Home > Publications > Political and security risk updates > The weekly briefing, 3 August 2017: Venezuelan government holds controversial special election, Australian police disrupt terrorist plot, al-Shabaab ambush and kill African Union soldiers in Somalia

The weekly briefing, 3 August 2017: Venezuelan government holds controversial special election, Australian police disrupt terrorist plot, al-Shabaab ambush and kill African Union soldiers in Somalia

by Kirsten Winterman, Raphaël Zaffran and Matthew Clarke

Briefing photo

Summary

Africa: Al-Shabaab ambush and kill 23 African Union soldiers in southern Somalia; 14 people killed in suspected Boko Haram suicide attack in northeastern Nigeria.

Americas: Republicans fail to pass ‘skinny repeal’ of Obamacare in US Senate; Venezuelan government holds controversial special election for constituent assembly to rewrite the country’s constitution.

Asia-Pacific: North Korea announces it has successfully tested new intercontinental ballistic missile supposedly capable of reaching anywhere in United States; Australian police disrupt terrorist plot to bring down aeroplane.

Europe and Central Asia: One person killed and several wounded in apparent lone wolf attack in supermarket in Hamburg; Russian president announces his government will cut number of staff in US diplomatic missions across Russia following new US sanctions.

Middle East and North Africa: Foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain and Egypt urge Qatar to concede to list of demands in order to end blockade; King Mohammed VI of Morocco pardons 1,178 people prior to televised speech marking 18 years on throne.

Africa

Somalia

At least 24 people, including 23 African Union soldiers and one civilian, were killed in an ambush by al-Shabaab fighters in the Bulamareer district of the Lower Shabelle region in southern Somalia on 30 July. Al-Shabaab claims the number of casualties was actually much higher, but the government has yet to confirm the figures. The attack came after at least four soldiers were killed and several others wounded in a roadside IED attack on a convoy on 23 July in Baidoa in southwestern Somalia. Al-Shabaab also claimed responsibility for this attack. Despite significant losses, al-Shabaab continues to pose a significant threat, particularly to security forces.

Nigeria

Fourteen people were killed and 24 injured in a suicide attack in Dikwa in northeastern Nigeria on 28 July. Boko Haram are thought to be responsible for the attack. Two days earlier, on 26 July, suspected Boko Haram fighters ambushed and kidnapped a group of oil workers who were part of a Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation mission to find commercial quantities of oil in the Lake Chad basin. Officially, Boko Haram has killed over 100 people in attacks since June, though aid agencies claim the actual number of deaths is much higher. Boko Haram continues to carry out attacks in northern Nigeria despite claims by the country’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, in December 2016 that the Nigerian military had defeated the insurgency. The Nigerian military has shifted it tactics in response to the 26 July attack, and is reportedly taking a more coordinated stance against the militant group.

Americas

United States

On 28 July, the US Senate voted on a controversial bill designed to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, more-commonly known as Obamacare. In a Republican-dominated Senate, the bill failed to secure the simple majority required to pass (51-49). Three Republican senators – Lisa Murkowski, Susan Collins and John McCain – broke ranks with their party colleagues and joined the 48 Democratic senators who voted against the bill. Losing the vote is another significant setback for the US president, Donald Trump, and the Republican Party, which had campaigned on the need to repeal Obamacare. It is the third failed attempt by Republicans to repeal Obamacare. After the vote, Trump tweeted that he would ‘let Obamacare implode’; however, it is unlikely that the White House will let Obamacare collapse given the likely political and electoral consequences that would follow. There are currently no further bills in the pipeline to repeal Obamacare, as the most-recent failed bill – also referred to as the ‘skinny repeal’ – was the only bill that Republicans could hope to pass in Congress. However, it is likely that Republicans will attempt to raise the issue again before the end of the year.

Venezuela

On 30 July, the Venezuelan government held a controversial special election in which voters were asked to choose 500 representatives for a constituent assembly that Venezuela’s embattled president, Nicolás Maduro, has tasked to rewrite the country’s constitution. Election officials claimed a 41.5% turnout, which the opposition coalition disputed – claiming instead that 88% of the electorate had failed to vote. It is likely that a large majority of Venezuelans did indeed boycott the vote, as the election was widely seen as a ploy by Maduro to consolidate his power by securing seats for close allies in the constituent assembly, including his wife, Cicilia Flores. It is likely that the protests and violence that has been taking place in the country for months will continue, as the opposition has called for further protests following the vote. Internationally, the US will likely seek further sanctions on Venezuela, possibly targeting its oil industry.

Asia-Pacific

North Korea

On 28 July, North Korea announced that it had successfully tested a new intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the Hwasong-14, which Pyongyang claims is capable of reaching anywhere in the United States. In response, the United States tested the new THAAD missile defence system, capable of destroying any ICBM crossing the Pacific, and flew long-range bombers over the Korean peninsula; however, Washington decided not to take the issue to the UN Security Council, claiming that doing so would produce ‘nothing of consequence’. North Korea’s missile programme is related to its desire to become a nuclear power, and thus secure its supposed immunity from military actions by foreign governments as Pyongyang maintains its aggressive stance to the reunification of the Korea Peninsula. This has placed the country at odds with many of the world’s powers, including the United States and China. Until now, it was thought that North Korea’s missiles were unable to reach much of the United States; however, should the latest test demonstrate an increased ICBM capacity, the US president, Donald Trump, will come under intense pressure to remove the threat, including with force if necessary.

The US president will be under intense pressure to remove any North Korea missile threatClick To Tweet

Australia

The Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, announced on 30 July, that counter-terrorism police have disrupted a terrorist plot to bring down an aeroplane with an IED. Police arrested four people with links to the alleged plot in raids in Sydney. Officers also found explosives-making materials during the major counter-terrorism operation. Police described the plot as Islamist-inspired and sophisticated; however, they are unsure of the time, location or nature of the planned attack. A US official familiar with the arrests told Reuters that the target appeared to have been a commercial flight from Sydney to the Gulf, and Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways said earlier that it was assisting the Australian Federal Police in the investigation. The Australian government has increased security measures at airports, including stricter screening of passengers and luggage, but kept the national terrorism threat level at PROBABLE. The Australian Security Intelligence Organisation has downgraded the threat level to aviation to POSSIBLE after previously increasing it to PROBABLE.

Europe and Central Asia

Germany

On 29 July, a 26-year-old man from the United Arab Emirates stabbed to death one person and wounded six others in a supermarket in Hamburg. After the attack, passers-by overpowered the man outside the supermarket and plain-clothes police officers arrested him. Local media have reported that the man was known to police as an Islamist, and he reportedly shouted ‘Allahu Akbar’ during the attack. The suspected attacker was a failed asylum seeker whose deportation had been blocked because he lacked identity papers. Germany has experienced several of lone-wolf terrorist attacks, which many in Germany blame on Angela Merkel’s decision to allow large numbers of refugees into the country. A federal election will be held in Germany in September, and the issues of immigration and terrorism are likely to feature heavily in the campaign and the parties’ policy platforms.

The issues of migration and terrorism are likely to feature heavily during Germany's forthcoming federal election campaignClick To Tweet

Russia

On 31 July, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, announced that his government would cut the number of staff operating in US diplomatic missions across Russia from 1,210 to 455. This will reduce the US diplomatic presence in Russia to the same level as Russia’s presence in Washington. The reduction includes a number of Russian staff, who will have to leave their posts by 1 September. The move is a direct response to new US sanctions against Russia resulting from the country’s annexation of Crimea and interference in the 2016 US presidential election. Putin alluded to the tensions between the two countries in his statement, and maintained that he did not see Russia-US relations improving ‘anytime soon’. These recent developments contradict the rhetoric of a possible fresh start between the United States and Russia following Donald Trump’s election. US-Russia relations are likely to further deteriorate. Tensions among European states are also likely to increase over concerns that the small Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania will be threatened by Russia’s geopolitical ambitions. It is therefore likely that the next few months will be marked by increased posturing on the part of NATO and Russia.

Middle East and North Africa

Qatar

The crisis within the Gulf Cooperation Council over Qatar has continued despite calls from the international community for a resolution to the blockade of the country. The foreign ministers of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt met on 30 July and continued to urge Qatar to concede to the list of demands made of it on 23 June. The ministers stated that they will only enter into a dialogue if Qatar agrees to the 13 demands, which include, among others, the severing of ties with Hezbollah and the Muslim Brotherhood, the closure of the Qatar-based news agency Al Jazeera, a distancing in diplomatic relations with Iran, and the closure of a Turkish military base in Qatar. Despite international attention, the crisis is likely to continue for the foreseeable future, and several key countries, including Iran and Turkey, continue to support Qatar.

Morocco

King Mohammed VI of Morocco pardoned 1,178 people on 29 July prior to a televised speech marking 18 years on the throne. A number of those pardoned had been arrested because of their involvement in protests in the northern Rif region. The area has been plagued by unrest since October 2016, when a fisherman was crushed to death after police confiscated fish caught out of season. The protests have gained traction in recent months after the arrest of its leader Nasser Zefzafi and other activists led to a country-wide solidarity movement. It unclear whether Zefzafi is among those pardoned. The Moroccan government has promised major investment in the Rif region, and has withdrawn police across the area in an attempt to diffuse the situation. Despite this, the Hiark movement, which calls for an end to repression and underdevelopment in the Rif region, held its largest demonstration in recent months on 20 July in Al Hoceima in northern Morocco. City authorities officially banned the march, and police responded to the protestors with tear gas.

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