By Virginia Comolli, Research Associate for Transnational Threats
Until it permitted the French air force to fly through its airspace into Mali this weekend, Algeria had been protesting for months that it would not welcome any outside military intervention to quell the rebellion in its southern neighbour. The hostage crisis unfolding in the Algerian desert, following an attack by militants on the In Amenas gas plant, one of the country’s largest, has starkly demonstrated the risks of reprisal.
So one of the most interesting questions is what accounted for Algeria’s change of heart. This is difficult to answer because decision-making in Algiers is famously opaque, and the country often takes an ambiguous stance on regional security issues.
By Mona Moussavi, Editorial Assistant
India’s foreign policy is an ‘enabler’ in the country’s transformation, Ranjan Mathai, the Indian foreign secretary, said at the IISS last week. At the Keynote Address to the Fifth IISS–Indian Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) Dialogue, the foreign secretary discussed Afghanistan’s ‘neighbourhood’ towards 2015 and beyond, emerging Arab developments and the ways in which the India-UK strategic relationship could grow.
Mathai said India is increasingly ‘plugged in’ to a globalised world, and that a peaceful periphery is essential. Almost half of India’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is now linked in one way or another to foreign trade, up from 20% in the 1990s. Specifically, India depends on ‘energy and critical raw materials from abroad’.
By Mark Fitzpatrick, Director, Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme
On 21 September, the State Department indicated that the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK – People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran) will be de-listed from the US foreign terrorist organizations list.
The news caused outrage and anguish in many quarters, particularly among reform-minded Iranians at home and abroad. They rightly fear that the tacit US legitimizing of the group will be used by the regime to discredit the Green Movement and other opponents. As one US-based Iranian put it, the decision ‘feeds directly into the regime’s narrative: that the US is backing the MEK to launch attacks against Iran and undermine the territorial integrity of the country. MEK affiliation will likely become even more of an excuse for the persecution of students and activists’.
I have to agree with the National Iranian American Council that the decision is a gift to the Iranian regime.
The MEK is a quasi-cultish group that emerged in pre-revolution Iran with a curious blend of Islamist and Marxist ideological motives and an inclination towards violent tactics. Their bombing and assassinations were responsible for the deaths of thousands of Iranians and six Americans. It was the latter acts in the 1970s that earned their 1997 addition to the terrorist list.
The MEK is despised by most Iranians for having supported Saddam Hussein in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. The day the news was announced, Bahman Kalbasi, an Iranian journalist at the BBC, published a tweet commenting that ‘perhaps the only popularity contest the government of Iran can win is when its alternative is MEK’.
While many MEK members are exiled in Europe, several thousand have operated until recently from a self-sustaining camp outside Baghdad. Because they are dedicated to the removal of the current regime in Iran, the MEK have won friends in many Western capitals. In 2009, after years of lobbying, the Council of the European Union de-designated the MEK as a terrorist group. But the group’s most prominent supporters are in Washington, where prominent politicians from across the political spectrum have waged a well-oiled campaign to promote de-listing.
Notwithstanding its deadly history, the MEK has done some good deeds. Its political wing, the National Council of Resistance of Iran, was the vehicle through which Israeli intelligence in 2002 exposed previously hidden Iranian nuclear facilities at Natanz and Arak. Despite the MEK’s low level of support in Iran it is also seen by some right-wingers as a means for inducing regime change in Tehran. But some of the MEK’s high-profile advocates have also been motivated by more personal considerations. At least one former politician has been under investigation for the lavish fees he received for supporting the MEK cause.
Critics credit the lobbying effort with having swayed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to make the de-listing decision. Indeed the pre-election timing of the decision does suggest a political motivation. But there are other factors she had to take into account.
One factor is the set of legal requirements for the terrorist listing. To be designated, a foreign organization must be engaged in terrorist activity or have the intention to do so, and this activity ‘must threaten the security of US nationals or the national security of the United States.’ A case can be made that the MEK’s activities work against US foreign policy interests in that they undermine the cause of reformists in Iran. But that’s a hard sell, given the primordial instinct that the enemy of one’s enemy is one’s friend.
With regard to intent, the MEK renounced violence more than a decade ago. MEK operatives reportedly were responsible, with Israeli backing, for a string of assassinations of Iranian nuclear engineers and scientists. While these assassinations fit some descriptions of terrorism, they did not threaten US lives. On the contrary, they were intended to slow nuclear weapons development.
Clinton also had to take into account the American political scene, in which Iran’s nuclear program plays a huge part as the spearhead of the Republican Party’s attacks on President Obama’s foreign policy stewardship. Keeping MEK on the terrorism list would have been seen as a sop to Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader, even if in reality the regime benefits from the de-listing. Given Iran’s intransigence in the nuclear talks this summer, there was no mileage in either politics or policy for not de-listing. If talks this summer had encompassed serious negotiations, Clinton would not have made this decision.
Those who criticise the de-listing should thus spare some of their anger for the Iranian regime. Tehran’s refusal to limit its enrichment program or to accept the transparency demanded by the International Atomic Energy Agency incurs many costs beyond non-economic expenditures. In addition to choking sanctions, political isolation and the prospect of war, the regime’s policies have triggered legitimacy within the US for the group that is most vehemently set on regime overthrow. Unfortunately, it is the Iranian people who will again suffer.
By Brigadier Ben Barry, Senior Fellow for Land Warfare
It has been a week of bad news from Afghanistan, after further ‘green-on-blue’ attacks, fallout from video protests sweeping the Middle East and NATO announcing a temporary retreat. But in reality, the picture is more nuanced and there are reasons to be optimistic – provided tensions arising from the video can be diffused.
The headlines have suggested setbacks to the joint NATO/Afghan strategy of transition to Afghan leadership of security and withdrawal of NATO combat forces by the end of 2015. In addition to the violent protests against the provocative ‘Innocence of Muslims’ video, there was a well-planned and determined attack on the UK/US base at Camp Bastion in which six US and UK troops were killed by men in Afghan National Security Forces (ANSF) uniform.
NATO’s announcement that ‘in response to elevated threat levels…ISAF [International Security Assistance Force] has taken some prudent, but temporary, measures to reduce our profile and vulnerability to civil disturbances or insider attacks’ has resulted in a reduction of low-level tactical partnering with the Afghan forces below battalion level has caused a predictable flurry of commentary and speculation in Western media.
By Alexa van Sickle, Assistant Editor
The recent attacks on US consulates in Libya and Egypt may shift the western perspective of what’s happening in the Arab world, but how things will play out within Libya and Egypt is a far more pressing question, argues Emile Hokayem, IISS Senior Fellow for Regional Security-Middle East.
On 11 September, US Ambassador to Libya J. Christopher Stevens and three others were killed in an attack on the US consulate in Benghazi – possibly part of a pre-planned strike by a militant group – amid protests over a film about the prophet Mohammed. Protesters also stormed the US consulates in Cairo and in Yemen, and unrest continues to spread.
Hokayem, speaking at the press conference for the Strategic Survey 2012: The Annual Review of World Affairs launch in London, noted that while the details of the attack are still unclear, it was worth considering what Stevens himself would have said about the situation:‘[He] would not want revenge or disengagement; he would have argued for renewed investment and attention in these critical periods.’ But what matters most in a strategic sense, Hokayem argues, is the reaction from the Libyan and Egyptian governments: ‘This will be the real test, especially for Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood, in terms of their international credibility.’
Hokayem said the Libyan government was very clear in its condemnation, but Egyptian president Muhammad Morsi waited some time before making a statement. Whether the political elites in Libya and Egypt can effectively combat extremist sentiment is crucial for their international legitimacy. ‘This is the tragedy of mainstream Islamist movements,’ said Hokayem. ‘They can easily be outflanked by more extremist factions that frame everything in terms of identity, and not in terms of public governance choices and not in terms of the need for international recognition.’
Hokayem responded to several questions on Libya and other regional security issues at the launch, where opening remarks by Dr John Chipman, touching on significant security themes in the volume, were followed by a Q & A session addressed to a panel of regional experts. Issues discussed included Middle East security – including Syria, Iran and Israel – terrorism in North Africa, China and Japan’s maritime tensions and the Eurozone crisis.
Another timely question dealt with the likelihood of a strike by Israel against Iran: ‘There is a possibility of an Israeli strike this autumn,’ said Mark Fitzpatrick, Director of the IISS’s Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme, in response. ‘But it is a reduced possibility, given the divergence of views in Israel.’
Fitzpatrick explained that Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak seems to be acknowledging Obama’s commitment to preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon, while Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu still maintains that Obama’s commitment is not credible.
‘There’s not a consensus in the inner Israeli security cabinet for a strike, and so it’s unlikely,’ said Fitzpatrick.
Watch the full press conference here.
By Alexander Nicoll, Editor of Strategic Survey 2012: The Annual Review of World Affairs
Journalism is said to be the first draft of history. But as an ex-journalist, I know that it’s a pretty imperfect draft. The IISS publication Strategic Survey: The Annual Review of World Affairs may immodestly claim to be a better stab at a first draft – trying, as it does, to impose some order on the events in a 12-month period.
The fruit of this year’s efforts will be published on Thursday. This is the seventh time that I’ve edited the book, rather fewer than the late Sidney Bearman, who was the editor for 24 years until 2001. Each year presents a challenge to the editor: trying to cut through the enormous melange of things that happen all over the world and to present a picture of how they intersect. What is important and what is not? What trends can be discerned?
By Virginia Comolli, Research Associate, Transnational Threats
Earlier this year, Nigeria’s President Goodluck Jonathan described Boko Haram, the Islamist group responsible for a series of terrorist attacks in his country, as having global ambitions. A senior Nigerian military commander has put it more starkly: ‘Boko Haram is al-Qaeda’. Many US and UK politicians have called for the group to be proscribed as a terrorist group; the US Department of State recently designated leader Abubakr Shekau – and two others with ties to the group – as terrorists.
In truth, however, it is difficult to quantify the risk that Boko Haram presents outside Nigeria or to say for certain that it is on the verge of becoming an international – rather than a local – threat.
By Nigel Inkster, Director of Transnational Threats and Political Risk
The recent failure of a major cyber security bill in the Senate shows just how complicated it is going be to properly protect the United States’ infrastructure from hackers and online spies. With the nation’s power grids, transportation and water supply all heavily dependent on computer networks, national security officials have long argued that regulation and minimum security standards will be necessary to guard against cyber attacks. But there is political resistance to introducing these, because of privacy concerns and questions over the role of government.
An estimated 85% of US infrastructure is owned and operated by private companies.
According to National Security Agency (NSA) Director and Head of US Cyber Command General Keith Alexander, there was a 17-fold increase in cyber attacks on critical infrastructure between 2009 and 2011. He has rated America’s ability to cope with a major attack at three out of ten.
By Nigel Inkster, Director of Transnational Threats and Political Risk
The United Kingdom justice and security bill published yesterday has been widely criticised by lawyers and civil-rights campaigners for allowing courts to hear evidence in closed sessions in cases of national security. They argue that this erodes a long-established right to open justice. Even UK Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke (above, left) has acknowledged that the bill is ‘less than perfect‘. However, since a Green Paper was introduced last year for discussion, the bill has undergone substantial modifications to try to assuage some of its critics.
The final bill only applies to civil cases involving national security, instead of all cases dealing with sensitive information. Judges, rather than ministers, will determine whether the national-security argument is valid, and whether the use of ‘Closed Material Proceedings’ (CMP) offers the best option for balancing national security and justice. Coroners’ inquests dealing with classified material will never be held in camera.
By Emile Hokayem, Senior Fellow for Regional Security, IISS-Middle East
Despite efforts by many peaceful Syrian activists to regain the upper hand under the cover the UN-endorsed Annan plan, the uprising in Syria is growing in complexity and violence. This downwards spiral is plainly illustrated by the rise in car bombs, including those which exploded in Damascus last week, killing dozens. This may well be an ominous sign.