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.

Libya’s Video Executioner: A Profile of LNA Special Forces Commander Mahmud al-Warfali

Andrew McGregor

July 6, 2018

Major Mahmud Mustafa Busayf al-Warfali (right) takes a selfie with two alleged militants (center rear) on their way to their execution.

Islamist militants have long used the power of videotaped atrocities to terrorize their opponents. One man believes he can do the same in the interests of Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar’s attempt to gain control of Libya: Major Mahmud Mustafa Busayf al-Warfali, a senior officer in Libya’s Special Forces unit.

Early Career – The Libyan Revolution

Born in 1978, al-Warfali, a member of Libya’s Warfalla tribe, joined Libya’s elite al-Sa’iqa (“Thunderbolt”) Special Forces brigade after Qaddafi’s fall. Many Warfalla were pro-Qaddafi and fighting continued for months after Qaddafi’s death around the Warfalla-dominated town of Bani Walid (90 miles southeast of Tripoli) Nearly five months after Qaddafi’s death, al-Warfali was involved in the successful defense of Bani Walid as spokesman of the revolutionary forces against an assault on the town by lingering pro-Qaddafi forces (AP, January 23, 2012; Express, January 23, 2012).

Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar (left) and Major General Wanis Bukhamada

Al-Sa’iqa is led by Major General Wanis Bukhamada (Magharba tribe), a career military officer who deserted the Libyan regular army in 2011 to join the revolutionary forces. Al-Sa’iqa joined Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) in early 2014, as Haftar began a three-year siege of Benghazi (Reuters, May 18, 2014). Despite its name, the LNA is actually a coalition of revolutionary militias, former Qaddafi loyalists, radical Saudi-influenced Islamists and African mercenaries, though it is closely tied to the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR), one of three rival governments in Libya.

War Crimes in Benghazi

During the siege of Benghazi, al-Warfali’s enemies attempted to eliminate him through a car bomb targeting his convoy on February 7, 2017. Two soldiers were killed while al-Warfali was rushed for medical treatment at the Benghazi Medical Center, where his men imposed a security lockdown so tight that even doctors had difficulty gaining access to al-Warfali (African News Agency, February 27, 2017).

Al-Warfali Executes Bound Suspects, Benghazi, 2017

Al-Warfali began to attract international attention in March 2017, when a video was released of the LNA officer executing three bound suspects in the Salmania district of Benghazi. Following international outrage, the LNA announced it was launching an inquiry and would not tolerate extra-judicial killings.

Al-Warfali Executes an Algerian Militant, May 2017

Nonetheless, a  video released in early May 2017 showed al-Warfali firing into the head of a bound individual alleged to be an Algerian Islamic Stare (IS) militant (Al-Arabiya, May 11, 2017). The Benghazi Security Directorate accused al-Warfali’s men of murdering police captain Musa al-Mijibri (Libya Observer, July 23, 2017). The accusation did not prevent al-Warfali’s promotion to major shortly afterwards.

Apparently responding to the international condemnation of his actions, al-Warfali resigned his commission on May 15, 2017 in a theatrical videotaped event, but Bukhamada refused to accept it (Libya Herald, May 16, 2017).

In June 2017, al-Warfali was accused by the UN Panel of Experts on Libya of running a number of secret and illegal prisons. [1] In the same month, al-Warfali appeared in a video killing four masked men, stating he was “honored” to kill them and purify the world of their evil  (Libya Herald, August 15, 2017). Al-Warfali sometimes quotes scriptural justification for his executions while waving a Quran in his hands.

Summary Execution of 20 Bound Men, July 17, 2017 – Al-Warfali in black shirt, bottom left

Another video was released showing a July 17, 2017 mass execution of 20 bound men in orange jump suits directed by al-Warfali. The victims were arranged in four rows before gunmen approached them from behind to fire point-blank into the back of their heads. Al-Warfali himself kills one of the last three prisoners (Libya Observer, July 23, 2017; Libya Herald, August 15, 2017). Al-Warfali insisted the killings came only after “it was proven that they were involved in the killing, kidnapping, torture, bombing and slaughter” of military personnel and Libyan civilians (Al-Arabiya, July 24, 2017).

The International Criminal Court (ICC) issued an arrest warrant for al-Warfali on August 15, 2017, alleging he had committed and ordered “murder as a war crime” in seven incidents involving 33 victims between June 2, 2016 and July 17, 2017. [2] Not long after his supposed arrest, al-Warfali was spotted in Ajdabiya conducting the summary execution of five prisoners taken by the LNA (Libya Observer, September 7, 2017; Libya Herald, January 25).

On August 17, 2017, the LNA announced al-Warfali had been arrested and detained on August 2 at Haftar’s order.  Despite pledges to do so, the LNA failed to provide the ICC with any of the results of their investigation (Libya Observer, August 17, 2017; Al-Jazeera, August 18, 2017).

In Abyar, roughly 40 miles from Benghazi, 36 bodies were discovered on October 26, 2017, all bearing signs of torture and execution-style shots to the head. The bound men were alleged to have been prisoners at one of the LNA’s private prisons (Al-Arabiya, October 30, 2017; Libya Observer, November 29, 2017). Some security sources implicated Mahmoud al-Warfali and Saddam Haftar, one of the LNA commander’s sons (Al-Jazeera, October 29, 2017; Libyan Express, October 28, 2017).

In early December 2017, a Sa’iqa spokesman, possibly oblivious to the fact al-Warfali was supposed to be under arrest, announced that the Special Forces commander had led al-Sa’iqa’s 1st battalion in an assault on militant positions in the Sidi Akribesh district of Benghazi  (Libya Herald, December 2, 2017).

Al-Warfali conducts revenge killings, Benghazi, January 2018

After the twin bombing of Benghazi’s Baya’at al-Radwan mosque that killed dozens of worshippers (many of them LNA members) on January 24, 2018, al-Warfali was reported to have taken revenge by executing ten suspected militants outside the damaged mosque. The bodies were left in the street (al-Ahram [Cairo], February 4, 2018). Photos of al-Warfali killing at least one of the kneeling prisoners were later released, attracting the attention of UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres (Libya Herald, January 25, 2018).

Arrest and Release

Haftar complained to an Italian daily that the focus on al-Warfali was disproportional, even citing a lack of “concrete evidence,” despite the videos: “I respect the laws of human rights and the authority of the International Criminal Court. But it should also add the horrific crimes that are being committed daily in Libya. Why is the court only focussing on Warfali?” (Corriere Della Sera, September 28, 2017).

As Haftar continued to ignore the ICC warrant, Gambian ICC chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda declared the LNA leader needed “to demonstrate, by concrete actions, respect for international justice” (Middle East Monitor, November 9, 2017). Haftar’s response to the extradition demand was to again ask: “There are crimes being committed in Libya every day, so why are you focusing only on Warfali?” (Asharq al-Aswat, November 9, 2017).

Al-Warfali formally turned himself in to LNA military police headquarters in Benghazi on February 6. Shortly afterward, LNA gunmen led by sons of Khalifa Hafter showed up and took al-Warfali to Rajma (27 km east of Benghazi). There were fears in al-Sa’iqa that al-Warfali had been spirited away in order to carry out his extradition to the ICC, and rioting Special Forces and Islamist fighters were soon mounting barricades in the streets of Benghazi in protest. With the LNA’s strongest unit now taking to the streets to oppose their Field Marshal, al-Warfali found himself back on the streets in less than two days (Libya Observer, February 8).

According to an account carried by Libyan TV, Haftar demanded Bukhamada turn over the Sa’iqa fighters who were involved the in the Benghazi riots. Perhaps aware that his demand might not be met, Haftar offered to release back wages owed to Sa’iqa members in return for Bukhamada’s cooperation (Al-Nabaa TV, February 22). The detention of the Sa’iqa rioters provoked yet more Sa’iqa protests and road seizures (Libya Observer, March 8).

Al-Warfali conducts summary executions, May 2018

After this episode, Bukhamada was reassigned to Derna, where a new offensive was being prepared. Rumors that he had been sacked by Haftar as leader of the Special Forces proved false, but there were suggestions that Haftar was disturbed by the level of support Bukhamada and al-Warfali had received in Benghazi after the latter’s arrest (Libya Herald, February 18).

An Army without Discipline

While al-Warfali may have tapped into a widespread Libyan thirst for revenge against murderous Islamic State militants who never displayed any mercy of their own, his actions damage the LNA’s efforts to gain international recognition as a state army while his very public indiscipline creates rifts within the LNA’s loose command structure.

Is al-Warfali a rogue commander or a loyal agent of Haftar’s campaign to seize power in Libya? The LNA has claimed the illegal executions represent “only those who committed them,” even as al-Warfali continued serving as an LNA officer (Asharq al-Awsat, August 19, 2017). The executions are either approved at the top or demonstrate that Haftar little control of the varied military coalition he presents as Libya’s “national army.” [3]

There is little difference between the methods used by al-Warfali and those employed by the Islamic State terrorists; al-Warfali is certainly not the first to adopt the tactics of his enemy. What is unusual is his determination to document his own participation in potential war crimes. Al-Warfali may enjoy immunity now, but, as an ICC spokesman pointed out, conditions often change, noting “There is no statute of limitations for the ICC arrest warrants” (Libya Herald, August 15, 2017).

Notes

  1. United Nations Security Council: “Final report of the Panel of Experts on Libya established pursuant to resolution 1973 (2011),” June 1, 2017, http://undocs.org/S/2017/466, p.19.
  2. “The Prosecutor v. Mahmoud Mustafa Busayf Al-Werfalli,” ICC-01/11-01/17, https://www.icc-cpi.int/libya/al-werfalli
  3. For the difficulties in creating a national Libyan army, see: “The Missing Military: Options for a New National Libyan Army,” AIS Special Report, November 10, 2017, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?tag=libyan-national-army

This article first appeared in the July 6, 2018 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor.

“We Don’t Need Derna Anymore”: What the Battle for Derna Means for Libya’s Future

Andrew McGregor

June 29, 2018

The Southern Approach to Derna (Libyan Express)

Once an important Mediterranean port in the ancient world of the Greeks and Romans, the city of Derna is currently being leveled by artillery and airstrikes supporting a ground offensive led by 76-year-old “Field Marshal” Khalifa Haftar. A former Qaddafi loyalist, veteran of Libya’s disastrous war in Chad and a one-time CIA asset, Haftar now seeks total control of Libya while acting as the commander of the so-called “Libyan National Army (LNA),” nominally the military wing of the Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR), a rival government to the internationally recognized Presidency Council/Government of National Accord (PC/GNA) in Tripoli. The LNA is a coalition of former revolutionaries, Saudi-influenced Islamist militias and occasionally mercenaries who fight under Haftar’s direction.

More recently known as a hotbed of jihadist activity, Derna plays an important part in U.S. military history; in 1805 Consul William Eaton led seven U.S. Marines and several hundred Greek, Arab and Turkish mercenaries on a five hundred mile march from Alexandria to Derna, where his odd little army took the city from a larger Karamanli force in little more than an hour. It was the young republic’s first over-seas land battle and a notable success after the French had failed to take Derna five years earlier.

Today, however, Derna has become known as a hotbed of jihadist activity. Haftar’s campaign aims to bring an end to that, but the longer the LNA bombardment continues the less certain his political future becomes.

Derna and the Islamic State

Located on the coast near the green hills of the northeastern Jabal Akhdar region, Derna supplied over 50 fighters for the anti-American jihad in Iraq in the 2000s. In October 2014, a group of Islamist militants based in Derna (particularly dissident members of the Abu Salim Martyr’s Brigade) pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) organization and took over many parts of the city despite the opposition of other Islamists with close ties to al-Qaeda. IS rule was marked largely by beheadings and other forms of public humiliations and executions.

Fighters opposing the IS within Derna formed the Majlis Shura al-Mujahideen Derna (Derna Mujahideen Shura Council – DMSC) on December 12, 2014. This group began to drive IS militants out of Derna in June 2015 even as the LNA imposed a loose siege on the city. The DMSC fought a merciless war against IS members responsible for murders and suicide bombings in Derna, frequently executing IS militants after obtaining their confessions (Libya Express, March 22, 2016).

In the meantime, the IS slaughter of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians in Sirte in February 2015 led to Egyptian airstrikes on IS strongholds in Libya, including DMSC targets in Derna. The DMSC declared they had “no relation with the IS in Syria and Iraq,” adding that they also had nothing to do with the IS beheadings of Egyptian Copts hundreds of kilometers away (Middle East Eye, February 19, 2015). Later that year an American F-15 airstrike killed IS commander Abu Nabil al-Anbari (a.k.a. Wissam Najm ‘Abd Zayd al-Zubaydi; a.k.a. Abu Mughira al-Qahtani) just outside Derna (BBC, December 7, 2015).

Neighborhoods of Derna (NGO Reach)

For a time the IS fugitives were able to establish themselves in the industrial suburb of al-Fatayih, but were eventually forced from there in April 2016, bringing the DMSC’s two-year campaign to an end (Libyan Express, April 20, 2016). Four days later the DMSC complained that since the IS expulsion Haftar’s small air force had mounted 12 airstrikes on civilian neighborhoods of Derna while failing to attack fleeing IS fighters who were dangerously exposed in open country (Libyan Express, April 24, 2016).

The Egyptian air force bombed Derna again in May 2017 as retaliation for an attack on Christians in central Egypt that was blamed on IS militants from Derna (BBC, May 26, 2017). The DMSC denied any involvement in the mass-killing, reminding Cairo that the IS had been expelled from Derna, while suggesting the accusation was an attempt to divert attention from the Egyptian government’s inability to tackle its own security crisis (Libyan Express, May 28, 2017). The LNA’s two-year-old siege of Derna was tightened in August, with residents describing it as “collective punishment” (Middle East Eye, August 7, 2017).

The Field Marshal

Inaccurate reports of Haftar’s imminent death in April after a medical evacuation to Amman and then Paris may have sparked a succession struggle within the LNA, possibly including the April 18 car bomb attack on Haftar’s LNA chief-of-staff, General ‘Abd al-Razik al-Nazuri (218 TV [Libya], via BBC Monitoring, April 18).

Haftar’s bid for power is supported by Russia, France, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which has been accused by the UN of providing military helicopters and other aircraft to Haftar’s LNA in violation of the UN arms embargo. There are also reports of Haftar seeking military support from Israel (The New Arab, July 27, 2017; Libyan Express, December 25, 2017; Middle East Eye, August 5, 2017),

Charges related to alleged LNA war crimes have been filed in France, the U.S. and the International Criminal Court (ICC) (Libya Observer, May 2). Haftar has refused to turn suspected war criminals in the LNA ranks over to the International Criminal Court (ICC), and has even been charged with torture and murder himself in Paris (Middle East Confidential, May 3).

The Offensive Begins

As the LNA began to occupy the southern heights overlooking Derna in the third week of April, the DMSC appealed for reconciliation, extending “Its hand in peace” and declaring its members were “ready to be accountable for any injustices we are proven to have committed.” Oddly, the group suggested mediation through the offices of former Libya Grand Mufti Shaykh Sadiq al-Ghariani, one of Haftar’s most bitter and vocal opponents (Libyan Social Media, via BBC Monitoring, April 22). Instead, the seizure of the heights allowed LNA artillery spotters to direct more intensive fire onto targets within Derna.

Fighting on the Outskirts of Derna (Libyan Express)

On May 7, Haftar announced a final offensive to “liberate” Derna, even if “we have to evacuate all civilians from it” (Libyan Observer, May 7). A member of the Presidential Council, Muhammad Amari Zayid, described the offensive as a “war crime” that was being carried out to satisfy “personal ambitions” rather than serve the interests of the nation (Libya Observer, May 8). Zayid succeeded in meeting with the head of the Derna local council, who confirmed that Derna’s civil and military institutions were affiliated with the PC/GNA (Asharq al-Awsat, May 10).

On May 11, the DMSC reorganized as the Derna Protection Force (DPF), possibly to build a common cause with less religiously-driven fighters who nonetheless oppose Haftar and the imposition of his own form of strongman rule across eastern Libya. Some members of the DPF were formerly aligned with Ansar al-Shari’a, an Islamist militia close to al-Qaeda that dissolved in May 2017 after suffering heavy losses in fighting with the LNA and its allies (Reuters, May 27, 2017).  By May 15, LNA attacks had begun to strike civilian areas of Derna. Social media photos displayed indiscriminate bombing of civilian areas of Derna’a Wasat al-Bilad district, with local sources saying bodies (including those of women and children) could not be recovered due to shelling and airstrikes (Libya Observer, June 9).

Worried residents of Derna were not reassured by a video released by an LNA fighter in which the speaker warned they would be treated worse than the “Khawarij” (a derogatory reference to the Kharijites, a violent and despised extremist sect in early Islam); “We will demolish your houses; we will kill everyone, even civilians, we don’t need Derna anymore” (Libya Observer, May 17). This was followed by an announcement from Haftar’s “Information and Fighting E-Terrorism Unit” that they had a list of 21,000 “terrorists” they were seeking in the city of 125 to 150,000 people (Libya Observer, May 27).

Omar Rifa’i Juma’a Surur

A veteran Egyptian jihadist and qadi (religious judge), ‘Umar Rifa’i Juma’a Surur (a.k.a. Abu ‘Abdallah al-Masri), was killed in a May 21 airstrike on Derna, according to an LNA spokesman (Al-Wasat [Cairo], May 21; Al-Sharq al-Awsat, June 11). Surur was alleged to have acted as a recruiter of jihadis headed for Syria, Iraq and Egypt (Egypt Today, May 21).  Known for his strong opposition to the rival Islamic State, Surur was formerly a lieutenant of Egyptian jihadist Hisham ‘Ali al-Ashmawy, an expert in tactics and weapons (Al-Arabiya, June 10). Two other militant clerics, Abu Zayd al-Shilwi and Abu ‘Umar ‘Abd al-Salam al-Awami, were killed the same day (Telegram Messaging via BBC Monitoring, June 11). The LNA also suffered losses; On May 22, the LNA announced the death in combat of 36th Brigade commander Brigadier ‘Abd al-Hamid Warfali during clashes southwest of Derna (Libya Observer, May 23).

Nonetheless, Haftar announced on May 24 that the end of “four consecutive years of holy struggle” was approaching in Derna, while proclaiming he had ordered his men not to “harm the city’s residents or their property” (Middle East Monitor, May 24). The LNA commander also called on the families of DPF fighters to pressure their kinsmen to abandon arms in the struggle against the LNA and seek the “fair trial” being offered (Reuters, May 25).

Egyptian airstrikes coordinated with the LNA struck central Derna and the Fatayeh industrial zone on May 26, 2017, followed by claims to have destroyed the DPF headquarters (Libyan Express, May 27, 2017; Middle East Eye, May 29). Drone attacks and heavy shelling forced the DPF to withdraw from al-Fatayeh on May 29 even as Derna’s local council issued an appeal to all local, regional and international organizations to open Derna’s port for humanitarian assistance, describing conditions as “disastrous” (Anadolou Agency, May 28; Libya Observer, May 29).

The LNA Enters Derna

By June 1, the LNA claimed to have taken al-Fatayih and the heights overlooking the Bab al-Tobruk district of Derna (Middle East Eye, June 1). Shaykh Sadiq al-Ghariani took to Libyan TV to describe the attack during the holy month of Ramadan as “preposterous.” Urging all Libyans to support the citizens of Derna with civil disobedience if necessary, al-Ghariani declared that “What is happening in Derna is not a war on terrorism, but a war on all Libyans in order to subdue them” (Tanasuh TV, via Libya Observer, June 2).

The attacking force consisted of four battalions of LNA troops, with two battalions working their way into Derna from the west and two from the east, beginning on June 4. Troop movement is directed by the ‘Umar Mukhtar Operations Room under the command of Major General Salim al-Rafadi. The troops are strengthened by elements of the al-Sa’iqa Special Forces brigade and supported by artillery and warplanes belonging to the LNA, Egypt and the UAE (The National [Abu Dhabi], June 5). France, which aided Haftar in his three-year siege of Benghazi, is reported to have secretly provided Haftar with a newly-obtained Beechcraft King Air 350 reconnaissance airplane for work over Derna (Libya Observer, June 3; Libyan Express, November 1, 2016). Publically, France is promoting a peace process intended to lead to presidential and parliamentary elections in December.

At the forefront of the LNA offensive is Wanis Bukhamada’s Sa’iqa Special Forces. Bukhamada insists his unit is “fighting members of terrorist groups operating under a variety of names… Libyan fighters… must resolve their issues with the Libyan state through the courts… As for foreign fighters, they have no place in Libya…” (Al-Wasat via BBC Monitoring, May 20). LNA forces captured Derna’s security chief, Yahya Usta ‘Umar, on June 8. Though appointed by the GNA, Haftar’s representatives described ‘Umar as an al-Qaeda-affiliated terrorist (Libyan Express, June 8).

With the LNA having developed a reputation for the mistreatment and even murder of prisoners, Haftar announced he had asked his troops to “respect legal procedures relating to prisoners” during the battle for Derna (AFP, June 5). By June 8, the LNA claimed to control of 75% of the city, with Haftar setting the final stage of the conflict in religious terms during a speech to his troops: “After four years of holy struggle against the Kharijites, we are close to the liberation of Derna” (Egypt Today, June 8).

By June 12, the LNA claimed to control the port and all the rest of the city save for an inner core of some 10 km², where fighting was described as “very heavy” with LNA losses due to desperate DPF suicide attacks (Middle East Monitor, June 12; Libya Herald, June 12). Mines and IEDs have taken the largest toll on LNA attackers.

LNA Brigadier General ‘Abd al-Salam al-Hassi insisted that LNA forces would protect the lives and property of Derna’s civilian population, though reports from inside Derna described civilian deaths under bombardment and an inability to retrieve victims under constant fire (Libya Herald, June 6; Libyan Express, June 7). Another LNA official dismissed reports of Egyptian troops participating in the assault on Derna as an attempt by the Muslim Brotherhood to diminish the significance of the LNA’s impending victory, though he did acknowledge “high-level coordination and cooperation” with Egyptian officials (Asharq al-Awsat, June 10).

A report by Swiss-based NGO Reach detailed extensive damage from the siege to Derna’s roads and its water, electric and sewage systems. Schools, mosques and bridges have been bombed and those attempting to escape the destruction faced harassment or violence at checkpoints if they managed to get through networks of mines and snipers. [1] Shortages of food and medicine have been exacerbated by daily shelling and airstrikes while access to water and electricity remains intermittent at best.

Conclusion

It is likely that Haftar’s decision to turn away from his march on Tripoli to consolidate his rear in Cyrenaïca was strongly influenced by his supporters in Egypt, France and the UAE, all of whom regard Derna as a dangerous spawning ground for Islamist militants.

As the battle for Derna rages on, the international community looks away, having no particular objection to the elimination of this long-time Islamist hotbed despite the similarity of Haftar’s tactics to those used by Mu’ammar Qaddafi in 2011. This time, there is no imposition of a “no-fly zone” or mobilization of the international community. Italy has stated its readiness to supply humanitarian aid if “access is granted by the parties involved,” but this and a call for restraint from the UN Security Council constitute nearly the whole of international concern for the residents of Derna (Libya Observer, June 2). While the LNA claims to be working towards supplying “liberated” areas of Derna, other observers warn of an impending “humanitarian catastrophe” as the fighting continues (Middle East Eye, June 12). As the LNA commander is fond of referring to all his political opponents as “terrorists,” the question is whether the license given to him by the international community in Derna will apply to future attacks on Tripoli and other centers of anti-Haftar resistance.

It took three years for Haftar to take Benghazi, with repeated proclamations of victory routinely followed by reports of continued resistance. DPF fighters show little sign they are about to capitulate; rather than being “hours” away from total victory, as the LNA claimed on June 11, an extended period of urban warfare punctuated by deadly suicide attacks seems more likely. There is also a danger that the lightly-disciplined LNA fighters may commit abuses over time that could generate international disapproval. If this happens, it will have a serious impact on Haftar’s ability to bring western Libya under his control before the elections scheduled for December. For Haftar, a quick victory is essential – prolonged civilian suffering combined with the brutal realities of urban combat and a perceived inability to secure Derna could easily damage the aging Field Marshal’s political prospects and standing in the international community.

NOTE

  1. “Libya: Public services break down as conflict escalates in encircled city of Derna,” Reach, Geneva, June 5, 2018, http://www.reachresourcecentre.info/system/files/resource-documents/reach_lby_situationoverview_ra_derna_jun2018_0.pdf

This article first appeared in the June 29, 2018 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Terror in the Sulu Archipelago: A Profile of Filipino Abu Sayyaf leader Yassir Igasan

Andrew McGregor

June 8, 2018

The Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) of the southern Philippines has always found itself perched on a fine line between Islamic jihad and organized crime. [1] Active since the early 1990s, some factions of the group are devoted solely to kidnapping-for-ransom, though some leaders have tried to return the movement to its ideological roots as an organization formed to impose Shari’a and establish “a purely Islamic government” in the southern Philippines. [2]

War in Mindanao (South China Evening Post)

One of the ASG’s more religiously focused leaders is the shadowy Yassir Igasan, who stands out for his sheer survival skills in a movement whose leaders are notoriously short-lived. With a religious education in the Middle East and fluency in Arabic, Igasan was regarded as a potential leader of Islamic State forces in the region before he was reportedly wounded in the leg by an October 2017 artillery strike near the town of Patikul in the Sulu Archipelago. ASG prisoners informed Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) intelligence operatives that Igasan has not been seen in recent months, leading to speculation that he may have been killed (AP, May 5).

Map of the old Sulu Sultanate (Mkenology.com)

Igasan is a member of the Tausūg, the dominant ethnic group in the largely Muslim Sulu Archipelago, a chain of islands separating the Sulu Sea from the Celebes Sea and stretching southwest from the major southern Philippines island of Mindanao to Muslim Malaysia. Basilan and Jolo are the most important islands in the archipelago, which once formed the core of the independent Sulu Sultanate. The Tausūg have a strong warrior tradition and resisted occupation efforts by the Spanish, the Americans and the Japanese. Many Tausūg feel little connection to the culturally and religiously different Filipino Christian majority and often regard efforts to establish the control of the central government in Manila as differing little from the campaigns of these earlier imperialists. Historically, the southern Philippines have shared a trading relationship and common Islamic culture with neighboring Malaysia and Indonesia rather than the majority Christian islands of the north.

According to AFP Brigadier General Cirilito Sobejana, there are still somewhere between 300 to 400 Abu Sayyaf militants, most of them active in the Sulu Archipelago (Xinhua, March 27, 2018).

Early Career

Yassir Igasan (a.k.a. Tuan Ya) was born in 1972 on the volcanic island of Jolo. As a teenager, Igasan was one an estimated 300 to 500 Muslim Filipinos who joined the jihad against the Soviets and their communist puppet government in Afghanistan, though whether Igasan actually served as a combatant remains uncertain (Philippine Information Agency, October 3, 2008). [3]

Muhammad Jamal Khalifa in the Philippines (Asharq al-Awsat)

After his return, Igasan studied Islam at Darul Imam Shafin, a religious school in Marawi City founded by Osama bin Laden’s brother-in-law, Muhammad Jamal al-Khalifa. [4] During the late 1980s, Igasan worked as a Quranic studies instructor for Khalifa’s International Islamic Relief Organization (IIRO), one of a number of charities Khalifa used to divert legitimate charitable donations from the Middle East for use by Islamist militants in the southern Philippines, Abu Sayyaf in particular. [5] Igasan’s close relationship with Khalifa would have provided an opportunity to study terrorist financing first-hand.

Abu Sayyaf Background

Abu Sayyaf was founded in 1991 by Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani from radical members of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), a Muslim rebel group that was beginning to negotiate with the government. Like many of the movement’s early leaders, Janjalani was part of a local chapter of the Tablighi Jama’at, a global Islamist missionary group, and later joined the mujahideen in Afghanistan. [6] It was there that Janjalani first met Igasanj, who joined the ASG in 1993. [7]

Abdurajak Abubakar Janjalani

Abu Sayyaf announced its emergence with a wave of bombings, kidnappings and assassinations targeting Christians, Catholic clergy and churches. Unlike the older Muslim separatist guerrilla groups in the southern Philippines, Abu Sayyaf was devoted to terrorist tactics from the beginning.

Abu Sayyaf’s aim was to establish an independent Islamic state in the southern Philippines that would no longer be dominated by the nation’s Roman Catholic majority. Funding for the group was initially provided by al-Qaeda, but kidnappings later became the main source of revenue. With ransoms for Europeans and North Americans in the millions of dollars, there is plenty of temptation for mediators and security forces to take a cut of these massive cash payments. The mayor of Jolo and a number of former hostages are among those who have accused certain Filipino military officers and civil officials of cooperating with Abu Sayyaf’s kidnapping schemes in return for a slice of the ransoms (ABS-CBN News, June 17, 2016; Philippine Daily Inquirer, May 12, 2017). [8] When ransoms fail to arrive promptly, the hostages are typically beheaded.  Some ransoms have been paid in firearms, ammunition and other supplies (Straits Times [Singapore], May 20, 2015).

Abu Sayyaf has always struggled with a fragmented leadership due to rivalries, the difficulty of maintaining central control in a challenging physical environment and the steady elimination of its leaders by Filipino and American forces (American military assistance was provided for the battle against Islamist militants in the southern Philippines from 2002 to 2014). Abdurajak Janjalani was killed by Filipino security forces in December 1998. Igasan was considered a leading contender for the leadership position, but Abdurajak’s brother Khadafy was elected instead.

One of the strengths of the ASG is the close ties its various command groups maintain with local communities in which the fighters have close clan and family ties. The work of security forces is made difficult by the possibility that these communities benefit financially from ASG kidnappings in exchange for silence and logistical support.

Igasan in Abu Sayyaf

Abdurajak Janjalani’s death and a disruption of the al-Qaeda funding pipeline led to a period of decline for Abu Sayyaf in the late 1990s, during which Igasan returned to the Middle East for several years for further Islamic studies in Syria, Libya and Saudi Arabia. [9] He returned home but again traveled to Saudi Arabia in 2001, posing as an overseas Filipino worker. In reality he was organizing a new financial support network for Abu Sayyaf (Philippine Information Agency, October 3, 2008).  In the meantime, Abu Sayyaf had degenerated into a loosely knit group of kidnapping gangs known for their brutality.

Khadafy Janjalani (circled) with Abu Sayyaf Militants

With US intelligence and logistical support provided by the U.S., the AFP mounted a major offensive against the group in 2002 that cost it many fighters, though AFP losses were also significant.  Khadafy Janjalani’s attempted to restore the group’s Islamist base, and under his guidance ASG returned to terrorist bombings in Manila and other majority Christian cities of the central and northern Philippines. [10]

Khadafy Janjalani was killed by the 3rd Marine Brigade in Sulu Province in September 2006. [11] In July 2007, AFP Lieutenant General Romeo Tolentino announced that the ASG had made Yassir Igasan their new leader. [12] Abu Sayyaf, however, never made it clear that Igasan had actually succeeded Khadafy Janjalani.

Igasan’s usefulness to the ASG has always been based on his Islamic education and his fundraising connections in the Middle East. These became of particular importance once the existing conduit through the IIRO was severed after a U.S. investigation of the group’s ties to al-Qaeda was launched (Reuters, July 22, 2009). Nonetheless, Igasan’s reputed knowledge of Islam did not result in greater credibility or support for the ASG, which was heading in the direction of greater violence and criminality at the same time as the far larger Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) was moving towards reconciliation with the national government.

Filipino Marines claimed to have wounded Igasan and killed six other Abu Sayyaf members in 2014 during an operation on Jolo Island sparked by tips provided by locals (ABC/AFP, February 11, 2014). Other forces were at work that year, as Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in July 2014 and the MILF, with an estimated 11,000 fighters, signed a peace deal with Manila.

Igasan and the Islamic State Organization

In recent years, the jihadi landscape has begun to shift in the southern Philippines. MILF signed a peace agreement with the government in 2014 and now often acts as a mediator between Manila and various Islamic militant groups. While no longer fighting the government, MILF is not required by the agreement to disarm until an autonomous region is created in the Muslim south Philippines. MILF units are now deployed against non-signatory jihadi groups with fire support from the AFP, but they do not fight alongside the Filipino regulars as their tactics are very different; the AFP fights a conventional war of sweeps and containment, while the MILF guerrillas fight in a style very similar to their jihadi opponents (AFP, September 6, 2017; Tempo [Manila], December 21, 2017).

The introduction of the Islamic State organization led to further changes, with Abu Sayyaf working closely with the new group after ASG leader Isnilon Hapilon declared the ASG’s allegiance to the Islamic State in July 2014. By 2016, Hapilon had emerged as IS leader. The Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF), which split from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), also pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS) (BenarNews, April 11). The shift from al-Qaeda influence to IS influence marked a greater emphasis on offensive jihad, with the IS organization ready to take its war to its “enemies,” including Europeans and North Americans unfortunate enough to wind up in the hands of the militants. [13]

The IS formed itself into four operational groups in the Basilan, Ranao, Maguindanao and Cotabato regions of the southern Philippines (Eurasia Review, April 6). Maguindanao is the base of the allied Jamaatul Muhajireen wa’l-Ansar, led by Abu Turaifi (Esmael Abdulmalik), who left the BIFF to form his own movement.

Radullan Sahiron

When one-armed veteran ASG commander Radullan Sahiron began sending surrender feelers to the AFP in April 2017, Joint Task Force Sulu (JTFS) commander Brigadier General Cirilito Sobejana speculated that Sahiron’s surrender could launch a leadership struggle within ASG between Igasan and another ASG leader, Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan (Manila Bulletin, April 21, 2017).

However, this struggle was averted when ASG militants joined IS forces and the Maute Islamist group in May 2017 to seize Marawi, the capital city of the deeply impoverished Lanao del Sur province. The city was besieged by the AFP for five months as 1200 people were killed in the fighting, many of them militants. After months of shelling and airstrikes, much of the city was reduced to rubble.

Sabahan Amin Baco (Free Malaysia Today)

Isnilon Hapilon was killed in the later phases of the fighting in Marawi. According to the Army’s 1st Infantry Division and National Security Adviser Hermogenes Esperon Jr., Igasan was one of three potential successors as head of the IS (Manila Times, March 13). The others included Abu Dar (aka Humam Abdul Najid, a survivor of the Marawi siege with strong ties to foreign terrorist groups, and Sabahan Amin Baco, a Malaysian member of Jemaah Islamiya (JI) involved in bombings in Sulu and Basilan. Baco was possibly wounded in Marawi in January; reports claim he escaped to Sulu to take refuge with his father-in-law, ASG commander Hatib Hajan Sawadjaan, though the military claims he was killed but his body not recovered. Baco is also said to be working on an alliance of regional jihadi groups under the IS umbrella that would include the ASG (Manila Times, March 13; AP, January 17; Free Malaysia Today, November 27, 2017).

Once the Islamists had been defeated in Marawi, President Rodrigo Duterte called on Malaysia and Indonesia to take stronger action against Abu Sayyaf, particularly in the Malacca Strait, a vital shipping lane where sailors are frequently kidnapped: “Blast them out of the seas to keep our shipping lanes open and safe. They have committed enough piracy there, enough money collected from ransoms” (AFP, October 20, 2017). Duterte has also urged China to help counter terrorism in regional waters, making reference to China’s participation in the campaign against Somali piracy: “I’m telling you, if we can’t do it, we’ll just have to call China to come in and blow them off just like Somalia (Philippine Inquirer, January 24).

Following the collapse of IS resistance in Marawi, most of the survivors created new strongholds in Maguindanao and Jolo, where ASG fighters and the AFP met in battle in March (Eurasia Review, April 6). In mid-May, a failed ASG ambush resulted in the death of two soldiers but also the death of 10 ASG militants and the wounding of a further 15 after an hour-long gun battle (BenarNews, May 14).

MNLF leader Yusop Jikiri, who survived an ASG assassination attempt in 2003, has provided the AFP with intelligence and hundreds of guerrilla fighters with intimate knowledge of the terrain in which ASG operates: We’d like to clean the name of Sulu and the Tausugs… I hope the Abu Sayyaf will stop kidnappings and all sort of criminalities to avoid any more bloodletting” (AP, January 17).

Conclusion

The Islamic State’s ill-advised attempt to hold territory (i.e. Marawi City) as the basis of a caliphate (a strategy that has failed elsewhere) has cost it in terms of leaders, arms, funds, fighters and morale. The ASG, as partners in this endeavor, has suffered in similar ways. At this time, ASG tends to operate as a series of generally cooperative but physically isolated factions with no clear central leadership. If Igasan has indeed been killed, it makes the ASG leadership picture even less clear, with the possibility of a final disintegration of the ASG into little more than a number of independent bandit groups operating from remote jungle bases under the thin cover of being nationalist/religious “freedom fighters.”

In the meantime, Duterte’s government remains committed to destroying the ASG. According to Brigadier General Cirilito Sobejana, AFP chief-of-staff General Carlito Galvez Jr has issued orders to finish off ASG as soon as possible: “The target date is December if we fast track our operation [but] it can be done in two years” (Tempo [Manila], May 18).

Notes

  1. Abu Sayyaf = “The Sword Bearer”
  2. Samuel K. Tan: Internationalization of the Bangsamoro Struggle, University of the Philippines Center for Integrative and Development Studies, Quezon City, 2003, p.96.
  3. Zachary Abuza, “Balik-Terrorism: The Return of the Abu Sayyaf,” US Army College Strategic Studies Institute, Carlisle PA, September 2005, http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pdffiles/PUB625.pdf
  4. Taharudin Piang Ampatuan, “Abu Sayyaf’s New Leader: Yasser Igasan the Religious Scholar,” RSIS Commentaries, July 9, 2007, https://www.rsis.edu.sg/rsis-publication/rsis/954-abu-sayafs-new-leader-yass/#.WvCMTpch3cc
  5. Zachary Abuza, “Funding Terrorism in Southeast Asia: The Financial Network of al-Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiyah,” Contemporary Southeast Asia 25(2), August 2003, pp. 169-199.
  6. Rommel C. Banlaoi: Philippine Security in the Age of Terror: National, Regional, and Global Challenges in the Post-9/11 World, Boca Raton, Florida, 2010, p.57.
  7. Ampatuan, op cit.
  8. Jose Torres: Into the Mountain: Hostaged by the Abu Sayyaf, (Quezon City: Claretian Publications, 2001), pp. 147-148; Victor Taylor, “Addressing the Situation of the Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines: Part 2,” MacKenzie Institute, May 7, 2017, http://mackenzieinstitute.com/addressing-situation-abu-sayyaf-group-philippines-part-2/.
  9. Ampatuan, op cit.
  10. Abuza, op cit, 2005.
  11. Bob East: The Neo Abu Sayyaf: Criminality in the Suiu Archipelago of the Republic of the Philippines, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, 2016, p. 80.
  12. Ampatuan, op cit.
  13. Victor Taylor, “Addressing the Situation of the Abu Sayyaf Group in the Philippines: Part 2,” MacKenzie Institute, May 7, 2017, http://mackenzieinstitute.com/addressing-situation-abu-sayyaf-group-philippines-part-2/.

 

This article first appeared in the June 8, 2018 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor.

How Russia is Displacing the French in the Struggle for Influence in the Central African Republic

Andrew McGregor

May 15, 2018

Sudden Russian interest in the resource-rich Central African Republic (CAR – the former French colony of Oubangui-Chari) has raised questions regarding Moscow’s intentions in the violence-plagued nation.

French Patrol in Bangui, CAR (AFP/Getty)

As much as 80% of the CAR is not under government control. A new burst of violence earlier this month included attacks on churches and mosques that resulted in 19 deaths and left over 100 wounded (AP, May 2). Thousands have been killed and nearly half a million people displaced since 2013.

Fighting has escalated since the French ended a three-year military mission (Operation Sangaris) in October 2016. The operation, the seventh French military intervention in the CAR, ended amidst accusations of sexual violence by French troops, though Paris pledged to keep 350 troops inside the CAR as a “tactical reserve” while remaining ready to intervene with a larger force “at very short notice” (Deutsche Welle, October 31, 2016). Responsibility for security was turned over to the Mission multidimensionnelle intégrée des Nations unies pour la stabilisation en Centrafrique (MINUSCA), a 13,000 man UN peacekeeping mission which has struggled to restore order while being accused of large-scale sexual abuse of local women.

Deeply impoverished, the CAR has endured massive exploitation by Chadian Muslims in the 19th century, French imperialists in the 19th century and neo-colonialists working with corrupt CAR politicians since independence in 1960.

Russia appears ready to join this game, exchanging arms and cash for access to oil, minerals, strategic bases and rare earths, materials vital to modern electronics but a market almost entirely dominated by China. Moscow is trying to trade on Russia’s lack of colonial history in Africa (overlooking failed attempts to establish Russian colonies in the 19th century), its Cold War assistance to various bastions of Marxism in Africa and its military performance in Syria.

The CAR has been under a UN arms embargo since civil war broke out in 2013. Pleas from CAR president Faustin Archange Touadéra for arms and training to reinvigorate the shattered CAR military found a sympathetic ear in Moscow last year. An exemption to the embargo was granted only after Russia agreed to supply secure storage and serial numbers for the weapons. The US, UK and France were concerned the arms could disappear soon after delivery; in 2013 the armories were looted and weapons belonging to the Forces armées centrafricaines (FACA) have a habit of turning up on the black market. Aside from the Russian arms supplies, the UN embargo has been renewed through to February 2019. The exemption allowed CAR chief-of-staff Firmin Ngrebada and special adviser Fidèle Gouandjika to arrange an agreement for arms and training with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, signed in Sochi on October 9, 2017.

Firman Ngrebada

Ngrebada, nicknamed “Foccart,” after Jacques Foccart (1913-1997), the French special advisor on African affairs in the 1960s and 70s, insists it was French president Emmanuel Macron who sent the CAR delegates to Russia after a French attempt to supply FACA with arms seized off Somalia failed following Russian objections (Jeune Afrique, May 3; CorbeauNews [Bangui], January 16).

Among the weapons delivered in this year are 900 Makarov pistols, 5,200 Kalashnikov assault rifles, 140 sniper rifles, 840 Kalashnikov PK 7.62 mm machine guns, 270 RPGs, 20 man-portable anti-air defense systems, hand grenades, mortars and millions of round of ammunition (The Nation [Nairobi), December 14, 2017). Russian arms and parts are compatible with what Soviet-era arms remain in the CAR armories.

While the Russian arms are a donation rather than a sale, the Sochi agreement contains provisions for Russian exploitation of minerals, resources and energy sources as well as the development of infrastructure and enhanced commercial relations (Defenceweb, February 19; Russia Today, April 3). Though French Ambassador to the CAR Christian Bader has stated France does not perceive a problem with the Russian military agreement, France has traditionally resented the intrusion of other nations into its African “backyard” (CorbeauNews [Bangui], April 21, 2018). One French diplomat has complained of the “shameless” bribes paid by the Russians for access to CAR governing bodies (Le Monde, April 23). Russians in civilian garb have also appeared in poor neighborhoods of Bangui, handing out various essentials (RFI, April 25). Local reports suggest that among the newly arrived Russians are disinformation experts who have started an anti-French media campaign (MondeAfrique.com, May 9).

The arms are intended for use by two battalions (1300 men) of FACA trained by the European Training Mission (EUTM RCA), beginning in mid-2016. Training was initially inhibited by a shortage of arms. EUTM’s mandate is expected to be renewed in September.

The Russians are reported to have had talks with the Russian-educated former Séléka rebel leader and CAR president Michael Djotodia (2013-2014), though Ngrebada says he has no reason to doubt the sincerity of his new Russian friends (Jeune Afrique, May 3). Witnesses also described a Russian Cesna aircraft with three or four Russian soldiers visiting the compounds of Muslim rebel leaders Nourredine Adam and Abdoulaye Hissene in the northern CAR (Monde Afrique, May 4; RFI, May 1).  During Operation Sangaris, the French made similar efforts to contact rebel leaders to persuade them to refrain from attacking Bangui; Russian intentions are still unknown, but may have something to do with threats of a rebel “march on Bangui” in response to the military cooperation with Russia (L’Obs, May 5). Russian interest in the rebel-occupied goldfields of northeastern CAR may provide another reason.

Russian Mercenaries and CAR Troops at Béréngo Palace (Le Monde)

The 175 Russian trainers have established a base at Béréngo palace, the abandoned home of psychopathic CAR “emperor” Jean-Bédel Bokassa (1966-1979). Only five of this group are members of the Russian Army; most of the others are mercenaries working for private Russian military contractors (Le Monde, April 23). The palace’s 100 acres are only 35 miles from Bangui and include a firing range and airstrip that can easily be expanded and modernized to handle large Russian aircraft, enabling the Russians to avoid using the French-controlled airport in Bangui. One estimate suggests that there are now 1400 armed Russians in the CAR, most of them employees of private military contractor Sewa Security Services (Le Tchadantrhropus Tribune [N’Djamena], May 14).

Grave of Emperor Jean-Bédel Bokassa at Béréngo Palace. Bokassa’s family objects to the Russian presence there, claiming it is still family property. (AFP)

Some 40 members of the Russian Special Forces have been assigned as a security detail for President Touadéra, work that used to be done by Libyans, Chadian mercenaries or, most recently, Rwandans attached to MINUSCA. Valeri Zakarov, a Kremlin insider, is the new presidential security adviser. The CAR presidency is now concerned that the military agreement with Russia will encourage Western attempts to overthrow Touadéra, prompting even greater reliance on Russian security personnel.

This article first appeared in the May 15, 2018 issue of Eurasia Daily Monitor.

Salafists, Mercenaries and Body Snatchers: The War for Libya’s South

Andrew McGregor

April 6, 2018

Renewed fighting in southern Libya around the Kufra and Sabha oases demonstrates the difficulty of reaching anything more substantial than temporary and fragile political agreements in the region. The parties to the seemingly intractable conflict in the south include a range of legitimate and semi-legitimate actors – forces allied to Libya’s rival governments, self-appointed police and border security services – and illegitimate actors, such as foreign mercenaries, bandits, jihadists and traffickers.

Tubu Tribesmen in Sabha, southern Libya (Libyan Express)

The fact that membership of these groups often overlaps leads to heated clashes over turf and privileges that endanger the civilian population while inhibiting sorely-needed development initiatives. On March 13, the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) warned that the build-up of armed forces in the south “risks further escalation” of the ongoing violence. [1] Tensions are so high at present that even the body of the 19th century head of the Sanusi order has been pulled into the struggle for the resource-rich deserts of southern Libya.

The Madkhali Infiltration

The Saudi-backed Madkhalist religious sect is the most prominent player in the Kufra and Sabha violence. A basic tenet of Madkhalism is respect for legitimate authority, the wali-al-amr.  This Salafist movement was first introduced to Libya by Mu’ammar Qaddafi to counter Libya’s more revolutionary Salafist groups. Madkhalist militias in Libya typically seek to control local policing duties, providing them a degree of immunity while enforcing Salafist interpretations of Shari’a that have little in common with traditional Libyan Islamic practice.

Rabi bin Hadi al-Madkhali

Although Saudi sect leader Rabi bin Hadi al-Madkhali issued a surprising declaration of support in 2016 for General Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army (LNA) in its fight against “the Muslim Brotherhood” (ie the Tripoli-based government), Libya’s Madkhalis do not appear to have a preferred allegiance in the rivalry between Tripoli’s Presidency Council/Government of National Accord (PC/GNA) and Haftar’s military coalition (Arabi21.com, September 21, 2016). Indeed, they appear to be covering their bases by supporting both rivals without coming into direct conflict with either.

The Madkhalis in Tripoli are represented by the Rada Special Deterence Force, led by Abd al-Rauf al-Kara. Nominally loyal to the PC/GNA but operating largely independently of government control, they act as a self-appointed police force complete with private jails reputed to be dens of torture (Middleeasteye.net, January 15).

Meanwhile the growing Madkhali armed presence in Benghazi appears to be meeting resistance. The January 25 twin car-bombing that killed 41 people in Benghazi, including LNA commander Ahmad al-Fitouri, appears to have targeted the Baya’at al-Radwan mosque frequented by Madkhalist militia members (Libya Herald, January 23). The Madkhalists also dominate the 604th Infantry Battalion in Misrata (Libya Tribune, November 4, 2017).

Body-Snatching at Kufra Oasis

A combination of fresh water and nearly impassable desert depressions on three sides makes southeast Libya’s remote Kufra Oasis an inevitable stop for cross desert convoys or caravans. Some 1,500 km from the Libyan coast, Kufra is now a major stop for the flow of illegal migrants that Kufra mayor Muftah Khalil says is overwhelming local security services (Libya Observer, March 5). Since the 2011 Libyan Revolution, Kufra has several times erupted in tribal violence, usually pitting the Zuwaya Arabs against indigenous black semi-nomadic Tubu tribesmen, whose homeland stretches across southern Libya, northern Chad, northwestern Sudan and northeastern Niger. There is long-standing friction between the two communities – the Zuwaya were only able to take possession of Kufra in 1840 by driving out the Tubu.

Sayyid Muhammad al-Mahdi al-Sanusi

Things have been heating up in the Kufra region in recent months, as Sudanese mercenaries clash with LNA forces and Subul al-Salam, a local Madkahlist militia affiliated with the LNA.  In the last days of 2017, Subul al-Salam attacked al-Taj (“The Crown”), a height overlooking the Kufra Oasis, destroying the funerary shrine of Sayyid Muhammad al-Mahdi al-Sanusi, who built a proto-Islamic state in the Sahara and Sahel from 1859 until his death in 1902, and stealing his body.

The emptied tomb of Sayyid Muhammad al-Mahdi al-Sanusi (Libya Observer)

A former representative for Kufra, al-Tawati al-Ayda, insisted that the vehicles used in the attack bore the insignia of the LNA. He also suggested the attack was inspired by the arrival in Kufra of Tripoli Madkhalist preacher Majdi Hafala (Libya Observer, January 2).

The Sanusi are a conservative Sufi religious order that grew into a powerful political and military organization in the 19th and early 20th centuries, resisting invasion by the French and later the Italians. Founded in Mecca by Muhammad al-Mahdi’s Algerian father in 1837, the order’s rapid growth after moving to Libya in 1843 attracted the attention of the Ottoman rulers of Libya and the movement moved south, out of Ottoman control, to the oasis of Jaghbub in 1856.

The conservative asceticism at the core of the movement had wide appeal in the desert communities and tribes. This was especially true in the southern oasis of Kufra, to which al-Mahdi moved the Sanusi headquarters in 1895. Using the trade routes that ran through Kufra, al-Mahdi introduced the commerce-friendly Sanusi brand of Islam to the Saharan and sub-Saharan interior of Africa. The Zuwaya Arabs of Kufra became adherents to the Sanusi tariqa, or path, and defenders of the Sanusi family. Today, the Zuwaya form the core of the Subul al-Salam militia responsible for the assault on al-Taj.

While they enjoyed more influence in Cyrenaïca than Tripolitania, the Sanusis eventually formed Libya’s post-Second World War pro-Western monarchy between 1951 and 1969.  There is some support in Cyrenaïca for the restoration of the exiled royals as a means of bringing rival government factions together. The current heir to the Libyan throne is Muhammad al-Sanusi, who has not pursued a claim to a revived Sanusi constitutional monarchy, but equally has done nothing to discourage discussions about it within Libya.

After overthrowing the Sanusi monarchy in 1969, Qaddafi began a campaign to malign the Sanusis as the embodiment of the inequities of the old regime and a challenge to the peculiar blend of socialism and Islam he propagated in his Green Book. Attitudes shaped by Qaddafist propaganda against the Sanusis still color the way the order is regarded by many modern Libyans.

The desecration at al-Taj was quickly denounced by the Presidency Council in Tripoli. The Dar al-Ifta (Fatwa House) run by Grand Mufti Sadiq al-Ghariani blamed the imported Madkhalilst trend: “Madkhalists are being sent to Libya by Saudi Arabia in order to destabilize the country and abort the revolution. These are all loyalists of Khalifa Haftar and his self-styled army in eastern Libya” (Libyan Express, January 2). Dar al-Ifta also used the incident to launch a broader attack on Libya’s Madkhalists, which it accused of detaining, torturing and murdering Islamic scholars and clerics who failed to fall into line with the Salafists sect (Libya Observer, January 2). The Madkhalis in turn accuse al-Ghariani of association with the Libyan Muslim Brotherhood, and hence a follower of the late revolutionary Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood leader Sayyid Qutb (executed in Egypt in 1966), the Madkhalis’ ideological arch-enemy.

Surprisingly, this is not the first time al-Mahdi’s corpse has gone missing – it was disinterred by unknown individuals in 2012 and reburied in a nearby cemetery, before relatives recovered it and returned it to the shrine at al-Taj (Libya Observer, December 30, 2017).

Operation Desert Rage

Chadian and Sudanese rebels driven from their homelands have turned mercenary in Libya to secure funding and build their arsenals. [2] Grand Mufti al-Ghariani has accused Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) of funding the recruitment of African mercenaries to occupy southern Libya on behalf of Haftar’s LNA (Libya Observer, March 13). In practice, the rebels have found employment from both the LNA and the PC/GNA government in Tripoli.

Sudanese fighters of Darfur’s Justice and Equality Movement (JEM) killed six members of the LNA’s 106 and 501 Brigades engaged in border security near Jaghbub Oasis on January 15. A seventh LNA soldier was abducted. The area was the site of an earlier clash in October 2016 between JEM and Kufra’s Subul al-Salam militia in which 13 JEM fighters were killed (Libya Herald, October 20, 2016).

Sudanese Forces at Jabal ‘Uwaynat (Libya Observer)

The LNA responded to the death of the border guards with “Operation Desert Rage,” which opened with January 20 airstrikes against what the LNA alleged were Sudanese and Chadian rebels near Rabyana Oasis, 150 km west of Kufra. Possibly involving Egyptian aircraft, the strikes caused “heavy losses” to a 15-vehicle convoy of “terrorists” (TchadConvergence, January 22). The Sudanese and Chadians had been prospecting for gold in the newly discovered deposits near Jabal ‘Uwaynat, the remote meeting point of Egypt, Libya and Sudan (Egypt Today, January 23). The commander of the LNA’s Kufra military zone, al-Mabruk al-Ghazwi, said patrols had been sent in every direction to prevent JEM fighters from escaping (Libya Observer, January 20).

Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) spokesman Brigadier Ahmad al-Shami confirmed the presence of Darfuri rebels working as mercenaries in Libya last summer, noting their greatest concentrations were at the oases of Kufra and Rabyana as well as the city of Zintan in Libya’s northwest (Libya Observer, July 20, 2017).

The ‘Invasion’ of Sabha

The Tubu, Awlad Sulayman Arabs and African mercenaries are also engaged in a new round of post-revolutionary fighting in Sabha, capital of Libya’s southwestern Fezzan region.

Following the 2011 revolution, the Awlad Sulayman took advantage of shifts in the local tribal power structure to take over Sabha’s security services and regional trafficking activities. This brought the Arab group into conflict with the Tubu and Tuareg, who traditionally controlled the cross-border smuggling routes. The result was open warfare in Sabha in 2012 and 2014. One of the leading Awlad Sulayman commanders at the time was Ahmad al-Utaybi, now commander of the Awlad Sulayman-dominated 6th Infantry Brigade.

In mid-February, Haftar announced his decision to join the 6th Brigade with the LNA, but al-Utaybi quickly declared his Brigade’s loyalty was to the defense ministry of the GNA government in Tripoli. Following al-Utaybi’s refusal to commit his forces to the LNA, Haftar announced his replacement as commander of the 6th Infantry Brigade with Brigadier Khalifa Abdul Hafiz Khalifa on February 25, though Khalifa has been unable to assume command (Al-Sharq al-Aswat, February 27). At the same time, the 6th Brigade came under heavy attack from alleged Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries working for Haftar. According to al-Utaybi: “The militias who attacked our locations wanted to take control of it and then seize the entire southern region because the fall of the Brigade means the fall of the security of the south” (Libya Observer, February 24).

Al-Utaybi claims that the fighting is not tribal-based, but is rather a clash between the 6th Brigade and groups loyal to Haftar, consisting largely of Tubu mercenaries from Chad, Niger and Sudan (Libyan Express, March 1; Libya Observer, March 2). [3] There are also claims that the conflict has much to do with the collapse of the Italian agreement with the southern tribes providing them with funding and development in return for suppression of migrant flows through Libya to Europe (Eyesonlibya.com, February 27).

Damage to Sabha Castle from shelling (Libya Observer)

The 6th Brigade was forced to withdraw into Sabha’s Italian colonial-era fortress. The historic building has been heavily damaged in this round of fighting, with the Libyan Antiquities Authority protesting that: “Those who do not wish us well are seeking to obliterate Libyan history and civilization” (Libya Observer, March 5). The fighting consists largely of artillery attacks on the fortress and ethnic neighborhoods, as well as sniping, assassinations and drive-by killings.

Sabha’s mayor, Hamid al-Khayali, insists that well-armed Chadian and Sudanese mercenaries flying the flags of “African countries” were taking advantage of the region’s insecurity: “This is an occupation of Libyan land. This is on the shoulders of all Libyans. The south is half-occupied and some Sabha areas are occupied by foreign forces from Sudan, Chad and other countries; why is the Libyan army silent about this?” (Libya Observer, February 25; Libyan Express, February 27).

The long-standing Arab suspicion of the Tubu was reflected in a Presidency Council statement in late February praising the 6th Brigade’s defense of Sabha against “mercenaries” intent on changing the south’s demographic structure from Arab-dominant to Tubu-dominant (Libya Observer, February 27).

Roadblock to Political Resolution

The abduction of Muhammad al-Mahdi’s body was, like earlier Salafist demolitions of Sufi shrines in coastal Libya, both a demonstration of Madkhali determination to reform Libya’s religious landscape and a provocation designed to reveal what real resistance, if any, exists to prevent further Madkhalist encroachments on Libyan society.

For now the Madkhalists are in ascendance and have made important, even unique, inroads in assuming control of various security services across the country, regardless of which political factions are locally dominant. Reliable salaries, superior weapons and a degree of legal immunity ensure a steady supply of recruits to the Madkhali militias.

However, the Madkhali rejection of democracy, and their indulgence in extra-judicial law enforcement and theological disputes with nearly every other form of Islamic observance, ensures their growing strength will inhibit any attempt to arrive at a democracy-based political solution in Libya.

Notes

[1] “UNSMIL statement on the ongoing violence in Sabha,” March 13, 2018, https://unsmil.unmissions.org/unsmil-statement-ongoing-violence-sabha

[2] The Chadian groups include the Front pour l’alternance et la concorde au Tchad (FACT), the Conseil du commandement militaire pour le salut de la République (CCMSR) and the Rassemblement des forces pour le changement (RFC). The Sudanese groups are all from Darfur, and include the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM), the Sudan Liberation Movement – Unity (SLM-Unity) and the Sudan Liberation Movement/Army – Minni Minnawi (SLM/A-MM). The latter two attempted to return to Darfur in 2017 but were badly defeated by units of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the paramilitary Rapid Support Forces (RSF).

[3] Libyan Arabs commonly describe the Libyan Tubu as “foreigners” and “illegal immigrants” despite their historic presence in the region.

This article first appeared in the April 6, 2018 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

 

Religious Extremist or Force for Moderation? A Profile of Imprisoned Saudi Shaykh Salman bin Fahd al-Ouda

Andrew McGregor

March 8, 2018

Shaykh Salman bin Fahd al-Ouda (Sydsvanskan/Lars Brundin)

One of Saudi Arabia’s leading Salafist religious scholars, Shaykh Salman bin Fahd al-Ouda, is currently hospitalized under guard after spending nearly five months in isolation without charges in a Saudi prison. [1] Once a strong opponent of the American military presence in the Arabian peninsula and often described as an inspiration to leading jihadists such as Osama bin Laden, al-Ouda’s failure to endorse the Saudi rivalry with Qatar has brought a bitter end to years of cooperation with the Saudi regime. With millions of followers in the Saudi Kingdom and abroad, the shaykh’s death in custody would have a direct impact on Saudi stability and the long-term plans of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman al-Sa’ud to reform the nation according to his own vision and succeed his father as king.

Early Career

Shaykh al-Ouda is today a leading scholar of Salafist Islam, one of the most influential preachers in Saudi Arabia and a member of the influential International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS), a movement often associated with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Al-Ouda was born in 1955 in the village of al-Basr near the Saudi city of Burayda in Saudi Arabia’s al-Qassim Province, a relatively poor agricultural region in the center of the Kingdom known for its religious conservatism. The region is considered the heartland of Wahhabism, the 18th century Islamic reform movement that united with the al-Sa’ud royal family to form the Kingdom’s enduring power base. [2] By 2001, it was estimated that 80% of the Kingdom’s judges (experts in Shari’a, the nation’s sole system of jurisprudence) hailed from al-Qassim (Economist, June 16, 2001).

Al-Ouda  is a scholar of the Hanbali madhab, one of the four Sunni schools of Islamic jurisprudence (madahib), Hanbali is the dominant school in Saudi Arabia and is the one most commonly followed by Saudi Arabia’s conservative Salafis (“followers of the pious predecessors,” i.e. the first three generations of Islam). The shaykh carries a Ph.D. in Islamic jurisprudence from the prestigious Imam Muhammad bin Sa’ud. After completing his Islamic education, al-Ouda returned home to become a professor at the al-Qassim campus of the Imam Muhammad ibn Saud Islamic University in Burayda. In those years, al-Ouda operated under the shadow of well-known Burayda-based Salafist scholar Shaykh Muhammad bin Salih al-Uthaymin, who was frequently critical of the young al-Ouda.

Osama Bin Laden and the Gulf War

The internal controversy over the Kingdom’s participation in the First Gulf War (1990-1991) provided al-Ouda with the opportunity to become internationally known in the Islamic world through a series of audiotapes critical of a fatwa (religious ruling) issued by Saudi Grand Mufti Abd al-Aziz bin Baz that permitted non-Muslim allies led by the United States to use Saudi Arabia as a base for the war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Al-Ouda questioned why the Kingdom was still reliant on U.S. protection after billions of dollars of American arms purchases. The presence of kaffir (infidel) U.S. troops on the Kingdom’s sacred soil during the campaign was also used to propel the career of a supporter of the Islamic jihad in Afghanistan, Osama bin Laden.

Al-Ouda was not alone in using cassette tapes to address Islamic issues; indeed, Shi’a Iran had been prepared for the return of Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 by a series of audiotapes recorded by the Ayatollah in his Paris exile. With such tapes being collected like books by Saudi citizens, al-Ouda even addressed the importance of the phenomenon in a sermon entitled Al-sharit al-Islami ma lahu wa ma ‘alih (The Islamic Tape: An Assessment).

During the next three years, al-Ouda became a leading opposition figure and a signatory of the Khitab al-Matalib (Letter of Demands), a 1991 document requesting the king to open the political system to reforms and greater consultation (shura). It is al-Ouda’s belief that shura rather than democracy is the core of a successful Islamic state; those that relied on shura, such as the Ummayads, Abbasids and Ayubids survived, while those that rejected shura, such as the Ottoman Empire, ultimately disintegrated. [3] In September 1994 the regime asked him for a pledge to desist from preaching on politics. His refusal led to his arrest two days later. [4]

Imprisonment

Al-Ouda was arrested in September 1994 along with fellow Sahwa movement leader Shaykh Safar bin Abd al-Rahman al-Hawali. Bin Laden spoke approvingly of al-Ouda shortly after the latter’s arrest in his “Open Letter to Shaykh Bin Baz on the Invalidity of his Fatwa on Peace with the Jews.” [5] Two years later, Osama bin Laden would insist the arrests were made on the orders of the United States in his “Declaration of jihad on the Americans.” [6] The claim was repeated by al-Gama’a al-Islamiya leader Omar Abd al-Rahman while he was serving a life sentence in the U.S. for various terrorist activities, including the 1993 bombing of New York’s World Trade Center. [7] While awaiting trial in 1995 for his role in the World Trade Center, imprisoned terrorist Ramzi Yusuf claimed his “Liberation Army” was preparing strikes in Saudi Arabia in retaliation for the arrests of al-Ouda and al-Hawali (al-Hayat, April 12, 1995).

Bin Laden’s biographer, Hamid Mir, recalled that Bin Laden had described al-Ouda as his “ideal personality, a savior who was the first to demand the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Saudi.” According to Mir, Bin Laden claimed al-Ouda had written several pamphlets on jihad for al-Qaeda, though these had not been issued under his name. [8]

In 1998, former Bin Laden bodyguard Abu Jandal (a.k.a. Nassir al-Bahri) told an interviewer that Bin Laden had told him that he would never have entered into opposition to the Saudi government had al-Ouda and al-Hawali not been detained. [9] In his pre-9/11 communications, bin Laden frequently addressed themes contained in al-Ouda’s written works and taped messages. [10] Al-Ouda’s five-year imprisonment failed to silence the preacher, as he continued to record audiotapes smuggled out of prison and released for public consumption.

The Sahwa Movement

After his release, al-Ouda became an important member of the Saudi al–Sahwa al-Islamiya (Islamic Awakening) movement.  The group emerged when Muslim Brotherhood members fleeing repression in Egypt began to interact with normally hostile Saudi Salafists in the 1960s. A shared conservative approach to Islam was the foundation for greater cooperation, particularly in urging a greater political role for religious scholars in the state. The Sahwa movement was strongly opposed by the Kingdom’s Madkhalis, another Salafist faction that advocates an almost extreme form of loyalty to the state and its rulers. [11]

Letter to Bin Laden

Bin Laden’s admiration of al-Ouda does not appear to have been reciprocal; six years after the 9/11 attack, al-Ouda released an open letter to the al-Qaeda leader. [12] In the letter, al-Ouda accuses Bin Laden of tarnishing the image of Islam: “People around the world are saying how Islam teaches that those who do not accept it must be killed. They are also saying that the adherents of Salafi teachings kill Muslims who do not share their views.” Al-Ouda asks who benefits from turning Muslim nations into battlefields “where no one feels safe” and questions whether obstructing governments is a solution for anything: ‘Is this the plan – even if it is achieved by marching over the corpses of hundreds of thousands of people – police, soldiers, and civilians, even the common Muslims? Are their deaths to be shrugged off, saying: “They will be resurrected in the hereafter based on the state of their hearts?”

The shaykh also asked what violent extremists could contribute should they succeed in taking power: “What can people who have no life experience hope to achieve in the sphere of good governance? People who have no knowledge of Islamic law to support them and no understanding of domestic and foreign relations? Is Islam only about guns and ammunition? Have your means become the ends themselves?” Al-Ouda concluded with one last question for the al-Qaeda leader: “What have all these long years of suffering, tragedy, tears, and sacrifice actually achieved?” (Muslim Matters, September 18, 2007).

Overall, the letter falls short of being a clear denunciation of Bin Laden or his terrorist tactics. Instead, al-Ouda treats Bin Laden as a Muslim believer who has strayed from the path of Islam but still has the opportunity to review his approach much like the imprisoned jihadists occupied with compiling “revisions” of their past activities. The fact that it took six years for al-Ouda to compose his critique suggests a long period of either indecision or fear that such criticisms might alienate the shaykh’s following.

Becoming a Voice for Moderation?

Moving on from production of audiotapes, al-Ouda embraced the internet, becoming in 2001 a director of IslamToday.net, which carries content in Arabic, English and Chinese. Islam Today has become the shaykh’s most significant avenue for influence, supplemented by numerous YouTube videos and the publication of over 50 books on Islamic theology. Al-Ouda also realized the potential of Twitter and has today something between 11 to 14 million Twitter followers (The Peninsula [Doha]. January 26, 2017).  14.3 million (Al-Bawaba, October 7, 2017).

Shaykh al-Ouda was generally supportive of the Arab Spring uprisings as a much-needed corrective to Arab authoritarianism, but this did not play well with the Saudi regime. Al-Ouda’s relationship with the regime was further aggravated when he denounced the military overthrow of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government in 2011 as a “coup.” Nonetheless, al-Ouda rejected the absolutism that runs as a common thread through Islamist politics:

We have to remember that the Islamists’ program in any country should not be mistaken for Islam itself, nor that anyone who disagrees with it is a loser. It is the Islamists’ right, like anyone else, to practise what the others practise [i.e. politics], as long as it respects the limits of moderation, justice, and distance from the assumption that they have the absolute truth or that what they are calling for is sacred. [13]

In March 2013, al-Ouda took the bold step of issuing an open letter to the Kingdom’s rulers, warning of the danger posed by censorship and political repression: “[The people] will not remain silent forever if some or all of these things are constantly denied to them. When revolutions are suppressed, they turn into armed conflicts. If they are ignored, they grow in reach and breadth” (IBTimes, March 18, 2013).

No Place in the Crown Prince’s Reforms

Saudi Arabia’s political climate began to undergo major changes with the accession of King Salman to the throne in January 2015. Foreign policy in particular took on a much more aggressive edge as Crown Prince Muhammad assumed the defense, economic and foreign affairs portfolios in the Saudi government while the eighty-one-year-old King, possibly suffering from pre-dementia, began to prepare for an expected abdication in favor of the Crown Prince.

Crown Prince Muhammad is well aware of the tenuous nature of his status – his two predecessors as Crown Prince since King Salman took the throne in 2015 were both removed. In this tense atmosphere it can be risky just to withhold public approval of the regime’s activities (including the feud with Qatar), most of which are already controlled by the ambitious Crown Prince.

For al-Ouda, 2017 began with tragedy when his wife Haya al-Sayari and his son Hisham were killed when their car collided with a truck (The Peninsula [Doha], January 26, 2017). Accusations of extremism came next, as al-Ouda appeared on a list of six “hate preachers” who were banned from Denmark in 2017, with the Danish government describing the six (five Muslims plus evangelical American preacher Terry Jones) as “travelling fanatical preachers” who “indoctrinate listeners to commit violence against women and children, spread ideas of a caliphate and undermine founding values” (Jyllands Posten [Copenhagen], May 2, 2017).

Crown Prince Muhammad moved to consolidate his personal power in September 2017, when he ordered the arrest of over a score of religious scholars, businessmen, politicians, poets, academics and writers, including al-Ouda (Middle East Monitor, September 14, 2017).

After news spread of a U.S.-brokered phone call between the Saudi Crown Prince and Qatari amir Shaykh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani on September 9, 2017, al-Ouda tweeted “May God bring their hearts together for the good of their people.” [14] Al-Ouda’s arrest followed only hours later. Even the suggestion of support for a Saudi reconciliation with a Qatari regime the Saudi leaders describe as supporters of terrorism was evidently enough to remove al-Ouda from the public sphere. According to the shaykh’s family, al-Ouda had resisted previous pressure from the regime to support its feud with Qatar and his brother Khalid was imprisoned just for announcing news of Salman’s arrest (AFP, January 18).

Shaykh Awad al-Qarni

Al-Ouda and fellow Sahwa leader Shaykh Awad al-Qarni (reputed to have close ties to the Muslim Brotherhood) were among those accused by the Saudi Security Directorate of engaging in intelligence activities “for the benefit of foreign parties against the security of the Kingdom and its interests, methodology, capabilities and social peace in order to stir up sedition and prejudice national unity” (Saudi Press Agency, September 12, 2017).

Al-Ouda’s actual Twitter message may not have been as offensive as its demonstration of defiance of regime instructions to scholars to attack the role of the Qatari government in the Middle East-North Africa (MENA) region. Al-Ouda’s international reach only helped make his recalcitrance impossible to ignore.

Al-Ouda’s greatest offense seems to have been his continued association with the IUMS and its leader, Egyptian-born Shaykh Yusuf al-Qaradawi, now living in exile in Qatar and viewed as the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood. This association appears to be at the core of Saudi contentions al-Ouda, al-Qarni and other religious figures were acting as agents of the Qatari regime, which has sheltered leading members of the Brotherhood (Arab Weekly, September 17, 2017; Gulf Digital News [Manama], September 11, 2017).

Return to Prison

Al-Ouda was sent to solitary confinement in the Dahaban Prison, north of Jeddah on the Red Sea coast, where he quickly entered into a hunger strike to protest his detention, isolation and inability to secure legal assistance.

When rumors of al-Ouda’s death began to circulate after five months of solitary confinement, the shaykh’s son Abdullah demanded information on his condition. In frail health, al-Ouda was transferred to a hospital in Jeddah, but remained incommunicado until he was allowed to make a phone call to his son on February 6 of this year (Middle East Monitor, February 8).

Conclusion

Al-Ouda’s world-view is based on a kind of religious nationalism, in which Saudi Arabia remains the spiritual and physical homeland of an Islamic practise untainted by innovations or foreign influences (other than the Western experts who should be expelled and replaced by Islamic scholars). The shaykh melds this religious nationalism with a type of Arab supremacism in which Arabs are both intellectually and physically superior to other races and even non-Arab Muslims. [15] This sentiment is common in the Arab leadership of extremist movements such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State.

Though some of his views (especially those presented in Western rather than domestic forums) appear to suggest a moderate approach to Islam, al-Ouda remains adamantly anti-Western and anti-Shi’a, including the Arab Shi’a in Saudi Arabia’s oil-rich al-Sharqiyah Province, where they form as much as one-third of the population. [16]

Despite al-Ouda’s popularity in many quarters, he remains a polarizing figure in Saudi society, where some view him as a progressive voice while others remain convinced he is a conservative extremist. Unlike many Saudi imams, al-Ouda does not rely on a government salary and this makes him dangerously independent in the eyes of the regime. For now, the shaykh’s millions of followers await his fate, which depends largely on the political mood of the determined Crown Prince.

Notes

  1. Other common transliterations of the shaykh’s nisba include al-Awda, al-Odah, al-Udah and al-Auda.
  2. Founded by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792), the movement rejects the term “Wahhabism” as implying worship of its founder rather than God. Its followers prefer the terms “Salafi” or “al-Muwahidin” (Monotheists).
  3. Salman al-Ouda, Audiotape “Asbab Soqut al-Diwal,” (Why Do States Disintegrate), as cited in Mamoun Fandy, Saudi Arabia and the Politics of Dissent, Palgrave, New York, 1999, p.97.
  4. Mamoun Fandy, Ibid, p.92.
  5. Osama bin Laden: “Open Letter to Shaykh Bin Baz on the Invalidity of his Fatwa on Peace with the Jews” (September 29, 1994), https://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Open_Letter_to_Shaykh_Bin_Baz_on_the_Invalidity_of_his_Fatwa_on_Peace_with_the_Jews
  6. “Declaration of jihad against the Americans occupying the land of the two holiest sites: A message from Osama bin Muhammad bin Laden,” August 23, 1996, https://ctc.usma.edu/app/uploads/2013/10/Declaration-of-Jihad-against-the-Americans-Occupying-the-Land-of-the-Two-Holiest-Sites-Translation.pdf
  7. “Fatwa of the prisoner Shaykh Doctor Omar Abd al-Rahman,” May 26, 1998, cited in Peter L. Bergen, The Osama bin Laden I Know: An Oral History of al Qaeda’s Leader, Free Press, New York, 2006, p. 204.
  8. Peter Bergen interview of Hamid Mir, March 2005, in: Peter L. Bergen, op cit, p.149.
  9. Khalid al-Hammadi interview with Abu Jandal, al-Quds al-Arabi, August 1998, as cited in Peter L. Bergen, op cit, p. 149.
  10. Mamoun Fandy, op cit, pp. 186-192.
  11. For Madkhalism, see: “Radical Loyalty and the Libyan Crisis: A Profile of Salafist Shaykh Rabi’ Hadi al-Madkhali,” Militant Leadership Monitor, January 19, 2017.
  12. “A Ramadan Letter to Osama bin Laden from Salman al-Ouda,” delivered on Saudi Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC), September 14, 2007, (Muslim Matters, September 18, 2007).
  13. Salman al-Ouda, “Al-Siyasa,” Middle East Broadcasting Center (MBC), April 6, 2011, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FfKpSoccw5s
  14. https://twitter.com/salman_alodah/status/906280562956132352
  15. Salman al-Ouda, Audiotape “Jazirat al-Islam,” (The Island of Islam), as cited in Mamoun Fandy, op cit, p. 101.
  16. Graham E. Fuller and Rend Rahim Francke, “The Arab Shi’a: The Forgotten Muslims,” St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1999, p. 180.

This article first appeared in the March 8, 2018 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Militant Leadership Monitor. 

How Does Russia Fit into Egypt’s Strategic Plan?

Andrew McGregor

February 15, 2018

As Russian-Egyptian military and economic cooperation increases, there have been many comparisons made with Egypt’s early post-independence era (1956-1971), when Cairo grew close to Moscow. Egypt’s current strategic position, however, bears closer similarities to the foreign policy of the first decades of rule by the founder of modern Egypt, Ottoman Viceroy Muhammad ‘Ali (1805-1848). Like Egypt’s post-independence leaders, Muhammad ‘Ali sought to simultaneously modernize Egypt with foreign assistance while increasing its political independence. This was no easy feat, as it involved balancing allegiance to his suzerain, the Ottoman Sultan, while using (unofficial) French military assistance and training to strengthen his own hand without falling under French control. Current Egyptian president Abd al-Fatah al-Sisi now uses Russian military aid in much the same way to gain leverage in a deteriorating relationship with the United States.

Building an Egyptian Empire: Muhammad ‘Ali Pasha with his new navy and army

Some of the objectives shared by Muhammad ‘Ali and President al-Sisi include:

  • Intensifying the purchase and manufacture of arms
  • Expanding naval capacity
  • Conducting military operations abroad to project Egyptian power
  • Consolidating Egypt’s control of the Red Sea region
  • Securing the supply of Nile waters from the south
  • Diversifying international military suppliers and trainers
  • Exterminating the previous regime, and
  • Repressing Islamic extremists

The question for Moscow is whether their objectives meld with those of Cairo. The Kremlin is seeking enhanced military and economic relations with Egypt but has no desire to be used merely as leverage against Washington. Moscow will seek to obtain their own regional objectives by exploiting differences between Washington and Cairo and filling any void left by diminishing American military aid and engagement with the Sisi regime. For their part, Egypt’s leaders remain wary of getting too close to the Russians – the last period of close cooperation ended badly. Nonetheless, Egypt may be seeking external military support in their failing campaign against Islamist extremists in Sinai and Russia’s military track record in Syria makes it an enticing partner. Whether this can be achieved without paying a high price (such as the establishment of permanent Russian bases in Egypt) is Cairo’s dilemma.

Egyptian and Russian Paratroopers on the 2016 “Defenders of Friendship” Exercise (Egypt Independent)

Russia and Egypt have now conducted two joint airborne exercises; one in Egypt in 2016, the second in Russia in 2017. The third “Defenders of Friendship” exercise will be held in Egypt later this year. Egypt has never conducted a combat air-drop, while Russia has not carried out a combat drop since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1979-1989). However, the Russian Defense Ministry reported a successful drop of Syrian paratroopers behind Islamic State lines near the border of Raqqa and Homs governorates last August, with Syrian rocket fire directed by Russian Ka-52 combat helicopters (Sputnik, August 14, 2017). The ministry’s report could not be verified independently, but it could point to future Russian-assisted counter-terrorism para-drops in Egypt, possibly in Sinai or along Egypt’s remote western frontier.

Russia negotiated a deal last year that will allow Russian Air Force jets to use Egyptian airbases and airspace (Al-Monitor, December 18, 2017). The agreement could be the first step in allowing Russian airstrikes on terrorist targets in the Sinai or Libya. It would also preclude the necessity of further deployments of the Admiral Kuznetsov aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean; its performance in Syria was unimpressive and two Russian fighters were lost attempting to land on the ship’s deck.

In mid-January, Russian naval commander-in-chief Admiral Vladimir Korolyov declared that the Russian Navy would focus on improving its system of naval bases, particularly to accommodate “strategic non-nuclear deterrence groups” (TASS, January 16, 2018). Egypt has suitable ports on both its Mediterranean and Red Sea coasts, but Egyptian policy forbids the establishment of foreign military bases on its soil. Russia has engaged in talks with both Sudan and Libyan factional leader Khalifa Haftar regarding the construction of naval facilities in both those nations, but Egypt would provide a more stable long-term partner. However, a Russian base on Egypt’s Red Sea coast would conflict with Egyptian efforts to increase its own influence in the region, as seen in its establishment of a new Egyptian Red Sea squadron.

In furthering its own objectives, Cairo was able to take advantage of the cancellation of the French sale of two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships to Russia following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014. Egypt not only obtained the ships but was able to purchase Russian Kamov Ka-52K ship-based helicopters originally designed for the vessels (Tass, July 18, 2017). One ship, the Gamal Abdel Nasser, will be deployed with Egypt’s Alexandria-based Mediterranean fleet, while the Anwar El Sadat will join the Red Sea squadron.

(Southfront.org)

With the help of financing from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Egypt has stepped up Russian arms purchases. Russia began delivery of 50 MiG-29 fighter jets last year, a process scheduled for completion in 2020 (Egypt Independent, September 17, 2017; TASS, September 11, 2017). Russia supplied the S300VM mobile long-range air defence system to Egypt in 2017 and 46 Russian-made Kamov Ka-52 “Alligator” reconnaissance and combat helicopters are in the process of being delivered.

However, Cairo has avoided over-reliance on Russian arms (as in the Sadat era) by turning to other suppliers, such as France.  Twenty-four Dassault Rafale twin-engine multi-role fighter aircraft were ordered in 2015, some of which have already flown combat missions over Libya. Egypt took delivery of one French-made Gowind 2500 corvette (the El Fateh) last year and is building another three at its Alexandria shipyard (Defence Web, November 7, 2017). It has also purchased a South Korean corvette (the Shabab Misr) and four German-made Type 209 diesel-electric attack submarines to replace its ancient Chinese and Soviet-made Romeo-class diesel-electric submarines.

Al-Sisi, like Muhammad ‘Ali, is eager to modernize and increase the capacity of Egypt’s military but appears determined to avoid reliance on either the U.S. or Russia. While Russian approaches will not be rebuffed outright, Cairo is making it clear that enhanced cooperation must be consistent with Egypt’s strategic objectives.

This article first appeared in the February 15, 2018 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Eurasia Daily Monitor.

Operation Deep Punch II: Can a Change of Command Help Nigeria’s War on Boko Haram?

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, January 28, 2018

In recent weeks, the Nigerian military has liberated thousands of civilians from the rule of the Islamic State-allied Boko Haram movement, a divided insurgent group now in its eighth year of a callous and merciless effort to impose an extreme form of Islamic rule on northern Nigeria and the Lake Chad region. Hundreds of former Boko Haram militants were released this month after passing through a controversial de-radicalization and rehabilitation program, but both factions of the movement continue assaults on civilians and security personnel in northeast Nigeria and the neighboring states of Niger and Cameroon. Some of the alleged success of the Nigerian military campaign in recent weeks has been attributed to a change in command of Operation Lafiya Dole (Hausa – “Peace by all means”), the codename for Nigerian military efforts to destroy the insurgents.

A Change of Command

The AIS Special Report of July 29, 2017 reported how Major General Ibrahim Attahiru, the commander of Operation Lafiya Dole, had been given a 40-day deadline to take Boko Haram leader Abu Bakr Shekau, dead or alive. [1]

Major General Ibrahim Attahiru (BBC)

On December 3, 2017, General Attahiru was relieved of command of Operation Lafiya Dole and redeployed to Nigerian Army HQ as deputy chief of policy and plans. The Nigerian press cited Defense Ministry sources that the change in command was related to poor performance in the field and the inability to catch Shekau (Daily Post [Lagos], December 6, 2017; Punch [Lagos], December 7, 2017).

In the two weeks prior to Attahiru’s transfer, Boko Haram killed 13 people and injured 50 in twin suicide bombings in Biu (Borno State), killed 50 people in a suicide bombing on a mosque in Mubi (Adamawa State) and attacked a forward operating base (FOB) in Magumeri (Borno State), killing three members of the 5th Brigade garrison (8th Division) (Vanguard [Lagos], December 7, 2017; Daily Post [Lagos], November 21, 2017).

Major General Rogers Ibe Nicholas (Daily Nigerian)

Replacing Attahiru as commander of theater operations was Major General Rogers Ibe Nicholas, the former chief of logistics at Army HQ. Major General Leo Lucky Irabor, who commanded Operation Lafiya Dole prior to General Attahiru, continues as Force Commander of the Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF) combating Boko Haram. The MNJTF, with headquarters in N’Djamena, includes troops from Benin and the four nations bordering Lake Chad, Nigeria, Niger, Cameroon and Chad.

MNJTF Commander Major General Leo Lucky Irabor

Born in 1962, General Nicholas is an Igbo Christian from southeastern Imo State.  Nicholas has experience in the Lake Chad Basin, where he was stationed as a young officer. He has also served in the Nigerian contribution to the joint UN/African Union peacekeeping mission to Darfur (UNAMID) and is the former commander of Operation Safe Haven in Plateau State. Well educated, Nicholas speaks Igbo, Yoruba, Hausa, English and French, has two Master’s degrees, a post-graduate degree in public administration (all obtained in Nigeria) and is a chartered public accountant (Daily Nigerian, December 11, 2017).

Two weeks after his appointment, General Nicholas warned his officers that they would be punished if they did not take their tasks seriously, adding: “We have been losing our equipment and men to Boko Haram. I cannot tolerate this. We must go out to this people once and for all and show them the might of the Nigerian military. We must make sure we defend this nation with the last drop of our blood. We must not lose anything to these insurgents again. We have no other country but Nigeria and we must fight for it” (Punch [Lagos], December 17, 2017).

General Nicholas also emphasized that Operation Lafiya Dole could not succeed if it was solely a military operation, noting that success required cooperation with police, immigration and customs authorities as well as the Civilian Joint Task Force (CJTF, a local vigilante militia) in order to restore civil authority in liberated regions (This Day [Lagos], January 4, 2018).

Nigerian Army operations in the northeast have been complicated by the split in Boko Haram that occurred in August 2016 when the Islamic State leadership moved to replace the erratic Abu Bakr Shekau with the young Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi. Boko Haram had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State in April 2015. Shekau ignored the order to step down and the movement split into two groups; one commanded by Shekau in the Sambisi Forest and the other under al-Barnawi and his lieutenant Mamman Nur in the Lake Chad area. [2]

A Defeated Insurgency?

The New Year ushered in a wave of optimism to Nigeria’s military and political leaders. On January 6, the Nigerian military announced Boko Haram operational commander Mamman Nur had been “fatally injured” by a Nigerian bombardment in the Lake Chad region, though it did not explain the term “fatally injured” nor how it had identified Nur as a casualty. One of Nur’s wives was said to have been killed in the action while hundreds of militants surrendered to take advantage of Operation Safe Corridor, a de-radicalization and reintegration programme. Others were said to be fleeing to Niger to accept a government amnesty offered there (Premium Times [Abuja], January 6, 2018; Punch [Lagos], January 6, 2018; This Day [Lagos], January 7, 2018).

Following the bombardment, chief of army staff Lieutenant General Tukur Yusuf Buratai declared: “I want to assure you without mincing words that the Boko Haram terrorists have been defeated, all we are fighting for now is the peace in the northeast” (The Nation [Lagos], January 8, 2018). Buratai told troops of the Nigerian 8th Task Force Division based in Borno State that the division would soon be redeployed to Sokoto State in northwest Nigeria (Guardian [Lagos], January 8, 2018). The movement to Sokoto was first announced in November 2016, conditional on the completion of 8th Division anti-Boko Haram operations in Borno (Premium Times [Abuja], November 27, 2016).

On the same day Buratai addressed the 8th Division, Nigerian Army spokesman Brigadier Sami Usman suggested the Boko Haram leadership was in a rapid state of decline: “There is no doubt that the main Boko Haram terrorists’ group factional leader, Abu Bakr Shekau, is in a terrible state of health and not much a threat as he is now a spent horse, waiting for his Waterloo. However, Abu Mus’ab al-Barnawi… will soon be captured” (Premium Times [Abuja], January 8, 2018).

Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari declared as early as December 2015 that Boko Haram had been “technically defeated.” The president used his 2018 New Year’s Day address to again declare Boko Haram “defeated,” though he acknowledged “isolated attacks still occur” (Premium Times [Abuja], January 1, 2018). On the same day, al-Barnawi’s faction of Boko Haram claimed to have killed nine Nigeria soldiers in an assault on the Kanama barracks in Borno State (Telegram Messaging via BBC Monitoring, January 1, 2018).

Lake Chad (WFP/Giulio D’Adamo)

As if to mock the president, Abu Bakr Shekau appeared in a 31-minute Hausa language video the following day to report “We are in good health and nothing has happened to us.” Shekau went on to claim credit for a series of grisly attacks on villagers and loggers in northeastern Borno State (The Guardian [Lagos], January 2, 2018; Vanguard [Lagos], January 2, 2018). Another video released on January 15 showed Shekau firing weapons as well as school girls kidnapped from Chibok in 2014 and weeping female police officers who were abducted in June 2017 to be the insurgents’ “slaves” (Sahara Reporters, January 15, 2018).

The AIS report of July 29, 2017 noted that members of the al-Barnawi faction of Boko Haram were relocating from the Sambisi Forest to the Nigerian city of Kano (capital of Kano State in northwest Nigeria). This was confirmed by a January 6, 2018 Nigerian Army statement reporting that junior and senior al-Barnawi faction commanders were fleeing to Kano after the latest Nigerian government offensive (PR Nigeria, January 6, 2018). Shekau’s faction is still operating in the Sambisi Forest region but is under pressure from the Nigerian Army.

Nigeria’s federal government announced in December that it intended to withdraw $1 billion from the controversial Excess Crude Account (ECA, currently standing at $2.32 billion) to combat Boko Haram. Media and opposition parties questioned why such an enormous sum was needed to fight a movement that, according to government leaders, was already vanquished. Amidst opposition fears the funds would be used for political purposes, the government has since suggested the money will not be used solely against Boko Haram and would in any case not be released without the approval of the National Assembly (Vanguard [Lagos], December 30, 2017; January 18, 2018).

Operation Deep Punch II

Nigerian Troops in Operation Deep Punch II (Saynaija)

Nigerian authorities claimed success in mid-December 2017 with coordinated ground-air attacks on Boko Haram hideouts in the Lake Chad islands as part of “Operation Deep Punch II,” [3] arresting 407 suspected militants and their family members (Premium Times [Abuja], December 16, 2017). Large stocks of food, fuel, ammunition, explosives and motorcycles were seized and destroyed, but not without resistance; Boko Haram suicide bombers struck an 8th Division MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) armored personnel vehicle with a car filled with explosives, killing three soldiers and a member of the CJTF as well as wounding nine others (The Nigerian Voice, December 9, 2017; Nigerian Army official website, December 20, 2017). Saying the deployment of the 8th Division in Borno was a “major strategic decision,” General Buratai declared the unit had “lived up to expectations” (The Nation [Lagos], January 8, 2018).

One tactical innovation used by Operation Safe Haven is the deployment of counter-terrorist troops on motorcycles in remote areas (Vanguard [Lagos], December 1, 2017). Boko Haram has long used motorcycles to carry out terrorist attacks.

On a more technologically advanced level, Nigeria will soon take possession of 12 Embraer Super Tucano A-29 turboprop aircraft and munitions from Brazilian Embraer’s US partner, the Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC). The nearly $600 million sale was initially blocked by the Obama administration over human rights concerns but has since been approved by the Trump administration. The highly maneuverable counterinsurgency warplanes were designed in Brazil for work in the Amazon Basin and are specially adapted for conditions of high temperatures, humidity and precipitation, conditions more likely to be encountered in the restive Nigerian south rather than arid Borno province. Nonetheless, the aircraft will be useful, particularly if military ground-air coordination can be improved.

Conclusion

Boko Haram is still far from a spent force and remains a regional threat, with recent attacks on troops and civilians in Niger (seven soldiers killed on January 20), Cameroon (four civilians killed on January 11) and Nigeria’s Adamawa State (five civilians killed on January 19) (News24, January 20, 2018; AFP, January 11, 2018). The Nigerians have made significant progress in the Lake Chad region, though clearing the Sambisi Forest of Boko Haram militants has proved frustratingly elusive despite all the claims of victory.

The recent arrest of a suspected Boko Haram terrorist in Germany raises concerns that the successful elimination of Boko Haram as a regional threat might be the beginning of Boko Haram as an international phenomenon as surviving members disperse and take advantage of easy entry into Europe and North America.  At the moment, the greatest impediment to Boko Haram’s out-migration from the region is the relative impoverishment of many of its members, though leading figures will certainly have the means and resources to escape Nigeria’s security forces and initiate new operations in Africa and possibly abroad.

Notes

  1. “General with a Deadline: Ibrahim Attahiru’s 40 Days to Seize Boko Haram Leader Abu Bakr Shekau Dead or Alive,” AIS Special Report, July 29, 2017, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=3984
  2. See “Choosing a Figurehead over a Fanatic: A Profile of Abu Musab al-Barnawi, the New Leader of the Islamic State in West Africa,” Militant Leadership Monitor, August 31, 2016, https://www.aberfoylesecurity.com/?p=3712
  3. Deep Punch I was a mid-2017 operation to clear Boko Haram bases in the Sambisi Forest.

Egypt Looks for Security Answers as Its War on Terrorism Moves to the Desert Oases

Andrew McGregor

January 15, 2018

The spread of the Islamist insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula to the heavily populated Nile Delta and Nile Valley regions of Egypt has been facilitated by the importation of arms from Muammar Qaddafi’s looted Libyan armories. Prior to Libya’s 2011 revolution, arms and explosives were difficult to obtain. Since then, the growth of new Egyptian militant groups such as Liwaa al-Thawra (Revolution Brigade) and Harikat Souad Masr (Hasm – Arms of Egypt Movement) have been enabled by the availability of arms smuggled over 370 miles through the vast wastes of Egypt’s Western Desert, the 263,000 square miles of which account for two-thirds of Egypt’s land mass. With the Libyan-Egyptian border stretching for more than 650 miles, uncontrolled entry points to Egypt are plentiful, allowing militants and smugglers to move back and forth.

The Oases of the Western Desert (Our Egypt)

The Oases

The only centers of population in the Western Desert are the ancient oases of Siwa, Dakhla, Farafra, Bahariya and Kharga. Over time, the oases have been occupied by Ancient Egyptians, Romans, Mamluks and Ottomans. Modern influences only began to enter the oases with the construction of a road connecting them to the Nile valley in the 1970s. The mostly Muslim peoples of the oases are a mix of their original ancient inhabitants, Berbers, Arab Bedouin from Libya and migrants from the Nile Valley.

Ruins of the Oracle of Amun Temple at Siwa Oasis

Despite their isolation, the recent battles fought in the oases between Islamist extremists and government forces are far from the first incidents of large-scale violence in these communities. The terrain of the Western Desert has been treacherous for military operations since the Persian King Cambyses lost an entire army to a sandstorm after it had been sent to destroy the Oracle of Amun in 55 BCE.

In the modern era, the oases only began to come under Egyptian government control in the 18th and 19th centuries. In 1819, the Egyptian Viceroy Muhammad ‘Ali succeeded where Cambyses had failed by bringing Siwa under Egyptian control in a ruthless conquest in which he deployed Bashi Bazouks (ill-disciplined Ottoman irregulars), Bedouin fighters and a battery of artillery.

Sayyid Ahmad al-Sharif al-Sanusi

Conflict returned to the region during the First World War, when an Ottoman-allied expeditionary force entered the Western Desert from Libya. Commanded by Libyan Sanusi leader Sayyid Ahmad al-Sharif and Egyptian defector and professional soldier Muhammad Salih al-Harb, the expedition was designed to sweep through the oases before inciting an anti-British rebellion in the Nile Valley. By March 1916, the Sanusis held all five major oases, but the rebellion failed to materialize. After a year of ever more difficult attempts to sustain an army in the desert, Ahmad al-Sharif returned to Libya with only 200 men, his reputation in tatters.

British officers in stripped-down Ford Model T’s began intensive exploration of the desert in the postwar years. When war again descended on the region in 1939, their work provided the basis for successful anti-Axis operations by the Commonwealth’s Long Range Desert Group (LRDG). In the years before the defeat of Germany’s Field Marshal Irwin Rommel and his Afrika Korps, LRDG vehicles ranged the desert, discovering the routes that are now used by smugglers and arms traffickers.

LRDG Patrol in Siwa Oasis (WWII Today)

Tensions rose in the region again after Qaddafi seized power in Libya in 1969. However, the colonel’s attempts to incite revolutionary activity amongst the cross-border Awlad ‘Ali Bedouin (with historic ties to Libya) were dashed by a four-day border war in 1977, in which Qaddafi discovered his small and amateurish army was no match for battle-tested Egyptian troops.

Egyptian Efforts to Control Arms Smuggling 

The movement of arms from Libya to Egypt began during the short tenure of Egypt’s President Muhammad al-Mursi, who was deposed by the army in July 2013. Security forces disrupted a major arms smuggling network, the so-called Madinat Nasr cell, in November 2012. The suspects claimed the arms were intended for Syria, but plans and documents found in their possession indicated the arms were to be used by the extremists to overthrow the government of President al-Mursi, whom they reviled for participating in democratic elections. [1] However, when an arms convoy was intercepted near Siwa Oasis in July 2013, it became clear that the problem was far from solved (Mada Masr [Cairo], October 22, 2017).

The Egypt-Libya border region is patrolled by the Egyptian Border Guards, a lightly armed paramilitary unit operating out of the western oases. The Egyptian armed forces do not have a counterpart to partner with on the Libyan side, although there are growing ties with Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, commander of a largely Cyrenaïcan (eastern Libyan) militia coalition known as the Libyan National Army (LNA). Restoring security in Libya is key to ending the cross-border arms shipments, and Egypt has agreed to reorganize the LNA with the intention of molding it into a true national force (Middle East Monitor, September 19, 2017).

Despite the efforts of the border guards and the Egyptian air force, shipments of Libyan arms (including advanced weapons) appeared to intensify in the last year:

  • May 8 2017 – The Egyptian Army announced the destruction of a convoy of 15 vehicles carrying arms and ammunition across the Libyan border into Egypt (Ahram Online, May 8, 2017).
  • June 27, 2017 – An Egyptian army spokesman claimed 12 vehicles loaded with arms, ammunition and explosives had been destroyed during 12 hours of airstrikes near the Libyan border (Reuters, June 27, 2017; AFP, June 27, 2017; New Arab, June 28, 2017).
  • July 16, 2017 – Fifteen vehicles carrying explosives, weapons and ammunition were reported destroyed by the Egyptian air force (Middle East Monitor, July 17, 2017).
  • October 23, 2017 – The Egyptian air force reported the destruction of eight vehicles in the Western Desert carrying arms and ammunition (Daily News Egypt, October 23, 2017).
  • October 27, 2017 – The Interior Ministry recovered 13 bodies as well as weapons and suicide bomb belts after a raid on a training camp for militants at a farm on the highway from Asyut to the oasis of Kharga (Reuters, October 27, 2017; Daily News Egypt, October 28, 2017).
  • October 31, 2017 – The Egyptian army reported the destruction of six 4×4 vehicles and the death of all their occupants. The vehicles were reportedly carrying arms and other illegal materials (Ahram Online [Cairo], October 31, 2017). Earlier that day, Egyptian airstrikes targeting facilities of the Shura Council of Mujahideen in Derna, Libya killed at least 20 civilians (Mada Masr [Cairo], October 31, 2017). [2]
  • November 11, 2017 – An army spokesman reported the destruction of ten vehicles carrying arms and ammunition in the Western Desert (Ahram Online, November 11, 2017; Libya Herald, November 12, 2017).

In all, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi claims that Egypt has destroyed no less than 1,200 vehicles carrying arms, ammunition and fighters in the 30 months prior to November 2017 (Xinhua, November 11, 2017). Though the list above may seem to indicate Egyptian success in controlling the border, the influx of modern weapons to Sinai and the Nile Valley suggests many arms convoys continue to get through the Egyptian defenses.

Controlling the border from the air without intelligence from the ground can lead to undesirable outcomes, particularly in a region that has become increasingly popular with tourists, who can now enjoy relatively safe excursions into the inhospitable desert thanks to 4×4 vehicles, satellite phones and GPS navigational equipment. From the air, there is little to distinguish tourist convoys from convoys of arms traffickers, as the Egyptian military discovered when one of their Apache attack helicopters mistakenly slaughtered 12 guides and Mexican tourists in September 2015, despite their having a police escort. Authorities claimed the group of four vehicles was in an area near Bahariya oasis “off limits to foreign tourists,” although a permit with a full itinerary had been obtained for travel in the region (BBC, September 13, 2015; PanAm Post, September 15, 2015).

Battle at Farafra Oasis

One of the most dangerous militants operating in the Western Desert is Hisham ‘Ali al-Ashmawy Musa’ad Ibrahim  (a.k.a. Abu Omar al-Muhajir), a graduate of the Egyptian military academy and a former member of the elite Sa’iqa (Thunderbolt) commando unit. Al-Ashmawy is reported to have received advanced military training in the United States (Egypt Today, October 21, 2017).

Hisham al-Ashmawy

After 10 years’ service in Sinai, al-Ashmawy was dismissed from the Egyptian army for Islamist activities and promptly joined the Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis terrorist group in 2012, where he provided training in weapons and tactics.

In July 2014, al-Ashmawy led an attack on Egyptian border guards in the Western Desert’s Farafra oasis. The assault was carried out by uniformed militants in four-wheel drive vehicles and armed with rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) and other weapons (Egypt Today, November 28, 2017). The poor ground-air cooperation in the Egyptian military was again exposed when an injured officer was unable to call in air and ground support after the attackers broke off, allowing the militants to withdraw safely into the desert after killing 21 border guards (Egypt Today, October 21, 2017). Wounded during the operation, al-Ashmawy was taken for treatment in the Libyan city of Derna, an Islamist stronghold where he had strong connections with the now defunct Ansar al-Sharia group (Egypt Today, October 21, 2017).

Farafra Oasis

Soon after the Farafra assault, al-Ashmawy split from Bayt al-Maqdis over the group’s decision to pledge allegiance to Islamic State (IS). He appeared in a 2015 video under the name Abu Omar al-Muhajir to claim responsibility for the Farafra attack and to announce he was leading a new group, al-Murabitun (not to be confused with the Sahara/Sahel movement formerly led by Mokhar Belmokhtar).

In June 2016, militants struck again in Farafra, killing two officers and injuring three others (Daily News Egypt, October 23, 2017).

Disaster at Bahariya Oasis

Bahariya Oasis (Roderick Phillips)

The desert’s Islamist militants again displayed their military skills with the October 20, 2017 destruction of a column of Egyptian police. Working from air force intelligence that suggested a handful of militants were camped along the al-Wahat-al-Kharga-Assyut highway near the Bahariya oasis (85 miles southwest of Cairo), the Egyptian police sent to deal with them were working without air support and had only basic intelligence on the region (al-Arabiya, October 21, 2017).

Instead of a handful of terrorists, the police column ran into an ambush carried out by a larger than expected force. Egyptian security sources told multiple media outlets that over 50 security officers had been killed before the Interior Ministry issued a statement saying that only 16 had fallen with 15 militants killed (Mada Masr [Cairo], October 21, 2017). The ministry’s statement was followed by government criticism of all domestic and international media that published the numbers provided by security sources.

Abd al-Rahim al-Mismary (al-Hayat TV)

The only militant to survive the Egyptian pursuit that followed was a Libyan veteran of the Shura Council of Mujahideen in Derna, Abd al-Rahim Muhammad Abdullah al-Mismary. Al-Mismary stated that he belonged to a group led by Imad al-Din Sayyid Ahmad Abd al-Hamid (better known as Shaykh Hatim), another graduate of Egypt’s military academy and a lieutenant of al-Ashmawy (Egypt Today, November 17, 2017; Libya Herald, November 17, 2017). Shaykh Hatim, whose Ansar al-Islam group claimed responsibility for the Bahariya attack, was killed in retaliatory Egyptian airstrikes shortly after the attack (Ahram Online, November 17, 2017; al-Arabiya, November 3, 2017). According to al-Mismary, Shaykh Hatim’s group had been present in Bahariya oasis without detection since January 2017 (Egypt Independent, November 17, 2017).

Military Shake-Up 

The fallout from the Bahariya massacre hit the highest levels of the armed forces command structure. Army chief-of-staff Mahmud Ibrahim Hegazi was replaced by Lieutenant General Muhammad Farid Hegazi (no relation), a member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) that ruled Egypt after President Hosni Mubarak was deposed (The National [Abu Dhabi], October 29, 2017).

General Mahmoud Farid Hegazy

Also replaced were a number of high-ranking interior ministry officials, including the director of Egypt’s National Security Agency (NSA, responsible for domestic intelligence), General Mahmoud Sharawi,; Giza security director Hisham al-Iraqi; General Ibrahim al-Masri, chief of the Giza NSA; and head of special operations for the Central Security Forces General Magdy Abu al-Khair (MENA [Cairo], October 28, 2017; Daily News Egypt, October 29, 2017; Ahram Online, January 18, 2017).

The disaster at Bahariya made it clear that lightly armed interior ministry units cannot deal effectively with better-armed militant groups directed by leaders with advanced training in military tactics. Poor intelligence and unfamiliarity with the desert by security units drawn from the Delta or Nile Valley have hampered operations, while poor ground-to-air coordination has several times resulted in disaster. Nonetheless, Egypt’s military planners continue to neglect improvements in their capabilities in the Western Desert in favor of massive investments in prestigious, but likely useless, items such as French amphibious assault ships and German submarines.

Meanwhile, the instability in the Western Desert has pulled Cairo into the Libyan conflict at a time when it is struggling to control the Sinai and tensions with Sudan are increasing over the disputed Hala’ib Triangle region and Egypt’s alleged support for Darfuri rebels. Until improvements are made in Egypt’s operational capacity in the Western Desert, extremists and arms smugglers will continue to fuel militant and terrorist activities in the Sinai and Egypt’s main population centers.

NOTES

[1] See Andrew McGregor, “The Face of Egypt’s Next Revolution: The Madinat Nasr Cell,” Jamestown Foundation Hot Issue, November 20, 2012: https://jamestown.org/program/hot-issue-the-face-of-egypts-next-revolution-the-madinat-nasr-cell/

[2] The city of Derna, besieged by the LNA since 2015, appears to be the base for Egyptian extremists working out of Libya. Some of these have established bases in the vast Western Desert; according to Egypt’s interior ministry, Amr Sa’ad’s Jund al-Khilafah (Soldiers of the Caliphate), a militant group responsible for a series of attacks on Copts in the Delta and Nile Valley, was trained in the southern regions of the Western Desert, near the Upper Egyptian governorates (Mada Masr [Cairo], October 22, 2017).

This article first appeared in the January 15, 2018 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.