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Terrorism & Security

A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

US Special Representative for North Korea Policy Glyn Davies speaks to the media in Beijing, January 25. The US envoy for the North Korean nuclear dispute said on Friday that North Korea's rhetoric was deeply troubling and counterproductive, after Pyongyang threatened to attack South Korea if Seoul joined a new round of tightened UN Sanctions. (Jason Lee/Reuters)

After threatening the US, North Korea turns its ire on South Korea

By Staff writer / 01.25.13

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

North Korea today issued yet another verbal volley in response to the United Nations’ condemnation of the launching of a satellite late last year, this time directing its threats at South Korea.

Pyongyang’s sharp words have exasperated the international community – even China, its most critical ally, which voiced its frustration in an editorial today after backing punitive UN measures against the North earlier this week. 

Pyongyang warned Seoul that if it signed on to the series of fresh international sanctions against the North, it would retaliate. 

"Sanctions mean a war and a declaration of war against us,” the North's Committee for the Peaceful Reunification of Korea said today, according to Reuters. "If the puppet group of traitors takes a direct part in the UN 'sanctions,' the DPRK will take strong physical counter-measures against it.”

Earlier this week, the UN Security Council members unanimously condemned Pyongyang’s rocket launch in December and expanded current sanctions. The US followed up with sanctions of its own yesterday, prompting North Korea to threaten additional rocket launches and nuclear tests against the US, its “sworn enemy.” 

Whether there is any substance to these threats is unclear. As The Wall Street Journal notes, “North Korea often threatens the South with attack without following through with action.”  

But South Korean defense ministry officials said this week that they believe the North could follow through with its threat to detonate a nuclear explosive at any time, and US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said that even if there are no signs that a test is forthcoming, "They have the capability, frankly, to conduct these tests in a way that make it very difficult to determine whether or not they are doing it,” according to The Wall Street Journal.

The Christian Science Monitor’s Peter Grier writes that US officials seem torn over how seriously to take the North’s threats. Mr. Panetta said earlier this month, referring to a North Korean satellite launch in December, that “North Korea just fired a missile. It’s an intercontinental ballistic missile, for God sakes. That means they have the capability to strike the United States.” His predecessor, Secretary Robert Gates, warned the North could reach the US with a missile by 2015 or 2016.

But, Mr. Grier also writes, “North Korean officials have long talked with bellicosity unmatched in geostrategic circles.”

Some say that when it comes to their nuclear missile programs, this chest thumping is largely a bluff – pro wrestling drama translated for an international stage.

Their past missile tests have been maximized to give the appearance of performance, and they have never exploded an actual nuclear warhead design, according to RAND analyst Markus Schiller.

Thus concerns about their missile tests are overblown, wrote Mr. Schiller in a lengthy 2012 report on North Korea’s missile programs. 

“Every launch further depletes the limited North Korean arsenals, and North Korea gains no real experience from these events. Since the purpose of the launches seems to be political, the United States and other nations should downplay or even ignore them,” he writes. 

China, Pyongyang’s biggest trading partner and most critical ally, has appointed itself the unofficial mediator between the North and the international community. In an editorial, the Global Times asserts that China cannot take sides, nor will it  “stay aloof” from the dispute between the North and South and its international backers.  

But in the editorial, Beijing voiced exasperation with Pyongyang’s recalcitrance and provocative actions.

It seems that North Korea does not appreciate China's efforts. It criticized China without explicitly naming it in its statement yesterday: "Those big countries, which are obliged to take the lead in building a fair world order, are abandoning without hesitation even elementary principles, under the influence of the US' arbitrary and high-handed practices, and failing to come to their senses."

China's role and position are clear when discussing North Korea issue in the UN Security Council. If North Korea engages in further nuclear tests, China will not hesitate to reduce its assistance to North Korea. If the US, Japan and South Korea promote extreme UN sanctions on North Korea, China will resolutely stop them and force them to amend these draft resolutions.

Just let North Korea be "angry." We can't sit by and do nothing just because we are worried it might impact the Sino-North Korean relationship. Just let the US, Japan and South Korea grumble about China. We have no obligation to soothe their feelings.

In this file image made from video last month, North Korea's Unha-3 rocket lifts off from the Sohae launching station in Tongchang-ri, North Korea. (KRT via AP Video/AP/File)

North Korea threatens new nuclear test 'aimed' at US (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.24.13

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

Two days after the United Nations condemned North Korea with further sanctions for its December rocket launch, the secretive country vowed to respond with a nuclear weapons test aimed at its “enemy,” the United States.

The United Nations Security Council – including North Korea’s closest ally and biggest trading partner, China – voted unanimously on Tuesday to strengthen sanctions against North Korea for its Dec. 12 long-range rocket launch, which violated previous agreements with the UN.

When the launch took place last month, North Korea stated its intentions were entirely peaceful, and that it was exercising its “right to use space” for peaceful purposes.

Today, however, North Korea’s tune seemed to change. "We are not disguising the fact that the various satellites and long-range rockets that we will fire and the high-level nuclear test we will carry out are targeted at the United States," North Korea's National Defense Commission said, Reuters reports, citing the state news agency KCNA.

The commission described the UN Security Council as “a marionette of the US,” and said the Security Council “should apologize for its crime of seriously encroaching upon the independence of a sovereign state ... and repeal all the unreasonable 'resolutions' at once.”

If North Korea were to carry out a nuclear test “of a higher level,” as noted today, it would be the country’s third. Its previous tests were conducted in 2006 and 2009, “both times just weeks after being punished with UN sanctions for launching long-range rockets,” according to Fox News.

But this time, some international observers believe North Korea’s technological ability to conduct nuclear testing has advanced.  Bloomberg reports the country has “enough weaponized plutonium for four to eight basic nuclear weapons,” according to estimates by the Stanford University nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker, who visited North Korea’s atomic facilities, including one for atomic uranium-enrichment, in 2010.

The Associated Press reports that North Korea may be aiming to use "a device made from highly enriched uranium, which is easier to miniaturize than the plutonium bombs it tested in 2006 and 2009,” according to Cheong Seong-chang, an analyst at the private Sejong Institute in South Korea. Further tests are necessary before North Korea can create an atomic weapon small enough to launch as a warhead attached to a long-range missile, according to the Associated Press.

Leader Kim Jong-un may be trying to bolster his legitimacy at home and on the world stage by continuing his father’s “military first” policies.

“North Korea has unfortunately resorted to their classic play of brinkmanship,” Huh Moon-young, director of the Center for North Korean Studies at the state-run Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul, told Bloomberg. “In this totalitarian regime, the dictatorship is maintained not through winning the hearts of the impoverished public with money, but with consolidation through a show of military might.”

International response to North Korea’s threat today was quick, according to the Telegraph. The US special envoy to North Korea, Glyn Davies, urged the country and Mr. Kim not to move forward with the test, calling it a potential “mistake and a missed opportunity.”

The transition team for the incoming South Korean government, due to be sworn in on Friday, has also appealed to Pyongyang not to take any steps that would aggravate tensions in the region, while Japan is to launch a new spy satellite on Sunday with the express task of monitoring missile and nuclear tests in North Korea.

China, North Korea's sole significant ally, even [came] down against Pyongyang's intransigence, with Xi Jinping, the next president, telling a visiting delegation of politicians from South Korea that he opposes the regime developing nuclear arms or any weapons of mass destruction.

Hong Lei, a foreign ministry spokesman added: "All relevant parties should refrain from action that might escalate the situation in the region."

The New York Times notes that North Korea’s threat “marked the boldest challenge its new, untested leader, Kim Jong-un, has posed at both his country’s longtime foe, the United States, and its last remaining major ally, China, and rattled governments in Northeast Asia that are undergoing sensitive transitions of power.”

Some believe the nuclear test could occur as soon as February, reports Reuters, in order to coincide with neighboring South Korea’s President-elect Park Geun-hye taking power on Feb. 25. Another possibility is timing the test with the birthday celebration of Mr. Kim’s late father, Kim Jong-il, on Feb. 16.

“North Korea can conduct a nuclear test as soon as its leadership makes up its mind,” Army Col. Wi Yong-seob, deputy spokesman of the Defense Ministry of South Korea, told The New York Times today.

An editorial in the UAE’s Khaleej Times notes that recent rising international tensions “have again dimmed the possibility of an amicable resolution to the cold war on the Korean Peninsula.”

The right way to deal with North Korea is by engaging the country’s leadership in dialogue. Kim Jong-un, just like his father, wants to use his country’s nuclear programme to get concessions from the international community and ensure his regime’s survival, amid a hostile environment. Neither sanctions nor threats will be effective in containing North Korea’s nuclear programme. So it’s about time that the international community revives the stalled six-nation talks to deal with the issue of the Korean Peninsula’s denuclearisation.

But North Korea seems to be rebuffing diplomatic channels or the revival of six-nation talks. "Settling accounts with the US needs to be done with force, not with words, as it regards jungle law as the rule of its survival," the Democratic People's Republic of Korea said in today’s statement.

Reuters notes that the US may not be the only target of North Korea’s ire. "North Korea will have felt betrayed by China for agreeing to the latest UN resolution and they might be targeting [China] as well [with this statement]," said Lee Seung-yeol, senior research fellow at Ewha Institute of Unification Studies in Seoul.

But not everyone is taken aback by North Korea’s move today. “Over the years they’ve said the same thing again and again,” Daniel Pinkston, North East Asia Deputy Project Director for the International Crisis Group told Time. “People say North Koreans are very unpredictable or whatever, but this is very predictable.”

Russian-Syrian family leave passport control zone just after their arrival from Beirut in Moscow Domodedovo airport, Russia, Wednesday, Jan. 23. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Wednesday downplayed the evacuation of scores of Russians from Syria amid the ongoing turmoil there, insisting it was not the start of a mass evacuation from the country. (Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP)

Russia denies evacuation of 77 citizens from Syria is beginning of the end

By Staff writer / 01.23.13

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

Russia's foreign minister on Wednesday downplayed the evacuation of scores of Russians from Syria amid the ongoing turmoil there, insisting it was not the start of a mass evacuation from the country. But comments from the evacuees suggest that the situation for Russian citizens on the ground in Syria may be becoming untenable, as Kremlin support for the Assad regime puts Russians in rebels' sights.

At his annual press conference in Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov officially confirmed that 77 Russian citizens had fled Syria on Tuesday and some 1,000 in total had requested Russia's help in leaving the country, reports the Associated Press. But Mr. Lavrov denied that the move was the start of a larger evacuation effort, and said Russia's embassy in Syria would continue to operate normally.

"As for the Embassy, we proceed from the assumption that there should be no non-essential staff there," Lavrov said. "Families have left long ago, but the Embassy is continuing to function in full. There are no other plans yet, or rather we have plans for any situation but there is no talk yet about implementing them."

Russia's actions regarding its citizens in Syria have been under close watch in the West, in hopes that they might signal an about-face from Syria's biggest foreign backer.  The Kremlin has stood by the beleaguered regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad as Syrian rebels have worked to topple him, but a massive exodus of Russia's citizens in Syria – who are believed to number in the tens of thousands – would likely signal that Moscow's support was coming to an end.

The Christian Science Monitor's Fred Weir reported that experts say Tuesday's modest evacuation is a preparatory move, but not a signal of a change in Moscow's policy regarding Syria, at least not yet.

"The Russian authorities have already evacuated part of their diplomatic staff. Moscow is getting ready for a possible worsening of the situation and is taking preventive steps," says Vladimir Sotnikov, expert with the Center for International Security at the official Institute of World Economy and International Relations in Moscow....

"We are seeing only the first stage of evacuation today, and it is happening very late. It is a sign that Russia is losing confidence in the situation being resolved any time in the near future.... But we had to start taking people out of that slaughterhouse much sooner," [Vladimir Sazhin, an analyst with the official Institute of Oriental Studies in Moscow, says].

The Monitor notes that Russia has a large fleet, including several massive personnel transports, standing by in the eastern Mediterranean. Although the fleet is ostensibly participating in "war games," most observers agree that they are standing by should the order to evacuate Russian citizens from Syria be given.

That order has yet to be issued however, and at his press conference Lavrov reiterated Moscow's support of Mr. Assad, condemning as an "obsession" the rebels' insistence that he be removed from power before an end to the fighting.

"Everything runs up against the opposition members' obsession with the idea of the overthrow of the Assad regime. As long as this irreconcilable position remains in force, nothing good will happen, armed action will continue, people will die," Lavrov said, according to BBC News. 

But that support of Assad could be spurring threats to Russia's citizenry, based on comments from the evacuees who arrived in Moscow on Wednesday, reports Reuters.

Alfred Omar, 57, a resident of Syria married to a Russian woman and dressed in an jacket from Russia's Emergencies Ministry, said Moscow's policies had begun to threaten its own citizens inside the country. His lower lip trembled as he spoke.

"It's dangerous there for Russians. If the Free Syrian Army understands that a person is Russian, they'll immediately cut off their head, because they (are seen to) support Assad's regime," he said.

The evacuees described the rebels as advancing on Damascus, the Syrian capital, as part of the reason for their flight.

"The Free Syrian Army is getting closer. We've been left without money, without light, without water," Natasha Yunis, who ran a beauty salon in her adopted home of Damascus after meeting her Syrian husband, said of rebel advances on the capital.

"A bomb exploded near our house ... The children hid. Of course it was horrible," said Yunis, giving her age as about 60.

A gas field is seen near Zarzaitine in In Amenas, 994 miles southeast of Algiers Tuesday. (Louafi larbi/Reuters)

Algeria defends hardline response to hostage crisis (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.22.13

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

The Algerian government for the first time yesterday shared its account of the four-day hostage crisis and bloody rescue attempt that took place at an energy complex there last week, defending its tough response despite international criticism.

“The whole world has understood that the reaction was courageous,” Algerian Prime Minister Abdelmalek Sellal said, calling the abductions an attack “on the stability of Algeria.”

“When the security of the country is at stake," he added, "there is no possible discussion.”

The crisis came to an end over the weekend when the Algerian Army took control of the energy site in a “final assault.” The government said 38 hostages – all but one of whom were foreigners – and 29 militants died, and five hostages remain missing, according to the Algerian government. The Associated Press notes, however, that this tally of the missing conflicts with estimates from foreign governments that continue to search for citizens who are unaccounted for. There have been conflicting reports of dead, captured, and escaped throughout the crisis.

“You may have heard the last words of the terrorist chief,” Prime Minister Sellal told reporters yesterday. “He gave the order for all the foreigners to be killed, so there was a mass execution, many hostages were killed by a bullet to the head,” Sellal said in explaining his government’s choice to intervene, defending it as “the only way possible to end the standoff,” according to the AP

Sellal said three militants were captured over the weekend, but did not give their nationalities. Those involved in carrying out the attack included people from Egypt, Mali, Mauritania, Tunisia, at least two Canadians, and a man from Niger who previously worked as a driver at the energy site.

"A Canadian was among the militants. He was coordinating the attack," Sellal said on Monday. The Canadian government is working to confirm these reports,  the BBC reported.

According to a separate AP report, the attack on the Ain Amenas energy plant, which is jointly run by Algeria's state-owned oil company, British Petroleum, and Norway’s Statoil, started early Wednesday morning when militants tried to hijack two buses of workers at the energy site. In all, 790 workers, most of whom were Algerian, were on the site when the initial attack took place. Sellal described the timeline of events in three distinct phases, ending with Saturday’s second and final government-backed attack on the hostage-takers, writes The New York Times

First, the militants attacked a guarded bus carrying foreign plant workers to the airport at In Amenas, and two people aboard were killed. “They wanted to take control of this bus and take the foreign workers directly to northern Mali so they could have hostages, to negotiate with foreign countries,” he said. “But when they opened fire on the bus, there was a strong response from the gendarmes guarding it.”

After they failed to capture the bus, the prime minister said, the militants split into two groups: one to seize the complex’s living quarters, the other to capture the gas plant itself, a maze of pipes and machinery. They invaded both sections, taking dozens of hostages, attaching bombs to some and booby-trapping the plant.

At this point, he said, the facility was ringed by security forces.

Perhaps late Wednesday or early Thursday morning — Mr. Sellal described it as a nighttime episode — the kidnappers attempted a breakout. “They put explosives on the hostages. They wanted to put the hostages in four-wheel-drive vehicles and take them to Mali.”

Mr. Sellal then suggested that government helicopters immobilized the kidnappers. Witnesses have described an intense army assault, resulting in both militant and hostage deaths.

Those involved in the attack and kidnappings, including the Mali-based Masked Brigade, led by former Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb member Mokhtar Belmoktar, said the attack was in response to France’s intervention in Islamist-held northern Mali. However, a third AP report notes the attack in Algeria took at least two months of planning.

Some foreign governments were distressed that they were not informed of the Algerian intervention plan ahead of time. Algerian helicopters shot at a convoy of both hostage-takers and hostages on Thursday, resulting in hostage deaths, according to witness accounts. The Algerian government has said repeatedly it will not negotiate with terrorists, and some governments have emphasized deaths should be blamed on the terrorists, not a botched rescue attempt.

"As [President Obama] said, the blame for this tragedy rests with the terrorists who carried it out, and the United States condemns their actions in the strongest possible term," State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said in a statement. The US has not publicly criticized Algeria for its response to the hostage taking episode, reports The New York Times. Seven Americans escaped the ordeal and three have been confirmed dead.

An editorial in the Globe and Mail, however, argues that although any deaths are the responsibility of the extremists, Algeria may be on the line if its attempt to free hostages is found to have been poorly planned and executed.

Any deaths among international workers at a desert gas plant in Algeria are the responsibility of the terrorists who kidnapped them, and not their would-be rescuers. The tough, no-negotiation, no-blackmail, stance of Algerian authorities is laudable. Terrorists thrive on vacillation by governments.

But if a hastily planned and poorly executed government decision to attack the terrorists is found to have contributed to a large-scale loss of life, then Algeria will have some explaining to do, especially to the families of the victims.…

[I]t remains troubling that the military action to free the hostages, many of whom are non-Algerians, was launched without consultation with the 10 or more countries whose nationals were being held.

British Prime Minister David Cameron said he had “expressed concern” that London was not given advance notice of Algeria’s military offensive. Britain’s Foreign Office warned of “bad and distressing news”. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe protested the military raid as an act that “threatened the lives of the hostages,” and asked Algeria to halt it.

Ultimately, hostages should not be wantonly sacrificed to rigid principles. The correct decision not to negotiate with terrorists does not mean hostage lives can be thrown away.

The Times notes that although the US has not criticized Algeria’s decision to intervene, some say they would have conducted the operation differently.

“It would have been a precision approach as opposed to a sledgehammer approach,” Lt. Gen. Frank Kearney, a retired deputy commander of the United States military’s Special Operations Command, told the Times. This may have included engaging the hostage-takers in more discussions in order to pinpoint the leaders and buy officials more time. The US may also have utilized security and surveillance operations such as drones or electronic eavesdropping to better identify the locations of captors and hostages.

But others say Algeria had no choice but to respond in the way it did, according to the Times.

From the start of the siege, the Algerians were bound to respond with force, said Mansouria Mokhefi, a professor who heads the Middle East and Maghreb program at the French Institute for International Relations in Paris. The question, she said, was how bloody the outcome would be.

“Everyone knows the Algerians do not negotiate,” Dr. Mokhefi said, and surely the attackers knew this as well.…

Criticizing the Algerians for their harsh tactics, as the British and Japanese have done, simply shows “a deep lack of knowledge about this regime, of its functioning,” she said.

This October 2012 satellite image shows the Amenas Gas Field in Algeria, which is jointly operated by BP and Norway's Statoil and Algeria's Sonatrach. (DigitalGlobe/AP/File)

After deaths and escapes, Algeria hostage crisis still not over

By Staff writer / 01.18.13

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

Scores of hostages remain unaccounted for after Algerian forces raided an energy complex in the Sahara yesterday where Islamist militants took workers from at least ten countries hostage this week. Now, one week after France intervened in neighboring Mali to curb the progress of Islamist militants there, the situation in Algeria highlights the increasing complexity of militant threats in North Africa's Sahara and Sahel.

The multi-national natural gas complex in eastern Algeria near the border with Libya – a joint operation run by the Algerian state energy company, Sonatrach, Norway’s Statoil, and British Petroleum – was seized and hostages were taken on Wednesday by Islamic militants who reportedly said their actions in Algeria were a response to France’s intervention in northern Mali, according to the Washington Post.

Thursday morning, Algerian forces launched an operation at the natural gas complex to free the international group of hostages, which resulted in varying reports of casualties. Reuters reports that dozens of captives were killed in the rescue operation:

An Irish engineer who survived said he saw four jeeps full of hostages blown up by Algerian troops whose commanders said they moved in about 30 hours after the siege began because the gunmen had demanded to be allowed to take their captives abroad.

Two Japanese, two Britons and a French national were among at least seven foreigners killed, the source told Reuters. Eight dead hostages were Algerian. The nationalities of the rest, and the perhaps dozens more who escaped, were unclear. Some 600 local Algerian workers, less well guarded, survived.

"Parts of the plant are under Algerian authorities' control, and other parts are not. This information is changing by the hour," Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide told the BBC.

Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta told ABC News yesterday that hostages included “somewhere in the vicinity” of seven or eight US citizens. “Right now, we just really don’t know,” Mr. Panetta added, according to The Post.  

The Algerian government’s decision to respond to the hostage situation with military action without consulting leadership in countries whose citizens were held captive has surprised and confounded many, the Post reports. 

Algeria did not notify the United States, Britain or other involved countries before it launched the rescue mission, officials said. In Japan, where Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had urged Algeria to halt the operation, the Algerian ambassador was summoned for consultations....

[British Prime Minister David] Cameron said the Algerians insisted they had to act fast in launching the rescue mission, because “they judged there to be a immediate threat the hostages.”

The Post reports that some believe Algeria’s decision to move forward with the raid without consulting other countries stems from a desire to protect its sovereignty.

Some U.S. officials suggested that Algeria’s refusal to coordinate with allies was a reflection of local sensitivities, with Algerian officials fiercely protective of their national sovereignty. The former French colony has strengthened its ties with the United States in recent years, particularly on counterterrorism issues. But its relations with the United States and Europe also have been strained at times, with the Algerian government resistant to allowing foreign military activity within its territory. When the United States sought overflight permission for surveillance flights en route to Mali, Algeria agreed to the flights only on a case-by-case basis, according to U.S. officials.

According to Reuters, the Al Qaeda-linked hostage-takers have threatened to attack other energy plants as well.

A spokesman for al-Mulathameen, or “The Brigade of the Masked Ones,” one of three militant groups believed to be involved in the operation, said this morning that Algerians should "stay away from the installations of foreign companies as we will strike where it is least expected,” reports the BBC.

A preplanned event? 

Some are now questioning the impulsiveness of the kidnapping operation. Though reports imply the decision to take workers hostage at the Algerian plant was spurred by France’s intervention in Mali, some say the planning involved in overtaking such a large and well-secured energy complex could not have been carried out on a whim.

The Post notes that observers point to the “sophistication of the attack” as an indication that “it may have been planned long before France intervened last week and that the motive may have been a show of force against an old adversary – the Algerian military.”

Algerian energy fields supply Western Europe with 20 percent of its natural gas, and the Algerian government is dependent on the export income. Some say this was “the most daring attack on Algerian soil in years,” according to The Post.

“Everything that I’ve seen … leads me to believe that this was a preplanned event,” said Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. He believes the militants may have started out simply searching for kidnapping targets, but “once the French intervention happened, they said, ‘We want to go for something big,’” Rogers said. He noted the “brazen” raid went beyond the scope of typical operations of Al Qaeda-linked groups in the region.

Algerian Communications Minister Mohand Said Oubelaid “said the militants were intent on ‘destabilising Algeria, embroiling it in the Mali conflict and damaging its natural gas infrastructure,’” according to the BBC.

The Christian Science Monitor reports that the militant attack “came as a stark warning of potentially greater struggles ahead.”

It’s unclear how much the Islamist groups that roam the deep Sahara work together. But they share ideology and, in some cases, links to the region’s Al Qaeda franchise as well as smuggling networks.

“We have flagrant proof that this problem goes beyond just the north of Mali,” France’s ambassador to Mali, Christian Rouyer, told France Inter radio in remarks cited by Reuters.

Reuters cites a security source as saying that the hostage-takers are believed to include Egyptians, Tunisians, Libyans, Malians, and at least one Frenchman, and Algerian security specialist Anis Rahmani said, "they were carrying heavy weapons including rifles used by the Libyan army during [Muammar] Gadaffi's rule. They also had rocket-propelled grenades and machine guns."

This undated image, released Jan. 16, 2013, by British Petroleum, shows the Amenas natural gas field in the eastern central region of Algeria, where Islamist militants raided and took hostages Wednesday. (BP/AP)

Algerian hostage crisis heightens as scores are reported dead (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.17.13

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

Dozens of hostages, both Algerian and foreign, have reportedly escaped the natural gas field in eastern Algeria that Islamic militants seized on Monday, but as the hostage situation enters its second day, an estimated 35 hostages and 15 hostage-takers were killed in an airstrike as they tried to move from one plant location to another, reports Al Jazeera and Reuters.

Reuters reports that according to Algerian news sources, some 30 Algerians and 15 foreigners have escaped the natural gas field in the Sahara Desert near the Algerian-Libyan border. But scores of Algerians and dozens of foreigners remain hostages of the "Battalion of Blood" militant group, according to statements that the hostages were allowed to make in phone calls to news outlets.

An unidentified hostage who spoke to France 24 television said prisoners were being forced to wear explosive belts. Their captors were heavily armed and had threatened to blow up the plant if the Algerian army tried to storm it.

Two hostages, identified as British and Irish, spoke to Al Jazeera television and called on the Algerian army to withdraw from the area to avoid casualties.

"We are receiving care and good treatment from the kidnappers. The (Algerian) army did not withdraw and they are firing at the camp," the British man said. "There are around 150 Algerian hostages. We say to everybody that negotiations is a sign of strength and will spare many any loss of life."

Reuters adds that US, French, and British officials did not confirm the numbers of their respective citizens who were being held by the terrorist group.

Although the raid on the field comes just days after the start of France's intervention in Mali, a campaign which the hostage-takers in Algeria demand must end, experts say that it is unlikely the attack was a spur-of-the-moment response to events in Mali. Helima Croft, a Barclays Capital senior geopolitical strategist, told The New York Times that “This type of attack had to have advanced planning. It’s not an easy target of opportunity.” 

And CNN notes that the attack's purported mastermind, Algerian militant Moktar Belmoktar, warned a month ago that his group, the Al-Mulathameen Brigade or "The Brigade of the Masked Ones," would soon attack Western interests in the region.

Robert Fowler, a former Canadian diplomat who was abducted by Belmoktar's followers in Niger in 2008 - and met the man himself - told CNN, "I suspect they have an intelligence wing and they are constantly looking for ways to grab westerners and embarrass the West and confuse our options. And that's exactly what they are doing."

In a 28-minute video that appeared on jihadist forums last month, Belmoktar warned that Al-Mulathameen would soon act against Western interests in the region.

"This is a promise from us that we will fight you in the midst of your countries and we will attack your interests," he said.

Mr. Belmoktar has a long history of jihad both in the Sahel region and father abroad, and is "renowned for hostage-taking and smuggling anything from cigarettes to refugees," according to CNN. He went to Afghanistan in 1991 to fight against the Russian-supported regime – where he received the injury that earned him the nickname "Belaouar," or "one-eyed" – and later returned to Algeria to fight the government there as a member of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), the predecessor to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

But CNN notes that Belmoktar butted heads with other AQIM leaders, eventually prompting him to leave and launch his own militant group.

Abdelmalik Drukdal, the overall leader of AQIM, is said to have demoted Belmoktar late last year from his position as 'Emir of the Sahel.' Belmoktar also feuded with a rival commander – Abou Zeid – one of the most violent and radical figures in AQIM. More than most al Qaeda affiliates, AQIM is divided into often competing groups.

Citing regional security officials, Agence France Presse reported Belmoktar had been dismissed for "continued divisive activities, despite several warnings."

Libyan sources tell CNN that Belmokhtar spent several months in Libya in 2011, exploring cooperation with local jihadist groups, and securing weapons supplies.

A Libyan source told CNN that Belmoktar was "seen as a loose canon, running things in his own way" to the detriment of AQIM. "[T]he last thing the [AQIM] leadership wanted was to antagonize the United States just when it was trying to build up strength by stealth, below the radar."

Mr. Fowler, the previously captured Canadian diplomat, described Belmoktar to the Globe and Mail as "not a big man, he’s not a strong man, but he was absolutely the undisputed leader."

“They hate states. It’s all about God’s dominion on Earth. They don’t want a country. They want the world. They want the world to be ruled by God through the strict and uncompromising application of sharia [Islamic law],” Fowler said.

Indian army soldiers patrol near the Line of Control (LOC), the line that divides Kashmir between India and Pakistan, in Churunda village, about 94 miles northwest of Srinagar, India, Tuesday. (Mukhtar Khan/AP)

Trouble at the line: Another soldier killed in India-Pakistan sparring

By Staff writer / 01.16.13

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

A Pakistani soldier was shot dead along the disputed Kashmir border with India late Tuesday night, further raising tensions between the two nuclear-armed countries that already had each seen two soldiers killed there over the past 10 days.

In the latest incident Pakistan accused India of killing the soldier, saying the shooting – which took place along the so-called Line of Control (LoC) dividing the disputed Himalayan region of Kashmir – was unprovoked.

Over the past 10 days the two governments have traded accusations including beheading, warmongering, and raids along the LoC, reports Bloomberg News. But two Indian and two Pakistani soldiers were killed along the internationally recognized dividing line – last night’s death constitutes the fifth casualty – in a little more than a week. The Associated Press referred to this period as the “worst bout of fighting in the region in nearly 10 years.”

Today, an Indian Army spokesman said that “Our troops didn’t fire at all.”

Indian Army Gen. Bikram Singh commented, "If any Pakistani soldier has been killed, it may have been in retaliatory firing. Our soldiers do not cross the LoC," reports Reuters. Earlier in the week Singh said “I expect all my commanders at the Line of Control to be both aggressive and offensive in the face of provocation and fire," according to a separate Reuters report.

Pakistan's Army director of military operations reportedly called his counterpart in India today to complain, reports the Pakistani newspaper Dawn. Pakistan is dealing with heightened internal challenges after corruption charges were lodged against its prime minister yesterday.

A cease-fire has been in effect along the 460-mile border since 2003. Kashmir was divided between the two nations after British rule ended in the late 1940s, however, both claim the region in its entirety. Two out of three wars fought between India and Pakistan have been over Kashmir, reports Bloomberg. 

The Christian Science Monitor reports that the recent flare-ups along the LoC have some worried that it could jeopardize Pakistan and India’s move toward peace.

"This has been the historical trend: that whenever India and Pakistan move toward peace, one small incident reverses all progress made by the dialogue process," says Raza Rumi of the Pakistani think tank The Jinnah Institute. "The blame game by the two countries has been aggravated by the sensationalism of the Indian media, and the Pakistani media could now follow suit," he says.

The Delhi-based Centre for Dialogue and Reconciliation told the Monitor that those living in the border region are most concerned about sustaining peace.

"My team has visited the LoC areas and found that the people there are very scared of the escalating situation. The peace that has held there since 2003 is dear to them," says Sushobha Bharve from the Centre.

Despite the charged rhetoric coming from all sides, both governments say the recent deaths won’t knock communication and improved relations off track, reports Dawn.

Recent events have not only affected diplomatic exchanges. The public outcry coming from both countries appears to have affected more every-day matters including a cross-border visa program and the Indian hockey league. Nine Pakistani hockey players playing for India returned home due to protests there following the recent border-clashes, according to NDTV. And a new visa program for senior citizens “hailed as a sign of thawing ties” prior to the recent uptick in killings along the LoC may now be in jeopardy. 

“Pakistani senior citizens were turned away at a border post the first day the scheme was to come into effect,” reports the AP.

An editorial in the Indian newspaper The Hindu urges both sides to stand down and diffuse the tension that has resulted from recent events.

“After this dastardly act,” Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said on Tuesday, “there can’t be business as usual with Pakistan.” Dr. Singh’s tired words — and his government's dreadful decision to postpone the start of visa-free travel to India by senior citizens from Pakistan — suggest the relentless political attacks on his Pakistan policy are taking a toll.

This is not good news. It is entirely true that the beheading of Indian soldiers on the Line of Control was a despicable act that must be condemned. It must also be candidly admitted, though, that Pakistan has not had a monopoly of wrong-doing in this case.

It is pointless to ask who cast the first stone. The need now is to strengthen the restraint regime on the LoC. Few spectacles have been as unedifying as the contemptible baying of warmongers these past days — most of it, it bears mention, emanating from TV studios located at a safe distance from the nearest bullet. It is hard not to contrast Bharatiya Janata Party leader Sushma Swaraj’s ugly calls for 10 Pakistani soldiers to be beheaded in retaliation with the studied restraint of General Singh. No one who has seen war casually calls for the blood of soldiers to be shed — or believes they can predict, with any certainty, what the consequences of war will be.

A French army officer (r.) talks to his Malian counterpart outside where a meeting is taking place for the intervention force provided by the ECOWAS grouping of West African states, in Bamako Tuesday. (Joe Penney/Reuters)

Mali rebel fighters better prepared than first thought: French officials

By Staff writer / 01.15.13

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

French forces bombed an Islamist-held Malian town overnight in an attempt to regain control of a strategic military base, signaling that Al Qaeda-linked militants in Mali may be a tougher force than military analysts in Europe originally believed.

France launched its military offensive against the militants in Mali last Friday. The Islamists have occupied the country’s north since April and recently started working their way south, reports Agence France-Presse.

“French officials have acknowledged that the rebels are better armed and prepared than they expected,” reports the Associated Press, as airstrike operations last night continued and France said more of its troops based in the region were headed for Mali.

Despite France's five-day-old aerial assault, the Islamist fighters have succeeded in gaining ground, most notably taking Diabaly on Monday, putting them roughly 400 kilometers (250 miles) from Mali's capital, Bamako. When the air raids began last week, the closest known point they occupied was 680 kilometers (420 miles) from the capital.

"[The French] bombed Diabaly. They bombed the town all night long. I am hiding inside a house," Ibrahim Toure told the AP. "[The bombing] only stopped this morning at around 6 a.m."

On Monday, Benco Ba, a Parliamentary deputy from the Diabaly area said the town was taken by militants on foot, and among them there were many “children” in their early teens.

“We are completely taken aback … there was an important military post there,” Mr. Ba told the New York Times.

French troops increasing

There are currently 750 French troops deployed in Mali, which are expected to slowly increase to 2,500 soldiers, according to the New York Times.

“We will continue the deployment of forces on the ground and in the air,” French President François Hollande said today, according to the Times. “We … will keep increasing so that as quickly as possible we can hand over to the Africans.”

The AP reports that a 40 to 50 truck convoy carrying French troops entered Mali from Ivory Coast today as “[s]everal thousand soldiers from the nations neighboring Mali are also expected to begin arriving in coming days.”

Mr. Hollande told the Times that the deployment of troops from West African states, which will be supported by the French military, could take a “good week.”

When France intervened in the former French colony last week, it fast-tracked a planned international intervention, according to the Irish Times:

Last month the United Nations Security Council condemned the capture of Konna and urged UN member states to assist Mali “in order to reduce the threat posed by terrorist organisations and associated groups”. The mandate was strongly supported by the 15 member states of the west African regional economic union, Ecowas, who have pledged troops. And the EU has promised to establish a military training mission (EUTMM) to help beef up Mali’s own weak army. The idea had been to put such a force in place by September, but France’s timely decision to avert the immediate threat to Bamako has brought the whole process forward. It now has some 400 troops in Bamako, and a further 1,000 from Burkina Faso and Niger were due yesterday.

The decision to take action has majority public support in France. The Christian Science Monitor notes a French opinion poll yesterday showing 63 percent support of the intervention in Mali, and 37 percent opposed.

French President François Hollande’s administration claims the intervention should take “a matter of weeks.” The French daily Le Monde noted in a Monday column that current public approval for intervention could wither if the war is drawn out. “One knows how these military interventions begin.… [But] one never knows how they end. Or rather, one knows that a lot of them have turned out very badly,” reports the Monitor.

[Jean-François Daguzan, deputy director of the think tank Foundation for Strategic Research in France] says the current public support Hollande benefits from could shrink if the French military were to suffer heavy casualties or if Islamist militants were to retaliate with terrorist attacks on France’s soil. It's a scenario that is not unthinkable.

"Islamist groups based in the Maghreb have planned attacks on France in the past, and there is a risk of a terrorist attack in response to the intervention, now or at a later date,” says Richard Gowan, associate director for crisis diplomacy and peace operations at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.

An Islamist group in Mali said yesterday “France has attacked Islam. We will strike at the heart of France," which may feed fears for an attack on French soil. However, Bloomberg News reports that the risk may be more regional with the presence of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

“I don’t see [AQIM] themselves launching attacks in France,” said [Louis Caprioli, the former head of DST, France’s former anti-terrorism unit], who now advises Paris-based security company Geos. “They run around in their four-by-fours in the desert and they haven’t set up training camps like we saw in Afghanistan, Pakistan or Yemen. The real risk is in the region. One can certainly see a risk for French interests throughout West Africa.”

[Interior Minister Manuel Valls] said there hadn’t been any recent arrests linked to the situation in Mali, but that police were surveilling known militants and websites.

This Sunday Jan.13, 2013 photo provided by the French Army shows a French Rafale jet fighter landing after a mission to Mali in N'Djamena, Chad. French fighter jets bombed rebel targets in a major city in Mali's north Sunday, pounding the airport as well as training camps, warehouses and buildings used by the al-Qaeda-linked Islamists controlling the area, officials and residents said. (Adj Nicolas-Nelson Richard, ECPAD/AP)

Mali Islamists threaten to retaliate 'at the heart of France' (+video)

By Staff writer / 01.14.13

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

Islamists in Mali today threatened to launch attacks "at the heart of France" after the European nation began military operations to free northern Mali from militants in a campaign that the French foreign minister said would take "a matter of weeks."

Abou Dardar, a leader of the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa, one of the Islamist groups operating in Mali, told Agence France-Presse today that "France has attacked Islam. We will strike at the heart of France."

When asked where the group would strike, he said "Everywhere. In Bamako [Mali's capital], in Africa, and in Europe." He also said that his group, which has ties to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), would "make a statement" today on eight French hostages held in the region by Islamists.

The threat comes after a weekend of French airstrikes on Islamist targets in Mali. On Jan. 11, France – which controlled Mali from the late 1800s to 1960 – announced that it had committed its forces to a military intervention to stop the Islamists' southern advance toward Bamako, which Malian troops have been unable to halt. AFP reports that the French have bombed Islamist bases across the country, killing scores of militants and reportedly driving them out of Gao, northern Mali's main city. Reuters reports, however, that the militants have launched a counterattack in the town of Diabaly in central Mali.

French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said today that the French military effort would last "a matter of weeks," and did not signal a long-term presence in the country.  The Financial Times reports that he said France has "no intention of staying forever," though he did not rule out a later return as "back-up" for Mali. The Financial Times notes that although several hundred French troops have been deployed to Bamako and the city of Mopti, they are not expected to be part of a ground offensive. Rather, they are expected to provide support to a combination of Mali's army and a mixture of West African forces committed to help by the regional Economic Community Of West African States bloc.

But the French campaign may prove to be more involved than planned. The Monitor reported yesterday that while the bombing campaign has so far proven effective in driving the Islamists back, "few believe that airpower alone will be enough to uproot what many analysts consider to be a well-armed and battle-hardened adversary."

In fact, a presidential official quoted by the Agence France Presse said that French armed forces were surprised by the military capacity of the Islamist militants. 

"At the start, we thought they would be just a load of guys with guns driving about in their pick-ups, but the reality is that they are well-trained, well-equipped, and well-armed,” the official told AFP. "From Libya they have got hold of a lot of up-to-date sophisticated equipment which is much more robust and effective than we could have imagined," he continued, alluding to weapons that were smuggled into Mali after the fall of Muammar Qaddafi.

In an analysis for BBC News, Mark Doyle said "It is not going to be over in a matter of weeks."

"The French military participation may be limited, but whatever happens this is going to take a very, very long time. We're talking about an area the size of Spain," Mr. Doyle said. "The Islamists will no doubt be scared of these aerial bombardments, but that doesn't change the situation on the ground really until there is political stability in Mali and the Malian army can ultimately regain control of its own country, and the Malian army is, not to be too impolite about it, not very well organized at all."

Doyle also noted that the Islamist forces number in the thousands, and are spread across the whole of the Malian north, which is part of the Sahara desert.

France is receiving non-military support for its Malian campaign from both Britain and the United States. Although British Prime Minister David Cameron emphasized that there would be no British troops deployed on the ground in Mali, he did commit a pair of huge cargo planes to aid the French efforts, reports the BBC.  And Bloomberg Businessweek reports that the US has offered France intelligence, logistical support, and in-flight refueling capabilities.

In this photo, United Nations special envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi (c.), with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Mikhail Bogdanov (r.), and Deputy Secretary of State of the United States William Burns, pose during the meeting at furthering their discussions to arrive at a political solution to the crisis in Syria, at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland, Jan. 11. (Jean-Marc Ferre/United Nations/AP)

Fate of Syria's Assad complicates international peace efforts

By Staff writer / 01.11.13

• A daily summary of global reports on security issues.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's fate has stalled the international community's attempts to agree on a peace plan to end nearly two years of violence in Syria.

United Nations special envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi met today in Geneva with US and Russian representatives to discuss political transition in Syria. But with the United States and the Syrian opposition insisting that Mr. Assad not be a part of the next government, and Russia insisting that only the Syrian people can make that call, today's talks seem likely – like those before them – to hit an impasse.

The Syrian government compounded Mr. Brahimi's difficulties yesterday, saying that he was "flagrantly biased" after he implied in public comments that Assad would have to step down and not be a part of any future government, Reuters reports. 

"In Syria...what people are saying is that a family ruling for 40 years is a little bit too long," Brahimi told the BBC, referring to Assad, who inherited his post from his father Hafez al-Assad, who seized power in 1970 and ruled for 30 years.

"President Assad could take the lead in responding to the aspiration of his people rather than resisting it," the veteran Algerian diplomat said, hinting the Syrian leader should go.

The Foreign Ministry in Damascus said it was very surprised at Brahimi's comments, which showed "he is flagrantly biased for those who are conspiring against Syria and its people".

Syria's al-Watan newspaper said Brahimi had removed his "mask of impartiality" to reveal his true face as a "a tool for the implementation of the policy of some Western countries".

Brahimi's comments were a response to a defiant speech by Assad earlier this week that made clear he had no intention of making any concessions to the Syrian opposition or engaging in meaningful dialogue, as the Monitor's Dan Murphy noted.

According to The New York Times, the government's dismissal of Brahimi increases the chances that he could share the same fate as previous envoy Kofi Annan by becoming "sidelined into irrelevance" – although it did not explicitly say it would no longer work with him. Mr. Annan failed to make any substantive progress toward resolving the conflict during his time as mediator.

As Brahimi met with US and Russian representatives in Geneva, the Syrian rebels announced that they had taken over Taftanaz military base in Idlib Province – a major victory if true. The base has been the site of fierce fighting for days.

According to rebels, Taftanaz has been a launchpad for bombing opposition positions throughout northern Syria, CNN reports. The rebels say they now control the buildings, ammunition, and military equipment located there, although one fighter told The New York Times that the government had destroyed their own planes to prevent them from falling into rebel hands.

The US is meanwhile taking steps to ensure that Syria's chemical weapons are secure when Assad leaves, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta said yesterday, according to CNN.  He would not rule out the possibility of US troops on the ground.

"We're not talking about ground troops, but it depends on what ... happens in a transition," he said. "You always have to keep the possibility that, if there is a peaceful transition and international organizations get involved, that they might ask for assistance in that situation. But in a hostile situation, we're not planning to ask for that."

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey warned that it "would be almost unachievable" to stop the Syrian government from using its chemical weapons if it chose to do so.

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Danny Bent poses at the starting line of the Boston Marathon in Hopkinton, Mass.

After the Boston Marathon bombings, Danny Bent took on a cross-country challenge

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