Arab autumn woes

As the global wrangling over Syria continues, militant attacks go on in ‘post-Arab Spring’ nations

Two-and-a-half years on from the explosive revolutions that toppled dictators and forced deep re-organisations of countries’ politics from Morocco to Yemen, there seems to be no let up in the deadly instability that has rocked many of the nations that underwent upheavals.

Yesterday, the Egyptian air forces carries out raids on Islamist militant positions in the restive Sinai area – a double strike as part of an ongoing battle with insurgents in the region more generally and also in probable retaliation for two suicide car bombings on Wednesday 11. Six soldiers lost their lives and many more people were wounded in the twin assault: one targeted the intelligence building in the town of Rafah and the other hit an armoured personnel carrier. A little-known jihadist group called Jund al-Islam claimed responsibility.

There was another car bombing on Wednesday, to the east over the border in Libya. This time the device went off near the country’s Foreign Ministry in the city of Benghazi. There were no serious casualties but the explosion came on both the anniversary of the 9/11 attack in the US in 2001 and the attack on the American Consulate in the Libyan city. The U.S. ambassador and three others died as al-Qaeda-linked militants broke into the diplomatic mission last year.

At the start of the week, on Monday, the Tunisian security forces killed two Islamist fighters belonging to the Ansar al-Sharia extremist group. And just today there was another bombing of Yemen’s main oil pipeline in the central Maarib province. It is the fourth attack on the pipeline in a month.

Algeria has also been in the news over the last few days after the release of a report into a deadly siege attack in January on a gas plant in the country’s desert borderlands with Libya. 40 people were killed when Islamist extremists overran the In Amenas facility, which was home to many Western workers as well as Algerians. Statoil, the Norwegian company, published on Thursday the conclusions of an internal investigation into the militant assault.

But despite all this unrest across the region, the past seven days have been another week where the focus of the world’s media has been on Syria. There has now been an agreement between John Kerry and Sergei Lavrov over how to address the 21 August use of chemical weapons, but there remains a nervousness, with the use of force by the US not totally ruled out for all contexts. The world powers may be trying to deal with the Syrian crisis, but they are only looking into the chemical weapons side of that conflict, not the deteriorating state of the nation itself, wrecked by a war that shows no signs of stopping, and is becoming ever more complex regarding the ethnic and religious alliances and hostilities at play.

What this past week encapsulates is the overarching worry of the examples now being played out by the countries ahead of Syria in the ‘Arab Spring’ transition ladder. The war in Syria seems a long way from ending (if it ever technically does, that is), but even if it were concluding, the extremist elements on both sides of the conflict point to an ominous future for the country. If terrorist bombings can continue in countries that are perceived to have already gone through the ‘Arab Spring’, then the outlook for Syria, (which has had the longest war of all those countries, and thus more time for militants to weave their extremist aims into the region), is bleak – despite the Russia-US negotiations appearing to start to bear fruit.

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The wars on what?

The similarities between the ‘war on terror’ and the ‘war on drugs’

A commentator writing in The Daily Telegraph, a British conservative newspaper, simply said that ‘a man has died in a war’. The truth is that Osama bin Laden was often considered, by both supporters and opponents, as more than just a man. Some have seen him as a mysterious sage who loved honey and the BBC World Service at the same time as being a scourge of mighty Western powers. And the circumstances both preceding and following his demise are certainly more than just a war.

It is hard to define the limits of the ‘war on terror’. Far from the traditional battlefield scrap, this challenge has relied heavily on intelligence gathering, multi-national cooperation against a moveable enemy, pre-emptive drone strikes, increased border security and the launching of two military interventions in Muslim countries.

There are similarities between the fight against terrorism and another ‘war’ which only loosely fits the customary definition of belligerence. The ‘war on drugs’ is much closer to home for the US and this blog first looked at possible links between al-Qaeda and the Mexican drugs gangs in February 2011 (see ‘Jihad in Juarez‘ – 20/02/11) .

This other ‘war’ has also required more cross-border teamwork, the need to adapt to a changeable and, at times, faceless enemy. It too has called for the use of drones, although at the moment the unmanned aircraft have been surveying Mexico for gang hideouts and signs of activity rather than taking out human targets, as they have been directed to do in Pakistan. The use of drones against the gangsters in the future cannot be ruled out.

There is another similarity between the two ‘wars’: the culture of celebrity. In Mexico, the aura of myth and legend surrounds many key gangsters as it did around bin Laden, and none more so than Joaquín ‘Chapo’ (Shorty) Guzmán, the leader of the Sinaloa organisation. He is rumoured to eat regularly amongst normal diners in Sinaloa, picking up the tab for everyone in the chosen restaurante and in 1993 he was smuggled out of jail in a laundry basket. Huge multi-million dollar bounties have been placed on his head, along with other main celebrity criminals like Héctor Beltrán Leyva (Beltrán Leyva gang), Vicente Carrillo Fuentes (Juárez organisation) and Heriberto Lazcano Lazcano (Los Zetas).

But although ‘the head of the al-Qaeda snake has been cut off’, the organisation is, as the UK Defence Secretary said recently, still “alive and well”. The same can be said for the gangsters in Mexico. For as more and more are either captured or killed by the police and military, more and more are ready to fill empty shoes and continue their lucrative and violent trade. As Mexico is starting to discover and as the US has realised, these new ‘wars’ with the new type of assailants are long-term struggles against mobile enemies who, as bin Laden had said in the past, ‘love death as much as Americans love life’.

Jihad in Juarez?

Fears are growing in Washington over organised and violent crime in Mexico but defiant rhetoric must be backed up by defiant actions.

US Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, issued a bold message to the gangsters south of the border recently:

“Don’t even think about bringing your violence and tactics across this border. You will be met by an overwhelming response. And we’re going to continue to work with our partners in Mexico to dismantle and defeat you.”

Napolitano also elaborated on fears that Al-Qaeda could get in contact with some of the gangs in efforts to exert more destabilising influence over the region.

However, Mexican Interior Minister Francisco Blake rejected the idea that, in particular, Los Zetas could start to get cosy with the Islamist terror group. He emphasised the differences between the situations, with Al-Qaeda driven by religious interpretation and the Mexican gangs by drug-trafficking and organised crime.

Jihad or not, gang members in Mexico won’t be too bothered by this latest challenge from Washington. Words have come and gone before. There have been some major bilateral policies, such as the Merida Initiative.

However, despite the help it offers Mexico, the lack of support that scheme gives for Central American nations tarnished by inflitrating Mexican gangsters is a problem. The US obviously takes its border security very seriously and major strengthening efforts have been concentrated in frontier states, although this is not an area free from controversy.

This is an important year for Mexican politicians, with the presidential election coming up in 2012. Gangs have been extending links into Central America and the US is still nervous. Napolitano’s call could be seen as a spur in the side of the politicians, reminding them that whoever moves into Los Pinos, the presidential residence, next summer must remain focussed on the war.

The US can help and it works closely with Mexican intelligence services, but this is a nudge to remind everyone where this all started. Mexicans prefer to highlight the incessant consumer demand in the US. Finger-pointing doesn’t help and dialogue often simply puts off substantial movements; meaningful actions must continue to be the main focus of both Mexico City and Washington.