Perhaps no single Salafi-Jihadi groups from Central Asia deserved such close attention of Western media like an Islamist private military contractor (PMC) Malhama Tactical (MT), that founded by a jihadist from southern Kyrgyzstan and training militants in Syria.This was possible thanks to the creativity and active self-promotion of the head of this small consulting firm on the Internet, which has managed to attract the attention of many Western journalists and researchers on Islamic radicalism.
The authoritative Foreign Policy called MTthe world’s first jihadi consortium of elite, well-paid fighters from across the former Soviet Union and compared its activities with the infamous Blackwater USA (now named Academi).BBC Monitoring published a series of analytical articles entitled How Malhama Tactical became the ‘Blackwater of the Syrian jihad’ in December 2018.The Independent, CSAF,the American Partisan, The Daily Caller, MEMRI and others also described MTas a successful jihadist training organization that supposedly changed the course of the Syrian war.My colleagues in the study of Salafi Jihadism Pieter Van Ostaeyen and Neil Hauer even interviewed the MT’s commander in November 2018.
The main disadvantage of all these articles is the lack of critical thinking regarding MT.Western analysts relied on videos, interviews and statements of MT’s leaders published on the Internet as advertising.As a result, the MT’s tactical role in the Syrian war is undeservedly overestimated since the boast of its leaders is taken at face value.
About MT more detailed facts cited the Russian Telegram channel Directorate 4, which is associated with the Russian special services.But the main problem of Russian researchers is that it is difficult to determine the edges of analysis and propaganda, which in some places is accompanied by rude insults to the MT’s leader.
The mysterious name of Al-Malhamah Al-Kubra
One should recognize the creative thinking of the Uzbek young man Abu Rofiq, who gave his organization the mysterious name “Malhama Tactical”, which was immediately noticed by the sponsors of the Salafi movement in the Islamic world. According to the Hadith, the al-Malhamah Al-Kubra means the great battle, bloody fights, massacres and the conquest of Constantinople by Muslims from the Romans.
Abu Rofiq likes to create a halo of mystery around his person and his organization. Western media have created his image like the fearless Rambo and a former officer of the elite of the Russian Airborne Forces, who from the inside knows the secrets of the Russian military-training science. On Facebook Abu Rofiq at one time positioned himself as a former sniper of the Russian elite Special Forces GRU whose staff was involved in the poisoning of former Russian intelligence officer Skripal in British Salisbury and in the interference of the 2016 US elections.
But our analysis showed that some of the statements of Abu Rofiq were not true.All his biographical data, family ties and information about the military career are known to the authorities of Russia, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan. The real name of Abu Rofiq is Sukhrob Baltabaev who was born in the Osh region of Kyrgyzstan on August 10, 1993.By the way, the leader of al Qaeda-linked Katibat al-Tawhid wal Jihad Abu Saloh is also from this region.
After completing school in 2010, he left as a labor migrant to Russia. The Russian authorities have documented that Sukhrob Baltabaev was called up for military service on May 14, 2012, by the Military Commissariat of Russia’s Tatarstan.He began serving in the 45th Guards Separate Special Purpose Intelligence Regiment of the Airborne Forces in the Moscow Region.However, due to the disease of an intervertebral hernia, he was discharged from the Russian army.
Hijrah to Sham not for the purpose of Jihad but for making money
According to Russian sources, after an unsuccessful military career, Sukhrob Baltabaev returned from Moscow to Kazan and worked as a computer programmer at the firm Potok.In those years that ISIS and al Qaeda began actively recruiting Central Asian migrants working in Russia to Syria and Iraq.Having fallen under the influence of the ideologists of Wahhabism, in February 2014, he left for Syria and joined the Jamaat of Chechen militants Shishani.A young wife from Osh and a son Muhammadrofiq remained at home.
At the end of 2015, he created MT with several friends from Central Asia, who began to train on a commercial basis both local and foreign militants in Syria fighting against the regime of Bashar al-Assad.The exact number of the group’s members is unknown but it is thought to consist of 10-15 fighters, all originating from former USSR states.Knowledge of computer technology, creative advertising campaign and ability to find a common language with the leaders of jihadist jamaats helped him in developing this business.MT has become popular due to the wide use of social networks such as YouTube, Facebook, VK, Twitter and Telegram, where he began to publish examples of military training under the pseudonym Abu Rofiq and offer his services for money.
In Central Asia, there is a saying that “Uzbeks know how to make money out of thin air.” There is even a joke about when the American astronaut Neil Armstrong first landed on the moon, he met there Uzbek who trading in the Lunar Bazaar. In the genes of the peoples of Central Asia, where the Great Silk Road lay, historically there is the ability to trade. The natural flair did not fail Abu Rofiq: he found a unique opportunity to make money from the Syrian war.
The company has been working with the al Qaeda-affiliated Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, Ajnad al Kavkaz, Jaysh Muhajirin wal-Ansar,and other groups, even Ahrar as-Sham .I am not a military specialist and cannot assess the quality of MT’s tactical trainees on the use of various types of weapons and fighting in urban combat. But MT’s instructors use popular Russian-made 7.62 mm machine gun, US-made modern sniper rifles, helmets with night vision goggles and the expensive military equipment that the armies of Central Asia cannot afford. The other equipment shown in the videos, like the first-aid kit, is also of high quality, used often in US army and its allies.
Malhama produces equipment for other jihadi groups, manufactures accessories for the PKM, vests and grips, widely used in Syria. This means that MT’s business is doing well and its leader has enough connections somewhere to guarantee himself a supply line of such type. The MT leader actively used the online crowdfunding urging sympathizers to donate money to continue Jihad and training the Mujahedeen. At the same time, currencies of all countries were accepted, even bitcoin, QIWI and Yandex. Money electronic transfers.
Russian hunt for the leader Malhama
With the acquisition of fame and the growth in the number of clients, the real hunt started for the MT leader from the Russian special services, the Assad regime and ISIS.The MT leader considers Moscow and Damascus enemies of Islam who destroy peaceful Muslims in Syria. Moscow has special claims to the MT leader. As shown the attempt to kill former KGB agent Skripal in the UK, Putin will pursue his military, who have betrayed the oath. Despite Moscow’s refusal, Sukhrob Baltabaev is a former military of the Russian Army.
In addition, he inflicts sensitive blows to Russia. In a recent interview, the MT’s head stated that the Mujahideen Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, who had been trained by Malhama, had made an attack in Tarabiya, Northern Hama, and killed four high-ranking Syrian officers and seven Russians on November 10, 2018.ANNA-News Agency confirmed this information.
MT has also been vocal about its opposition to ISIS. On 20 June, Abu Salman posted on his Twitter account an anti-IS message saying: “We must kill them all, ISIS is evil and we have to do something to wipe them out”.
For security reasons, the MT leader appears in the media in masks, or with a scarf tied on his face. According to BBC, the first MT leader Abu Rofiq was killed in February 2017 in a Russian air strike in Idlib. After that Abu Salman Al-Belarusi on Twitter called himself a new MT commander who is Uzbek from Belarus and served as senior sergeant of the 103 Airborne Brigade of the Belarusian Army in Vitebsk. But the Belarusian side did not confirm this information.
But according to the Russian media Abu Rofiq did not die.In order to mislead the Russian special services he spread false information about his death, and now he took the pseudonym Abu Salman Al-Belarusi. That is, Abu Rofiq and Abu Salman Al-Belarusiare one and the same person, that is, Sukhrob Baltabaev from Kyrgyzstan. After comparing the audio and video performances of Abu Rofiq and Abu Salman Al-Belarusi, we concluded that the voice belongs to the same person. The authorities of Russia and Central Asia have identified Sukhrob Baltabaev and continue to closely monitor his relatives.
Ideological views of Malhama Tactical
The ideological views of the MT leader contain the outfit’s mixture of Salafi ideology with the privatization of war because money plays an important role for him in his project. But he cannot be counted among the radical Wahhabis, who are ready to die as Shahid in the name of Allah. His various speeches showed that his level of knowledge of the Quran, Hadith, and Surah, the basics of Tawhid and Fiqh, is not very deep. Perhaps because of this, he avoids the Central Asian Salaf-Jihadi groups Katibat al-Tawhid wal Jihad, Katibat Imam al-Bukhari and Turkestan Islamic Party, who fight in Idlib. In ideological terms, he does not represent a big threat to Central Asia’s countries, because he is not able to conduct propaganda and recruiting campaigns. But he can be described as a jihadist who has close views with al Qaeda and performs his tactical tasks on technical training for jihadists.
Thus, MT was a new phenomenon in the Islamic world which has laid the foundation for the professionalization of Jihad. But without ideological doctrine, it is difficult to predict the continued “successful functioning” of the world’s first jihadi contractor. Therefore, it can be expected that the turbulent development of Jihadism and the fierce competition of terrorist groups will force MT to adopt the radical Salafi ideology and join a certain terrorist group. The history of radical Islamism has shown that the Wahhabi world will not accept those who do not have a deep ideological doctrine of Jihad.In the future, we can expect that the radical principles of Jihadism will force MT to go beyond earning money. MT is already gradually abandoning the concept of money…
Tanker Incidents: Who Blinks First?
The recent tanker incidents in the Gulf of Oman have heightened the potential for a dangerous conflict. Now that the US has accused Iran of being responsible, the likelihood of a military clash is significantly higher. There are several important circumstantial factors which could lead to the beginning of open hostilities.
First of all, the ability of Iran to engage in diplomatic manoeuvring in its relations with the United States and its allies has narrowed considerably. The development of the current crisis began in May 2018, following the unilateral US withdrawal from the Iranian nuclear deal (JCPOA). The Americans resumed heavy economic sanctions, blocking, among other things, the supply of Iranian oil to foreign markets. In May 2019, the situation began to deteriorate rapidly. On the one hand, the Americans further strengthened the sanctions, removing exemptions for eight key nations which are consumers of Iranian oil. After Tehran threatened to refuse to fulfil certain obligations under the JCPOA in the event that the other signatories failed to fulfil their obligations under the JCPOA, Washington enhanced its sanctions. They were extended to include Iran’s metals exports. The EU is extremely cool about the prospect of Iran’s exit from the JCPOA. The position of Brussels began to change from the criticism of US policy and support for Tehran (with respect to observing the JCPOA) to calls for the Iranian leadership to continue to adhere to the deal.
As a result of the actions which were taken, the parties raised the stakes, but seriously exhausted the possibilities for a bargain. The US has already limited its ability to use sanctions as an incentive for obtaining concessions. Tehran seems to be convinced that now sanctions will be applied regardless of the number and depth of concessions Iran makes, and that therefore, any future concessions would be counterproductive. The Iranians, for their part, seem to have left room for manoeuvre: Tehran has so far only advanced an ultimatum and in fact has not yet torpedoed the JCPOA. But the very fact of this ultimatum has caused the US and remaining Western parties to the deal to see red, and ultimately had a negative effect.
The incidents with four tankers in mid-May were the first alarm. There were no great losses, but storm clouds began to form over the region. It became clear that no matter who is behind these provocations, they can have disproportionately serious consequences.
The bombing of two vessels in the Gulf of Oman significantly complicated the situation. First, weapons were used against tankers (torpedoes or mines), which are inaccessible to “ordinary people” (non-state actors). Second, there is a threat to shipping in a strategically important region. The accidents involving the two tankers raised serious concerns among ship owners, leading to a local increase of oil prices. Third, Washington levelled accusations against Iran, effectively placing responsibility for the incidents on Tehran.
An important fact to note is that such incidents have already occurred in the past. In the late 1980s, against the backdrop of the Iran-Iraq war, a tanker war broke out in the Persian Gulf. The parties staged a real hunt for oil-transporting tankers. Foreign ships suffered as well. From 1984 to 1987, 340 tankers were damaged. The development ended with a short but intense and bloody collision between the US Air Force and Navy and Iran. In order to eliminate Iranian mine-setting activity, the Americans conducted Operation Praying Mantis. It called for the seizure of oil platforms that the Iranians used for military purposes. A subsequent skirmish on April 18, 1988 became the largest naval battle since the Second World War. The Iranian fleet lost a frigate, a rocket boat and three high-speed vessels. Another frigate and two oil platforms were damaged. The Americans only lost one helicopter.
Is a similar situation possible today? Yes, it is quite possible. There is a large US naval group in the region. US allies in the region (particularly Saudi Arabia) have formidable military potential. Iran itself may well feel driven into a corner, and feel that raising the stakes a justifiable strategy. Military encounters at sea and in the air, strikes targeting Iran’s coastal infrastructure, and retaliatory strikes from Iran are a likely scenario.
The problem is that the risk of a larger and protracted conflict today may exceed that witnessed in the late 1980s. Objectively, no one is interested in a big war. A major conflict will hurt everyone. It will subject the Iranians to even harsher economic conditions. The humanitarian consequences of the war will be monstrous for the country. The Gulf monarchies will suffer serious damage due to problems with their oil exports. The USA will be drawn into a costly new conflict, which is unnecessary for Donald Trump as election year approaches. Rising oil prices will affect the growth rate of the global economy.
Realising that the war is costly for the opposite side, the parties can go on increasing the stakes, hoping that the opponent will blink first. The problem is that control over this process of brinkmanship can be quite easy to lose.
One of the reasons is the fluctuation of responsibility within the respective decision-making “headquarters”. A struggle between “hawks” and supporters of a more cautionary approach exists on both sides. For the “hawks”, the current situation is objectively more beneficial. During a crisis, it is much easier to look for threats than opportunities. The coming months will see a dangerous and unstable phase of this conflict, characterised by the risk of open hostilities.
First published in Valdai Discussion Club.
March to Tripoli, or a Third Civil War in Libya: Initial Results
The military offensive of the Libyan National Army (LNA) led by Field Marshal (according to the House of Representatives sitting in Tobruk) Khalifa Haftar on Tripoli that began on April 4, 2019 had finally petered out by mid-May, having achieved none of its goals. On the eve of the offensive, the military leader announced that he planned to install a new Government of National Accord by the middle of April. However, these attempts failed. The LNA was not able to breach the inner areas of the Libyan capital due to the fierce resistance it faced on the approaches the city. The blockade of Tripoli was also a failure, as reinforcements continued to arrive from the east (from Misrata) and the west (from Zawia). The Libyan Army that is loyal to the legitimate transition bodies — the UN-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) and the Presidential Council led by Faiz Sarraj — repelled the attempts of K. Haftar’s militants to enter the city and even carried out successful counter-strikes of its own.
K. Haftar deployed almost all of his combat-ready troops in the offensive to capture Tripoli, including regular units such as the Al-Saiqa brigades (one of the commanders of these brigades is Mahmoud al-Werfalli, who is wanted by the International Criminal Court), and the 106th Brigade led by K. Haftar’s son, Khalid. A number of the LNA’s elite units, which are made up primarily of Salafists, were also deployed in the Libyan capital, including the Tariq Bin-Ziyad Brigade, the 73rd Brigade (formerly the Khalid ibn al-Walid Battalion) and others. However, the only asset that the LNA managed to lay claim to was the intersection of the road connecting Tripoli with the Jabal Nafusah Region controlled by forces loyal to the Government of National Accord and by Tunisia. The LNA blockade also included the strategic port city of Zuwara, which became possible after the LNA established control over Garyan and Sabratah.
Old and New Allies of K. Haftar in Tripolitania: The Only Factor for Success
At the same time, we should bear in mind the fact that almost all of the LNA’s territorial acquisitions in Western Libya were not the result of successful military operations and the defeat of the enemy, but rather the defection to K. Haftar’s side of local forces that had previously been loyal to him. Many of them have long been called “Trojan horses” in Tripoli, meaning that their alliance with the field marshal was a foregone conclusion.
For example, the city of Sabratah to the west of the Libyan capital serves as the base for K.Haftar’s long-term allies, namely, the Salafists from the Anti-ISIS Operations Room and the Al Wadi Brigade. These forces were considered “sleeper cells” of the LNA in Western Libya, and shortly after K. Haftar’s offensive began, they announced that they had severed connections with the Government of National Accord and become part of the LNA.
The town of Bani Walid, which also fell under the control of the LNA, is the main base of the Gaddaffists. The town has always enjoyed independence and was hostile to the Misrata Brigades, the main military force of the Government of National Accord. Shortly after Khalifa Haftar launched his offensive on Tripoli, the Bani Walid sheikhs and the local council declared their neutrality, but allowed the LNA to use its transport infrastructure, including its airfield. The 60th Infantry Brigade, which was established in Bani Walid, joined the LNA.
K. Haftar’s biggest successes in Tripoli were achieved thanks to defection of the former 7th Brigade of the Presidential Guard from the city of Tarhunah. The unit was renamed the 9th Brigade after joining the LNA. These forces led a mutiny against the Government of National Accord in the summer and autumn of 2018 and had some fierce battles with the so-called Big Four brigades in Tripoli for control of the international airport and other suburbs of the Libyan capital. In April, the forces of the 7th/9th Brigade resumed their operations against the Libyan Army from its positions at the international airport, as well as in Ain Zara and Wadi Rabea, but under the flag of the LNA. Reinforcements in the form of K> Haftar’s supporters soon arrived from the east of the country. The conditional front line between the 7th/9th Brigade and the Big Four in Tripoli was transformed into a front line between the LNA and the Libyan Army/Government of National Accord.
K. Haftar’s hopes to enlist the support of the Zintan clans came to nothing, even though the Zintan Brigades were the main allies of the LNA during the Second Libyan Civil War in 2014—2015. While some sheiks in the region declared their support for K. Haftar, their armed units nevertheless refused to participate in the military operations, as other Zintan clans were fighting on the side of the Government of National Accord, and one of its most charismatic leaders — Commander of the Western Military Zone Osama al-Juwaili — is effectively leading the defense of Tripoli. The respect that al-Juwaili commands likely played a large role in the refusal of most of the elders to support K. Haftar.
K. Haftar could not take advantage of the loyalty of the people in Jafara and Aziziya, home to the Warshefana tribal association that has allied ties with Tripoli. Aziziya has been the main base of K. Haftar’s supporters at Tripoli since 2014. However, in late 2017, the 4th and 26th LNA brigades, which are made up of fighters from the Warshefana tribes, were defeated by al-Juwaili’s forces. At the start of the current operation, the LNA managed to enter Aziziya on a number of occasions but was repelled every time. By mid-April, the Libyan Army/Government of National Accord had a firm grip on the city, turning it into an operational base. With Aziziya under its control, the government troops are able to exert constant pressure on Tripoli International Airport by covering it from the flanks, while at the same time continually attacking the LNA communications infrastructure that runs through Gharyan. By maintaining a foothold in Aziziya, the Libyan Army/Government of National Accord may be able to carry out an operation to encircle the LNA forces operating in the areas of Wadi Rabea and Ain Zara at some point in the future. Therefore, without establishing control over the region, any attempts to advance the LNA into Tripoli along other routes would be extremely risky, as the forces operating there may get trapped. This explains why the fiercest battles (most of which have been won by the pro-government forces) have been for the Aziziya District. During these battles, the Libyan Army/Government of National Accord showed that it was able to act within the framework of a general operational plan, and its units demonstrated a high degree of coherence in their actions. The current campaign is likely to further bolster the influence of Major General Osama al-Juwaili, who is heading up Operation “Volcano of Anger” to repel LNA aggression.
“Yes” to an Islamist Militia, “No” to a Military Dictatorship
Even though a few factions that have declared their support for K. Haftar, most people living in Tripolitania would prefer the lesser evil of the “dominance of armed Islamic groups,” which is precisely what K. Haftar is trying to eradicate, to his “hard hand” and military dictatorship. What is more, many Tripolitans rushed to join the militants and fight against the LNA with weapons in their hands. It was precisely this ability to mobilize forces in Western Libya, as well as the willingness of these forces to speak out in support of the extremely unpopular Government of National Accord, that took K. Haftar by surprise.
The military operation contributed to the consolidation of the Misrata forces, which bore the brunt of the fight against the LNA. A maximum of 6000—8000 fighters were located in Misrata and the Misrata District during the relatively peaceful period between the civil wars. Now, they are capable of mobilizing up to 18,000 troops, thereby practically nullifying the numerical superiority of the LNA. Before the start of the campaign, there was no unity among the Misrata clans. For example, some factions from this region and their representatives (for example, the Minister of Interior of the Government of National Accord Fathi Bashagha) called for a dialogue with Field Marshal K. Haftar and were even prepared to consider the possibility of offering him a position in the cabinet. Now they are working together with his staunch opponents from the Bunyan al-Marsous coalition in Misrata. The Misrata groups that had until recently been opponents of Sarraj and were even subject to international sanctions for rallying against him started to provide military support to the Government of National Accord. We are talking here about the “national guard” of the alternative National Salvation Government, which has since sent its troops to protect Tripoli and now acts in lockstep with the government forces.
The Libyan Amazighs (Berbers) who control vast territories in the west of Libya, as well as the port city of Zuwarah also rallied against Haftar’s military operation and supported the actions of the Government of National Accord to repel the onslaught of the LNA.
The Field Marshal’s Last Hope
At the same time, the so-called Tripoli Defence Forces, which included the Big Four factions, adopted a rather ambiguous position. For instance, the Tripoli Revolutionaries Brigade and the Special Deterrence Forces did not deploy significant forces to counter the offensive, confining themselves to the formal deployment of a small group at forward positions, while the majority of their units refrained from fighting, remaining at the rear. These factions clearly want to hang on to the possibility of making a deal with either of the opposing camps. However, this position could lead to the Misrata groups, which the Big Four (with the help of Sarraj) tried to eradicate, further strengthening their influence in Tripoli. In this regard, the special position of the Tripoli Defence Forces, which include a number of moderate Salafists (“madhalits”) that also make up a significant part of Haftar’s army give the field marshal hope of steering the events in Tripoli in his favor. This notwithstanding, the chances of the Big Four choosing to support Khalifa Haftar, especially after all his failures, are very slim. On the contrary, it is entirely possible that their involvement in operations against the LNA will increase against the backdrop of increased military assistance from Turkey (including for groups that are part of the Tripoli Defence Forces).
Khalifa Haftar fully, and erroneously, expected that military support from his external allies (Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and France) would help his forces overcome the enemy’s resistance. While the LNA could count on the direct participation of the Egyptian special forces (as well as on the operational air force of Egypt and the United Arab Emirates) during its campaigns in Benghazi and Derna, this type of assistance is untenable in current conditions, given the ambivalent attitude of the global community towards K. Haftar’s actions. That being said, these countries do provide support to the LNA in the form of military supplies, including various types of armored vehicle such as armored personnel carriers and the Mbombe and al-Mared armored cars produced in Jordan. Many point to the fact that the LNA uses Chinese-made Wing Loong II drones equipped with Blue Arrow 7 missiles provided or even operated by military personnel from the United Arab Emirates. Moreover, we should not underestimate the role of Saudi Arabia, which has assumed most of the financial costs of the military campaign. Indeed, without proper funding, the LNA, which claims to be a regular army, will split into factions and groups with different ideologies.
Faultline: The Salafists Versus the Muslim Brotherhood
At the same time, the advantage that the LNA had thanks to the deliveries of weapons and military equipment from its allies could be negated by the fact that Turkey started supplying similar products to the Libyan Army/Government of National Accord in May of this year. On May 18, the Amazon Giurgiulesti ship arrived in Tripoli from the port of Samsun in Turkey under the flag of Moldova. The ship was loaded with all kinds of military equipment, including a battalion set of modern Kirpi II and Vuran armored vehicles made in Turkey, as well as anti-tank guided missiles, man-portable air-defense systems and light weapons. Also, according to the Chairman of the High Council of State, Khalid al-Mishri, the Libyan Army/Government of National Accord now has drones as well, which were also probably delivered via Turkey.
Libya has thus turned into a battlefield and Faultline between two antagonistic camps of the Islamic world. Heading up the first of these camps are Turkey and Qatar, which continue to rely on forces that adhere to the ideology of political Islam, are close to the Muslim Brotherhood and support the Government of National Accord. The second camp, led by Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia (the “troika”), has practically elevated the fight with the Muslim Brotherhood to an ideology. The “troika” is prepared to rely on any forces in order to eradicate the Muslim Brotherhood, be it secular generals or radical Salafists. It is this ideological “duet” of secular military and Salafists that is most pronounced in the framework of the LNA.
The deeper K. Haftar is drawn into the armed confrontation, the more he will fall under the influence of radical Salafi activists in his own surroundings who issue fatwas, refuse to consider opponents of the LNA Muslims, and prove that the truce in Ramadan does not extend to the fighting in Libya. If the hostilities continue, then the influence of the religious radicals inside the Haftar camp will likely continue to grow, since the offensive on Tripoli has effectively petered out and now the LNA command will need to motivate its supporters (it should be noted here that there are a number of Salafists among them), and attract further concessions regarding the dissemination of their ideology. At the same time, many experts consider the Salafists the most reliable and combat-ready element of the LNA. Thus, we cannot rule out the possibility that the countries which are backing K. Haftar as a secular leader will eventually become witnesses to the creeping “Salafization” of Libya with the active help of Saudi clerics. And this will not stop K. Haftar from further positioning himself as a champion of secularism, while at the same time dictating a completely different agenda on the home front.
Ceasefire as Salvation
Against the background of K. Haftar’s failures, the structures that are affiliated with him in Eastern Libya are looking for opportunities to achieve a ceasefire so that they can maintain their positions near Tripoli and perhaps even prevent the complete destruction of the LNA, which is a distinct possibility at the moment. For example, Abdullah al-Thinni, the prime minister of the provisional government in the east of the country, who is affiliated with K. Haftar, said in an interview with the Alhurra television station that the LNA would be willing to accept a ceasefire without withdrawing from the outskirts of Tripoli, a condition that Sarraj has rejected.
Haftar’s visits to Italy and France, which took place shortly after Sarraj visited these countries, were also devoted primarily to finding ways to establish a ceasefire.
Thus, despite the menacing rhetoric that remains (“I am prepared to hold talks, but there is no one to hold talks with”), the terms of a possible ceasefire were apparently the only topic raised at K. Haftar’s talks with E. Macron in Paris on May 22, 2019. A week earlier, the same issue was discussed at a meeting between K. Haftar and the Prime Minister of Italy. It is, of course, possible that K. Haftar is looking for opportunities to call a ceasefire while at the same time-saving face with all his military bravado. At the same time, in the context of the LNA’s failures, Paris (a long-term partner of K. Haftar) has started to “curtsey” with increasing frequency before the Government of National Accord. The approach of France to the events in Libya is starting to align with the general course adopted by the European Union, which suggests that France may need to abandon its unequivocal support for K. Haftar.
The complexity of the situation lies in the fact that Sarraj is no longer willing to make any kind of deal with K. Haftar, as he considers him to be a rebel and a criminal. And the only acceptable condition for a ceasefire, as far as the head of the Government of National Accord is concerned, is for the LNA to return to the positions they occupied before the start of the campaign. In this situation, K. Haftar cannot directly declare his consent to external mediation when he cannot be sure that Sarraj will accept the terms of the ceasefire. On the other hand, continuing the operation is fraught with unclear prospects and is extremely risky, and in certain circumstances may lead to the complete defeat of the LNA. This is why some of Haftar’s allies see the creation of conditions for a ceasefire as a vital task and a way for the field marshal to hold onto his role as a key player.
Another option is also possible and is connected to the fact that a rift has appeared among Haftar’s allies, with France differing in its assessments of what is going on with the “troika” of Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. We cannot rule out the possibility that K. Haftar is willing to negotiate the terms of a ceasefire with the mediation of France and Italy (if this was not the case, his visits to these countries would make no sense) and that the “troika” is pushing him, by offering increased military aid, for example, to toe the line that the only possible solution to the crisis is through military force.
Just how the situation in Libya continues to unfold will likely depend on the degree of engagement of the two great powers, whose positions at present are rather contradictory and unclear. We are talking, of course, about Russia and the United States, which have not yet had their say.
The United States has voiced two opinions to the current Libyan Crisis. One was expressed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who condemned the actions of K. Haftar and called for an end to the offensive. The second opinion is that of President Donald Trump himself, who had a telephone conversation with the field marshal and expressed his support for the fight against terrorism, which many observers took as an endorsement of Haftar’s military campaign. While Trump will certainly have the last word, it is unclear which of these approaches to the events in Libya will eventually prevail in Washington. Another position that should not be ignored is that of the Pentagon, which has developed relations with the Misrata brigades against the background of the fight against Islamic State terrorists in Libya — and it was Haftar’s military operation that opened the door for their increased activity. While the United States Africa Command (AFRICOM) may have withdrawn its personnel from Tripoli and Misrata, it is entirely possible that they will return to Libya and resume interaction with their former partners.
Russia continues to maintain relations with both sides in the Libyan conflict. Despite the increasingly pro-Haftar bias in the Russian approach, Moscow, unlike Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt, has not crossed the red line and continues to be regarded as a partner by the Government of National Accord. The problem lies in the fact that the three Russian structures that are currently working on the Libya track the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Defence and the Russian Contact Group for Intra-Libyan Settlement — assess Russia’s priorities and interests in Libya differently, and on some issues have opposite positions. On top of this, the signals coming from the Kremlin itself about which line to take in regard to Libya are not clear enough. The Russian approach to events in the country is likely determined by the current situation. Russia has demonstrated a certain amount of support for K. Haftar against the background of his military operation and the success he is expected to achieve. However, as the operation proceeds, Russian will have to either return to a more balanced line and pay more attention to the interests of Tripoli or, on the contrary, start increasing aid to K. Haftar, including military assistance.
The latter scenario is the riskiest. Even if the gamble on K. Haftar pays off and he somehow manages to emerge victorious, then the main beneficiaries will be the “troika” of the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt, which have invested far more money into him than Russia. At the same time, Russia would benefit from maintaining a certain balance in Libya. To this end, Moscow could make better use of the ties that it has managed to maintain with all the sides in the Syrian conflict — something that Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia, which have “put all their eggs in one basket,” cannot say. Russia has the opportunity to play the role of mediator in the conflict, joining France and Italy in these efforts. Russia should also pay attention to those figures in Libya whose influence continues to grow against the background of the events taking place in Tripoli and who have the opportunity to play a consolidating role in the future. Major General Osama al-Juwaili is one of these figures.
From our partner RIAC
Nuclear weapons are vulnerable to cyber threats
According to a new report from the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), Cyber Nuclear Weapons Study Group, US nuclear weapons can’t be effectively protected against cyberattacks with technical means alone.
“Any system containing a digital component, including nuclear weapons, is vulnerable to cyber threats,” Page Stoutland, NTI’s vice president for scientific and technical affairs, said.
In a report about cyber threats to nuclear weapons security, just presented in Moscow and titled “Nuclear Weapons in a New Cyber Era,” NTI analysts warn that with the development and spread of digital technology, attacks in the information space are getting increasingly dangerous, making even the US defense systems vulnerable to cyberattacks. According to the report, which is based on the results of a 2013 survey conducted by the US Defense Department, the military command may face false warnings about an attack or lose confidence in their ability to control US forces and assets.
Losing control over power grids as a result of cyberattacks is a serious danger to nuclear weapons (Page Stoutland)
The most dangerous consequences of a cyberattack on a country’s system of nuclear deterrence are as follows: first, it can target the early warning system (EWS) and simulate a nuclear attack, which could prompt a very real retaliatory strike. Secondly, experts do not rule out the possibility of unauthorized use of nuclear weapons as a result of cyber and physical attacks disabling security measures. The authors of the report consider the possibility of a false order for the release of nuclear weapons resulting from a hacked control system less likely though. Thirdly, a cyberattack can disrupt the chain of command transmission and international communication channels. And last, but not least, this damage could be caused already during the production stage, if errors or malware are introduced into the software.
“Protection requires not only technical excellence, but also a new strategy that takes into account cyber threats that did not exist at the time when nuclear weapons were being developed.” (Page Stoutland)
The four worst post-cyberattack scenarios being considered by experts include attacks on early-warning systems (radar and satellites), security systems, communications, and production chains. According to the authors of the “Nuclear Weapons in a New Cyber Era” report, false information about a nuclear attack, as well as a disruption channels of communication as a result of cyberattacks could lead to a “retaliatory” or a preventive nuclear strike. Security and physical protection system hacks could result in the theft of nuclear weapons. Insertion of malware into manufactured parts undermines confidence in the predictability of nuclear deterrence. The authors warn that a loss of confidence in one’s ability to prevent an enemy nuclear attack with nuclear deterrence tools could have serious negative consequences for strategic stability.
“In 1980, the failure of a NORAD computer chip resulted in a false warning about an incoming nuclear attack.” (Page Stoutland)
Experts are convinced that because no improvements in cyber security will be enough to completely eliminate the threat, increasing the decision time would be the right way to go. This requires efficient systems and processes to either confirm or discard data from DSS and other sources. To increase decision-making time after information about a nuclear missile launch against the US has been received, the authors propose the following scenario: if the warning has been confirmed as accurate, and the source of the missile launch has been duly determined, the president orders a deferred retaliatory strike. The drawbacks of this approach, the report warns however, is delayed response, less headroom for maneuvering and overdependence of automation, as well as the risk of information about the order for a retaliatory strike leaking out, which itself could provoke a nuclear attack by the adversary.
“In 2010, US launch-control officers lost communication with a squadron of 50 nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles for 45 minutes.” (report)
Another way of reducing the cyber threat would be to limit the use of cyber-attacks against nuclear weapons.
The authors advise the military and political leadership, as well as officials at a lower level, to realize full well that cyberattacks against nuclear systems are fraught with an unintentional catastrophe. Therefore, to avoid a disaster, they need to work out clear-cut rules of the game. Difficult as the verification of these rules may be, the experts still believe that the mere presence of such norms would prevent an escalation, as, according to them, suspicious would initially fall on non-state players, who never signed the agreement.
Obviously, these decisions are possible only in cooperation with other countries and with a great deal of mutual trust and concerted steps. Aware of this, the authors propose starting a discussion on cyber security, between Russia and the US, and between China and the US, against threats posed by such non-state players and third parties, who might initiate any of the abovementioned scenarios and be interested in their negative consequences.
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