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Far-right groups to continue successful radicalization and recruitment campaigns in 2021; raising the potential for attacks and unrest

Executive Summary:

  • While successful far-right militant attacks have decreased in 2020, Europe continues to see significant levels of radicalization.
  • A number of arrests and investigations have been made among law enforcement and security forces, as far-right extremists continue to attempt to gain access to training, weapons, and highly trained recruits.
  • Far-right extremists are capitalizing on COVID-19-related grievances, infiltrating anti-lockdown protests and rallies in an attempt to become more visible and push their agenda.
  • Radicalization among children and youth has seen a significant increase during COVID-19, as far-right groups target vulnerable individuals, both online and through physical events.
  • The development of transnational links among far-right groups across the region has heightened the risk of far-right militant attacks.
  • While extremist groups are increasingly likely to attempt large scale coordinated attacks and campaigns, radicalized lone wolf attackers are still more likely to succeed due to lesser surveillance.
  • Travel to Europe may continue while maintaining vigilance for militant-related activity.

Current situation

Notable Far-right Incidents in Europe

  • Europe has witnessed a number of notable incidents linked to the far-right in 2020:
  • On December 12, Austrian authorities seized dozens of weapons, explosives, and 100,000 rounds of ammunition that were intended to be used to set up an armed far-right extremist militia in Germany’s southern state of Bavaria. Five suspects were arrested in Austria and two in Bavaria.
  • On December 10, two individuals were arrested in Andalusia and Navarre in Spain for selling drugs to buy weapons to instigate a “future race war,” a focal point in white supremacist ideology.
  • On October 4, a Jewish student was seriously injured in an attack outside a synagogue in Hamburg. The assailant wore military-style clothing, similar to that of the German army. A note with a swastika was found in the suspect’s possession.
  • On February 19, eleven people were killed and five injured in a far-right attack at two shisha bars in HanauGermany. The perpetrator, Tobias Rathjen, published his manifesto online, purporting right-wing extremist views and expressing hatred for migrants.

Far-Right Radicalization in 2020

  • Far-right radicalization in Europe in 2020 has seen a shift in trends as a result of the COVID-19 pandemicSuch reports have found that far-right extremists are using the COVID-19 pandemic to purport conspiracy theories and disinformation on social media. Major theories have included the claim that COVID-19 is a bioweapon, that the pandemic was orchestrated to influence US politics, and that COVID-19 was created by Big Pharma to push a mass vaccination program. Central figures targeted by these theories have included George Soros and Bill Gates.  Moreover, the pandemic is being used to repurpose pre-existing extremist tropes as an opportunity to attack a range of minority communities. In addition to theories claiming that the virus was created by the “Jewish elite,” others claim that migrants brought COVID-19 to Europe, exacerbating existing anti-migrant sentiments.
  • In October, Germany released its first nationwide report on right-wing extremism in the security services, revealing hundreds of related incidents across the police and military. In total, there were 1,064 cases among military personnel and 370 incidents among police and intelligence officers between January 2017 and March 2020. On December 9, German intelligence agents in Baden-Wuerttemberg put the Querdenken 711 group, which has organized and participated in anti-lockdown protests, on a watch-list due to its links to far-right extremism and growing concerns regarding radicalization.
  • On December 5, Spain’s Defense Minister Margarita Robles called on the Prosecutor’s Office to open an investigation on an online chat group in which retired military officials appeared to be disseminating far-right content, including support for military uprisings and mass executions
  • In December 2020, the UK released a report stating that a total of 17 under 18-year-olds have been arrested for militancy related charges between January and the end of September 2020, compared to 11 in 2019. The number of referrals of right-wing extremist content rose by 43 percent between 2019 and 2020. Nearly 1,500 children aged 15 and under have been identified as being at risk of radicalization. A total of 682 children were referred to the government’s counter-terrorism program over concerns about their involvement with the far-right in 2017-2018. The figure shows a five-fold increase since 2014-15. Of the 682 children, 24 were under the age of ten. In total, the government recorded 1,404 referrals related to right-wing radicalization, 62 percent of which were related to individuals under the age of 20.
  • In May, the Council of the European Union issued a report on far-right extremist groups exploiting the COVID-19 pandemic to radicalize, recruit, and fundraise for their cause. Similar reports were issued by the United Nations in April.

Assessments & Forecast

Far-right groups are using COVID-19 to repurpose existing narratives and enter the mainstream 

  1. That far-right extremists are infiltrating anti-lockdown protests and rallies throughout Western Europe, as evidenced by extremists attending protests in Germany, Spain, and the UK, indicates such groups are taking advantage of COVID-19 related anxieties and grievances in the public to become more visible and push their agenda. This is evident by far-right groups criticizing COVID-19 restrictions, particularly reimposed lockdowns during the second wave of the pandemic, as well as concerns regarding COVID-19 vaccines, to undermine government officials.
  2. Considering that anti-lockdown protests have witnessed unrest, including clashes, these demonstrations present a threat to bystanders. Most notably, these anti-lockdown protests hold a high potential for radicalization. This was evident in the German region of Baden-Wuerttemberg’s decision to put the Querdenken 711 group under surveillance due to its ties to the far-right and increasing risk of radicalization.
  3. The dissemination of COVID-19-related conspiracy theories and disinformation online reiterates the continued use of online platforms by far-right extremists to purport their ideologies. That discussions of far-right conspiracy theories related to COVID-19 have surged, with one major social media platform seeing posts increase by 815 percent and another by 750 in March alone, further suggests far-right groups are capitalizing on public concerns. Given that many of these posts do not appear to be overtly far-right in nature, with a significant number focusing on lockdown measures and anti-government sentiments, the pandemic has allowed far-right extremists to increase their public base as well as their exposure, with the content being increasingly shared and normalized online. Further, far-right extremists globally are utilizing similar COVID-19-related conspiracy theories, allowing movements to form transnational links and share strategies.
  4. FORECAST: As lockdowns are eased, and countries begin to roll out mass vaccination programs, it is likely that far-right extremists will increase discourse on vaccinations, with disinformation and protests related to COVID-19 vaccines expected to increase. Governments are likely to increase surveillance among groups and forums sharing such information in the near term, as well as potentially restrict related protests and rallies, due to the potential for being hotbeds of radicalization.

 

Far-right extremist groups to increase membership base by appealing to vulnerable groups both online and through physical events 

  1. Reports by law enforcement agencies regarding increased radicalization among children and youth indicate that far-right extremists are utilizing various strategies aimed at recruiting children. In particular, online strategies, such as first-person shooting video games, videos, and online forums, are providing vulnerable individuals with a sense of belonging. Given that the pandemic has exacerbated grievances and led to an increase in internet usage, the risk for radicalization among vulnerable segments of the population has risen.
  2. The widespread use of remote teaching since March has resulted in less monitoring, both with regard to online activity and changes in behavior among youth. With that, the pandemic has not only increased the potential for radicalization but also the ability to monitor such activity. In the UK, the closures of schools and reductions in social care and mental health provision have led to a decrease in referrals to police about possible radicalization for the country’s PREVENT counter-terrorism program.
  3. In addition to online tactics, far-right extremist groups continue to focus on violent sports, particularly mixed martial arts (MMA), as well as music and music festivals. Given MMA’s general popularity, the far-right’s use of the sport offers an ideal recruitment tactic, with MMA events serving as fundraising and propaganda dissemination opportunities.
  4. Considering that these events, such as the white supremacist Shield and Sword MMA festival held in Ostritz, Germany, as well as music festivals regionwide, are often attended by individuals from multiple countries, they provide far-right groups with the possibility of forming transnational links.
  5. FORECAST: As COVID-19 related restrictions and concerns continue, far-right extremists are expected to focus primarily on online methods of radicalization, given the potential for events, such as MMA and music festivals, being canceled. Moreover, considering that remote learning is liable to continue for an extended period, it is likely that far-right groups will primarily focus on vulnerable youth.
  6. FORECAST: Additionally, far-right extremists are likely to utilize recent Islamist militant attacks in Austria and France as a way to increase anti-Islam and anti-Migrant sentiments, potentially attracting new members.

Radicalization in law enforcement and security forces likely to continue throughout Europe

  1. The instances of far-right activity within law enforcement and security forces, most notably in Germany, where security services recorded more than 1,400 cases of suspected far-right extremism in the three years as of March 2020, suggest far-right groups are attempting to infiltrate these forces.
  2. Reports indicate that individuals with far-right and nationalist views are often attracted to joining the police and armed forces, as they often see themselves as individuals able to “defend their communities”. Furthermore, many of the concepts common among far-right ideologies overlap with those often found within military structures, such as strong national identity and physical “superiority”. Consequently, the potential for radicalization is considerably higher among armed forces and security forces, given the presence that groups are able to recruit trained people. As such, it is possible that law enforcement screening for far-right sentiments is lacking.
  3. Additionally, it is likely that far-right extremists are infiltrating security forces in an attempt to gain access to tactical training and weapons. As such, the infiltration and radicalization within security forces present a significant threat, given the potential access to weapons.
  4. FORECAST: Instances related to far-right activity among security forces are likely to surface in the near term. Consequently, Western European countries are liable to increase surveillance among their law enforcement and security forces in an attempt to stifle concerns among the public. Potential raids and arrests, particularly in Austria and Germany, in suspected cases of far-right activity are likely.

Transnational links throughout the region to increase the potential for militant attacks

  1. The arrests in Austria and Bavaria highlight increasing transnational links among far-right groups. Considering that multiple far-right groups, including the Nordic Resistance Movement, have shared an interest in coordinating and focusing efforts on establishing transnational links, networks between far-right extremists are likely being developed. The fact that Austrian authorities seized large quantities of weapons and ammunition highlights how this increasing cooperation raises the risk of far-right militant attacks across the continent, particularly in Austria and Germany.
  2. The arrests of two German and one British national in Malaga, Spain in connection to an international arms ring reiterates ties between criminal and militant groups, as well as transnational links. Such links heighten the threat level for potential militant attacks, given that extremist groups have access to firearms and explosives necessary for staging attacks across the region.
  3. Additionally, the presence of youth gangs in various urban areas, including London and Berlin, has increased the prevalence of knives, guns, and grenades. As a result, these weapons are becoming more available for radicalized individuals, particularly youth.
  4. FORECAST: Given the potential for transnational links, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, far-right groups are expected to increase coordination throughout Western Europe. While fragmentation among far-right extremists is expected to continue, the threat posed by the far-right is liable to increase in the coming months. Considering the growing focus on creating a so-called “race war,” far-right militant groups are likely to attempt large scale coordinated attacks and campaigns in an attempt to bring this goal into fruition.
  5. FORECAST: Based on recent developments, militant groups are expected to attempt a series of attacks throughout Western Europe. While these groups pose a threat, attacks carried out by radicalized lone wolf attackers are still more likely to succeed due to lesser surveillance. Given that the risk for far-right radicalization has risen due to the pandemic, it is possible that lone wolf attacks are likely to increase as well. Such attacks are expected to target Muslim and Jewish individuals, as well as political opponents and migrants. While extremist groups may plot attacks, these are less likely to come to fruition due to increased surveillance by law enforcement.

Recommendations

  1. Travel to Europe may continue while maintaining vigilance for militant-related activity.
  2. Security plans should be updated to reflect the relevant threats associated with far-right militancy, particularly with regard to online radicalization among vulnerable groups. Pay attention to differing threats from organized cells and lone-wolf individuals.
  3. Public, private, and third sector organizations are advised to increase their awareness of threats on social media through the use of threat monitoring services, including among fringe groups with potential ties to far-right extremists. Increased awareness of an organization’s political footprint and perceptions from fringe online groups can help uncover potential violent actors and plots before they occur.
  4. Alert authorities immediately upon witnessing suspicious items or behavior.

US Air Strike Kills IRGC Commander Qassem Soleimani – Situation Analysis

US Confirms Killing IRGC Commander Qassem Soleimani in Air Strikes Near Iraq’s Baghdad International Airport on January 3

Please be Advised:

The US Department of Defense (DoD) released a statement announcing that the US military, on the orders of the US President, Donald Trump, had taken “decisive defensive action to protect US personnel abroad” by killing Qassem Soleimani, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)- Quds Force (QF) commander during airstrikes near Iraq’s Baghdad International Airport during the early morning hours of January 3.

The statement announces that “General Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region. General Soleimani and his Quds Force were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American and coalition service members and the wounding of thousands more”. The airstrikes aimed to deter future Iranian attacks against US assets in the region.

Iran’s national news agency have confirmed that the US airstrikes resulted in the death of IRGC Quds Force commander Qassem Soliemani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, the deputy commander of the Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMU).

Iraq’s national news agency reported that the US airstrikes targeted the convoy of Qassem Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis traveling near the Baghdad International Airport.

Supreme Leader of Iran, Ali Khamenei released a eulogy on January 3 for Qassem Soleimani and declared a three-days of mourning in Iran. The statement announces that the killing of Soleimani is a “criminal act” and “will reinforce the motives of the resistance against the US and Israel”.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Javad Zarif called the US airstrikes “extremely dangerous and a foolish escalation” and held the US responsible for “all consequences of its rogue adventurism.”

Prominent Iraq Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr, released a statement during the morning hours of January 3 giving orders for “readiness” to the Shiite militias in Iraq, particularly the Mahdi Army, “to protect Iraq”.

Reports indicate that Iran’s Supreme National Security Council has convened during the morning hours of January 3 to discuss the development.

US Embassy in Baghdad on January 3 issued an advisory urging US citizens to depart Iraq immediately due to “heightened tensions in Iraq and the region”. Consular services in the US Embassy in Baghdad have been suspended until further notice. However, the US Consulate in Erbil remains operational at the time of writing.

Iraqi President has reportedly condemned the US airstrikes and called US action as a “blatant violation of Iraqi sovereignty”.

Developments Near the Baghdad International Airport and Green Zone:

Reports indicate that three rockets fired by unidentified perpetrators landed in the Baghdad International Airport cargo area during the overnight hours of January 2-3 that resulted in several civilian casualties and the destruction of two vehicles.

Reports indicate that US military personnel arrested Hadi al-Amiri the head of the Badr Organization, the military wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), as well as Qais Khazali, the founder and leader of Asaib Ahl al-Haq, a Shiite paramilitary group that is a part of the Iran-backed PMU in Baghdad during the morning hours of January 3. Iraq’s national news agency reported that a senior member of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq has denied the arrest of Qais Khazali.

Picture material on social media indicate that Iraqis gathered at Baghdad’s Tahrir Square during the early morning hours of January 3 to celebrate the death of Soleimani.

At the time of writing, operations have resumed at the Baghdad International Airport following a temporary ceasure of operations during the morning of January 3 after the US airstrikes.

Reports indicate that US military personnel have bolstered security protocols in the Green Zone in Baghdad, and the Iraqi security officials have completely locked down the Green Zone following the US airstrikes.

Other Related Developments:

Iran’s state-sponsored news agency reported that the Swiss Ambassador to Iran, who is considered as a “guardian of US interests in Iran” has been summoned to the Iranian Foreign Ministry on January 3 to strongly protest the killing of Qassem Soleimani.

Reports indicate that Israel has closed access to Hermon ski resort, located in the Golan Heights, near the Israel-Syria border, due to the risk of attack by Iran and its proxies. Additional reports indicate that Israel Defense Forces (IDF) are on alert following the US airstrikes.

Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) official in the Gaza Strip reportedly released a statement calling the development a “great tragedy” and extended PIJ’s support to Iran.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah in Lebanon reportedly released a statement condemning the US airstrikes as a “big crime” and stated that “punishment of Soleimani’s killers is responsibility of all fighters”.

Reports indicate that foreign oil companies have commenced the evacuation of its employees holding a US citizenship via the Basra Airport following the advisory issued by the US Embassy in Baghdad that urges US nationals to depart the country immediately.

Iran has reportedly appointed Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani as the next IRGC Quds force chief on January 3.

UK has reportedly increased security protocols at its military bases across the Middle East following the US airstrikes.

Reports quoting the Russian Foreign Ministry announced that the US airstrikes in Iraq are a “reckless move” that will escalate tensions in the region.

Assessments & Forecast:

The development comes amid a marked increase in tensions in Iraq over the past two months following an uptick in attacks against US assets by Iran-backed forces in the country. Most recently, on December 31, hundreds of Iran-backed Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) members and supporters besieged and attempted to breach the US Embassy compound in Baghdad’s Green Zone to condemn US’s December 29 airstrikes that targeted five Kataib Hezbollah assets in Iraq. The continued risk posed to US-linked interests in Iraq is further evidenced by the statement issued by the US Secretary of Defense Mark Esper on January 2, that holds Iran and its backed proxies in Iraq responsible for perpetuating the attacks and warned that “attacks against us will be met with responses in the time, manner, and place of our choosing.” Given this context, the recent US airstrikes constitute a decisive action against Iran and its proxies to deter further such attacks against US interests in the region.

Furthermore, the US airstrikes constitutes a highly symbolic and notable development given the high-profile nature of the target, namely, IRGC-QF commander, Qassem Soleimani. This is given that Soleimani is considered to be highly influential within the Iraqi political and security dynamics, and is perceived to be responsible for the destabilizing activities carried out by Iran-linked elements in Iraq. Moreover, on April 18, 2019 the US designated the IRGC, including its extraterritorial wing, the QF as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO). Therefore, the killing of Soleimani in the US airstrikes is likely aimed to adversely impact the IRGC’s leadership structure and mitigate the threat that the group is perceived to pose to the region’s security and stability. Regardless, the killing of Soleimani is liable to have a significant impact on the morale of the IRGC and Iran-backed fighters operating regionwide.

However, the development is unlikely to significantly alter Iran’s policy within the regional setting, such as its support for proxies like the Lebanese Hezbollah, the Yemeni Houthis, and Shiite militias in Iraq. Rather, as evidenced by the statement released by Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, the incident will likely prompt Iran and its proxies to increasingly target the interests of the US and its allies, such as Israel and Saudi Arabia in the region. Furthermore, the statement issued by Shiite cleric, Muqtada al-Sadr calls for “readiness” from Shiite militias in Iraq to “protect Iraq” indicating the fact that Iran and its proxies will seek to take revenge against the US, and its allies, over the coming days.

FORECAST: Over the short term, there remains a heightened potential for attacks perpetrated by Iran-backed elements based out of Lebanon, Yemen, Syria, Iraq and the Gaza Strip. Such attacks may also be directed at critical infrastructures, such as oil facilities, and other strategic infrastructures affiliated with the US or its allies in the region, where relevant. Given precedent, attacks targeting Israel may likely manifest in the form of rocket attacks or localized ground attacks, such as placing of IEDs, from Syria, or less likely from Lebanon. Such instances are likely to be limited in scale, and are unlikely to trigger a large-scale escalation and a broad deterioration of the security situation in Israel in the short term. Cross-border hostilities along the Gaza Strip-Israel border may also increase over the coming days. This is bolstered by the statement released by the PIJ official calling the death of Soleimani in the US airstrikes as a “big crime” and affirming the militant group’s support for Iran.

FORECAST: Given precedent, there also remains a significant potential for Iran-perpetrated security incidents in the strategic waterways of the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman, especially near the Strait of Hormuz, which indicates a general risk of navigation through these waters over the coming days and weeks. A similar risk exists in the Red Sea, given that the Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen have been known to conduct attacks against foreign vessels in this area. Additionally, an uptick in cross-border hostilities into Saudi Arabia perpetrated by the Shiite group may be witnessed over the coming days, despite a significant downtick in such activity over the recent months. This may manifest in the form of missile, rocket or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) launches towards military and civilian assets in Saudi Arabia.

FORECAST: In the longer term, over the coming weeks and months, the development is liable to further heighten tensions between the US and its allies, on the one side, and Iran and its proxies on the other, which will likely result in increasing hostile rhetoric towards the other party and potentially a more significant retaliation by Iran against US interests. Given that Iran-backed proxies, such as Hezbollah, are known to operate in Latin America, as well as other African, Asian and European countries, the risk for attacks by such elements against the interests of the US and its allies in the aforementioned regions cannot be ruled out.

Recommendations:

Travelers are advised to regularly review their emergency and contingency procedures as a basic security precaution, as the current tensions between Iran on one side and the US and its Gulf allies on the other will likely lead to additional hostilities. For on-ground or intelligence assistance contact us at: [email protected] or +44 20-3540-043.

Foreigners, particularly US nationals, conducting travel in Middle East, particularly in Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Lebanon are advised to maintain a low profile due to the increased potential for militant attacks while practicing extra vigilance near US and Western diplomatic missions and interests across the region.

Ensure that places of stay are equipped with sufficient perimeter security details, alter travel routes, and avoid disclosing sensitive itinerary information to unknown individuals.

For those conducting essential operations in Baghdad, it is advised to restrict travel to the Green Zone and ensure that contingency and emergency evacuation plans are updated. Contact us for itinerary and contingency support options.

Those managing or operating vessels in the Red Sea, Gulf of Oman, the Persian Gulf, and the Strait of Hormuz are advised to take necessary precautions, including reviewing security protocols and adhering to international instructions, in light of the potential for security incidents in the area.

Updated 2019 Global Travel Risk Map

Political Analysis: Bouteflika clan attempts to cement rule in Algeria

There are those who argue that Egypt’s infamous dictator Hosni Mubarak sealed his own fate long before the first activists pitched their tents in Tahrir Square in January 2011. They say the countdown really began in 2010, when Mubarak’s eldest son Gamal pitched a bold economic reform package to weather Egypt through the global economic recession.

bouteflika
Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika

At the time, Gamal was known to be next in line to succeed his father. The plan would have essentially taken the regime’s massive economic holdings out of the hands of the military-backed older generation and put it into the hands of Gamal’s loyal young business class within the ruling NDP party. After the Arab Spring engulfed the country, the Egyptian military unsurprisingly had little motivation to save the embattled Mubarak family, instead organizing his dismissal and eventually enabling the trial of Hosni and his two sons on corruption charges. 

Numerous comparisons between Egypt and Algeria have since been made in the global pundit-sphere. Most have focused on their respective battles with political Islam, but few have given credit to Algeria’s aging President Abdelaziz Bouteflika for recognizing Mubarak’s mistakes and keeping his regime afloat amid the storm of regional political upheaval.

Continue reading Political Analysis: Bouteflika clan attempts to cement rule in Algeria

Intelligence Analysis: The Kurd’s shifting role in the Syrian conflict

“Deal with your friends as if they will become your enemies tomorrow, and deal with your enemies as if they will become your friends tomorrow.” It’s a proverb passed along through Kurdish generations — and a telling pretext to the Kurdish strategy in today’s conflict in Syria. In recent weeks, this once dormant player has awoken from its slumber, and may just provide Syria’s desperate rebels with a much needed boost to break their deadlock with the Assad regime.

Reports indicate that YPG militiamen and Syrian rebels have agreed to share control of the strategic Sheikh Maqsood District of northern Aleppo, cutting off regime supply routes to a hospital, prison, and other key positions. Rebel fighters entered the district largely unopposed on March 31. On April 6, the Syrian military bombarded Kurdish neighborhoods in northern Aleppo, killing 15 people in a likely response to this new arrangement. The following day, Kurdish militiamen attacked a Syrian military checkpoint in the city, killing five troops.

PYD supporters at a funeral for a deceased member.
PYD supporters at a funeral for a deceased member

Further east, Syrian military units attacked a checkpoint manned by Kurdish militiamen in the northeastern city of Qamishli on April 4. Hours later, militiamen from the Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG) attacked two Syrian military positions on the outskirts of Qamishli. The attacks resulted in a number of deaths on both sides and marked the first such incident to occur in the predominantly Kurdish Hasakah Province since the Syrian military withdrew from the region’s urban centers in the summer of 2012.

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Intelligence Analysis: Jihadist influences in Tanzania

“I pointed out to you the stars, and all you saw was the tip of my finger.” Today, this locally revered Tanzanian proverb should resonate deeply within the minds of anyone who fears the spread of Islamic extremism in Africa. On Tanzania’s island paradise of Zanzibar, the killing of a Catholic priest by Muslim extremists on February 23 points to series of mounting and long-ignored signals that the continent’s jihadist wave is expanding south and affecting security. Since October 2012, this traditionally tranquil tourism hub has been awash with sectarian strife. It began when a dispute between two local schoolchildren resulted in the defilement of a Koran, sparking outrage in Tanzania’s large Muslim community.At least four churches across the country were attacked in the aftermath, in what may just prove to be a watershed moment in Tanzania’s modern history.

In February 2013, religious tensions in Zanzibar continued to simmer due to a dispute over butchering rights, sparking titfor- tat attacks between Christians and Muslims, ultimately resulting in the beheading of one priest and the fatal shooting of another inside his own church. A self-proclaimed local al-Qaida branch calling itself “Muslim Renewal,” took credit for the shooting as its inaugural attack.Fourteen years before the Zanzibar unrest, Tanzania took center stage, with all fingers pointing at al-Qaida militants after a deadly bombing attack at the US embassy in Dar es-Salaam. This event, along with the bombing of the United States embassy in Nairobi, brought names like Osama bin-Laden and Ayman al- Zawahiri into the public sphere for the first time. Then-US president Bill Clinton responded by launching cruise missiles at al-Qaida bases in Sudan and Afghanistan. Despite the participation of local East Africans in the attacks, however, few concrete measures were taken to curb radicalization in the region.

Muslim residents of Zanzibar set fire to a Christian church.
Muslim residents of Zanzibar set fire to a Christian church.

By May 2012, the global jihad network would rear its ugly head in Tanzania once more, after a bombing attack occurred in the Kenyan capital, targeting a prominent shopping district. While blame was placed squarely on Somalia’s al-Shabaab, the arrest of a German national in Tanzania in connection to the attack largely went unnoticed. The man, reportedly of Turkish descent, had undergone training in al- Qaida camps in Pakistan.
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Intelligence Analysis: Jihadist militant threats in North Africa and the Sahel

By now the name Mokhtar Belmokhtar is familiar to anyone watching security-related events unfold in Saharan Africa. Since a January 16 raid executed by his “Masked Brigade” in Algeria, which led to the deaths of dozens of hostages, the one-eyed smuggler extraordinaire’s picture has been broadcast across TV and computer screens worldwide. As Western policymakers continue to adjust their strategy in the war on terror, it is important to understand Belmokhtar’s accomplishment in its true context: a victory of a thriving jihadist operational network.

The logo of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)
The logo of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)

As it turns out, the Masked Brigade’s attack was not, as reports originally indicated, a reprisal for French intervention in northern Mali. In fact, Western security officials recently stated that the attack was planned before January 11, when France intervened. This instead was simply intended to be a standard kidnap-and-ransom mission – a fundraiser and terrorist attack rolled into one.

However, northern Mali does play a role in the attack’s execution. The region has become a sanctuary for militants from Nigeria to Somalia who need free range to learn from experienced veterans of Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. Belmokhtar’s men trained for and planned their attack in northern Mali. They raised funds by ransoming kidnap victims and smuggling drugs, as well as Belmokhtar’s trademark product, Marlboro cigarettes. They also smuggled fighters and weapons, many of which came from the caches of Libya’s former dictator, Moammar Ghaddafi.

Continue reading Intelligence Analysis: Jihadist militant threats in North Africa and the Sahel

Strategic Analysis: Terrorism and Poverty in Sahelian Africa

A recent UN report warning of a severe food shortage across the Sahel, combined with the rise of Islamic militancy in northern Mali, poses a direct threat to regional stability in West Africa. According to a report released on August 16, by the United Nations office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, “refugees and internally displaced persons in Mali and neighboring countries are in urgent need of food, shelter and water.”  The report warns that the food insecurity situation is deteriorating as a severe drought, spanning from Senegal to Chad, plagues the Sahel, leaving bones scattered in its path. The proliferation of armed groups and political instability is a direct result of this humanitarian crisis, and the ripple effects will be felt everywhere.

Ansar al-Dine militants patrol in northen Mali.

In March, a coup d’etat in the capital Bamako left a security vacuum in the north and allowed al-Qaeda linked militant groups to exploit the situation and take control of northern Mali, an area the size of France.  A reported 435,000 inhabitants fled to Mauritania, Algeria, Burkina Faso, Niger and to southern Mali as Islamic fundamentalists Ansar Dine, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa imposed strict Sharia, or Islamic law, in the cities of Gao, Kidal and historic Timbuktu.

Under their rule, which effectively goes unrivaled, music, soccer, smoking cigarettes and playing video games are all banned activities.  Harsh sentences have been carried out against an unmarried couple, who were stoned to death, and a thief, who had his hand hacked off, all in the name of Islamic justice.

Continue reading Strategic Analysis: Terrorism and Poverty in Sahelian Africa

Strategic Analysis: Israel eyes the Islamic Republic

Tensions are soaring in the Middle East. But as the world awaits and debates the possibility of a highly speculated unilateral Israeli attack on Iran’s nuclear program, the reality is that the Iranian threat to Israel goes far beyond a nuclear device.

Protesters burn American and Israeli flags at an anti-Israel demonstration.

Decades of proxy wars with Iran, attacks, genocidal rhetoric and Tehran’s dangerous obsession with the “Zionist entity”, highlight that the primary perceived threat to Israel stems not from a nuclear device, but from the Islamic regime and the revolutionary ideology behind it. Therefore, as long as the Iranian state remains committed to Israel’s destruction, Israelis will feel continually threatened and the conflict between Iran and Israel will persist – with or without a nuclear bomb.

State-sanctioned anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish ideology has been a staple of the Islamic regime since its founding in 1979. Thus, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s most recent calls for Israel’s destruction and more importantly Ayatollah Khameini’s prediction of it are not new developments. But for Israelis, such threats are not easy to dismiss, despite Iran’s ability or inability to make good on them. Israel’s critics often respond to its concerns over Iran with allegations of warmongering, citing lack of clear intelligence.  But for better or for worse, the collective history of Israel’s Jewish population and their peculiar situation in the volatile Middle East, underline why Israel  takes Iran’s threats seriously and even considers acting against it in the first place.

In line with the “Begin Doctrine”, Israel has proven throughout its history that it is willing to undertake daring operations far beyond its borders, even against opposition from its closest ally – the US. In 1981, Israel attacked Iraq’s nuclear reactor in Osirak, while destroying Syria’s reactor in 2007. Both times, Washington was either not involved or adamantly against any unilateral Israeli attack.  At present, Israelis are highly divided on how to act against Iran, but they do not disagree that Iran is a dangerous and determined enemy and one that must be curtailed. Israel does have options. It is just a question of what should be done, when, or how.
Continue reading Strategic Analysis: Israel eyes the Islamic Republic

Strategic Analysis: Why Netanyahu can’t sell a unilateral strike

Over the past four years, Benjamin Netanyahu has succeeded in propelling the Iranian threat into the forefront in both Israel and around the world. The crisis over Tehran’s nuclear program now overshadows potentially crippling political and diplomatic issues in Israel,  such as growing economic disparity and the stalled peace process with the Palestinians. Yet, Netanyahu has failed to convince the Israeli public that Iran’s nuclear program must be stopped- or delayed- at all costs.

Benjamin Netanyahu has failed in convincing Israelis of the need to delay Iran’s nuclear program, even without help from the United States.

A recent poll conducted by Tel Aviv University showed that only 27% of Jewish Israelis support a unilateral strike by their government on Iranian nuclear facilities. Those results come amidst an ongoing chorus of criticism against such preventative action from Israel’s most distinguished ex-military chiefs and politicians, including President Shimon Peres. To garner this much needed public support for such a crucial decision, Netanyahu must stop speaking to Israelis’ hearts and minds on the Iranian threat, and start speaking to their wallets.
Continue reading Strategic Analysis: Why Netanyahu can’t sell a unilateral strike