Weekly Roundup: Deadly terrorist attack in Egypt, outcry over slave trade in Libya, and shakeups in Saudi Arabia


Egypt

Militants detonated a bomb inside a crowded Sufi mosque in the Sinai Peninsula on Friday and opened gunfire on worshipers, killing at least 305 people and wounding at least 128 others. Egyptian officials said it is the deadliest terrorist attack in the country’s modern history. No group claimed responsibility for the attack, but Wilayat Sinai, the local ISIS affiliate, has killed a number of Sufis in the area and singled out the district where the attack took place as a potential target. The attack on the mosque was particularly shocking, as while ISIS has targeted Coptic Christian churches in Egypt, the group had previously avoided attacking Muslim places of worship.

 

Libya

Thirty-one migrants died after their boat capsized off the coast of Libya on Saturday. Approximately 60 were rescued, and a second boat carrying 140 migrants was picked up by the Libyan coastguard. Almost 3,000 migrants have drowned while trying to cross the Mediterranean this year. Libya is a key stop on migrant routes from Africa to Europe.

As outcry over the slave trade in Libya continues, the UN Security Council called for an investigation into the slave auctions on Tuesday. This comes after the Libyan government launched a formal investigation last week. The Council also adopted a resolution intended to crack down on human trafficking and slavery.

 

Saudi Arabia

Over the weekend Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman met defense ministers of various member countries of the Islamic Military Counter Terrorism Coalition (IMCTC). He pled to rid the world of Islamist terrorism, claiming “we will pursue it until it disappears completely from the surface of the earth.”

Journalist Thomas Friedman was quick to sing the praises of Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman this week, labelling his reform program as “Saudi Arabia’s Arab Spring.” Friedman waxed lyrical about bin Salman’s effort to modernize areas such as religion and the economy, lauding the prince’s efforts to “wrench Saudi Arabia into the 21st Century”. Time will tell if these efforts will be successful.

 

Iraq

On November 23rd, Iraqi forces launched an operation to clear ISIL fighters remaining in the desert along the Syrian border. The operation comes after Iraqi forces stormed the border town of Rawa on November 17th in a wave of fighting aiming to push the terror group out of Iraqi territory. Harakat Hezbollah al-Nujaba, a large militia the U.S. Congress is considering designating as a terror group, said that it would turn over heavy weapons to the Iraqi federal government once ISIL has been eliminated. The group also denied charges of engaging in terror activities.

On November 22nd, a project to export oil from Iraq to Kuwait became public. Iraq has hired a Japanese construction company to build a gas pipeline to Kuwait and a petrochemical plant near Baghdad in a move the country hopes will put it on track to meet World Bank targets for reducing gas flaring. The project will allow Kuwait to diversify its gas imports amidst the diplomatic crisis with Qatar, and will also undercut Shell, which worked to dominate Iraqi gas projects before pulling out of large oil projects. The quick cash from the project also comes as the federal government scrambles to find revenue ahead of the anticipated expenses of rebuilding the country in the wake of ISIL’s defeat.

 

Israel/Palestine

The tension within the Israeli state between secularism and adherence to Jewish law again came to the fore this week, with the resignation of Health Minister Yaakov Litzman in protest at the carrying out of state railroad maintenance on the Sabbath. Litzman, chairman of the Haredi (Ultra-Orthodox) United Torah Judaism party—a coalition partner to the governing Likud party— responded to pressure from the party’s constituency and tendered his resignation to Prime Minister Netanyahu on Sunday. Further proposed legislation allowing commercial activities on Shabbat threatened to deepen the rift between Likud and its Haredi coalition partners, although the Prime Minister appears to have prevented this for now by advancing a bill that would give the Interior Minister the power to strike down any future municipal bylaws allowing trading on Shabbat.

 

Algeria

Algeria’s ruling parties retained their majorities in local elections on Thursday. Approximately 23 million Algerians out of a total population of 40 million were eligible to vote for 1,541 seats; voter turnout stood at 46.83 percent. The National Liberation Front (FLN) and the National Rally for Democracy (RND) won 30.56 percent and 23.21 percent of open seats, respectively. Ailing president Abdelaziz Bouteflika made a rare public appearance on Thursday, calling upon Algerians to participate in elections and casting his vote at a local school in Algiers.

 

Turkey

Turkey is ignoring NATO’s threats and will proceed with the purchase of a Russian air defence system. There had been talk about whether NATO will somehow punish Turkey for its purchase of the S-400 air defence system. NATO is worried its own air defence systems could be compromised or interoperability could be hindered. It has warned Turkey about the ramifications of such a purchase.

Turkey will this week press the UK government to extradite fugitive businessmen and activists living in Britain who were allegedly involved in the 2016 failed military coup in Ankara and Istanbul.

Turkey is churning over the prosecution by the American authorities of two prominent Turks accused of conspiring to violate United States sanctions against Iran. After a failed campaign to persuade American officials to drop the case, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan last week turned to damage control, angrily denigrating the whole judicial process. The trial started in a Lower Manhattan courtroom on November 26.

 

Lebanon

Former Prime Minister Saad Hariri returned to Lebanon this week. In a statement issued on November 25th, he said that he will not accept Hezbollah’s positions that affect the security and stability of other Arab states. On the same day, Hezbollah’s International Relations officer stated that they are open to dialogue and cooperation with all partners in the country.

 

Syria

At least 23 civilians were killed in Syria following government airstrikes just outside the capital, Damascus, and 34 civilians, including 15 children, were killed in a village held by ISIL in eastern Der Az Zor. This comes two days before the UN peace talks between the government and the opposition forces scheduled in Geneva on November 28.

The US Defense Department is expected to announce it has around 2,000 troops currently deployed to Syria. The previous estimate and officially-recognized cap of 503 is a function of an Obama-era program known as the Force Management Level (FML). The FML was intended to exert control over the process of increasing troop strength in Iraq and Syria.  

Meanwhile US President Donald Trump has pledged to Turkey’s leaders that he will suspend the flow of US weapons to Syrian Kurdish militia YPG, the US’s principal ally in fighting IS in Syria. Turkey has long opposed US backing of the Kurdish group, which Turkey rightly considers an extension of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The PKK has waged an insurgency against the Turkish government since the late 1970’s, and is designated a terrorist organization by both the US and European Union.

 

Yemen

The Saudi led coalition has allowed a UN aid ship to dock at the rebel held port of Hodeidah. The ship is reported to be carrying 5,500 tonnes of flour and other food aid to alleviate the growing humanitarian crisis there, enough to feed 1.8 million people for a month. Aid agencies say that the war and blockade has left an estimated 7 million people facing famine. The charity Save the Children claims an estimated 20,000 Yemeni children under the age of five were joining the ranks of the severely malnourished every month, “an average of 27 children every hour”. This follows the decision on Saturday to allow UN aid flights in and out of Sanaa.

 

Qatar

Iran and Turkey signed a deal with Qatar on Sunday aimed at boosting commercial ties in the midst of the Saudi led blockade there. Iranian state media announced that  the agreement will provide for the creation of a “joint working group to facilitate the transit of goods between the three countries.”

 

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