Intelligence news on Terrorism/Insurgency
The Derna-based Shura Council of Islamic Youth (SCIY) held a seminar on 5 October at which it declared its allegiance to the Islamic State’s ‘caliphate’ and called upon all Libyans to reject the “blasphemous principles of the [democratic] State”.
The SCIY is a militant Islamist militia established in April 2014 in Derna from the merger of the Army of the Islamic State of Libya and the Derna branch of Ansar al-Sharia. Ansar al-Sharia branches in Derna, Benghazi and Sirte share an almost identical ideology with Islamic State. In contrast, Tripoli-based Islamist groups probably aspire to control Libya’s oil exports, and some disagree with the Islamic State ideologically, while others are probably concerned that overtly supporting the Islamic State would lead to international sanctions being imposed on them.
The SCIY’s decision to join the caliphate is probably an attempt to obtain religious credibility as well as funding and military tactical assistance from Islamic State, as the group is still battling against its rival Islamist militia, the Abu Salim Martyrs’ Brigade (ABSM), to secure full control of Derna. According to social media sources, a group of Libyan fighters who were members of Islamic State in Syria returned to Derna ahead of SCIY’s pledge of allegiance. Social media sources also reported that the group would nominate an emir in the next few days to govern over the newest wilaiya (province) of the caliphate. Local media have also reported that Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi would soon announce its support for Islamic State, with the group likely to wait until Islamists have secured full control of the city from General Khalifa Haftar’s Operation Dignity forces.
Fighting in Derna between rival Islamist groups is likely. If Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi does pledge allegiance to Islamic State, the two would probably either focus their efforts on neutralising airports still controlled by Gen Haftar, such as Martouba and Labraq, or, less likely, attempt to capture energy facilities along the Gulf of Sirte.
An explosion in the Shebaa Farms area along the Lebanon-Israel border targeted an Israel Defence Forces (IDF) position on 7 October, wounding two Israeli soldiers.
Hizbullah, which does ordinarily not declare its involvement in border operations, swiftly claimed responsibility for the attack. Two days earlier, Israel reportedly prevented an attempt by Hizbullah to infiltrate its northern border leading to a shootout in which a Lebanese soldier was wounded. Hizbullah’s official position was that the Shebaa Farms incident was in response to the killing of Hizbullah operative Hassan Ali on 5 September when an Israeli unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) detonated an Israeli espionage device he was inspecting. However, Hizbullah’s claim of responsibility and its statements following the attack suggest the operation was designed to shore up its role as the Lebanese resistance to Israel and Sunni militants, which it depicts as being interrelated.
In an article published by Hizbullah’s news site Al-Manar, following the operation Hizbullah describes Israel and the ‘takfiris’ (which in this context would include Al-Nusra Front and Islamic State) as being one enemy. This is in keeping with Hizbullah messaging since its involvement in Syria – where it is fighting on the side of President Bashar al-Assad – that its ability to respond to Israel has not been constrained as a result. The operation therefore aimed to back up Hizbullah’s claims that it can fight on multiple fronts.
Hizbullah is determined to demonstrate that its role as the Lebanese resistance to Israel has not been undermined by its involvement in the Syria conflict. However, as Israel and Hizbullah both assess that the other side does not want to escalate, these types of incidents highlight the risk of miscalculation that would result in a broader conflict, along the lines of the 2006 war but with the potential to broaden to far more frequent and accurate missile attacks against Israel, and much broader destruction of Lebanese infrastructure and security forces.
IN A STATEMENT released on 1 October, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) claimed responsibility for a grenade attack targeting an Ansar Allah vehicle on Airport Road in Yemen’s capital Sanaa earlier that day. AQAP claimed that Ansar Allah had fallen injured during the attack.
- The latest video from Boko Haram appears to show its shadowy leader mocking Nigerian security service claims that the killing of an “imposter” two weeks earlier proved that its charismatic figurehead was long dead.
- Although there is no independent evidence confirming Shekau’s status, Boko Haram is easily winning the propaganda war, which will inspire its fighters and supporters and further erode the crumbling morale of the Nigerian army.
- A likely assault by Boko Haram on its birthplace of Maiduguri against a military weakened by a series of mutiny trials risks provoking army mutiny on a wide scale, and even a coup attempt by northern officers and soldiers resentful of a likely second full term for President Goodluck Jonathan.
The appearance of a video purportedly featuring Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau, days after Nigerian authorities reasserted he was dead, is likely to inspire the militant group to a fresh assault and cause further dissension within the ranks of Nigeria’s fragile army.
A video released by Boko Haram was made public on 2 October and showed what appeared to be leader Abubakar Shekau mocking Nigerian military’s 24 September claims that he was dead. The 36-minute video shows him making reference to the “caliphate” Boko Haram has been running in the northeast of the country after holding on to towns it has attacked, and the recording features graphic scenes of a stoning and amputation as well as a beheading of what appears to be of one of the pilots of a Nigerian air force aircraft that went missing on 12 September.
The Nigerian security services have continued to insist that Shekau is dead. They also maintain that the man they claim has been impersonating Shekau in videos for more than a year – Bashir Mohammed – was allegedly killed in a gun battle with soldiers from the Joint Task Force in Konduga on 17 September. The military claims that the still photograph and video evidence proves their case, backed up by testimonies from captured or surrendered militants. This in turn supposedly validates its claim, first made a year ago, that Shekau died in July or August 2013 in Cameroon of wounds sustained in a raid on Sambisa Forest. Several statements since the latest video was released said it contains no proof that it was recorded after Bashir Mohammed was killed.
The military’s claim to have killed Shekau is supported by Dr Stephen Davis, an Australian who has long-standing contacts with Boko Haram and has been involved in negotiations for the release of the schoolgirls abducted from Chibok in May. He said he had long believed Shekau died on or around 19 June 2013, and had been told by several senior Boko Haram commanders since then that Shekau was dead, and subsequently impersonated in videos. However, former US ambassador to Nigeria John Campbell, and Ahmed Salkida, a journalist long recognised as having the closest links to Boko Haram, both insisted that Shekau was still alive, even before the release of the latest video.
Military sources had followed up the alleged death of the Shekau imposter by citing the failure of several Boko Haram attacks on Konduga, and the subsequent surrender of two large groups amounting to around 300 fighters, as evidence that they were finally turning the tide. Dr Davis claimed the surrenders were a result of Boko Haram fighters realising they had been following a “fake” Shekau and had been manipulated by the political sponsors behind the militant group. However, IHS sources indicate that the “militants” who surrendered were individuals seized during Boko Haram’s drive to capture territory in the northeast in the last two months. They were then forced to fight for Boko Haram in order to preserve their lives and those of their families, but took the first opportunity to turn themselves in.
Hard to prove
In the absence of independent evidence, it is not possible to confirm if Shekau is dead or alive. However, it is increasingly evident that the Nigerian military is losing the propaganda war, and that is likely to be costly. Even with their claim that the deceased Bashir Mohammed is the same man who has been appearing in recent Boko Haram videos, the visual evidence released by the military to allegedly show they are the same man is far from compelling. In fact, the video has caused controversy as it appears to support the view that the “fake Shekau” was captured alive before being extra-judicially executed. Nigerian media outlets have questioned why this would happen when a public confession could have validated military claims. Dr Davis told Nigerian media that the “fake Shekau” was not only “a great source of information about Boko Haram sponsors” but that he was captured alive.
The military’s insistence that Shekau was dead was already being widely questioned in Nigeria before the latest Boko Haram video put the armed forces firmly back on the defensive. Even accepting the military view, in a statement on the Nigerian Defence Headquarters website that Boko Haram could “manipulate pictures, clone another Shekau or upload a pre-recorded video all in a bid to prove invincible”, they cannot prove their case. The figure in all videos since September 2013 appears to be the same man, and his appearance, use of language, speech patterns, and gestures are all consistent with what is known of Shekau before Boko Haram was initially suppressed in July 2009. Furthermore, no suicide bombers carrying out attacks on behalf of Boko Haram have ever cited the death of Shekau as an inspiration in their “martyrdom” statements, in contrast to the many references to Boko Haram founder Mohammed Yusuf after he was extra-judicially executed by security forces, again in July 2009.
Even if one accepts the military view that Shekau died around June 2013, this would imply that Boko Haram has managed to be even more successful, despite his death. The bounty of USD7 million placed on Shekau’s head by the United States in June 2013 after he was designated a global terrorist, and the NGN50-million (USD300,000) reward put up by Nigeria was at least partly predicated on the questionable belief that the removal of a ruthless and charismatic leader would cripple Boko Haram’s organisation. Over the last year, however, the group has defied a state of emergency in the states of Adamawa, Borno, and Yobe to take control of swaths of territory in those states and declare a caliphate, as well as carrying out a series of improvised explosive device (IED) attacks across the north, Middle Belt, and the federal capital Abuja.
Boko Haram has gradually been surrounding Maiduguri, the largest city in the northeast and of high symbolic value as its birthplace. They will be facing soldiers quite likely demoralised by what many will see as further evidence of the military high command’s outflanking by Boko Haram. Army morale has already been badly damaged by the death sentences handed down three weeks ago to 12 soldiers found guilty of mutiny after firing shots at their commanding officer in May. Another trial is going on at defence headquarters for 97 more soldiers, 66 of whom are accused of mutiny. The military high command may want to hand out more exemplary sentences, but face a severe risk of provoking mutinies and desertion on a much wider scale. If, as is likely, this is coupled with a renewed Boko Haram offensive, and simmering resentment amongst northern officers and soldiers over a continuation of a southern stranglehold on power through a likely election victory for President Goodluck Jonathan, a military coup attempt would become more likely. That would in turn increase the likelihood of a much wider conflict, if not civil war.
It is likely the release of the video will inspire Boko Haram fighters and galvanise them for an all-out assault on the city to take full control over a large and continuous area of territory and complete the “Islamic caliphate” boasted of by “Shekau” in the latest video