As events in the wider Middle East gather pace – particularly the rise of the Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq – they have overshadowed (and some would say trivialised) many other more localised threats. One of these threats is that represented by the Egyptian militant group Ansar Beyt al Maqdis (ABM). The Sinai-based extremist movement has been targeted by a massive security crackdown over the past year, but has proven that not only does it have the ability to continue its “traditional” attacks against the security forces, but has also proven its willingness to adopt new strategies. This shift in tactics is believed to have come about partly as a result of increased collaboration between it and other prominent militant organisations, such as the IS.read more
The past week has been an extremely busy one in Iraq, with a number of serious developments occurring across the country. On 07 August 2014, US President Barack Obama announced that he had authorised the US military to carry out targeted airstrikes against Islamic State (IS) forces in Iraq. The following day, 08 August 2014, US military aircraft began limited operations in the country’s north. In what is believed to have been one of the first attacks, two F/A-18 aircraft reportedly dropped several laser-guided bombs on a mobile artillery piece that was attacking Kurdish forces not far from Erbil, the capital of the semi-autonomous Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). This was followed up over the weekend by a series of targeted attacks by both manned and unmanned US aerial vehicles; largely hitting specific small-scale IS assets, less in an effort to destroy militant forces, but rather to stall their advances into Kurdish-held territory. But why has Obama – who has made no secret of his hesitation to consider military operations to counter the Islamists gains in Iraq – chosen this moment to reverse his previous stance? The answer lies in a number of recent events, which constitute a clear deepening of the conflict, particularly the IS advances into areas held by the Kurds, its targeting of embattled religious communities (like the Yazidis), and its seizure of large amounts of heavy weaponry from Iraqi military bases. In parallel to these military developments, Iraq’s political crisis has also worsened, as incumbent Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s struggle to hold onto power continues to exacerbate divisions in the nation’s capital.
Over the past three weeks, Libya has been variously described as a “failing state”, in “civil war” and, among the more positive reviews, “not complete chaos, yet”. Warring rival militias in the capital, Tripoli, have shut down the country’s main airport, set fire to a major fuel storage facility, sent hundreds of Libyan families fleeing to neighbouring Tunisia, and prompted an exodus of foreign governments from the capital. In Benghazi, Islamist militias have made substantial advances against a coalition of military groupings led by a former general, Khalifa Hifter. Hifter had long claimed that Operation Dignity – his designation for a massive, unauthorised offensive aimed at routing Islamists in all their forms from Libya – would soon expand from Benghazi to the east, towards Derna, and to the west, to Tripoli. It may not have happened by Hifter’s design, nor to his timetable, but the showdown between forces aligned with his anti-Islamist sentiment and those of a determinedly Islamist bent has reached the capital, and now threatens to engulf the country.
Unless you have been living under a rock lately, you will undoubtedly have heard of the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS), sometimes referred to as the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), and its recent lightning advance across much of western and northern Iraq. To listen to many mainstream media reports, the Sunni militant group is akin to an all-conquering force, brushing aside everything in its path like a modern-day Mongol ‘Golden Horde’. Indeed, the group and its allies have captured a vast amount of territory, particularly in the last fortnight, and have again demonstrated their reputation as a disciplined, well-organised and well-equipped fighting force. However, much of ISIS’s recent advances have been less about its military prowess and more about its active choice to pragmatically take advantage of opportunities, by using its well-honed ability to find and exploit weakness and division. It is clear that ISIS has helped to “breathe new life into militancy in Iraq, rejuvenating their confidence, resources, and cause”, as part of its efforts to merge regions of Iraq and Syria into a mono-religious state. The growing influence of the militant movement and its divisive agenda represents a key risk to the stability and integrity of the Republic of Iraq, which outweighs the threat it poses as a traditional military force. ISIS is unlikely to be able to generate the numbers and the support forces it would require to take and hold territory for extended periods outside of the so-called ‘Sunni Triangle’ in Iraq. Nevertheless, its true danger may lie in the reinvigoration of the sectarian conflict that so devastated the country between 2006 and 2008.read more
On 05 April 2014, Afghanistan will go to the polls, to hold elections for a new president and over 400 provincial councillors. This will be the fifth national election held since the fall of the Taliban regime in 2001, but will be the first to be held on a constitutionally established election schedule, and also the first to be overseen by a permanent and independent entity, the IECC, rather than the controversial temporary bodies set up to monitor previous votes. Without a doubt, this upcoming election is an important moment in Afghanistan’s modern history, particularly in relation to its often problematic, decade-long democratic transition. A successful election that establishes a legitimate government would deal a substantial blow to the aspirations of Afghanistan’s militant groups. However, a failed election, combined with a coordinated push by Taliban forces, could provide an impetus and a rallying cry to these same extremist groups, potentially reinvigorating the insurgency that has caused so much bloodshed over the past decade. Although the elections could be crucial to the future stability of Afghanistan, the process is likely to be far from smooth, as there are a number of important obstacles that could significantly impact the chances of a successful outcome.read more
The wild, remote and beautiful Sinai region has long been known for its lawlessness, having historically served as a key focal point for smuggling routes. Today, however, it is an active war-zone, especially in the north, where hardened Islamist militants battle almost daily against the Egyptian security forces. One of the primary fighting groups in the Sinai, Ansar Bayt al Maqdis (ABM), has come into the limelight in recent months, quickly becoming recognised as the dominant extremist group in the area. This increased prominence can be attributed in part to its alleged involvement in a number of spectacular terrorist attacks, which are distinctly notable for the fact that they have occurred in the populous Nile Delta, far away from ABM’s strongholds in the mountains and deserts of the Sinai. ABM has gone from relative obscurity to becoming almost a household name, particularly amongst the international media fraternity, so it is important to assess just who this shadowy movement is, and where they have come from, seemingly so suddenly.read more