June 30, 2012

Northern Mali Awash In Questions

Unpredictability has reached a tangible level of predictability in northern Mali. Following weeks of tense negotiations between the Taureg-dominated National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) and Ansar Dine, an Islamic group with self-pronounced ties to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), another AQIM affiliate has staged a hostile takeover of the MNLA's position in Gao. A spokesman for the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), AQIM's formal offshoot, told Al Jazeera that the group killed several dozen MNLA members, captured more than 40 prisoners and seized a group of tanks over the past week. 

"Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and all the mujahidin are with us here in Gao, including Ansar al Din and all the al-Qaeda emirs," Abu Al Waleed al Sahraoui triumphantly announced on Thursday. "The entire city is happy and celebrating now that we have gotten rid of the MNLA." 

Although the MNLA has refuted key elements of al Sahraoui's version of the battle, its members paint a picture with rough similarities to his account. They claim that two of AQIM's lieutenants, Mokhtar Belmokhtar and Hamid Abou Zeid, arrived in Gao to personally direct an offensive against the MNLA. Neither side disputes the fact that MUJAO attacked both the MNLA's headquarters in Gao's governors' building and the house of its secretary-general, Bilal Ag Acherif. Belmoktar, the commander of an AQIM "battalion" in Algeria, has since been reported killed in action by Algerian state media (Ennahar TV), while an MNLA official said that Ag Acherid was "accidentally shot" by friendly fire. He currently rests in a hospital bed in Ouagadougou, the capital of neighboring Burkina Faso. 

Belmokhtar's ultimate fate remains unknown. 

As for Gao itself, another MNLA source said that a military convoy had been dispatched from Kidal to regain total control of the town. Yet the MNLA is also minimizing its losses by exploiting Mali's information vacuum, just as MUJAO has exaggerated its victory and local support. Colonel Asaleth Ag Khabi, the MNLA's deputy chief of staff and commander of military operations in Gao, told the Associated Press, "I cannot confirm that the HQ of the NMLA, which is located inside the governor's building in Gao, has been taken by the Islamists from MUJAO.” 

"But in any case this headquarters is just a political office, not a military building." 

Despite Gao's confusion, the status between the MNLA and Ansar Dine is clearing with each passing battle. Both groups have validated the expectations of many analysts; incompatible with each other's ideology and political objectives, the competing insurgencies attempted to join forces due to their overlapping interests. However the MNLA seeks an own autonomous state based on ethnic factors, along with a system of governance that includes the moderate version of Sharia followed by most Tauregs. Ansar Dine and MUJAO are pursuing a strict Islamic state that would host international jihadists. While the groups might have joined forces against an imminent intervention, the MNLA is now actively collaborating with foreign powers in order to negate Ansar Dine's influence. 

Beyond this relative certainty, though, lies a host of unanswered dilemmas. Ansar Dine now claims over half of a territory the size of several American states, a measurement that the MNLA rejects, but residents and journalists have persistently alerted the outside world of Ansar Dine's expanding authority. Realistically, the group only needs to control a fraction of Mali to pursue its militaristic ends. Holding Azawad in its entirety - an area that exceeds all of al-Qaeda's territory in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Somalia, Yemen and Mauritania - is almost too good to be true. One can begin to understand why Islamic militants believe that their "new state" fell from the heavens. 

Equally clouded is the number of foreign fighters populating Ansar Dine and MUJAO's ranks. The latter is mostly composed of Mauritanians that publicly seek to expand AQIM across West Africa, though other sources allege that MUJAO subscribes to a leading conspiracy in the Sahel: Algerian intelligence founded or else infiltrated AQIM in order to suppress the Tuaregs, Polisario and other separatist groups in the area. Regardless, MUJAO is suspected of trafficking in fighters from Algeria and Libya, a stream that flows into Ansar Dine and AQIM's own recruitment. According local residents and an intelligence report from Nigerien President Mahamadou Issoufou, Pakistani gunmen are also busying themselves patrolling Timbuktu's streets and building training camps near Gao. AQIM officials have toured the process (if local journalists are to be believed). 

On the other hand, one MNLA member warned, "We are dealing with Islamists that are from Gao, that are here from a long time ago. Who were born and raised here. And this combat is not over." 

No concrete estimates are available on the MNLA, Ansar Dine or MUJAO's strength ratios. Figures on each group range between several hundred fighters to over a thousand, putting the likely total in between, but this number is rising with northern Mali's profile. Their arsenal has also been ambiguously boosted by the leftovers of Mali's fleeing army and Libya's revolution, adding to the many uncertainties that complicate the organization of an international counteroffensive. With Mali's interim government still struggling to stay afloat after March's coup, the (ECOWAS) has stepped in to apply the majority of political pressure on the MNLA. Threats of war have been issued and mobilization is inching forward. Just recently, Johnnie Carson admitted that "one has to take into account that the government in the south has no effective military now." 

The Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for Africa said that Washington doesn't expect a presidential election until May 2013, a year-long delay, and cautioned, "Any effort to look at retake the north would be a significant undertaking for ECOWAS." 

Problematically, the combination of northern Mali's size and a multi-layered enemy could exhaust all but the largest force. ECOWAS must commit several battalions (possibly more) and President still expects a healthy dose of Western airpower. The Obama administration has remained unusually quiet for an event of this magnitude, but northern Mali may be an outlier in Washington's grander plan for Africa. This is territory that didn't need to be openly defended a mere four months ago. Now a great deal of resources and time - more force than the U.S. has deployed in the area - must be devoted to the Sahel's center. 

 A large-scale counterinsurgency, even when "led" by African powers, is not what U.S. policy-makers have in mind for their "light" wars. 

Given the current state of events inside and outside of Mali, urgent foreign capitals appear to have accepted the reality that a military campaign will be measured not in months but years. Many actors have appeared in the asymmetric environment and many hurdles obstruct a UN-approved mission carried about by ECOWAS and NATO powers. The sheer number of challenges could eventually yield a political resolution with the MNLA, but the odds of pacifying Tuareg grievances are low and al-Qaeda's roots still need to be dug up by force. Thus one more possibility must be considered: fomenting an internal rebellion. 

Speaking through a communique issued after Ansar Dine's execution of a local Gao official, Communications Minister Hamadoun Touré promised that the interim government "hasn't forgotten" and "will not abandon" the citizens of northern Mali. He also praised the youth's demonstrations against Islamist rule, calling them "one facet of the Malian people's resistance." 

Instead of directly confronting all parts of the insurgency's network at once, Mali's government and other powers may attempt to stage a preemptive rebellion before launching their assault. This strategy, if timed exactly, would disperse al-Qaeda's influence and produce a more effective sweep of the north. Such a possibility may have multiple angles too. According to the MNLA's Communication Minister Moussa, Ag al-Sarid, Algeria has deployed intelligence agents officers inside northern Mali to coordinate an "anti-Azawad rebellion alongside al-Qaeda operatives." If half true, operatives from Mauritania, Algeria, Niger and Western states could all find themselves tasked to the amplification of a local uprising. 

All involved actors and observers have no choice except to keep watching, trust no information absolutely and expect the unexpected.

June 29, 2012

U.S. Double-Standard On Display In Bahrain



Yesterday Bahrain's monarchy released its first details on a clandestine network of bomb-making plants, exposed by a series of raids conducted earlier in June. Tariq al-Hassan, the country's public security chief, said his personnel are searching for three men that accumulated "more than five tons" of material used to make explosives, along with the wires and plastic tubing that are associated with pipe-bombs.

"The explosives were designed to cause severe injury, a high death toll, serious destruction to property and fear in the minds of the public," Hassan warned. 

Concerned as the monarchy is for its own supporters' safety, be they civilian or policeman, King Hamad Isa bin Al Khalifa and his hardline officials are visibly salivating over a treasure trove of propaganda. Mired in daily protests against a determined opposition movement and needing new ammunition, the revelation of several "terrorist dens" will soon manifest into another "justifiable" crackdown on Bahrain's streets. This information also leveraged the monarchy's threat of an Iranian takeover - easy meat, given the Senate's similar focus - into another U.S. defense of Bahrain's monarchy.

One group's terrorist den is a government's gold mine. 

The State Department's Victoria Nuland opened Thursday's press briefing by telling reporters: "The Bahraini Government’s discovery of several facilities for producing highly explosive bombs is of deep concern. We commend the Government of Bahrain for its counterterrorism efforts and for conducting a thorough and professional investigation that has eliminated a serious threat to Bahrain and to its people. There is no justification for any party holding such material, the use of which would exact an enormous human toll and severely escalate tensions in the country. Violent acts are counterproductive to the reconciliation efforts, which are crucial to building a prosperous, secure, peaceful future for the people of Bahrain." 

Such blatant propaganda does contain a kernel of truth at its core. If deployed in an offensive matter and directed against indiscriminate targets, the use of high-grade explosives will yield no benefit for any layer of Bahrain's opposition. The entire youth movement and political opposition will continue to endure a synchronized criminalization due to the actions of a few men, and the government could intensify its use of force. However the conceptual application of explosives and other weapons is justified by Bahrain's oppressive environment. As a basic rule, non-violent struggles of fourth-generation warfare (4GW) should attempt to remain peaceful until they must resort to low-intensity violence - a point that Bahrain's opposition passed when Saudi Arabia intervened in March 2011. 

At this juncture, force becomes an integral component of mobilizing the opposition and catalyzing its forward movement.
 

The Obama administration is essentially demanding that protesters don't fight back against their government's repression. While this position is understandable from a counterrevolutionary mindset, ordering Bahrain's opposition to remain peaceful in the face of state terrorism illustrates a vast disconnect from the reality of asymmetric warfare. No foreign power outside Iran is defending Bahraini protesters at the international level and isolation necessitates independent action. The Obama administration issued no reaction to the Friday assault of Al-Wefaq's leadership as they marched with flowers in hand. Nuland would dodge initial questioning and never return to the latest arrest of human rights activist Nabeel Rajab, who just spent three weeks in a jail cell. He was finally released on Wednesday with all five cases (most related to "illegal" protesting) delayed until further notice. 

Similarly, activist Zainab al-Khawaja suffered a leg injury on Wednesday after a policeman targeted her at point-blank range with a tear gas canister. Her injury was ignored by Nuland. 

Rajab and al-Khawaja, daughter of jailed activist Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, have both accused the government of detaining them simply to obstruct their organization of protests inside and around Manama. Upon release, Rajab dutifully promised to "keep defending the peoples' rights" and will likely be arrested again in the future. Meanwhile Bahrain's Information Affairs Authority clarified that al-Khawaja has yet to submit a police report (as if she trusts the police), before concluding that "precaution should always be exercised" by Bahrainis "taking part in unauthorized demonstrations." Since King Hamad believes his country sits outside of the Arab revolutionary wave, he naturally expects "authorized" demonstrations to fill Bahrain's streets. 

The cumulative effect of a bomb-making cell will be applied as another source of counterrevolutionary pressure on Bahrain's multi-faceted opposition. Combined with the State Department's warning - prominently displayed by Bahraini state media - the monarchy is squeezing every ounce of juice from a few "terrorist dens" to slander all protesters as "terrorists." After Hassan labeled the discovery as "significant, as it indicates a new level of terrorist activity in Bahrain," Interior Minister Lieutenant-General Shaikh Rashid bin Abdulla Al-Khalifa launched a comprehensive assault on anyone opposed to King Hamad's rule. He promised to "spare no efforts to track down terrorists round the clock," a campaign that could include "legislation holding parents accountable for their children’s acts and participation in acts of rioting and sabotage." 

Al-Khalifa's heavy reliance on nationalism suggests that Bahraini police will expand their sweep across the uprising: “Fighting organized crime is a patriotic duty which should engage all parties to send a strong message to perpetrators – your criminal acts are rejected and strongly condemned. The spirit of patriotic responsibility is the best catalyst for efforts being exerted to maintain security and stability – being the guarantor of development and the cornerstone of decent and stable living." 

Washington's silence over Bahrain's future crackdown can already be heard in the distance.

June 28, 2012

al-Maliki, U.S. Await A Political Meltdown in Iraq

From a strict COIN perspective, the grade on Washington's post-withdrawal strategy in Iraq can skew in two directions.

The argument for passing marks - "excellence" in COIN hinges on the war's beginning - is that a surge in U.S. forces, resources and diplomacy (coupled with many indirect and unrelated politico-military events) prevented a descent into open civil war. This tenuous equilibrium still exists today as Iraq's power brokers try to contain their quarrels inside the political arena, and the country shows no evidence of an impending plunge into total war. Chronic economic and utilities shortages juxtapose with a gradual reopening of Iraq's street life, filled with people that detest war and are searching for a brighter future.

However this argument is only persuasive without the other half. While Iraq "could be worse," its political status could also be healthier if guided by responsible U.S. diplomacy. Instead the opposite occurred. With a role-reversing draw of Afghanistan's surge coming into effect in 2009, the Obama administration moved Iraq's war out of America's consciousness to clear more room for his economic platform. What started as an easy attack against George Bush and remains a fulfilled campaign promise, according to the White House, eventually became a liability outside of President Barack Obama's ceremonial exit. The administration's inability to extend Iraq's Status of Forces Agreement (Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki didn't bring an amendment to parliament because he never had the votes) was then flipped around by Republicans demanding a residual force, clouding what should have been a deeper debate on Iraqi policy.

Iraqis generally expressed a desire to maintain diplomatic relations with America as U.S. troops withdrew from their country, but questionable and erroneous political moves litter Washington's exit roads. First al-Maliki was promoted to a second term after U.S. officials, leery of initially stepping into 2010’s parliamentary election, belatedly intervened on his behalf. Ayad Allawi's winning Iraqiya was temporarily placated by the Irbil Agreement, a U.S.-sponsored proposal that allocated key positions to his party, but al-Maliki has yet to cede the Interior/Defense Ministries or assign Allawi to his national security role. By the time Obama welcomed al-Maliki to the White House in December 2011 and praised his leadership, Iraqiya was already organizing a boycott and collectively primed to explode.

Sunni and Kurdish powers have steadily soured on U.S. diplomacy and joined forces with a patient Muqtada al-Sadr to prepare a no-confidence motion against al-Maliki.

In response, the Obama administration consistently advocates "dialogue" to a problem that is beyond negotiations and compromise: al-Maliki must cede the powers he unconstitutionally holds. Iraq now hangs in a vulnerable state of suspended animation, pricked daily by an al-Qaeda cell that refuses to quit, and too frequently rocked by Sunni-Shia hostilities. A wobbly al-Maliki can barely stand on his own, despite his best efforts to consolidate power, and is surviving with special help from Washington and Tehran. This is the war that Obama has declared over in his campaign speeches, the model that U.S. officials use to help explain "his" transition out of Afghanistan.

"And I'm proud that I kept the promise I made to you in 2008 - we have ended the war in Iraq.  (Applause.) We are transitioning out of Afghanistan. So I want to start doing some nation-building here at home. (Applause.)"

Although the administration must be feeling more anxiety than U.S. officials reveal, Washington's public reaction towards Iraq's present crisis is no less unimpressed than al-Maliki's misguided belief. Having spent all of his energy defending himself and slinging attacks back at Iraq's opposition, al-Maliki has demonstrated no sincere willingness to implement the Irbil Agreement and divest his authority over Iraq's security forces. He, like Washington, is daring a time-tomb to keep ticking, but the day that a no-confidence brawl erupts took another step forward after al-Maliki redirected his opposition's latest attacks. Following Parliamentary Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi's announcement that, "the political powers that presented their desires... to withdraw confidence from his excellency the prime minister are continuing their procedures," al-Sadr reiterated his calculated position along Iraq's Shia fault lines: “I do not support a no-confidence vote if it hurts the Iraqi people. But the no-confidence (vote) is not what has delayed the government from doing its duty.”

“If the head is reformed, everything beyond it is reformed,” the cleric added, tipping his final preference.

al-Sadr, Allawi, and Kurdish President Massoud Barzani have done everything possible to organize their no-confidence vote under a self-defense argument. Seeking to avoid the chaos and blame that could result from a premature election, they claim that al-Maliki has left them no other option to enforce the Irbil Agreement. Now al-Maliki is playing the same card, "forced to call for early elections... if you don’t accept dialogue," in the words of media adviser Ali al-Moussawi. Whether al-Maliki can persuade President Jalal Talabani to approve his motion remains unknown - Talabani has functioned as brakes on the Iraqiya-Kurd-Sadr alliance - but his game of chicken is certain to intensify Baghdad's political battle.

al-Maliki will presumably take his chances in a new election and, in the event of civil disorder, blame his opponents for the instability. Or he could manufacture his own.

Considering the fact that high-stakes conflicts are prone to flaming out, as each side maneuvers to avoid a worst-case scenario, Iraqis may dodge the need to hold another election before 2014. al-Maliki could choose survival and turn over his excess powers, a logical course of action for a head of state. However Iraq's crisis has simmered for years and boiled for months, and neither side has given any real hint of backing down. Both powers believe that they can ultimately force the other into submission, an equation that suggests an eventual confrontation in parliament. The Obama administration must be willing to acknowledge the magnitude of Iraq's current events as they escalate, and to weigh the potential benefits of a no-confidence vote against the risk of losing al-Maliki.

Supporting a man widely considered to be a dictator is contributing to Iraq's instability, violating its sovereignty and obstructing relations with historic friends. This is no exit strategy to be proud of - this is a policy in need of urgent repair.

June 25, 2012

al-Shabaab Commander Sends Ambiguous Invitation To U.S.

Earlier last week Muktar "Godane" Zubeyr, al-Shabaab's transnational figurehead, sent a message to his remaining followers and Somalia's many clan elders. Widely interpreted as a sign of desperate bravado, Zubeyr urged al-Shabaab fighters to embrace martyrdom as soldiers from the African Union (AU) and Somalia's Transnational Federal Government (TFG) besiege them from multiple fronts. His appeal will largely fall on deaf ears; al-Qaeda's foreign cadre has reportedly fled to Yemen and al-Shabaab's nationalist members don't plan on dying for Zubeyr. 

Clan elders have no use for him. 

Interestingly, the response of al-Shabaab's nationalist leadership has trumped any message circulated by the self-admitted follower of Osama bin Laden. Days after the U.S. State Department included Zubeyr and other al-Shabaab commanders in a new, multi-million dollar "Rewards For Justice" program, Fuad "Shangole" Qalaf mocked President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by offering camels and chickens for information on their whereabouts. Considering the ongoing power struggle between Zubeyr and al-Shabaab's local core, along with the certain scent of propaganda, Qalaf may have been using the platform to challenge Zubeyr's authority. The subsequent reaction from al-Qaeda's #1 cheerleader in Somalia would then fall into place as a counter-challenge. 
Qalaf's declaration has since been eclipsed by Mukhtar "Abu Mansur" Robow, who just delivered a weekend sermon at a Burhakaba mosque: “If they [U.S government] can harm me, I tell now that I am here in Burhakaba town and also I can move freely in Somalia... The Mujahidin, like me are not giving any attention to the calls of the Americans and their allies. We do not hide ourselves we publicly say we are here.. try if you can.” 

Located in Robow's home province of Bay, Burhakaba offered an ideal setting to project the remaining ounces of al-Shabaab's waning power. The town also symbolizes the dangers of targeting him in a drone or JSOC strike. Unlike the isolated Zubeyr, who hails from Somaliland, Robow still possesses some influence with his centrally-based Rahanweyn clan and is using his local connections to stay alive; surfacing in Burhakaba dismisses prior reports that Robow fled to Somaliland ahead of Kenya's advance on Kismayo. The group's leading nationalist clearly abides by a concept of anti-American jihad, but he derives his ideology from nationalist sources such as America's 1992-93 intervention and Ethiopia's U.S.-supported occupation. Like bin Laden himself, Robow opposed an open alliance between al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda because he wanted to avoid complete isolation with the outside world. 

He also counts himself as an ally of Zubeyr's heated rival, Hassan Aweys, whose Hizbul Islam was cannibalized in 2010 after years of infighting. Both Robow and Aweys would like to remove Zubeyr from Somalia's power equation and return to a nationally-driven jihad. 

The present status of al-Shabaab is equally jumbled and fixed. Ousted from the group's throne by a joint movement of al-Shabaab and al-Qaeda fighters, Zubeyr temporarily ceded power in December 2010 to a mutual friend of Robow's: Ibrahim al-Afghani. However al-Afghani disappeared after surviving a 2011 drone strike and supposedly quit his position, according to one of al-Shabaab's intelligent agents. Robow has now regained control over the group's local network while Zubeyr allegedly took command of al-Qaeda in East Africa, and at the very least pledged his allegiance to Ayman al-Zawahiri. Thus killing Robow would empower Zubeyr's tenuous influence over the group, a mistake that foreign powers shouldn't induce. 

Literal interpretations shouldn't be ruled out either and, as unlikely as the possibility is, Robow sounds like he's asking to be brought into custody. Aweys is already suspected of cutting an undisclosed deal with Washington in order to dodge its bounty program, a scenario that could hint at a future political use. 

Either way, the Obama administration cannot lethally target Robow unless al-Shabaab's leadership is eliminated in unison - Robow would be far more useful in Somalia's conflict if captured alive. He and Aweys are the only individuals who can open a channel between the TFG's impending successor, and may be the only military figures with the power to order a ceasefire. For two decades Somalia has endured a cycle of failed governments, doomed resolutions and recycled insurgencies. The wisest course of action would eliminate Zubeyr first, then attempt to squeeze Robow and Aweys into reconciliation. Lethal force would be applied as the last resort, in the likely event that Robow and Aweys reject the Western-backed government, but a sincere political effort should be undertaken first. 

Although the AU's force has seized numerous territories from al-Shabaab over the last two years and holds a commanding conventional position, negotiations may yield the difference between quicker defeat and another multi-year phase of guerrilla warfare.

June 22, 2012

Nabeel Rajab Buried Beneath Washington's "Gulf Security Architecture"

Forced to confront Bahrain's uprising during the renovation of Washington's "Gulf Security Architecture," the Senate Foreign Relation Committee played its full hand to minimize the island's democratic convulsions. After simultaneously acknowledging a problem and defending the monarchy's "reform" process, the Senate relies on third parties to send an unusually truthful shot across King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa's bow: "Human rights groups and political analysts remain concerned about Bahrain’s trajectory." 

A quoted press release from the International Crisis Group ventures far beyond the Obama administration's formulaic criticism of the monarchy: "A genuine dialogue between the regime and the opposition and a decision to fully carry out the [BICI report]—not half-hearted measures and not a policy of denial—are needed to halt this deterioration.’’ 

Including this stern warning suggests that Washington's parts collectively sense the growing danger in Bahrain, and are trying to reign in the King's crackdown before he loses control over the island. However this reality is incomplete. Fundamentally, any U.S. support for Bahrain's democratic movement and universal human rights has been corrupted by Washington's reliance on Bahrain's "lily-pad," and its strategically controversial location between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Stability and control go hand in hand, leading the Obama administration to seek a swift end to Bahrain's nascent uprising. Democracy promotion becomes a means of preserving self-interests in the country and region. 

One can easily imagine Washington's reaction if the opposition somehow rose to power and altered the terms of Manama's Fifth Fleet. 

As the situation stands, U.S. policy is rife with contradictions that measure the denial infecting both governments. Still believing that the opposition can be suppressed in the long-term, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee "recommends" a policy that would drain the opposition of its legitimacy and preserve the government's authoritarian influence. Specifically, the Committee builds on existing media reports by recommending a new "dialogue" and the promotion of "moderate figures within the ruling family, including Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, as well as within the political opposition." 

This advice, if sincere, is both sound and necessary. Not only does King Hamad stand to exit his conflict faster through a moderate path, he continues to sabotage a genuine resolution by persecuting oppositional moderates. The same goes for Washington, whose welcoming ceremony for "liberal" Crown Prince Salman was intended to buttress his influence. Instead, the administration's decision to approve a delayed arms package antagonized the street opposition and ultimately strengthened the hands of hardliners such as Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa. The Obama administration also tolerates the arrest of Bahrain's leading human rights activists, a process that has further increased the national trust gap and anti-American sentiment amongst groups that Washington should be cooperating with. 

After the State Department's Victoria Nuland refused to answer initial questioning over Nabeel Rajab's latest arrest, Washington has remained silent during the 11 days following his detention. The head of Bahrain's Center for Human rights and a leading moderate would appear in court on June 12th, only to be sentenced to another week in detention on June 19th. Rajab's supporters believe the government is dragging its feet to cook his charges; already condemned as politically-motivated attacks, several of his five pending cases were recently postponed. One case of "illegal gathering" was pushed back to September 26th. 

Activists accuse the King of organizing a systematic campaign to keep him off the streets, but such efforts cannot stop Rajab - his Twitter account is drafting a list of crimes committed by Prime Minister (and "corrupt thief/murderer") Al Khalifa.

Another high profile detention has also been recorded by the Monitoring and Documentation Department of the European-Bahraini Organisation for Human Rights. Family members first reported the arrest of Zahra Salman Al Shaikh, a 22 years old media student at the University of Bahrain, on June 15th and proceeded to fill in the blanks on her interrogation. Zahra's family claims that she was berated and knocked unconscious a Jordanian officer digging for fabrications confessions on Rajab, fellow BCHR member Yousif Al Muhafdha and Naji Fateel, a leading member of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights (BYSHR). All three men endured the regime's harassment and abuse before February 2011 unleashed the full extent of Bahrain's oppositional energy. 


Visibly unconcerned with the possibility of losing Washington's patronage, the monarchy has once again ordered its security forces to suppress the aftereffects of Friday prayers. Today's target: none other than Al Wefaq, Bahrain's largest opposition group and the main conduit that the Obama administration hopes to run a dialogue through. Al Hassan al-Marzooq, Ali Almowali and Sheikh Ali Salam, Al Wefaq's Secretary-General, were all struck by projectiles (tear gas canisters and rubber bullets) as they headed a small, flower-wielding protest in Bilad al-Qadeem, on the outskirts of Manama. The Interior Ministry had denied a permit request and apparently decided that the application of force would end the protest. This relatively small event is certain to spark a larger reaction in the impending days, links in a chain that is beginning to stretch into years. 

"More violations will complicate our efforts for reconciliation and a meaningful dialogue,” Salam said. “We continue our democratic demands and call for universal human rights principles through peaceful assemblies. It is the people’s right.” 


By abandoning Bahrain's opposition movement, Western and Gulf capitals have contributed to the island's polarization and rise in hostilities. While the monarchy must organize a credible reform process in order to end the uprising, the U.S. is suffering from the same condition - fear of looking in the mirror.

June 19, 2012

Senate Committee Drops Turbo Propaganda On Middle East

Days or even weeks are necessary to break down a massive propaganda assault released by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. While the renewed emphasis on Kuwait's U.S. base has stolen the current headlines, a full reading of the document is certain to jolt anyone concerned with America's ongoing military complex in the Middle East. On a fundamental level, the report offers the latest evidence that U.S. policy in the region is irreversibly counterrevolutionary. 

A few points of observation on the Senate's Gulf Security Architecture with the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC): 
  • The Senate's report is openly framed as pro-GCC, anti-Iranian. This priority automatically skews U.S. policy along Sunni-Shia divisions and flips the recommendation to leverage America's "strategic position to be a steady force for moderation, stability, and nonsectarianism" on its head. 
  • Numerous highlights of Israel's qualitative edge contrast sharply with the total absence of the Palestinian cause.
  • Washington's unconditional support for Nouri al-Maliki (paralleled by Tehran) and the subsequent collapse of U.S. diplomacy in Iraq is masked by a "recommendation" to bring the country "into the Arab fold."
  • Several of the identified "challenges" have already manifested in Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain and Syria, starting with Challenge 1: "While the United States has significant economic and security interests in the Gulf, it should not be seen as opposed to popular reform efforts." 
  • Challenge 3 belatedly warns, "The United States must carefully shape its military presence so as not to create a popular backlash, while retaining the capability to protect the free flow of critical natural resources and to provide a counterbalance to Iran."
  • One recommendation: instead of limiting or suspending military aid in response to human rights abuses, use these incentives to reduce abuses. The Senate also "recommends" that U.S. equipment not be deployed against peaceful protesters, when this violation persists in Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain (tear gas in particular).
  • Conversely, the Senate heaps praise on the Obama administration and GCC's response to Egypt, Yemen, Libya, and Syria. Although the GCC provides Washington with an expanding outlet to address the Arab revolutions, Saudi Arabia's all-encompassing influence has played a key counterrevolutionary role in Egypt and Yemen. Both Washington and GCC's advances against Bashar al-Assad and his Shia regime have been stained by this double-standard. After being caught off guard by the first revolutionary fires, Washington and Riyadh have rallied to exploit the revolutions and pursue their own interests above democratic movements.
  • The Senate's light warning on Bahrain is drowned out by Manama's 5th Fleet and its centerpiece relation to Washington's "lily-pad” deployments. Recommending a "dialogue" between "moderates" punts the issue down field, to be covered up again at a later date. 
Despite its redundant nature and plentiful disinformation, the Senate's report deserves an attentive read and a comprehensive search. Inside lies the blueprint of U.S. talking points that the Obama administration is using to veil a systematic counterrevolutionary offensive. The GCC has been labeled as the Gulf Counterrevolutionary Club for good reason, and Washington is proudly financing its investment into the future.

June 18, 2012

AQAP Counterstrikes U.S.-Yemeni Offensive In South Yemen

Last week, after months of hard fighting against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the Yemeni and U.S. governments jointly announced the recapture of Zinjibar and Jaʿār. 

This information was confirmed by AQAP itself, which left messages to apologize for any transgressions and promise a return. Specifically, local journalist Nasser Arraybee quoted another journalist (Abdul Razaq Al Jamal) who claims that AQAP's commander in Abyan governorate is reverting his base into the mountainous terrain. As PBS recently reported from inside Abyan, AQAP established relative security in the urban territory that it has seized since Yemen's revolution began in January 2011. Abu Hamzah Jalal Beledi goes so far as to break down his budget - an alleged $2 million - and the financial burden of maintaining public services in Zinjibar and Jaʿār. AQAP's local commander then vowed to concentrate their funds on stopping the Yemeni government's advances and targeting "the Americans." 

Some of AQAP's posturing is easy to see through as the group retreats from its possessions. Yemeni and U.S. forces have landed numerous blows over the past months and an aura of strength must be projected as the group switches up its tactics. However the conflict's factors do not match the exuberance (however cautious) of Yemeni and U.S. officials who are eager to promote new military gains. For starters, AQAP assumed a large amount of risk by holding entire towns under its control; unless an insurgency has reached a widespread presence, undermining the government's authority is often easier than governing. Although AQAP's ambushes have inflicted a significant amount of damage on Yemeni forces, the group is also foolish to openly challenge a conventional army. The guerrilla warfare that Jalal Beledi promised offers a more logical course of action. 

Arrabyee cites the warning of an anonymous cleric: "If the Yemeni government and America think they defeated Al Qaeda today, then they are wrong. They will only turn to  guerrilla wars, at which they are very good, and this will cost Yemen a lot of time and money and everything." 

The Trench predicted that AQAP would fall back from its urban positions and switch to its established tactics in order to counter its territorial and perceptual losses. Such writings had been scribbled across every wall in Abyan. During an early March warning, Jalal Beledi ordered the government to stand down or suffer attacks outside of the battle zone. Rumors of AQAP-rigged car bombs and suicide bombers floated around Sana'a for months before someone detonated himself in the middle of a military parade, killing at least 96 soldiers. Now, mere days after overseeing Zinjibar's "fall," AQAP has claimed the assassination of Major General Salim Ali Qatn and injected new uncertainty into the southern campaign. General Qatn was one of the first military appointments made by President Abdu Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who succeeded Ali Abdullah Saleh through a UN-approved referendum.

His loss represents a huge psychological blow, stakes out a propaganda goldmine for AQAP and verifies that the battle for Abyan's lasting stability has only begun. 

This entire episode (spanning a year from May 2011) marks a loss for U.S. policy, as the contested cities and governorates will remain low-intensity battlegrounds for years to come. Furthermore, the reasons for Zinjibar and Jaar's temporary fall are directly related to Saleh's misrule and his U.S. support. The Obama administration is praising Hadi - and U.S. operations - for correcting past errors and no involved actors are willing to expose this coverup. Media reports still allege that AQAP "took advantage of a security vacuum last year during a popular uprising against Yemen's longtime leader, Ali Abdullah Saleh, to seize large swaths of territory in the strategic south." They generally neglect to report that Saleh withdrew his personal, U.S.-funded units from the area and repositioned them against Yemen's revolutionaries. They ignore the fact that Saleh intentionally destabilized the south and marginalized tribal leadership as a means of exploiting Washington's support, a tactic that worked until the Obama administration used the cover of revolution to exchange him for Hadi. 

Saleh and his family continue to undermine Hadi's authority in Sana'a, immunity clause in hand. Western capitals infrequently threaten to levy sanctions against them but, seeking control over justice, have yet to follow through. 

Conveniently forgetful of Washington's support past for Saleh, the Obama administration is riding high on the docile Hadi and his counterterrorism drive. This narrative is also establishing the conditions of future failure. By minimizing or ignoring the hostility accumulating against U.S. policy, the administration is creeping deeper into a conflict with no end in sight. Qatn's assassination was immediately repackaged into propaganda: "The United States will continue to support President Hadi and those who carry on the efforts of Major General al-Qatan as they work to realize a brighter and more prosperous future for the Yemeni people." 

This type of overreaction feeds straight into AQAP's asymmetric traps. A large quantity of time and resources is necessary to generate permanent stability in Abyan and other governorates, and unpopular drones strikes will fill the security vacuum until then. The hegemony over Hadi poses its own dilemma going forward, and anti-American sentiments are unlikely to heal as a result. 

Sadly, the future of Yemen appears bleak when viewed under the current shadow of U.S. policy.

June 14, 2012

Translating the Pentagon's African Propaganda

Earlier this week Niger's President Mahamadou Issoufou met with his French counterpart to deliver the latest disturbing intelligence from Mali. Local sightings of foreign fighters, attributed to Ansar Dine's partnership with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), have proliferated since the group seized de facto control of northern Mali with the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA). Issoufou elaborated on these reports by announcing that Afghanis and Pakistanis have already opened training camps for West African recruits. 

He also claims that Boko Haram, a Nigerian terrorist network with loose ties to AQIM, is training recruits in Gao, the unofficial capital of "Azawad." 

Issoufou's urgency is easily understandable from a geopolitical perspective - his country is surrounded by unrest. To the east lies the chronic instability of Chad and the new instability of Libya. Boko Haram is actively destabilizing northern Nigeria and could eventually spill into southern Niger, and now a large portion of its western border has been totally compromised by a group affiliated with AQIM. As a result, Issoufou may spearhead an Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) resolution though the UN and accelerate an international intervention into northern Mali. One benefit of the increasing probability of military force is a new diplomatic motion between the MNLA and African capitals. With the MNLA and Ansar Dine growing further apart after their "protocol" was dashed onto their contradicting ideologies, attempting to negotiate with the MNLA is a necessary course of action for both parties. 

Representative Ibrahim Ag Mohamed Assaleh spoke to reporters after meeting President in Burkina Faso's capital of Ouagadougou. He clarified that the MNLA tried to negotiate a political alliance with Ansar Dine in order to maintain the stability that still exists in northern Mali, but "saw that it would not stand." Assaleh also reiterated the ideological crux of their divisions - the MNLA's rejection of strict Sharia - in hopes of securing international support against Ansar Dine and AQIM. The MNLA is painfully aware that Ansar Dine functions as a double-edged sword, providing military and religious muscle at the expense of international heat. 

Unfortunately for the Tuareg liberation movement, its leadership is equally unlikely to broker an agreement with ECOWAS, the African Union (AU) and UN. These powers have already factored the MNLA's resistance to AQIM into their power equation and are weighing secession on the same level as the threat of terrorism. Mali's crisis poses an "international threat that requires an international answer," Issoufou would warn France's Hollande. 

Jean Ping, the African Union's Commissions chief, similarly told France 24 on Tuesday, "If we don't manage to (reach agreement) then we will have to use force. That seems more and more necessary." 

For weeks ECOWAS has claimed that it stands ready to deploy a battalion to northern Mali and liberate the territory. Various members, along with high-ranking officials in Mali's political environment, have talked a tough game in hopes of backing down the MNLA, but most observers outside of the bloc's leadership doubt that ECOWAS can complete the mission on its own. In the event that a ground force is deployed, Issoufou says that ECOWAS expects air and logistical support from the United States, France, Algeria and Mauritania, among other states. Special Forces and intelligence personnel will be needed to guide and multiply an African force. 

Any MNLA overtures to the international community will also be resented by Ansar Dine and AQIM, whose version of an Islamic caliphate has no use for Western approval. These groups are only concerned with building a state that cannot be overthrown by foreign powers, and they will not be easily defeated by a joint African-Western operation. 

The growing din of northern Mali has amplified the an unusual silence from the Obama administration. Hollande is currently leading the Western response, defending French interests and paying Obama back for Afghanistan's early exit in the process. Avoiding a public battle with the MNLA and Ansar Dine makes sense for numerous reasons - open taunts of war would further boost the influx of foreign recruits. Conducting drone strikes in unknown terrain against unknown targets is another recipe for disaster. However the Obama administration's relative silence, especially when compared to Yemen's fire alarm, still jars with a mushrooming event on northern Mali's scale.

Fresh conspiracies theories of AQIM are one byproduct of this silence, which must break sooner than later, but the Pentagon appears to be muffling its response through its latest media updates. Speaking at AFRICOM's headquarters in Stuttgart, Germany, commanding General Carter Ham recently told an audience that Washington has no plans to relocate its barracks to the African continent. To hammer his point home, the Pentagon annexed several transcripts that Ham delivered to Congressional panels in the first months of 2012. In February he argued that a limited budget and the opposition against large-scale operations prevent a future relocation, a clever sidestep to avoiding the growth of Special Operations. Instead, U.S. and African needs have aligned in the "light" warfare that the Obama administration is now heavily promoting. 

“If you look at the strategic guidance, it talks about a small footprint,” Ham says. “And I would say that Africa Command is the quintessential small footprint, providing the maximum return and the maximum impact for our national policies with limited resources." 

Exploiting the sheer futility of visibly occupying a Muslim country, the Obama administration has leveraged the contrast with cells of shadowy Special Forces to its maximum advantage during an economic downturn. "Training and enabling the Africans to do things for themselves" is also preferable to doing things "the American way," especially when the open-ended nature of Africa's environment could swallow massive amounts of troops and resources. However these strategic factors don't negate the reality that "light" is a relative term, one with ample room to expand. While Ham elaborated on "the importance of Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, the only permanent U.S. base in Africa," a network of platforms and contractors is steadily unfolding across the continent (The Washington Post just spotlit these points but the "secret" has already been passed around). 

Drones, other surveillance planes and combat aircraft operate out of five bases constructed around the horn of Africa: Djibouti, Ethiopia, Somalia, Yemen and the Seychelles. Whole units of Special Forces have been deployed to track al-Qaeda in Somalia, the Lords Resistance Army in Uganda and AQIM in the Sahel desert, where the U.S. and France have also funded a spine of forward operating bases (FOB). Other training centers and FOBs have been set up in the Congo, Rwanda, Kenya, Mali and Burkina Faso, providing an interesting juxtaposition to the events unfolding in the latter countries. According to Army Maj. Gen. Charles Hooper, AFRICOM's director of strategy, plans and programs, the command's limited budget and force provides a "model" for Washington's "leaner, more agile operations." 

Except this "light" footprint failed to secure Mali from insurgent advances and is now watching AQIM expand its territory. Beyond its veil of silence, any military involvement in northern Mali is likely to weigh more than U.S. officials are planning to admit.

June 13, 2012

Clinton's Syrian Propaganda Triggers Russian Counterattack

The alleged introduction of Russian helicopters into Syria's war zones marked the beginning of a new wave of international pressure. This acceleration is certain to come at a price, though, and may be so counterproductive that the Obama administration could regret its decision. According to The New York Times, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton intentionally exaggerated the redeployment of helicopters "that Syria had sent to Russia a few months ago for routine repairs and refurbishing."

“She put a little spin on it to put the Russians in a difficult position,” said one senior Defense Department official. 

Clinton's "little spin" immediately rippled throughout the international sphere, seemingly advancing an eventual Chapter 7 resolution that would legislate the use of force. At the same time, the reward of favorable action is balanced by the risk assumed through anti-Russian propaganda. The situation is likely to take one step forward and backwards as a result - and potentially escalate Syria's crisis. For starters, Moscow will make an ideological stand against any U.S. attempt to blackmail its position; Clinton's deception alone has presumably hardened Russia's line beyond its current state. Her message also left a large target for an accurate counterattack. While Russia's Sergey Lavrov is in no objective position to deny his government's military support for Bashar al-Assad, the Foreign Minister was perfectly set up by his American rival. 

In Tehran to talk Syria and other issues, Lavrov told a news conference that the "anti-air defense systems" sold to Damascus "in no way violates international laws... That contrasts with what the United States is doing with the opposition, which is providing arms to the Syrian opposition which are being used against the Syrian government." 

However Lavrov understands that many Arabs do support some form of militarized humanitarian intervention in Syria, and thus strikes out across the region in a savvy effort to undermine America's overall policy. Russia isn't shipping weapons "that can be used against peaceful demonstrators,” he told reporters, "unlike" Washington's "regular delivers... to the region." Although Lavrov was indirectly commenting on the recent weapons shipment to Bahrain, Egypt and Yemen's governments also relied heavily on U.S. arms and equipment to suppress each country's democratic uprising. 

"But for some reason," Lavrov wryly concludes, "the Americans treat this as par for the course." 

Moscow, of course, has backed Bahrain's monarchy as strongly as Washington, both of whom doubled down their cooperation in Yemen. The obvious difference is that Russia doesn't operate under the same internal or external democratic obligations that America faces. Equally important, Moscow will not tolerate open attempts to manipulate the Arab revolutions on a grand scale. Having watched Gaddafi's Libya fall in less than a year, Russian President Vladimir Putin is fuming over Washington's double-standard in Egypt, Yemen and Bahrain, and will not forfeit Syria to Western control. Pointing out America's hypocrisy is more than a time-tested - Lavrov is convincingly demonstrating that Washington is primarily concerned with its own interests. 

Now the Obama administration will be forced to spend as much time defending its own reaction to the Arab revolutions as it will on Syria's. Instead of advancing the situation forward, the Obama administration's tactic stand a good chance of bogging down the Russian track that U.S. officials have pursued for months. 

This conflicting move suggests that Clinton's disinformation is attributed to a higher level of desperation than U.S. officials concede, and portends ominously for the situation in general.

June 12, 2012

U.S. State Department Validates Nabeel Rajab's Message

The monarchy should have just kept him in custody until his June 12th court date. 

Fresh out of jail, Nabeel Rajab didn't wait to begin re-broadcasting his predictions of the future to the outside world. He and Zainab al-Khawaja would both tell Democracy Now's Amy Goodman that they expected to be arrested again, a forecast that needed less than a week to come true. Rajab was taken back into custody last Wednesday and once again charged with posting inflammatory Tweets. Lawyer Mohammad al-Jishi explained that Rajab was “taken into custody pending investigation after he was accused of public insults" against the people of Muharraq, one of Bahrain's Sunni governorates. 

“Everyone knows you are not popular," he Tweeted after Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, Bahrain's hard-line Prime Minister, visited the city, "and if it weren’t for the need for money, [the Muharraq residents] would not have welcomed you." 

Public Prosecution would pass off responsibility to 24 plaintiffs in a shallow attempt to create a buffer between the government. According to Mohamed al-Tajir, a lawyer and rights activist who accompanied Rajab to the Public Prosecutor’s office, "many of the plaintiffs are former police and military officers." An alternative version of events, retold by human rights activists such as Zainab and Yousif Almuhafda, points to Rajab's June 4th interview with Al Jazeera's The Stream. However the outcome is left unchanged: Rajab was targeted because of his fundamental opposition to Bahrain's present form of government, and his ability to organize and charismatically connect with protesters.

Unwilling to effect a genuine restructuring of Bahrain's parliamentary and judicial system, King Hamad's monarchy has trapped itself within the dilemmas of fourth-generation warfare (4GW). "Normalcy" cannot exist with Rajab in or out of a jail cell; allowing him to organize and inspire Bahrain's street opposition is an intolerable situation, and arresting him presents an even greater obstacle. The certainty of mass protests in support of Rajab, who serves as the pro-democracy movement's moral compass and international spokesman, suggests that the decision repeatedly arrest him multiple times hinges on pride. Detention doesn't stop his Twitter account or the network of activists that rally around him, and only temporarily silences his media interviews abroad. Punishing Rajab simply reinforces the monarchy and its allies' hypocritical commitment to human rights and free expression. 

Asked if Rajab can speak freely without risking punishment, Information Affairs spokesman Fahad Albinali told Al Jazeera, "Have they been arrested or censored in the past 15 months? They wrote open articles on the New York Times. To assume or consider there could be consequences regarding the expression of an opinion is absurd." 

In the same vein, Interior Minister Sheikh Rashed bin Abdullah al-Khalifa recently told the pro-government Gulf News Daily, “First of all, torture and killing is not part of the government’s policy. We have never issued any orders or instructions regarding this and we have also never received such orders... Any officer accused of such charges is being tried in court.” 

Although al-Khalifa was responding to the latest allegations of child torture, many Bahrainis would gladly bear the torture marks accumulated before and after February 14th, 2011.

Rajab may get a few dark laughs out of the Obama administration's non-response to his arrest. Having condemned the U.S. and European capitals on multiple occasions for isolating Bahrain's opposition movement, he doesn't expect the slightest assistance from Washington. The State Department's Victoria Nuland was the only official questioned on Rajab's detention and her exchange with reporters quickly broke down into predetermined talking points. As with the case of Rajab's alleged assault, Nuland opts to "refrain from precise comment" until we "have that information about his status precisely” - even though the time-line of his new arrest was widely available. What Nuland means to say is that the Obama administration will not (and has yet to) comment on the harassment of a leading human rights activist. 

After flipping through the "importance of allowing freedom of expression, of implementing the recommendations of the BICI Commission," the overwhelmed Nuland runs into another direct line of fire. One reporter informs her that, "the complaint you hear from activists is that the Americans don’t push nearly as hard on these issues because – and it also sells weapons to Bahrain – that you’re sending mixed signals." Nuland "rejects" this possibility completely, as if the American government's opinion invalidates the perspective of Bahraini protesters. The administration should be thankful with mixed signals, since most protesters only see an absolute policy of Saudi-influenced counterrevolution. 

"Here, the silence of United States are being seen as a green signal to go ahead with more repression, more violations," Rajab warns. "This is how the Bahrain government see it." 

The disconnect generated by Nuland is something to behold. She highlights Secretary Hillary Clinton's May meeting with Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa as a sign of progress, telling reporters that both were "very intensively focused on support for national dialogue, reform, continued stability." This narrative echoed a day later in Manama, where Foreign Minister Shaikh Khalid bin Ahmed bin Mohammed Al Khalifa met with US Ambassador Thomas Krajeski to discuss "His Royal Highness the Crown Prince's recent visit to the USA and its impact on historic relations between both countries." Nuland also defends the approval of a delayed weapons-package, which pauses "any aspects of security reform that could be used against their own people." U.S. policy is intended to "help Bahrain with its external security, with its ability to defend itself from external aggression" - an argument that conveniently feeds into the monarchy's threat of an Iranian takeover. 

Putting their frustration aside, Rajab and al-Khawaji may appreciate the fact that their predictions to Democracy Now! came true so quickly. Everything is as they say: the Obama administration is using the BICI to conceal fundamental errors in Bahraini and U.S. policy. From jail, they mocked the notion that Prince Salman's visit to Washington "turned a new page." They condemn the green light that any U.S. weapons come to symbolize, along with the futility of holding a national dialogue with a government that refuses to cede its authoritarian power. Various reports claim that the Obama administration has devoted energy to opening a new government "initiative" in the coming weeks, but approving the arms package undermined Al Wefaq's street position to the point that it cannot join unconditionally. 

The Obama administration has worked towards the opposite end of stability in Bahrain, ultimately increasing the island's polarization and revolutionary fervor. U.S. policy is alienating Bahrain's organized opposition, youth coalitions and leading human rights activists, severing any possibility of influence. These groups distrust anything stamped "U.S.A." and denial is another efficient method to antagonize them. 

As more ice builds up on both sides' positions, more fire will be necessary to melt it.

June 10, 2012

War Clouds Loom Over Kismayo

After months of ambiguity, Kenyan military units have finally reached the beginning of their primary mission in southern Somalia. Bogged down in a rainy season and forced to guard their rear (and the border area behind them) from al-Shabaab insurgents - Kenyan troops never marched to the beat of a public time-line. Some two months after Operation Linda Nichi commenced, their commanders were forced to clarify whether they would even advance on Kismayo, al-Shabaab's main port and last bastion. Only weeks ago an Ethiopian commander boasted of his ability to seize Kismayo, in the process declaring that Nairobi was supposed to attack during Ethiopia's February offensive along Somalia's western border. 

Whether deception or unrealistic expectations are responsible for the current schedule, Kenyan forces are still approaching an opportunity to accomplish the clearing phase of the mission on schedule: August's expiration of the UN-mandated Transitional Federal Government (TFG). Having finally taken Afmadow, a strategic town located along the Lagh Dara tributary, Kenyan war planes and naval vessels have begun softening Kismayo for a ground assault. Abdinasir Serar of the allied Ras Kamboni says the main operation is expected to start in the coming weeks, and will involve Kenyan, TFG, AU and proxy forces.

Ethiopian troops and armor stationed several hundred miles north are likely to be utilized as the reserve force.

Once again, the question of whether Nairobi organized this strategy from the beginning remains obscured to outsiders. Competing media narratives have yet to decide whether Kenyan forces were designated to independently secure Kismayo and Somalia's southern front, or if AU units planned to converge in a joint-attack. Whatever the case, all AU members intended to pressure al-Shabaab on every front and collapse the group into a corner, and AU/TFG forces have built enough momentum to approach Kismayo from the north. Instead of one or two-dimensional assault, Sarar predicts that Kenyan naval forces will land in the port as Somali-allied ground troops advance from all directions. The present strategy greatly increases the chances of initial success. 

Whether al-Shabaab retreats from another financial nerve-center now becomes increasingly relevant after the group lost control of its other strongholds. The group ceded Beledweyne, Baidoa, Afgoye and Afmadow without a major fight, opting for sporadic gunfire and bombings to conserve their forces, but the group has more to lose in the little that it has left. Conversely, Serar describes the formation of what could be deja vu; al-Shabaab's forerunner, the Islamic Courts Union (ICU), was politely evicted by Kismayo's clan leadership before Ethiopian forces could invade as part of their 2007 campaign. Serar says that al-Shabaab members are encouraging clan elders to support their resistance, but he doesn't expect a battle in the end.  

According to Raxanreeb media, al-Shabaab's Sheikh Mukhtar Robow, Ibrahim Haji Me’ad (Kismayo's administrator) and Sheikh Hassan Yacqub (Kismayo's military commander) have north to Somaliland. This information, if true, could be related to the U.S. State Department's new bounty program on all three individuals, and suggests that al-Shabaab will fight another day rather than defend Kismayo to the death. Media reports do include "multiple sources" that warn of "a new defensive position" at Birta Dheer, midway between Afmadow and Kismayo. More disturbingly, locals fear being trapped between al-Shabaab and the Kenyan airstrikes that are beginning to rock their city.

This dilemma must be handled with extreme caution, though no massacre was committed in any of al-Shabaab's other lost cities. 

The wisest strategy for al-Shabaab necessitates a light resistance, followed by a long-term attempt to out-wait the Kenyan and Ethiopian troops now stationed across western and southern Somalia. Al-Shabaab needs far more men than it currently employs to defend city after city, but has enough to wage guerrilla warfare on a national level. Now the group must hope that the TFG suffers another political breakdown during its transitional end, and that AU military operations suffer the consequences.

June 8, 2012

Interpreting Washington's Rewards For Justice In Somalia

Sheikh Hassan Dahir Aweys, currently a semi-official leader of al-Shabaab, wasn't included in the State Department's bounties

On Thursday, the State Department released a list of multi-million dollar rewards "for information leading to the location" of al-Shabaab's leadership. Timed to the march of Kenyan (and possibly Ethiopian) forces as they converge on Kismayo, the largest Somali city under the insurgency's control, the U.S. announcement hopes to strike at al-Shabaab's jugular by exploiting its depleted popularity. Bill Roggio, editor of the "Long War Journal," remarked that "large rewards haven't had an impact in bringing the top guys to justice, but these notices are important to help define the enemy and informing people about who we believe to be the top-level threats." 

However the State Department's press statement makes little effort to "define the enemy," and the U.S. media reaction has yet to fill this information gap. The following notes stand a good chance of factoring into the outcome of Washington's counterterrorism strategy in Somalia. 

The $7 million bounty on Ahmed Abdi aw-Mohamed, also known as Moktar Ali Zubeyr or Ahmad Abdi Godane, presents a seemingly clear scenario. As the loudest Somali advocate of global jihad, Zubeyr twice pledged his allegiance to Osama bin Laden (before and after his death) and allegedly assumed command of al-Qaeda's East African wing after a Somali policeman gunned down former chief Fazul Abdullah Mohammed. Mohammed's killing was dubbed a "significant blow" by the Obama administration; although Zubeyr filled his place, the savvy Mohammed had advised al-Shabaab to revert from holding territory (especially Mogadishu) to staging guerrilla attacks across the country. 

Bin Laden reportedly rejected Zubeyr's leadership advances in favor of the trusted Mohammed, leading some analysts to suspect a set up. Nevertheless, eliminating Zubeyr would further deplete al-Qaeda's leadership in the region and potentially leave the group without a capable personality.

Assuming that any information is used to lethally target Zubeyr, either by drone or Special Forces raid, his removal still presents a number of dilemmas that the Obama administration must consider. The theory that U.S. drone strikes are raising a younger, radical generation of al-Qaeda commanders could manifest from Zubeyr's absence, increasing the chances that al-Qaeda's Somali cell goes independent. As of now, the group maintains a tenuous alliance with al-Shabaab and has only organized several attacks at Somalia's neighbors. African and Western capitals have no choice except to assume that Zubeyr is plotting against external targets, but al-Shabaab has yet to direct a single attack towards Europe or the U.S. mainland. 

The larger issue at work, though, is a widening fissure between Zubeyr, who hails from Somaliland, and al-Shabaab's nationalist leadership. Reportedly thrown out of the insurgency's chair in December 2010 after al-Shabaab fighters pressured their own commanders, Zubeyr was replaced by a mutual ally of Mukhtar Robow: Kismayo administrator Ibrahim Haji Jama. Having fought in Afghanistan, Jama was deemed an acceptable compromise to both parties but reportedly quit the position in December 2011. The State Department's announcement is a sure sign that Jama wasn't killed in a June 2011 drone strike. 

As for Robow, al-Shabaab's most influential nationalist figure has feuded with Zubeyr for years and doesn't consider himself to be "associate." Nor is Fuad Mohamed Khalaf, who supports Robow's leadership bid and accused Zubeyr of keeping "hidden agendas" before he was temporarily dislodged. Viewing al-Qaeda's presence as a homing beacon for the U.S., their faction believes that al-Shabaab should maintain its focus inside Somalia and keep power in the hands of clan-based nationalists. al-Shabaab's relationship with its local al-Qaeda cadre mimics the divide within Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan's (TTP), which has split between transnationalist Hakimullah Mehsud and nationalists Waliur Rehman Mehsud, Maulavi Nazir and Hafiz Gul Bahadur. Eliminating Hakimullah would ultimately strengthen the TPP's network and improve relations with the Afghan Taliban. 

Killing Zubeyr could trigger the same type of local blowback by clearing al-Shabaab's leadership of a charismatic jihadist. 

The removal of all commanders gambles on the reward outweighing the risk. If targeted at once, the insurgency would be extremely vulnerable to all ensuing political and military operations conducted by the Somali government, African Union (AU) and U.S. Conversely, information is more likely to trickle in and stagger U.S. actions, voiding the possibility of a decapitating strike. The international community could also find itself in need of Robow, who battled to allow humanitarian access into the southern regions as famine claimed the lives of untold Somalis. More recent rumors postulate an alliance with nationalist Hassan Dahir Aweys (not included in the State Department's list) and an eventual move against Zubeyr's faction. 

One al-Shabaab member unconvincingly denied these rumors while speaking to Somalia Report. A veteran of Somalia's chaos, Aweys verbally and militarily contested Zubeyr's presence before his Hizbul Islam dissolved into al-Shabaab in July 2010. The move was originally presented as a show of force against an expanding AU contingent, but reports later surfaced alleging that Zubeyr had threatened Aweys with death. Zubeyr then added insult to injury by refusing to grant Aweys his previous religious title.Robow, Aweys, Khalaf and other al-Shabaab figures still condemn the TFG as a puppet government of the U.S. and AU, but some Somali observers believe that they could also open a path towards ceasefire.

Journalist Abdi Aynte observed in late March, "Hence the al-Qaeda banner. Godane is cognizant that he would make it almost impossible for the ‘nationalist’ faction to maintain the negotiations track. Anyone talking to Aweys and Robow after the merger would almost certainly be facing the wrath of the U.S. government, which is vehemently opposed to negotiating with al-Qaeda."

Somalia Report already suspects a deal between Aweys and the U.S. 

Eliminating leading members of the Islamic Courts Union failed to stop al-Shabaab's rise in 2009; killing the remaining core would not only empower Zubeyr - if he outlasts them - but also antagonize the clan following that Aweys and Robow possess. Instead of "defining the enemy," the State Department's announcement illuminates the uncertainty of al-Shabaab's leadership. Its Rewards program, at least publicly, has only guesstimated the network's hierarchy by streaming over a longstanding feud between Zubeyr and al-Shabaab's nationalistic personalities. 

The Obama administration should pursue all options of capturing the latter before proceeding to killing, as they are likely to be more useful alive.