Middle East Weekly Roundup: November 16th-20th, 2015
JMEPP’s new Middle East Weekly Roundup is compiled and written by JMEPP editors.
Countering Violent Extremism
The UN Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 2242, which focuses on gender and terrorism. Women are typically portrayed as victims of terrorism, which is especially apparent as more details of ISIS’s sexual slavery and selling of women emerge, but women are also increasingly utilized by terrorist organizations in leadership roles. However, women play a vital role in countering violent extremism efforts through early warning prevention, practices that mitigate the appeal of extremist recruitment strategies, and the strengthening of communities and their resiliency to adverse conditions.
Academics and practitioners are increasingly focused on the importance of CVE measures to root out terrorism and stem the tide of radicalization by addressing its root causes. The 2015 White House Summit on CVE and the June 2015 CVE Summit in Istanbul demonstrate the global effort to improve CVE practices.
Hezbollah Ramps up Actions on Syrian Border
The Shiite militant group Hezbollah killed two militants and captured several others on the Syrian border close to the Lebanese border town of Ersal Thursday (19 November) according to Al-Manar, a Hezbollah-backed TV channel. Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra is known to have a strong presence in the area and this attack is likely retaliation for the capture of three Hezbollah fighters and the wounding of several others in northern Syria. After a brief ISIS incursion into Ersal over a year ago, this corner of Lebanon has remained free of fighting but Sunni Islamist elements are thought to remain in the town. Following the ISIS-claimed suicide of bombing of a Hezbollah-controlled area of Beirut, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has vowed to continue the group’s fight in Syria. Hezbollah is likely to take advantage of pressure applied by the ongoing Russian-backed Assad-regime offensive to strike at opposition militant groups along the Zabadani front.
New Umbrella Organization in Northwest Syria
15 opposition groups joined the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces Monday (16 November) to form a new multi-ethnic umbrella for factions fighting across Aleppo and Idlib. While nominally an anti-ISIS coalition (presumably a condition of US support), most fighting in this region is focused against the regime. In an already crowded battlefield, local journalists were sceptical that this new coalition would be a game-changing player, especially given that other US-backed forces remain independent from it. Furthermore, the alliance claimed it would cooperate with ‘sister’ organisations, believed to include Jabhat al-Nusra. Free Syrian Army units in Aleppo City refused to join due to the risk of Nusra elements turning on them for doing so. In Damascus, a Russian-organised ceasefire was undermined as regime troops tried to storm the suburb of Douma backed by fire from Syrian airstrikes and artillery. With Putin also reportedly amiable to seeing Assad relinquish power, this could well be a sign of regime stubbornness to pressure even from its closest allies.
Persistent Threats and Rising Interest in Cybersecurity
A private cybersecurity firm has released the latest in a series of reports on the activities of an Iranian group known as Rocket Kitten, which for almost two years has conducted successful spear phishing campaigns against targets across the Middle East, Europe and the United States. Though relatively unsophisticated by today’s standards, Rocket Kitten has continued to attack along known vectors by applying minor updates to its tools. Significantly, 44% of the group’s targets were located in Saudi Arabia, with Israel, Yemen, and Venezuela each hosting between 8% and 14% of targeted systems. The report claims these targets are mostly drawn from academic fields related to international relations, counter-terrorism, and physics, though some journalists and human rights activists have also been attacked by the group.
The Rocket Kitten report comes on the heels of a new valuation of the cybersecurity market in the Middle East. This sector is predicted to almost double to become a $10 billion (USD) market. American and European firms have already begun to stake out portions of the growing market, a rush likely driven by increasing evidence that the region plays host to a malware infection rate well above the global average.
Middle-Eastern Oil Competitors in the European market
The impending return of Iranian crude oil to the market, upon relief of sanctions from its nuclear program, will intensify oil competition in Europe, according to the International Energy Agency. As the Asian market becomes increasingly crowded, Russia, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Iran will look to Europe for their respective exports, according to the IEA’s most recent monthly report.
Yet more significant than Iran’s grand return to the market may be Iraq’s overtaking of Saudi Arabia as the largest crude exporter to Europe; by this past August, Iraqi oil amounted to 1 million bpd in Europe. “By targeting Iran’s former buyers, Iraq — with its fast growing exports — has managed to increase significantly its European customer base,” stated IEA sources. Europe’s crude imports equate to over 9 million bpd from international sources; sour grades account for more than 60% of these imports. Once international sanctions were slapped on Iran’s oil exports in 2012, Iraq took advantage by supplanting Iran’s high-sulfur crude with its own, raising its market share in Europe to 17%. As Iraq’s moves into the European market challenge both Saudi Arabia and Russia as the traditional exporters into the continent, it also raises the issue of a European market becoming saturated with competing sour crudes instead of higher quality sweet grades, according to the IEA.
Meanwhile, Tehran has set itself a target of 400,000 bpd to Asian and European buyers once sanctions are lifted; European customers would include refineries in Italy, Greece, and Spain. It remains to be seen how quickly Iranian crude will arrive to Europe’s shores in an already crowded, low-priced market.
More information has been released regarding efforts made by the so-called Islamic State to ramp up their international influence through a series of violent attacks across the globe. In Egypt, investigators looking into the downing of a Russian plane in the Sinai announced that it had, indeed, been felled by an improvised bomb which sources affiliated with ISIS claimed was disguised in a Schweppes can, after weeks of speculation by Russian, Egyptian and international officials. The facts and figures of last week’s’ attacks in Paris, Baghdad and Beirut continue to be revealed, with France declaring a state of emergency for a three-month period as it, in collaboration with other European countries, continues to search for affiliates of ISIS operatives. A major backlash due to perceived bias in the Western media’s coverage of the attacks has been making headlines in social media and the news.
Meanwhile, a hotel siege that occurred today in the Malian capital, Bamako, is reported to have resulted in 27 deaths and counting. However, this attack was not claimed by ISIS, but rather by its predecessor Al-Qaeda’s northern Malian affiliate, Al Mourabitoun.
North Africa in Brief
- Algerian and Maltese officials met earlier this week on Thursday, expressing a mutual desire to increase bilateral relations in “all areas”.
- Earlier on Wednesday, Abdelmalek Sallal, the Algerian Prime Minister, reportedly invited visiting Maltese officials to invest in the Algerian oil refining industry while continuing to increase imports of Algerian oil. Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat hailed this invitation as a positive sign, stating that he was “very satisfied” with the kind of relationship Algeria seeks with Malta as a potential Algerian “energy foothold in Europe”.
- Organizers of Algeria’s 20th and 2015 iteration of the International Book Fair of Algiers, which ran from late October to November 7th in the Algerian capital, were said to have banned and confiscated over 100 books on subjects pertaining to the Arab Spring and jihad. While organizers claimed the actions were “subversive” and a “threat to the country’s stability, the writers whose books were confiscated were outspoken in their disapproval of the move.
- The Associated Press reported that seven Moroccan journalists and activists were put on trial this week, with most of them accused of “threatening national security” by running a citizen journalism training app and receiving “funding” from foreign entities, respectively. Moroccan authorities have not commented on the trial despite condemnation from international rights groups.
- Turkey deported eight Moroccan nationals suspected of being ISIS affiliates to Casablanca on Thursday.
- French president Francois Hollande and the Moroccan King Hassan VI are said to be meeting in Paris today, with no official reasoning for the talks given.
- In a visit to Tunisia last Friday, US Secretary of State John Kerry stated that the US would provide additional support to Tunisia in terms of economic reforms, security and democratization efforts.
- Media sources have reported that Tunisian authorities have arrested several groups of “jihadists”, some who have returned to Tunisia after fighting abroad and others who were reported to be running the ISIS media wing in Tunisia.
- The Tunisian authorities announced that they had foiled another planned terror attack on the beach resort of Sousse.
- Russia has signed a deal to construct Egypt’s flagship nuclear energy plant, extending existing loans to Egypt to cover costs associated with its construction. The plant will be constructed in the northern coastal town of Dabaa and is said to be completed by 2022.
- The campaign silence for the second phase of Egypt’s parliamentary elections began today, and Egyptians will be casting their votes this coming Saturday, Sunday and Monday in Egypt and around the world. Egypt’s first phase of parliamentary elections, which took place in late October of this year, were viewed critically by many who claimed that low voter turnout contributed to a further consolidation of power by current President Abdelfattah El Sisi.
- According to a UN report published last Monday, militants affiliated with the Islamic State are gaining more ground in Libya, continuing to consolidate control and perpetuate violence in the form of multiple executions.
- The Minister of Maghreb Affairs from the African Union and Arab League, Abdelkader Messahel, has announced that Tunisia, Algeria, Egypt, Sudan, Chad, Niger and Libya will meet with United Nations, African Union and European Union officials on December 1st, 2015 to discuss the “process for the political settlement of the Libyan crisis”. This will be the seventh such meeting of this kind.
- Serbian officials have stated that two Serbian nationals kidnapped in Sabratha, Libya on November 8th are still alive and that Serbia is working to retrieve them.