Africa: Unclaimed attack on military base in Mali leaves 11 soldiers dead and five others wounded; African Union and Somali forces kill 57 al-Shabaab militants in attack on group’s base in Juba region.
Americas: US president accuses predecessor of ordering the wiretapping of his phone during presidential election; US state department report claims coca production in Bolivia is above acceptable levels.
Asia-Pacific: Seoul quadrupoles reward offered to North Koreans who defect with classified information that helps keep South Korea safe; Malaysian police arrest seven men suspected of plotting a terrorist attack using a vehicle-borne IED.
Europe and Central Asia: Right-wing nationalist candidate and social liberal candidate likely to win first round of French presidential election in April; Hearings begin at the International Court of Justice in The Hague in Ukrainian suit against Russia.
Middle East and North Africa: Libyan National Army forces announce losing ground in the oil crescent area to Benghazi Defence Brigade; Iraqi forces recapture second of five bridges in operation to liberate Mosul from Islamic State.
Eleven soldiers were killed and another five wounded on 5 March in an attack on their military base close to Mali’s border with Burkina Faso. No group has yet claimed the attack, but armed groups, including those with links to al-Qaeda, have been increasingly active in recent months. Armed groups have also surrounded Timbuktu, preventing the Malian interim authorities being installed. The interim authorities were meant to stay in place until regional elections as part of the 2015 peace deal. The recent attack follows a suicide attack on an army camp in Gao in January by the al-Qaeda affiliate al-Mourabitoun, which killed around 60 people. Attacks are likely to continue despite the presence of UN peacekeeping troops since 2015.
African Union and Somali forces killed 57 al-Shabaab fighters in an attack on a camp in the southern region of Juba. The AU peacekeeping mission, AMISOM, also captured a large number of weapons and destroyed vehicles and equipment in the attack on the base outside Afmadow, a town about 100 km inland from the Somali port of Kismayo. The attack comes in the wake of the election of Mohamed Abdhullahi Farmajo as president of Somalia and reports that the US president, Donald Trump, is likely to expand current US military efforts to target terrorist groups in the country. AMISOM has been deployed to Somalia for 10 years, and a number of the countries that contribute to the mission have made statements that the mission is coming to an end. Farmajo’s government and his international allies will need to invest in proper military training if the Somali’s armed forces are to fill the gap if and when AMISOM leaves the country.
On 5 March, the US president, Donald Trump, posted a series of tweets in which he repeated right-wing media accusations that his predecessor, Barack Obama, ordered the wiretapping of his phone in Trump Tower in New York during the election campaign. Neither Trump nor the White House have offered any evidence in support of the far-fetched allegation, but have called on Congress to investigate whether the Obama administration abused its powers. The director of the FBI, James Comey, has rejected Trump’s claim, and has reportedly asked the justice department to publicly do the same. James Clapper, the director of national intelligence at the time that Trump claims his phones were bugged, has also rejected the accusation. Trump has already accused Obama of organising the recent protests against him and of orchestrating embarrassing government leaks. Taken together, the US president’s outbursts appear to be an attempt to shift attention onto his predecessor and away from the intense pressure his administration is under over its links with Russia and Russian influence in the US presidential election in Trump’s favour. The strategy will likely muddy the waters and encourage a partisan approach to any forthcoming investigations.US president's outbursts will muddy the waters and encourage a partisan approach to forthcoming investigationsClick To Tweet
A US state department report released at the beginning of March has concluded that Venezuela, Bolivia and Myanmar ‘failed demonstrably’ over the past 12 months to adhere to international counter-narcotics agreements. The report points to much of South America and the Caribbean as major drug producing or transit countries. It claims that coca production in Bolivia, in particular, is above acceptable levels, and blames a corrupt judiciary for ineffectively punishing drug dealers. The Bolivian president, Evo Morales, tweeted that Venezuela and Bolivia should stand up to ‘US imperialism’, and noted the efforts made during his presidency to cut the total area under coca production in Bolivia from 37,000 hectares to 20,000 hectares; however, the United States says that this is still 36% above traditional uses for the plant and 67% above the current Bolivian legal limit. The disagreement highlights increased tensions between US agencies, such as the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and South American governments that feel that the United States is overstepping its jurisdiction, particularly following the expulsion of the DEA from Bolivia in 2008.
South Korea is now offering up to $860,000 (£700,000) to North Koreans who defect with classified information. Seoul had previously offered up to $217,000, but quadrupled the reward in order to tempt further high-profile North Korean defecators with intelligence that helps secure the South. In August 2016, a North Korean diplomat in London, Thae Yong-ho, defected to highlight the ‘gruesome realities’ of his country. Those wishing to defect to South Korea face the challenges of how to cross the border – often relying on expensive people-smugglers – and how to make life work after defecting. The increased reward is designed to incentivise the Northern elite and reduce their fears surrounding defecting. The move is likely to encourage dissatisfied or worried North Korean officials and soldiers to defect, particularly following the assassination of the North Korean leader’s half-brother, Kim Jong Nam, in Malaysia.
On 5 March, the inspector general of the Royal Malaysia Police, Khalid Abu Bakar, announced that officers had made seven terrorism-related arrests during 21-26 February. Police arrested a 43-year-old Malaysian man and a 28-year-old Indonesian man on 21 February over links to Islamic State. This led police to the ringleader, Malaysian militant Mohamed Wannady, who is in Syria, which in turn led officers to arrest a further five men in Selangor in Malaysia, four of whom are Yemeni. Wannady’s plan was for the men to use a large vehicle-borne IED to carry out a terrorist attack in Malaysia before they fled to Syria to fight for Islamic State. This is a significant blow for Islamic State in Southeast Asia. The plan highlights Islamic State’s continued attempt to carry out mass casualty terrorist attacks outside Iraq and Syria as it loses control of its territory in those two countries. It also demonstrates Islamic State’s continued expansion into Southeast Asia as it loses control of its original ‘caliphate’ in the Middle East.
Europe and Central Asia
With the first round of the French presidential election less than seven weeks away, support for the Republicans candidate, François Fillon, is falling according to opinion polls. Fillon is accused of paying his wife and children nearly €1 million for parliamentary work, and is being investigated for the alleged misuse of public funds. The former prime minister has lost support within the Republicans party, and his poll rating has dropped by as much as 4% to only 17%; however, the Republicans unanimously backed their leader at a recent meeting and announced plans to re-launch his campaign on a better footing. The controversy engulfing the centre-right Republicans’ candidate and the very low popularity ratings of the current social-democratic Socialist president, François Hollande, means that the real race is now between the right-wing nationalist National Front candidate, Marine Le Pen, and the social liberal En Marche! candidate, Emmanuel Macron. With 26% and 24% poll ratings respectively, Le Pen and Macron are expected to secure the first and second places in the first round of the presidential election on 23 April, with Macron expected to win the second round on 7 May. Macron is a pro-EU, moderniser, who may provoke multiple strikes by French trade unions, as he promotes large cuts to the civil service in favour of private employment.Real race in the French presidential election now between right-wing nationalist candidate and social liberal candidateClick To Tweet
On 6 March, hearings began in a suit Ukraine has brought against Russia at the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Netherlands. The indictment accuses Russia of violating two UN conventions in its support of ‘illegally armed groups’ in eastern Ukraine and the alleged mistreatment of the Tatar ethnic group in Crimea, which Russia illegal annexed in March 2014. Ukraine has asked the court to issue Russia with an order to ‘cease and desist’ and is seeking compensation for alleged terrorist acts committed on its soil, including the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 in 2014. Russia is expected to challenge the court’s jurisdiction while denying violating the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination or the Terrorist Financing Treaty. A number of parallels have been drawn between this case and the one that Georgia brought against Russia over the 2008 South Ossetia war, which was dismissed over jurisdiction. It could take up to three years for the court to hand down a final ruling in the Ukraine case, and it is too early at this stage to predict whether the court will side with Ukraine or Russia.
Middle East and North Africa
Fighting continues in Libya over crucial oil resources after Libyan National Army (LNA) forces loyal to Khalifa Haftar and the internationally-backed House of Representatives announced on 3 March that they have lost ground in the oil crescent area to the Benghazi Defence Brigade, which is aligned with the rival Government of National Accord. The LNA has held the oil crescent since September 2016, and is credited with enabling oil exports to resume and boost Libya’s economy after a two-year blockade. Further losses may directly threaten oil exports, and as such Libya’s National Oil Corporation held an emergency meeting on 4 March to discuss measures to protect oil facilities. Fighting over the area is expected to continue and intensify.
Iraqi government forces recaptured the al-Hurriya Bridge in Mosul on 6 March. The success came the day after Iraqi forces launched a fresh push in western Mosul. Al-Hurriya is the second of five bridges that has been recaptured since the operation to liberate the city began in October 2016. The United Nations said on 28 February that over 28,000 people have been forced from their homes since the offensive in western Mosul began on 19 February. The International Organisation for Migration estimates that the figure is now closer to 45,000 people. Forces attempting to liberate western Mosul will find it challenging, as the city’s winding side streets and alleyways make it difficult for tanks and other heavy vehicles to operate there. There are also significant concerns that IS fighters will use civilians as human shields.