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El Paso Shooting – Domestic far-right shooters become primary militant threat as online communities act as hubs for radicalization, catalyzing attacks – USA Analysis

Written and Edited by Saad Lambe and Ollie Wiltshire

Executive Summary

Far-right online communities have increasingly shifted towards planning and calling for militant attacks, demonstrating the increased threat from such forums.

Calls for attacks against traditional far-right targets, including Jewish and Muslim communities, have seen a significant increase.

Corporations aligning with perceived left-wing political views are frequently discussed in a violent context.

Attendees at left-wing rallies, particularly those with right-wing counter-protests, face an increased threat of being identified online and targeted.

Far-right attacks from lone wolves will take place in the coming months as a result of the uptick in online activity.

Increase awareness of threats on social media through the use of threat monitoring services.

Current Situation

On August 3, a man entered a large supermarket in El Paso, Texas and opened fire on shoppers, killing 20 and wounding 26. The shooter posted a manifesto on 8chan, which described his opposition to the ‘Latino takeover’ of Texas. While he disavowed both the Democratic and Republican party, the manifesto included terms such as ‘fake news’ popularized during President Donald Trump’s campaign. Additionally, he stated that he was inspired by the Christchurch, NZ shooter and echoed talking points of the conspiracy theory ‘the great replacement’, naming it as the reason he targeted Hispanic and Latino people.

Following the shooting, 8chan’s hosting provider, Cloudflare, dropped the website as a client due to it being a convergence point for militants, which is expected to disrupt access to the website. With the presence of multiple competitors in the market, reports state that this incident is unlikely to have a long-term impact on the website.

A far-right militant entered a festival in Gilroy, CA on July 29 with a semi-automatic weapon and opened fire on attendees leading to the death of two people. The shooter was killed in a confrontation with the police having asked his social media followers to read a far-right extremist book before committing the attack.

Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director Christopher Wray stated on July 23 in a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing that a significant percentage of domestic militant suspects arrested had been linked to white supremacy, additionally stating that over 100 domestic militant arrests had taken place from October 2018 to July 2019.

Portland, Oregon witnessed clashes on June 29 between members of the anti-fascist Antifa group and the far-right Proud Boys group, leading to several injuries. A member of the Proud Boys threatened to kill Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and a number of people on far-right forums rallied against what they perceived as ‘state-sanctioned violence’, calling for violence against people they identified as Antifa members.

On April 27, 2019, a gunman entered the Chabad of Poway synagogue in Poway, California and killed one person with a semi-automatic rifle and injured three others.  He attempted to live stream a video of the shooting to Facebook but failed. He yelled anti-semitic slurs while entering and posted an anti-semitic manifesto on the far-right online forum 8chan before carrying out the attack. He had previously committed arson at a mosque and was allegedly inspired by the Christchurch shooter.

A Coast Guard Lieutenant, Christopher Paul Hasson, was arrested in Maryland on February 15, 2019, in the USA with a large stockpile of weapons, intending to commit an attack on a scale he claimed was ‘rarely seen in this country’. He identified as a white nationalist and had been collecting weapons since 2017. He planned to attack members of the Democratic Party, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, along with television anchors from several high-profile networks perceived as ‘liberal’ and being biased against the right-wing community.

Notable far right incidents in 2019

Background

Far-right attacks in North America have increasingly involved a single perpetrator (lone-wolf), self-radicalized through online propaganda, involving ‘memes’ depicting migrants and people-of-color as invaders, posing a threat to the ‘white race’.

Individuals committing attacks and associated with far-right communities follow a path involving joking about attacks against certain target groups, which is usually applauded and reinforced by other members. They then begin stockpiling weapons, settling on a target, and researching the premises before executing the attack.

A large number of far-right militants were inspired by ideas espoused in Anders Behring Breivik’s manifesto used to justify his 2011 attacks in Norway and have released similar documents before attacks. This was highlighted by the Christchurch attacker, who posted his manifesto online on 8chan.

Far-right online communities have been instrumental in the dissemination of propaganda intended to establish the white race as ‘inherently superior’, as well as to push propaganda such as the ‘Great Replacement Theory’, which portrays Muslims attempting to convert a ‘Christian West’ into an Islamic homeland by sustained high-levels of migration.

Several far-right communities engage in ‘doxxing’, a term used to describe identifying an anonymous user or person’s personal details, in an attempt to intimidate, harass, and threaten the victim. While previously restricted to users online, members have begun posting images of left-wing activists at counter-protests in an attempt to identify and potentially harass and attack them.

Glossary of Terms

Assessments & Forecast

Increased calls for militant attacks likely to heighten security threat against traditional far-right targets

There has been a notable increase in calls for attacks on traditional far-right targets, including Jewish and Muslim communities, on websites such as 8chan and Gab with a dominant far-right userbase, which have been used to post militant manifestos due to their relaxed content rules.

On far-right forums, calls for attacks are largely indirect and usually in response to events perceived as ‘anti right-wing’. Recruitment for potential militants begins by appealing to traditionally conservative issues including anti-immigrant sentiments and orthodox conceptions of the family, which later devolves into calls for forum users to join ‘state militias’ which have often been described as possessing a far-right leaning.

While Gab has occasionally enforced rules over direct threats, 8chan allows this content to be posted regardless of its nature. In this regard, 8chan is likely to grow as one of the primary modes of propaganda dissemination and calls to action for far-right extremists online. Such content will come in the form of ‘memes’ and short-form media, including images and gifs, allowing the ideology to easily embed itself within more palatable internet culture.

Posts from 8chan calling for violence

A common theme of conversation includes corporations perceived as aligning with left-wing issues, such as civil rights and diversity, along with social media and news corporations accused of bias against right-wing groups. These discussions largely take place in a violent setting, with accusations of being funded by secretive ‘anti-white’ groups. In this regard, this behavior demonstrates the increased threat faced by these companies from far-right individuals over their political views.

Calls against Jewish targets rely on a variety of anti-semitic tropes, attempting to instigate readers into stopping Jewish ‘influence’ in politics and socio-economic issues on the world stage. Certain key personalities, including George Soros, are frequently mentioned, implying a stronger focus towards committing violence against Jewish people in political, corporate, and community positions.

Muslim communities in the West are largely painted as ‘invaders’, using the great replacement theory which was mentioned by the Christchurch shooter. As such, calls for attacks specifically mention mosques and Muslim community centers in Western countries, designating them as potential targets.

In the Gilroy, CA shooting on July 29, the shooter posted on social media asking followers to read a far-right book, common in white-supremacist groups before committing the attack. This highlights an ongoing trend among militants, attempting to clarify their intentions for the attack, likely brought on by multiple ‘white-power’ movements with differing goals.

As seen in the Christchurch shooter’s manifesto, many online calls will include references to ‘internet culture’ known as dog-whistle tactics, in which content is used to mean different things to the general public and the far-right audience. Given that a large number of ‘memes’ and culture-specific images have been created to evoke racist imagery within these communities, it is often used to subtly encourage violence towards groups. This is often termed as ‘redpilling’, a phrase used by online far-right communities to indicate the ‘conversion’ of a casual user into one who fits the profile of a traditional far-right user.

The recent wave of shootings served to highlight the trend of far-right incidents trickling down from casual hate-speech online to real-life violence. While the majority may not act based on hate-speech, the inherent nature of such closed-off communities attracts psychologically unstable individuals who are increasingly susceptible to these forms of propaganda.

Post about "red pilling" from far-right group on 8chan and Gab

Attempts to identify (dox) protesters and call for violence at left-wing rallies likely to grow, including dissemination of false information

With both left-wing and right-wing events predominantly being promoted and discussed online, there will likely continue to be an increase in discussions centered around what takes place at these rallies.

Far-right communities have included inflammatory content, especially false warnings about Antifa and other left-wing groups planning to commit attacks at right-wing rallies and calling for attendees to carry weapons to protect themselves which is likely to lead to further clashes at right-wing rallies going forward.

Some users on the social media website Reddit’s now restricted ‘The_Donald’ forum attempted to create a document containing personal details of individuals believed to be ‘anti-Trump’. This document featured generic information, including age and vague location, but in some cases, it featured details including ethnicity, sexual orientation, and home and business addresses. The details imply that members of the LGBT community and other minority groups are priority targets for these radical factions.

Most recently echoed in a Portland, OR rally by a far-right group called the Proud Boys, comments made on Gab included screenshots of individuals’ social media profiles who were perceived as left-wing activists, descriptions of their workplace, as well as photos of a rope meant to call for lynchings. Some allegedly left-wing members identified were unlikely t be members of Antifa, instead, such false-positives were likely targeting unaffiliated counter-protesters. This behavior reinforces the danger presented to civilians unconnected to both Antifa and other left-wing groups who may be misidentified through these actions and targeted for attacks.

Journalists have increasingly been targeted in recent years, especially those deemed as left-wing. Far-right users, in particular, believe in a larger conspiracy against right-wing groups among “mainstream” media. This was demonstrated in the case of the coast guard arrest, who planned to attack several left-wing commentators due to their perceived bias. Therefore, journalists are likely to continue being the target of online harassment, with the increased possibility of threats online devolving into physical violence.

Based on previous attacks, instances of violence directed towards ‘doxxed’ individuals may include pipe bombs, possibly containing TATP often employed by Islamic State (IS) members, with the wide availability of manufacturing instructions online.

Gab post attempting to Dox

Recommendations

Public, private, and third sector organizations are advised to increase their awareness of threats on social media through the use of threat monitoring services. 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.

Official Syrian news agency reports missile attack targeting military sites in Hama, Aleppo provinces during overnight hours of April 29-30 – Syria & Israel Alert

Please be advised

The official Syrian news agency reported that missiles targeted military sites in Aleppo and Hama provinces, during the overnight hours of April 29-30.

According to a pro-government media outlet, an arms depot belonging to the Syrian Arab Army’s (SAA) 47th Brigade in Hama Governorate was targeted. As for Aleppo Province, the exact target of the attack has yet to be specified. No official confirmation regarding the perpetrator of the strikes has been released at the time of writing.

Reports additionally indicate that the target was an underground bunker containing more than 100 long-range accurate missiles.

Moreover, reports indicate that missile attacks killed 26 pro-Syrian government fighters at Hama’s arms depot, many of whom Iranians. However, according to an IRGC-linked media, the reports regarding Iranian deaths as a result of the strikes are “baseless”.

According to reports quoting a US military source, the US-led coalition is not beyond the attack.

Assessments & Forecast

The incident comes amidst an uptick in Israeli strikes against Iranian-linked facilities across Syria over the past months. On April 9, Israel reportedly targeted Homs Province’s Tiyas Military Airbase with missiles, which resulted in the killing of seven Iranian troops. In addition, on February 10, Israeli Air Force (IAF) aircraft targeted 12 facilities, including three Syrian aerial defense batteries and four Iranian military bases. Therefore, we assess that the overnight strikes were similarly carried out by Israel. Nonetheless, the incident is notable given its scale-and-scope, as the number of reported casualties is significantly higher than Israel’s usual attacks in Syria.

Such attacks, especially in light of the reported Iranian casualties as a result of the recent incident, highlight Israel’s persistent efforts to contain the growing Iranian influence across Syria, as well as its increased willingness to conduct large-scale assaults deep in Syria in order to achieve this goal. Moreover, the development follows multiple Iranian threats of attacks against Israel in the wake of the above mentioned Israeli strikes in Homs Province, which resulted in the killing of Iranian troops. The strikes are potentially an attempt by Israel to send a deterring message to Tehran, as well as that it will continue to operate in Syria, in spite of Iran’s threats. Furthermore, as underscored by the reports regarding the base containing more than 100 accurate missiles, the incident demonstrates Israel’s determination to target military installations containing weapons or systems considered to be jeopardizing Israel’s technological edge and national security.

FORECAST: Given the reports regarding a high number of Iranian casualties, Tehran will likely seek to carry out a significant act of retaliation against Israel. This may include the launching of armed Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) into Israeli territory and target a military base, in a similar fashion to the February 10  incident, during which an IAF helicopter intercepted an Iranian UAV in Israeli airspace. Additional response may include attempted attacks against Israeli and Jewish interests across the globe, potentially official or diplomatic facilities.  Additionally, albeit slightly less likely, attacks against Israel Defense Forces (IDF) border patrols on the Israeli side of the Golan Heights may also be recorded. Should these materialize, they will likely involve shootings, IEDs, or the use of anti-tank missiles.

Recommendations

Recommendations: Syria

We advise against all travel to Damascus and Aleppo, given the general threat of indiscriminate aerial bombardment and artillery shelling from government forces as well as attacks by various groups. Attacks by rebel forces may include the use of rocket propelled grenades, suicide bombings, and mortar attacks.

Those remaining in Damascus should ensure that contingency and emergency evacuation plans are updated due to the potential for a further deterioration in the security situation. Avoid all travel to outlying areas of the city given the persistent threat of militancy. Restrict essential travel to areas west of the Old City while avoiding travel to the Old City itself due to the risk of mortar fire and threat of militancy.

Avoid all travel to outlying areas and cities including Daraa, Homs, Hama, and Idlib due to persistent fighting and heightened risk of kidnapping targeting foreigners, particularly in combat zones and rebel held areas.

Recommendations: Israel

Travel to Israel may continue at this time while adhering to security precautions regarding militant attacks, while avoiding the immediate vicinity of the Syrian, Lebanese, and Egyptian borders, due to the persistent risk for cross border violence.

Those residing or operating in Israel are advised to monitor the situation in the vicinity of the border areas regarding incidents of cross border hostilities and possible rocket attacks. Remain cognizant of the situation along the Lebanese and Syrian border areas, as minor hostilities between various groups can escalate into a broader conflict.

Homs Province’s Tiyas Military Air Base targeted with guided missile strikes during early morning hours of April 9 – Syria & Israel Alert

Please be advised

Reports indicate that Homs Province’s Tiyas Military Air Base was targeted with missile strikes during the early morning hours of April 9. According to Syrian pro-government sources, its Air Defense System intercepted five of the total eight guided missiles that were used.

According to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights (SOHR), at least 14 pro-government soldiers were killed, including an unspecified number of Iranian forces.

While Syrian state media initially described the incident as “American aggression”, Pentagon officials have reportedly denied any US involvement.

According to a Russian state news agency, the Russian Defense Ministry stated that the Israeli Air Force (IAF) carried out the strikes from Lebanese airspace with two F-15 fighter jets.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) have not issued any comment regarding the development.

Assessments & Forecast

The development comes amidst a marked increase of tensions between Syrian pro-government forces and Israel over the past months. This is highlighted by the February 10 launch of an Iranian unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) into Israel from Tiyas Military Air Base. While the IAF retaliated by conducting strikes against four pro-government bases in Syria, the downing of an Israeli F-16 fighter jet with Syrian anti-aircraft fire during this action marked an achievement for the Syrian pro-government forces unprecedented in recent years. As these developments highlight the growing willingness of Iran and Syrian pro-government forces to challenge Israel, we assess that the aforementioned reports ascribing the current missile strike to the IDF are highly credible.

The operation follows the February statement by Hezbollah Leader Hassan Nasrallah, who praised the aforementioned downing of the F-16 fighter jet as “beginning of a new strategic era which puts an end to the violation of Syrian airspace and territory”. Thus, the targeting of Tiyas Military Air Base, which lies deep within Syrian territory, serves to reassert Israel’s deterrence and the countries’ adherence to its well-established policy of targeting any pro-government facilities which are liable to threaten Israel’s military and technological edge. More significantly, in light of Israeli concerns about the growing fortification of Iranian operational bases in Syria, the current missiles strikes demonstrate Israel’s increased resolve to target military installations used by Iranian forces.

Meanwhile, the Russian Defense Ministry statement holding Israel responsible is unprecedented, and thus highly notable. While Israel has carried out multiple airstrikes in Syria over the past years, since September 2015, Israel and Russia have coordinated such strikes through a bilateral deconfliction mechanism in order to mitigate the risk of conflicts between their armed forces. While the maintenance of this channel was hitherto regarded as tacit Russian approval of IDF action in Syria, the current statement indicates Moscow renunciation of this policy. FORECAST: Such a development would reduce Russia’s ability to function as a diplomatic backchannel to de-escalate tensions between Israel and Iran. Furthermore, it decreases the likelihood that Russia will pressure Iran to desist from expanding its presence near the Syrian-Israeli border. As a result, Israel will likely consider more robust military measures in order to contain this threat. Thus, over the coming months, the IDF is liable to increase airstrikes against Syrian pro-government targets across Syria, including Iranian bases.

FORECAST: Moreover, while Iran and its proxy forces are likely not interested in a broad escalation of hostilities with Israel at this point, the fact that Russia openly named Israel as the perpetrator of the current missiles strikes may pressure them to conduct retaliatory measures. While we assess that any such action will likely remain localized, more sophisticated attacks, such as IED detonations or RPG attacks targeting IDF soldiers positioned along the border cannot be entirely excluded. Should such a scenario materialize, both parties may be forced to react with increasing force to perceived transgressions of the other party in order to reassert their deterrence. Thus, while broad conflict between the parties remains unlikely to erupt over the coming months, a gradual increase of hostilities alongside the Syrian-Israeli border cannot be ruled out.

Recommendations

Recommendations: Syria

We advise against all travel to Damascus and Aleppo, given the general threat of indiscriminate aerial bombardment and artillery shelling from government forces as well as attacks by various militant groups. Attacks by rebel forces may include the use of rocket-propelled grenades, suicide bombings, and mortar attacks.

Those remaining in Damascus should ensure that contingency and emergency evacuation plans are updated due to the potential for a further deterioration in the security situation. Avoid all travel to outlying areas of the city given the persistent threat of militancy.

Recommendations: Israel

Travel to Israel may continue at this time while adhering to security precautions regarding militant attacks, while avoiding the immediate vicinity of the Syrian, Lebanese, and Egyptian borders, due to the persistent risk for cross-border violence.

Those residing or operating in Israel are advised to monitor the situation in the vicinity of the border areas regarding incidents of cross-border hostilities and possible rocket attacks. Remain cognizant of the situation along the Lebanese and Syrian border areas, and continue adhering to all safety precautions regarding early warning sirens for incoming rockets. In case you hear a siren, seek shelter in a protected area and remain inside for at least 10 minutes.

Annual joint US-South Korea military exercises to begin on April 1; US, North Korea display commitment to upcoming bilateral talks – Korean Peninsula Analysis

Current Situation

On March 19, the US Department of Defense confirmed that the annual Foal Eagle and Key Resolve joint military exercises with South Korea will begin on April 1 and last approximately one month. A spokesperson said that the exercises will be on a scale similar to previous exercises, and involve 23,700 US and 300,000 South Korean troops. There have been no announcements regarding the involvement of  US aircraft carriers. Last year’s exercises lasted two months and involved the nuclear supercarrier USS Carl Vinson. According to recent reports, South Korea is considering procuring Apache heavy-attack helicopters and anti-artillery surface-to-surface missiles, to be used in the event of a ground war.

The US and South Korean presidents are preparing for individual summits with North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un. South Korean President Moon Jae-in is planning to meet with Kim in late April, and US President Donald Trump has tentatively agreed to meet with Kim in May, although no details of the latter meeting have been confirmed, including the location. A South Korean envoy reported that Kim said he understands that joint exercises must continue, but that he expected them to be readjusted in the future if bilateral developments remain positive.

Background

Kim delivered a speech on New Year’s Day suggesting a restart in bilateral negotiations with South Korea and offered to send a delegation to the 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang. South Korea accepted, and the two sides held a series of meetings leading up to and following the Olympics, resulting in the North Korean offer of bilateral talks with both South Korea and the US.

No sitting US president has ever agreed to meet with North Korean leadership; President Bill Clinton and President Jimmy Carter traveled to Pyongyang after leaving office.

North Korea has not held a nuclear weapon or missile test since November 28, 2017.

Annual joint US-South Korea military exercises to begin on April 1; US, North Korea display commitment to upcoming bilateral talks  - Korean Peninsula Analysis | MAX Security

Assessments

US, North Korea appear committed to talks, although deep distrust remains

The announcement of a U.S.-North Korea summit marks the first ever for a sitting US President, and is made more notable by Pyongyang’s stated willingness to discuss denuclearization. The main reason to doubt a North Korean commitment to denuclearization is the fact that it views its nuclear arsenal as the ultimate guarantee of regime survival. Other, more realistic objectives for the summit might be reaching an agreement on an indefinite ban of missile or nuclear testing in exchange for limits on US-South Korea exercises or a sanctions relief.

In the immediate term, a positive outcome is the North’s offer to temporarily suspend missile tests ahead of the talks, without presenting pre-conditions such as freezing military exercises or requesting sanctions relief. This suggests Kim’s willingness to begin negotiating in good faith, although similar strong starts have collapsed in the past.

The upcoming US-led exercises look to be an in-kind response to this good faith despite public claims to the contrary that the 2018 military exercises are on a similar scale to previous years. The decision to exclude aircraft carriers and halve the length of the drills demonstrates reciprocal flexibility following statements from Pyongyang showing increased tolerance for the exercises. Pyongyang’s stated tolerance and the drawdown of exercises by the US are signals that the desire for talks is, for the time being, sincere.

Despite this projected sincerity, the exercises are perceived as highly provocative by Pyongyang. By not delaying them entirely until talks, the US may be testing Pyongyang’s restraint, as the spring exercise season is normally notorious for North Korean weapons tests. The tenuous nature of the potential US-North Korean harmony is underscored by South Korea’s military tenders for equipment that has little use outside of war with the North.

Major areas of discussion include disarmament, sanctions, detentions

There is significant divergence in the expectations of such a process, as the US views denuclearization as the dismantling of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, while North Korea views denuclearization as the complete withdrawal of US forces from the region. At present, neither side has shown willingness to satisfy the other’s demands on the issue. The US appears equally unwilling to ease sanctions in the short term, as the current belief in Washington is that economic pressure is one of the few things that brought North Korea to negotiations in the first place. Other areas may prove more easy to reconcile, including the transfer of foreign detainees out of North Korea prisons. The prisoners serve little strategic value for North Korea, and their release would constitute a strong showing of good faith ahead of more contentious issues.

The unprecedented meeting could have positive outcomes even if the primary goal of complete denuclearization of the peninsula is not achieved, including a more general de-escalation of tensions between Washington and Pyongyang. A more comprehensive solution is less likely, as it would be particularly difficult for an agreement to be reached based on a few days of talks, especially given the short preparation time for the Kim-Trump summit. It also remains possible that the lack of preparation, along with the remaining uncertainty over a neutral location for the meeting, might lead to abandoning or delaying the summit. Ultimately, whether or not agreements are made, just holding the summit at all would mark a significant breakthrough.

Recommendations

Travel to Seoul may continue at this time, while adhering to standard security protocols regarding protests, crime and the lingering risk of conflict with North Korea.

We advise against nonessential travel to Pyongyang and North Korea given the risk of detainment of foreign travelers.

During periods of armed escalation between North and South Korea, we advise against all nonessential travel to the vicinity of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and the Yeonpyeongdo Islands.

Talks between North and South Korea result in rare cooperation over Pyeongchang Olympics; detente unlikely to last long term – Korean Peninsula Analysis

Current Situation

On January 9, North Korea agreed to send a large delegation to the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics in South Korea, to be held between February 9-25. The agreement was reached during talks between officials at a face-to-face meeting along the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between the two countries. The meeting was organized following North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s New Year’s Day address, during which he expressed a desire to send athletes to the games and the need for bilateral relations without outside actors.

On January 4, the US and South Korea agreed to delay joint military exercises until the conclusion of the Olympics. South Korean President Moon Jae-in reportedly discussed the agreement directly with US President Donald Trump over the phone on the same day. In the lead-up to the talks, President Trump posted on social media that “talks are a good thing!”, and credited his approach of hardline sanctions as the impetus behind North Korea’s conciliation. President Moon thanked President Trump during a press conference following the border talks. He also stated that he would be open to talks with Kim Jong Un under certain unspecified preconditions. President Trump echoed the same willingness during an interview on January 6.

The North and South also agreed to hold further military talks during their initial meeting, although officials have stated that at least in the opening rounds of such future talks, the meetings would focus on logistical issues related to bringing a large North Korean delegation over the heavily militarized border. Reports indicate that the North Korean negotiator emphatically rejected a suggestion that they also engage with the US or discuss their weapons program.

North Korea has faced a number of sanctions regimes championed by the Trump administration as recently as December 22, in response to the November 29 test of a new type of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the Hwasong-15.

Talks between North and South Korea result in rare cooperation over Pyeongchang Olympics; detente unlikely to last long term - Korean Peninsula Analysis | MAX Security
Assessments & Forecast

Decrease in tensions likely to persist until end of 2018 Olympics

The in-person talks of January 9 were the first to occur in over two years, and mark the first such occurrence during the administration of President Trump. In general, despite threats of violence by North Korean leadership largely going unfulfilled, diplomatic overtures from Pyongyang normally result in periodic lulls in tension and varying levels of progress in peninsular cooperation. Given the positive results of the initial meeting and the temporary fulfillment of the North Korean desire for a halt to US-led military drills, all sides appear to be sincere in their commitment to maintaining a drawdown until at least the close of the Olympics.
FORECAST: The developments of January 9 are likely to result a period of relative ease between North and South Korea until at least the closing ceremonies of the Olympics on February 25.

Significant concessions from either side unlikely in near term, North Korea on course to attain nuclear-capable ICBM by end of 2018

Both countries have varying goals that are essentially at odds with one another’s, and as such, there remains a low likelihood that the current thaw will see Pyongyang abandoning their nuclear ambitions. Despite the initial overtures by Kim Jong Un, he emphasized his commitment to North Korea’s nuclear arsenal as a deterrent in the same speech where he offered to resume bilateral talks, and there are no indications of any substantive consideration of alterations to this plan as a result of the ongoing talks.
FORECAST: Given North Korea’s continued commitment to their nuclear program, previous assessments regarding their completion of a nuclear ICBM by the end of 2018 remain unchanged.

While there have been no tests following the November 29 Hwasong-15 launch, this may have more to due with technical considerations. Now that North Korea has a viable launch mechanism, the focus has turned to creating a working reentry vehicle and navigation system. The need to meet these milestones has likely created a delay between tests, and North Korea may be taking advantage of the lull in order to present itself as a more stable partner. Moreover, the motivation for participating in the Olympics may be an attempt to gain acceptance as a presumed nuclear state and normalize their possession of a nuclear arsenal on the world stage.

Similarly, the US-South Korean commitment to halt joint exercises does not cover the annual Foal Eagle or Key Resolve exercises slated to take place in April, and there have been no indications that the schedule will be altered in any way. This suggests that despite positive steps from all sides, red lines nonetheless remain that are likely to be crossed in upcoming months.

North Korean emphasis on bilateral talks unlikely to exclude US from reconciliation process

Kim Jong Un referred to the harmful influence of the US at least 13 times in his speech and emphasized the explicit need for bilateral relations at least another four times. By all accounts, North Korea is likely attempting to use bilateral relations as a way to minimize the role of the US in any eventual substantive talks outside of Olympic preparations, and their rejection of the US during the January 9 talks further reflects this desire. However, the likelihood of exclusive, bilateral peace talks between South Korea and North Korea at the expense of US involvement remains unlikely. South Korea depends on US military commitments for protection from North Korea, and would not be liable to abandon such a partnership, especially considering the North’s nuclear capabilities.

That said, bilateral talks over the coming days and weeks are likely to exclude the US, although as previously mentioned, do not appear to cover substantive reconciliation or demilitarization. Such bilateral talks on issues of economic and cultural cooperation have historically excluded the US, however, have had no impact on the South’s insistence on the inclusion of Washington for more strategic issues. As such, North Korea may be laying the groundwork for an excuse to resume nuclear tests, blaming any increase in tensions on South Korea’s unwillingness to be more flexible on the US presence in their country.

Recommendations

Travel to Seoul may continue at this time, while adhering to standard security protocols regarding protests, crime and the lingering risk of conflict with North Korea.

We continue to advise against nonessential travel to Pyongyang and North Korea given the risk of detainment of foreign travelers.

Those planning on traveling to South Korea for the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics are advised to contact us at [email protected] or +44 20-3540-0434 for itinerary-based consultation and contingency planning

How countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE, Egypt cutting ties with Qatar is likely to influence the region – Middle East & N. Africa Analysis

Current Situation

During the morning hours of June 5, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, and the UAE announced the cutting of all diplomatic ties with Qatar.  The Hadi-led government in Yemen, as well as Libya’s anti-Islamist House of Representatives (HoR) similarly announced the severing of diplomatic ties with Qatar on the same day. The first four countries issued a 48-hour ultimatum to Qatari diplomats to evacuate their respective nations, while similarly issuing an ultimatum to all other Qatari citizens to leave within two weeks. Additionally, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Egypt, and the UAE announced that they had closed their airspace for Qatari aircrafts, and that all flights by airliners from these countries to Qatar were suspended. Qatari naval vessels will also not be allowed to use the countries’ seaports to anchor, while land travel between Qatar and Saudi Arabia will be limited to non-Qatari nationals only.

Additional measures implemented against Qatar include the expelling of the country from the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and its anti-Islamic State (IS) coalition in Syria. These measures were implemented based on accusations that Qatar is “supporting and financing extremist groups” across the region, as well as encouraging sectarianism and subversive elements operating in the abovementioned countries. Meanwhile, Qatar’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement that the accusations are “absolute fabrications” and “proves that there are premeditated intentions to cause damage to Qatar”.

How countries such as Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE, Egypt cutting ties with Qatar is likely to influence the region - Middle East & N. Africa Analysis | MAX Security
Map of countries affected by travel restrictions on Qataris

Assessments & Forecast

Severing ties may hurt Qatar economically, push its policy towards more pro-Iranian approach; limited impact on regional conflicts

While the new development is unlikely to have any effect on Qatar’s and any of the other impacted countries’ security conditions in the short term, we assess that this measure may lead to multiple local and regional ramifications over the coming months. For instance, approximately 90 percent of Qatar’s imports of food products are transferred through land from Saudi Arabia. Thus, in light of the border closure between the two countries, Doha will likely be forced to divert a large amount of resources in developing its maritime trade, including in the form of improving its seaport infrastructure, as now its imports via sea are liable to be enhanced significantly. Moreover, given the high-profile nature of the event, there remains a possibility that the turn of events will impact global markets, and particularly the oil sector, as it may be perceived as a source of instability across this oil-rich region.

These new developments may also impact expatriates, including Westerners operating in Qatar and the GCC, particularly given the suspension of flights between the GCC countries and Qatar and the closure of the land border with Saudi Arabia. In light of the likely increase in logistical difficulties in traveling between Qatar and the above-mentioned countries, exacted upon expatriates by the measures, it is likely to damage Qatar’s national economy. Though the impact on GCC residents seeking to enter Qatar is yet to be determined, it cannot be ruled out that Qatar will implement punitive measures and ban GCC citizens and residents from entering the country.

The partial isolation of Qatar may affect several conflicts and political rivalries across the region. With regards to Iran, Doha is liable to improve its bilateral relations and economic ties with Tehran, as now Qatar would be compelled to compensate for its political and economic setback. Moreover, in Yemen, in the short-term, Qatar’s absence from the Saudi-led coalition may slightly reduce the latter’s on-the-ground capabilities in fighting against the Iranian-backed Shiite Houthis. However, given Qatar’s already limited role in the coalition, as well as the aforementioned arms deal with the US, in the medium to long-term the Saudi-led coalitions is unlikely to be significantly impacted by Qatar’s absence from the coalition.

In Syria, in light of the already heightened internal divisions between rebel factions, it remains possible that this new development will further exacerbate tensions between rebel groups supported by Qatar on one side, and factions backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the other. Should the event indeed lead to an economic recession in Qatar, their supported factions on-the ground would suffer from a shortage of resources, thus forcing them to disband or merge into other factions. With this in mind, should scenarios eventually materialize, it would potentially tip the scale towards the pro-government forces in the Syrian conflict.

In Libya, the development may constitute a boost to the HoR and its allied Libyan National Army (LNA), given their conflict with the pro-Islamist General National Congress (GNC) and its affiliated militias, which are partially supported by Qatar. That said, Qatar’s direct involvement in this conflict has significantly waned in recent years, particularly since the March 2016 arrival of the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) to the designated capital of Tripoli, and therefore any implications on the conflict will remain limited.

Cutting ties with Qatar likely linked to global, regional developments involving Iran, new US administration

Today’s development comes amidst years of tensions between Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE, and Egypt on one side, and Qatar on the other, surrounding multiple issues, chiefly the latter’s alleged direct involvement in the internal affairs of countries throughout the region. This is particularly relevant to Qatar’s long-standing support for Muslim Brotherhood-linked political elements across the Middle East and North Africa, as the countries in this Saudi-led alliance view the Islamist organization is a subversive element and a threat to their respective governments. Additional contentious issue include Qatar’s overall positive relations with Iran, as opposed to that of the other Gulf Cooperation Countries (GCC), with the exception of Oman, which remain strong adversaries of Tehran. This is highlighted by numerous past economic agreements between Tehran and Doha in recent years, such as the agreement from February 2014 to create a joint free trade and economic zones between the two countries. A further issue that contributed to the strained relations with Qatar throughout the years is the cooperation of the Qatari-based news outlet al-Jazeera, which had been accused by the aforementioned countries of attempting to undermine their, as well as their regional allies’, governments.

That said, despite these strained relations, Qatar and the other GCC countries’ relations can be characterized over the past several years by intermittent escalation and rapprochement between the sides. For instance, on December 9, 2014, Qatar agreed as part of a GCC summit, to establish a regional police force in order to improve coordination regarding drug trafficking, money laundering, and cybercrime, as well as announced its “full support to al-Sisi-led government in Egypt”. This followed Saudi officials’ March 9, 2014 threats to impose sanctions against Qatar, including in the form of sea blockade, in light of Doha’s persistent support for Muslim Brotherhood-linked elements across the region. However, the complete cutting of diplomatic relations between the aforementioned Saudi-aligned countries is highly notable given its wide scale and scope, as it includes significant restrictions on Qatar and its citizens.

We assess that this escalation is linked to global and regional geo-political developments, largely with regards to Iran and the new Donald Trump administration in the US. With this in mind, in recent years, under the Obama administration, relations between Saudi Arabia and its allies on one side, and Washington on the other, were oftentimes strained due to the US’ perceived efforts to approach Tehran, which was likely viewed by Riyadh as coming at its expense. In light of the aforementioned normal relations between Qatar and Iran, Saudi Arabia and the other GCC countries were likely felt compelled to prevent Qatar from approaching the Islamic Republic too much, as this would have significantly undermined their sense of security and regional interest.

Since President Trump’s inauguration, Washington increased its anti-Iranian rhetoric, while at the same time strengthened its ties with Saudi Arabia. This is highlighted by the May 15 UAE-US defense agreement, as well as the 350 Billion USD agreement between Riyadh and Washington involving an arms deal, and Saudi investments in the US. Thus, there remains a potential that the recent visit of President Trump to Saudi Arabia in late May, as well as the US’ growing support for Saudi Arabia and its allies, motivated the Kingdom to implement these measures, as part of the shared interest with the US in tackling Iran and its allies’ influence throughout the region. With this in mind, given Saudi Arabia’s decreasing need for Qatar’s cooperation on security and political support amidst the ongoing rivalry with Shiite Iran, it is likely that Saudi Arabia assessed that it is no longer obligated to maintain positive bilateral relations with Qatar, prompting this development.

The development comes amidst a diminishing political influence of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood organization across the Middle East and North Africa over the past two years. In this context, it remains possible that Saudi Arabia no longer felt compelled to maintain good relations with Qatar, following the reduction of the threat stemming from the Muslim Brotherhood, as opposed to previous Saudi attempts to pressure Qatar to abandon their support for the Islamist organization in return for the improvement of relations with the other GCC countries.

Recommendations

Travel to Qatar may continue as normal while adhering to cultural norms and avoiding making any statements critical of the Qatari Emir and government officials, despite the aforementioned new restrictions. That being said, those operating in Qatar over the coming days and weeks are advised to stock up on food and basic products, due to the possibility that these will be in shortage due to the declared measures. Those operating throughout the Middle East and North Africa, and particularly in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, UAE, and Qatar are advised to remain cognizant of developments and potential effects on travel and business continuity given the current lack of full information regarding the various restrictions that will be in effect. This is particularly relevant for the possibility of unexpected border closures between the relevant countries over the coming days and weeks.

 

This report was written by:
Asaf Day – MAX Security’s Senior Intelligence Manager, Middle East & North Africa