Home > Publications > Political and security risk updates > The weekly briefing, 11 April 2017: Trump launches missile strikes on Syrian airbase and moves carrier strike group to western Pacific, French Guiana paralysed by ongoing protests, suspected terrorist attack in Swedish capital

The weekly briefing, 11 April 2017: Trump launches missile strikes on Syrian airbase and moves carrier strike group to western Pacific, French Guiana paralysed by ongoing protests, suspected terrorist attack in Swedish capital

by Kirsten Winterman, Raphaël Zaffran and Matthew Clarke

Briefing photo

Summary

Africa: DR Congo president appoints new prime minister; New president’s party wins majority in parliament in first vote since Yahya Jammeh ousted from power in Gambia.

Americas: Dissident FARC fighters kill soldier and wound four others in IED attack on army vehicle in southeastern Colombia; French Guiana paralysed by ongoing protests over lack of investment and high crime and unemployment rates.

Asia-Pacific: US carrier strike group redeployed to western Pacific Ocean following North Korean ballistic missile tests; Newly-released ship-tracking data reveals Chinese coastguard ships have been regularly patrolling contested areas of South China Sea.

Europe and Central Asia: Four killed in suspected terrorist attack in Swedish capital; Suspects in attacks in St Petersburg and Stockholm from former Soviet republics of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan.

Middle East: Egyptian president announces state of emergency after IS attacks on Coptic churches in Tanta and Alexandria on Palm Sunday; United States launches missile strikes on Syrian airbase in retaliation for suspected chemical weapons attack on rebel-held town.

Africa

Democratic Republic of the Congo

On 7 April, the president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Joseph Kabila, appointed Bruno Tshibala as the new prime minister in charge of the power-sharing government. Tshibala will remain in office until the presidential elections scheduled for later this year. His appointment comes after the breakdown of talks to negotiate Kabila’s exit from power. Kabila was due to step down after his second five-year term ended in 2016, as he cannot run for office again under the constitution; however, the delay to the election because of claimed budget constraints has meant that he has effectively retained power. The main opposition party, the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), expelled Tshibala in March 2017 after he challenged the successor to the party’s veteran leader Etienne Tshisekedi. His appointment as prime minister is likely to further divide Kabila’s opponents. The opposition coalition known as the Rassemblement (after the December 2016 political agreement) had been expected to choose the prime minister. The opposition is now planning a number of protests.

The Gambia

The United Democratic Party (UDP) has won 31 out of the 53 available seats in parliamentary elections in the Gambia on 6 April. The vote was the first since Yahya Jammeh stepped down after more than 20 years in power. Many opposition parties refused to participate in the last parliamentary elections in 2012 in protest at Jammeh’s grip on power. Jammeh’s successor as president, Adama Barrow, is the leader of the UDP, and had been hoping for a strong parliamentary majority to strengthen his mandate and increase support for his political and security reforms. Parliament will now need to work with Barrow to address the economic and security issues that plagued the country during Jammeh’s 22-year rule.

Americas

Colombia

Rogue members of the FARC rebel group have killed a soldier and wounded four others in an IED attack on an army vehicle in southeastern Colombia. The Colombian Army quickly blamed renegade FARC fighters for the attack, and insisted that they only represent a small fraction of FARC dissidents who oppose the historic 2016 peace agreement. FARC and the Colombian government signed the peace deal in November 2016, ending more than 50 years of conflict. Most FARC fighters have since complied with the transition plan, which has involved demobilising, disarming and reintegrating the fighters. However, elements of FARC continue attacks and propaganda that might complicate the transition process, particularly if reintegration efforts do not provide the poorest and least-educated former rebels with appealing alternatives to taking up arms again.

French Guiana

A black-clad collective called the 500 Brothers led large-scale demonstrations in Guiana on 10 April. The French overseas department has been paralysed by widespread protests for the last two weeks since a general strike on 27 March also led by the 500 Brothers. Protesters are angry about a lack of investment from Paris and high crime and unemployment rates in the territory. They are demanding €2.5 billion in aid from the French government, which has instead approved a €1 billion emergency package. Located on the northern coast of South America, Guiana is one of the richest parts of the continent but poorest parts of France. A significant driver of its economy is the Guiana Space Centre, which is used by the European Space Agency and the French government to launch satellites. On 20 March, workers at the spaceport barricaded the launch zone to protest poor working conditions, delaying the launch of a French Ariane 5 rocket carrying South Korean and Brazilian satellites. Protesters say that funds are poured into the centre while the welfare of ordinary people is ignored. Further widespread protests in Guiana are likely, particularly as Paris focusses on the forthcoming presidential election rather than resolving the growing crisis in its second largest region.

France focussed on presidential election as its second largest region - Guiana - is rocked by protestsClick To Tweet

Asia-Pacific

North Korea

On 5 April, North Korea tested a medium-range ballistic missile over the Sea of Japan. In response, US Pacific Command (USPACOM) has redeployed the Carl Vinson carrier strike group from planned port visits to Australia to the western Pacific Ocean. The US strike group is led by the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson, and includes a carrier air wing, two guided-missile destroyers and a guided-missile cruiser. Announcing carrier movements in advance is rare, and although USPACOM has not publicly referenced North Korea specifically, defence officials have said that the redeployment is designed to send a message to North Korea as well as regional allies Japan and South Korea. The US president, Donald Trump, has said that he expects China to resolve the situation, but has made it clear that the United States is prepared to act alone if Beijing is unwilling or unable to curtail Kim Jong-un’s military ambitions. While the redeployment of a carrier strike group to the region provides the White House with military options, for now it is likely posturing designed to increase the pressure on North Korea to halt its missile tests and encourage China to increase its efforts to influence Pyongyang.

South China Sea

On 5 April, ship-tracking data released by the British newspaper the Guardian and the US think tank the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) revealed that Chinese coastguard ships have been regularly patrolling contested areas of the South China Sea. For example, since January 2017, three Chinese surveillance vessels have been patrolling the Luconia Shoals, which are firmly within Malaysia’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) and nearly 1,000 miles south of mainland China. The move is part of Chinese efforts to control the South China Sea, which include building military installations on three contested islands in early 2017 and deploying up to 11 military vessels at a time to patrol the region. Nearly half of all international trade routes traverse the South China Sea, and China has long viewed control of the area as essential to its economic ambitions. Although major military confrontation is unlikely in the short term, tensions are high in the region as Chinese claims on territories are contested by five other Asian powers and the US Navy regular patrols the region in support of the US position that it has the right to protect the South China Sea trade routes.

Europe and Central Asia

Sweden

On the afternoon of 7 April, a hijacked lorry was driven into the Åhléns department store in the Swedish capital, Stockholm, in a suspected terrorist attack. Four people were killed and 15 people were injured in the attack. Police later found a device – possibly an unexploded bomb – in the lorry’s cab. The attacker fled the scene, but Swedish police later arrested a 39-year-old man in relation to the attack. The suspect is a 39-year-old Uzbek national who had been denied residency in 2014 and ordered to leave Sweden. Police say that he is known to be sympathetic to extremist organisations like Islamic State and was known to the security services in the past as a ‘marginal character’. The Stockholm attack follows recent similar attacks in London and Berlin, which followed a vehicle attack in Nice in July 2016 that killed 86 people. Islamic State has been calling for its supporters to carry out such attacks, which do not require significant planning, financial or logistical support and are thus very difficult for security services to detect and disrupt.

Kyrgyzstan/Uzbekistan

The terrorist attacks in Saint Petersburg on 3 April and Stockholm on 7 April both involved citizens from the former Soviet republics of Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. This highlights the threat of radicalisation in Central Asia and demonstrates that neither Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan nor Russia have been able to manage the violent phenomenon any better than Western Europe. The Ferghana Valley that spreads across northern Tajikistan, eastern Uzbekistan and southern Kyrgyzstan is the centre of radicalisation in the region, with around 500 people from the area joining Islamic State in Syria according to Kyrgyzstan’s State Committee on National Security (GKNB). However, there is little coordination between Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan in addressing the terrorist threat or the underlying issues driving IS recruitment in Central Asia, such as ethnic tensions and socio-economic grievances. This is unlikely to change in the short term, as the two countries are facing relative political instability after the death of the long-standing Uzbek president Islam Karimov in September 2016 and controversial political reforms in Kyrgyzstan, which will hold a presidential election in November.

Middle East

Syria

The United States launched an attack on the Syrian Air Force’s Shayrat airbase on 7 April. Two US Navy destroyers in the eastern Mediterranean Sea launched 59 Tomahawk missiles at the airbase. At least six people were killed in the attack. The US strike was in retaliation for a suspected chemical weapons attack on the rebel-held town of Khan Sheikhoun on 4 April in which more than 80 people were killed. The US military says that its radar monitored a Syrian Air Force aircraft take off from Shayrat and fly over Khan Sheikhoun on two occasions on that day. The US military radar reportedly detected flashes on the ground, indicating that the aircraft had dropped ordnance on the rebel-held town. At the same time, hundreds of people in Khan Sheikhoun began suffering symptoms consistent with reaction to a nerve agent according to the medics who treated them. Russia claims that Syrian jets hit a rebel depot being used to store chemical weapons. Russia and Iran have indicated that the US attack on Shayrat is a violation of international law and a ‘red line’ that, if crossed again, will be met with force. Although the strike on Shayrat is the first direct US attack on Syrian forces since the civil war began six years ago, it is likely less an indicator of a change in US policy and more a reflection of a reactive US president.

US missile strikes on Syria are a reflection of a reactive US president not an indicator of a change in US policyClick To Tweet

Egypt

The Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, announced a three-month state of emergency after two attacks on Coptic churches in Tanta and Alexandria on 9 April, which was Palm Sunday. Islamic State has claimed responsibility for the attacks in which 44 people were killed and many more injured. The state of emergency still needs to be passed by parliament, but will allow authorities to arrest and search people’s homes without warrants. The attacks on Egypt’s Coptic Christian minority are the latest in a series of incidents, the most recent of which occurred in Cairo in December 2016 and killed at least 25 people. The attacks come weeks before an expected visit by Pope Francis that is intended to show support for Egypt’s Christian population.

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