2015-12-08 CTP Update and Assessment

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CTP’s Threat Update series is a weekly update and assessment of Iran and the al Qaeda network. CTP’s Iran team follows developments on the internal politics, nuclear negotiations, and regional conflicts closely. The al Qaeda network update includes detailed assessments of al Qaeda’s affiliates in Yemen, the Horn of Africa, and the Maghreb and Sahel.

Below are the top three takeaways from the week:

1. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and al Murabitoun confirmed their rumored re-unification, citing their combined November 20 attack on the Radisson Blu hotel in Bamako, Mali as proof. Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the leader of al Murabitoun, split from AQIM in December 2012. This reconciliation of al Qaeda affiliates, which likely stems from their desire to counter ISIS’s influence in the region, increases the security threat to northern Mali as the groups integrate their resources, personal networks, and lines of communication.

2. The Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) assassinated its first high-profile target in Yemen. ISIS Wilayat Aden-Abyan claimed responsibility for a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device attack that killed the Governor of Aden and threatened to launch additional attacks on Yemeni government officials. ISIS will likely attempt to leverage this spectacular attack to drive recruitment in the region, possibly in competition with AQAP elements regenerating in neighboring Abyan governorate. ISIS's growing strength in Aden will threaten the Saudi-led coalition's efforts to secure the city and restore President Hadi's government there.

3. The International Atomic Energy Agency is likely to close its investigation into the possible military dimensions (PMD) of Iran's nuclear program following the release of its report on December 2. The report assesses that while Iran made a “coordinated effort” to develop a “nuclear explosive device” before the end of 2003, there are no “credible indications of activities in Iran relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device after 2009.” Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi claimed that the report proves “the peaceful nature” of Iran’s nuclear program and called upon the P5+1 to close Iran’s PMD file at the IAEA Board of Governors in December.

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2015-12-08 CTP Update and Assessment

  1. 1. AEI’S CRITICAL THREATS PROJECT UPDATE AND ASSESSMENT December 8, 2015
  2. 2. TOP THREE TAKEAWAYS 2 1 3 1. Al Murabitoun, under Mokhtar Belmokhtar, formally united with AQIM, consolidating al Qaeda’s network in the Maghreb and Sahel and increasing the security threat to northern Mali as the groups integrate their resources, personal networks, and lines of communication. 2. ISIS assassinated its first high-profile target in Yemen, demonstrating the group’s growing capabilities in southern Yemen and its ability to disrupt coalition objectives there. 3. The International Atomic Energy Agency is likely to close its investigation into the possible military dimensions of Iran's nuclear activities following the release of its December 2 report. 2
  3. 3. ASSESSMENT: al Qaeda Network Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri praised the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo attack and called on Muslims to wage jihad within the United States and Europe in a video released on December 1. Zawahiri’s speech, entitled, “Support Your Prophet,” was likely recorded in late spring 2015 and also included a short eulogy for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula’s religious scholar Harith bin Ghazi al Nadhari (d. January 31, 2015). Al Sahab, al Qaeda’s media group, issued a November 30 message apologizing for delays in releases from Zawahiri, citing security and administrative issues as cause. There is initial evidence loosely connecting the San Bernardino shooters to the al Qaeda network, including Syed Rizwan Farook’s contact with individuals associated with al Qaeda affiliates al Shabaab and Jabhat al Nusra. A shooter pledged support to the Islamic State just before the attack, but there is a possibility that the al Qaeda network played a part in radicalizing the individuals. Outlook: Al Qaeda will likely continue to pursue a long-term strategy in which it builds strength among its affiliates and benefits from the West’s focus on defeating the ISIS threat. 3 AL QAEDA
  4. 4. ASSESSMENT: Political UN Special Envoy to Yemen Ismail Ould Cheikh Ahmed announced that peace talks will begin in Geneva on December 15. All parties have agreed to implement a humanitarian ceasefire in Yemen in conjunction with the peace talks. Outlook: The combatants will continue to consolidate territory and clash along the frontlines in advance of the talks. Security Al Houthi-Saleh forces launched a series of ground assaults along the Saudi Arabian border, attacking civilian and military targets in Jazan and Najran provinces in southern Saudi Arabia. Saudi troops repulsed the attacks, though the al Houthis claimed to destroy Saudi military equipment and infrastructure. The Saudi-led coalition continued to prepare for a transition from combat to security operations, with Morocco pledging to send 1,500 special forces and military police to Yemen and the United Arab Emirates announcing a plan to integrate popular resistance fighters into Yemeni government security forces in Aden. Outlook: The Saudi-led coalition will continue its airstrike campaign in response to al Houthi cross-border attacks. The coalition will pursue security operations, intended to bolster President Hadi’s government in Aden, in preparation for the Geneva talks. Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and ISIS in Yemen ISIS and AQAP activity is escalating in southern Yemen. ISIS Wilayat Aden-Abyan assassinated the Governor of Aden, Jaafar Mohammed Saad, with a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED). Ansar al Sharia, AQAP’s insurgent force in Yemen, took control of two towns in Abyan governorate, including Zinjibar, the regional capital. Ansar al Sharia nominally withdrew from the town of Ja’ar but established a local governing council there. Jalal Bal’idi al Marqishi, a key Ansar al Sharia leader who was the face of AQAP in Abyan in 2011-2012, survived a reported airstrike in Zinjibar. Outlook: ISIS and AQAP will continue to target high-profile officials and take control of territory, respectively. The increase in ISIS and AQAP activity in southern Yemen will undermine the Saudi-led coalition’s efforts to secure Aden and reinforce the legitimacy of the Hadi government in its de facto capital. 4 YEMENGULF OF ADEN
  5. 5. SIGNIFICANT ACTIVITY: 5 YEMENGULF OF ADEN 1) 01 DEC: Al Houthi forces launched ground assaults in Jazan and Najran provinces, Saudi Arabia. 2) 02 DEC: AQAP- linked Ansar al Sharia militants overran Ja’ar and Zinjibar in Abyan governorate. 3) 05-06 DEC: Gunmen assassinated a judge, an energy official, and two senior security officers in Aden city. 4) 06 DEC: ISIS Wilayat Aden-Abyan assassinated the governor of Aden. 1 2 3 4
  6. 6. ASSESSMENT: Political Conflict between Galmudug and Puntland security forces is escalating in Galkayo city in Mudug region following the attempted assassination of a Galmudug parliamentarian. Security forces from the two administrations violated multiple ceasefires mediated by the Somali Federal Government (SFG). The African Union and the East African bloc, the Intergovernmental Authority on Development, condemned the violence, which has caused thousands of residents to flee Galkayo. Outlook: The Puntland and Galmudug administrations will likely take advantage of the international pressure to gain concessions from the SFG. The ongoing security vacuum provides an opportunity for Islamist groups to expand in the region. Security African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) officials pledged to send peacekeepers to Galkayo if the SFG requests assistance to stabilize the city. Additionally, a confirmed U.S. airstrike killed a senior al Shabaab commander in Kuunyo-Barrow, Lower Shabelle region. Outlook: An AMISOM presence in Galkayo would strain the coalition’s already overburdened resources, likely detracting from its ability to effectively combat al Shabaab. Al Shabaab Al Shabaab continues its efforts to stop its members from defecting to the Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS). An American al Shabaab member who surrendered to the Somali government reported fleeing amid major inter-group clashes with pro-ISIS militants. Additionally, al Shabaab attacked a former member who pledged allegiance to ISIS, indicating that al Shabaab is selectively targeting high-profile defectors. Al Shabaab also ambushed Kenyan Defense Forces (KDF) in Kenya, indicating the group’s capability to cross the Kenyan-Somali border and evade security forces for long enough to plant improvised explosive devices (IEDs). Pro-al Shabaab social media accounts are actively calling for Kenyans to join al Shabaab. Outlook: Al Shabaab will likely continue its efforts to open a front in northeastern Kenya. 6 HORN OF AFRICAGULF OF ADEN
  7. 7. SIGNIFICANT ACTIVITY: HORN OF AFRICAGULF OF ADEN 1 3 2 4 7 1) 07 DEC: Al Shabaab ambushed a KDF patrol in Ishakani, Lamu County. 2) 03 DEC: A VBIED killed a journalist in Mogadishu, Banadir region. 3) 05-06 DEC: SNA forces thwarted IED attacks and launched a security sweep in Bulo-Burde, Hiraan region. 4) 04 DEC: Assailants attempted to assassinate a Galmudug MP in Galkayo, Mudug region.
  8. 8. ASSESSMENT: Political Dissenting Tobruk-based House of Representatives (HoR) and Tripoli-based General National Congress (GNC) MPs endorsed a new reconciliation framework that effectively removes the international community from the Libyan peace process. HoR leadership and the UN opposed this decision, while GNC leadership praised the group’s efforts. Outlook: The rise of a newly defined voting bloc within the two parliaments will derail efforts to bring the internationally- endorsed unity plan to a vote and will further divide the HoR and GNC. Security The Libyan National Army (LNA), affiliated with the HoR, continued air operations in Ajdabiya in response to ISIS Wilayat Barqa’s assassination campaign in the city. The LNA also intensified its air and ground operations targeting ISIS and Ansar al Sharia-held positions in western Benghazi, Libya. Outlook: The LNA will continue to focus on Ajdabiya in an attempt to prevent an ISIS takeover. Ansar al Sharia and ISIS in Libya A large ISIS Wilayat Tarablus convoy, laden with heavy weapons, departed from Harawa, Sirte, and appeared to head toward Petroleum Forces Guard (PFG) positions near As Sidra, Libya. The convoy’s movements suggest that ISIS Wilayat Tarablus will attack PFG positions as part of a shaping operation before attempting to seize oil wells near Ras Lanuf and Brega, Libya. The al Qaeda-linked Mujahideen Shura Council of Derna (MSCD) executed Murad al Sabaa, an alleged leader of ISIS Wilayat Barqa, in Derna, Libya. Outlook: ISIS Wilayat Tarablus forces will likely attack PFG defensive positions near As Sidra and Ras Lanuf, Libya in preparation for an operation focused on seizing oil infrastructure in the country. 8 LIBYAWEST AFRICA
  9. 9. SIGNIFICANT ACTIVITY: LIBYAWEST AFRICA 1 23 4 9 1) 01 DEC: Somali and Boko Haram reinforcement convoys arrived in Sirte, Libya. 2) 01 DEC: MSCD forces executed an alleged ISIS Wilayat Barqa leader in Derna, Libya. 3) 02 DEC: Suspected ISIS Wilayat Barqa assassins attempted to kill the LNA Judiciary Minister in Bayda’, Libya. 4) 06 DEC: An armed ISIS Wilayat Tarablus convoy departed from Harawa and headed towards PFG positions near As Sidra, Libya.
  10. 10. ASSESSMENT: AQIM AQIM is consolidating its influence and reasserting its authority in the region by publishing media about the execution of traitors, militants’ speeches to tribes, and the incitement of jihad against France. Al Murabitoun reunited with AQIM, increasing the security threat in Mali due to the groups’ combined resources, men, and traveling routes. Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the emir of al Murabitoun, has valuable ties to northern Malian communities that will benefit AQIM as it seeks to unite groups and increase control in the region. Outlook: AQIM will continue to increase its presence in Mali as it unifies the radical Islamist militants in the region. AQIM will publish more statements and conduct small scale attacks against French forces throughout the region. Ansar al Sharia (Tunisia) The Uqba Ibn Nafa’a Brigade, an AQIM affiliate, continued to evade military operations and civilian interactions. The group did not publish any media, contrary to its typical activity, indicating that it is laying low in response to heightened security following the November 24 ISIS-claimed bus bombing in Tunis. Tunisian forces arrested members from ISIS-affiliated groups Jund al Khilafa in the Beja governorate and the al Forqan Brigade in the city of Sousse. Outlook: Uqba Ibn Nafa’a Brigade may begin to publish statements again calling for jihad or criticizing the military. It will continue to avoid open conflict with the Tunisian military unless provoked by security operations near its stronghold in Mount Chaambi. Associated Movements in the Sahel (Ansar al Din, al Murabitoun) Ansar al Din in northern Mali and the Macina Liberation Front (MLF) in southern Mali continued to operate against Malian, French, and MINUSMA security forces, but did not conduct any direct attacks. The groups’ association with AQIM suggests they will also benefit from the union of AQIM and al Murabitoun. Outlook: Ansar al Din and its affiliates will continue to target UN, French, and Malian security forces, as well as those who cooperate with these forces, in order to destabilize the region and disrupt the implementation of the peace agreement. 10 MAGHREB AND SAHELWEST AFRICA
  11. 11. SIGNIFICANT ACTIVITY: 11 MAGHREBWEST AFRICA 4 1) 01 DEC: ISIS Wilayat Algeria conducted an IED attack in Constantine, Algeria. 2) 01 – 03 DEC: ANP conducted a clearing operation and killed seven terrorists in Tizi Ouzou, Algeria. 3) 03 DEC: Police arrested eight Jund al Khilafah members and one Ansar al Sharia member in Beja, Tunisia. 4) 03 - 05 DEC: Police arrested five AQIM members in Medenine, Tunisia. 12 3
  12. 12. ASSESSMENT: Reactions to the Nuclear Deal The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) assessed that while Iran made a “coordinated effort” to develop a “nuclear explosive device” before the end of 2003, there are no “credible indications of activities in Iran relevant to the development of a nuclear explosive device after 2009” in a December 2 report. The IAEA report examined the possible military dimensions (PMD) of Iran’s nuclear activities, as stipulated by the nuclear agreement. Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi claimed that the IAEA report proves “the peaceful nature” of Iran’s nuclear program and called upon the P5+1 to close Iran’s PMD file at the IAEA Board of Governors. The regime is strongly pushing for the closure of Iran’s PMD file, as it is concerned the West will exploit an open file as an opportunity to re-impose sanctions. Outlook: Evidence surrounding Iran’s past nuclear activities is unlikely to prevent the closure of its PMD file at the IAEA Board of Governors in December. Regional Developments and Diplomacy Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan claimed during a televised speech on December 3 that he has privately warned President Hassan Rouhani against “participating in Russian slander” toward Turkey. Erdoğan’s speech followed claims by Russian officials and Iranian news outlets that his family has profited from the oil trade with ISIS. In response to Erdoğan’s speech, Iranian Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hossein Jaberi Ansari issued a statement urging neighboring countries to show “decency and mutual respect” and to avoid policies that “intentionally or unintentionally” support terrorism. Expediency Discernment Council Secretary Mohsen Rezaei also claimed on December 4 that Iranian advisors in Syria have proof that ISIS is selling oil to Turkey. Outlook: Iran will continue to side with Russia in disputes regarding Turkish policies. 12 IRAN
  13. 13. SIGNIFICANT ACTIVITY:IRAN 13 DEC 1: IRGC Ground Forces Commander Brigadier General Mohammad Pakpour warned that Iran will face domestic terrorism if it does not confront terrorism in Iraq and Syria. DEC 2: The International Atomic Energy Agency issued its report on the possible military dimensions (PMD) of Iran’s nuclear program. DEC 2: Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi claimed that the IAEA report proves “the peaceful nature” of Iran’s nuclear program and called upon the P5+1 to close Iran’s PMD file at the IAEA Board of Governors. DEC 2: The Supreme Leader’s Senior Foreign Policy Advisor Ali Akbar Velayati stressed that any settlement aimed at preventing Syrian President Bashar al Assad from running for reelection would be “unacceptable.” DEC 2: Iran and Russia reached an agreement to “continue Russian technical services” for the Bushehr nuclear power plant. DEC 3: Iranian news outlets reported that an IRGC Navy officer was killed in Syria. DEC 3: Iran and the P5+1 began a new round of negotiations in Vienna and discussions on official procedures to close Iran’s PMD file. DEC 3: Russia reportedly began the delivery process of the S-300 surface-to-air missile systems to Iran. DEC 3: Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan claimed that he warned President Hassan Rouhani against “participating in Russian slander” after Russian officials and Iranian news outlets circulated reports claiming that Erdoğan’s family profits from the oil trade with ISIS. DEC 4: Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hossein Jaberi Ansari responded to Erdoğan by issuing a statement urging neighboring countries to show “decency” and to avoid policies that “intentionally or unintentionally” support terrorism. DEC 4: Expediency Discernment Council Secretary Mohsen Rezaei claimed that Iranian advisors in Syria have recorded ISIS selling oil to Turkey. DEC 5: The Supreme Leader’s Senior Foreign Policy Advisor Ali Akbar Velayati stated that Iran will not engage in direct talks with the U.S. regarding regional issues and reiterated Iran’s support for Assad. DEC 7: Rouhani called on the Iranian nation to vote for a “powerful” Parliament in the 2016 elections and reiterated that the government does not support political organizations and factional blocs. DEC 7: Iranian Cyber Police (FATA) Chief IRGC Brigadier General Second Class Kamal Hadianfar stated that FATA has arrested 53 “ISIS supporters” and blocked 132 pro-ISIS websites in the past twenty months. 1 – 7 DEC
  14. 14. ACRONYMS 14 Atomic Energy Organization of Iran (AEOI) International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) al Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS) Coordination for the Movement of the Azawad (CMA) Imghad Tuareg and Allies Self-Defense Group (GATIA) Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) Libyan National Army (LNA) Arab Movement of Azawad (MAA) United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA) Mujahideen Shura Council in Derna (MSCD) National Movement for the Liberation of the Azawad (MNLA) The Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) Pakistani Military (PakMil) Possible military dimensions (PMD) Somalia National Army (SNA) Tehrik-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP)
  15. 15. AEI’S CRITICAL THREATS PROJECT Frederick W. Kagan director fkagan@aei.org (202) 888-6569 Katherine Zimmerman senior al Qaeda analyst katherine.zimmerman@aei.org (202) 888-6576 Paul Bucala Iran analyst paul.bucala@aei.org (202) 888-6573 Marie Donovan Iran analyst marie.donovan@aei.org (202) 888-6572 Heather Malacaria program manager heather.malacaria@aei.org (202) 888-6575 Emily Estelle al Qaeda analyst emily.estelle@aei.org (202) 888-6570 Mehrdad Moarefian Iran analyst mehrdad.moarefian@aei.org (202) 888-6574 Caitlin Pendleton Iran analyst caitlin.pendleton@aei.org (202) 888-6577 For more information about AEI’s Critical Threats Project, visit www.criticalthreats.org. 15

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