Security Exchange News

Security Exchange Newsletter | August

03 September 2020

In this edition of the InTouch Monthly we assess the recent coup in Mali and the massive explosion which ripped through Lebanon's capital, Beirut. We also look at the ongoing political unrest in Belarus following the disputed elections and the tensions between Greece and Turkey in the Mediterranean. In the Americas, we focus on the corruption case against former president Alvaro Uribe, while in Asia we look at the upcoming peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.

AFRICA | Last month mutinous soldiers arrested Mali’s President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita and Prime Minister Boubou Cisse in the capital, Bamako. Keita announced his resignation and dissolved the government before five colonels, led by Assimi Goita, appeared on state television to announce the creation of the National Committee for the Salvation of the People (CNSP). The new ruling junta has held talks with the opposition, but it has proposed waiting until 2023 before it transfers power to a civilian government. Regional bloc ECOWAS imposed sanctions against Mali after the coup, while the US has suspended military cooperation with the country. The African Union (AU) also took the decision to suspend Mali and demanded that constitutional order was restored. There is now uncertainty over the future of the country, prompting fears that the country will descend into further chaos.

The coup followed months of protests against Keita’s government over its handling of the economy and the ongoing security crisis in the centre and north of the country. The country has been plagued by violence since 2012, despite the presence of international forces from the French-led Operation Barkhane and the UN peacekeeping mission, MINUSMA. Jihadist militant groups have proliferated across the Sahel, carrying out multiple attacks in neighbouring Niger and Burkina Faso. These groups - including Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) and the Group to Support Islam and Muslims (JNIM) – are expected to take advantage of the political chaos and demonstrate their strength by launching renewed attacks on the security forces. In Mali, there has also been an increase in communal violence between Fulani herders and Bambara and Dogon farmers in the centre of the country. This has led to the creation of self-defence militias, which have been accused of carrying out massacres and retaliatory attacks. Last year a Dogon militia – Dan Na Ambassagou – killed more than 130 Fulani villagers in the Mopti region in one of the largest attacks reported in the country.

There is increasing tension in Tanzania ahead of elections in October. Earlier this week Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that the government has stepped up its repression of the opposition, activist groups and the media in the lead up to the vote. At least 17 opposition party members and critics have been detained since June on various charges, including illegal assembly. Media outlets have been targeted for their coverage of the election and the global coronavirus pandemic. In July Kwanza TV was banned for 11 months for posting an alert from the US embassy about Tanzania. The Communications Authority said the post was “unpatriotic.” Other outlets have been warned not to give too much coverage to opposition candidates, particularly the two main challengers Tundu Lissu and former foreign minister Bernard Membe, who recently defected from the ruling party, Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM). President John Magufuli has been accused of cracking down on civil rights since he took office in 2015, and there are serious doubts that the upcoming vote will be free or fair. A group of ten foreign missions issued a joint statement this week calling for peaceful campaigns and elections. “We call on all stakeholders to commit to ensuring a secure environment for all contestants, respect for the rule of law and full impartiality of the institutions and authorities in charge of managing the elections,” read the statement, which was issued by Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Ireland, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

In August militants from a group known as Ahlu Sunnah Wal- Jamaa (ASWJ) attacked and seized the key port of Mocimboa da Praia in northern Mozambique. The raid highlighted the increasing strength of the insurgency in the north of the country, which is threatening gas projects worth an estimated $45bn. The port is only 60km from offshore projects, which are being developed by international oil companies including Total, Exxon and ENI. A force of around 1,000 heavily armed militants captured the port, and the security forces are still battling to retake control of it. Earlier this year militants also seized three district capitals in Cabo Delgado, including Quissange in March. While it is not yet clear if the group aims to hold territory or if they are simply demonstrating their growing strength, it is evident that the government is failing to deal with the threat.

Attacks linked to jihadist militants were first reported in late-2017 but since last year the scale and frequency of the violence has increased significantly. In January gunmen raided a military base in Mbau, during which they seized eight truckloads of weapons from the army. Islamic State (IS) has also claimed several of the attacks in Cabo Delgado and the group’s infamous black and white flags have been flown by militants during several raids. In response, the government reportedly employed the services of the shadowy Russian military contractor Wagner Group, which deployed a small force to the province in late 2019. Wagner, which is reported to have close links with Russian President Vladimir Putin, have also been deployed in other conflicts, namely Libya, Central African Republic and Syria. However, local reports suggest that they withdrew from Mozambique after suffering heavy casualties. Earlier this year the government hired the South African military contractor Dyck Advisory Group to support the armed forces. The immediate threat from the group remains in the north, particularly in relation to the lucrative gas fields, but there are wider fears for the region if the militants continue to grow in strength.

AMERICAS | As the coronavirus pandemic continues to greatly affect the Americas, the continent is also facing a busy political period. In Colombia, former President Alvaro Uribe has been charged with witness tampering and fraud for a case involving both a former paramilitary leader and a leftist lawmaker. As part of the case, Uribe has already announced his resignation as a senator after he placed under house arrest. Uribe is among the most powerful political figures to face criminal procedures of this kind. Recently, the Supreme Court has handed over the case to the Attorney General’s Office. The case dates back to 2012 when Uribe accused the opposition Senator Ivan Cepeda of tampering with witnesses in a case that linked the former president to paramilitary groups. However, the investigations were reopened in 2018 after Uribe himself was accused of witness tampering. The case generated shockwaves in Colombian politics as Uribe is considered the mentor of President Ivan Duque and is still highly influential political figure in the conservative Democratic Centre (CD) party.

In neighbouring Venezuela, President Nicolas Maduro still faces increasing pressure from the US, the EU and the opposition ahead of the parliamentary election in December. Members of the opposition and Juan Guaido have already said that they will boycott the vote due to high levels of irregularity. The election comes amid attempts by the ruling United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV) to take over the National Assembly (AN), the only government body that the PSUV does not control. The US government has already stated that it will still recognise Guaido as the country’s interim president regardless of the election’s results. President Donald Trump’s administration has also announced plans to step up sanctions against Venezuelan officials and state-owned companies, while exemptions for oil exploration in Venezuela are expected to be revoked. In a move to ease political tensions, President Maduro has pardoned dozens of activists and politicians that were jailed. Rights groups and international organisations praised the move, but the opposition accused the government of using it as a diversion manoeuvre to legitimise the election. In other controversial actions, the government-backed Supreme Court of Justice has suspended the directive board of several opposition parties.

With governments across the Americas attempting to revamp their economy, international travel has already resumed in several countries. Bolivia, Guatemala and Colombia are among the countries that plan to reopen major airports for international flights in September. Although Colombia has already lifted a number of coronavirus restrictions in a bid to curb increasing rates of unemployment and economic downfall, and Ecuador refusing to extend its current state of emergency, other countries face a less optimistic scenario. Argentina still reports a record increase in daily coronavirus cases despite stringent restrictions being implemented for months. Brazil is currently nearing four million cases, with the highest numbers confirmed in the country’s south-east. In neighbouring Paraguay, despite an initial success in addressing the spread of the virus, the country has reported a surge in coronavirus-related deaths during the month of August. Data from the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) shows that 13.3m coronavirus cases and 467,000 deaths were confirmed in the Americas – from all cases reported in 54 countries, around 70 percent are in Brazil and in the US.

ASIA | In South Korea, social distancing measures in the capital city of Seoul and neighbouring regions have been extended until 6 September. The local authorities announced the measure last week following a rise in Covid-19 numbers. Further countermeasures are expected to be taken if virus numbers continue to rise. Citizens have been urged to adhere to the restrictions, as many fear the country could be on the brink of another nationwide outbreak. Meanwhile, the South Korean government has recently extended notice to doctors, ordering them to return to work amid a nationwide strike. The strike has been called to protest against proposed medical reforms to raise admission quotas in medical institutes. The government has asked doctors in Seoul, Gyeonggi, and Incheon to return to hospitals amid the ongoing Covid-19 outbreak or face possible fines or even prison sentences. Typhoon Maysak also made landfall in the southern region of South Korea overnight on Wednesday, bringing damaging winds and torrential rain. The full extent of the storm has yet to be determined, but it's feared it could put additional pressure on the county's health system and potentially lead to the further spread of Covid-19.

In Afghanistan, peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government are set to get underway this month. The intra-Afghan negotiations – which hope to end the 19-year war in Afghanistan - have been delayed over a prisoner swap between the Taliban and the Afghan government, which agreed to the release of 5,000 insurgent prisoners in exchange for the freeing of 1,000 security force prisoners held by the group. The agreement was reached between the Taliban and the US in a February deal, which excluded the Afghan government due to the Taliban's previous refusal to negotiate with them. The last exchanges of the deal have been waylaid by the international objection, with France and Australia submitting official complaints about the release of insurgents accused of fatal attacks against their nationals, including humanitarian workers. Amid the controversy, the Afghan government reversed its decision to release the last 320 Taliban prisoners until the armed group free more captured soldiers, calling the inmates “a danger to the world”. On Wednesday, it was reported that the government had freed 200 more Taliban prisoners in exchange for the release of four Afghan commandos. Plans are reportedly in place to free the remaining 120 Taliban prisoners in accordance with the deal. Suhail Shaheen, a Taliban spokesman, said that the “release of our remaining prisoners has started and it is a positive step which will pave the ground for the start of intra-Afghan negotiations”. Once the prisoner swap is completed, peace talks are set to commence in Doha, Qatar, where the Taliban maintain a political office. A team of Afghan government negotiators are set to fly out to Doha on Thursday ahead of the talks.

Meanwhile, in the Philippines, deadly terrorist attacks have hit Jolo city in the Sulu province. The twin bombings occurred last week, killing at least 15 people and injuring dozens more. The first explosion took place when an improvised explosive device (IED) exploded next to a military vehicle, killing soldiers and civilians. As police responded to the scene, a female suicide bomber tried to breach the cordon and detonate her device, killing herself and several others. Although no claim of responsibility was made for the attacks, it's believed the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) – an Islamic State-linked militant piracy group – was behind them, as they maintain a stronghold on the island. In response to the bombings, the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG) put the southern Mindanao region on red alert. Some military officials have also made calls for the Sulu province to be placed under martial law following the attacks.

Elsewhere, an anti-government protest movement has been gaining momentum in Thailand. Rallies were initially sparked by student-led protests calling for reform to the controversial lese majeste law, but have since broadened into a wider anti-government movement. The lese majeste law essentially criminalises the defamation and criticism of the powerful Thai monarchy. Protesters are also calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha, a former army chief who came to power in a 2014 coup before winning last year's disputed election, which was widely accused of being rigged. Pro-democracy protesters also demanded a new constitution to replace the 2017 Constitution, which has been criticised for effectively enshrining the military's power at the highest levels of government. The Thai government has largely responded to the protests with military force and intimidation, disinformation, and arbitrary detention. Many high-profile student activists and protest leaders are being arrested and charged with sedition, including leading protest figure, Anon Nampha, who was detained after giving a public speech calling for monarchy reforms. Recently, royalists have begun to stage rallies in Bangkok, defending the monarchy. The pro-monarchy protests have been led by the 'Thai Pakdee' group and saw more than a thousand participate over the weekend.

Amid the Covid-19 pandemic, criminal cyber activity has increased and last week, the New Zealand Stock Exchange (NZX) reported a series of cyber-attacks which forced it to halt trading for several days in a row. The NZX website was targeted in particular by distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, which are designed to force a website to crash by flooding it with an excessive number of requests. The attacks have come at a particularly bad time for investors, as they coincide with a busy company earnings season. So far, preliminary investigations have revealed little else about the attacks, other than that they are believed to have originated from abroad. The attacks come less than a year after the cyber-security firm, CertNZ, identified an increase in emails being sent to financial firms threatening DDoS attacks unless a ransom was paid. It's believed the email campaign was orchestrated by Russian hacking group, 'Fancy Bear'. It's unclear whether or not there are any links between the attacks targeting the NZX and the email threats.

EUROPE | Civil unrest in Belarus continues after the presidential election was held in early-August. President Aleksandr Lukashenko has been re-elected for a sixth term in office after the Central Electoral Commission (CEC) confirmed he had won the election. According to official results, Lukashenko secured more than 80 percent of the votes against the main opposition led by Svetlana Tikhanovskaya. Major protests broke out after the vote, which was widely condemned by the European Union and the US. Russia and China were among the countries that congratulated Lukashenko for his victory. For nearly a month, demonstrations have been reported on the streets of Minsk. Tikhanovskaya was forced to move to Lithuania just after the vote while thousands of people were detained.

In an attempt to push for another election, the opposition has united under the flag of a so-called opposition council, which has already been slapped with a criminal probe on national security grounds. Prosecutors have argued that the council has been set up to forcefully seize power. Since then, President Lukashenko has launched a hard-line approach to end protests and consolidate power. These actions include the ordering of a police crackdown on protests in the capital. Those arrested include journalists, students, and activists.  In addition, amid allegations of foreign meddling, he has also ordered a military build-up along Belarus’s western borders with Lithuania and Poland.

Russia has already condemned any attempts of interference from the EU and the US. Moscow has also given its unconditional support to Belarus in the event that political tensions escalate. Russian President Vladimir Putin has said that a police force has been already set up to assist Belarus, while Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin is also expected to meet President Lukashenko in Minsk. EU leaders have already announced plans to prepare a set of sanctions against Belarusian leaders while the US is also considering doing the same. With political grievances intensifying, the improvement of diplomatic relations between Belarus and the US that were expected to consolidate earlier this year has returned to ground zero.

Meanwhile, in the Mediterranean, Turkish operations in disputed waters have generated concerns from Greece in a move that may increase both diplomatic and military tensions in the region. Relations between these two NATO allies have already been under strain due to issues related to European Union policies on migration. Most recently, the Greek government of Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis has directed its attention to Turkish movements close to Cyprus, where operations to survey potential gas and oil reserves in the area has led to tensions that also involve Egypt and Libya.

Greece’s parliament has recently passed legislation that expands the country’s western territorial waters on the Ionian Sea just after reaching a similar maritime demarcation deal with Egypt. The move came in response to another maritime demarcation agreement signed between Libya and Turkey. Military exercises have been carried out in the region with France, NATO and the US also getting involved in the dispute. As part of recent changes in the region, the US has announced plans to partially lift a 33-year-old arms embargo on Cyprus, which will allow the purchase of non-lethal military equipment. Turkey has already condemned the decision announced by the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu has already highlighted that any Greek plans to expand its maritime borders in the eastern Mediterranean would be considered an act of war.

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is currently monitoring the situation. In mid-August he held talks with Cavusoglu to push for the de-escalation of tensions. Meanwhile, Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has accused Greece of being used as bait to lead to confrontation in the Mediterranean. He said that oil survey operations will continue in the region while military exercises off north-eastern Cyprus will proceed as schedule until mid-September. Turkey has also accused Greece of piracy and for a military build-up on islands close to its shores – particularly on the strategic island of Kastellorizo. Although the chances of conflict remain unlikely, ongoing military drills near the Greek island of Crete could intensify tensions, especially in the event of indirect confrontation between both.

As pupils across the UK go back to school, there has been an increased focus on the dangers and risks associated with Covid-19 in schools. The first cluster to be linked to a school in the UK emerged in Scotland last week, where a number of coronavirus cases were traced to a school in Dundee, prompting new restrictions to be brought in for Scottish secondary school pupils. As of 31 August, all students over the age of 12 must now wear face coverings in school corridors, communal areas, and on school buses. The move has led to debate over Covid-19 health restrictions in schools across the UK. Although the risks to children and teenagers are generally low, schools are adopting additional safety measures to reduce the spread of the virus. These include staggered starting times for different year groups, spaced apart desks, one-way systems, installing hand sanitising stations, and forming social bubbles. In some cases, staff rooms may even be closed, due to the higher risk associated with adults. As schools reopen, the government has also launched a campaign in England to encourage people to return to their workplaces, with employers highlighting measures taken to prevent the spread of coronavirus. The campaign acknowledges that the “world of work has changed”, with millions working from home successfully, and is largely aimed at those experiencing difficulties in working remotely. The absence of workers from offices has especially impacted businesses in city centres including London, where there is more reluctance to travel via public transport during rush hour amid the pandemic. People are still being advised to work from home if possible in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

There has also been much focus on quarantine lists in the UK – which have been impacting travellers and holidaymakers. Last week, Switzerland, Jamaica, and the Czech Republic joined France, Croatia, and Spain among other destinations on the UK's quarantine list. Quarantine measures may also be reimposed for those arriving in the UK from Portugal, following an increase in coronavirus cases there. The travel corridor between the two countries was only established two weeks ago. Travel company Tui has cancelled all holidays to the Greek island of Zante following the emergence of Covid-19 clusters at a resort there. At least six clusters have been linked to flights departing the island – forcing the UK government to reconsider England's quarantine rules for Greece after Scotland and Wales both introduced their own travel restrictions.

Those opting to holiday domestically in light of international quarantine restrictions have also been limited by local lockdowns, which have been enforced across a number of areas where the infection rate has increased. Areas currently under additional local restrictions include parts of northern England and Scotland. The UK government keeps an updated detailed list of local Covid-19 restrictions on its website. A number of places have been identified on a watchlist as being at risk of local lockdowns, including Stoke on Trent, Northampton, Swindon, and Birmingham. Restrictions had recently been lifted in the Bolton, Stockport, and Trafford areas of Greater Manchester; however, following criticism from the local authorities, measures have since been reinforced in Bolton and Trafford, where coronavirus cases continue to rise. The U-turn came about after Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham called the easing of restrictions in these areas “illogical”, with Bolton currently having one of the highest rates of new virus cases per 100,000 residents in England. Elsewhere, measures have also been eased in Burnley, Hyndburn, parts of Bradford (excluding Bradford city and Keighley town), parts of Calderdale (excluding Halifax), and parts of Kirklees (excluding Dewsbury and Batley). Recent weather disruption has also impacted travel plans in some places. Over the past few weeks, severe heatwaves have hit much of the UK, followed by disruptive storms which caused widespread flooding in parts.

MENA | As we have reported in previous editions, Lebanon has been in a state of political and economic crisis for months. These problems were compounded by the outbreak of coronavirus, resulting in a lockdown which further weakened the state. Then on the afternoon of 4 August, 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate exploded in Beirut’s port, killing 190 people and wounding 6,500 others. The capital has been devastated by the blast, the damage from which has been estimated at between $10-$15bn. Less than a week later Prime Minister Hassan Diab and the cabinet resigned in the face of rising public anger. Demonstrators returned to the streets and there have been clashes between protesters and the security forces. Since then prime minister-designate Mustapha Adib has vowed to form a new “government of experts” which will push ahead with desperately needed reforms, while French President Emmanuel has visited the country and promised to support Lebanon’s recovery. However, he warned that his support was conditional on the new government making “credible commitments” to reform within two months and holding parliamentary elections within 12 months. “There is no blank cheque,” Macron said on Tuesday. “If your political class fails, then we will not come to Lebanon’s aid.”

In August, Israel agreed on a landmark deal to normalise relations with the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The agreement covers business relations, tourism and will see direct flights operated between the two countries. However, more significantly, the new deal (known as the Abraham Accord) included an Israeli promise to temporarily halt the annexation of large parts of the occupied West Bank, which were announced as part of the US Middle East Plan earlier this year. The Palestinians promptly denounced the accord and its leaders recalled the ambassador from Abu Dhabi, claiming that the UAE had betrayed them. Iran, Turkey and Qatar also criticised the accord, although Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan and Oman have all publicly welcomed it. White House adviser Jared Kushner is now pushing for other Arab states to normalise ties with Israel, starting with Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. Iran has, unsurprisingly, been the most hostile to the deal. "The Emiratis will be disgraced forever for this treachery against the Islamic world, Arab nations and Palestine,” said Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. It is still not clear what implications this accord, and others which may follow, will have on a negotiated political solution for the Israelis and Palestinians. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has only promised to suspend his annexation policy, and the Palestinians feel abandoned and marginalised by the UAE and other Arab states.

At the start of August, the BBC Persian service reported that the number of coronavirus deaths in Iran was almost triple the official government figures. Leaked documents revealed that almost 42,000 people had died from the virus by 20 July, far higher than the 14,000 recorded by the health ministry. Since then the figures have continued to rise as the country struggles to deal with another wave of infections. The official death toll has passed 20,000 and there have been almost 380,000 confirmed cases. The second wave coincided with the government easing restrictions in April, and since mid-May, the number of new cases has been consistently over 2,000 per day. The government claims that the increase is down to more testing, while the health ministry said that it was identifying more people who were asymptomatic or who had mild symptoms. Health Minister Saeed Namaki also claimed that people were ignoring social distancing rules and had become complacent. There are also concerns that the virus will spread as pupils return to school on Saturday, with the government insisting the students go back even in areas of the country where transmission is high. “Students will have to be in schools this Saturday, regardless of their location’s status being red, yellow, or virus-free,” said Minister of Education Haji Mirzae.