked Gambians. Gambia’s strange situation as an Anglophone nation bordered on all sides (save the coast) by Francophone Senegal dates back to its former status as a British colony. Casamance was itself a Portuguese territory until 1888, when it was transferred by treaty to the French colonial administration of Senegal.

For Dakar, another promising development arrived last year when Umaro Sissoco Embaló became president of Guinea-Bissau in a disputed election. Embaló’s predecessors were generally supportive of the MFDC but the “election” of Embaló, another ally of Macky Sall, has allowed a new spirit of cooperation with Dakar.

Last November, a delegation from the Bissau-Guinean armed forces visited Ziguinchor to hammer out terms for a series of bilateral agreements designed to address security issues in the border region, including drug trafficking, illegal resource extraction, organized crime and cattle theft (SenePlus [Dakar], February 5, 2021). These meetings helped set the stage for the current offensive.

On February 4, the Maquis Casamançais warned Guinea-Bissau that if it allowed Senegalese troops to use its territory to attack the MFDC, the movement’s fighters would “grant themselves all the rights of pursuit of the Senegalese soldiers, wherever they are, into the interior of Guinea-Bissau” (Journal du Pays, February 4, 2021).

The shelling of areas close to the border with Guinea-Bissau carries some risk for bilateral relations; MFDC militants reported the shelling of the Bissau-Guinean village of Mankamounkou on January 27 by Senegalese artillery, leading them to speculate on the possibility of war between the two nations (Journal du Pays, January 29, 2021). Though this would be favorable to the militants (but ultimately devastating to Casamance), there seems little chance errant shelling will provoke such a conflict.

When President Embaló returned from a visit to Dakar on February 13, he announced the discovery of a plot to assassinate him, his Minister of the Interior and the Minister of Defense. No further details or evidence were presented or made available from the ministries involved, suggesting the announcement was part of an effort to eliminate rivals to his still-contested presidency and consolidate power (E-global notícias em Português, February 17, 2021; Journal du Pays, February 16, 2021).

The New Offensive

With no signs of a settlement in sight despite years of negotiation, Senegal’s military launched a new offensive in the Casamance on January 26 in its latest attempt to secure the region and return displaced communities. The offensive followed only days after 80-year-old MFDC leader Edmond Borra demanded new negotiations on the anniversary of the death of Abbé Diamacoune on January 20, though he acknowledged the difficulty of arranging talks while the MFDC remained divided.  (Sud Quotidien [Dakar], January 21, 2021). Borra appeared to oppose the continuance of armed resistance when the offensive began, saying: “We can’t continue to shoot each other without negotiating for 40 years” (AFP, February 11, 2021).

A statement from a Senegalese army spokesman described the operation’s objectives:

  • Neutralize armed elements abusing the local population
  • Combat the trafficking of cannabis and timber
  • Provide security support to local populations (RFI, January 30, 2021).

Over the past year, Dakar has also focussed on the resettlement of Casamance’s IDPs. Some communities have been unable to return to their homes for as long as 28 years due to the presence of landmines and gunmen who often accuse farmers of being informants for the army (SenePlus [Dakar], February 5, 2021; IRIN, August 26, 2009).

To carry out the offensive, the Senegalese Army deployed 2600 soldiers, 11 French-built Panhard AML-60-20 Serval armored reconnaissance vehicles, eight self-propelled guns, 14 Toyota 4x4s, two reconnaissance planes and two helicopters (Journal du Pays, February 10, 2021). Most of the army’s operations took place in one area of roughly 150 km² between the Bissine Forest south of the Casamance capital of Ziguinchor to the border with Guinea-Bissau.

The assaults were led by Lieutenant Colonel Mathieu Diogoye Sène commanding the 3rd Infantry Battalion based at Kaolack, and Lieutenant Colonel Clément Hubert Boucaly, leading the commando battalion from Thiès. Three Atika bases roughly 12 miles from Ziguinchor were overrun on February 3 after intense shelling and aerial bombardment, with the militants fleeing into the bush with their weapons and other goods (RFI, February 3, 2021). A further base was taken on February 4.

The first base to be taken was Bouman, where the commando battalion encountered “somewhat intense” resistance before the defenders fled at the sight of a reconnaissance plane (Seneplus [Dakar], February 17, 2021). The 3rd Battalion took Boussouloum and Badiong; rebel sources claimed the death of eleven Senegalese troops in the taking of Badiong, but the army admitted only to the much more likely figure of one soldier wounded (Agence de Presse Sénégalaise, February 11, 2021). The commandos then turned their attention to Sikoun, which also fell quickly (Seneplus [Dakar], February 17, 2021).

According to Colonel Souleymane Kandé, commander of Senegal’s military zone no. 5 (Ziguinchor), the operations against the MFDC bases were carried out with assistance from Guinea-Bissau’s defense and security forces (Guardian [Lagos], February 10, 2021). The Bissau-Guinean army moved forces up to the border to prevent the conflict from spilling over, though their resources are small and the border easily infiltrated. Armed MFDC elements accused Guinea-Bissau’s President Embaló of allowing Sengalese military units to use a corridor through his country to attack the MFDC from the rear, as well as allowing small Bissau-Guinean units to join in the assault, an action legitimized by the recent defense agreements with Macky Sall’s government (Journal du Pays, February 5, 2021).

The captured bases were barely worthy of the name, consisting of tin and wood shelters and a few very small underground bunkers (Guardian [Lagos], February 10, 2021). Among the weapons seized by the army were Soviet-made B-10 recoilless rifles, French-made FAMAS bullpup assault rifles and American-made M203 grenade launchers (Seneplus [Dakar], February 17, 2021). More common, however, were well-used bicycles, old mattresses and decrepit firearms of no value. Fields of cannabis were found attached to the bases. These are believed to have provided revenue for arms purchases and other MDTC expenses.

In the midst of the offensive, opposition politicians called for President Macky Sall to declare the MFDC a terrorist organization and cease all dialogue with the movement (Senego.com, February 5, 2021).

Factions:

Though veteran separatist Salif Sadio claims the leadership of the MFDC’s armed wing, his following has diminished greatly and there are several factions that do not recognize him. It is these that have been the main target of the army’s offensive. A spokesman for Salif Sadio insisted that the MFDC leader was not involved in the current fighting with government forces (VOA Portugues.com, February 5, 2021).

César Aoute Badiate (Le Quotidien)

The other factions include:

  • The Kassolol faction, led by César Atoute Badiate. Part of the so-called “southern front,” the faction operates near Senegal’s south-west border with Guinea-Bissau and does not appear to have been involved in the recent fighting. Badiate, a nephew of Father Diamacoune, does not support Salif Sadio. The two have been rivals for 20 years, with clashes occurring between their factions in 2006. César survived the 1998 purge and execution of some 30 of Salif Sadio’s rivals within the movement, though he suffered an eye injury when Sadio’s assassins attacked him at his refuge in Guinea-Bissau (Le Témoin [Ziguinchor], February 17, 2021; Dakaractu, February 5, 2021).
  • The Sikoun faction, based in the Goudomp department of the central part of Sédhiou region. Led by Adama Sané, this faction strongly opposes the return of IDPs. Sikoun was once the base of the Partido Africano para a Independência da Guiné e Cabo Verde (PAIGC – African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde) during Guinea-Bissau’s struggle for independence from Portugal in the 1960s. Government artillery fire was directed at the staff headquarters of Commander Adama Sané and his Sikoun faction on February 2 and 3, with the base falling on February 4 (RFI, February 5, 2021).
  • The faction of Ibrahim Kompasse Diatta, leader of the Sikoun faction until April 2020, when he came under suspicion from other elements of the movement for contacts with Casamance politician and Macky Sall. His group ran bases 2 and 9, both of which fell on February 3.
  • The Diakaye faction (northern front), commanded by Fatoma Coly. This group supports the  Sikoun faction but does not appear to have been targeted in the recent offensive (Le Témoin [Ziguinchor], February 17, 2021).

The Propaganda War

Senegal’s government provided little information about the offensive once it was underway, allowing the MFDC to claim various small triumphs without official refutation. Indeed, only days before the offensive began, a senior government official, Aubin Jules Marcel Sagna, insisted in October 2020 that declared “the war is over in Casamance,” adding three months later that “there is less insecurity in Casamance than elsewhere because of the determination of the Casamance people to find peace” (Voice of Gambia, October 13, 2020; DakarActu, January 14, 2021).

Conversely, MFDC sources reported the death of three Senegalese soldiers in an ambush on January 30, with the bodies of two more soldiers discovered in the bush the next day by sniffer dogs  (Journal du Pays, February 1, 2021; Journal du Pays, February 2, 2021). On February 3, the MFDC announced the death of four Senegalese soldiers after their vehicle hit an anti-tank mine (Journal du Pays, February 3, 2021). Another MFDC report claimed the deaths of 12 Senegalese soldiers at the entrance to the Bissine Forest and the destruction of three AML-60-20 Serval armored reconnaissance vehicles on January 29 (Journal du Pays, February 2, 2021; Journal du Pays, February 2, 2021). Finally, Casamance media reported the defection of 21 Senegalese soldiers of Casamance origin with their arms and important intelligence to the Atika wing of the MFDC on February 16 (Journal du Pays, February 16, 2021). Most of these claims appear to be of dubious value, especially considering the ease with which Senegal’s military overran MFDC bases.

Timber: A Motivation for Conflict

(Le360afrique.com)

Stocks of highly valuable rosewood, teak and other hardwoods in the forests of Casamance have helped fuel the conflict. As these woods have grown scarce worldwide, prices as well as demand have soared, especially in China, where rosewood is valued for shipbuilding and use in traditional hongmu furniture, China having depleted its own stocks of the high-value wood.

Economic hardship caused by the unresolved conflict fuels the search for lucrative hardwoods by a struggling population. The deforestation has diminished crop yields and forced local farmers to trade yet more timber for rice, creating a loop of environmental devastation. Locally-stationed Senegalese troops may also be facilitating the trade; the smuggling of trailer-loads of hardwood logs to Gambia over the region’s few roads is nearly impossible to conceal from any type of vigilant authority (Mongabay.com, November 5, 2020). Despite having logged its own rosewood stocks to extinction several years ago, Gambia continues to be a main supplier of the wood to China, nearly all of it obtained illegally from Casamance (Mongabay.com, November 5, 2020). [1] Chinese agents move the illegally cut timber through the Gambian port of Banjul. Despite formal agreements between Gambia and Senegal to end the trade, rosewood exports through the Gambian port of Banjul have actually increased in recent years, with the exception of a brief pandemic-related decline last year.

Though the MFDC has been implicated in the illegal export of valuable hardwoods from Casamance, Atika units have presented themselves as protectors of the forest, reporting the seizure of loads of timber from government water and forestry agents as well as timber traffickers who underwent “tough interrogation” to discover the names of the organizers of the illegal trade  (Journal du Pays, January 26, 2021). In the past, the movement has admitted to beating loggers and burning their vehicles as well as accusing the army of involvement (Jeune Afrique/AFP, January 24, 2020). It is likely that there is no common approach to the trade amongst the various MFDC factions, all of whom are in need of funding to prolong their existence. The MFDC is estimated to have earned $19.5 million from the illicit trade between 2010 and 2014 (OCCRP, March 27, 2019).

As a popular inducement to participate in the logging of local hardwoods, Chinese and Indian multinationals have offered motorcycles to young men willing to work in the forest. The motorcycles, in turn, are used for smuggling and drug trafficking between Gambia, Casamance and Guinea-Bissau (Sud Online [Dakar], January 25, 2021).

Turkish Military Involvement?

Turkey has been active in recent years in developing economic and diplomatic ties with both Senegal and Gambia (Daily Sabah, January 30, 2021).

MFDC sources claimed that Turkish troops were on the frontline of the assaults on their bases since January 31. On February 5, Atika reported that it was in a “strategic retreat” after ten days of attacks by Senegalese and Turkish troops (Journal du Pays, February 5, 2021). The movement points to the February 2 visit of Macky Sall and Umaro Sissoco Embaló to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Istanbul as proof of Turkey’s interest in regional offshore oil projects. The militants further claim to have learned from Turkish sources that new contracts were signed for the provision of arms and Syrian jihadists employed as mercenaries, similar to the pattern of Turkey’s intervention in support of the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya. According to these sources, the arms and fighters are due to arrive in Senegal in the last week of February (Journal du Pays, February 2, 2021).

Turkey’s economic and political overtures to Senegal have been countered by offers of assistance from Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, a rivalry that has already played out as backers of rival sides in the Libyan conflict. US Senator Lindsey Graham has encouraged greater Turkish involvement in Africa as an alternative to China’s growing influence: “Nothing would please me more than to partner with Turkey to offer to the African continent alternatives to Chinese products and Chinese influence” (Anadolu Agency [Ankara], June 25, 2020).

Senegalese troops have been active in the Middle East for some time, having been deployed in Saudi Arabia since 2015 as part of the campaign against the Shi’a Houthis in Yemen. [2] Senegalese troops arrived on Yemen’s Socotra Island in October 2020 to support the construction of a United Arab Emirates military base in the strategically-located archipelago.

Consequences

The occupation of their bases, the resettlement of unsympathetic IDPs and the denial of cross-border refuges or other assistance are squeezing out the last hard-line Casamance separatists. Reduced to being friendless fugitives in the forests of Casamance, it seems unlikely the armed resistance can make any kind of come-back. Dakar’s decision to take advantage of new political realities in the region and make a demonstration of force will compel the remaining and generally more moderate factions to enter immediate and sincere negotiations or possibly meet a similar fate. After 39 years, Dakar has identified endless negotiations as the facilitator of prolonged insecurity in what should be a prosperous part of the nation. The MFDC cannot bargain from a position of strength; its military weakness has been exposed and the movement has clearly lost any broad support it might have once enjoyed. In some non-Jola quarters, tired of insecurity, economic struggle and the decades-long dislocation of various Casamance communities, the movement has earned a reputation as nothing more than a tribal-based bandit group.

Notes:

  1. Just 3% of Gambia is still forested; the remaining stocks are of low quality (OCCRP, March 27, 2019).
  2. See “Senegal’s Military Expedition to Yemen: Muslim Solidarity or Rent-an-Army”? AIS Tips and Trends: The African Security Report, July 30, 2015, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=3358.

The Islamic State’s Mysterious Claim to Have Killed Canadian Troops in Lake Chad

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report

December 15, 2020

The Islamic State – West Africa Province (ISWAP) claims to have killed four Canadian soldiers and “dozens” of Chadian troops on November 24 when an IED exploded under their boat on Lake Chad. The survivors were then targeted by fire from automatic weapons onshore (RocketChat, November 26, 2020). The incident occurred at Ngouboua on the Chadian side of Lake Chad, opposite the Borno stronghold of Boko Haram and its splinter group, ISWAP. N’Djamena acknowledged only four Chadian dead and 16 wounded, with no mention of Canadians. ISWAP repeated the claim on its Amaq news-site on November 26, saying the heavy losses suffered by Canadian and Chadian forces had prevented an attack on ISWAP units near Ngouboua (BBCM, November 27, 2020).

A December 8 AIS query to Canada’s Department of National Defence regarding these reports received the following response: “The claim that Canadian soldiers were killed or at all involved in this incident is completely untrue.”

(BBC)

The struggle between BH/ISWAP and the Chadian military has grown even more bitter this year as it continues to intensify. During a counter-terrorist offensive in the Lake Chad region, 92 Chadian soldiers were killed and 47 wounded in a March 23 Boko Haram attack on Boma (Lac Province). On April 18, 44 Boko Haram prisoners were found dead in a Chadian prison while awaiting trial. Post-mortem examinations detected toxic substances in their stomachs; Chad’s justice minister Djimet Arabi suggested “collective suicide” (AFP April 18, 2020). The incident came two days after the Islamic State mocked Chad and the March Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF) offensive in an editorial in its al-Naba weekly magazine.

The various al-Qaeda and Islamic State-aligned militants operating in the Sahel region of Africa (including the Lake Chad region) are now opposed by a much larger array of counter-terrorist forces involving the militaries of some 60 nations.  These include forces belonging to the following formations:

  • France’s 5,100-man Operation Barkhane, launched in August 2014 as the successor to the 2013 Operation Serval intervention in Mali;
  • Operation Takuba, a multinational European Special Forces effort to relieve pressure on the French military, which has lost over 50 men in combat operations in the region since 2013. Fifty members of the Estonian Special Forces deployed in October; they will soon be joined by Czech and Swedish detachments. Another nine European NATO nations have pledged participation;
  • The Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF), a regional anti-Boko Haram security force which includes components from Niger, Chad, Nigeria, Cameroon and Benin;
  • The G5 Sahel Joint Force, the military arm of the Group of Five – Sahel, which includes Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger;
  • The Mission multidimensionnelle intégrée des Nations unies pour la stabilisation au Mali (MINUSMA), a UN peacekeeping force with contributions from some 55 nations. This month the UK sent 300 troops to join the force, which has suffered over 200 dead since its launch in 2013;
  • Ongoing EU and US training missions in the Sahel.

The one thing common to all these counter-terrorist efforts is that Canada does not belong to any of them. So how does the death of four Canadian Special Forces members come to be proclaimed in an Islamic State announcement?

Background: Attacks on Chadian Forces in Lake Chad

Chadian president Idriss Déby Itno insisted in early April that all Boko Haram elements had been cleared from the islands of Lake Chad (Tchadinfos.com [N’Djamena], April 4, 2020). The Islamic State, however, is determined to use the opportunity presented by regional states currently diverting their attention from security operations in favor of direly needed public health measures and economic reconstruction to correct the damage done to already fragile economies by COVID-19.

ISWAP intensified their operations in the region around the Chadian village of Ngouboua later in April, with an attack on the shores of Lake Chad between the villages of Litri and Ngouboua on the 17th. Equipped with firearms, the extremists damaged one boat and seized some weapons (RocketChat, April 19, 2020). ISWAP later videotaped the execution of a Chadian prisoner taken in the attack (AFP, April 27, 2020).  

ISWAP Patrol

In July, ten Chadian soldiers were killed and another 20 wounded by an ISWAP IED in the village of Kalam on Lake Chad (al-Wihda [N’Djamena], July 10, 2020).

ISWAP issued a statement on November 20 describing the remote detonation of an IED against a troop-carrying boat on the 18th between the villages of Goboa and Litri that killed “dozens” (RocketChat, November 20, 2020). Four days later, Chad reported the loss of four soldiers and 16 wounded after a boat near Ngouboua hit an underwater IED (Al-Wihda [N’Djamena], November 25, 2020).

Since the Ngoubouoa attack, ISWAP claims to have pursued its campaign against Chadian troops on Lake Chad with a December 1 IED attack on two boats carrying Chadian troops near Ngouboua, allegedly killing 30 soldiers, though this report remains uncorroborated (RocketChat, December 8, 2020).

Jihadist activity has grown intense in the tri-border region where Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso meet. After pulling back from cooperative military efforts earlier this year due to a perceived lack of international support, President Déby recently committed to the “quick” deployment of a Chadian battalion in the tri-border region, where it will likely be involved in heavy fighting (Al-Wihda [N’Djamena], December 1, 2020).

Canada’s Operation Presence-Mali 

Having made repeated commitments to favor peacekeeping efforts over the counter-terrorism deployments of the Conservative government during the 2015 national election, the incoming Liberal government eventually committed to a modest contribution to the MINUSMA peacekeeping operation in Mali that involved little chance of encountering armed jihadists. The mission, limited to a strict timeline of August 1 2018 to July 31, 2019, consisted of a medevac helicopter squadron of 3 CH-147F Chinooks and 5 CH-146 Griffons that could also transport UN personnel and equipment in the region. Ultimately, the Canadian Forces’ Task Force Mali would conduct 11 medical evacuations and over 100 transport missions.

Far from addressing the menace of terrorism and extremism to the impoverished population of the Sahel, the Canadian mission arrived bent under the burden of Justin Trudeau’s liberal vision of the military as a band of uniformed social-workers engaged in a battle against climate change and gender inequality. More importantly, Operation Presence-Mali was a political mission – an unwelcome necessity required to further the Prime Minister’s vain efforts to obtain a rotating seat on the UN’s Security Council. In the end, Canada’s contribution, competent in itself and surely appreciated by the wounded soldiers it assisted, contributed nothing to the elimination of terrorism in the Sahel and the UNSC seat never materialized. When Trudeau visited the Canadian troops in Mali in December 2018, his main message to them did not concern the importance of ending terrorism, but rather the importance of ending the Canadian mission on time. Statements from government and party officials emphasized the safety of the members of the mission, to the point it began to appear that ensuring its own safety was the mission’s primary goal.

RCAF Helicopters over Mali (Corporal Ken Beliwicz/Canada DND/CAF)

The Canadian deployment was scheduled to end in mid-summer 2019, but Canada agreed to an extension of one month. Though their Romanian replacements could not begin their deployment until mid-October 2019, the Canadian government repeatedly dismissed all appeals from the UN and its allies to cover the gap between deployments. With only days left before withdrawal, the government agreed to provide transport to the Romanians and a small transition team to work with early Romanian arrivals using contracted helicopters, though the latter were not properly equipped for medical emergencies (CP, August 28, 2019).

Then-Minister of Foreign Affairs Chrystia Freeland offered that the Canadian mission had taken “tangible steps to secure lasting peace and stability for the people of Mali,” but failed to explain just how a small 12-month air-ambulance and transport deployment accomplished this (DND News Release, August 31, 2019).

In reference to the mission, Minister of National Defence Harjit Sajjan declared “Canada will continue its support to the UN while leading the inclusion of women in peace operations” (DND News Release, August 31, 2019).  Following a series of scandals involving UN peacekeepers and an assessment that male peacekeepers lacked understanding of, or empathy with the needs of women trapped in combat zones, there have been many international calls for a greater number of female peacekeepers. Sajjan, however, appears to have missed the point – the calls are for more women on the front-lines of peacekeeping operations, not in rear areas with little or no contact with the local population.

Other Canadian Military Deployments in the Sahel

Unlike France’s impressive Operation Barkhane, existing Canadian operations in the Sahel are small and little-known even in Canada, involving no direct confrontations with terrorists or religious extremists.

The Canadian Armed Forces (CAF) run a training program in Niger for members of the Forces armées nigériennes (FAN), Niger’s national army. Known as Operation Naberius, the program involves up to 50 CAF Special Forces troops per year and is scheduled to run until March 2023.

Using RCAF Globemaster III and Hercules transports, Canada’s Operation Frequence has assisted in the movement from France of French military equipment and personnel belonging to Operation Barkhane. The operation has no presence on land in the Sahel.

The Liberal Party’s 2019 election platform proclaimed: “We will renew Canada’s commitment to peacekeeping efforts, and use the expertise of our Armed Forces to help others prepare for climate-related disasters.” By August 2020, Canada’s global peacekeeping deployment consisted of a mere 34 police officers and military personnel (CP, August 3, 2020). By comparison, in 1992, Canada had 3,285 peacekeepers serving abroad.

Justin Trudeau’s dismissive attitude towards the armed forces (a legacy of his late father, Prime Minister Pierre Elliot Trudeau) and rejection of the use of force against terrorists became evident when Islamic State radicals rampaged through northern Iraq in 2014. As appeals poured in for military assistance to end the IS atrocities, Trudeau instead asked: “Why aren’t we talking more about the kind of humanitarian aid that Canada can and must be engaged in, rather than trying to whip out our CF-18s and show them how big they are?” (CTV News, October 2, 2014).

After the 2016 Islamist terrorist attacks in Nice, France, Trudeau insisted that “Canada stands with France as a steadfast ally [and will] continue to work with our allies and partners to fight terrorism in all its forms” (CP, July 15, 2016). In reality, fighting terrorism in any of its forms has not materialized as a priority of the Trudeau government and Canada has done little to “stand with France as a steadfast ally.”

Unfortunately, Canada’s timid approach to counter-terrorism and peacekeeping may be spreading to its allies. The arrival of 300 UK troops in Mali this month was expected to add a sharp edge to MINUSMA, which has suffered some 200 deaths from IEDs and clashes with regional jihadists.

Trained in long-range desert reconnaissance, a task force formed from the Royal Anglian and Light Dragoon regiments using “Jackal” armored fighting vehicles will now instead perform training duties at a UN camp in Gao, with reconnaissance operations restricted to a 10-mile radius around the base. According to a Ministry of Defence spokesman, the British forces will remain at the base “until they know it’s safe” (Sun [London], November 16, 2020). The last-minute change to the mission’s operational mandate shocked MINUSMA’s Swedish commander, Lieutenant General Dennis Gyllensporre, who declared he did not need any more troops limited to their own bases.

Conclusion

To return to our original question – how does the death of four Canadian Special Forces members come to be proclaimed in an Islamic State announcement? A case of mistaken identity seems impossible; neither France nor any other European state has acknowledged the loss of four of its Special Forces. Chadian soldiers are well-known to ISWAP and unlikely to be confused for Canadians. Could this have been a warning from the Islamic State, a projection of the kind of losses Ottawa could expect in a future deployment to the Sahel? For reasons of Canadian policy, this too seems unlikely.

According to then-Foreign Minister Freeland, “It is precisely the democracies, it is precisely the countries that stand for values and human rights that also need to be ready to say we are prepared to use hard power where necessary” (CBC News, June 10, 2017). Despite this declaration, the Canadian government continues to shun “hard power” and deny its allies and the UN access to its large pool of highly capable French-speaking troops ready and capable to take on difficult tasks in the Francophone Sahel region. Even as Canadian citizens have been killed across the globe by the Islamic State and its affiliates during the Trudeau government (now in its second term), the Liberal Party has remained attached to the 1990s concept of “soft power,” or the ability to exert influence in global affairs by non-violent means. In these circumstances, a Canadian combat mission in the Sahel would seem to be the last thing the Islamic State needs to worry about.

French Troops Kill JNIM Military Leader Colonel Bah Ag Moussa Diara: What are the implications?

Andrew McGregor

AIS Militant Profile

November 20, 2020

Colonel Bah Ag Moussa Diara (Le Combat, Bamako)

French forces deployed in the Sahel under the “Operation Barkhane” banner scored a notable triumph on November 10, 2020 when they eliminated one of the region’s leading Islamist militants.

The French airstrike in Mali took out Colonel Bah Ag Moussa Diara “Abu Shari’a,” a prominent military leader of the Jama’a Nusrat ul-Islam wa al-Muslimin (JNIM), an al-Qaeda-allied Islamist militant formation active in the African Sahel. Two others were killed in the strike, including Ag Moussa’s aide and his son Hamza. The attack took place as the targets were travelling in a 4×4 seven kilometers from Tadamakat, near Ménaka in the Gao region (one of the three territories of Mali’s arid and sparsely populated north-east, the others being Kidal and Timbuktu).  Ag Moussa’s death is of some significance, as his military leadership had helped score a series of successes in the Sahel that demoralized local troops and pushed Mali’s government towards talks with JNIM terrorists led by veteran Islamist Iyad Ag Ghali. The move towards talks with the Islamists was a major factor in the August 2020 military coup in Mali; it should be recalled that it was a 2012 military coup that enabled the launch of an Islamist occupation of northern Mali and the creation of the ongoing Islamist insurgency, which has spread to neighboring Niger and Burkina Faso.

Wreckage of Ag Moussa’s Vehicle (Walid la Berbere)

Two drones, fighter jets, four helicopters and 15 commandos were involved in the operation, suggesting the French had acquired intelligence aforehand regarding Ag Moussa’s itinerary for November 10. A French military spokesman declined to say whether American intelligence sources were involved in the operation (AP, November 13, 2020). According to French sources, the men ignored warning shots, fighting back with small arms and machine guns before they were hit directly by French fire. The bodies of the three dead were buried on the spot; there was no word regarding the fate of two other occupants of the vehicle (Le Monde, November 13, 2020; Kibaru [Bamako], November 15, 2020),

Ag Moussa was one of the main drivers behind efforts to push the Sahelian jihad into southwestern Mali. A two-time deserter from the Forces Armées Maliennes (FAMA), Ag Moussa’s father was a Bambara from Mali’s populous southwestern region (Diara, or Diarra, is a common Bambara name). Ag Moussa assumed a Tuareg identity through his mother, who came from the aristocratic Ifoghas Tuareg clan in the north-eastern Kidal region (Defense Post/AFP, March 18, 2019; Africa Times, March 24, 2019). Ag Moussa was considered to be very close to JNIM leader Iyad Ag Ghali, with whom he is reported to have received military training in Libya (RFI, March 18, 2019). Most recently, Ag Moussa had a leading role in violent clashes with JNIM’s Islamist rivals in the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS). If not the military commander of JNIM (this point is uncertain), he was at least an important and influential military leader with responsibility for training new recruits in weapons and tactics.

Approximately 50-years of age, Ag Moussa was known as a clever strategist and capable tactician whose inside knowledge of the workings and capabilities of the Malian army played a large role in his battlefield successes. The colonel had a special role in training recruits at a camp in the Nara rural commune in the Koulikoro Region of southern Mali. (RFI, March 18, 2019). The base is close to Mali’s northern border with Mauritania and the Wagadou Forest, a traditional zone of jihadist operations.

Ag Moussa deserted the Malian Army to join Tuareg insurgents in the 2007-09 rebellion in northern Mali and Niger. He rejoined the Army through the re-integration protocols of the Algiers Accords that ended the rebellion. As a newly-appointed colonel, he was put to work combatting banditry and recalcitrance in his native Kidal.

With the launch of a new Tuareg rebellion in northern Mali in late 2012, Ag Moussa deserted once again, briefly joining the secular rebel Mouvement national de libération de l’Azawad (Azawad National Liberation Movement) before defecting to their Islamist rivals, Iyad Ag Ghali’s Ansar al-Din (Supporters of Religion). Ag Moussa was accused of being the military commander of Ansar al-Din forces who brutally slaughtered 128 FAMA prisoners at Aguelhoc in January 2012 after the poorly supplied garrison ran out of ammunition (L’indicateur du Renouveau [Bamako], January 26, 2016).

Victims of the Aguelhoc Massacre

He also took part in several battles in northern Mali before the French military intervention in the Spring of 2013. Like many Tuareg militants, Ag Moussa then joined the newly-formed Haut Conseil pour l’Unité de l’Azawad (HCUA) as a means of publicly disassociating himself from the extremists being pursued by French and Chadian forces, though he continued working for Iyad Ag Ghali and recruited for Ansar al-Din. According to the UN, his half brother, Sidi Mohammed Ag Oukana, serves as Iyad Ag Ghali’s advisor on religious affairs (UN Security Council, August 14, 2019).

After taking charge of most of JNIM’s military operations in 2017, Ag Moussa increased the tempo of JNIM operations in central Mali, the region at the physical center of Mali’s ethnic and cultural divide. In 2019, the UN reported that Ag Moussa was the new commander of JNIM’s Katibat Gourma (Gourma Brigade) following the death of its Tuareg founder, Almansour Ag Alkassoum.

FAMA insisted that Ag Moussa directed the major attack on a Malian military post at Dioura in the Mopti region of south-central Mali in March 2019. Twenty-six Malian soldiers died in the strike, with 17 men wounded and an additional loss of several armored vehicles. JNIM admitted three dead.

Amadou Koufa (Jeune Afrique)

However, JNIM’s media arm, the Zallaqa Foundation, insisted the raid was carried out by the Fulani Katiba Macina, led by Fulani jihadist Amadou Koufa and part of the JNIM coalition since 2017. The JNIM statement said the attack was retribution for the government’s “heinous crimes” against the Fulani. The message also cited the lack of international support for the Fulani and the presence of French military forces in the Sahel as reasons for the attack (Kibaru [Bamako], March 23, 2019). Ag Moussa was known to work very closely with the Katiba Macina, so it is possible that Ag Moussa may have taken part in the operation without actually being its official leader. Since then, Ag Moussa was credited with leading the November 1, 2019 attack on the FAMA base at Inelimane, in which 50 soldiers were killed. The former colonel became a US specially designated terrorist in July 2019, followed by the imposition of UN sanctions as an al-Qaeda associate the next month.

Morale, pay and equipment in FAMA are all poor. Real fighting is carried out by the French, with the Malian military still indulging in politics, struggling to take control over a state they have no means or training to run. The French military presence has become increasingly unpopular, with President of Mali Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta resigning on August 19, 2020 amidst large anti-French street demonstrations in Bamako.

(AFP)

The multinational Task Force Takuba, intended to relieve pressure on the French military which has lost over 50 men in combat operations in the region since 2013, is still in its early stages. Some 50 members of the Estonian Special Forces began operating alongside French troops in October; they are expected to be joined in the coming months by 60 Czechs and 150 Swedes, with the latter also deploying three Blackhawk helicopters. A small Greek deployment is expected soon, though this has been held up by growing tensions with Turkey. Other European states have committed to joining TF Takuba or are exploring the idea, including the UK, Portugal, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, Ukraine and Italy, but deployment has been held up by COVID-19 and, in some cases, failure to obtain parliamentary approval (Greek City Times, November 24, 2020; FranceTVInfo, November 9, 2020; AFP, November 5, 2020).

French forces go from victory to victory over the jihadists, but they are only a strike force, no longer a colonial force of occupation. In this sense, they have become an independent arm of the Malian state, operating without reference to the putschists in Bamako. Yet killing jihadists and their leaders cannot end the jihad, which is ultimately a political problem. The political instability generated by the military coup and the promised creation of a new civilian government pushes military and diplomatic progress back to the starting point, though the putschists have at least vowed to honor their alliances with the G5 Sahel, Takuba, MINUSMA and France’s Operation Barkhane (FranceTVInfo.fr, August 19, 2020).

Perhaps most importantly, France has likely succeeded in derailing the continued pursuit of unwanted negotiations between the terrorists and the new regime in Bamako. On the other hand, the French attack is yet another example of the ever-growing reliance of Mali’s military on French forces to conduct successful anti-terrorist operations that enable the nation’s continued survival and avoid a new descent into the political chaos surrounding the Islamist occupation of the north in 2012-13.

The day before the strike on Ag Moussa, Operation Barkhane commander Major General Marc Conruyt noted that JNIM had been taking advantage of a recent French focus on targeting Islamic State personnel and assets, adding that JNIM was still “the most dangerous enemy for Mali and the international forces” (AFP, November 9, 2020). Ag Moussa’s carefully engineered death was a potent reminder to JNIM and its supporters of France’s determination to restore regional stability by ridding the Sahel of religious extremists.

Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood Leader Mahmud Ezzat Arrested: Where Do the Ikhwan Go from Here?

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report

September 25, 2020

Dr. Mahmud Ezzat (al-Jazeera)

Agents of Egypt’s National Security Agency (NSA) working with Cairo police arrested acting general guide of the Muslim Brotherhood Mahmud Ezzat on August 28, 2020. The arrest was carried out during a raid on an apartment in New Cairo’s Fifth Settlement, southeast of the capital. Encrypted computers and telephones were seized, as well as documents alleged to relate to sabotage plans (Egypt Independent, August 28, 2020). Ezzat has been a fugitive for seven years; while he and his supporters spread rumors he was hiding in a foreign country to throw off his pursuers, Ezzat appears to have remained in Egypt the whole time, as is required for the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB) according to the movement’s by-laws. It is also possible that Ezzat had difficulty escaping through Egypt’s tightened border controls. The regime of President ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi regards the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization and is determined to eliminate its influence and presence in Egypt. In the meantime, the groups suffers from organizational upheaval and internal divisions.

The Brothers (Ikhwan) are struggling to maintain a foothold in Egypt’s political process four years after its members were slaughtered in the streets of Cairo by security forces following the 2013 overthrow of Egyptian president and Brotherhood member Muhammad al-Mursi by General ‘Abd al-Fattah al-Sisi and the Egyptian military. With most of the movement’s leadership serving long prison sentences or awaiting execution, the work of keeping the Brotherhood alive fell into the hands of fugitive leaders such as Mahmud Ezzat.

At the time of his arrest, Egypt’s Interior Ministry accused Ezzat of overseeing the car bomb assassination of Public Prosecutor Hisham Barakat (2015), the assassination at his home of Brigadier General Wael Tahoun (2015), the attempted assassination by car bomb of Assistant Public Prosecutor Zakaria ‘Abd al-Aziz (2016) and the car bombing outside the National Cancer Institute that killed 20 people and injured 47 (2019)  (Egypt Independent, August 28, 2020).

Ibrahim Munir (The Times)

With Ezzat’s arrest, only two members of the Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau remain at large. Of these, Ibrahim Munir became the Brotherhood’s new Acting General Guide, while Mahmud Hussein remains the movement’s secretary-general. Both, however, are currently in Turkey and unable to exert much influence within Egypt, especially among the movement’s younger members, most of whom have a strong dislike for the new Acting General Guide (Al-Ahram Weekly [Cairo], September 7, 2020). A number of imprisoned young members of the Brotherhood have now made a break from the movement’s Old Guard, issuing important ideological revisions designed to create conditions conducive to a reconciliation with the al-Sisi regime, which has succeeded in consolidating its control over most of the country. Munir has roundly denounced the revisions and remains unapologetic for any actions of the Old Guard that may have contributed to the existential crisis faced by the movement today.

Ezzat was wanted by Egyptian authorities in connection with the death of anti-MB protesters outside the movement’s headquarters in the Muquttam district of Cairo on June 30, 2013 (Al-Monitor, August 21, 2013). His current location is unknown, though speculation has placed him in Gaza, Turkey or even inside Egypt.

Ezzat was among five Egyptians added in November 2017 to the terrorist list of the Arab Quartet (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates) (Egypt Today, November 26, 2017). Known as a “hardliner,” Ezzat’s long membership at senior levels of the MB has given him an insider’s knowledge of the movement’s organization and finances, much of which is directed by him. Narrow, sharp features and a reputation for organizational skills have led Ezzat to be known as “the Brotherhood Fox” (Al-Monitor, August 21, 2013).

In various trials carried out since 2013, Ezzat has already received, in absentia, two life sentences and two death sentences on other charges. Ezzat will face retrial in these cases, as well as a case of alleged espionage to begin in December.

Ezzat’s arrest came only days after the death in prison of leading Muslim Brother Essam al-Erian, former secretary-general of the Brotherhood’s political wing, the Freedom and Justice Party, at the age of 66. Al-Erian was reported to have died from a heart attack in the maximum-security wing of Liman al-Turra Prison south of Cairo. The Islamist complained a number of times of “medical negligence” during his stay in al-Turra, including a refusal to treat the Hepatitis C he contracted while in detention (al-Jazeera, August 13, 2020).

Perhaps in light of this, as well as Muhammad al-Mursi’s death in al-Turra Prison in 2019, allegedly as a result of lack of medical care, the Brotherhood’s general office declared that the Egyptian military bore responsibility for Ezzat’s life, warning that he suffered from chronic illnesses and that illegal detention and torture would represent an “attempt at murder” (Middle East Monitor, August 29, 2020).

Background

Formed in Isma’iliya by Hassan al-Banna in 1928, the MB is a religious organization intended to advance political Islamism through social work and political agitation. Much disrupted by events since the 2013 coup, the MB’s leadership structure includes a majlis al-shura (consultative council) below a powerful 15-member Guidance Bureau (maktab al-irshad) with a Supreme Guide (murshid al-‘amm) and his deputies at its head.

The movement has had a difficult relationship with the state since a young MB member tried to assassinate the Egyptian prime minister in 1948. Thousands were jailed and al-Banna himself assassinated by unknown assailants shortly afterward. The movement was banned by President Gamal ‘Abd al-Nasser in 1954. When another Brother tried to kill Nasser in October 1954, a massive crackdown followed that put thousands of Ikhwan behind bars, including revolutionary ideologue Sayyid Qutb, whose works deeply influenced the young Ezzat.

Imprisonment

Ezzzat was arrested in 1965 and imprisoned alongside Sayyid Qutb and Dr. Muhammed Badi’e, who later became the movement’s Supreme Guide (2010 to present – Ezzat and now Munir are only Acting Supreme Guides during 77-year-old Badi’e’s incarceration). Qutb had already endured torture during nine years in prison; his re-arrest would lead to his execution the next year on charges of conspiring to assassinate the president and overthrow the government. Qutb believed that an Islamic administration could only be imposed by a vanguard of believers (tali’a mu’mina) who would lead the masses to Islam through revolutionary activity.

Dr. Muhammad Badi’e (Mohamed Abd El Ghany/Reuters)

Ezzat became a pupil of fellow prisoner Shukri Mustafa, who took Qutbism to extremes after his release in 1971 with the formation of Jama’at al-Muslimin, better known as Takfir wa’l-Hijra (Excommunication and Flight) (Al-Monitor, August 21, 2013). Mustafa was also an adherent of the works of extremist icon Shaykh ibn Taymiya (1263-1328), but rejected most other Islamic scholarship, pulling his followers out of Egyptian society to live in caves (after the Prophet’s model, the concept of withdrawal from non-Islamic communities is known as hijra).  Mustafa’s jihad ended with his capture and execution in 1978.

Qutbist ideology was influential among the movement’s leaders serving long prison terms, a group that included Ezzat and Badi’e. Nonetheless, the efficiency of President Hosni Mubarak’s security machine forced Ezzat and other Qutbists to acknowledge the temporary futility of a direct challenge to the state, and the movement shifted back to emphasizing religious education and social assistance as the means of expanding the MB’s influence. Ezzat explained the movement’s outreach efforts by saying Islam provided “a religion for Muslims and a civilization for non-Muslims.” [2]

After nine years in notorious prisons like Liman al-Turra and Abu Za’bal, Ezzat was released in 1974. Ezzat has noted that the cycle of arrests, torture and imprisonment of MB leaders in pre-revolution Egypt always increased membership and public support: “Regime repression is the glue that binds us together and reflects that we are on the right path.” [3]

After his release, Ezzat became a member of the all-important MB Guidance Bureau in 1981 before fleeing President Anwar Sadat’s crackdown on the MB in 1981. Ezzat traveled to Yemen, where he taught at the University of Sana’a, before moving on to England for several years of post-graduate studies (Egypt Today, November 26, 2017; al-Arabiya, November 23, 2017). [4]

By the mid-1980s, a conservative trend within the movement led by Ezzat and other figures who had emerged from prison or returned from exile drove many leading reformers from roles of influence. The ascendancy of the conservatives continued until the early 2000s, by which time Ezzat and conservative businessman Khayrat al-Shater dominated the ideological direction of the movement. [5] Ezzat was responsible for student recruitment and organizing movement cells across Egypt while working as a professor at the University of Zaqaziq’s faculty of medicine.

In 1992 Ezzat was arrested in connection with the “Salsabil Case,” in which security services claimed to have discovered documents detailing plans to overthrow the Mubarak regime in the offices of the Salsabil software company established by Khayrat al-Shater with Ezzat’s assistance. Two years later Ezzat was detained again alongside 153 other Ikhwan charged with plotting to depose the regime.

The Revolution

Ezzat served as MB secretary general from 2001 to 2010. During that time, he became a prominent supporter of Khayrat al-Shater. Ezzat and other conservatives skilfully squeezed out or tamed the movement’s leading reformers in 2009-2010 and elected Muhammad Badi’e as the new supreme guide, replacing Mahdi ‘Akif, who was persuaded to step down. [6] Also forced out was ‘Akif’s first deputy, Muhammad Habib, who accused Ezzat of mounting a coup against him. [7]

By the time of the 2011 revolution, the movement was firmly in the hands of a conservative trend embodied by Ezzzat, al-Shater and MB spokesman Mahmud Ghuzlan.  Reformers began to flow out of the movement, a process accelerated by the events of the revolution and the uncertain response of the Brotherhood’s leadership.

Khayrat al-Shater (al-Arabiya)

Mubarak’s overthrow allowed the MB to form a political party for the first time in June 2011, the Ḥizb al-Ḥurriya wa’l-’Adala (Freedom and Justice Party – FJP). Ezzat’s ally Khayrat al-Shater became the FJP’s post-revolution candidate for president until his disqualification and replacement by Muhammad al-Mursi, who won the presidential election.

As al-Mursi was not the head of the Brotherhood, it remained unclear whether the Egyptian president was still answerable to the movement’s supreme guide. Despite efforts to portray the FJP as an autonomous political party, the Guidance Bureau’s importance became clear when Mursi and two other FJP leaders began to meet weekly with MB deputy supreme guides Ezzat, al-Shater, Ghuzlan and secretary general Mahmud al-Hussein to “coordinate” political activities. [8]

One consequence of the 2011 revolution was that the MB’s shura council was able to meet for the first time since 1995 without fear of arrest. During that time the Brotherhood’s Guidance Bureau (including Ezzat) made all the movement’s major decisions without input from the broader leadership. Yet even as the Brotherhood’s new political wing tried to convince Egyptians of their commitment to democracy and tolerance of different perspectives, Ezzat shocked many Egyptians by making remarks endorsing the implementation of hudud punishments such as stoning, amputation and crucifixion for certain offenses under Shari’a. [9]

The Military Targets the Brotherhood

Following days of public protest, the July 3, 2013 military coup d’état brought an end to Mursi’s administration and yet another wave of anti-Ikhwan repression.  The Brothers’ insistence that the FJP was the legitimate and democratically elected government of Egypt was largely ignored by the international community.

Attempts by the Brotherhood to apply pressure on the military through public protests and sit-ins were met with a savage response by government security forces who killed hundreds and arrested thousands to make it clear to the movement and its supporters that the Brotherhood was no longer part of Egypt’s political process.

With supreme guide Muhammad Badi’e and deputy guides al-Shater and Rashad al-Bayumi in prison, Ezzat became the movement’s acting supreme guide in August 2013 (al-Arabiya, August 20, 2013). Kamal Helbawy, a former MB guidance bureau member who resigned in 2012 over the movement’s decision to run a presidential candidate, noted Ezzat’s affinity for “radical Qutbism” and questioned Ezzat’s appointment as the movement’s supreme guide: “Ezzat is a well-mannered, decent man; he is not a great public speaker and prefers to work in secret more than in public. … Given these characteristics, I don’t think that he is a suitable leader for the Muslim Brotherhood at this stage” (Al-Monitor, August 21, 2013).

Leadership in Exile

Ezzat evaded arrest, unlike his comrades Badi’e, Mursi and al-Shater, all of whom were sentenced to serve a variety of life sentences based on convictions for terrorism, armed opposition to the state and espionage on behalf of foreign countries (Arab News, November 15, 2017; Daily News Egypt, September 16, 2017; Ahram Online, December 30, 2017).

Egyptian media reports in August 2015 maintained that Ezzat had been replaced as acting supreme guide by his UK-based 80-year-old Guidance Bureau colleague, Ibrahim Munir Mustafa. Munir denied the report and insisted “Dr. Mahmud Ezzat is still the deputy supreme guide and acting supreme guide” (Middle East Monitor, August 10, 2015). After rumors regarding Ezzat’s alleged ill health, the claim resurfaced a year later (Youm7 [Cairo], September 22, 2016). However, there was no formal announcement, and Ezzat remained the acting supreme guide. [10]

Still insisting on the legitimacy of Mursi’s FJP government, Ezzat released a public letter from his place of concealment in August 2017 urging an escalation of violence against the al-Sisi regime. Admitting that the organization was “in pain,” Ezzat called for “victory and sovereignty or death and joy” (Egypt Today, August 14, 2017). The letter may have been designed to undercut the appeal to Ikhwan youth of the more militant Kamal faction of the Brotherhood that emerged after the military coup.

Muhammad Kamal (Middle East Monitor)

Muhammad Kamal, a member of the Guidance Bureau, led “special operations committees” engaged in violence intended to force out the new Egyptian regime. Kamal and another MB leader were both killed by shots to the head during a police raid in northern Cairo in October 2016 (Reuters, October 3, 2016). Nonetheless, Kamal’s followers (sometimes termed “the new guard”) attempted to take over the movement in December 2016 when they “dismissed” the existing guidance bureau and established their own “revolutionary” version, creating competing administrations within the movement (Mada Masr, March 22, 2017).

In early 2017 the Kamal faction announced that it would begin publishing internal assessments of the mistakes made by the movement’s leadership. Though this initiative of the MB’s youth wing was supported by Yusuf al-Qaradawi, the movement’s Qatari-based spiritual leader, the Brotherhood’s old guard was alarmed by the announcement.  Ibrahim Munir reminded members that documents lacking the approval of Mahmud Ezzat did not represent the movement’s opinion (al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], March 27, 2017).

The Kamal faction followed up with a report in March 2017 that was highly critical of the reaction of Ezzat and the movement’s old guard to the 2011 revolution, accusing the Brotherhood’s senior leaders of adopting a cautious and conservative stance rather than adhering to the revolutionary principles of MB founder Hassan al-Banna (Mada Masr, March 22, 2017).

In May 2017, the Kamal faction published a document they claimed would reveal that the Munir/Ezzat faction of the Brotherhood was recommending a pragmatic and conciliatory approach to the movement’s political isolation, both in Egypt and internationally. It was an apparent recognition that continued insistence on the legitimacy of the FJP government and the return of Mursi as president was preventing political re-integration. The Munir/Ezzat faction was urging ideological flexibility at a time of weakness in order to allow the movement to survive and avoid international condemnation as a terrorist organization (al-Arabiya, May 8, 2017).

The Egyptian government has rejected all Ikhwan attempts to restore the group, even in a diminished fashion. In August 2017, a Cairo court placed 296 Ikhwan on the national terrorist list and claimed Ezzat was forming a military wing for the movement that would focus on toppling the state and working alongside other extremists to target Coptic Christians (al-Arabiya, November 23, 2017). The charges were at odds with Ezzat’s protestations of MB peacefulness, in which Ezzat quoted Dr. Badi’e: “Our motto remains ‘Our non-violence is more powerful than bullets’” (Ikhwanweb.com, September 13, 2016).

Conclusion

Up until the time of his arrest, Ezzat insisted that there was still a future for the MB, which has now survived 90 years of confrontation with Egypt’s governments, though its fortunes have rarely been lower.

The disaster ushered in by the Brotherhood’s full-scale entry into national politics was met with confusion and dissension within the movement. The detention or dispersal of many Ikhwan prevents the movement from gathering to develop strategies to move forward. In the meantime, an aging and fugitive leadership has spent much of its time fending off internal challenges from younger members urging defiance rather than the gradualism of the old guard leadership, which still cherishes values like discipline and obedience.

After replacing Ezzat, Munir quickly announced that sweeping changes to the Brotherhood’s organization were imminent, though he added these changes had already been planned before Ezzat’s detention and they were only being announced now to galvanize the membership and  “to let the regime know that the movement has not died” (Middle East Monitor, September 21, 2020).

In a TV appearance shortly after Ezzat’s arrest, Munir claimed that President al-Sisi had extended an offer of reconciliation through Field Marshal Muhammad Hussein Tantawi three or four years ago that would permit the release of imprisoned Muslim Brothers and allow fugitive Brothers to return to Egypt in exchange for recognition of the Sisi regime’s legitimacy. Munir said such recognition would be “a betrayal of the country” (Middle East Monitor, September 21, 2020).

Munir also has experience with Egypt’s notorious prison system, serving 10 years after a 1965 death sentence was commuted, followed by a five-year sentence issued in absentia in 2009, though the sentence was lifted in 2012 under an amnesty issued by former President Muhammad al-Mursi (Al-Ahram Weekly [Cairo], September 10, 2020). Munir was granted asylum in England in the early 1980s and has directed the International wing of the Brotherhood from an office in London since then, a position that gave him control of a significant part of the movement’s financing. With the Brotherhood at a crossroads, the 83-year-old Munir seems an unlikely candidate to electrify the movement’s remaining membership in a way that would enable the Brotherhood to resist and overcome opposition from the Egyptian regime, the international community, and even within the movement itself. Without further changes to the leadership, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood appears ready to enter a period of significant and inevitable decline.

Notes

  1. Hesham al-Adawi, “Islamists in Power: The Case of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt,” in Khair El-Din Haseeb (ed.): State and Religion in the Arab World, Routledge, 2017, pp. 193-94.
  2. Eric Trager, Arab Fall: How the Muslim Brotherhood Won and Lost Egypt in 891 Days, Georgetown University Press, 2016, p. 94.
  3. Khalil al-Anani, Inside the Muslim Brotherhood: Religion, Identity, and Politics, Oxford University Press, 2016, pp. 142-43.
  4. Ibid, p. 151.
  5. Ezzat knew al-Shater from his days in al-Sana’a and London.
  6. Hazem Kandil: Inside the Brotherhood, Cambridge, 2015, pp. 136-37; Carrie Rosefsky Wickham, The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist Movement, Princeton University Press, 2013, pp. 139-40.
  7. Khalil al-Anani, op cit, pp. 153-54.
  8. Eric Trager, op cit, p. 111.
  9. Carrie Rosefsky Wickham, The Muslim Brotherhood: Evolution of an Islamist Movement, Princeton University Press, 2013, p.186.
  10. Nearly a year after this last alleged transfer of authority, Munir signed a statement regarding the Manchester terrorist attack as “Deputy Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood” (Middle East Monitor, May 23, 2017).

Tinclads, Timberclads and Cottonclads: Naval Innovation in the US Civil War

Andrew McGregor

A Lecture Delivered to the Civil War Roundtable, Royal Canadian Military Institute, Toronto, February 5, 2020

Introduction

Though Civil War battlefield tactics had difficulty in shaking off the influence  of the Napoleonic wars, rapid change and innovation were hallmarks of the naval part of the Civil War from the beginning. The wooden sailing ships armed with smoothbore, muzzle-loading guns were soon replaced by iron ships powered by steam engines and armed with rifled, breech-loading guns. This process was far from smooth, however, and expediency and necessity fuelled innovation as much as improved technology. While the ironclads were the war’s greatest contribution to naval architecture, their lesser-known cousins, the shallow-draft tinclads, timberclads and cottonclads, performed vital service for both sides.

These ships fought on an enormous maritime front, including the Gulf of Mexico and 700 miles of the Mississippi River as well as its great tributaries, most notably the Tennessee River, the Red River and the Yazoo River. Seizing control of the Mississippi’s southern reaches was part of the Union’s grand plan to strangle the Confederacy through a coastal blockade and a two-pronged takeover of the Mississippi that would split the south and diminish its ability to wage war. The plan was fine, but the north had no ships for an offensive river campaign and the south had none to mount a defense. The construction of naval ships for river work began quickly on both sides, though both parties found it quicker to use existing ships modified for naval work. The variety of these existing ships led to an intense period of experimentation and innovation in an effort to gain the upper hand, reviving ancient tactics and producing the poor cousins of the famous ironclads, the less well-known tinclads, timberclads and cottonclads that fought just as hard.

The Timberclads

Though the Union’s naval efforts on the Mississippi first came under control of the US Army, certain officers were released by the navy to assist in the formation and command of the river fleet. Work began on the construction of ironclads, but in the meantime three sidewheel steamers, the Lexington, the Tyler and the Conestoga, were purchased for conversion into naval ships.

The USS Lexington

With high sides that invited enemy fire and engines above the water-line that could easily be put out of action, the three steamers were manifestly unfit for combat. Their conversion into battle-ready craft was put in the hands of naval architect Samuel Pook, who lowered the engines, reinforced the hulls and reduced the height of the superstructure. Decorative trim was removed and the glass pilot houses were replaced with stronger wooden structures. The urgent need for river-going warships could not be filled through the slow and still experimental construction of ironclads, so the steamers were fitted with the five-inch thick oak beams that gave the ships their name – timberclads. This wooden armor was capable of defending against small-arms fire, but was largely ineffective against shot and shell. The work, carried out in Cincinnati, was judged to be of low quality and the conversions were plagued by the usual demands by local businessmen for lucrative government contracts.

Nonetheless, the timberclads went into service at Cairo (Care-O), Illinois, in August 1861 with naval crews under army command.

From the beginning, the Tyler and Lexington usually worked in tandem. The Tyler carried one 32-pounder smoothbore and six 8-inch smoothbore guns, while the Lexington carried two 32-pounder smoothbores and four 8-inch smoothbores. The Conestoga, the weakest of the three, carried four 32-pounder smoothbores. (For those unfamiliar with naval gunnery, the weights refer to the size of the shot, measured by weight or circumference, rather than the size of the gun).

The armament of the Tyler and Lexington was improved in late 1862, when they were issued with 30-pounder rifled guns well suited for work against riverside defensive works. This was the timberclads’ primary role, and they played an important part in forcing the surrender of Forts Henry and Donelson on the Tennessee River.

During the Battle of Shiloh (April 6-7 1862), the Confederates attempted to anchor their right flank on the Mississippi and drive the Union forces into the river. The timely arrival of the Tyler and the Lexington at Pittsburg Landing prevented this deployment. The timberclads then supported a general advance with their guns. Grant later acknowledged the important role played by the ships in preventing a disastrous Federal defeat. In February 1863, the Lexington again saved the day when it arrived at Fort Donelson just as the defenders had run out of ammunition, preventing the Confederates from recapturing the fort.

Confederate Cottonclads

With warehouses full of cotton that could not be brought to market, the Confederates found a novel use for it as armor for its converted steamers. Cottonclad CSS Stonewall Jackson

The cottonclads’ boilers and engines were protected by 500 lb bales of compressed cotton. Sometimes the bales were sandwiched by double pine bulkheads. Many of the rams were converted wooden tugboats or towboats, preferred for their strong “walking-beam” steam engines.

Eventually the Union would also adopt cotton as a cheap and quick means of providing some protection to the crews of its river steamers.

Though the war brought an end to most commercial river traffic, experienced rivermen were hard to find for both sides, many of them having enlisted in the armies. The Union’s War Department began to transfer these men to their river craft, along with a transfer of naval officers to army command. Discipline and efficiency began to improve once the ships were transferred to navy command in 1862. The Confederates had greater difficulty – requests for the return of rivermen from the army to the river craft were frequently met with transfers of the infirm, incapable and incompetent instead. River pilots were in high demand and both sides made a practice of offering captured pilots financial incentives to change sides.

Battle of New Orleans, April 24, 1862

Confederate control of the Mississippi rested on two bastions, New Orleans and its outer defense works in the south, and Forts Donelson and Henry in the north.

The LSNS Governor Moore Fires through its Own Bow to Sink the USS Varuna

The small Confederate river fleet that met Commodore Farragut’s squadron south of New Orleans on April 24, 1862 consisted of two gunboats and two ironclads under the command of the Confederate Navy, six lightly armed cottonclads and rams under the command of the Confederate Army, as well as two sidewheel cottonclad rams, the Governor Moore and the General Quitman, that were part of the Louisiana State Navy. The Governor Moore was commanded by Captain Beverley Kennon, whom some of you might remember from one of my earlier talks as the designer of Alexandria’s defenses while attached to the Egyptian Army after the Civil War. During the battle, the Union gunboat Varuna was rammed on the starboard side by Captain Kennon’s Governor Moore. With the two ships locked together, Kennon discovered the Governor Moore’s bow gun could not be sufficiently depressed to fire on the Varuna, so he ordered the gun to fire twice through his own ship’s bow into the Varuna. Kennon freed his ship and again rammed the Varuna in nearly the same spot. The Confederate ram Stonewall Jackson rammed the Varuna once more to polish her off. The Federal fleet then concentrated its fire on the Governor Moore, sending it to the bottom of the river.

The defeat of the Confederate fleet sealed the fate of New Orleans, the largest city in the Confederacy, which surrendered to Farragut days later.

The Ellet Rams

Colonel Charles Ellet Jr. was one of the most forceful proponents of reviving the ram as a naval weapon. Ellet published a pamphlet advocating the use of rams in 1855, but the US Navy took no interest. The ram had been the centerpiece of naval tactics in the ancient world for centuries, but was reliant on the ability of the galleys that carried it to reverse direction by its oars to pull the ram back from a punctured ship and prevent the attacking vessel from being drawn down into the deep along with its victim. As galleys were gradually replaced with sailing ships that were less maneuverable in tight quarters and the introduction of gunpowder enabled ships to sink each other at a distance, the ram fell out of use, seemingly forever. The introduction of steam, however, with engines capable of running in reverse, had made the ram a viable weapon once more, especially for close-quarters action of the type that could be expected in river warfare. Both the Federals and Confederates would adopt the ram as the primary weapon on many of their river gunboats.

The Ellet Rams

In 1862, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton gave Ellet the task of creating a ram flotilla consisting of seven converted sidewheelers and sternwheelers. The ram bows were built of 5 inches of oak encased in iron but retained their original shape rather than the projecting “beak” typical of the ancient rams. These lightly armed ships, with reinforced hulls to withstand the force of a collision, were intended to serve alongside the timberclads on the rivers. Rams could be dangerous even to their own side; accidental collisions involving a ram usually ended with the sinking of the ship that was struck. The regular navy was unimpressed by Ellet’s designs, deeming them unsuitable for combat.

Ellet was allowed to choose the commanders of his new rams. Nepotism was his guiding light in these choices, as he chose brothers, nephews and even his own 19-year-old son Charles Rivers Ellet as commanders.

Battle of Plum Point Bend, May 10, 1862

The Confederate River Defense Fleet ran into the Union’s Mississippi River Squadron four miles north of Fort Pillow, Tennessee on May 10, 1862. The place was known as Plum Point Bend. The Confederate fleet attacked Union ironclads of the Mississippi River Squadron during a thick morning fog. The General Bragg slowed the Federal ironclad Cincinnati by ramming it, allowing the General Sterling Price to ram the ironclad’s stern, completely disabling it. The Sterling Price was badly damaged in the engagement, but was quickly repaired in time for the later Battle of Memphis.

Though the Union squadron consisted mostly of ironclads assigned to protect mortar boats bombing Fort Pillow, the Confederate cottonclads won the day with their surprise attack, ramming and sinking two Federal ironclads, the Cincinnati and the Mound City.

Battle of Memphis, June 6 1862

The Confederate River Defense Fleet consisted of 8 cottonclad sidewheel rams converted under the direction of Colonel WS Lovell. The fleet was run by the War Department rather than the navy and was charged with the defense of the upper reaches of the Mississippi.

Battle of Memphis

Though faster than the Union ironclads, the cottonclads were no match in battle. All the ships of the River Defense Fleet were sunk, burned, captured or run aground in the battle, which was watched by thousands from the river bluffs.

The battle began as Ellet’s flagship, the USS Queen of the West rammed the CSS Colonel Lovell, splitting her in two. Before the Queen could pull back, she was in turn rammed by the CSS Sumter. There was little in the way of strategy in the battle as it quickly descended into a chaotic brawl.

CSS General Sterling Price

The General Price and General Beauregard both attacked the USS Monarch, but collided with each other, leaving both as helpless targets for federal rams. The General Beauregard received a shot to her boiler from the Monarch, scalding to death most of its crew, save for 14 terribly burned men who were rescued by the Monarch. Colonel Ellet, who commanded the Union fleet, was wounded in the battle and died 15 days later. The General Price, the best armed of the Confederate rams, sank after colliding with the USS Queen of the West. After the battle, the ram was raised and repaired before entering Union service. The ship joined Admiral Porter’s ironclads in running the blockade off Vicksburg on April 16, 1863, an important step in the fall of the city. The General Price took part in the Red River Campaign, but in March 1864 it accidentally rammed the USS Conestoga and sank her.

One of the ships that had helped sink the ironclad Cincinnati at Plum Point Bend was the CSS General Bragg, named for Confederate General Braxton Bragg. The ship was badly damaged in the battle, but repaired in time to take part in the Battle of Memphis. The General Bragg ran aground during the battle and was captured by Federal troops. After repairs, the ship was brought into Union service as the USS General Bragg. She spent 15 months patrolling the Mississippi, but was disabled by a Confederate battery in Louisiana in June 1864.

The Tinclads

After the Battle of Memphis, the Union had little use for its rams, which were designed almost exclusively for offensive naval actions. Shallow draft river steamers were now armed and altered by the addition of a thin belt of metal armor. Commonly known as “tinclads,” these steamers became the workhorse of Federal “brownwater” naval operations.

Sidewheel Tinclad USS Black Hawk

While the rams were built to engage Confederate ships, the Union purchased dozens of sidewheel and sternwheel flat-bottomed steamers for other duties on the rivers, such as patrols, fire support and transport escort. In their conversion to military service, the steamers were equipped with a light iron sheeting up to an inch thick capable of repelling small arms fire. Tin was not actually used – the term “tinclad” was only meant to distinguish these steamers from the heavier and more formidable ironclads. The flagship of the 69-ship fleet of tinclads, as they came to be called, was the USS Black Hawk, a former ocean-going luxury passenger steamer named New Uncle Sam.  The most powerful of the tinclads was the USS Ouachita, a captured Confederate steamer that was armed with five 30-pounder Parrot rifles, eighteen 24-pounder smoothbores and fifteen 12-pounder smoothbores. Though the tinclads were typically slow, they carried between four to eight guns and performed valuable work that ships with a deeper draft could never accomplish.

With their light armor providing some protection from small arms fire, the tinclads carried out patrols, guarded river crossings, carried dispatches, cleared mines, provided fire support to land operations, escorted transports, shipped prisoners, towed ironclads and skirmished with Confederate guerrillas. It is difficult to imagine Federal success in the Western theater without the contribution of these converted river steamers.

Yazoo River Expedition to Vicksburg

Frustrated in their attempts to take the city of Vicksburg from the Confederates, Union commanders devised a plan to flank the city’s riverside defenses by sending a naval expedition through the backwaters and bayous of the Mississippi Delta to reach the Yazoo River and eventually Vicksburg.

The flagship of the expedition was the USS Rattler, a tinclad sternwheeler that had played an important part in the capture of Fort Hindman from the Confederates and the capture of its 6500 man garrison.

However, the going was extremely tough for the five tinclads, two ironclads and transport steamers of the expedition carrying 6,000 troops. Shallow water, felled trees, overhanging limbs and driftwood slowed the expedition’s progress, while exhausted men complained of having to “dig the gunboats out of the woods.” The slow pace permitted Confederate General Pemberton to build a rudimentary fort in their path. As the narrow channel prevented the gunboats from deploying anything more than the bow gun of its lead ship, the expedition was finally called off. The Rattler was driven aground by a storm in 1864, where its guns were salvaged before Confederates burned it.

Indianola vs. Queen of the West, February 24, 1863

The CSS Queen of the West Attacks the USS Indianola on the Red River (Tom W. Freeman)

While patrolling the Mississippi near Vicksburg, the Federal ironclad Indianola encountered a Confederate flotilla consisting of the newly captured Queen of the West, the Webb and two smaller cottonclads carrying troops for boarding operations. The Webb and the Queen of the West rammed the Indianola seven times, forcing her to run aground, partly sunk. The crew surrendered and the Confederates began planning to raise and repair the ship. Admiral David Porter, in command of the Union’s Mississippi fleet, described her loss as “the most humiliating affair that has occurred during this rebellion.”

However, it was now the Confederates’ turn to experience a little humiliation. Federal troops quickly assembled a fake ironclad, a 300-foot long hollow wooden vessel with logs for guns and smudge pots to generate smoke from its fake stacks. Flying a skull and crossbones flag at its bow and the message “Deluded Rebels, Give In,” the imposter was carried by the current past the guns of Vicksburg, which made a furious attempt to sink the intruder. Confederate vessels on the river turned away rather than confront this new and apparently powerful ironclad, abandoning the salvage crew working on the Indianola. Panicked, the salvage crew spiked the Indianola’s guns and blew her up before fleeing. Without firing a shot, the great hoax deprived the Confederates of a potent addition to their river fleet.

Battle of Galveston

In the early morning of January 1, 1863, Confederate forces under General John B. Magruder launched an attack intended to retake the city of Galveston from Union forces. Off Galveston a small fleet of six federal ships lay at anchor, with only one, the USS Westfield, ready to sail, though it quickly ran aground. Confederate troops retook the forts and turned the guns on the Federal ships, while infantry attempted to board them.  Battle of Galveston

Two Confederate ships arrived, the armed tugboat Neptune and the Confederate Army cottonclad Bayou City. The two engaged with the largest of the Federal ships, the Harriet Lane, using their rams and guns. The Neptune was sunk, but the Bayou City continued its attack. Badly damaged, the Harriet Lane was boarded after its commander was killed and its second in command mortally wounded. The latter Union officer was discovered by his father, Confederate Major Albert M. Lea. Also found on the ship was the U.S. signal code book, a valuable acquisition.

With the battle going badly, the remaining Union ships fled to New Orleans, while the still-grounded flagship Westfield was blown up to prevent its capture. Even that went badly, as the Union fleet commander and part of his crew were killed when the charges went off prematurely. The departure of the Federal fleet was taken as a sign by Federal troops still ashore to surrender. The Confederate triumph in the six hour battle left Galveston in Southern hands until the end of the war.

Red River Campaign

The naval war on the Mississippi was pretty much finished in July 1863 but continued to the end of the war on the rivers that fed it.

One of the war’s most poorly conducted campaigns was the Federal Red River campaign of March 1864. While the official aim was to extinguish resistance in Louisiana and Texas, Admiral David Porter, who conducted naval operations on the river, later described it as “a big cotton raid” meant to seize some 100,000 bales of cotton from the Confederates. Some 90 Federal ships joined the expedition, the largest fleet ever assembled in North America at that point.

The plan was to send Union gunboats 350 miles up the river to Shreveport, with Federal troops led by Nathaniel Banks marching on land parallel to the fleet. Banks was a political general with no military experience – Porter was under the impression General Sherman would lead the land forces when he agreed to the campaign. Porter had little faith in Banks, who had already suggested he might abandon the fleet if he ran into trouble.

Launched on March 10, 1864, the campaign went well enough at first with the rebels pulling back ahead of the Union forces. The army reached the city of Alexandria eight days later, but without their commander. Banks arrived a week later on a ship full of cotton speculators with political connections in Washington. Porter was outraged.

However, the Union troops became confused in unfamiliar terrain, not even discovering the road that ran alongside the river. Confederates burned the cotton rather than allow it to fall into Federal hands, and started to mount successful counter-attacks.

Ironclad USS Eastport

Thirty miles from Shreveport, the tinclad fleet encountered a large steamboat blocking the river. It was as far as they would get, with Federal troops now fleeing back to their starting point in Alexandria. Rebel artillery and marksmen were able to deploy on the banks without opposition, keeping the tinclads under constant fire. To make matters worse, the river, which should have been rising at that time of year, was falling instead. The ships began to snag or run aground, requiring men to perform the hard labor of freeing them while under murderous fire. The strongest ship in the fleet, the USS Eastport, a former Confederate steamer captured by the Union and converted to an ironclad, struck a mine and had to be blown up to prevent its capture. Another steamer carrying slaves taken from plantations had a shell pierce her boiler, killing over 100 right away. 83 others were scalded so badly most of them died. The nightmare threatened to turn worse as it became apparent the fleet would be unable to cross the rapids at Alexandria due to low water. It looked like ships worth a total of $2 million would have to be abandoned and destroyed.

The USS Lexington Crosses the Dam and Rapids at Alexandria, Louisiana

At this point, a Wisconsin engineer, Colonel Joseph Bailey, employed thousands of men, many of them timbermen from Wisconsin and Maine, to work on a massive dam across the 758-foot wide river, using lumber, bricks and even the machinery from a demolished sugar mill. After ten days, the water had risen high enough to allow four ships to shoot the rapids, but others could not make it. Another three days of dam construction finally allowed the rest of the fleet to escape total destruction. It was a brilliant piece of engineering in the midst of an otherwise disastrous campaign that cost more than 5000 Federal lives.

Nonetheless, the campaign was judged a disaster. Porter declared he never wished to command a river fleet again and was transferred to the Atlantic blockade. The ambitious Banks lost any hope of running for the presidency and spent the rest of the war testifying about his own incompetence in front of Congress.

Final Run of the CSS William Webb

For the last major Confederate naval action on the Mississippi, a wooden sidewheeler privateer converted to a cottonclad ram by Colonel Lovell was armed with a bronze 130-pounder James rifle on its forecastle and two 12-pounder howitzers. The James rifle was the largest used on any of the river warships, weighing 14,896 pounds.

Lieutenant Charles “Savvy” Read, CSN

Taking command of the CSS William Webb was Lieutenant Charles “Savvy” Read, one of the naval war’s most outstanding characters. Bold and fearless, Read had graduated from the US Naval Academy only a year before the war broke out. Read served as an officer on Confederate commerce raiders such as the CSS MacRae and the CSS Florida, as well as serving on the Confederate ironclad Arkansas as it made its dramatic passage through the Union fleet on the Mississippi. Given command of one of the Florida’s prizes, Read raided the Atlantic coast, capturing or destroying 22 ships. Finally captured off Maine, he served time as a prisoner before being freed in an exchange. He then commanded several torpedo boats in the James River before taking command of the Webb in Shreveport.

On April 23, 1865, the Webb began a southwards dash from Shreveport, down the Red River to the Mississippi, where it broke through the blockade of the Red River. The Webb now made a run for the Gulf, with the intention of steaming out to the Pacific to raid Federal shipping there. Evading all kinds of Union warships, the Webb made it past New Orleans but was brought up short by the USS Richmond, a powerful steam sloop. Recognizing the stronger Richmond would easily destroy the Webb and her crew, Read ran the Webb aground and set her on fire. It was the last significant naval action of the war on the Mississippi and her tributaries.

Conclusion

With the war finally over in the spring of 1865, nearly all the converted river steamers were sold for scrap or returned to commercial use. The United States would never again fight a war on its rivers.

Ram warfare continued for some time, being an important part of naval architecture until the end of the 19th century, when it was finally realized by all that powerful new guns would fight naval battles at a distance. Several terrible accidents involving rams and other warships, and even a collision with a passenger ship that took over 500 lives, effectively put an end to the naval ram as an instrument of war.

In conclusion then, we can say that there were more dramatic and romantic parts of the naval Civil War that inspired songs, paintings and poetry, episodes such as the global cruises of the Confederate commerce raiders, the battle between the Alabama and the Kearsage or the ground-breaking battle between the Virginia and the Monitor at Hampton Roads. Nonetheless, the hard and often relentless fighting done by these often ungainly, unsightly and quickly improvised Union steamships in the war’s Western theater played just as important a part in the war’s conclusion as the better known Union blockade by helping to split the Confederacy in two.

Bibliography

Coffey, Walter: “Confederates Confront the Indianola,” February 1, 2018, https://civilwarmonths.com/tag/c-s-s-william-h-webb/

Frazier, Donald S.: Cottonclads!: The Battle of Galveston and the Defense of the Texas Coast (Civil War Campaigns and Commanders Series), State House Press, Abilene, Texas, 1998

Joiner, Gary: One Damn Blunder from Beginning to End: The Red River Campaign of 1864, Scholarly Resources, 2003

Konstam, Angus: Mississippi River Gunboats of the American Civil War, 1861-65, Osprey Publishing, Oxford, 2002

McPherson, James M.: War on the Waters: The Union and Confederate Navies, 1861-1865, University of North Carolina Press, 2012

Miller, Francis Trevelyan: The Navies: The Photographic History of the Civil War, Castle Books, New York, 1957

Smith, Myron J. Jr.: The Timberclads in the Civil War: The Lexington, Conestoga and Tyler on the Western Waters, McFarland & Company, Jefferson NC, 2008

Smith, Myron J. Jr.: Tinclads in the Civil War: Union Light-Draught Gunboat Operations on Western Waters, 1862-1865, McFarland & Company, Jefferson NC, 2010

Van Doren Stern, Philip: The Confederate Navy: A Pictorial History, Bonanza Books, New York, 1962

Wideman, John C.: Naval Warfare: Courage and Combat on the Water, Civil War Chronicles, MetroBooks, New York, 1997

Southern Libya Will Be More Restive

Andrew McGregor

Oxford Analytica Daily Brief, October 9, 2019

Significance

The UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Libya yesterday condemned attacks on civilian infrastructure and called an October 6 airstrike on an equestrian club in the capital, Tripoli, that injured several children “one of the lowest points” of the conflict. Warlord Khalifa Haftar’s military offensive to take control of Tripoli has stalled for six months on the city’s outskirts. Essential to Haftar’s ambitions is full control of southwestern Libya, the Fezzan region, which has been drawn into the battle for Tripoli.

“Field Marshal” Khalifa Hafter (Middle East Online)

What Next

Neither of Libya’s governments can declare victory without full control of the resource-rich south. Haftar’s “control” of Fezzan consists of making deals with locals to declare allegiance to him and exploiting ethnic and racial divisions. However, this has destabilized the region, which as a result may see recurrent bouts of violence. This would potentially make it a liability to Haftar’s ambitions to control the whole of Libya. Meanwhile, the internationally recognized Tripoli authorities, the Government of National Accord (GNA), are unlikely to make inroads in the south given that they have long neglected the region and do not have deep pocketed sponsors such as Haftar has in the United Arab Emirates (UAE).

Subsidiary Impacts

  • Lawlessness in Fezzan exposes Libya’s coastal cities (hosting most of the population) to debilitating shortages of fuel and water.
  • Haftar risks losing the support of his foreign allies, particularly his main sponsor, the UAE, if he fails to finish the assault on Tripoli.
  • Further clashes in the south are probable – especially if there is external interference.

Analysis

South-western Libya, the Fezzan region, is a vast desert spotted with lucrative oil fields, oases, long-range trade routes and deep sub-desert aquifers. It is dominated by a mixture of Arab tribes, Arab/Berber groups, the non-Arab Berber Tuareg and the indigenous Black African Tubu.

Fezzan suffers from economic decline, widespread unemployment, inadequate infrastructure and soaring crime rates. Many locals are involved in migrant or oil smuggling. Beyond the oasis towns of Sebha, Murzuq and Ubari, Islamic State cells and groups of Chadian and Darfuri rebels roam the desert wilderness, with the displaced rebels offering their services to both sides of the Libyan conflict as mercenaries. Some southern Libyans have also joined the fighting in the north.

A group of experienced anti-Haftar Tubu fighters under Hassan Musa went north to Tripoli when the battle began, where they joined by other militias in the defense of Tripoli, according to the Small Arms Survey. Arab fighters from the south also joined Haftar’s assault on Tripoli, including members of the Awlad Sulayman, Zuwaya and Mahamid tribes.

(AFP)

A key town in southern Libya is Murzuq, a desert oasis town roughly 800 kilometres south of Tripoli with a largely Tubu peacetime population of roughly 30,000. In February, Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA), a loosely disciplined coalition of militias, mercenaries and Saudi-influenced Salafists, moved into the city to take control. Residents fled airstrikes, ethnic clashes and incursions.

Violence flared in Murzuq again in August. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), 26.465 people have been internally displaced from Murzuq to surrounding areas because of this round of fighting. Over 100 civilians have been killed in two months of fighting in and around Murzuq.

During this time, the city has also been struck by repeated airstrikes from UAE-supplied fighter-bombers and drones operating from al-Khadim airbase in eastern Libya. An LNA drone attack on August 5 in Murzuq killed 43 local dignitaries. Tubu officials reportedly turned down a UAE offer for a financial settlement to address their grievances over the UAE’s role in the incident – an offer that included a requirement for the Tubu to recognize Haftar as the Libyan leader. On September 12, the Presidential Council declared Murzuq to be “a disaster stricken area.”

Much of the internal fighting in Murzuq was the result of tensions between the anti-Haftar Tubu and LNA-aligned Alhali communities (the Alhali are Arabized black Libyans descended from slaves or economic migrants). Many homes were looted and burned during the clashes and those fleeing the fighting were subjected to robbery, abduction or sexual harassment at illegal checkpoints. Local Tubu could not fail to notice most of the LNA army attacking Murzuq was composed of traditional enemies of the Tubu, prompting claims of ethnic cleansing.

Airstrike in Southern Tripoli, December 2019 (AFP)

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres blamed Haftar for the eruption of violence in Murzuq, citing his forceful entry into the city and his attempt to impose new authorities. When Haftar took Murzuq and other parts of the south, he drove out GNA-affiliated security forces, but, short of manpower, he did not consolidate his control of the south by installing garrisons. Instead, he withdrew nearly all his troops to the north to participate in the assault on Tripoli that started in April. This created a security vacuum that provided a fertile ground for renewed violent clashes emanating from grievances incurred during and after the February take-over.

The Islamic State

The lawlessness in the south has also allowed the Islamic State (IS) to regroup. IS fighters were driven out of their stronghold in the coastal city of Sirte in 2016 in a ground operation conducted by the Bunyan Marsous (a coalition of western militias opposed to the LNA and IS terrorists) with the assistance of nearly 500 bombing runs by US warplanes.

Since then, the IS, with an estimated strength of between 300 to 2,000 fighters, has attempted to reform in the remote regions of the Fezzan. There is speculation that the terrorists have turned to the lucrative human trafficking trade to finance their operations in Libya. According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), there are now over 655,000 migrants in Libya, roughly 10% of the Libyan population. Over 70% of the migrants hailed from five African nations – Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan and Egypt. While some have found menial work in Libya, many are determined to continue on to Europe.

While the US administration has done little to intervene in the struggle between Libya’s rival governments, it has displayed a determination to prevent an IS resurrection in the southern desert. Central to this effort is a series of air attacks on IS bases by US Air Force Reaper drones based in Niamey, Niger. On September 19, the first US airstrike killed eight suspected terrorists in a compound in Murzuq. AFRICOM commander General Stephen Townsend stated afterwards that the U.S. would not permit the IS to reform under the cover of the battle for Tripoli.

Further US airstrikes on September 24, 26 and 29 killed a reported 35 more IS terrorists. AFRICOM director of intelligence Rear Admiral Heidi Berg said the attacks on Islamic State militants were carried out in coordination with the PC/GNA to destroy IS safe havens. If AFRICOM assessments of IS casualties are correct (or close), their airstrikes must have caused a significant disruption to IS efforts to regroup in southern Libya.

Why Mozambique Is Outsourcing Counter-Insurgency to Russia: Part Two – Hidden Loans and Naval Bases

Andrew McGregor

November 4, 2019 (Part One of this article was published on October 29, 2019)

At the heart of Mozambique’s reinvigorated relationship with Moscow (see EDM, October 29) is a financial scandal that almost ruined the country. Specifically, corrupt elements in the southeast African state’s Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (FRELIMO) government and the Serviço de Informaçao e Segurança do Estado (SISE, Mozambique’s intelligence agency) secretly arranged for $2 billion in loans from foreign commercial banks for three state-owned firms without parliamentary approval in 2013–2014. Guaranteed by the government, loans from Russia’s VTB Bank and Credit Suisse were made to EMATUM, Proindicus and Mozambique Asset Management (MAM). The scandal severely undermined Mozambique’s currency and GDP growth as well as resulted in the imposition of strict new conditions on further International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank assistance. It also discouraged further foreign investment even as Maputo struggled to find up to $2 billion to finance its share of development of LNG reserves off Cabo Delgado (Macauhub.com.mo, October 18). Moscow’s VTB Bank is demanding repayment of its loan (over $500 million) by the end of the year (Clubofmozambique.com, September 9).

Mozambican Troops Inspect Terrorist Damage in Cabo Delgado (PetroleumEconomist)

As Mozambique’s state security forces—the Forças de Defesa e Segurança (FDS)—proved incapable of dealing with the lightly-armed terrorists in the north, Maputo began a search for military alternatives. Initially, Erik Prince’s Dubai-based Lancaster Six Group (L6G) private security firm was in competition with Russia’s Wagner private military company (PMC) and Eeben Barlow’s South African Specialized Tasks, Training, Equipment and Protection International (STTEP) for security contracts in Cabo Delgado, with Prince promising to eliminate the terrorists in three months in return for a share of oil and natural gas revenues (Issafrica.org, November 20, 2018; Macauhub.com.mo, October 18, 2019). Prince also indicated he was interested in forming partnerships or making investments in the three state-owned firms involved in the hidden loan scandal in deals expected to lead to maritime security operations in the gas-rich Rovuma Basin (Deutsche Welle—Português Para África, June 4, 2019).

On August 20, Russia forgave 95 percent of Mozambique’s debt to the Russian Federation during a Russian-Mozambican business forum. Though the forum encouraged continuing growth in bilateral trade, some Mozambican businessmen expressed concern over the consequences of dealing with Russia while it remains under Western sanctions for its annexation of Crimea (Agência de Informação de Moçambique, August 22). Mozambican President Filipe Nyusi also encouraged Russia’s Gazprombank (specializing in financing oil and gas projects) to help invest in liquid natural gas (LNG) projects in the Rovuma Basin (Agência de Informação de Moçambique, August 22). Rosneft, a publicly-owned Russian energy firm, has three licensed exploration blocks in Mozambique and is seeking more.

Russian Cargo Plane Unloads Military Supplies at Nacala International Airport, September 26, 2019 (ClubofMozambique)

Prince and Barlow lost out in the security competition; in late September 2019, reports emerged of armed Russians, possibly from Wagner PMC, arriving in the northern cities of Nacala and Nampula (both in Nampula province, immediately south of Cabo Delgado), allegedly accompanied by drones and helicopters (see EDM, October 15). The reports followed an admission by Mozambique’s Minister of Foreign Affairs and Cooperation that Russia was providing military equipment for use in Cabo Delgado (Noticias ao Minuto, October 5). Another report suggested the men were Russian regulars, 160 in number, who intended to create a mobile military intelligence (GRU) base and a permanent Russian naval base (Observador, September 28). The Russian embassy in Maputo has denied the presence of Russian military personnel in Mozambique (Sapo 24, October 3).

Russia’s ambassador to South Africa, Ilya Rogachev, recently defended the use of Russian PMCs in Africa, claiming critics see Russia “through colonial eyes,” overlooking Moscow’s perception of African states as “equal and not junior partners.” Rogachev added that “private military companies are not necessarily bad… I think it depends on the goals that are assigned to these companies” (Daily Maverick, October 17).

LNG Fields in Mozambique’s Rovuma Basin (BankTrack)

Though Cabo Delgado is deeply impoverished, organized crime runs lucrative operations there, trafficking in heroin, timber, wildlife and rubies (Globalinitiative.net, October 2018; Enact Africa, July 2, 2018). For now it remains unclear whether the terrorist attacks in the region are more closely connected to radical Islamists from the north or organized crime using Islamism as a cover. The intention could be to create enough insecurity to delay the development of a legitimate industry that could threaten their operations. It has been suggested elsewhere that the insurgency is designed to facilitate the entry of private military firms into the region and enable their exploitation of local energy resources (Deutsche Welle—Português Para África, June 13, 2018). Local journalists attempting to investigate the violence have faced intimidation, detention and even torture from government security forces (Mg.co.za, April 25).

Moscow and Maputo signed an agreement simplifying the entry of Russian naval ships into Mozambican ports and a memorandum on naval military cooperation, on April 4, 2019. Mozambique’s defense minister, Athanasio Salvador Mtumuke, noted that “our national flag depicts the Kalashnikov rifle, which symbolizes the deep relations between our countries in the military area…” (Sputnik Brasil, April 5, 2018).

Alexander Surikov, Moscow’s ambassador to Mozambique, has emphasized the readiness of Russian energy firms to develop natural gas reserves in Mozambique’s north, adding, “We provide [military] assistance to them without threatening their neighbors and rattling the saber, we only do what our partners in Mozambique ask for” (TASS, October 25).

Port of Nacala (MacauHub)

Moscow undoubtedly has eyes on the port of Nacala, southern Africa’s deepest harbor, which lies roughly 200 miles south of the Rovuma Basin. The Mozambican town of Palma, close to the border with Tanzania, is slated for development as the main port for the Rovuma LNG industry, but it is unlikely to serve a dual purpose as a Russian naval base. Palma has suffered from attacks by the insurgents. Additionally, local demonstrations calling for a halt to LNG-related development until security is established have been dispersed by police gunfire (Agência de Informação de Moçambique, January 14). Mozambique’s most powerful neighbor, South Africa, will hold joint naval exercises for the first time with the navies of Russia and China in November.

Besides military support, the FRELIMO government is seeking strong allies as it battles internal dissatisfaction with electoral fraud, growing crime, emerging terrorism, internal political challenges and rampant corruption. While Russia may offer itself as a solution to some of these problems, the question is whether Maputo can overcome its traditional reticence to engage wholeheartedly with Moscow’s regional ambitions. Financial pressure and the lure of energy riches may be just enough to permit Russia to establish its long sought naval base in Mozambique.

This article was first published in the November 4, 2019 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor.

Why Mozambique Is Outsourcing Counter-Insurgency to Russia: Part One – The Historical Relationship

Andrew McGregor

October 29, 2019

A new government offensive in Mozambique’s northern Cabo Delgado province is the latest attempt to eliminate shadowy Islamist insurgents in a region whose untapped energy reserves could reverse the country’s economic misfortunes and the damage inflicted by decades of civil war and on-again, off-again insurgencies (Agência de Informação de Moçambique, October 21). Unsuccessful in such efforts over the last two years, there are now reports Mozambique has turned to Russia for military aid (see EDM, October 15). But why Russia, and what would Moscow expect in return? The arrival of Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gamo in 1498 began a centuries-long colonization of a vast tract of southeastern Africa that came to be known as Mozambique. Modern resistance to the Portuguese began with the formation of the nationalist Frente de Libertação de Moçambique (FRELIMO) in 1962. FRELIMO’s first attack on a Portuguese post occurred in Cabo Delgado in 1964. Pro-Soviet Marxist-Leninist factions consolidated their control of FRELIMO in the late 1960s as a wave of mysterious deaths and assassinations eliminated nationalist leaders. This allowed the emergence of Marxist-Leninist hardliner Samora Machel as FRELIMO military commander.

Portuguese Patrol in Mozambique

By 1972, FRELIMO was being supplied with weapons from Moscow and Beijing. This allowed Lisbon to justify its campaign against the guerrillas by insisting they were controlled by the Soviet Union. Marxism was in many ways unsuited to Mozambique; the education of native populations was never a strong-point of Portuguese colonialism, and with most skilled labor done by Portuguese settlers, there was simply no working class to mobilize. Thus, the new socialist state that emerged with independence in 1975 was left open to the anti-Marxist armed opposition of the Resistência Nacional Moçambicana (RENAMO), supported by the fiercely anti-Communist states of Rhodesia and South Africa. FRELIMO’s poor performance against RENAMO later led to a major military intervention by Marxist Zimbabwe (former Rhodesia) to save the FRELIMO regime.

The wholesale departure of the Portuguese following independence left FRELIMO desperate for external assistance. Independence also brought about an important change in FRELIMO’s military approach. No longer fighting a guerrilla war, FRELIMO needed heavy weapons, air-defense systems and training in conventional tactics to fend off incursions by the Rhodesian and South African militaries. Unable to obtain such support from the People’s Republic of China, the party turned to Soviet, Cuban and East German sources, with thousands of military advisors arriving to train the Mozambican army and provide security for the president. Soviet arms, including 24 Korean War–vintage MiG 17 jet fighters flown by Cuban pilots, tended to be outdated Soviet surplus, much to the disappointment of FRELIMO leaders. This encouraged a lingering skepticism in the FRELIMO leadership regarding the depth of the Soviet commitment to a socialist Mozambique.

Samora Machel

In March 1977, Machel signed a 20-year Treaty of Friendship with the Soviet Union. As part of its Cold War struggle with the West, the Soviets clearly eyed Mozambique as an important strategic asset with warm-water ports and easy access to coastal east Africa and the Indian Ocean. However, FRELIMO worked hard to avoid cutting all ties to the West. As one leading FRELIMO member (hardline Marxist Marcelino dos Santos) explained, “We did not fight for fifteen years to free ourselves to become the pawn of yet another foreign power” (Allen Isaacman and Barbara Isaacman, Mozambique: From Colonialism to Revolution, 1900–1982, Hampshire, England, 1983, p. 171).

In 1980, Mozambique opened an embassy in Moscow, only the second Mozambican embassy in a non-African country (Lisbon being the first). In the same year, Machel decreed that all FRELIMO officers must be Communists. Following a daring South African raid on an African National Congress base just outside of Maputo in January 1981, Soviet warships arrived in the Mozambican ports of Maputo and Beira with a warning of reprisals for further attacks (CSM, February 24, 1981). Nonetheless, Mozambique remained wary of committing itself to full support of Soviet foreign policy objectives. Soviet pressure to establish a new naval base in Mozambique’s Bazaruto Archipelago was firmly rebuffed.

By the mid-1980s, relations with Cuba were in decline and Soviet intentions were regarded with greater suspicion, partly due to Soviet intrigues in Angola (another former Portuguese colony) and Machel’s death in a Soviet-piloted Tupolov aircraft in October 1986 (CSIS Africa Notes, December 28, 1987). Facing financial pressures elsewhere, the Soviets began to back away from their expensive commitment to FRELIMO even as the United Kingdom and the United States stepped in with military and economic support in the war against RENAMO.

Currently led by Ossufo Momade, RENAMO ended its long insurgency by signing a Peace and National Reconciliation Agreement in Maputo in August 2019 (Clubofmozambique.com, August 21), though the movement has yet to relinquish all its arms as called for in the agreement. While this brought a welcome respite to Mozambique’s seemingly endless internal warfare, a new and more mysterious insurgency was emerging in the nation’s north simultaneously with the discovery of massive natural gas deposits in the little-known region.

Cabo Delgado (top) – (ISS Africa)

Most of Mozambique’s Muslim minority lives in Cabo Delgado, especially amongst the Makua people and the Swahili culture of the coast. Moderate Sufism, rather than radical Salafism, is the dominant strain of Islamic worship. The Portuguese made Roman Catholicism the official religion of the colony, but, during the war of independence (1964–1974), Portugal grew more accommodating of Islam to prevent Muslims aligning themselves with the secular rebels. The post-independence Marxist state was less accommodating—Machel always wore his shoes when entering a mosque and once informed a gathering of Muslims that “God is a pig” (Allen Isaacman and Barbara Isaacman, Mozambique: From Colonialism to Revolution, 1900–1982, Hampshire, England, 1983, p. 50). Muslims were increasingly treated as second-class citizens, and the anti-FRELIMO Cabo Delgado Front launched a short-lived, low-level insurgency shortly after independence.

Cabo Delgado’s quiet poverty was interrupted by the offshore discovery of vast natural gas fields by US energy firm Anadarko in 2010. Further exploration revealed what could be the third-largest reserves of natural gas in the world (Eia.gov, May 2018). Newfound wealth attracted new insurgents, and a previously unknown group claiming to be Islamists launched its first attack on civilians in the region in October 2017, killing 40 people (Daily Maverick, October 27, 2017).

This new terrorist group called themselves Ahlu Sunna wa’l-Jama’a (ASJ, a.k.a. Ansar al-Sunna), though they are popularly known as “al-Shabaab,” despite having no apparent ties to the Somali Islamist movement of the same name. Since then, the group has carried out multiple atrocities against the civilian population. In one recent case, responsibility was taken by the Islamic State organization (Sábado, September 29, 2019).

This article was first published in the October 29, 2019 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor

Falling off the Fence: Russian Mercenaries Join the Battle for Tripoli

Andrew McGregor

October 8, 2019

Russia’s so-far ambiguous approach to Libya’s internal conflict, one of reassuring both sides of its continued support, has begun to shift with the deployment of Russian mercenaries backing “Field Marshal” Khalifa Haftar on the front lines of the battle for Tripoli. Despite Moscow’s search for deep-water ports on the Mediterranean coast, control of oil supplies to Europe, influence over migrant flows to Europe from sub-Saharan Africa, and preference in massive reconstruction contracts, the Kremlin has still refrained from offering Haftar unequivocal support in his attempt to conquer Libya and create a family dynasty.

Russian Mercenaries in Southern Tripoli (Libya February TV)

Haftar first began seeking Russian assistance in 2015 after being impressed by Russian military operations in Syria and promised “oil, railways, highways, anything you want” in return for military aid and diplomatic support in his battle with Tripoli’s Presidential Council/Government of National Accord (PC/GNA), which is recognized by the United Nations (Meduza, October 2, 2019). Moscow declined any official military support at that time, opting instead to unleash its private military contractors (PMC), beginning with the arrival of the RSB Group in 2017. Haftar met with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and Wagner PMC boss Yevgeny Prigozhin in Moscow in 2018 (Novaya Gazeta, November 9, 2018; YouTube, November 7, 2018). Russian officials insisted Prigozhin was at the meeting only in his capacity as caterer (RIA Novosti, November 11, 2018). But Wagner PMC personnel subsequently arrived in Libya in March of this year to carry out repairs to Russian-made military equipment (Janes.com, September 13, 2019).

A number of important documents related to Wagner PMC activities in Libya were obtained in September by the Dossier Center (funded by former oligarch Mikhail Khodorkovsky) and Russian news portal The Project, in cooperation with the Daily Beast news agency (The Project, September 12). One of the more interesting documents was written or modified by Pyotr Bychkov, a trustee and African expert in Prigozhin’s Fund for the Defense of National Values (FDNV). The document outlines Haftar’s efforts to exaggerate or publicize his Russian military connection in order to awe his enemies. Haftar comes under criticism for using extortion and bribes (some $150 million provided by the United Arab Emirates) rather than military activity to ensure his campaign to bring southwestern Libya under his control (FDNV, April 10).

Russia is reportedly seeking a role for Muammar Qaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for war crimes committed during the 2011 revolution (Alarabiya.net, December 30, 2018; Bloomberg, September 25, 2019). Two Russian operatives working for the FDNV were arrested by the GNA in May on charges of political interference related to meetings with Saif al-Islam Qaddafi (Nation News, July 5). Documents obtained by the Dossier Center revealed Russian operatives were unimpressed by Saif al-Islam, noting that he had “a flawed conception of his own significance” and would require full-time Russian minders if used as a political frontman. Hedging their bets, the Russians created Facebook pages promoting both Qaddafi and Haftar. While plans to help rig elections should Haftar run in the future were outlined, it is clear that the Russians were similarly unimpressed with the field marshal (The Project, September 12).

Shortly after Haftar’s Tripoli offensive began, Russia moved to veto a UN Security Council statement calling on the LNA to halt its advance on Tripoli (France24, April 8). Haftar arrived in Moscow three days later. United States President Donald Trump made a secret phone call to Haftar on April 15 (made public on the April 19), reversing US support for the UN-recognized PC/GNA government without consulting the State Department.

A Russian briefing report dated April 6 noted that LNA officers appealed to the commander of the Russian PMC, Lieutenant General A. V. Khalzakov, for deployment of a Russian drone to find a GNA artillery battery that had inflicted serious casualties on LNA forces. The appeal was denied (FDNV, September 13).

GNA forces targeted an LNA operations room in Souk al-Sabat (35 kilometers south of Tripoli) on September 9, killing a reported seven Russian and Ukrainian mercenaries. The men were believed to be operating a howitzer battery firing on Tripoli (Anadolu Agency, September 19; Libya February TV, September 9; for the Ukrainian role in Libya, see EDM, September 6).

Russian and Sudanese mercenaries fighting for Haftar were reported to have made gains in southern Tripoli this month before being repulsed by the Islamist Sumud Brigade, led by Salah Badi (Libya Observer, September 21). Photos of Russian Wagner PMC mercenaries began to appear on local social media on September 22 (Libya Observer, September 22).

(Citeam.org)

A GNA strike on an LNA position on the Sabea frontline (south of Tripoli) on September 23 reportedly killed four LNA commanders and several Russian mercenaries (Libya February TV, September 23). The airstrike was carried out with a precision not commonly found in GNA air operations and was likely the work of Turkish Bayraktar drones operated by Turkish pilots in Tripoli. The Russians were allegedly caught in the open as they prepared to lead an assault on GNA positions (Meduza, October 2). Sources consulted by Meduza offered estimates of between 15 and 35 Russians killed in the airstrike, though an anonymous source in the Russian defense ministry claimed only one Russian had been killed. Meduza, an investigative news service specializing in Russian affairs, based its revelations on interviews with Wagner PMC fighters and commanders as well as Federal Security Service (FSB) and interior ministry forces veterans with close ties to Wagner Group.

 Vadim Bekshenyov (Citeam.org)

Further operations in the area uncovered personal belongings apparently abandoned as Russian fighters retreated. The possessions of one Vadim Bekshenyov, a veteran of the Syrian conflict, included a Russian bank card, Russian ID, printed Russian Orthodox icons, Syrian currency and a photo of a medal awarded by the Russian government for service in Syria. Evidence suggested the mercenary was a former marine in Russia’s Pacific Fleet (Defense Post, September 26; Facebook.com, September 25; Facebook.com, September 25; Citeam.org, September 27).

Russian Medal for Syrian Service on Bekshenyov’s Phone (Citeam.org)

The covert nature of the Wagner Group’s Libyan operations is reflected in the fact that neither the PMC nor the Russian government notified families of combat deaths or returned to them the bodies and decorations of deceased fighters (the usual practice) (Meduza, October 2). So far, Russian mercenary assistance has been unable to move the frontline in southern Tripoli. Russian failure in this campaign would be a blemish on Russian arms, so the Kremlin will be certain to continue to deny all knowledge of private Russian troops in Libya while keeping other political options open—however unpalatable.

This article first appeared in the October 8, 2019 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor

Foreign Drones Take to Libya’s Skies to Shatter Military Stalemate

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, August 7, 2019

“Field Marshal” Khalifa Haftar’s three-month old offensive to take Libya’s capital of Tripoli has bogged down, forcing Libya’s would-be ruler to look to air operations to break the impasse. Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA, nominally representing the House of Representatives rival government in Tobruk) and the forces of the UN-recognized Presidency Council/Government of National Accord (PC/GNA) have both turned to foreign-made and operated drones to advance their struggle for dominance. The fact that these drones violate a UN arms embargo and their operators are probably foreign nationals highlights the increasing proxy nature of the conflict in Libya.

Bloodbath in Murzuq

On August 4, drones likely operated by the United Arab Emirates (UAE) on behalf of the LNA targeted a meeting of some 200 local dignitaries gathered in Murzuq’s al-Qala district to discuss intercommunal violence. The result was 43 dead and more than 60 injured. The LNA confirmed the strike on Murzuq, but claimed it had targeted “Chadian opposition fighters,” a euphemism used by the LNA to refer to the indigenous Libyan Tubu, a non-Arab ethnic group found in southern Libya, northern Chad and eastern Niger. [1] The massacre followed an LNA airstrike in June that struck a migrant detention center in Tripoli, killing 44 migrants.

Chinese Drones over Misrata

Chinese Wing Loong II Drone (Dafz.org)

GNA forces in Misrata (north-west coast) announced the downing of one of the UAE’s Wing Loong II drones on August 3, adding that LNA warplanes unsuccessfully tried to destroy the drone before it could be retrieved by the GNA (Libya Observer, August 3, 2019). The drone was equipped with Chinese Blue Arrow 7 laser guided missiles, some of which were recovered by the GNA. The UAE has used the Chinese-built drones in Yemen and in last year’s LNA siege of Derna in eastern Libya. Misrata is a stronghold of anti-Haftar forces.

Wreckage of the UAE Wing Loong II Drone Downed Near Misrata (SouthFront.org)

The UAE was the first export customer for the Wing Loong II, which is comparable to the US General Atomics MQ-1 Predator, but sells for a fraction of the price ($1 to 2 million vs $30 million) (Dafz.org, November 10, 2018). The UAE’s drones deploy out of al-Khadim airbase in eastern Libya, which was expanded in 2016 to accommodate UAE air operations.

New Turkish Drones

Bayaktar TBII Drone System

On July 25, the LNA declared it had brought down a Turkish Bayraktar TB2 drone during an attack on al-Jufra Airbase, held by the LNA since June 2017. There was speculation that the craft may have been downed by one of the UAE’s Russian-made Pantsir S1 air-defense systems that have been spotted alongside LNA forces in Libya (SouthFront.org, July 25, 2019; Jane’s 360, June 19, 2019). The Bayraktar TB2, with a flight endurance of 24 hours and a payload of 150 kilograms, can carry out reconnaissance, surveillance and attack functions day or night. Twelve Bayraktar drones have been sold to Ukraine with another six purchased by Qatar (Daily Sabah [Istanbul], June 24, 2019). The GNA is believed to have obtained the drones in June or early July.

Destroyed Ilyushin Transports in al-Jufra (Avia.pro)

Two Ukrainian Ilyushin IL-76TD transports were destroyed in the drone strike on al-Jufra. The planes were two of five such transports belonging to Kiev’s Alfa Air and were produced between 1990 and 1992 (Libya Observer, July 28, 2019). The GNA also claimed to have destroyed ammunition depots and a hanger containing drones, though the LNA issued an unlikely claim that the aircraft were not delivering weapons, but were solely allocated to carry pilgrims to Mecca (Anadolu Agency [Ankara], July 26, 2019; Libya Herald, July 28, 2019).

Al-Jufra Region and Airbase (Libya Observer)

PC/GNA authorities claim al-Jufra Airbase is a gathering and provisioning point for mercenaries from Sudan and other nations involved in the assault on Tripoli as well as a launch point for foreign military aircraft (Libya Observer, July 30, 2019).  A spokesman for the PC/GNA’s military deployment (Operation Volcano of Rage) claimed the attack had killed 42 LNA members, adding that their artillery now had the Jufra airbase in range (Libya Observer, July 28, 2019).

Italian Commandos in al-Jufra

In retaliation for the strike on Jufra, Haftar’s forces struck Misrata airport with missiles the next day, the fifth such attack in 15 days (Libyan Express, July 27, 2019). After the strikes, the LNA declared that the raid had revealed the existence of an Italian military base, but the presence of Italian military personnel in Misrata has been known for several years.

Italy sent Special Forces units to Libya in August 2016 to support Tripoli’s efforts against Islamic State terrorists. The Italian deployment included members of the 9th Parachute Assault Regiment, the Italian Air Force, counter-terrorist specialists from the Carabinieri and commandos from the Comando Raggruppamento Subacquei e Incursori Teseo Tesei, a unit of Special Forces frogmen named for Major Teseo Tesei, who died in a 1941 human torpedo attack on Malta (Italian Insider, August 11, 2016).

Italy announced in April that its forces would remain in Tripoli and Misrata despite the launch of the LNA offensive to take Tripoli and, eventually, Misrata. The current deployment is believed to consist of 100 personnel in Tripoli and another 300 in Misrata (Arab News, April 9, 2019).

A LNA drone struck Misrata’s Air Academy on August 6. The LNA claimed to have struck a military cargo plane carrying ammunition, but local GNA-affiliated forces insisted the plane was a civilian cargo plane that had landed only minutes earlier (Libya Observer, August 6, 2019).

UAE Russian-Made Pantsir S1 Air Defense System in Yemen – Now in Use by the LNA?  (Defense-Blog.com)

GNA-aligned General Osama Juwaili warned that that the airport at Bani Walid (southeast of Tripoli) could be targeted next if it continued to be used by “Haftar’s gangs” as a military base for LNA fighters and mercenaries after the LNA lost Gharyan to GNA forces (Libya Observer, July 30, 2019).

Outlook

It is unlikely that local Libyan forces are capable of operating the drones, suggesting an active military presence by both Turkish and Emirati air force personnel. Libya’s drone warfare illustrates the increasing internationalization of the Libyan conflict and its use as a proxy battleground. Perhaps most disturbing is the likelihood that Libya is also being used as a testing ground for new weapons technologies at the expense of its civilian population. The cynicism of the international community in its approach to Libyan bloodshed eight years into a seemingly interminable civil conflict hardly suggests that compromise and reconciliation will carry the day anytime soon. In the meantime, extremists and terrorists will make the most of the ongoing chaos to entrench themselves in Libya’s ungoverned regions.

Note:

  1. For more on the LNA’s conflict with the Murzuq Tubu, see: “Is Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army Carrying out Ethnic Cleansing in Murzuq?” AIS Special Report, July 20, 2019, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=4476 .