Tag Archives: AQIM

US Marines Go to Italy as Libya Edges Toward a New Civil War

Libya appears to be teetering on the brink of a new civil war three years after an international intervention helped rebels topple Moammar Gadhafi. Since then, the country’s new authorities have been unable assert its authority and demobilize various independent militias. These armed groups have openly challenged the government on numerous occasions, kidnapping domestic and foreign officials and attempting to sell oil from their own personal fiefdoms.

Members of Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force - Crisis Response board a KC-130J at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, as they prepare to return to their base in Spain on 1 March 2014.

Members of Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force – Crisis Response board a KC-130J at Camp Lemonnier, Djibouti, as they prepare to return to their base in Spain on 1 March 2014.

The US sent 200 Marines from Special Purpose Marine Air Ground Task Force – Crisis Response (SPMAGTF-CR) to Italy last week as this recent crisis began to unfold. Today it was reported that additional aircraft were deployed to bolster the force at Naval Air Station Sigonella. The Marines could use their MV-22B Ospreys and KC-130J Hercules aircraft to evacuate Americans from the embassy in Tripoli and elsewhere in the country. SPMAGTF-CR was created last year after the infamous attack on the US consulate in Benghazi in 2012. The Marines’ focus is on being able to rapidly assist American diplomatic facilities in hotspots and evacuate personnel to safety. I wrote a longer piece about the Marines’ initial deployment for War is Boring. The US may have also been keeping an eye on Libya with manned or unmanned aircraft, including drones launched from a recently constructed facility in Niger. I have also just written a piece on Niger’s increasing importance in the region, which will only increase if Libya continues to be unstable.

This new crisis reached a head when forces reportedly loyal to General Khalifa Hifter attacked the seat of parliament. Hifter, who had lived in exile in the United States until Gadhafi’s ouster, claims he is trying to rid the country of the Muslim Brotherhood, who he accuses of being a puppet of the large international organization. Islamist political parties came to power earlier this year. The country’s previous prime minister Ali Zidan resigned in March and then his interim successor Abdullah al-Thinni, who had been defense minister, resigned in April. Libya’s Muslim Brotherhood party has in turn accused Hifter of being a reactionary in league with former members of Gadhafi regime.

The conflicting ideologies and the open violence are indicative of the trouble Libya has had in finding common ground after Gadhafi’s departure. The country’s various factions appear to be choosing sides for a broader conflict, but this does not necessarily mean those alliances will have any lasting effect. Al Qaeda aligned groups have vowed to fight Hifter’s forces, but may not necessarily join with forces aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood.

This latest crisis has already caused delays in international efforts to try and develop a professional and objective national security force for Libya that could wrest control away from the largely autonomous militias. Libya’s international partners may also find their allegiances split. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Algeria have all shut down their embassies. American Marines in Italy could conduct their own evacuation mission at any time.

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Nigerien Minister Suggests France, US Should Intervene Again in Libya

In an interview with Radio France Internationale broadcast today, Nigerien Interior Minister suggested that France and the US should consider an intervention into Libya to address terrorism in that country’s southern region.  Massoudou Hassoumi said southern Libya had become “an incubator for terrorist groups” and that the countries who supported the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi should “provide an after-sales service.”

Map released by AFRICOM in its 2013 posture statement showing AQIM areas of influence in Mali, Algeria, and Libya, as of 22 February 2013

Map released by AFRICOM in its 2013 posture statement showing AQIM areas of influence in Mali, Algeria, and Libya, as of 22 February 2013

Since the ouster and execution of Gadhafi in 2011, Libya has suffered from chronic instability as various militias continue to operate with impunity.  The US, France, and other countries provided materiel support to various armed opposition factions, along with a sustained air campaign that allowed them to take control of the country.  The new central government has largely failed in its attempts to get these factions under control.  For instance, four Egyptian diplomats were abducted last week in what was said to be a reprisal for government action against a prominent militia leader.

Terrorism is indeed a growing threat in Libya.  The US Department of State designated two groups in Libya as both Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) and Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGT) last month.  Militant groups have also looted Libya for weapons, with man-portable surface-to-air missiles being among the weapons thought to have been taken. Efforts to train Libya’s national security forces to respond to these threats are scheduled to begin this year.

The potential threats posed by absence of government control in Libya is well known.  Tuareg insurgents in Mali were originally located in Libya and Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb have also used Libyan territory as a staging ground for attacks in neighboring countries. Niger has already been involved in increasing international precense to counter such activities in the region.  Both the US and France conduct drone reconnaissance operations from the country.

However, the US so far has declined to deploy significant numbers of troops to the region, preferring to support other countries and otherwise rely on unmanned aerial vehicles and special operations forces to conduct raids on isolated targets.  France is also finding its military strained by interventions in Africa, despite having a clear interest in expanding its ability to respond to threats on the continent.  Its primary focus has shifted to Central African Republic, with the hope that other European nations will be able to assist in countries like Mali.  The Netherlands recently began deploying peacekeepers to that country, and Germany announced today that it would look to increase its training mission there.

US Designates Groups in Libya, Tunisia as Foreign Terrorist Organizations and Specially Designated Global Terrorists

On January 10th, the US Department of State announced that it was designating two groups in Libya and a group in Tunisia, all bearing the name Ansar al-Shari’a, as separate Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO) and Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGT).  Along with its announcement, the Department of State provided a helpful factsheet detailing the differences between the two designations.  At base the differences are as follows:

“There are two main authorities for terrorism designations of groups and individuals. Groups can be designated as Foreign Terrorist Organizations under the Immigration and Nationality Act. Under Executive Order 13224, a wider range of entities, including terrorist groups, individuals acting as part of a terrorist organization, and other entities such as financiers and front companies, can be designated as Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGTs).”

What this means is that in addition to designating these groups as both FTOs and SDGTs, three individuals were also named as SDGTs in the process.  These are Ahmed Abu Khattalah, Sufian bin Qumu, and Seifallah Ben Hassine (said to be “commonly known as ‘Abou Iyadh”).  These individuals have been identified as the leaders of the groups in question.  For both FTOs and SDGT entities, the important effects of the designation is that it becomes unlawful for US “persons” (which can be taken to mean not just citizens, but also resident aliens and other categories of people legally residing in the US) to conduct transactions and other dealings with these entities and that those entities assets may be frozen or seized.

The State Department announcement described the two Libyan groups and their leaders as follows:

“Created separately after the fall of the Qadhafi regime, Ansar al-Shari’a in Benghazi and Ansar al-Shari’a in Darnah have been involved in terrorist attacks against civilian targets, frequent assassinations, and attempted assassinations of security officials and political actors in eastern Libya, and the September 11, 2012 attacks against the U.S. Special Mission and Annex in Benghazi, Libya. Members of both organizations continue to pose a threat to U.S. interests in Libya.Ahmed Abu Khattalah is a senior leader of Ansar al-Shari’a in Benghazi and Sufian bin Qumu is the leader of Ansar al-Shari’a in Darnah.”

It also described the Tunisian group and its leader as follows:

“Founded by Seifallah Ben Hassine in early 2011, Ansar al-Shari’a in Tunisia was involved in the September 14, 2012 attack against the U.S. Embassy and American school in Tunis, which put the lives of over one hundred United States employees in the Embassy at risk. The Tunisian government has declared Ansar al-Shari’a in Tunisia a terrorist organization, and the group has been implicated in attacks against Tunisian security forces, assassinations of Tunisian political figures, and attempted suicide bombings of locations that tourists frequent. Ansar al-Shari’a in Tunisia, which is ideologically aligned with al-Qa’ida and tied to its affiliates, including AQIM [Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb], represents the greatest threat to U.S. interests in Tunisia.”

What is notable about these descriptions is that the Tunisian group was linked to AQIM, while the two Libyan groups were not.  The link to Al Qaeda’s resurgent regional affiliate remains a significant portion of the continuing domestic political debate in the US regarding the events in Benghazi in 2012.  The Obama administration has been accused of attempting to cover up involvement by terrorists, often specifically Al Qaeda.  Other investigations have suggested that the level of planning and coordination in the attacks is far less than has been suggested by these critics and that there is no evidence of Al Qaeda involvement.  These investigations have also been criticized.  The military response to the crisis, Operation Jukebox Lotus, was also widely criticized, and became the impetus for the expansion of US military crisis response capabilities, particularly in Africa.

Dutch Deploy to Mali as French Plan to Withdraw

President Francois Hollande announced on Wednesday that France would be reducing its force in Mali, which currently stands at approximately twenty-five hundred personnel.  France had deployed thousands of troops at the peak of its intervention, Operation Serval, which began in January 2013.  France is now looking to reduce its contribution in the country down to some sixteen hundred individuals by the middle of next month.

French forces conduct operations in Mali, circa July 2013

French forces conduct operations in Mali, circa July 2013.

The French are hoping to shift some of the burden onto other nations contributing forces to the UN mission in the country, the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA).  Among these contributors are the Dutch, who announced in November that they were planning on sending a contingent to the country.  In December, the Dutch parliament approved the deployment of a force of almost four hundred individuals and associated equipment in support of the MINUSMA mission.  The Dutch had previously assisted in the rapid deployment of French forces in the open phases of Operation Serval, along with other nations like the United States.  The US effort, codenamed Operation Juniper Micron, lasted well into last fall.

What is interesting about the Dutch deployment, which is scheduled to be completed by April, is its focus on improving intelligence capabilities.  MINUSMA has itself established an All Sources Information Fusion Unit (ASIFU) in the capital Bamako, to manage the flow of intelligence information to and from peacekeepers.  A need for greater intelligence has been a continuing issue for peacekeepers in Mali.  While international forces provide security in most large population centers and patrol Mali’s limited highway network, militants have continue to operate with a certain impunity outside of those areas, notably in the country’s sprawling and sparsely populated northern regions.  The lack of government presence in these areas has led them to have been referred to as ungoverned or under-governed spaces by the US in the past.

Overview Map - Mali, as of 1 March 2013

Overview Map – Mali, as of 1 March 2013.  This shows that at the time the area of operations for peacekeepers was limited almost entirely to Mali’s sparse road network.

To combat this, the French have recently begun deploying MQ-9A Reaper unmanned aerial vehicles to neighboring Niger, where the US also has a drone operation.  The French deployment is specifically focused on operations in Mali, while it is likely the US operation involved overflights there as well.  The US has been conducting intelligence overflights in the region for some time as part of operations like Creek Wind and Creek Sand.

A Fennek reconnaissance vehicle of the Dutch ISAF contingent in Afghanistan

A Fennek reconnaissance vehicle of the Dutch ISAF contingent in Afghanistan.

In this same vein, the Dutch contribution is centered around contingents from the Korps Commandotroepen (Commando Corps) and the Korps Mariniers (Marine Corps), with the primary mission of conducting long-range reconnaissance type missions.  These special operations forces type units will also look to seize and destroy arms caches and apprehend militants hiding in remote areas.  These units will be equipped with numerous light vehicles to support their mission, including the Fennek reconnaissance vehicle.  Also, the force will include four AH-64D Apache helicopters, again primarily to support reconnaissance efforts, but also capable of conducting show of force and fire support missions.  To help coordinate these efforts with the rest of MINUSMA, the Dutch will provide personnel to the ASIFU in Bamako.  A small contingent of military police to train Malian police and promote rule of law in the country round out the contingent.

An AH-64D Apache helicopter of the Dutch ISAF contingent in Afghanistan.

An AH-64D Apache helicopter of the Dutch ISAF contingent in Afghanistan.

Since the French intervention and subsequent establishment of MINUSMA last year, a certain calm has returned to Mali.  However, it remains to be seen whether the government and Tuareg rebels can reach an agreement on how to end their dispute.  The Tuareg insurgency is a significant part of the current crisis.  The other significant factor is Islamist militants, said to be linked to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).  The leader of one of these groups, Mokhtar Belmokthar, who’s al-Mulathamun Battalion was recently declared a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the US, released a new threat yesterday against the French in North Africa specifically over operations in Mali.  The Tuaregs and the Islamists have their own on-again off-again relationship, further complicating matters.  International forces have primarily focused on controlling Islamist groups rather than the Tuaregs.

Detainee Transfers and Another Terrorist Designation

Late yesterday, the US Department of Defense announced the transfer of two detainees held at the US detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba to Sudan.  According to the Department of Defense, the detainees, identified as Noor Uthman Muhammed and Ibrahim Othman Ibrahim Idris, were transferred in coordination with “the Government of Sudan regarding appropriate security measures and to ensure that these transfers are consistent with our humane treatment policy.”  The press release also included the following information regarding Muhammed and Idris:

“On Feb. 18, 2011, Muhammed pleaded guilty in a military commission to offenses under the Military Commissions Act of 2009, and was sentenced to 14 years confinement. In exchange for his guilty plea and Muhammed’s cooperation with prosecutors, the Convening Authority for Military Commissions agreed through a pre-trial agreement to suspend all confinement in excess of 34 months. Following the completion of the unsuspended portion of his sentence as of Dec. 3, 2013, the United States Government has repatriated Muhammed to Sudan.

“Idris was released from Guantanamo in accordance with a court order issued on Oct. 4, 2013, by the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. Idris has been designated for transfer since 2009 by unanimous consent among all six departments and agencies on the Guantanamo Review Task Force. As directed by the president’s Jan. 22, 2009, executive order, the task force conducted a comprehensive review of Idris’s case, which examined a number of factors, including security issues, in making that designation. In accordance with congressionally mandated reporting requirements, the administration informed Congress of its intent to transfer these individuals.”

In addition, the US Department of State announced yesterday that it had designated the al-Mulathamun Battalion as a Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO).  The announcement described the entity as:

“Originally part of al-Qa’ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the al-Mulathamun Battalion became a separate organization in late 2012 after its leader, Mokhtar Belmokhtar, split from AQIM. In Belmokhtar’s first public statement after the split he threatened to fight against Western interests and announced the creation of the sub-battalion, ‘Those Who Sign in Blood,’ reportedly made up of the organization’s best fighters. Soon after, the sub-battalion claimed responsibility for the January 2013 attack against a gas facility near In-Amenas, Algeria. The four-day siege resulted in the death of at least 38 civilians, including three United States citizens. Seven other Americans escaped the attack.

“In May 2013, the al-Mulathamun Battalion cooperated with the E.O. 13224-designated Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) in twin suicide bombings in Niger, which killed at least 20 people. In August 2013, the al-Mulathamun Battalion and MUJAO announced that the two organizations would merge under the name ‘al-Murabitoun.’ The newly formed al-Murabitoun extremist group constitutes the greatest near-term threat to U.S. and Western interests in the Sahel.”

The Department of State announcement added that given this history, both “Those Who Sign in Blood” and “al-Murabitoun” were treated as aliases for the purposes of the FTO designation, and that the same sanctions would be applied to activities conducted under these names.  Sanctions against FTOs include a prohibition against knowingly providing, or attempting or conspiring to provide, material support or resources to, or engaging in transactions with the designated FTO and the freezing of assets.

Map released by AFRICOM in its 2013 posture statement showing AQIM areas of influence in Mali, Algeria, and Libya, as of 22 February 2013

Map released by AFRICOM in its 2013 posture statement showing AQIM areas of influence in Mali, Algeria, and Libya, as of 22 February 2013

The designation of the al-Mulathamun Battalion as an FTO represents a shift in the US government perception and response to the group and AQIM broadly.  Previously, official correspondence had described their activities as being largely criminal in nature, focusing more on activities like hostage taking for ransom than anti-government terrorism.  Belmokhtar had, for instance, gained the moniker “Mr. Marlboro” as a result of his cigarette smuggling, seen as hardly the focus of a hardened terrorist.  The US now describes up and coming AQIM as one of the most dangerous of Al Qaeda’s regional affiliates and has offered rewards for the capture of individuals like Belmokhtar.

Arrests in Mali as France Expands African Commitment

UPDATE: The National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) also announced today that it was ending a ceasefire with Mali’s government.  This announcement by the Tuareg rebel group followed clashes between ethnic Tuareg and Malian security forces in Kidal yesterday, which prevented the country’s Prime Minister, Oumar Tatam Ly, from making a planned visit.  The MNLA said that the actions by Malian forces amounted to an act of War.  At the beginning of the month the MNLA, along with the the Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA) and the High Council for the Unity of Azawad (HCUA), announced they were forming a new coalition.  What affect this declaration by the MNLA might have on the activities of those groups is not known.

French forces in Mali detained a low-ranking member of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) yesterday during operations.  Alhassane Ould Mohamed, who is also known as Cheibani Ould Hama, was one of twenty-two prisoners who escaped in June from Niger’s central prison in the capital Niamey.  There Mohamed had been serving a twenty year prisoner sentence for his involvement in the killing of four tourists from Saudi Arabia in 2009.

Overview Map - Mali, as of 1 March 2013

Overview Map – Mali, as of 1 March 2013

However, US authorities have also been looking to charge Mohamed in connection with the shooting of US Department of Defense attache,  William Bultemeier, in Niamey in December 2000.  According to an indictment in a court in New York City, Mohamed and an another unidentified individual attempted to carjack a vehicle being driven by Bultemeier.  A Marine Staff Sergeant, Christopher McNeely, was also in the vehicle.  Both men were killing in the altercation.  Mohamed was subsequently arrested, but escaped custody in 2002.  He was arrested in Mali in 2009, before being deported to Niger to stand trial for the killing of the Saudi Arabian tourists.  Mohamed was reported to have been turned over by French forces to Malian authorities.  One would imagine that his record of escaping custody would lead the US to seek his extradition.

Mohamed’s capture follows the arrest of Mali’s General Amadou Sanogo, who led the coup that toppled the country’s government in March 2012.  Sanogo was charged with murder for his alleged involvement in killing of individuals involved in a counter-coup attempt in April 2012 and deaths during the suppression of an Army mutiny in September 2012.  Sanogo had only recently been promoted to the rank of general, skipping three ranks in the process, suggesting he retained considerable influence in the country.  Despite having transitioned to civilian leadership, Mali’s government remains fragile and relies heavily on international forces to provide security.

France provides the bulk of this contingent, though they hope to turn over the mission to African-led UN-mandated forces early next year.  This move has been delayed by difficulties in getting the UN-mandated force established, however.  With the additional planned increase in French forces in CAR, France is redeploying over three hundred military personnel from its contingent in Kosovo.  The force in CAR is also intended to be an interim solution until an African-led UN-mandated force can be established some time next year.

France currently has approximately four hundred and fifty personnel in CAR, who are working to expand the capabilities of the country’s single-runway airport in advance of the planned reinforcements.  A french warship, the Mistral-class amphibious assault ship Dixmude, docked today in Douala, Cameroon.  Dixmude was transporting a contingent of three hundred and fifty, along with vehicles and other equipment, bound for CAR.  Dixmude had also ferried forces to Mali in January at the start of Operation Serval.  The US also supported efforts to ferry international forces and materiel to Mali as part of Operation Juniper Micron.  It is not known whether France may call on the US to help support the build-up in CAR.

Crises in CAR and Libya

Crises in Central African Republic and Libya have been heating up in recent weeks.  Yesterday in CAR, two people were reported killed in clashes following the killing of a local magistrate and his assistant by former Seleka rebels.  The Seleka rebel group seized power in March, after which the group’s leader, Michel Djotodia, named himself president and declared the group to have been dissolved.  Rebels unhappy with the move, which appeared to be an attempt by Djotodia to consolidate power, continue to operate in armed gangs in the outskirts of the capital Bangui, where they go largely unchecked, committing acts of violence and petty crime by most reports.  The area around the capital and the country as a whole are often described as being in a state of near anarchy.

Perhaps more alarmingly, the government of Cameroon stated that on Saturday armed men from CAR had attack Cameroonian military installations, offices, and markets, looting stores and killing two before being forced by Cameroonian forces to withdraw.  Reports said that the men were wearing CAR military uniforms.  It is also the third time that armed men from CAR have attacked Cameroon, with the first attack in August leading to Cameroon closing the border. It is possible that this latest attack was an attempt to free Abdoulaye Miskine, the leader of a Seleka splinter group called the Democratic Front of the Central African People (FPDC), who had been arrested in Cameroon in September.

Lord's Resistance Army Area of Influence, circa February 2012

Lord’s Resistance Army Area of Influence, circa February 2012

The overall situation in CAR has prompted the AU to prepare a peacekeeping mission, titled MISCA, but it is unlikely to be operational before 2014.  CAR was also a major focal point in the campaign against the Lord’s Resistance Army rebel group, supported by the US Operation Observant Compass.  This effort has reportedly been severely degraded following the upheaval in March.

Map released by AFRICOM in its 2013 posture statement showing AQIM areas of influence in Mali, Algeria, and Libya, as of 22 February 2013

Map released by AFRICOM in its 2013 posture statement showing AQIM areas of influence in Mali, Algeria, and Libya, as of 22 February 2013

Libya also continues to struggle with remnants of its civil war that led to the fall of the regime of Moammar Gadhafi.  Militias continue to operate with impunity in many areas, and lacking a functional security service, the new government in the country relies heavily on them for its own security.  Efforts to train a functional national military and other security service elements have so far failed to produce the desired results.  This is of great concern to the United States and European powers, given the already porous nature of Libya’s borders (a security summit held in Rabat, Morocco on the 14th, which Libya attended, had already declared a need for increased border security in the Sahel-Sahara region broadly), the limited government control in much of the country, and the rise of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in the region.

To give a sense of things in Libya, the country’s Deputy Intelligence Chief, Mustafa Nuh, had been abducted from the airport in Tripoli by armed militiamen yesterday, only to be released today.  The country’s Prime Minister had also been briefly abducted in October, in what observers and his aides said was possibly a political plot or even an attempted coup.  This latest abduction follows a protest against militias in Tripoli on Friday that turned violent as militiamen attempted to break it up, resulting in the deaths of over 40 protesters.  Libya subsequently declared a state of emergency in Tripoli and protesters called a three-day general strike.  The Libyan government was also reportedly working to dissolve the pro-government Revolutionary Operations Bureau militia, which had been one of the groups involved in the recent violence in Tripoli and responsible for the abduction of the Prime Minister.  It remained unclear whether the government had the capability to do so, or even a real desire to do so, given the state of the country’s security forces as already mentioned.