Home > Publications > Political and security risk updates > The weekly briefing, 3 May 2017: US government considering troop surge in Afghanistan, tensions escalate along Indian-Pakistani border, Tunisian security forces disrupt alleged terrorist plot

The weekly briefing, 3 May 2017: US government considering troop surge in Afghanistan, tensions escalate along Indian-Pakistani border, Tunisian security forces disrupt alleged terrorist plot

by Kirsten Winterman, Raphaël Zaffran and Matthew Clarke

Briefing photo

Summary

Africa: French forces in Mali kill over 20 militants close to border with Burkino Faso; Five soldiers killed and 40 wounded in suicide attack on military convoy in northeastern Nigeria.

Americas: Potentially-orchestrated leaks suggest US government considering troop surge in Afghanistan; General strike in Brazil to protest pension reforms.

Asia-Pacific: North Korea test-fires another ballistic missile as tensions with the United States escalate; Tensions escalate along Indian-Pakistani border after Indian Army accuses Pakistani troops of killing two soldiers in Kashmir.

Europe and Central Asia: Social liberal En Marche! and far-right National Front candidates to contest second round of French presidential election; Uzbek president visits Kazakhstan for second time in five weeks underlining improving bilateral relations.

Middle East and North Africa: Saudi Arabia arrests 46 suspects over attack on the Prophet’s mosque in Medina in July 2016; Tunisian security forces disrupt alleged plot to carry out terrorist attacks during upcoming holy month of Ramadan.

Africa

Mali

French forces in Mali announced that they had killed over 20 militants from an undisclosed group close to the Burkino Faso border on 30 April. Military officials said in a statement that the attack was conducted both by air and on the ground. Over 3,500 French soldiers are currently based in Mali and the surrounding countries to combat Islamist extremism as part of Operation Barkhane. The day before, Mali’s national assembly extended the state of emergency in the country by six months in an effort to combat extremists in the northern and southern parts of Mali. French forces are highly likely to continue operations against militants for the foreseeable future.

Nigeria

At least five Nigerian soldiers were killed and another 40 injured on 27 April when a suicide bomber attacked a military convoy in northeastern Nigeria. The soldiers were conducting clearance operations in Yobe and Borno states. The bomber is thought to have been loyal to Abu Musab al-Barnawi, the leader of one of the Boko Haram factions, though no group has yet claimed responsibility. There are further reports of a gun fight on the same day in which Nigerian soldiers killed 15 Boko Haram fighters in the Sambisa Forest in the north of the country. Despite significant victories against Boko Harm, the Nigerian government and neighbouring allies have been unable to completely destroy the group. Recent months have seen an upturn in violence, and this is likely to continue over the coming months.

Americas

United States

Following the visit of the US defence secretary, Jim Mattis, to Afghanistan last week, several US officials have leaked that the Trump administration is strongly considering plans to send additional US troops to the country. The Pentagon is reportedly looking at various options for a troop surge, varying from 2,000 to 5,000 additional troops. It is likely that this does not constitute a real leak but rather a way for the White House to try and gauge public opinion on sending US troops to a country that has largely dropped out of the headlines in the United States since late 2014. The additional troops would mainly focus on advising and training Afghan military and police units. It is highly likely that the additional troops would also include specials operations forces, which would reinforce US counter-terrorism efforts against branches of both al-Qaeda and Islamic State operating along the Afghan-Pakistan border. The Trump administration is likely to make its decision in the coming weeks and to announce any new US strategy in Afghanistan during the NATO security summit that will take place on 25 May in Brussels, which the US president, Donald Trump, has said he will attend.

United States considering troop surge in Afghanistan more than two years after major combat operations supposedly endedClick To Tweet

Brazil

On 29 April, Brazil experienced it first general strike in over 20 years. It was called to protest the government’s pensions reforms. The strike was peaceful overall; however, protests led to violence in major cities, such as Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, where demonstrators vandalised and looted shops, set up roadblocks and set fire to buses. This led to confrontations between protestors and the police, and police officers fired tear gas and rubber bullets at demonstrators. The Brazilian president, Michel Temer, has indicated that the reforms will go ahead, which is likely, as they received significant support in parliament. Temer’s term is due to end in December 2018, which gives him only a short window to implement his reforms. The president is highly unpopular, though that is mainly the due to Brazilians’ general mistrust in government officials following the impeachment of the former president Dilma Rousseff on corruption charges.

Asia-Pacific

North Korea

North Korea test-fired another ballistic missile on 28 April. The US president, Donald Trump, did not comment on what a US response will look like, but he has refused to rule out military action. The next day, South Korea announced that the United States had reaffirmed that it would cover the $1 billion cost of a Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-missile system being deployed in South Korea after the US president, Donald Trump, had suggested that Seoul should pay for the system. The THAAD system became operational on 2 May and will be used to defend South Korea rather than as a defence against all North Korean missiles launched against anywhere in the world. The combination of erratic leaders in both North Korea and the United States makes it likely that tensions between the two countries will continue to rise unless back-channel mediation can de-escalate the situation.

Back-channel mediation between United States and North Korea needed to deescalate current confrontationClick To Tweet

India

Tensions are escalating along the Indian-Pakistani border after the Indian Army accused Pakistani troops of killing two of its soldiers in the Kashmir region. The situation deteriorated further when unofficial reports emerged on social media that the dead soldiers’ bodies had been mutilated – claims that Pakistan quickly rejected. The Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, has so far resisted populist pressure to take retaliatory actions. The soldiers’ deaths come after student protests in Kashmir against the Indian government have led to clashes with security forces in which at least eight civilians have been killed. The protests followed a by-election on 9 April that had only a 7% voter turnout. While unlikely to have any significant impact on the autonomy of Kashmir, the recent unrest demonstrates the poor state of relations between the local population and New Delhi after 70 years of dispute between India and Pakistan over the region.

Europe and Central Asia

France

The first round of the French presidential election was held on 23 April. En Marche’s social liberal Emmanuel Macron won 24% of the vote, the National Front’s far-right Marine Le Pen won 21.3% and the Republicans’ centre-right François Fillon won 20%. The ruling Socialist Party candidate, Benoît Hamon, came fifth, with only 6.4% of the vote. The second round will be between Macron and Le Pen, and will be held on 7 May. Fillon and the other defeated mainstream candidates have encouraged voters to support Macron. The En Marche! candidate broadly won Paris and the southern and western parts of the country, while the National Front candidate won the northeastern parts. Le Pen is anti-migration and anti-EU, and has attracted disenfranchised voters; however, it is currently likely that Macron will win the election, and maintain France as a pro-EU country run along economically centrist lines.

Uzbekistan

On 29 April, Uzbekistan’s president, Shavkat Mirziyoyev, visited the Kazakh city of Saryagash in the South Kazakhstan Region on the Kazakh-Uzbek border. Mirziyoyev first visited Kazakhstan only five weeks ago in his second trip abroad since he came to power in December 2016. The recent visit has resulted in the opening to passenger vehicles of two border crossings between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan that have been closed for the past 11 years. Mirziyoyev’s decision to visit Kazakhstan twice within such a short period of time signals a likely shift in Uzbekistan’s foreign policy and attitude towards bilateral relations with its Central Asian neighbours. Together with Turkmenistan, which was the destination of Mirziyoyev’s first official foreign visit, Kazakhstan is a key partner for Uzbekistan for business relations and security cooperation. The Uzbek and Kazakh leaders have signalled that cross-border flow is at the top of their bilateral agenda. It is likely that the improving bilateral relations between the two countries will also lead to increased cooperation over time in counter-terrorism efforts.

Middle East and North Africa

Saudi Arabia

Saudi Arabia has arrested 46 suspects over an attack on Al-Masjid an-Nabawi – the Prophet’s mosque – in Medina during Ramadan in July 2016. The Prophet’s mosque is the second-holiest site in Islam. The interior ministry’s spokesperson, Major General Mansour al-Turki, confirmed the arrests on 30 April. Al-Turki also linked the terrorist cell to a suicide bomb attack near the US consulate in Jeddah two days before the attack in Medina. The majority of those arrested are understood to be Saudi nationals, though 14 of the suspects are from Yemen, Egypt, Pakistan, Jordan, Afghanistan and Sudan. The arrests are part of an ongoing Saudi crackdown on suspected terrorists.

Tunisia

Tunisian security forces carried out a raid in the town of Sidi Bouzid on 30 April against a group of men suspected of plotting to carry out terrorist attacks during the upcoming holy month of Ramadan. One suspect reportedly blew himself during the raid and another was shot and killed by Tunisian soldiers. The Tunisian National Guard has confirmed that the men were suspected of links to Islamic State and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and had been under surveillance for several weeks prior to the raid. No information on the alleged planned attack has been released, but Islamic State has claimed most of the attacks in Tunisia. Tunisia is still under a state of emergency after a suicide bombing in November 2015 that claimed the lives of 12 presidential guards. The raid suggests that the terrorist threat in Tunisia is still significant.

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