PGI Risk Portal Weekly MENA Briefing – 21 October 2016
Posted on 21 October by PGI Risk Portal
PGI’s Weekly Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Briefing provides an overview of key developments from across the region in the past seven days. To receive PGI’s daily briefing, containing a comprehensive update of developments in the region, register now for free Risk Portal access or follow us @PGIIntelligence
Troops arrest smugglers, seize weapons in south – 18 October
Soldiers operating in southern Algeria arrested 26 smugglers and seized three Kalashnikov submachine guns, ammunition and explosives. Two trucks, motorcycle, metal detectors and foodstuff as well as fuel were also recovered. The operations took place in the southern border province of Tamanrasset, In Guezzam and Bordj Badji Mokhtar.
Militant surrenders in Tamanrasset – 15 October
The defence ministry said that a terrorist surrendered to security forces in Tamanrasset in southern Algeria. A Kalashnikov-style submachine gun and ammunition were recovered from the suspect, though no details of his affiliation with armed groups were provided.
Protesters block road near Algiers – 16 October
Residents of el Mouatsa village blocked a key highway in Benchoubane, Rouïba near Algiers to protest against local authorities. Villagers were protesting a decision to relocate residents from el Kerrouch to their community. The protesters blamed the new residents for an increase in crime and called on authorities to take action to prevent a confrontation.
Court overturns conviction of Shi’a opposition leader – 17 October
The Court of Cassation overturned a nine-year jail sentence against Shi’a opposition leader Ali Salman, a leading anti-government cleric. The court ordered a retrial for Salman, who heads the main opposition party, al-Wefaq. In July 2015 Salman was convicted of inciting hatred and in May an appeals court also convicted him of calling for violent regime change. A state-led crackdown against the opposition has attracted international criticism and fuelled local unrest.
Police kill two Islamic State militants in Sinai Peninsula – 21 October
Security forces killed two suspected Islamic State (IS) militants in the Sinai’s Rafah area, near the Palestinian border amid an uptick in militancy in the region. The increase in such attacks is thought to be due to the increase in militants returning from fighting in Syria and Libya.
Court detains six over 11 November protest call – 19 October
Prosecutors in eastern Cairo detained six people on charges of calling for unauthorised protests on 11 November. A Facebook group, Underprivileged Revolution, has attracted more than 100,000 followers in support of a campaign to protest against recent price increases. The government has made multiple arrests in recent weeks in an attempt to prevent the demonstrations from going ahead.
Hundreds protest in Port Said over housing – 18 October
Hundreds of youths demonstrated and blocked roads in the northeastern city of Port Said in protest against the rising cost of housing. The unrest was concentrated in the al-Sharq district, with 23 July street a key flashpoint of the demonstration, which erupted after authorities were accused of increasing the cost of a social housing scheme. Local media reported up to 19 people had been arrested. Rising living costs and infective economic governance have been key drivers of discontent in Egypt, fuelling calls for mass anti-government protests on 11 November.
Sinai Province kills 12 soldiers in North Sinai – 14 October
Islamic State affiliate Sinai Province killed 12 soldiers and wounded six others in an attack on a checkpoint some 40 km from the town of Bir al-Abd in North Sinai province, according to the Egyptian military. A further 15 Sinai Province fighters were killed in the confrontation. The incident marks the first Sinai Province attacks in the central Sinai area. Sinai Province said it killed more than 20 soldiers and denied any of its fighters had died.
Court jails multiple dual nationals – 18 October
State-run judicial news agency Mizan reported that an Iranian-American businessman and his father, who is also a dual US-Iranian national, have each been sentenced to 10 years in prison. Businessman Siamak Namazi and his father, Baquer Namazi, were convicted of “cooperating with the hostile American government”. The report also said a Nizar Zakka, a US permanent resident from Lebanon, and two other Iranians who were identified only by their initials, had been jailed amid a crackdown on dual nationals by hardliners seeking to undermine political and economic liberalisation.
Special forces join Mosul offensive against IS – 21 October
Iraqi special forces strengthened Iraq’s contingent battling against Islamic State (IS) in Mosul, intensifying the assault. IS detonated nine suicide car bombs, eight of which were destroyed by helicopters before they reached their intended targets, although one struck an armoured security force truck. The number of casualties remains unclear.
IS militants attack government buildings around Kirkuk – 21 October
Islamic State (IS) suicide bombers armed with guns attacked police stations and other government buildings in Kirkuk, although the scale of the attack remains unclear. Pro-IS media reported that militants broke into the town hall and seized a hotel in the centre of the city, and a local police chief told the BBC that militants had attacked a number of police buildings and a political party headquarters, but added that the attackers have since been neutralised and a curfew has been imposed on the city.
Armed suicide bombers attack power plant west of Kirkuk – 21 October
Islamic State gunmen wearing suicide vests entered a power plant being built by an Iranian company near Dibis, 40 km west of Kirkuk, killing 12 Iraqi workers and engineers and four Iranian technicians. The incident came hours after suicide bombers attacked multiple locations in Kirkuk, including the main police headquarters, although the number of fatalities remains unclear.
US refuses support to Shi’a militias in Mosul campaign – 19 October
The commander of US forces in Iraq, General Gary Volesky, said that the US-led coalition would not support Shi’a militia in the ongoing offensive to retake Mosul. The statement came after the Popular Mobilization Force (PMF), a coalition of mostly Iranian-trained Shi’a militias, said it would join the campaign by backing Iraqi government forces in an attack on Tal Afar, around 55 km west of Mosul. Shi’a militias have been accused of widespread human rights violations and their participation in the Mosul offensive could exacerbate sectarian tensions while straining relations between Baghdad and its coalition partners.
Protesters rally outside Turkish embassy in Baghdad – 18 October
Tens of demonstrators gathered outside the Turkish embassy in Baghdad to demand the withdrawal of Turkish troops from northern Iraq. Security forces prevented protesters from storming the compound after some of those present climbed the front walls of the embassy. The protest was led by influential Shi’a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Ankara’s refusal to withdraw its troops from northern Iraq has increased tensions with Baghdad.
Pro-government forces begin Mosul offensive – 17 October
Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi announced the start of an offensive to retake the northern city of Mosul from Islamic State. The operation is backed by US-led coalition warplanes and Western special forces, and some 30,000 Iraqi units, including security forces, Sunni, Kurdish and Shi’a fighters will also take part in the campaign. The initial assault saw federal forces push north from their base in Qayyarah while Kurdish forces attacked simultaneously from the east of Mosul.
Police shoot woman with knife in West Bank – 19 October
Police shot and killed a woman who approached a junction in the West Bank while holding a knife. Reports indicate that the woman ignored orders to stop at the Tapuah junction, with police responding with gunfire. A wave of stabbings has affected the West Bank and Jerusalem since October 2015.
Security forces conduct raids in Hermel, arrest fugitive – 21 October
The Lebanese army mounted regional security operations in the Bekaa district of the city of Hermel, Beqaa Governorate, and arrested a fugitive wanted on several charges. The charges remain unclear although the military frequently conducts raids in the Beqaa Governorate near the Syrian border, targeting militants and seizing weapons caches.
Gunmen kidnap former airline CEO in Tripoli – 20 October
Unidentified gunmen abducted former Libyan Airlines’ chairman and CEO Captain Fathi Al-Shatti, after unconfirmed reports of a failed attempt to kidnap Shatti in January. The incident comes amid an ongoing power struggle in Libyan Airlines between Shatti and his successor Ahmed Ali Al-Ghadiri, although the motive behind the kidnapping remains unclear.
Security forces free five foreign nationals held by IS in Sirte – 20 October
Pro-government forces successfully freed five foreign nationals who had been held by Islamic State (IS) in Sirte. The captives comprised two Indians nationals, one Bangladeshi, and two Turkish nationals. The circumstances under which they were kidnapped is unclear, although IS often targets oil workers. Forces backed by US air strikes have been battling IS in Sirte since August. Their release came as pro-government forces killed 20 IS members as they entered the 600 district of Sirte.
Gunmen kidnap former militia leader in Tripoli – 16 October
Abdul-Hakim al-Mishiri, a former militia commander in the Tripoli Revolutionaries’ Brigade, was kidnapped from his home in Tripoli. Mishiri had reportedly set up a charity and was no longer a member of an armed group when he was abducted. It was unclear who was responsible for his abduction. Tripoli has seen a wave of kidnappings in recent months.
Former GNC leaders attempt coup in Tripoli – 15 October
Leaders from Libya’s defunct General National Congress, backed by local militia, announced a coup in Tripoli and called on forces in eastern Libya to join them in forming a new coalition government. Khalifa Ghwell declared himself Libya’s legitimate prime minister and said that the UN-backed unity government based in Tripoli had been disbanded. The level of support for Ghwell’s move was unclear but the incident further demonstrated the political and security challenges facing the Tripoli-based unity government.
Pro-government forces advance in Sirte – 14 October
Libyan pro-government forces advanced into another area of Sirte in their effort to free the city from Islamic State (IS). Heavy street-to-street fighting in the Ghiza Bahriya area involving tanks, armoured vehicles, airstrikes and heavy machine guns led to the deaths of 14 Libyan soldiers. A further 20 were wounded. IS now controls just a small area of the city and is under a heavy offensive.
Authorities report arrest of Algerian troops in Guerguerat – 17 October
According to Morocco World News, the Moroccan armed forces arrested six Algerian officers and several members of the Polisario Front in the Guerguerat area near the border with Mauritania. Authorities said the Algerian officers had been arrested with weapons and jeeps after they entered Morocco without authorisation. Morocco has accused Algeria of supporting the Polisario Front, which seeks independence for the disputed territory of Western Sahara. Details of the incident were not independently verified.
Court in Riyadh jails six over terror offences – 18 October
The Specialized Criminal Court in Riyadh sentenced six defendants to a total of 74 years in prison in terrorism-related cases. The six were found guilty of planning to assassinate a Saudi prince and to target security officials, among other charges. At least one of the suspects was convicted of planning attacks on foreigners in Riyadh. Saudi Arabia has intensified its crackdown against supporters of Islamist militants in response to a wave of coordinated and lone-wolf style attacks since 2014.
UN to commence evacuation from Aleppo if ceasefire holds 21 October
The UN announced plans to conduct medical evacuations from the rebel-held east of Aleppo, should the Russian-backed ceasefire hold. The east of the city has been held by opposition forces since 2012, although it has been under siege by the army since July, resulting in a deteriorating humanitarian situation which has prompt sharp criticism from the West and worsened its relations with Russia.
Russia extends ceasefire until 22 October – 20 October
Moscow pledged to extend the ceasefire in Aleppo’s rebel-held east for humanitarian purposes, for 11 hours per day until 22 October, according to the UN’s humanitarian office. Syria’s national forces also said they would extend the truce until 22 October, although only for eight hours per day.
Aleppo ceasefire commences amid reports of clashes – 20 October
A Russian-backed humanitarian pause in the fighting in Aleppo commenced on at 0800 hrs local time and was due to last for at least eight hours, though it could be extended. Russian and Syrian warplanes had already halted air strikes on Aleppo on 18 October in preparation for the unilateral ceasefire, which is intended to allow civilians and rebels to leave the city via designated corridors. However, there were reports of artillery fire and clashes around at least one of the crossing points. Moscow and Damascus have faced international condemnation over their assault on Aleppo and its effect on civilians.
Turkish strikes kill hundreds of Kurdish fighters in Aleppo province – 19 October
The Turkish armed forces said its warplanes had struck 18 targets of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) militia in Maarrat Umm Hawsh, Aleppo governorate. The strikes reportedly killed between 160 and 200 fighters from the YPG, though the number of causalities was not verified independently. Turkish troops backed by rebels launched an offensive into northern Syrian in August to clear the region of both Islamic State and Kurdish rebels, though the Kurdish forces are backed by the US-led coalition battling Islamist militants in Syria.
Suicide blast kills three along Jordan border – 16 October
A suspected Islamic State suicide bombing killed at least three people and wounded 20 others at the Rukban refugee camp along the Syria-Jordan border. The blast targeted a checkpoint manned by the Jaish al-Ashair rebel group.
Rebel forces gain control of Dabiq – 16 October
According to rebel commanders and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Turkish-backed rebels have claimed control of the town of Dabiq, having ousted Islamic State fighters. The town is of symbolic importance to the militant group, featuring prominently in its propaganda. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 1,200 Islamic State fighters had been brought in to defend the town. The advance forms part of a wider rebel offensive against Islamic State.
Authorities dismantle terror cell amid conflicting reports of attack – 17 October
A count-terrorism officials told state media that a militant cell comprising more than 62 members had been dismantled and was responsible for an attack on a senior government official. The development came amid contradictory reports of a plot or attempt against Interior Minister Hedi Mejdoub. Some reports said Mejdoub survived an assassination attempt in the northeastern town of Kelibia on 16 October, though others denied any such incident had occurred. The interior ministry refused to confirm or deny the reports.
UGTT mobilises opposition to draft budget – 17 October
The powerful UGTT union called on workers to mobilise against the country’s draft 2017 budget, which calls for a freeze on pay for public workers. The UGTT said it rejected the pay freeze and criticised Prime Minister Youssef Chahed’s unity government, which took office in August with a mandate to tackle the country’s economic and political challenges. The UGTT said it would not hesitate to launch a general strike in protest against the budget, which must still be approved by parliament.
United Arab Emirates
Police confirm arrest of drug trafficking leader – 18 October
The Abu Dhabi police confirmed the arrest of the Filipino drug trafficking leader, Kerwin Espinosa, also known as Rolan Eslabon Espinosa, during a police operation on 16 October. Local media said that Espinosa had been in Abu Dhabi since August. The United Arab Emirates is a major transit point for drugs.
Houthi missiles, Saudi-led air strikes violate ceasefire – 20 October
Both Houthi fighters and the Saudi-led coalition violated the three-day ceasefire which took effect late on 19 October, amid reports of continued clashes in parts of Yemen. Houthi militants killed two civilians near the Yemeni border in Saudi Arabia and the Saudi-led coalition mounted air strikes which killed three people in northwest Saada province.
Sporadic fighting continues after truce – 20 October
According to press reports, a three-day truce that took effect on 2359 hrs local time 19 October was largely observed by warring parties in Yemen. However, there were reports of continued fighting in some parts of Yemen, underscoring the volatility of the situation in the wake of several earlier failed ceasefire deals. Three loyalist fighters were killed in clashes with pro-Houthi fighters near the Red Sea in Hajja province, and there were also reports of small-scale fighting in Taiz, Marib and east of Sana’a.
Reuters claims Iran increasing weapons transfers to Houthis – 20 October
According to Reuters, Iran has intensified the transfer of weapons to Shi’a Houthi rebels in Yemen. The support includes a stepped up supply of missiles and small arms, which could prolong and widen the conflict, as evidenced by reports of recent failed missile attacks on US warships off Yemen. The report cites Western and Iranian officials, and claims that much of the smuggling activity has taken place via porous overland borders between Yemen and neighbouring Oman, though Muscat has denied this.
Drone strike kills AQAP fighters in Shabwa – 18 October
A suspected US drone strike killed eight purported members of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Shabwa province. The strike targeted two vehicles, but according to press reports a second strike missed two other cars in the same area, though the exact location of the incident was not confirmed.