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

AIS Special Report, November 12, 2018

Andrew McGregor

Tibesti (SVS Chad)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Return to Chad

CCMSR Column in Northern Chad (Tchad Convergence)

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

Imprisoned Leadership

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

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

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

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

The Battle of Kouri Bougoudi

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

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

CCMSR Fighters

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

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

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

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

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

The Tibesti Mountains (Sakhalia.net)

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

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

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

Battle at Miski

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

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

Driving the CCMSR from Libya

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

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

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

Logo of the CCMSR

Forecast

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

Notes

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

 

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

Andrew McGregor

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

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

Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar (Algeriepatriotique)

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

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

Russian Interests in Libya

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

Lev Dengoov (Russarabbc.ru)

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

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

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

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

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

Italian Relations with Russia

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

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

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

Italian Forces on the Libyan Border

Il Mediterraneo Allargato (Riccardo Piroddi)

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

Italian Troops in Niger (RSI)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

Andrew McGregor

November 6, 2018

Salif Sadio (Dakar Actu)

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

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

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

(al-Jazeera)

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

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

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

The MFDC

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

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

Early Years

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

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

The Casamance Rebellion

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

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

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

MFDC Fighters (Xalima.com)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Casamance

The MFDC in The Gambia

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

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

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

Slaughter in the Forest – A Battle for Resources

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

Casamance Timber Headed for Export (Daniel Glick)

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Notes

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

 

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

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

Andrew McGregor

Terrorism Monitor

November 2, 2018

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

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

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

The Allied Democratic Forces

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FARDC Troops Targeting ADF Positions

MONUSCO and the ADF

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

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

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

Insurgency and Disease

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

Nord Kivu Health Workers (AFP)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FARDC Weakness and the Role of the UPDF

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

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

General Marcel Mbangu

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

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

Brigadier General Muhindo Akili Mundos

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

Notes

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

 

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

Defense or Domination? Building Algerian Power with Russian Arms

Andrew McGregor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rezonans-NE Radar System

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

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

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

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

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

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

Project 22160 Patrol Ship (World Naval News)

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

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

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

Notes

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

     

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

Andrew McGregor

Militant Leadership Monitor, August 30, 2018

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

Early Career

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

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

Activities in North America

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

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

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

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

A Peripatetic Preacher

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ghoneim and the Egyptian Revolution

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

Former Egyptian President Muhammad Mursi on Trial in Cairo

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

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

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

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

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

Views on Coptic Christians

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

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

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

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

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

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

Views on the Islamic State Organization

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

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

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

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

Ghoneim on Punishments and Palestine

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

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

Under Sentence of Death

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

Andrew McGregor

AIS Special Report, July 9, 2018

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

Sabha Castle Under Fire by Tubu Fighters (Libyan Express)

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

The Castle

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

Sabha Market – Castle on horizon, center right.

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

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

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

The Battle

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

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

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

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

Forbidding Haruj (Norbert Brügge)

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

Volcano Ruin, Haruj

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

Brigadier Belqassim al-Abaj

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

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

The Castle Falls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Struggle for Tamanhint Airbase

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

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

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

The Israeli Defense Force in Sabha?

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

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

Conclusion

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

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

NOTES

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

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.