Russian Mercenaries and the Survival of the Sudanese Regime

Andrew McGregor

February 6, 2019

Less noticed but no less important than the reported arrival of Russian mercenaries in Venezuela has been the influx of Russia Wagner Group “private military contractors” (PMC) in Khartoum to help local security forces shore up the embattled regime of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. The leader of this northeast African state is clinging to power in the face of nation-wide protests against his rule.

Russian Mercenaries in Syria

The demonstrations started on December 19, 2018, over a three-fold increase in bread prices after a shortage of foreign currency forced the government to cancel foreign wheat purchases. Accusations are rampant that some of the hundreds of arrested protesters have been tortured and compelled to confess membership in terrorist groups (Middle East Monitor, January 14; Sudan Tribune, February 3).

Over forty protesters have been killed in the demonstrations, with the president blaming the deaths on “infiltrators” from the Sudan Liberation Movement of ‘Abd al-Wahid al-Nur (SLM/A-AW), a Darfur rebel movement active since 2003. National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) chief General Salah ‘Abdallah Gosh accused Israel of recruiting the Darfuris to disrupt the Sudanese state (Sudan Tribune, January 21).

Al-Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity related to his repression of the revolt in Darfur. Russia was a signatory to the treaty that created the ICC but never ratified the agreement. In November 2016, Russia withdrew its signature, ending its involvement with the court (TASS, November 16, 2016). Ignoring the ICC travel ban on al-Bashir, Russia has hosted the Sudanese head of state twice: once in November 2017 and again in July 2018. When al-Bashir made an unannounced visit to Damascus last December, he travelled by a Russian military aircraft (RT—Arabic service, December 18, 2018). Russia is interested in the oil, mineral and financial sectors of the Sudanese economy and the establishment of a naval facility on Sudan’s Red Sea coast (see EDM, December 6, 2017).

Photos of alleged Russian mercenaries in Khartoum (The Times)

In January 2019, The Times published photos of men alleged to be Russian mercenaries being transported through Khartoum in a Ural-4320 utility truck, widely used by the Russian military and Russian PMCs. The report also cited witnesses who claimed Russians forcibly dispersed protesters (The Times, Newsru.com, January 10). Local sources state that the Russian contractors are training the special operations forces of the NISS, Sudan’s powerful secret police organization (Sudan Tribune, January 8).

Vasyl Hrytsak, the chief of the Security Service of Ukraine (SSU), claimed that his agency had obtained the travel documents and passport data of 149 Wagner Group personnel who “directly partook in suppressing democratic protests in Sudan in early 2019.” The SSU alleged that Wagner mercenaries had been transported to Sudan on Tu-154M airliners belonging to the Russian Ministry of Defense (Unian.info, Gordonua.com, January 28). The deployment was arranged by Yevgeny Prigozhin’s M Invest LLC, which obtained gold mining concessions in Sudan during al-Bashir’s 2017 visit to Sochi (Government.ru, November 24, 2017; The National, December 17, 2018).

A spokesperson from the Russian embassy in Khartoum declared that the Russian “experts from non-government structures” were not involved in suppressing the protests, adding that reports to the contrary in Western media were “outright fakes seeking to demonize our country and its foreign policies” (Reuters, January 15).

Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs confirmed, on January 23, that Russian military contractors “who have nothing to do with Russian state bodies” were operating in Sudan. According to the foreign ministry, their work was confined to “training staff for the military and law enforcement agencies of the Republic of Sudan” (Reuters, January 23). The statement contradicted an earlier one by Sudanese Interior Minister Ahmad Bilal Osman, who described reports of Russian mercenaries in Khartoum as “completely false… a mere fabrication intended to offend the government” (Middle East Monitor, January 14).

In late July 2018, there were reports of a group of 500 Russian mercenaries operating in a camp some 15 kilometers south of the Darfur town of Um Dafug, close to the border with the Central African Republic (CAR) (Radio Dabanga, July 31, 2018). Russian mercenaries were reported to have spent five months in the area training both Muslim Séléka rebels from the CAR and Sudanese troops. The bulk of these forces were said to have departed from the region in late July 2018 (Radio Dabanga, August 1, 2018).

‘Abd al-Wahid al-Nur (BBC)

‘Abd al-Wahid al-Nur, the veteran leader of Darfur’s SLM/A-AW, expressed his concern with the Donald Trump administration’s “decoupling” of human rights issues from foreign policy and the opening this is providing to Russia in Sudan at the expense of the United States:

What is most astonishing in the context of the Kremlin’s hostile action against the U.S. and deliberate sabotage of your electoral process… is the soft pedaling towards al-Bashir’s overtures to Moscow… When Russian mercenaries fresh from Syria and Ukraine now have a foothold in both Darfur and the Central African Republic, with a mission agenda entirely contrary to that of U.S. Africa Command… your ill-considered policy towards Sudan is self-evidently not serving you well (Sudanjem.com, December 19, 2018).

Major General Al-Hadi Adam Musa, the head of Sudan’s parliamentary defense committee, said that a draft military agreement made with Russia in early January “will pave the way for more agreements and greater cooperation… possibly a Russian base on the Red Sea” (Sputnik, January 12; Sudan Tribune, January 13). The general noted that Russian naval visits could provide the sailors of Sudan’s tiny navy of Iranian and Yugoslavian-built patrol boats with training and “first-hand experience of Russia’s cutting-edge military equipment…” The agreement will allow for shore leave by unarmed naval personnel, but it forbids visits by ships carrying nuclear fuel, radioactive substances, toxic material, drugs, biological weapons or weapons of mass destruction (Sputnik, January 12).

Since its 1971 show trial of German mercenary Rolf Steiner, Sudan has maintained strong opposition to the presence of European mercenaries in Africa. While al-Bashir appears to have reversed Sudan’s position, it seems unlikely that the regime would squander what is left of its political capital by deploying white mercenaries against unarmed Sudanese on the streets of Khartoum. Such direct intervention could set back Moscow’s growing role in Africa, though Russia will likely do all it can behind the scenes to preserve a regime that has proved highly accommodating to Russian interests.

This article was first published in the February 6, 2019 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor.

Advocate of Armed Rebellion: A Profile of Chadian Rebel Leader Dr. Abakar Tollimi

Andrew McGregor

February 5, 2019

Dr. Abakar Tollimi (TchadConvergence)

Twenty-eight years after taking power by force, Chadian President Idriss Déby Itno faces extremely difficult economic and security challenges. Chadians form one of the most impoverished populations in the world, relying on agro-pastoral pursuits for survival despite being an oil-producing nation. Formed from the tiny Zaghawa minority to which Déby belongs and notorious for its corruption, the regime nonetheless presents itself to the West as an essential partner in the military struggle against Islamist extremism in the Lake Chad region and beyond. For nearly a decade, a once powerful but divided armed opposition has been forced to operate as mercenaries and bandits in Darfur and southern Libya. However, last summer they began to make cross-border raids into northern Chad with the eventual goal of toppling the Déby regime.

Unlike many of the rebel leaders, Dr. Abakar Tollimi is not a fire-breathing desert guerrilla, but the polished, well-mannered, French-educated face of the Chadian rebellion. Equipped with a doctorate in law, Tollimi is also distinguished locally by his lineage as part of the family of a chief of the Burogat Zaghawa clan of northern Chad (Le Point Afrique, July 17, 2017). [1] Having already played an important role in uniting and organizing the fractious Chadian opposition, it is likely that Tolllimi will try to use the recent return of armed rebels to northern Chad to build a new coalition capable of tackling President Déby and the powerful Chadian National Army (Armée National Tchadienne—ANT).

 Early Life

Abakar Tollimi was born on August 5, 1964 in the town of Fada in the Ennedi region of north-eastern Chad. After attending secondary school in the Chadian capital of N’Djamena, Tollimi graduated from Morocco’s National School of Administration and pursued further studies at the Sorbonne in Paris, where he obtained a doctorate in law in 2005.

Beginning in 1991, Tollimi spent 14 years in public administration in Chad, including work as an adviser on administrative affairs to President Déby (a Bidayat Zaghawa) (Khabar Tchad, June 3, 2016). While serving in that role in 2003, Tollimi angered the president by objecting to Déby’s planned response to the rebellion that had just broken out in neighboring Darfur. His relationship with Déby continued to deteriorate in 2006 when the president learned Tollimi was forming a political party of his own, the Popular Rally for Progress (Rassemblement Populaire Pour la Justice—RPJ). According to Tollimi, Déby warned him to “stay quiet, or I am capable of making you quiet” (Le Point Afrique, July 17, 2017). Tollimi took the advice seriously, and departed Chad the next year to join the armed opposition operating out of camps in Darfur with the connivance of the Sudanese government. According to Tollimi:

I had no intention until 2005 to take up arms. When it is no longer possible to resort to a peaceful form of struggle, when one’s own life is in danger and that one aspires to change the political life of his country, one must resort to other means… Faced with the absence of a credible civilian opposition, rebellion, the armed struggle, is the only way for possible change in Chad if we want the development of this country which is in debt in unimaginable proportions. (Afrik.com, July 7, 2010).

From the Sorbonne to the Battlefield

At a time of growing tensions between N’Djamena and Khartoum (fueled in large part by the conflict in Darfur), rebel groups formed largely from ANT deserters attacked the border town of Adré in the Ouaddaï region of Chad in December 2005. That sparked a proxy war in which N’Djamena sponsored Darfuri rebels against Khartoum while the latter sponsored Chadian rebels against N’Djamena. Tollimi’s RPJ, with its Burogat Zaghawa core, was one of the beneficiaries of Sudanese assistance. [2]

In March 2006, the RPJ was the target of a government offensive in the movement’s operational zone along the border with Sudan (BBC, March 21, 2006). The following month Tollimi was part of an attempt by the Front uni pour le changement FUC coalition to overthrow Déby’s regime by driving 800 kilometers from their bases near the border to attack N’Djamena. [3] The bold operation was repulsed inside the capital by government forces on April 13, 2006.

President Idriss Déby (Tchad24)

The FUC signed a peace agreement with Déby’s government in December 2006 that called for the rebels to be integrated into the ANT, but many factions of the movement, including Tollimi’s, chose to remain in the field. By 2006, the FUC had joined the Union of Forces for Democracy and Development (Union des Forces pour la Démocratie et le Développement—UFDD) led by dissident general Mahamat Nouri, the former Chadian defense minister. Like General Nouri, the core of the UFDD was largely Gura’an Tubu. [4] Tollimi became the movement’s general secretary and led the UFDD delegation that helped negotiate the October 25, 2007 Libyan-hosted Sirte Accords intended to end the rebellion.

The agreement collapsed almost immediately and, in late November 2007, the UFDD fought three battles with the ANT in the Hadjer Marfain (Hyena Mountain) region of eastern Chad. The rebels were forced to withdraw through the difficult terrain with heavy losses. Angered by alleged French intelligence and logistical support to the ANT during the operation, the UFDD declared it was in “a state of belligerence” with France and “other foreign forces,” a reference to EUFOR, a European peacekeeping force that was about to be deployed in Darfur (AFP, December 2, 2007). The UFDD feared EUFOR interference with its bases along Chad’s border with Darfur. Tollimi threatened the French reconnaissance planes and helicopters he claimed were overflying UFDD positions, saying the movement would soon be “obliged to respond to this intervention” (RFI/AFP/Reuters, November 30, 2007).

On February 2, 2008, 300 pickup trucks carrying UFDD fighters arrived in N’Djamena after crossing the 800 km from their Darfur bases. Tollimi told reporters via satellite phone that the rebels controlled everything except the presidential palace, which would be stormed imminently (AFP, February 2, 2008; AFP/Reuters, February 2, 2008). This attack, like its predecessor two years earlier, was again unexpectedly repulsed at the last moment. Much of the blame was assigned to Tollimi, who failed to fully commit his forces even as the regime tottered on the precipice. Tollimi would later claim he was busy trying to act as an interlocutor with the 1,100-strong French garrison in N’Djamena, which the rebels feared might intervene on Déby’s side (Le Point Afrique, July 17, 2017). Soon after loyal ANT armored units arrived to defend the palace, the rebels were driven back into the bush in retreat. [5]

Chadian government forces retake N’Djamena, 2008

Afterwards, Tollimi explained his part in the attempt to overthrow the president:

I am one of those for whom the key is to put an end to the dictatorship of Idriss Déby. If we could have done it otherwise, we would have done it. Unfortunately, this man understands only the language of force. For him, everything is a balance of power and he respects only those who confront him with weapons (Tchadvision, April 2008).

Tollimi, who appears to dwell in continual political flux, became secretary general of the Union of Resistance Forces (Union des Forces de la Résistance—UFR) in 2009. An alliance of eight rebel movements based in Darfur, the UFR began operations in the Salamat region of southeastern Chad in May 2009. A series of counter-attacks by government forces failed to eliminate the movement.

Exile in France

N’Djamena and Khartoum came to an agreement to end their proxy war in early 2010, neither having benefited from it. Rebel leaders who had once been given aid and shelter were now invited to pack up their bags in both countries. As the UFR collapsed without Sudan’s support, Tollimi was deported from Sudan to France, where he was given political refugee status (RFI, July 18, 2010).

Not all was bleak, however; in 2010, a prominent French publishing house published an adaptation of Tollimi’s doctoral thesis. Entitled La Résolution des Conflits Frontaliers en Afrique, Éditions L’Harmattan, the work examines prevailing (and largely Western-based) methods of conflict resolution used in Africa while analyzing how more traditional African methods of conflict resolution could assist in solving outstanding territorial disputes, a process Tollimi refers to as “the inculturation of international law” (Afrik.com, July 7, 2010). Asked in an interview in 2008 which African politician or thinker he felt close to, Tollimi named Thabo Mbeki (president of South Africa, 1999-2008), Blaise Compaore (president of Burkina Faso, 1987-2014), Paul Kagame (president of Rwanda, 2000 to present) and, most of all, Kwame Nkrumah, “the father of pan-Africanism” (Tchadvision, April 2008).

In the meantime, Chad’s rebel movements relocated to Libya, where political chaos and rivalries provided work for mercenaries. Fighting for both of the main sides of the conflict, the rebels were able to obtain funds, arms and combat experience. Tollimi remained in France, preparing for the day the rebels might be able to return to Chad and confront Déby’s security forces. Tollimi noted at the time that the international community typically condemns armed opposition to recognized governments. This “reinforces dictatorships. The seizure of power by arms is condemned, but not the possession and maintenance of power by these same means” (Tchadenligne.com, May 5, 2011).

When the National Council of the Resistance for Democracy (Conseil Nationale de la Résistance pour la Démocratie— CNRD) was founded in March 2017, Tollimi became its president. The movement’s founding statement accused the Déby regime of establishing “nepotism, clientelism, mismanagement and state kleptomania as a system of governance”(CNRD-Tchad, March 31, 2017). The movement also made efforts to include Chadian expatriate communities in Ouagadougou (Burkina Faso) and Dakar (Senegal) (Africa Intelligence, April 19, 2017).

Declining oil prices led to protests against government austerity measures, which rocked the capital in February 2018. Déby responded by suspending 10 Chadian opposition parties while Tollimi called, unsuccessfully, for a national dialogue involving all political factions, including expatriate Chadians, civil society groups and the military (Jeune Afrique, February 16, 2018; al-Wihda [N’Djamena], March 4, 2018).

As head of the CNRD, Tollimi used an interview to criticize the Chadian government’s mismanagement of the economy and the oil revenues that never seemed to lift the greater population from poverty and despair. He said that no one in the administration could “explain what we have done with the $2 billion in revenue that the sale of oil has brought in every year… When a country does not pay the civil servants at the end of the month or closes the end of the month by resorting to loans, we are in a state of bankruptcy.” According to Tollimi, the president has deployed the Chadian military in various military interventions as a “red rag he waves to the international community” to prove his essential role in regional security efforts:

When we listen to speeches by Chad’s leaders, we gain the impression that Chad is a haven of peace, but in reality, the socio-political situation is explosive. Chad is the country with the highest risk of implosion in the sub-region and this is likely to engulf all of Central Africa if the international community and friends of Chad do nothing about it (Tchadhanana.info, March 12, 2018).

Tollimi turned down amnesty offered in May 2018, citing a continued lack of democracy (Le Monde/AFP, May 8, 2018). Recently, Tollimi has allegedly been playing a leading role in the National Front for Democracy and Justice in Chad (Front de la Nation pour la Démocratie et la Justice au Tchad—FNJDT, created in July 2018), yet another rebel coalition consisting mainly of Chadian fighters operating out of southern Libya. A video released by the new Front named Tollimi as the FNJDT chairman, though Tollimi did not confirm the appointment (TchadConvergence, July 27, 2018). The largest component of the coalition was provided by the Military Command for the Salvation of the Republic (Conseil de Commandement Militaire pour le Salut de la République—CCMSR), which was involved in battles against Chadian government forces in the Tibesti region of northern Chad from August to October 2018. [6]

FNJDT Rebels (TchadConvergence)

On September 26, 2018, the FNJDT claimed to have surprised and captured a team of 60 Chadian Arab and Tubu commandos in Murzuk (southwestern Libya). The commandos were allegedly sent by Chad’s secret police, the National Security Agency (Agence Nationale de Sécurité—ANS), to assassinate the leaders of the various Chadian rebel movements based in Libya (al-Wihda [N’Djamena], September 29, 2018).

Tollimi and the Oil Industry

Oil production in southern Chad provides over 60 percent of the national budget, but a large proportion of these funds is lost to corruption or military spending, leaving the rest of the nation in dire poverty. Tollimi has pledged to honor commitments made by Chad in the oil sector (operated by both Western and Chinese firms), but believes a re-examination and “rectification” of certain clauses in the existing agreements is “indispensable” (Tchadvision, April 2008).

Tollimi sees a future in closer economic relations with China, possibly in an expanded role in Chad’s southern oilfields:

Beijing is the economic power of tomorrow, and China already allows us to no longer be offside on the chessboard of globalization. What African would complain? China is a partner that does not pose as a donor of lessons, and that is why it breaks with the old and hypocritical practices of some other partners (Afrik.com, July 7, 2010).

French material and political support have, despite occasional friction between Paris and N’Djamena, played a large role in maintaining the Déby regime in power. While Tollimi resents French arms deliveries to government forces and the use of French aircraft for military reconnaissance, he still maintains that a common history and cultural and economic links to France must ultimately strengthen Franco-Chadian relations, though “this must be done in a climate of neutrality and mutual respect” (Tchadvision, April 2008).

Conclusion

In early January 2019, Tollimi was one of 22 Chadians for whom Libyan arrest warrants were issued in connection to attacks on the Sidra and al-Lanuf oil terminals on Libya’s Mediterranean coast and the May 2017 Brak al-Shati attack that left 140 dead (See Terrorism Monitor, June 2, 2017). Nine Sudanese and six Libyans were also included in the warrants with Libya appealing for international assistance in apprehending these individuals (al-Wihda [N’Djamena], January 9). [7]

The CNRD protested Tollimi’s inclusion in the arrest warrants on the grounds that Tollimi had not set foot in Libya since signing the Sirte Accords in 2007 and had been conducting “peaceful political activity” in France, where the CNRD is a legal political organization (Makaila.fr, January 6). The warrants are a clear signal that legal options will now accompany the growing military pressure intended to force the Chadian rebels from Libyan soil.

Tollimi and his fellow rebels have failed to convince Paris of the necessity for regime change in Chad, resulting in reports of French intelligence and logistical support of Chadian government forces during the October and November fighting last year against the CCMSR around the Tibesti region town of Miski (Al-Wihda [N’Djamena], January 5). France and the rest of Europe are not seeking further instability along the Chad-Libya border region, part of the route taken by sub-Saharan African migrants headed for Europe.

N’Djamena hosts the military headquarters of France’s counter-terrorist Operation Barkhane, and Chad’s military plays a leading role in the battle against Boko Haram and in the French-sponsored counter-terrorist Sahel Group of Five coalition (which also includes Mali, Mauritania, Burkina Faso and Niger). Under these circumstances, Tollimi will likely find Western support for regime change in N’Djamena is minimal at present, regardless of misgivings regarding Déby’s seemingly endless rule and accusations of human rights abuses. If the regime can continue to find the funds to pay ANT salaries in a timely fashion, Tollimi may discover future attempts to overthrow Chad’s president from outside the country will be ultimately futile so long as Déby is intent on holding power.

Notes

[1] The Burogat Zaghawa is a Zaghawa sub-clan that resulted from intermarriage between the Gura’an Tubu and the Zaghawa.

[2] “They Came Here to Kill Us”: Militia Attacks and Ethnic Targeting of Civilians in Eastern Chad,” Human Rights Watch, 2007, p.69.

[3] In English literature on the movement, the FUC is often referred to by the alternate name United Front for Democratic Change (UFDC).

[4] “Alliance nationale pour le changement démocratique/ National Alliance for Democratic Change (ANCD),” Small Arms Survey, Geneva, March 2011, http://www.smallarmssurveysudan.org/fileadmin/docs/archive/other/armed-groups/HSBA-Armed-Groups-ANCD-March-2011.pdf

[5] See “Dr Abakar Tollimi SG UFDD à la tête de colonne1,” YouTube, March 21, 2008, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AVMhyDpl0mE

[6] See “War in the Tibesti Mountains – Libyan Based Rebels Return to Chad,” AIS Special Report, November 12, 2018, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=4308

[7] Other Chadian rebels cited in the warrants for mercenary offenses, murders and kidnappings in Libya include Mahamat Nouri, Ali Ahmat Abdallah, Adoum Hissein, Hassan Hissein, Timan Erdimi, Hassan Bouloumaye, Ali Oumar, Michelet Detapol, Mahamat Hakimi, Hamid Djorou Margui, Hassan Moussa Kelley, Mahamat Moussa Margui, Mahamat Mahdi Ali and Bichara Hadjar Erdi.

This article was first published in the February 5, 2019 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor.

Mauritania – Will Islamist Crackdown Make It a Terrorist Target?

Andrew McGregor

When Mauritania’s President Mohamed Ould Abd al-Aziz identified political Islamists as extremists and national enemies of Mauritania last August, his bluntness surprised some observers: “Proponents of political Islam are all extremists… Islamists, who practice politics and wear ties, can take up arms if they cannot achieve their goals via politics” (Saudi Gazette, August 31).

Faced with what authorities believe is religious and political interference in Mauritania by Iran and Qatar and the threat posed by jihadists lurking along the border with Mali, the president has undertaken several steps to scale back Islamist activities in Mauritania, including the closing of Islamic universities and moving towards a ban on the Muslim Brotherhood. Mauritanian troops are also now operating with the French-backed Sahel Group of Five (G5S – a regional security and development alliance that includes Mauritania, Chad, Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso) to tackle Islamist terrorism throughout the Sahara-Sahel region. However, Mauritania’s poverty and an unemployment rate of 40 per cent make it an inviting target for political interference and religious agitation.

The Presidential Succession

Elections last September gave the ruling Union pour la République (UPR) party a majority in Mauritania’s National Assembly. The president has promised to step down at the end of his second term in 2019, though some suspect he may still be considering a third term. Abd al-Aziz is expected to choose his own successor and may select a military man as Mauritania’s next president with the support of the solidly loyal UPR. Abd al-Aziz is a former UPR leader, but was required to officially step away from the party when he became president. The Mauritanian opposition has warned that the nation’s stability “will suffer if the next president again comes directly from the army ranks” (Arab Weekly, November 4).

General Mohamed Ould al-Ghazouni (Taqadoum.mr)

General Mohamed Ould al-Ghazouani is considered a favorite to succeed Abd al-Aziz, but his November 4 appointment as Minister of Defense may be a sideways move intended to derail his succession. It is suggested that Abd al-Aziz fears his post-presidency influence will evaporate under a strong president like Ould al-Ghazouani, while the more pliable Colonel Cheikh Ould Baya (currently speaker of parliament and a UPR stalwart) might be more acceptable as Abd al-Aziz’s successor (Arab Weekly, November 4).

Mauritania’s Muslim Brotherhood and Islamic Education

Leading Mauritania’s political opposition is the Rassemblement national pour la réforme et le développement (RNPRD), better known as “Tewassoul.” Mohamed Mahmoud Ould al-Sidi leads the party, which is closely associated with the Muslim Brotherhood. Abd al-Aziz claims that the Muslim Brotherhood has caused the destruction of several Arab countries,” adding that the Brothers are working inside the political opposition to divide and destroy Mauritanian society (Saudi Gazette, August 31).

The Tewassoul leader has rejected charges of religious-political extremism:

“[The authorities] are extrapolating the reality of other Islamists upon us. It is better for them to give proof and facts to back their accusations. The difference between us and the others is that we are inspired by Islamic values in our political activities while others are exploiting Islam for their political benefit” (Arab Weekly, September 30).

In late September, authorities shut down two Islamic higher education institutions in Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital. Both the University of Abdullah ibn Yasin and the Center for Training Islamic Scholars were believed to be closely tied to the Tewassoul Party. Mauritanian Muslim Brotherhood leader and prominent preacher Mohamed al-Hassan Ould Dadou was a leading faculty member at both institutions. The action resulted in student demonstrations and the arrest of two academics (University World News, October 2).

Shaykh Mohamed al-Hassan Ould Dadou

The day after the closures, Ould Dadou did not attack the government directly, but used his Friday sermon to warn that Arab countries were being “destroyed by despotism and injustice, the main causes for the destabilization of nations” swept up in the Arab Spring (AFP, September 26).

In preference to the opposition-affiliated schools, Ould Abd al-Aziz has stated his support for establishing an Islamic education center in Mauritania that would be affiliated with al-Azhar University in Cairo, a bastion of anti-extremism closely watched by the Egyptian government (MENA, March 19).

Mauritania and the Struggle for the Middle East

Mauritanians are overwhelmingly followers of the Sunni Maliki madhab (school of Islamic jurisprudence), but there are fears among top clerics and other officials in Mauritania of an Iranian campaign to convert Mauritanians to Shi’ism. [1]

Relations between Iran and Mauritania began to warm in 2008, after the military coup led by Abd al-Aziz and the consequent severing of relations with Israel. Since then, however, Mauritania has been pulled into the Arab-Iranian dispute in the Middle East and relations with Iran have suffered as a result.

Iran’s ambassador to Mauritania was called into the Mauritanian foreign ministry on May 25, where he was informed the government would not accept any activities by the Iranian embassy intended to “change the doctrine or creed of Mauritanian society.” The ambassador was further informed that the state was appointing a new imam for the Shiite Imam ‘Ali mosque in Dar Naim (a suburb of Nouakchott), where scholarships were arranged for young Mauritanians to study at Shiite institutions in Iran and Lebanon (Sahara Media [Nouakchott], May 29). For its part, Iran denied the meeting ever took place, claiming Saudi Arabia was behind the “rumors” published in Mauritanian media (Fars News [Tehran], May 30).

In early June, Mauritania was one of several Arab nations to join the anti-Qatar “Quartet” of Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) in cutting diplomatic ties with Qatar over its alleged support for terrorism and religious extremism. A Mauritanian government spokesman, Mohamed Ishaq al-Kenti, claimed that Qatar was funding both Tewassoul and the Mauritanian Muslim Brotherhood (Egypt Today, September 8). UPR chief Sidi Mohamed Maham stated in October that “all Qatari attempts at intervention in [Mauritania] have failed… their bad intentions are clear towards the state of Mauritania” (al-Arabiya, October 5).

The Military Dimension

Mauritania’s military struggle with modern jihadism began in June 2005, when militants belonging to Algeria’s Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC) crossed the border and attacked the Lemgheity military camp in Mauritania’s far north, killing 17 soldiers before withdrawing with prisoners, weapons and vehicles.

Only weeks after the 2008 military coup, gunmen from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) captured a Mauritanian patrol at Tourine. All 12 members of the patrol were decapitated and mutilated (Reuters, September 20, 2008; Tahilil [Nouakchott], March 21, 2011). The incident spurred General Ould Abd al-Aziz (then President of the High Council of State) and his old comrade, General Ould al-Ghazouani, to embark on an energetic program of reforms in the military designed to increase its efficiency, skills and operational capability. The two officers first met in 1980 at the Meknes military academy in Morocco and have operated closely ever since.

The most important step in the military reforms was to create small but highly autonomous and mobile Groupements spéciaux d’Intervention (GSI) led by energetic junior officers. The GSIs, each consisting of about 200 men, are capable of finding and destroying jihadist groups from advanced positions. Arms that were once directed to presidential security units were diverted to increase the firepower of the GSIs (Jeune Afrique, November 8, 2017; Le Point Afrique, July 18). American weapons and coordination with the Mauritanian Air Force’s Brazilian-made A-29 Super Tucano light attack aircraft gave Mauritanian counter-insurgency operations a new punch.

According to General Ould al-Ghazouni, military action in not enough: “We need development, to fight against the extreme poverty of a population that has no water, no food… There cannot be a rich army and a poor population” (Jeune Afrique, November 8, 2017). The general has identified several areas where military efficiency could be improved, including the provision of updated maps, a computerized operations room and technological training for recruits (Jeune Afrique, November 8, 2017).

General Hanena Ould Sidi (NordSudJournal)

General Hanena Ould Sidi, who was also heavily involved in the post-2009 military restructuring, has noted it was also necessary to simultaneously strengthen the judiciary, promote development and intervene in Islamic education to discourage extremism and “to disseminate the good teaching of Islam” (Le Point Afrique, July 18).

Improvements in military performance became visible in June 2011, when the army destroyed an AQIM base in Mali’s Wagadou Forest (70 km from the border) in an attack that left 15 militants dead. [2] AQIM followed up with a retaliatory raid on the Mauritanian military base at Bassiknou, in the southeast corner of the country in July 2011, but a decisive Mauritanian air-strike the following October on the Wagadou Forest destroyed two vehicles loaded with explosives in preparation for another attack on Mauritanian positions. Local AQIM commander Tayyib Ould Sid Ali was also killed and AQIM operations against Mauritania tapered off after that.

The G5 Sahel

Though Mauritania’s military is still short of funding, training and advanced arms, it is fully committed to participation in the French-backed G5S anti-terrorist alliance. The total force consists of seven battalions; two each from Niger and Mali, and one each from Mauritania, Chad and Burkina Faso. France provides intelligence and logistical assistance through its Operation Barkhane, a French counter-terrorist operation in the Sahara-Sahel region. Unlike its G5S partners, Mauritania does not allow French troops on its soil.

The GS5 has three zones of operation. The first is the Mali-Mauritania border region, the second is the triangular border region shared by Mali, Niger and Burkina Fase, while the third zone is along the Niger-Chad border. Mauritania and Mali each contribute a battalion to the G5S’s Western Zone of operations. Mauritania has a history of cross-border military operations in northern Mali, endured with varying degrees of acquiescence from the weak Malian government.

After a series of successful jihadi attacks in Mali and Burkina Faso (including a suicide bombing that destroyed the G5S headquarters), Mauritanian general Hanena Ould Sidi succeeded Mali’s General Didier Dacko as the G5S Joint Force commander in July. Ould Sidi studied at the Meknes military school in Morocco, commanded Mauritanian units in Cöte d’Ivoire and the Central African Republic (CAR) and is a former director of military intelligence in Mauritania (RFI, July 18). The new G5S second-in-command is American-educated Chadian general Oumar Bikimo, who has commanded Chadian troops in northern Chad, Mali and the CAR.

General Oumar Bikimo of Chad

After the attack on its HQ, the G5S decided to move its headquarters from Sévaré to Bamako, but is still awaiting an exact location from the Malian government. Funds pledged to the G5S have been slow to arrive and the force is still short of vitally needed equipment (L’Indicateur du Renouveau [Bamako], November 14).

Conclusion

Typical of a career military man, President Ould Abd al-Aziz is taking a direct approach to the problem of political Islam, attempting to eliminate armed Islamists beyond Mauritania’s borders while forcing domestic Islamists to the political and religious sidelines of Mauritanian society. Meanwhile, the nation’s economic weakness, high unemployment and deep Islamic traditions make it attractive to extremists. The combination of a potential state-wide ban of the Muslim Brotherhood, an aggressive military stand against jihadism and uncertainty over the presidential succession could make Mauritania a target for exploitation from regional jihadist groups such as Jama’at Nusrat al-Islam wa’l-Muslimin, which is highly active just across the border with Mali.

However, there are reasons why Mauritania might survive this period of uncertainty. There appears to be little internal support for armed Islamism at this time and regional jihadists do not appear to consider Mauritania a priority since their 2011 defeat in the Wagadou Forest.  Much will depend on how far the president or his successor will go in attempting to root out Islamist influence in politics and education. The emergence of a significant degree of religiously-based internal dissent could act like a beacon for the region’s armed jihadists.

Notes

  1. United States Department of State, International Religious Freedom Report for 2017, https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/281008.pdf.
  2. See “Mali and Mauritania Conduct Joint Operations against al-Qaeda Base,” Terrorism Monitor, July 7, 2011, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=692

This article first appeared in the December 19, 2018 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

War in the Tibesti Mountains – Libyan-Based Rebels Return to Chad

AIS Special Report, November 12, 2018

Andrew McGregor

Tibesti (SVS Chad)

Relative peace has reigned in northern Chad’s arid Borku-Ennedi-Tibesti (BET) region since 2009, when most of the insurgents seeking to end President Idris Déby Itno’s 28-year rule were driven north across the border into Libya. Some 11,000 Chadian rebels have worked as mercenaries for both sides of the Libyan conflict, accumulating arms, cash and military experience as they prepared to make their eventual return to Chad.

Dissident general Mahamat Mahdi Ali gathered many of these groups together under his leadership in the Front pour l’alternance et la concorde au Tchad (FACT – Front for Alternation and Concord in Chad). [1] The first formation to return to Chad is the Conseil de Commandement Militaire pour le Salut de la République (CCMSR – Military Command for the Salvation of the Republic), founded in March 2016 as a split from FACT. The CCMSR claims to have 4500 fighters, mostly Daza Tubu, with smaller numbers of Zaghawa, Arabs and Maba (the latter hailing from the east Chadian province of Wadai).

Chad, with Tibesti in the North-West (Ezilon.com)

President Déby, a skillful desert fighter and former Chadian Army commander, took power in a coup in 1990 and has been re-elected five times in disputed elections. Rebellions have been frequent, but in recent years Chad has become a major regional ally of France and the United States in the struggle against terrorism in the Sahara/Sahel region. It is a member of the French-sponsored G5S counter-terrorism alliance along with Mauritania, Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, as well as the Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF), fighting Boko Haram terrorists in the Lake Chad region. With its headquarters in the Chadian capital of N’Djamena, other MNJTF members include Cameroon, Nigeria, Benin and Niger. On October 10, Boko Haram elements crossed the border into Chad and attacked an ANT base at Kaiga Kindji, killing eight soldiers before being driven off with a reported loss of 48 militants.

In a November 2016 statement, CCMSR secretary-general Mahamat Hassane Boulmaye described the Déby regime as “a perfect illustration of clan despotism in its most pernicious and most abject form.” After outlining the administration’s corruption and use of violence against its opponents, Boulmaye justified the CCMSR’s insurrection: “Ours is the armed struggle. The vulgar despot of Chad maintains power by force; why is it so bad to drive him away by force? The path of armed struggle is the only one left, and it will overcome by the grace of God.” As for Déby, “He will have a double choice, the grave or the prison” (Lepythonnews, November 27, 2016).

The rebel leader also noted that many Zaghawa (Déby’s ethnic group) were abandoning the president; Boulmaye’s strategy was to encourage other Zaghawa to do the same by creating “a situation of insecurity” for members of the ethnic group. [2]

Return to Chad

CCMSR Column in Northern Chad (Tchad Convergence)

The CCMSR began to probe Chadian defenses in April 2017 with an attack inside Chad that killed 12 soldiers (RFI, August 14, 2018). A further clash with the Armée National du Tchad (ANT) took place on August 18, 2017, when a CCMSR column moving from Libya to Darfur ran into a Chadian Special Forces patrol at Tekro in the Ennedi region of northern Chad. Though small and without a permanent population, Tekro’s wells and airstrip make it strategically important. The Chadian unit suffered casualties, including the deaths of two colonels, while the survivors fled into the mountains (TchadConvergence, October 19, 2017).

Imprisoned Leadership

The movement has managed to survive despite the arrest of three leading members in Niger in October 2017, allegedly at the request of N’Djamena. Boulmaye, CCMSR spokesman Ahmat Yacoub Adam and CCMSR external affairs secretary Dr. Abderahman Issa Youssouf were extradited to Chad, where they were charged with the capital offense of terrorism and transferred to the notorious desert prison at Koro Toro. Supporters of the men appealed unsuccessfully for France to intervene against the extradition. France had previously granted refugee status to Boulmaye and Youssouf. Adam has refugee status in Egypt.

Mahamat Hassane Boulmaye (left), Ahmat Yacoub Adam (center) and Dr. Abderahman Issa Yousouf (right) (Tchad Convergence)

Fearing the three would meet “certain death” if extradited to Chad, the CCMSR threatened to attack Niger in an October 25, 2017 statement, though the promised strike did not materialize (Tchad Convergence/Deutsche Welle, October 27, 2018).

Boulmaye’s temporary replacement as secretary general was Colonel Mahamat Tahir Acheick. The colonel was succeeded in 2018 by Hissène Habré loyalist Michelot Yogogombaye (a.k.a. Kingabé Ogouzeïmi de Tapol), who works from exile in Paris (Tchad Convergence, August 17, 2018; Tchad Convergence, April 3, 2018).

The Battle of Kouri Bougoudi

Chad closed its border with Libya in January 2018, but stood little chance of avoiding infiltration by the CCMSR along a lengthy and lightly inhabited stretch of inhospitable desert.

CCMSR militants attacked a military outpost at Kouri Bougoudi (35 km from the Libyan border) in the volcanic Tibesti region of northeastern Chad on August 11, 2018. The Tibesti Mountains, a picturesque but physically challenging area, is regarded as the ancestral homeland of the Tubu people of northern Chad, southern Libya and northeastern Niger. The discovery of gold in Tibesti has brought artisanal gold miners from Niger, Sudan and other parts of Chad. Many are based around Kouri Bougoudi.

CCMSR Fighters

Arriving in over one hundred trucks at 2:23 AM, the assailants were armed with DShK “Dushka” 12.7 mm heavy machine guns and ZPU-4 quadruple barrel anti-aircraft weapons systems, using 14.5 mm KPV heavy machine guns. Both these Soviet-era designs are commonly mounted on the beds of 4×4 pick-up trucks in Libya and Chad.

A CCMSR statement released after the battle claimed 73 government troops killed and 45 taken prisoner (including three officers) against a cost of four CCMSR dead and seven wounded (Al Wihda [N’Djamena], August 19, 2018).

The attack was initially denied by the Minister of the Interior and Security, Ahmat Mahamat Bachir, who mocked CCMSR claims: “No attack on our position took place. I don’t know – did they attack the pebbles, the mountains?” (RFI, August 24, 2018). N’Djamena eventually acknowledged the death of Colonel Tahir Oly and two other soldiers in the clash (Al-Wihda [N’Djamena], August 12, 2018; Le Monde, September 14, 2018).

Reluctant to admit the political context of the attack on the village and its garrison, a Chadian security source told French media only that the army had been confronted by “coupeurs de route” (highwaymen) and “drug traffickers” (RFI, August 11, 2018). Two days later, the government ordered all gold miners to leave Kouri Bougoudi within 24 hours or face removal by force (Tchad Convergence/Xinhua, August 13, 2018). Chadian forces were ordered to destroy all the miners’ goods and equipment in land and air attacks (AFP, August 16, 2018).

A CCSMR statement released on August 17 suggested that the movement was willing to consider releasing their prisoners (including three officers identified by rank and name) to the Red Cross or Red Crescent once the three imprisoned CCSMR leaders were released “immediately, unconditionally [and] safe and sound” (RFI, August 17, 2018). According to the statement, three columns of CCSMR forces were now in Chad to end “its economic crisis and dictatorship” (Tchad Convergence, August 12, 2018). Minister of Public Security Ahmat Mahamat Bachir in turn rejected the possibility of making any kind of deal with “savage mercenaries, bandits [and] thugs” (Tchad Convergence, August 22, 2018).

The Tibesti Mountains (Sakhalia.net)

The CCMSR claimed to have routed Chadian troops in a second attack in the same area on August 22, but local sources claimed the government forces had evacuated quietly, leaving the region open for the return of illegal gold-miners (Tchad Convergence, August 22, 2018). Reports of this second attack were again refuted by the Interior Minister, who described them as “the false reports of mercenaries” (TchadInfo, August 22).

President Idriss Déby declared on August 20 that “the era of seizing power by arms” was forever over, adding that “clinging to warlike rhetoric” was “a suicidal option” (RFI, August 23, 2018). The CCMSR’s spokesman responded by noting that Chad had enjoyed ten years of relative peace since the last major effort to overturn Déby’s regime, but in that time the president had done nothing to establish an effective administration or improve the lot of Chadians: “[The president] thinks himself powerful, invincible, untouchable. But we will prove the opposite to him” (RFI, August 23, 2018).

On September 13, two Chadian helicopters bombed Kouri Bougoudi, where a number of miners had failed to obey the evacuation order (Le Monde, September 14, 2018). Retaliatory government bombing raids in Tibesti are alleged to have killed civilians while cluster bombs are reported to have been used to devastate the camel herds on which the traditional local economy is based (La Croix, September 6, 2018). The bombing did not prevent another attack on ANT forces at Tarbou on September 21.

Battle at Miski

The ANT clashed with insurgents again on October 24 at a place called Miski, which has only recently been administratively detached from Tibesti region and made part of the Borku region, to the great displeasure of many of Miski’s residents (Jeune Afrique/AFP, October 25, 2018). Responding to reports of civilian casualties, Chad’s Defense Minister, Bishara Issa Jadallah, insisted that there were no civilians left in Miski and that the attack had been entirely initiated by “drug traffickers” and “traffickers of human beings” (RFI, October 25, 2018).

In reaction, CCMSR spokesman Kingabé Ogouzeïmi de Tapol said his movement was “determined to drive these Mafia criminals [i.e. the Déby regime] out of Chad” and called for “a total and widespread popular insurgency” in Chad (CCMSR Press Release no. 0033, Facebook, October 24, 2018).

Driving the CCMSR from Libya

Residents of southern Libya Fezzan region have grown impatient with promises to clean up the south from both the Tripoli-based Government of National Accord (GNA), its Tobruk-based rival, the House of Representatives (HoR) and “Field Marshal” Khalifa Haftar’s so-called Libyan National Army (LNA). Armed locals have at times joined under-manned security operations in the south, most recently in mid-September when they joined an attack by the Salafist Khalid bin Walid Brigade on Chadian militants, freeing two hostages and killing six Chadians (Libya Herald, October 24, 2018; October 15, 2018).

The Khalid ibn al-Walid Brigade (aka the 104th Brigade), a mostly Tubu unit under the command of Yusuf Hussein Salah, has suffered recent losses fighting the Chadians; four fighters were killed in a clash on October 14, while a further six fighters who had been abducted were found dead four days later (Libya Observer, October 18, 2018; Libya Herald, October 15, 2018). In late October, the brigade was forced to abandon a siege of Chadian militant groups at a Chinese-built factory in the Fezzan’s Umm al-Aranib district, conceding that without further support from the LNA, the brigade was outmatched by the Chadians’ superior manpower and weaponry (Libya Observer, October 28, 2018).  Qatar, a supporter of anti-Khalifa Haftar militias in Libya, has been accused of helping to finance the CCMSR (RFI, August 14, 2018).

Shortly after discussing security cooperation with President Déby in N’Djamena on October 16, Haftar launched a new LNA operation in the Fezzan’s Murzuq Basin in October to “cleanse the south of the country from criminal gangs and terrorist groups.” To accomplish this, he assembled a joint force of LNA units that included the 10th Infantry Brigade under Colonel Muhammad Baraka, the 181st Infantry Battalion under Tariq Hasnawi, the 116th Infantry Battalion and the Kufra-based Subul al-Salam Brigade (mostly Salafist Zuwaya Arabs) (Libya Herald, October 24, 2018; Libyan Address, October 19, 2018). A UN Security Council report recently claimed Subul al-Salam has defied its mandate to control human trafficking on the southern border to engage in the traffic themselves, holding migrants at the Himmaya forced-labor camp in Kufra. [3]

Logo of the CCMSR

Forecast

Chad is undergoing a massive economic crisis based on the decline in oil prices in recent years. Opposition leaders are regularly detained, as are the leaders of a civil opposition movement, “Iyina” (Arabic – “We are tired”). While the defense budget was largely untouched, there have been cutbacks nearly everywhere else and civil servants have gone for months without wages. With Chad’s citizens asking what happened to all the oil revenues already received in what remains one of the world’s most poorly developed nations, Déby’s regime may find itself vulnerable to an armed movement seeking an end to the Déby government. Should the CCMSR gain traction in the north, a desperate N’Djamena might be forced to withdraw MNJTF forces from the Lake Chad Basin to tackle a more immediate threat to the capital.

Notes

  1. For Mahamat Mahdi Ali, see: “Rebel or Mercenary? A Profile of Chad’s General Mahamat Mahdi Ali,” Militant Leadership Monitor, September 7, 2017, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=4010
  2. Blog of Mahamat Hassane Boulmaye, “Peuple tchadien meurtrie et inoffensive,” November 27, 2016, http://lepythonnews.over-blog.com/2016/11/peuple-tchadien-meurtrie-et-inoffensif.html
  3. UNSC: “Letter dated 5 September 2018 from the Panel of Experts on Libya established pursuant to resolution 1973 (2011) addressed to the President of the Security Council,” September 5, 2018, p.15.

 

Italy and Russia: Rivals or Partners in the ‘Enlarged Mediterranean’?

Andrew McGregor

Integrity Initiative, Institute for Statecraft (UK), November 12, 2018

The approach of the Italian-hosted November 12-13 Palermo Conference on Libya has seen dire but largely unsubstantiated reports of Russian Special Forces, mercenaries and intelligence officers arriving in eastern Libya, together with advanced weapons systems aimed at NATO’s soft southern underbelly. Their alleged intention is to control the flow of migrants, oil and gas to Europe as a means of undermining European security. The full accuracy of these reports is questionable, but there is little question that Russia is deeply engaged in reasserting its influence in Libya, as well as other North African nations that once had close ties to Soviet Moscow.

Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar (Algeriepatriotique)

The task is far from simple; in Libya, Russian emissaries must deal with Libya’s competing governments, the Tripoli-based and internationally-recognized Presidency Council and Government of National Accord (PC/GNA) and the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR). In practice, Moscow has dealt most closely with a third party, the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by “Field Marshal” Khalifa Haftar. Though nominally at the service of the HoR, the LNA is actually a coalition of former revolutionaries, mercenaries and Salafist militias under the independent command of Haftar and his family. The LNA controls eastern Libya (Cyrenaïca) and much of the resource-rich south.

While the Trump administration has indicated its disinterest in Libya in particular and Africa in general, Italy is also trying to reassert influence in its former Libyan colony, a project that is made more difficult by the contradictions created by the pro-Russian sympathies of the Italian government.

Russian Interests in Libya

Russia’s point man in Libya is Lev Dengov, a Chechen businessman and head of the Russian Contact Group for intra-Libyan settlement. According to Dengov, Moscow’s interaction with Libyan leaders is only part of an effort to restore economic ties with Libya. He denies that Russia supports any one side in the ongoing conflict.

Lev Dengoov (Russarabbc.ru)

Moscow does not deny the presence in Libya of Russian private military contractors (a modern euphemism for organized mercenary groups), but insists their presence is for legitimate security reasons unrelated to Russian foreign policy objectives.

Russia’s Tatneft oil and gas company is in talks with the Libyan National Oil Corporation (NOC) to resume operations within Libya that were brought to a halt by the 2011 revolution. The NOC operates independently of Libya’s rival governments but its facilities are often targeted by a broad variety of armed groups. Russia is also in talks to resume construction of the Sirte-Benghazi railway, a $2.5 billion project that was brought to an abrupt halt by the 2011 revolution.

A potential means for Russia to wield influence in Europe could come through domination of the Greenstream natural gas pipeline that carries 11 billion cubic meters of gas per year from Libya to Europe. Russia is already the largest exporter of oil and natural gas to the European Union; further influence over energy flows to Europe would place Moscow in a strong position in its dealings with Europe.

According to LNA spokesman Ahmad al-Mismari, Libyans admire Russia as a “tough ally.”  Al-Mismari also noted that most senior officers in Libya were trained in Russia and that Moscow was providing medical treatment for at least 30 injured LNA fighters.

Haftar has visited Moscow three times and was welcomed off Libya’s coast for talks with the Russian Defense Minister aboard Russia’s sole aircraft carrier in January 2017. Haftar is eager to have the 2011 UN arms embargo removed in order to resume shipments of Russian arms as part of a $4.4 billion contract signed before the revolution.

Italian Relations with Russia

Italy is increasingly at odds with its EU partners over sanctions imposed on Russia in 2014 after the Russian annexation of the Crimea and its support for ethnic-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. The partners in Italy’s governing coalition are the League (Lega) Party and the Five Star Movement (Movimento 5 Stelle). Both are broadly pro-Russian and Euro-skeptic.

In a mid-October visit to Moscow, Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini denounced the sanctions as “social, cultural and economic madness.” Prime Minister Giusseppe Conte is in agreement, calling the sanctions “an instrument that would be better left behind.” Salvini’s League Party is close to Moscow, having signed a cooperation deal last year with United Russia, Russia’s ruling party.

However, the Italian government is not blindly pro-Moscow or oblivious to its own interests; on October 26, Prime Minister Conte gave the long disputed go-ahead to the Italian portion of the Trans-Adriatic Pipeline, a $5 billion project designed to relieve Europe’s dependency on Russian natural gas.

Italian Forces on the Libyan Border

Il Mediterraneo Allargato (Riccardo Piroddi)

Italy’s January decision to reassign troops from its missions in Iraq and Afghanistan to Niger and Libya is, in part, a reflection of a new emphasis on what Rome calls il Mediterraneo allargato, “the enlarged Mediterranean.” According to Defense Minister Roberta Pinotti, in this reshaping of strategic interests, “the heart of our interventions is the enlarged Mediterranean, from the Balkans to the Sahel, to the Horn of Africa.”

Italian Troops in Niger (RSI)

Italy has a small military presence in Libya, consisting of support elements for the Libyan Coast Guard (at least the part under the authority of the PC/GNA) and a military hospital in Misrata also acts as a military observation post. The Italian military presence in Italy was the subject of protests in several Libyan cities in July 2017.

After an eight-month delay, Italian defense minister Elizabetta Trenta announced the Italian mission to Niger, Operation Deserto Rosso, was ready to implement its mandate of stemming illegal migrant flows to Europe by providing training to Nigérien security forces patrolling the routes used by human traffickers and terrorists. Trenta added that, “for the first time, we in Italy begin to calibrate our own missions according to our own interests.”

Colonial Era Fort at Madama, Niger (Defense.gouv.fr)

At full strength, the Italian mission will consist of 470 troops, 130 vehicles and two aircraft. The mission is intended to be divided between Niger’s capital of Niamey and Madama, site of a colonial-era French Foreign Legion fort close to major smuggling routes near the Libyan border. There is no combat element to the Italian mission, which will focus on training Nigérien personnel rather than acting as “sentinels on the borders.”

Does Russia Intend to Control Migration Flows through Libya to Europe?

Rumors of Russian intention of building a naval base at the LNA-controlled deep-water ports of Tobruk or Benghazi began to circulate in January. Russian experts were reported to have visited the port several times to check conditions there. Initial Russian denials were followed in February by Lev Dengov’s claim that documented evidence existed at the Russian Defense Ministry proving Haftar had asked Russia to construct a military base in eastern Libya.

On October 8, the Sun, a UK tabloid better known for its “page 3” girls than cutting edge coverage of international issues, published an article claiming British Prime Minister Elizabeth May had been warned by British intelligence chiefs that Russia intended to make Libya a “new Syria.” Without revealing its source, the tabloid further claimed that members of the GRU (Russian military intelligence), Spetznaz Special Forces and private military contractors from the Russian Wagner Group were already on the ground in eastern Libya, where they were alleged to have set up two military bases. The Sun claimed their primary goal was “seizing control of the biggest illegal immigration route to Europe.”

Arriving with the military personnel were Russian-made Kalibr anti-ship missiles and S-300 air defense missile systems. The Russians were said to be providing training and “heavy equipment” to Haftar’s LNA.  An unnamed senior Whitehall source warned that the UK was “extremely vulnerable to both immigration flows and oil shock from Libya,” calling the alleged Russian deployment “a potentially catastrophic move to allow [Vladimir Putin] to undermine Western democracy.”

The Sun report emerged only three days after the UK’s Sunday Times revealed that the British military was war-gaming a cyber-attack on Russia based on a scenario in which Russia seizes Libya’s oil reserves and launches waves of African migrants towards Europe.

The deployment of advanced weapons systems in Libya in defiance of the UN arms embargo and in full knowledge that such a deployment would be regarded by NATO as a major provocation makes that part of the Sun story unlikely. Such systems would only have value as protection for a Russian base that, as of yet, does not exist. Haftar’s LNA is not under threat from either the sea or the air and has little need for such weapons.

Some of the Sun’s account appears to follow from an earlier but unverified report that dozens of mercenaries from the Russian RBC Group had been operating in eastern Libya since March 2017. This account appeared (without sources) in the Washington Times, a daily owned by Reverend Sun Myung Moon’s Unification Church. The article claimed the mercenaries were doing advance work for the establishment of a Russian military base in either Tobruk or Benghazi.

Lev Dengov suggested the Sun’s report could be an attempt to undermine the Palermo Conference, noting that “all reports about the Russian military presence in Libya, without exception, come from non-Libyan sources. How can it happen that no Libyan has ever noticed their presence?”

The deputy chair of the defense committee of the Russian Federal Assembly’s upper house described the Sun’s report as an attempt to discredit Russia’s war on terrorism: “There are no [Russian] military servicemen [in Libya] and their presence is not planned. How could they be there without official request by the country’s authorities?” Asharq al-Awsat, a prominent London-based Arabic daily, said that a number of Libyan deputies had told them there were no Russian bases in Benghazi or Tobruk.

The Russian Foreign Ministry said the Sun’s article was “written in a glaringly alarmist style, with the aim to intimidate the common British reader [with] a mythical Russian military threat.” Nonetheless, Russia’s RBC Media said a source within the Defense Ministry had confirmed the presence in eastern Libya of troops from elite Russian airborne units, though their numbers and mission was unclear.

Conclusion

Manipulating migration flows would require a continuous state of insecurity in Libya. A unified Libyan state could not possibly benefit (as militias and armed gangs do) from allowing mass migration from sub-Saharan states into Europe via Libya. As noted in the HoR agenda for the Palermo conference, illegal migration has led only to “the spread of organized crime, terrorism, looting and the smuggling overseas of the country’s assets.”

The 75-year-old Haftar, a US citizen, long-time CIA asset and alleged war-criminal who has spent much of his life outside of Libya, has had major health issues in the last year and is far from a secure bet to take power in Libya. Haftar has tried to devolve power onto his sons, but they enjoy little popular support. The LNA, a loose coalition or militias rather than an army, is likely to dissolve upon Haftar’s death into battling factions. This is factored into Moscow’s cautious approach in Libya, which is carried out simultaneous with probes (possibly including disinformation) to determine what activities the Western Alliance will tolerate there. Russia’s affinity for strongman types suggests that Moscow may have quietly thrown its support behind the aging Haftar while still keeping channels open with the ineffective but internationally recognized PC/GNA government in Tripoli.Italian and Eritrean colonial troops celebrate a victory in the conquest of Libya

Sovereignty is, and will remain, a sensitive issue in Libya, which suffered through brutal and exploitative occupation by Italian imperialists and later by Italian fascists. Even the Soviet Union was unable to get Mu’amar Qaddafi to agree to allow a Soviet naval base in Libya. Any perception that Haftar is willing to sacrifice Libyan sovereignty without legal authority for the benefit of himself and his family will do little to broaden his support in Libya.

Italy’s decision to work counter to the sanctions applied against Russia by the West will in turn encourage greater Russian expansion into Italy’s strategically defined “Enlarged Mediterranean.” Russia intends to build a sphere of influence extending through Libya, Egypt and Sudan, a strategic feat that is being accomplished through the disinterest of the United States and the acquiescence of NATO partners like Italy, which continues to struggle to reconcile Russian interests with its own.

The Thirty-Six Year Rebellion: Salif Sadio and the Struggle for Senegal’s Casamance Region

Andrew McGregor

November 6, 2018

Salif Sadio (Dakar Actu)

Low-intensity conflicts can be among the most resistant to resolution. A case in point is the 36-year separatist struggle in Casamance, the southern region of Senegal. While the conflict has veered between ceasefires and flare-ups, one man, Salif Sadio, has dedicated himself to keeping the separatist cause alive through his leadership of Atika, the armed wing of the Mouvement des forces démocratiques de Casamance (MFDC). The price of his struggle has been thousands killed and the devastation of the local economy.

The conflict in Casamance has much to do with its physical separation from the rest of Senegal by the small nation known as “The Gambia.”  The Gambia, which became independent in 1965, was a former colony of the UK, while the area surrounding it was French territory which became independent as the nation of Senegal in 1960. The region south of The Gambia is known as Casamance and was integrated with Senegal by an eastern land connection that left The Gambia surrounded by Senegal.

An attempt at union between Senegal and The Gambia in 1982 (the Senegambian Confederation) brought economic benefits to Casamance, but the local economy was hit hard when the confederation collapsed in 1989. Administratively, Casamance was divided by the government into the districts of Ziguinchor to the west and Kolda to the east in the 1980s in the hope of ending references to “Casamance.” [1]

(al-Jazeera)

The main peoples found in Casamance are Mandinke, Pulaar and Jola (or Diola). The dominant ethnic group in Senegal is the Wolof, whose central role in the administration is resented by many Jola, who make up only 4% of Senegal’s population.

By the 1980s, the Christian and Animist Jola people of Casamance began to speak of separation from an exploitative Musliim regime in the Senegalese capital of Dakar (Senegal is 92% Muslim). The Jola, representing roughly a third of the Casamance population, dominate the ranks of the MFDC, though many Jola see the movement as inhibiting development and have nothing to do with the separatists (Le Monde, June 19, 2012).

Salif Sadio and the MFDC are angered by Senegal’s planned expansion of its resource sector, which will include exploitation of oil, gas, zircon and other minerals in Casamance. The MFDC claim the proceeds of such work go directly to the national government in Dakar without any benefit to the people of Casamance. Sadio also claims these projects will cause environmental devastation, though his own movement is accused of partaking in the massive ongoing deforestation of Casamance.

The MFDC

The MFDC was founded in 1982 by Father Augustin Diamacoune Senghor, though a movement for regional autonomy had existed since 1947. [2] Atika was formed three years later in 1985. Oil was discovered offshore in Casamance in the early 1990s, emboldening the separatist movement, but bringing on massive government repression of separatist activities. [3]

The first split in the MFDC dates back to 1992, when northern elements were prepared to negotiate a settlement, but Jola-dominated southern elements, such as those led by Salif Sadio, were determined to offer armed resistance to the Senegalese state. [4] Dakar’s military response to the insurgency was to drive the MRDC into neighboring Guinea-Bissau with such intensity that it nearly created a border war with that nation, as well as creating alienation in the local population. [5]

Early Years

In 1998, Sadio crossed into Guinea-Bissau and joined the military rebellion led by Brigadier General Ansumane Mané. The Brigadier (then chief-of-staff) had been suspended on suspicion of trafficking arms from Bissau-Guinean arms depots to the MFDC separatists in Casamance. The MFDC had already been engaged in bloody clashes with Bissau-Guinean troops along the border in January 1998 and were ready to support a change of regime. In the civil war that followed Brigadier Mané’s June 1998 coup, the MFDC fought alongside the vast majority of the Bissau-Guinean army which sided with Mané against the government of President João Bernardo Vieira. Military intervention by Senegal and Guinea led to a ceasefire and formation of a government of national unity in February 1999, but President Vieira survived only until May, when a second coup overthrew him. In the meantime, Sadio’s support for the military rebels had solidified connections that would serve him well in the future.

Determined to exterminate the MFDC, the Senegalese military shelled Ziguinchor, the largest city in Casamance, in 1999, even though it could hardly be called a MFDC stronghold. The resulting civilian casualties and displacement of residents did little to encourage loyalty to the state.

The Casamance Rebellion

Diamacoune agreed to a peace agreement in 2004 that called for integration of MFDC fighters into the Senegalese security services and economic development in Casamance, but other factions of the MFDC rejected the agreement and continued their armed movement for separation. The agreement eventually collapsed in August 2006.

In early 2006, the leaders of other MFDC factions condemned Sadio for his unwillingness to join the peace process and threatened to “outlaw” him. [6] In the following year, Sadio purged most of the older commanders in his group, whom he suspected of moderate tendencies, and replaced them with more aggressive younger commanders. [7]

After several years of avoiding direct confrontations with the Senegalese Army, the MFDC stepped up attacks on the military in late 2006 after Moroccan troops arrived to assist in a de-mining campaign. The MFDC, which uses mines as an important part of their arsenal, suspected that Dakar had brought in the Moroccans to assist in an effort to capture Salif Sadio. [8]

MFDC Fighters (Xalima.com)

In March 2006, the president of Guinea-Bissau, João Bernardo Vieira (who had returned from post-coup exile in 2005 to be re-elected as president), with the encouragement of his rival and military chief-of-staff General Baptista Tagme na Wale, decided that it was necessary to expel Sadio’s forces from Guinea-Bissau to help further peace efforts in neighboring Senegal. Though military operations succeeded in driving Sadio from his base in Guinea-Bissau, Sadio orchestrated an orderly withdrawal into Casamance, mining roads behind him and mounting attacks on Senegalese garrisons near the border to allow his men to retake old MFDC bases in the Sindian region of north Casamance, close to the border with The Gambia. [9]

The charismatic Abbé Diamacoune died in Paris in January 2007, but he had already lost control of the movement he founded, which split before his death into three major factions led by Sadio, Caesar Badiatte, and Mamadou Niantang Diatta. With fighting between the groups unsettling the entire region, the Senegalese military sent armor and heavy weapons to Casamance for an offensive focused on Sadio’s Atika faction, the most intransigent of the three. [10]

Sadio found refuge in The Gambia, ruled by President Yahya Jammeh, a Jola Muslim known for corruption and his use of assassination squads who took power in a 1994 coup d’état. In 2007, several MFDC leaders claimed the government of The Gambia was supplying arms to MFDC “hard-liners” such as Salif Sadio. [11]

Heavy fighting broke out around Casamance’s main city of Ziguinchor in August 2008 as the MFDC launched a series of raids to steal the bicycles, mobile phones and identity papers of local residents. Farmers were warned by the militants that if they returned to their fields they would be treated as army informants (IRIN, August 26, 2009).

After relations with The Gambia’s President Jammeh soured in 2009, Sadio shifted his base back to Guinea-Bissau, where he enjoyed a good relationship with a former comrade-in-arms, Captain Zamora Induta, the new military chief-of-staff and a veteran of the military rebellion of 1998-1999. [12]

A shipment of Iranian arms was found hidden amidst building materials on a ship that arrived in Lagos harbor in October 2010. Investigators believed the arms were intended to be shipped to The Gambia and then distributed to the MFDC. The incident resulted in Senegal recalling its ambassador to Iran (BBC, December 15, 2010). Other arms shipments might have made it through; Senegalese troops were surprised in December 2010 when MFDC forces using newly acquired equipment such as mortars, rocket launchers and Russian-made “Dushka” machine guns killed seven soldiers near the town of Bignona (RFI), December 28, 2010).

Fighting flared up again in December 2011, when at least 12 Senegalese soldiers were killed in clashes with the MFDC (SAPA, December 21, 2011). The election of Macky Sall as Senegal’s president in March 2012 opened new opportunities for a negotiated settlement of the Casamance issue. Talks with Salif Sadio’s representatives began in Rome in October 2012 under the auspices of the Community of Sant’Egidio, a Vatican-aligned charity specializing in conflict mediation. Two months later Sadio’s faction released eight hostages in a gesture of good-will (AFP, November 10, 2013).

When Macky Sall became Senegal’s president in 2012, one of his first promises was to bring a swift end to the Casamance conflict. If the promise sounded familiar, it was because his predecessor Abdoulaye Wade had promised in 2000 to resolve the crisis in 100 days through a combination of disarmament, demining and large agricultural projects in Casamance (al-Jazeera, February 14, 2012).

To keep the peace, President Wade supplied the MFDC factions with cash and rice. Sadio was reported to have used the money to buy weapons rather than distribute it to his fighters as intended (Seneweb.com, April 10, 2015). Nonetheless, by May 1, 2014, Sadio was ready to declare a unilateral ceasefire, still officially in place today.

Casamance

The MFDC in The Gambia

Back in The Gambia, President Jammeh’s long run as president came to an end with an election loss in December 2016, but Jammeh refused to step down to allow Adama Barrow, the surprise winner of the election, to take power.

After his election loss, Jammeh was reported to have recruited mercenaries from several West African regions, including MFDC fighters, to prepare for an expected intervention to remove Jammeh by the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) (Liberian Observer, January 19, 2017). Senegal took leadership of the ECOWAS operation and Jammeh fled Gambia on January 21, 2017.

As relations between Senegal and The Gambia improved under President Adama Barrow, Omar Sadio, a son of Salif Sadio who had served in the Gambian Army since 2005, was relieved of his rank and arrested (Gambia Echo, October 12, 2017). His detention appeared to have been part of a sweep of suspected Jammeh loyalists in the military, many of whom were brought in by the ex-president from neighboring states in the belief they would be personally loyal to the president and not identify with Gambians.

Slaughter in the Forest – A Battle for Resources

The ceasefire was threatened this year by the January 6 execution-style killing of 14 alleged loggers in the Bayotte Forest of Casamance. Many of the hardwoods found in the forests of Casamance, such as teak and rosewood, are of high value. Much of the wood taken illegally is shipped through The Gambia on to China, where it is highly prized (AFP, January 24).

Casamance Timber Headed for Export (Daniel Glick)

Two armed men were killed by security forces in separate clashes shortly after the massacre as Senegalese troops rounded up suspected militants. Sadio promptly denied any involvement by his faction of the MFDC. In an interview recorded at his forest base near the Gambian border, Sadio insisted “The killing was only a pretext that served the Senegalese army to trigger military operations in Casamance.” He demanded the release of “innocent civilians” detained in the sweeps and warned that the MFDC’s unilateral ceasefire might end if the operations continued (Jeune Afrique/AFP, January 24).

Sadio, who has accused the army of cutting timber in protected areas, admits his men beat loggers and even burn their trucks, but insists they have never killed loggers (Jeune Afrique/AFP, January 24). Sadio rejects allegations that he cooperates with The Gambia to extract valuable hardwoods from Casamance (Senenews.com, January  24).

An emerging irritant is the plan by Australian firm Astron Zircon to dig out sand dunes on the Casamance coast to remove deposits of zircon, a gemstone with many applications. Locals fear the removal of these natural barriers to the sea will result in the salinization of farmland and drinking water (DakarActu, June 27) The government in Dakar insists the Zircon extraction will provide economic benefits to Casamance, but Sadio has warned that “the exploitation of zircon represents a declaration of war. Many times we have agreed with Senegal not to touch anything and wait for the settlement of the conflict.” [13]

Conclusion

Salif Sadio’s faction of the MFDC constitutes a destabilizing force in the Senegal/Gambia/Guinea-Bissau region. Prospects for a negotiated settlement in Casamance have grown remote with the split of the MFDC into three mutually suspicious factions. A military solution without coordinated regional cooperation is just as elusive, with MFDC fighters currently slipping across international borders whenever they are pressured.

Senegal’s government has tried different means of dealing with the MFDC, including pay-offs and military repression, but little effort has been put into addressing the social, economic and environmental underpinnings of Casamance separatism. Without such efforts, hardliners like Salif Sadio will continue to draw support from disaffected residents, particularly amongst the Jola ethnic group, whose culture and grievances have attracted little attention from government officials tasked with dealing with them.

Notes

  1. Aïssatou Fall, Understanding the Casamance Conflict: A Background, KAIPTC Monograph no. 7, December 2010, https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B40UDxMwk8FATGZ4U19pMk5ZNGs/view
  2. Ibid
  3. Michael E. Brownfield and Ronald R Charpentier, “Assessment of the Undiscovered Oil and Gas of the Senegal Province, Mauritania, Senegal, The Gambia, and Guinea-Bissau, Northwest Africa,” U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 2207–A, October, 2003, https://pubs.usgs.gov/bul/b2207-a/b2207-a.pdf.
  4. Wagane Faye, The Casamance Separatism: From Independence Claim to Resource Logic, Naval Postgraduate School Thesis, Monterey California, June 2006, http://www.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a451368.pdf
  5. Ibid
  6. “MFDC Murders Casamance Deputy Prefect: Are Hardliners Trying to Sabotage the Peace Process?” US State Department Cable 06DAKAR43_a, January 6, 2006, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/06DAKAR43_a.html
  7. “Deterioration in the Casamance,” US State Department Cable 07DAKAR275_a, February 2, 2007, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/07DAKAR275_a.html
  8. “Casamance: Escalation in Rebel Attacks,” US State Department Cable 06DAKAR3016_a, December 27, 2006, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/06DAKAR3016_a.html
  9. “Casamance: Chief Rebel Stronger than Anticipated,” US State Department Cable 06DAKAR1005_a, April 26, 2006, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/06DAKAR1005_a.html. Three years after the offensive against Salif Sadio, the rivalry between General Na Waie and President Vieira proved fatal. The general was assassinated in a bomb attack on March 1, 2009; the next day, Vieira, who had turned his nation into a “narco-state,” was hacked to pieces by machete by troops loyal to the general (The National [Abu Dhabi], March 7, 2009l; see also Anders Themnér, Warlord Democrats in Africa: Ex-Military Leaders and Electoral Politics, London, 2017.
  10. “Casamance: The 2004 Truce Has Ended,” US State Department Cable 06DAKAR2012_a, August 21, 2006, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/06DAKAR2012_a.html
  11. “The Gambia: Further Strains in Ties with Senegal over Casamance,” US State Department Cable 07BANJUL250, May 15, 2007, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/07BANJUL250_a.html
  12. “Senegal: War and Banditry in the Casamance,” US State Department Cable 09DAKAR948_a, July 27, 2009, https://wikileaks.org/plusd/cables/09DAKAR948_a.html
  13. “Le MFDC réitère sa menace de reprendre les armes ,”August 30, https://www.podcastjournal.net/Le-MFDC-reitere-sa-menace-de-reprendre-les-armes_a25680.html

 

This article first appeared in the October 2018 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor.

Violence and Viruses: How a Poorly Armed Insurgency in the Congo Poses a Global Threat

Andrew McGregor

Terrorism Monitor

November 2, 2018

Angry locals filled the streets of the Congo’s Nord Kivu province town of Beni on October 21, torching the post office, destroying parts of the town hall and throwing stones at vehicles belonging to health workers fighting a deadly outbreak of the Ebola virus. Eventually driven off by tear gas and live ammunition fired into the air, the demonstrators were enraged by the inability of Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) troops and UN peacekeepers to prevent yet another terrorist strike in the town that saw 11 people hacked to death and 15 others (including children) abducted by militants of the Allied Democratic Front (ADF) (Radio Okapi [Kinshasa], October 21; AFP, October 22, 2018).

Nord Kivu province borders Uganda and Rwanda to the east and has absorbed defeated militant groups from both countries. Scores of armed groups are active in the region now despite the presence of large numbers of UN peacekeepers and troops of the Forces armées de la république démocratique du Congo (FARDC – Armed Forces of the DRC).

After two decades of ADF activity in the Uganda-DRC border region, ADF operations are now centered round the Nord Kivu town of Beni, a hub for regional trade routes. Beni is close to Virunga National Park, the Ituri Forest and the Rwenzori Mountains, all used at some point as bases for ADF activities. The region is rich in gold, tin, timber and diamonds.

The Allied Democratic Forces

The ADF has its roots in the Ugandan chapter of the Tabliqi Jama’at, an Islamic revival movement which began to claim political persecution in the 1990s. Many of the jama’at’s members left Kampala for the wild Rwenzori Mountains of western Uganda, where they formed the ADF by allying themselves with remnants of the Rwenzori separatist movement, fugitive Idi Amin loyalists and the National Army for the Liberation of Uganda (NALU), a group drawn from the Nande ethnic group of the Rwenzori Mountains. Today, most ADF members are locally recruited residents of Nord Kivu.

The ADF’s leader, Jamil Mukulu, was arrested in Tanzania in April 2015 and extradited to Uganda. When he was arrested, Mukulu was carrying no less than nine passports (Le Monde, May 15). Mukulu is a convert from Christianity who became involved in the Tablighi Jama’at and eventually adopted a Salafi-Jihadist stance with alleged ties to al-Qaeda (The Independent [Kampala], May 17, 2015).

The ADF was able to obtain Sudanese arms and training during the proxy war fought between Khartoum and Kampala, but this came to an end when the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement with South Sudan brought a finish to the proxy war.

The ADF has a low-profile and highly isolated leadership. Mukulu’s successor as leader of the main ADF faction is believed to be Imam Seka Musa Baluku, the subject of an Interpol red notice (Daily Monitor [Kampala], September 24, 2015). As the prospect of ever actually overthrowing the Ugandan government grows ever more distant, the movement has splintered, losing any sense of ideological cohesion in favor of extortion, illegal taxation and resource exploitation.

The ADF resents interference in it local economic operations; a 2014 statement made their approach clear:

You, the population, we are going to kill you because you have provoked us too much. The same goes for the FARDC with whom we used to live without any problems…  Don’t be surprised to see us killing children, women, elderly… In the name of Allah, we will not leave you alone.” [1]

Other ADF factions include the Feza Group (more religiously inclined than the others), the Matata Group, the Abialose Group (commanded by “Major” Efumba) and the ADF-Mwalika. [2] Factional leaders have often married the daughters of local chieftains to strengthen local ties.

The Uganda Peoples’ Defence Force (UPDF) succeeded in expelling the ADF from Uganda in 1999 and the rebels re-established themselves across the border in the DRC’s lightly governed but resource rich Nord Kivu province. The ADF has posed little threat to Uganda since suffering heavy losses in battles with the UPDF in 2007-2008.

The situation in Nord Kivu, however, is different. Some 700 civilians have been killed by the ADF since violence intensified in the region in October 2014 (Le Monde, September 9). Well over 200 civilians have been killed by armed groups in over 100 attacks in the region around Beni this year. [3] Hundreds of thousands have been displaced. The poorly-armed ADF typically relies on the use of machetes and axes in its attacks on civilian population centers and relies on raids on military bases to obtain more advanced weapons. Fighters often abduct civilians and take them to their bases in the bush for use as sex slaves or porters. Children are trained to become ADF fighters. Women and children participate in ADF attacks, looting and finishing off wounded victims, including other women and children. [4]

Jamil Mukulu used to issue cassette tapes to condemn Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni and the leaders of the West while urging violence against non-Muslims. Since his detention, the movement has drifted from jihadist rhetoric, or, indeed, any rhetoric at all, making its current aims something of a mystery.

FARDC Troops Targeting ADF Positions

MONUSCO and the ADF

The UN’s Mission de l’Organisation des Nations unies pour la stabilisation en République démocratique du Congo (MONUSCO) was founded in 1999-2000. It is now the UN’s largest peacekeeping mission, with 17,000 troops and an annual budget of $115 billion. [5] The ADF, who travel light and known the difficult terrain intimately, have proven far more mobile than MONUSCO forces.

Fifteen Tanzanian peacekeepers and five Congolese troops were killed at Semuliki in the Beni region in a December 2017 ADF attack (Reuters, January 13).  The assault followed earlier attacks on the Tanzanians in September and October2017. A UN investigation of the incident identified a number of weaknesses in MONUSCO: “The mission did not have an actionable contingency plan to reinforce and extract its peacekeepers… Issues of command-and-control, leadership and lack of essential enablers such as aviation, engineers and intelligence were also major obstacles and need to be addressed urgently” (Reuters, March 2).

The UPDF claimed to have killed over 100 ADF fighters in cross-border artillery and jet-fighter strikes (Operation Tuugo)  on ADF positions following the attack on the peacekeepers (New Vision [Kampala], December 22, 2017; Observer [Kampala], December 28, 2017). Uganda is suffering a wave of assassinations and murders mostly tied to local tensions, though Museveni (without evidence) has blamed the ADF for many of the killings, including those of seven Muslim shaykhs between 2012 and 2016. He has also blamed the DRC and the UN for harboring and supporting ADF terrorists (AfricaNews, June 6).

Insurgency and Disease

Ebola is a viral hemorrhagic fever with an extremely high fatality rate. The virus is spread through contact with the infected bodily fluids of people or primates (the latter is known as “bushmeat” by those who eat it, including ADF militants). Ebola emerged in the DRC in the 1970s and has since killed thousands across West Africa.

Nord Kivu Health Workers (AFP)

The epidemic was announced on August 1, shortly after an Ebola outbreak in the DRC’s Equateur Province. The epidemic might have been detected earlier, but local health workers were on strike after not having been paid for seven months (Actualité.cd [Kinshasa, August 2).

Though health officials have initiated a vaccination program, there are other factors besides the conflict that inhibit its implementation, including the region’s often difficult topography and a strong degree of resistance to vaccination in some communities, resulting in flight into the forest where health workers cannot reach them.

The World Health Organization (WHO) has warned the virus could spread to Uganda and/or Rwanda at any time. In a worrying trend, the organization notes the 19 health workers who caught the disease by October 11 had all been infected outside health facilities, pointing to Ebola’s spread in the larger community (Al-Jazeera, October 11).

In August, seven people were reported to be suffering from hemorrhagic fevers at Mboki, a village in the heavily forested southern region of the Central African Republic, close to the border with the DRC. The lightly inhabited area is frequented by a number of armed groups who often rely on bushmeat. Tests done on rebels arrested in the DRC and extradited to the CAR revealed 80 per cent of them had Ebola antibodies in their system, suggesting both contact with the disease and their potential role as transmission vectors. Emmanuel Nakoune Yandoko, head of the CAR’s Pasteur Institute, has met with leaders of some of these cross-border militant groups and believes they could be usefully integrated into a disease surveillance system as they also fear Ebola and other fatal diseases in the region (Le Monde, August 17).

A recent OXFAM report identified several challenges to combating Ebola in Nord Kivu, including:

  • The need to change culturally-entrenched burial practices to reduce infection; Attempts by health workers to take over the burial of Ebola victims provoked attacks on them, forcing security forces to accompany health workers on such missions (Al-Jazeera, October 10).
  • The need to solve the puzzle of how to provide security for health-workers in a conflict zone while using as few FARDC and UN troops as possible in order not to provoke local flight into the forest;
  • Establishing health education programs in remote communities where Ebola is often ascribed to witchcraft;
  • Given the security situation, it is important to avoid gathering civilians in large numbers for vaccinations or other distributions.

The threat to health workers is serious; two nurses were killed on October 19 and there are three to four attacks a week against medical personnel fighting the virus. Many experience being stripped by the people they are trying to help and having their clothes burned in front of them (Radio Okapi [Kinshasa], October 23).

On September 23, 18 people and four soldiers were killed in the streets of Beni. Most were the victims of machete attacks in an incident that again revealed the inability of the Congolese Army to secure even Beni’s urban center against the ADF, which looted shops until FARDC reinforcements arrived (AFP, September 24, Anadolu Agency, September 23). This attack and a second one on Oicha, a village about 12 miles north of Beni where Ebola cases have been identified, led to a 48-hour suspension in efforts to treat the spreading disease (AFP, September 25). FARDC and MONUSCO troops, who arrived well after the Oicha attack despite being based just outside the town, were met by stone-throwing civilians (AFP, October 11). In July 2016, 19 people were slaughtered only 300 meters from a Nepalese MONUSCO base at Eringeti despite an informant warning MONUSCO officers of the attack the day before (Le Monde, July 1, 2016).

FARDC Weakness and the Role of the UPDF

FARDC is far from a cohesive entity, being composed of both integrated and non-integrated former rebel factions with different languages and customs. President Kabila, who regards his army as a potential threat, relies for his own personal security on the three brigades of the Garde Républicaine. Pay problems are endemic and encourage trade and economic cooperation with the rebel movements they are intended to fight. There is little incentive to venture into the bush without remuneration.

With ADF militants wearing FARDC uniforms and operating with apparent immunity at times, there are major suspicions locally of FARDC corruption and collusion in the attacks. There is growing anger in the region at the military’s inability or unwillingness to bring armed groups under control. Locals arrested as suspected insurgents are often subject to summary executions. Many of the FARDC units operating in Kivu region are from western provinces of the DRC and tend to behave more as an occupation force than defenders of Kivu civilians.

General Marcel Mbangu

Led by General Marcel Mbangu, FARDC launched its own anti-ADF operations independent of MONUSCO in January. Though the military promised a conclusive campaign, local residents have noted lethargy and inefficiency in FARDC’s efforts, which often appear to be focused on self-preservation rather than protecting the community. [6] Belief in collaboration between the two supposed antagonists is strong enough that locals refer to “the ADF FARDC” (Le Monde, March 6, 2017). Both FARDC and MONUSCO suffer from poor intelligence work due to the suspicion and fears of the Nord Kivu community.

Military cooperation between FARDC and the UPDF is limited to a UPDF presence on the border to prevent ADF militants from escaping Congolese operations. A Ugandan presence in the DRC is unwanted in Kinshasha, as tensions between the two countries have remained high since the 1998-2003 civil war.

Brigadier General Muhindo Akili Mundos

Brigadier General Muhindo Akili Mundos, an ally of President Joseph Kabila and commander of the anti-ADF Sukola 1 (Lingala – “cleanup”) operation, was alleged by a confidential UN report to have recruited, financed and armed ADF elements and others to carry out attacks on local civilians over 2014-2015. Included in the supplies were FARDC uniforms. The Brigadier denied the allegations, pointing out killings had continued after his transfer from North Kivu (Reuters, May 14, 2016). The UN imposed sanctions on General Mundos in February on the grounds he had incited killings in Nord Kivu (Jeune Afrique, February 2).

Other FARDC officers suspected of working with the ADF have been tried by the North Kivu Military Operational Military Court. Colonel David Lusenge was tried on charges of supplying arms and ammunition to the ADF, as well as participating in the planning of attacks on Beni civilians (Radio Okapi [Kinshasa], February 15, 2017). A former senior ADF military instructor testified that Colonel Shabani Molisho and other FARDC officers supplied the ADF with ammunition in 2014 (Radio Okapi [Kinshasa], February 11, 2017). Colonel Katanzu Hangi was sentenced to 12 month in prison after being found guilty of collaborating with the ADF (Radio Okapi [Kinshasa], June 6, 2017). Though three colonels were eventually convicted, there was a marked reluctance by the court to pursue allegations against more senior officers.

Conclusion

Over the last decade, the ADF leadership has avoided any public proclamation of their aims or intents, expressing themselves solely through their direction of uninhibited violence. The last negotiations with the ADF came in 2008, but were even then complicated by divisions within the movement.

Growing public anger in Nord Kivu with the government and its security forces works against local cooperation with health workers or the Congolese military. President Joseph Kabila’s term expired last December, but his refusal to step down has ignited violence across the vast DRC, taxing the resources of both FARDC and the UN. With little chance of a negotiated settlement or a military victory in Nord Kivu, the international community must address the question of how to tackle epidemics of disease in failed or failing states before they spread across borders in a shrinking world.

Notes

  1. Report of the United Nations Joint Human Rights Office on International Humanitarian Law Violations Committed by Allied Democratic Forces (ADF) Combatants in the Territory of Beni, North Kivu Province, Between 1 October and 31 December, 2014, https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Countries/CD/ReportMonusco_OHCHR_May2015_EN.pdf
  2. United Nations Security Council, “Letter dated 23 May 2016 from the Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo addressed to the President of the Security Council, May 23, 2016, http://www.un.org/ga/search/view_doc.asp?symbol=S/2016/466
  3. “DR Congo: Upsurge in Killings in Ebola Zone,” Human Rights Watch, October 3, 2018, https://reliefweb.int/report/democratic-republic-congo/dr-congo-upsurge-killings-ebola-zone
  4. Report of the United Nations Joint Human Rights Office, op cit.
  5. https://monusco.unmissions.org/en/facts-and-figures
  6. “DR Congo: Upsurge in Killings in Ebola Zone,” op cit.

 

This article first appeared in the November 2, 2018 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Defense or Domination? Building Algerian Power with Russian Arms

Andrew McGregor

Eurasia Daily Monitor 13(122), September 5, 2018

Algeria is undertaking a major arms acquisition program designed to enhance its regional standing and make it difficult for terrorists or insurgent forces to operate on Algerian territory. To this end, it has become a major purchaser of Russian arms that are often battle-proven in Syria.

When it was initially formed in 1962 from anti-colonial guerrilla units, Algeria’s Armée nationale populaire (ANP) possessed only captured or abandoned French arms as well as some Chinese and Egyptian equipment. Within a year, the Soviet Union began offering arms on credit at very favorable terms. By the time of the Soviet collapse, some 90 per cent of the ANP arsenal was Soviet in origin. [1]  With the military gear came thousands of Soviet advisors, but, still wary of encroachments on its hard-won independence, the Algerians declined to allow the establishment of a Soviet naval base at the port of Mers al-Kabir, a strategically vital former French naval base close to the Strait of Gibraltar.

To re-establish Russia’s role as Algeria’s main arms supplier, President Vladimir Putin cancelled a Soviet-era Algerian military debt of $4.7 billion dollars in 2006 in return for an Algerian commitment to buy $7.5 billion worth of Russian arms (BBC, March 11, 2006). Aided by an upsurge in energy prices that helped fund the purchases, Algeria became Russia’s third largest customer for military goods (Sputnik, February 19).

A quick look at some of Algeria’s most recent Russian arms purchases illustrates how Algeria is building a modern and capable army:

  • Two hundred modernized Russian T-90SA “Tagil” main battle tanks (MBTs) were delivered to Algeria in 2016 (Defence-Blog, July 15, 2016; Interfax, July 18, 2016). This year, Algeria is taking delivery of roughly 300 BMPT Terminator II armored fighting vehicles intended for protection of MBTs, particularly in urban warfare situations. Carrying both anti-armor and anti-personnel weapons, the BMPT can engage multiple targets at once (DefenceWeb, September 11, 2017).

The TOS-1 Buratino Heavy Flamethrower System (RIA.Ru)

  • In May, Algeria became the fifth known purchaser of Russia’s TOS-1A Buratino “Blazing Sun” multi-barrel mobile rocket launcher, consisting of 24 rockets armed with thermobaric warheads fired from a modified T-72 tank chassis (Jane’s.com, May 14). Battle-tested in Afghanistan, Russian thermobaric weapons were successfully used against Chechen positions in the 1999 battle for Grozny and have since been used in combat by Iraq, Azerbaijan and Syria. The TOS-1A’s fuel-air explosives are especially effective against fortified positions (Nezavisimoye Voyennoye Obozreniye, August 26, 2017).

The Iskander-E Short-Range Mobile Ballistic Missile Launcher (Army Recognition)

  • Earlier this year, Russia began delivery of four regiments of the Iskander-E (SS-26 Stone) short-range mobile ballistic missile system. Each regiment consists of 12 launchers and about 30 support vehicles. The Iskander system was used against Georgian forces in 2008 (Kommersant, March 5; net, March 5).

The Pantsir-SM Mobile Anti-Aircraft System (Army Recognition)

  • In a sign of the enhanced defense cooperation between Russia and Algeria, the latter field-tested the new Russian Pantsir-SM mobile anti-aircraft system in June. The system is a greatly improved version of the Pantsir-S1 system, using phased-array radars for target acquisition and tracking. Algeria is expected to be a major purchaser (ru, April 7).

The Rezonans-NE Radar System

Precision targeting of Algerian weapons will be much improved by June’s ten-year agreement to allow Algeria military use of the GLONASS satellite navigation system. [2] India is the only other nation to be granted use of the system, and Algeria agreed not to pass the technology on to third nations or try to reverse-engineer the system (Le Monde, June 30). Algeria also acquired the Russian-made Rezonans-NE “over-the-horizon” radar system capable of long-range aerial surveillance and response coordination at a distance of up to 1,100 km (MenaDefense.net, April 3).

Military helicopters, first widely used by French forces during the Russian-supported Algerian independence struggle (1954-62), continue to be the most useful tool in combating militants in the forests, mountains and deserts of Algeria. With this in mind, Algeria has obtained 14 Russian-made Mil Mi-26T2 heavy-lift transport helicopters since 2016. Capable of carrying tanks and artillery as well as personnel, this new type incorporates electronics that enable the craft to operate 24 hours a day in a variety of inclement conditions (El-Khabar [Algiers], February 21, 2016, via BBC monitoring). [3]

This summer, Algeria is receiving the last of its 42 Russian Mi-28NE “Night Hunter” attack helicopters, an all-weather, two-seat attack helicopter designed to target armor, but also useful for reconnaissance and operations against ground forces. [4]

The ANP is also taking delivery of 39 upgraded Mi-171Sh “SuperHip” military transport helicopters, refurbished in Russia with the addition of an optronic ball, the Shturm-V precision guided-missile system and Ataka supersonic missiles. In addition to its transport role, it can also provide fire support to infantry forces and med-evac for wounded personnel (MenaDefense.net, May 17, 2018; Army-technology.com, 2018).

In September, Algeria will take delivery of its first Russian-made Project 22160 patrol vessel. Three more of the 1300 ton ships will be built in Algeria. Armed with “Klub-K” anti-ship missiles, Igla SAMs and cruise missiles, the ships were purchased based on their successful use against Syrian rebels (DefenceWeb, May 29). Other naval acquisitions include:

  • Four Russian-made Project 636 Varshavyanka Kilo-class submarines, with one already delivered and another undergoing sea trials. These new submarines are an improvement on the two Project 636M Kilo-class submarines already in Algerian service and are largely intended for coastal defence, particularly of Algeria’s rich offshore oil and gas deposits.

Project 22160 Patrol Ship (World Naval News)

  • In May, Algeria purchased one new Russian-made Project 22160 patrol ship and placed an order for three more to be built in Algeria under a technology-transfer agreement (ShephardMedia, May 22; Sputnik, June 15). The ships will incorporate stealth technology and be fitted with modern communications and jamming equipment (Algérie Monde Infos, April 24).

Moscow hopes that arms sales and military cooperation agreements will bolster their position in Algeria, but its goal of establishing a naval base at the port of Mers al-Kabir still appears distant. Algeria continues to try to establish some balance in its international arms purchases, but has let it be known that it is increasingly interested in technology-transfer agreements to permit the development of its own arms industry.

Algeria maintains its constitutional prohibition on military deployment outside Algeria and a strict policy of regional non-interference. While some of the Russian equipment is useful for counter-insurgency or counter-terrorism work, the rest seems better suited for defensive use against Moroccan, Libyan or European opponents. With Russian assistance, the ANP is now the second-most powerful military in Africa.

Notes

  1. US Library of Congress Country Studies – “Algeria – Foreign Military Assistance,” 1994, http://countrystudies.us/algeria/172.htm
  2. Globalnaya navigatsionnaya sputnikovaya sistema – GLONASS (Global Navigation Satellite System).
  3. See also: “Algeria reveals new MI 26T2 Transport and Multi role Helicopter,” Algeria Today, YouTube, June 27, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EkIEO7Twg2c
  4. Algeria’s efforts to secure the Mi-28NE for use against AQIM were described in: “Algeria Seeks New Russian Attack Helicopters for its Campaign against al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb,” Terrorism Monitor, June 17, 2011, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=879

     

The Wandering Islamist: A Profile of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood’s Wagdi Ghoneim

Andrew McGregor

Militant Leadership Monitor, August 30, 2018

One of the most controversial preachers in contemporary Islam is Dr. Wagdi Abd al-Hamid Muhammad Ghoneim, a leading member of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (MB). Now an occasionally troublesome resident of Turkey, Ghoneim has been arrested eight times in Egypt and turfed out of numerous nations for his advocacy of radical Islam, using electronic platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. Intolerant of women seeking anything other than traditional roles and almost fanatically opposed to the existence of Egypt’s Coptic Christian population, Ghoneim was added to Egypt’s terrorist list last June, accused, with others, of attempting to “escalate the armed struggle against the state” (Youm7 [Cairo], June 26, via BBC Monitoring).

Early Career

Wagdi Ghoneim was born in 1951 in Egypt’s Sohag Governorate (Upper Egypt). Ghoneim began his academic career with a Bachelor of Commerce from Alexandria University in 1973 and worked for the Egyptian Ministry of Finance as an accountant from 1976 until his resignation in 2001. During that time he also served as the Secretary General of the Traders’ Union of Alexandria and Secretary General of the Division of Accounting and Auditing of the Traders’ Union of Greater Cairo (Assabile.com, n.d.). [1]

Ghoneim began his formal studies in Islam in the 1980s at the Alexandria campus of al-Azhar University. He began preaching in Alexandria, adopting a powerful and persuasive style that exploits his listeners’ often limited knowledge of the Western world to spin conspiratorial narratives with little or no basis in reality. Ghoneim was soon using cassette tapes to spread his vilification of Christians, both Western and Egyptian, and attracted the attention of Egypt’s secret police. A series of arrests and detentions of three to six months at a time began, though Ghoneim claimed to have continued to receive his government salary each time (Ottawa Citizen, January 10, 1998).

Activities in North America

By the late 1990s, Ghoneim was being invited by Islamist groups to preach in North America. In 1998, he was strip-searched and held at the Canadian border while attempting to cross from Detroit. Suspected of being a member of Hamas, Ghoneim was detained overnight before being interviewed by a member of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS). Immigration records indicated that the preacher was a member of the MB and had already been denied a visitor’s visa by the Canadian Embassy in Cairo in 1993. Ghoneim demanded an apology and financial compensation from the Canadian government. His supporters maintained he was simply a harmless accountant in Egypt’s finance ministry and claimed the Egyptian government was behind Ghoneim’s immigration problems (Ottawa Citizen, January 10, 1998). [2] Ontario’s socialist New Democratic Party also supported the radical Islamist and unsuccessfully demanded an apology to all Muslims in Canada from the federal government (Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 1998).

In 1998, Ghoneim urged the audience at an Islamic Association for Palestine conference in Brooklyn to help fund jihad before leading them in a song with the chorus, “No to the Jews, descendants of the apes, we vow to return [to Palestine], despite the obstacles.” [3]

By 2001, Ghoneim had decided to move with his family to California, where he became Imam of the Islamic Institute of Orange County. He acted as a fundraiser for the Toledo-based Hamas charity KindHearts and helped support himself by working as an Arabic calligrapher.

This existence ended abruptly in January 2005, when he was detained and voluntarily expelled from the U.S. in January 2005 (along with his wife and seven children) for violations related to his fundraising activities and his immigration status. He left for Qatar after receiving a ten-year ban on re-entry to the United States. Bill Odencrantz, U.S. Immigration and Customs director of field legal operations, said there were greater concerns regarding Ghoneim’s activities, but the immigration violation was pursued as “it was the easiest charge to prove… Frankly, our task is not to sit around and wait for people to blow up buildings” (LA Times, December 29, 2004).

A Peripatetic Preacher

Ghoneim was denied entry to Switzerland in September 2005 while attempting to attend the annual meeting of the League of Muslims in Switzerland, which claimed the decision was “driven by a bunch of opportunists who are playing the terror card to scare authorities and to provoke the Muslim minority” (IslamOnline, September 19, 2005). Ghoneim then returned to Qatar, where he held a work visa and enjoyed the ruling al-Thani family’s support for Muslim Brotherhood leaders. Ghoneim used Qatar as a base for frequent speaking tours elsewhere in Europe.

Ghoneim shifted his base to Bahrain, but was expelled from there in November 2007 after it was revealed he had supported Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait. The preacher moved to South Africa in March 2008, but was deported only months later for possessing an “illegal residency permit” (Islam Online, July 3, 2008).

This turmoil did not prevent Ghoneim from receiving a Masters of Theology and a Doctor of Philosophy in Islamic Studies in 2008 from the Indiana-based Graduate Theological Foundation for his online studies of the Islamic concept of divine shura (consultation) and the status of democracy. [4]

After several preaching trips to the UK, Ghoneim was banned from entry to Britain for seeking to “promote, justify and glorify terrorist actions” (UK Home Office Press Release, May 5, 2009).

He was soon living in Yemen, where he became (in absentia) one of five prominent members of the MB to be charged in Cairo with money laundering (IkhwanWeb.com, July 13, 2010). On returning from a visit to Qatar, Ghoneim and his wife were denied re-entry to Yemen in August 2011. They were briefly detained before being returned to Qatar, likely due to the suspicion of Yemeni security officials that the preacher was involved in Islamist opposition politics (Yemen Post, August 30, 2011).

Several Tunisian Islamist organizations invited Ghoneim to Tunisia to speak on a variety of religious issues in February 2012, but the visit turned into a national uproar when the preacher decided to lecture Tunisians on their obligation to carry out female genital mutilation (FGM) on young girls. The practice is extremely rare in Tunisia and Ghoneim was quickly rebuked by the Tunisian Ministry of Women’s Affairs, which denied any connection between FGM and Islam while reminding Tunisians FGM was prohibited by a number of international conventions to which Tunisia was a signatory  (TunisiaLive, February 15, 2012; TunisiaLive, February 17, 2012).

Ghoneim and the Egyptian Revolution

The election of Muslim Brotherhood member Muhammad Mursi as the successor to deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in June 2012 was a high point for the movement, but Mursi’s rule soon brought protesters back into the streets.

Former Egyptian President Muhammad Mursi on Trial in Cairo

Even Ghoneim was critical of the Mursi regime; in September 2012, he condemned Mursi for meeting with Egyptian artists, whom the preacher claimed were “promoters of immorality and prostitution.” Ghoneim asked why Mursi did not also meet with “stoned people and homosexuals.” He then slammed Mursi for referring to Egypt as “a civil state” rather than an Islamic state (which it is not) (Ahram Online [Cairo], September 17, 2012).

Nonetheless, as protests mounted against Mursi’s government, Ghoneim took to YouTube in January 2013 to demand that Mursi kill the “criminals, thugs, thieves [and] those who are burning the country and are killing innocent people.” The preacher further warned that if the police were not willing to do it, “we [the MB] will restore justice… God willing” (al-Arabiya, January 30, 2013).

With the anti-Mursi Tamarod (“rebel”) movement gaining steam, Ghoneim continued to defend the Mursi regime energetically, declaring that rebellion against Mursi’s government was a “rebellion against Islam” (Al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], June 16, 2013).

The Egyptian military moved to replace the Mursi governmet on July 3, 2013. The security services began a campaign of repression against the newly powerless Brotherhood that killed many, detained others, and drove its leaders abroad as fugitives. Ghoneim remained safely in Doha at the time of the coup. By December 2013, the Muslim Brotherhood had been declared a terrorist organization.

In September 2014, Ghoneim became one of seven MB leaders to be asked to leave Qatar in what appeared to be a conciliatory gesture to the anti-Brotherhood regimes in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (Observatoire-Qatar.com, September 13, 2014). Ghoneim then moved his base to Turkey.

Views on Coptic Christians

When Coptic Pope Shenouda III died in March, 2012, Ghoneim offered no words of condolence, insisting via a March 18 YouTube video that “God’s worshipers and the trees and the animals were all relieved by his death” (al-Arabiya, January 30, 2013). Ghoneim called the late Pope “the chief of the infidels,” and accused him of the clearly impossible intention of turning Egypt into a Coptic state: “We should be happy that he died. He should go to Hell.” [5]

The body of Pope Shenouda III was put on temporary display after his death in 2012. (ABC)

A year later, Ghoneim made the absurd claim that Copts were stockpiling weapons in their churches in preparation of a Coptic revolution and demanded an immediate search of these buildings (Al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], June 16, 2013).

When Egyptians packed into Cairo’s Tahrir Square to protest the Muhammad Mursi Islamist government, Ghoneim used YouTube to assert that most of the protesters were actually Copts disguising their religious affiliation. The preacher’s anger spilled into warnings of imminent genocide:

The day Egyptians — and I don’t even mean the Muslim Brotherhood or Salafis, regular Egyptians — feel that you are against them, you will be wiped off the face of the earth. I’m warning you now: do not play with fire! … If you want to stay here in Egypt with us, know your place and be respectful…   What do you think — that America will protect you? Let’s be very clear, America will not protect you. If so, it would have protected the Christians of Iraq when they were being butchered! [6]

Ghoneim eventually received a five-year sentence in absentia from a Cairo court in March 2017 for incitement against Egypt’s Copts (Daily News Egypt, April 30, 2017).

Views on the Islamic State Organization

A September 20014 YouTube video provided Ghoneim’s views on the Islamic State (IS) organization and Western efforts to contain it:

No to the crusader war that America and the crusader West is recruiting for now against the Islamic State… The crusaders are malevolent towards Islam and Muslims… These are the words of Allah, not my words. [The crusaders] have a creed that is based on spilling blood… America is the terrorist state, by Allah the biggest terrorist state… Are we going to forget what America did to the Red Indians and what it took from them?

Demonstrating a cavalier attitude towards historical facts, Ghoneim went on to accuse Christopher Columbus of handing out smallpox-infected blankets to the “Red Indians” on his arrival in America in 1776 (a mere 224 years after his actual arrival in 1492; the “smallpox blankets” allegation dates from 1763 and involves Swiss mercenary officers in British service, not Columbus or his descendants).

Despite the Islamic State’s own pride in its sadistic execution videos, Ghoneim claimed that these videos were photo-shopped by the “crusaders.” In the video, Ghoneim says he differs with IS on some issues and asks them to review their policies. Yet Ghoneim “absolutely does not approve of the crusader coalition to strike them” and warned Muslims against taking crusaders as allies against IS or handing over IS militants “to the enemies.” [7]

Ghoneim on Punishments and Palestine

Speaking, as he claimed, from his extensive experience of prisons and their inmates, Ghoneim has insisted that many prisoners would have preferred Islamic hudud punishments such as hand amputation over incarceration (Al-Nas TV [Cairo], August 11, 2011). The preacher has railed constantly against “Egyptian infidels,” who include liberals, seculars and moderates. In his view, “One who does not want the application of God’s law [i.e. Shar’ia] should get out of his universe completely” (IPT News, November 9, 2012).

Ghoneim backs the Palestinian cause, but his support often takes the form of outlandish claims: “[Israelis] enter Egypt without a visa, bringing with them drugs. They bring heroin. Their girls who go to Sinai [resorts]… transmit AIDS to our youth. These girls wear shorts, and then they get naked and fornicate with an Egyptian boy, leaving him a message: “Welcome to the AIDS club.” [8]

Under Sentence of Death

Ghoneim received a death sentence in Egypt in April 2017 after being tried in absentia for terrorist activities. The sentence was ratified by Egypt’s Grand Mufti (a necessity for all capital sentences in Egypt, though the Mufti’s decision is non-binding) and upheld by the Cairo Criminal Court in April 2017 (Daily News Egypt, April 30, 2017; Al-Sharq al-Aswat, May 1, 2017).

Ghoneim was handed another in absentia death sentence in July 2018 at the trial of 75 MB defendants related to the clash of Egyptian security forces and MB supporters at the Raba’a al-Adawiya Square protest camp in 2013. The clash led to the death of at least 600 people, most of them MB supporters (Anadolu Agency, July 28). These sentences were again sent to the Grand Mufti for confirmation.

Conclusion

Ghoneim’s anti-Western YouTube channel has not only been enormously popular (270,000 subscribers and 31 million views by March 17, 2017), but may have provided an important line of revenue for the preacher, with marketing experts estimating an income of $78,000 from ads placed alongside his videos by Google algorithms. Google UK spokespeople questioned the figure, insisting it was “only in the tens of pounds” while defending the free speech of web extremistseven when that means we don’t agree with the views expressed” (The Guardian, March 17, 2017).

Ghoneim’s inability to secure a permanent residence has not tempered his appetite for controversy.  The preacher created a diplomatic incident from his base in Turkey in August 2017 when he issued a video condemning Tunisian president Beji Caid Essebsi’s remarks supporting full gender equality and inheritance rights for women. The Turkish ambassador was summoned and later announced that his government was “disturbed” by Ghoneim’s video and denounced any attempt made to harm Tunisia from Turkish soil (Middle East Eye, August 26, 2017).

Last December, Ghoneim issued a sarcastic letter “of thanks” to Saudi crown prince Muhammad bin Salman, the effective leader of the kingdom and the instigator of a series of controversial reforms. Addressing the prince as a “traitor and Zionist” and describing him as “dirty” and “disgusting,” Ghoneim thanked Bin Salman for “reinforcing our conviction that the majority of the al-Sa’ud family and their princes are thieves and robbers.” The preacher also thanked Bin Salman for making clear his “alignment with the Hebrew Zionists” and for “daring to be selfless in offering Ivanka and her father Trump the wealth of a whole nation [i.e. Saudi Arabia]” (Le Libre Penseur, December 14, 2017).

At the moment, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is at historic lows of power and popularity. Ghoneim’s relentless calls for jihad in Egypt have met with little response, though he has been cited as a potential successor to fellow Egyptian and Doha resident Yusuf al-Qaradawi as spiritual leader of the Brotherhood.

Notes

  1. Jocelyne Cesari: The Awakening of Muslim Democracy: Religion, Modernity, and the State, Cambridge University Press, 2014, p.239, fn. 42.
  2. Abdulrahim Ali, Iba Cer Thiam and Yusof A. Talib: The Different aspects of Islamic culture: Islam in the World today, UNESCO Publishing, 2016, p.327.
  3. An audio recording can be found here: https://www.investigativeproject.org/567/ghoneim-no-to-the-jews.
  4. Ghoneim can be viewed discussing his academic work here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GUmUZ2Ybzpw (September 17, 2013).
  5. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y9d1vk8OgTo March 21, 2012.
  6. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XBVukGwjkEs&feature=player_embedded (December 6, 2012).
  7. “Sheikh Wagdi Ghoneim on Fighting IS,” September 23, 2014 (recorded September 16, 2014), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WzktBtWZ8-M
  8. Al-Aqsa TV [Gaza], March 11, 2012. Video is available at: https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x2qr6p0

This article first appeared in the August 30, 2018 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor.

The Battle for Sabha Castle: Implications for Libya’s Future

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, July 9, 2018

Libya’s fractious southern desert region is dotted by castles dating to Libya’s 19th century Ottoman period and the succeeding era of Italian colonial occupation in the early 20th century. The purpose of these defensive works was always the same: establish a fortified position with a strong garrison at choke-points of the Saharan trade network. Government control of watered oases, food supplies and local trade forced most caravans into communities dominated by fortifications intended to convince local tribes of the permanence of the occupiers. [1]

Sabha Castle Under Fire by Tubu Fighters (Libyan Express)

Insecurity in the south has taken the form of sabotage to power and water pumping stations, occupation of oil fields by gunmen, civil conflict, tribal warfare, fuel smuggling, arms proliferation, intrusion of foreign mercenaries, rampant kidnappings, human trafficking and even body-snatching. As fighting rages on around them in bursts of tribal, ethnic or politically motivated violence, Libya’s aging fortresses have become valuable strongpoints in many southern cities, including Sabha, located in the heart of the Libyan Sahara.

The Castle

With some 75,000 people, Sabha is the largest city in Libya’s southwestern Fezzan region and is 780 km south of Tripoli. Surrounded by desert, Sabha experiences average daily highs between 88º F and 102º F for seven months of the year. During Libya’s 2011 civil war, the city became a Qaddafist stronghold, only succumbing to revolutionaries aided by British airstrikes in September 2011.

Sabha Market – Castle on horizon, center right.

In the chaos that followed the overthrow of Qaddafi, the largely anti-Qaddafi Awlad Sulayman Arabs succeeded in seizing control of Sabha’s security apparatus and created a tribal militia under the official-sounding name of the 6th Infantry Brigade. Various tribal factions turned Sabha into a battleground in 2012 and 2014 as they fought for control of the city and the smuggling routes to the south of it.

Sabha’s strong-point is undeniably the massive walled Italian colonial-era fortress built atop a hill overlooking the city. Popularly known as the “Sabha castle,” the site is also known as Fort Elena or by its Italian name, Fortezza Margharita. The fortification’s imposing bulk was intended to intimidate the local tribes and consolidate Italian control of Fezzan. In the Qaddafist era, Sabha became a major military base during Qaddafi’s long and ultimately fruitless effort to seize northern Chad. The remote city then became the center of Qaddafi’s equally unsuccessful nuclear weapons program.

Though it is home to a number of tribes and a significant number of sub-Saharan migrants, two long-antagonistic groups emerged after the 2011 revolution as contenders for control of Sabha, the Arab Awlad Sulayman and the indigenous Tubu, a dark-skinned indigenous people found in parts of southern Libya, northern Chad and northeastern Niger. The Tubu are divided into two broad groups according to dialect; the northern Teda Tubu and the southern Daza Tubu.

The Battle

The struggle between the Tubu and the Awlad Sulayman began to escalate in February with small-scale street clashes. These intensified in early March, as homes, schools and hospitals all endured shelling. With snipers dominating the rooftops, thousands of civilians were forced to seek refuge elsewhere.

The commander of the 6th Brigade was Ahmad al-Utaybi (Awlad Sulayman). When Haftar prematurely attempted to extend his influence to Sabha by declaring the 6th Brigade a part of the LNA, al-Utaybi instead insisted the 6th was loyal to the Presidency Council/Government of National Accord (PC/GNA) defence ministry in Tripoli rather than the rival House of Representatives (HoR) government in Tobruk (Haftar’s LNA being, at least nominally, the armed wing of the HoR). An angry Haftar ordered al-Utaybi’s replacement by Brigadier Khalifa Abdul Hafiz Khalifa on February 25 (Al-Sharq al-Aswat, February 27). Al-Utaybi’s reluctance to give way led to attacks on 6th Brigade positions in Sabha by LNA-affiliated gunmen, possibly including Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries. Eventually the 6th Brigade was forced to pull back into their headquarters in the castle.

Haftar’s LNA then issued a bold order on March 9, 2017 that they had little chance of enforcing – a voluntary departure of all nationals from neighboring African countries living in the south by March 17, followed by the removal by force of those remaining “using all possible means, both land and air” (Xinhua, March 9, 2018; Middle East Monitor, March 9, 2018). Enforcing this order would likely entail the ethnic cleansing of most of Libya’s indigenous Tubu, many of whom have endured continuing difficulties obtaining citizenship documents after Qaddafi stripped them of their citizenship following the failure of his Chadian adventure. The inability or unwillingness of Libya’s post-revolution leaders to address this issue has contributed to the violence in southern Libya, where the Tubu have come to understand their presence can only be maintained by arms.

The LNA’s “Operation Law Enforcement” began on March 19 after the expiry of the ultimatum for foreign nationals to remove themselves. The operation’s goals were to restore security in the south, extend Haftar’s influence into a strategically vital region and drive those Chadian or Darfuri mercenaries not aligned with the LNA out of Libya.

Forbidding Haruj (Norbert Brügge)

LNA reports indicated the first airstrike of Operation Law Enforcement targeted a ten-vehicle group of Chadian mercenaries operating out of the Haruj volcanic field of central Libya, a physically hostile region consisting of 150 dormant volcanoes of various sizes and the blackened remains of their lava flows. The region is well known to local nomads, who have visited Haruj since the Neolithic Age seeking volcanic rock for weapons or tools. The wadi-s (dried river beds that funnel seasonal rains) of Haruj continue to offer forage to Arab and Tubu herders to this day as well as temporary shelter for militants.

Volcano Ruin, Haruj

As part of Operation Law Enforcement, the LNA also despatched units from Benghazi to distant Kufra oasis, 580 miles south into the Cyrenaïcan desert (Libya Herald, March 15, 2018). These arrived in mid-March under the command of Brigadier Belqassim al-Abaj, a former Qaddafi loyalist who held Kufra for Qaddafi until early May 2011, when Tubu revolutionaries and others drove him out. Al-Abaj is a Zuwaya Arab, which is hardly likely to encourage the Tubu, who have struggled with the Zuwaya for control of Kufra since the revolution. Animosity between the two groups dates to the 1840s, when the Zuwaya arrived from the north and made their first efforts to displace the indigenous Tubu. Al-Abaj’s force joined the local LNA-affiliated Subul al-Salam, a Zuwaya Salafist militia that has fought Chadian mercenaries and displaced Darfuri rebels with some success. [2]

Brigadier Belqassim al-Abaj

On March 18, the LNA reported the arrest of 16 militants who had crossed into Libya near the southern oasis of Kufra from Sudan. The detainees were said to have carried Sudanese and Syrian passports and were veterans of Syrian pro-al-Qaeda movements such as Jabhat al-Nusra (Libyan Express, March 18, 2018; Xinhua, March 18, 2018). The arrests were followed by airstrikes on unspecified targets in southern Libya two days later.

In late March, LNA airstrikes targeted a Chadian rebel group working as mercenaries inside Libya. Though Haftar has employed Chadian mercenaries himself, the targeted group, the Conseil de Commandement Militaire pour le Salut de la République (CCMSR – Military Command Council for the Salvation of the Republic), allied itself with the Benghazi Defense Brigades (BDB), bitter enemies of Haftar. [3] The CCMSR leader, Hassani Bulmay, was arrested in Niger in October 2017.

The Castle Falls

With its new commander finally in place, the 6th Infantry Brigade declared a unilateral ceasefire on April 9, 2018 as well as its allegiance to Khalifa Haftar and the LNA (Libya Herald, April 10, 2018). Mediators and reconciliation experts from the PC/GNA and the rival HoR arrived in Sabha to ease the conflict, but their efforts were generally unsuccessful, largely because of differing approaches and ultimate aims.

By the first week of May, abductions began in Sabha and the deaths of children and other civilians from shelling were reported (Libya Observer, May 7, 2018). The Awlad Sulayman were able to place snipers on the castle’s high points, giving them a clear field of fire into the predominantly Tubu neighborhoods of Tayouri and Nassiriya (Libya Herald, May 14, 2018).

The battle for the castle intensified on May 11-12. The escalation appeared to be due to an attempt by Haftar’s newly-appointed military governor for the south, Major General Mabruk al-Ghazwi, to impose a ceasefire on both parties. Ghazwi had just been transferred from Kufra, where he acted as LNA military commander, and appeared to have lacked a full grasp of the local situation in Sabha. Before accepting a ceasefire, the Tubu demanded to know if their 6th Brigade opponents were now under LNA command. Ghazwi’s response that the brigade was indeed a part of the LNA enraged the Tubu fighters, who determined to drive the Awlad Sulayman gunmen from the castle once and for all.

By May 15, Sabha’s mayor, Hamid al-Khayali, was, describing the situation in Sabha as “tragic” (Libya Observer, May 15, 2018).  In response, the Presidential Council (PC) in Tripoli ordered the creation of three new brigades to operate in the south and extend the writ of the PC/GNA (Libya Observer, May 16, 2018; Libya Herald, May 17, 2018).

Tubu Range – Daza are in dark red, Teda in light red (Nationalia)

The Tubu, as is customary during clashes with southern Libya’s Arab population, were accused of hiring Tubu mercenaries from Chad and Niger or of being Chadians themselves. The claim is a Qaddafi-era canard that has survived the late dictator, though it must be acknowledged that many Teda Tubu travel back and forth across the unregulated and relatively new border through their traditional lands with some regularity. Awlad Sulayman tribesmen are also found in Chad as a result of flight from Libya during the Ottoman and Italian colonial periods; some of these have returned to Libya since the revolution.During a fierce battle on the morning of May 13, 2018, the Tubu finally broke the defenses of the 6th Brigade and poured into the castle. The Awlad Sulayman brought up armor for a counter-attack, but were ultimately repulsed. The LNA’s military governor al-Mabruk al-Ghazwi then ordered a final withdrawal, leaving the castle and the northern and eastern parts of Sabha in Tubu hands (Libya Herald, May 13, 2018). After taking the castle, a Tubu spokesman invited the Presidential Council (PC) to secure Sabha (Libya Observer, May 13, 2018).

The castle, which appears on Libya’s 10 dinar bank-note, was badly damaged by artillery, though not for the first time since the 2011 revolution. The latest shelling of the fortress was condemned by the Libyan Antiquities Authority as an attack on “Libyan history and civilization” (Libya Observer, March 5, 2018).

The Struggle for Tamanhint Airbase

Days after the castle fell, fighting broke out at the massive Tamanhint airbase, 30 km northeast of Sabha The base was held by members of the Misratan pro-PC/GNA 13th Brigade (formerly “Third Force”), until May 25, 2017, when LNA forces from southern and eastern Libya began to assemble in large numbers at Traghan (east of Murzuq, 125 km south of Sabha) in late March 2017 (Misrata is a coastal city in northwestern Libya and the home of several powerful anti-Haftar militias). Attacks by these forces and local opposition to the Misratan presence helped convince the 13th Brigade’s leaders to withdraw to the north on May 25, 2017, leaving the base to the LNA.

On March 24, 2018, the base was occupied by the Tarik bin Zayid Brigade, a Salafist militia affiliated with the LNA. The unit is led by Sulayman al-Wahidi al-Si’aiti (aka al-Massloukh, “the skinny one”).

The LNA briefly lost Tamanhint to attackers in 15 vehicles on May 29, 2018, before the attackers were in turn driven off by LNA airstrikes, apparently without loss. The LNA claimed the attackers were a mix of Chadian mercenaries and fighters from the notorious anti-Haftar Benghazi Defense Brigades (BDB) (Libya Herald, May 31, 2018; June 1, 2018). [4]

The Israeli Defense Force in Sabha?

An unconfirmed report from London-based al-Araby al-Jadeed claimed Haftar held an early July meeting in the Jordanian capital of Amman with Israeli intelligence to discuss the insertion of Israeli security forces in Sabha in order to dissuade alleged French and Italian efforts to control the southern region (Middle East Monitor, July 3, 2018). In return, Israel could expect Libyan oil shipments and large orders from Israel’s booming arms industry (presumably despite the porous UN arms embargo).

Other reports suggest that Israeli military assistance to Haftar began in 2014, with the July 2018 meeting being only the latest in a series of secret meetings between Haftar and Mossad representatives in Amman since then. The meetings are allegedly mediated by the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which provides substantial military support to Haftar and air support to LNA ground forces (Middle East Eye, August 14, 2017; Reuters, July 25, 2015; New Arab, July 24, 2017). Haftar announced on June 29 that he had information regarding “international forces” seeking to insert military forces into southern Libya in order to bring illegal migration under control. Haftar warned these un-named forces “against such actions, which are considered as a violation of international law and an attack on the Libyan state and its sovereignty” (Asharq al-Awsat, June 30, 2018).

Conclusion

An LNA spokesman in Derna declared on June 11 that the successful conclusion of the two-year battle for that city will be followed by new campaigns to secure southern Libya (Libya Observer, June 11, 2018). Meanwhile, the occupation of Sabha’s commanding fortress by Tubu militiamen has posed a setback to Haftar’s long-range efforts to secure Fezzan through local tribal fighters. Nonetheless, Sabha’s Awlad Sulayman may have suffered a defeat, but the 6th Infantry Brigade remains in the region and will no doubt spearhead any new attempts by the LNA to take hold of the region.

Whether there is any substance to Haftar’s claims that foreign militaries intend to occupy southern Libya to control the flow of sub-Saharan migrants into Europe remains unknown, though both French and Italian troops have established themselves on the Niger side of that nation’s border with Libya’s Fezzan region. With Derna’s last points of resistance likely to collapse by the end of July, the LNA will be able to deploy its forces in the south against those aligned with the internationally recognized PC/GNA government. The resulting chaos may work in the favor of Islamic State fighters already active in Fezzan [5] and attract further international attention, making Sabha’s castle the epicenter of Libya’s ongoing crisis.

NOTES

  1. Photos of many of these Ottoman/Italian fortifications in Libya can be found at http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=2837
  2. For more on Subul al-Salam and their Saudi religious influences, see: “Salafists, Mercenaries and Body Snatchers: The War for Libya’s South,” Terrorism Monitor, April 6, 2018, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=4173
  3. For more on Chadian militant groups operating inside Libya, see: Rebel or Mercenary? A Profile of Chad’s General Mahamat Mahdi Ali,” Militant Leadership Monitor, September 7, 2017, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=4010
  4. For the BDB, see: “Libya’s Military Wild Card: The Benghazi Defense Brigades and the Massacre at Brak al-Shatti,” Terrorism Monitor, June 2, 2017, http://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=3917
  5. Islamic State militants operate close to Sabha; in March, a US airstrike killed two men alleged to be IS operatives in the southern town of Ubari (Libya Observer, March 24, 2018; Libyan Express, March 24, 2018; NYT March 25, 2018). Ubari is a principal center in the smuggling of weapons, drugs and illegal migrants from the African interior. A statement from US Africa Command (AFRICOM) declared that the attack had been coordinated with the PC/GNA government. It was the southernmost strike in Libya acknowledged so far by AFRICOM (Reuters, March 24, 2018). AFRICOM identified one of the deceased as Musa Abu Dawud, a veteran Algerian militant who led successful attacks against Algerian and Tunisian military posts (AP, March 29, 2018; Arab News, March 28, 2018). The IS leader in Libya is believed to be Al-Mahdi Salam Danqo (aka Abu al-Barakat), who served the Islamic State in Mosul.