ISIS seeks to establish presence in Upper Egypt

ISIS seeks to establish presence in Upper Egypt

Marc Simms is an occasional blogger for Proelium Law LLP. Marc holds a MLitt in Terrorism Studies and a Masters in International Relations, both from St Andrews. His particular interests are in emerging international security issues, unconventional warfare and terrorism.

Recent attacks suggest that ISIS is in the process of establishing armed cells and networks in Upper Egypt, giving them a potential new centre of operations in the country.

Sinai Province

ISIS has had an armed presence in Egypt since Ansar Bait al-Maqdis, a Sinai-based terrorist organisation that formed during the chaos of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution out of local militant groups, declared their allegiance to the group in 2014.  Taking advantage of weak security on the Sinai Peninsula, the group carried out a number of attacks on civilians and security personnel in the region.

However, unlike their branches in Iraq/Syria and Libya, the ISIS Sinai Province branch has been unable to establish itself territorially, only being able to partially control the small town of Sheikh Zuweid, and failing to expand that control despite a prolonged assault against Egyptian security forces.  Despite this, they have nevertheless been able to carry out a staggering amount of complex attacks in the country, raising questions about the competence of the security forces and their ability roll back the Sinai insurgency.

Expanding the conflict

Since 2014, Ansar Bait al-Maqdis had been making inroads into the Western Desert, clashing with security forces and carrying out several bombings in the region.  It is possible that this was planned to coincide with their official pledge of allegiance to ISIS, by providing a potential smuggling route for foreign fighters in Libya to infiltrate into and out of Egypt.

In 2015, militants linked to this network attempted to carry out a suicide bombing at the Karnak temple, only to be thwarted by Egyptian security.  This was followed by a succession of attacks on targets in Cairo and the Upper Egypt region, but those efforts stalled with the death of the network’s leader Ashraf Ali Ali Hassanein al-Gharabli in November of that year, as well as the deaths of 9 militants likely responsible for the Cairo attacks two months previous.

However, in 2016 ISIS staged an attack on the Botroseya Church which showed a distinct change in strategy for the group.  Instead of attacking military or political targets, ISIS instead decided to make Coptic Christians in Egypt the focus of its campaign, in effect importing sectarian tactics to Egypt in the hope that they will have a similarly destabilizing effect as they have had in Iraq.  Since then, ISIS has carried out the Palm Sunday church bombings and the more recent Minya attack, where ISIS gunmen fired on a convoy carrying Copts travelling to the Monastery of Saint Samuel.

Equally, ISIS propaganda has aligned itself with this change in focus, hoping to leverage widespread discrimination against – and conspiracy theories about – Coptic Christians in Egypt to its own benefit.

Strategy, convenience and opportunity

From this perspective, ISIS establishing themselves in Upper Egypt has a number of benefits.  Not only is the region sparsely populated and mostly rural, giving ISIS an advantage in establishing networks and training, and the aforementioned access to Libya via the Western Desert, but the region also has a high concentration of Coptic Christians. Minya Governante has an estimated 50% Coptic Christian population, and has been the flashpoint for sectarian violence in recent years.

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Spain emerging as potential new entry point into Europe for migrants

Spain emerging as potential new entry point into Europe for migrants

Marc Simms is an occasional blogger for Proelium Law LLP. Marc holds a MLitt in Terrorism Studies and a Masters in International Relations, both from St Andrews. His particular interests are in emerging international security issues, unconventional warfare, and terrorism.

Recent figures from the United Nations Refugee Agency reveal that the number of migrants crossing into Spain via sea routes from North Africa has shown a 75% increase from last year.  According to the UNHCR, this is placing significant stress on Spain’s migration services and agencies.  In particular, the UNHCR is concerned that the country is unprepared to handle vulnerable groups such as victims of trafficking and unaccompanied minors.

Routes into Europe

The Libyan-Italian route continues to be the most popular entry method into Europe for African migrants, with 85,000 arriving since the start of this year, a 19% rise on figures from last year.  Libya has proven to be a popular starting point for migrants from all over Africa to get into Europe, due to weak local governance and collusion by local militias in people smuggling.  In addition, the ongoing violence of the Libyan civil war has seen Libyans themselves trying to flee the violence.

The Italian government has paid the Libyan Government of National Accord in hope of reducing numbers, but the GNA only controls a relatively small area of the country, mostly the area surrounding Tripoli (and is struggling to hold even portions of that).  Still, it has made the journey via Libya less attractive to some, which in addition to the poor treatment African migrants receive in the country, may explain the recent surge in popularity with the Spanish alternative route.

Moroccan factors

Another possible reason for the increased numbers on the Spanish route is recent, ongoing unrest in the Rif region of Morocco.  The unrest was triggered by the apparent murder of a fish seller by police, but has since become a larger movement, grounded in historical grievances that the local population has with the Moroccan government.

This is further complicated by the economic situation in Rif, which sees many people turning to cannabis production and has contributed to Morocco becoming one of the largest cannabis producers in the world.  Because of this drug factor, it is also a very strong possibility that local smuggling syndicates are also now involved in people trafficking, using the same routes as they have for drugs in the past.

A humanitarian crisis in the making?

In addition to the questionable capacity of the Spanish government to handle the number of people now attempting to enter the country, the journey itself carries considerable risk.  Almost 50 refugees are feared dead after their rubber dinghy sank in early July, with 3 survivors being rescued by the Spanish coast guard.   As more migrants attempt the crossing, the likelihood is that more accidents and loss of life will occur.

“What is clear is that, they (Spain’s government) have to get ready. They can’t be caught unprepared. What started happening elsewhere in Europe in 2015 can’t be allowed to happen here,” spokeswoman for the UNHCR in Spain Maria Jesus Vega said.

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CAR cease-fire already shows signs of falling apart

CAR cease-fire already shows signs of falling apart

Marc Simms is an occasional blogger for Proelium Law LLP. Marc holds a MLitt in Terrorism Studies and a Masters in International Relations, both from St Andrews. His particular interests are in emerging international security issues, unconventional warfare and terrorism.

On Monday 19 June, 13 of the 14 armed factions currently fighting in the Central African Republic’s ongoing civil war agreed to a ceasefire deal in Rome.

The cease-fire, which had been mediated by the Catholic Sant’Egidio Community, a lay church affiliated with the Vatican, was considered an important step in restoring peace to the Central African Republic (CAR), although previous negotiations have not managed to stop fighting for any significant period of time.  It was intended to be a stepping stone to bringing the armed groups into the political process in return for ending attacks.

Fighting on the ground continues

Despite the negotiations, on Tuesday 20 June over 100 people were killed in clashes in the town of Bria.  Associated Press reported that the fighting had erupted between the predominantly Christian anti-Balaka militia and the Popular Front for the Renaissance in the Central African Republic (FPRC), a group whose membership is mostly drawn from Muslim ex-Seleka fighters.

The security situation in Bria continues to be uncertain, with the Red Cross unable to venture into the streets to collect bodies or give medical treatment to the wounded.

Before the most current round of violence, in November last year FPRC fighters undertook targeted executions of the Fulani ethnic group in the town, carrying out house to house searches, abductions and killings.

Blood diamonds fuelling the conflict

Bria is something of a battleground town given its central location within the country, and also its rich mineral deposits, especially the local diamond fields.

The CAR was the 12th largest diamond exporter in the world before the outbreak of the 2012 civil war, and illegal smuggling of blood diamonds and gold from the country is helping to fund the violence there.  The diamonds are smuggled out via Chad and Sudan, but are also being purchased by Western companies, mostly out of Belgium.  While the UN has placed sanctions on companies for supporting armed factions via their diamond purchases, the Kimberley Process does not ban in-country purchases of diamonds, and so companies are purchasing and stockpiling diamonds in country, awaiting the lift of the ban.

The CAR civil war

The CAR has been in a state of civil war since 2012, when a previous peace deal between the government and rebel groups broke down.  The conflict has several key drivers, including the aforementioned mineral resources, which competing factions are attempting to control in order to enrich themselves.  There are also sectarian conflicts, between a mostly Christian and animist south, and a mostly Muslim north.  Intersecting with these issues are existing ethnic rivalries, which are often related to tensions between agricultural and nomadic groups.

Over 400,000 people have been internally displaced in the course of the conflict, and 500,000 have fled the country as refugees to neighbouring countries.  Due to the ongoing violence, which makes the CAR one of the most dangerous locations in the world for aid workers, it’s impossible to estimate the number of civilian casualties.

“We signed the agreement, but we have to defend ourselves, we can’t allow an attack to happen without reacting,” Djamil Babanani, spokesman for the Popular Front for the Rebirth of the Central African Republic, an armed rebel group formerly belonging to the Muslim Seleka coalition, told the AFP news agency on Tuesday.

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Saudi National Guard deploys attack helicopters as border situation deteriorates

Saudi National Guard deploys attack helicopters as border situation deteriorates

Marc Simms is an occasional blogger for Proelium Law LLP. Marc holds a MLitt in Terrorism Studies and a Masters in International Relations, both from St Andrews. His particular interests are in emerging international security issues, unconventional warfare and terrorism.

For the first time in its history, the Saudi Arabian National Guard is preparing to deploy an aviation wing comprising of attack helicopters, amid deteriorating conditions along the 1800 km border.

The National Guard is a distinct unit aside from the regular Saudi Arabian military, notable for operating outside of the usual military chain of command and instead answering to the King directly.  A successor to the Ikhwan, the military force that helped Ibn Saud found modern Saudi Arabia, the National Guard is still a largely tribal force with allegiance to the House of Saud, and as such intended as an internal security force as much as a military wing, being widely considered to be better equipped and trained than the regular Saudi Army.

Border conflict

Yemen has been in a state of civil war since 2015, and has been the target of a Saudi-led intervention to support the government of President Abdrabbuh Mansur Hadi since the same year.  While technically a multi-sided civil war, with the presence of both Al-Qaeda and ISIS in the region, the main belligerents are the Hadi government and the Houthi rebels.

The Houthis are a primarily Shi’a political movement, with a level of support – though the exact extent is disputed – coming from Iran.  Thus for Saudi Arabia, the Houthi threat is not only that of destabilisation and an unfriendly government on their southern border (Saudi security forces clashed with Houthi militants previously, in 2009), but also part of the broader Saudi-Iranian rivalry that is taking part throughout the region and wider Muslim world.

The international focus on the conflict has been primarily on the air campaign carried out by Saudi Arabia, in particular the indiscriminate air strikes and the humanitarian disaster they have helped precipitate.  However understandable, this focus has obscured the ongoing border raids, attacks and incursions that have taken place on Saudi border by the Houthi militants – a neglect that has been cultivated by a Saudi Arabian regime that does not wish to appear to have lost control.

The Houthi rebels have concentrated their attacks in the form of cross border shellings, surface-to-surface missile strikes and border raids into Saudi Arabian territory.  In particular, the city of Najran, with a population of over 250,000, has proven to be a regular target for short-range Houthi artillery, being situated as it is only 20km from the border.  The area has seen widespread evacuation of Saudi civilians, especially in the more remote settlements.

Escalation, with risks

The deployment of a National Guard aviation wing suggests a significant escalation of Saudi Arabia’s forces in the south-west border area.  Part of the problem in preventing Houthi attacks is the Saudi Army’s reliance on poorly trained and equipped Yemeni mercenaries to guard the border passes and preferring to fight incursions at range with air strikes.  Deploying attack helicopters suggests a change in approach that may bear more success than the current strategy.

However, it also risks an escalation of the conflict in the region.  Evacuation is unpopular with local tribes, and there are accusations that there have not been compensation payments for those moved.  The reaction by Saudi security forces in Awamiyah to the low-level insurgency in Qatif show how heavy-handed the state can be with its reactions, and if the fighting were to spread, the natural inclination to heavily suppress it with the available military forces in the area could precipitate a wider crisis and further loss of control over the region.

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Proelium Law LLP is authorised and regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority No. 629608 (www.sra.org.uk)

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Iranian nuclear deal still uncertain

Iranian nuclear deal still uncertain

Marc Simms is an occasional blogger for Proelium Law LLP. Marc holds a MLitt in Terrorism Studies and a Masters in International Relations, both from St Andrews. His particular interests are in emerging international security issues, unconventional warfare and terrorism.

In August, US Ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, travelled to Vienna to discuss Iran’s nuclear activities with the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN-affiliated atomic energy bureau.

In 2015, the P5+1 nations and the European Union finally agreed on a framework to limit Iran’s nuclear activities, over fears that plans for nuclear power may be part of a covert “dual-use” nuclear weapons program.  The agreement was preceded by a decade of sanctions imposed by the UN on Iran, which had demanded it halt uranium enrichment programs, prevented the sale of nuclear-related technology and froze overseas assets of the Iranian state for its non-compliance.

Under the terms of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, Iran had limits placed on uranium enrichment capacity, levels and stockpiles of material, would redesign several facilities to prevent weapons-grade material by-products and agreed to monitoring through the IAEA’s procedures.  In return, all sanctions on the Iranian state due to its nuclear activities would cease (those sanctions on Iran for sponsorship of international terrorism remain in effect).

A deal not welcomed by all

Despite the deal with Iran being notable in several aspects and generally well-received by the negotiating nations, international community at large and weapons proliferation experts, it was not universally acclaimed.  Specifically, the deal has been heavily criticised by the American Republican Party and by the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well as opposition parties.  In particular, during the 2016 Republican primaries, all the standing candidates for Presidential nominee condemned the deal as “flawed” and “dangerous”.

Then nominee Trump was among those critics, saying the deal was suspiciously bad.  Since becoming President, Trump’s administration has also imposed sanctions on entities and individuals linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and in particular companies linked to missile development.  However, the administration did certify that Iran was in compliance with the JCPOA, though it was left until the last minute, causing significant speculation as to whether certification would happen or not.

Uncertainty over US position

Trump has heavily criticised Iran since becoming President while pursuing close relations with Iran’s regional rivals, and it has been reported that appointees in the National Security Council have been pushing for more aggressive actions against the Iranian government and its proxies in Syria – though so far these plans have not convinced National Security Adviser McMasters or Secretary of Defense Matthis, despite the latter’s reputation as an Iran “hawk”.

As such, it is not clear what the US government plans to do as a result of Ambassador Haley’s trip to Vienna.  The IAEA will confirm Iran is mostly compliant with the JCPOA, and the areas where it is not compliant are relatively minor within the larger scheme of the agreement.  Therefore, if the US was looking for justification to scupper the deal, it will not find it via this meeting.

It is possible that the US may be looking to downgrade the funding it gives to the IAEA.  The Trump administration has been keen to reduce the funding it gives to the UN and related agencies, and reducing the money going to the IAEA would impact on its ability to verify Iranian compliance in the future.

Ather the successful launch of a rocket on 27 July 2017, Haley said, “The issue with Iran always comes back to mistrust. Iran’s widespread support for terrorists tells us we can’t trust them. Iran’s breaking its obligation on missile testing tells us we can’t trust them.”

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The Proelium Law weekly picture intelligence summaries (PICINTSUMS) for the use of our clients, colleagues and contacts are now released. Focusing on Iraq/Syria, Libya and Afghanistan/Pakistan these reports will be updated weekly on a Wednesday.

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Proelium Law LLP

Proelium Law LLP is a Limited Liability Partnership registered in England and Wales No.OC411568.

Proelium Law LLP is authorised and regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority No. 629608 (www.sra.org.uk)

VAT Registration No. 242 4002 59.

© www.proeliumlaw.com

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