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Terrorism

Did Central Asia’s Jihadists Challenge Al Qaeda?

Uran Botobekov

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Jihadists of the Turkestan Islamic Party

Uzbek and Uyghur Muhajireen support HTS

First-time al Qaeda-linked Salafi-Jihadi groups from Central Asia, Caucasus and China’s Xinjiang fighting against the Bashar al-Assad regime in northern Syria have interfered in ideological disputes and internal confrontations between Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) and Tanzim Hurras al-Din, the Guardians of Religion, which has remained loyal to al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. Foreign fighters groups in Idlib such as the Uyghurs’ Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP), the Uzbeks’ Katibat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad (KTJ) and the Chechen-led Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar (JMA) affirmed their support to Hayat Tahrir al-Sham in a joint statement released in February 2019.Also, the statement was signed by the Albanian militants group Katibat al-Alban, Iran’s Harakat al-Muhajireen al-Sunna, Saudi Arabia’s Rabitat al-Ma’ali, the Maldivian Mujahideen and other smaller foreign groups fighting under the leadership of HTS.

Thus, foreign speaking Salafi-Jihadi groups violated their traditional balanced ties with al Qaeda’s various branches and first time openly supported one of the sides of the confrontation. As is well known, Uzbek and Uyghur militants have always tried to keep their neutrality, without interfering intra-jihadi rivalries between HTS and other al Qaeda-affiliated groups.

In the one-page and three paragraphs statement, foreign fighters are clearly stated their strong support and loyalty to HTS.The first paragraph states that “Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, represented by its leadership and fighters, is the dignity and the force of Ahl al-Sunnah [Sunni Islam] in Bilad al-Sham”. Further, statement authors poured to HTS generous words of praise that “it is the best to have borne the banner of jihad in this blessed land; the one that defends the frontlines; it has protected Muslims security and established the courts that rule by God’s law in all the areas subjected to them”. Special attention is paid to the centralized role of HTS “around whose leadership the mass of the Ansar [natives] and Muhajireen [foreign fighters] has gathered”.

Then, they turn to other opponent groups that “we are with our brothers in one rank and a structured edifice, and we will stand as a barrier of obstruction before all who take it upon themselves to attack HTS.” Thus, foreign groups gave a clear signal to other branches of al Qaeda that they are ready to take a bullet for themselves for the HTS and they will defend it in arms.

The second paragraph of the statement is devoted to the relations between Ansar and Muhajireen, who are militants from Central Asian and the Caucasus, who made Hijrah (migration of Muslims) to Syria for jihad. The Muhajireen are very worried that their interests are not being taken into consideration. According to the authors, “the interest of the Muhajireen is the same as the interest of the Ansar, the masses of the Muslims in al-Sham, and they cannot be separated from each other. Because Muhajireen came to this blessed land of Sham at the call of Allah and do not claim particular interests and particular rights. Both belong to the Muslims Ummah and what comes upon them comes upon others besides them.”

Then, foreign militants raised the sore question that “some local groups want to use them [Muhajireen] who came from all over the world to Syria for holy jihad as a bargaining chip to be handed over to ‘disbelievers’.” The authors noted, “we will not be content that they [opponents of HTS] should be a door for auction to support a faction over another besides it, for their [HTS] support is truly well-known in its ways and there is not from that auction in their name.” Then the foreign fighters thanked the HTS for its strong support, reception and granting of refuge to Muhajireen and called it the best of Ansar.

In the letter’s third paragraph foreign fighters turned to other al-Qaeda-backed groups and warned that they should not accept the false accusations of the HTS address at face value and advised them to verify and investigate it. They called for the conciliation and unity of all Mujahideen to lead together jihad in the path of Almighty God.

There are several reasons why al Qaeda-backed foreign fighter groups support HTS.

Muhajireen and Ansar: Brothers or Rivals?

At the timethe Syrian government forces with the support of Moscow and Tehran have achieved significant success in regaining control over the main part of the country, the question of the withdrawal of foreign militants from the region is often being raised not only by Damascus’ sponsors but also by the local influential Salafi groups too.

It should be noted that Syria’s northwest, long a hotbed of armed resistance and the heartland of al-Qaeda-linked operations, has become a real-life shelter for the foreign militants from the former Soviet Union and Chinese Xinjiang. Among them the Uzbek groups Katibat al-Tawhid wal Jihad and Katibat Imam al-Bukhari,Uyghur’s Turkestan Islamic Party and Chechen’s Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar are affiliated with al Qaeda. All of these groups are fighting against the regime of Bashar al-Assad under the leadership of HTS. They share al Qaeda’s ideological doctrine and, on its call, performed Hijrah from Afghanistan and Central Asia to Syria.

The presence of al Qaeda-backed foreign militant groups in Idlib greatly irritates Moscow and Tehran. During regular meetings, the leaders of the so-called “guarantor countries of the Syrian peace process” – Russia, Turkey and Iran – constantly reaffirm the determination to eliminate HTS’ predecessor “Al-Nusra Front and other terrorist groups associated with al Qaeda or ISIS”. The main responsibility for forcing the withdrawal of al Qaeda-backed foreign groups from Idlib obligated Turkey, the initiator of the Sochi Memorandum to accomplish this. But, so far, Ankara has not succeeded in fully complying with its obligations to withdraw the militants and heavy weaponry from the demilitarized zone.

Because Ankara has limited opportunities to influence foreign militant groups associated with al Qaeda in Syria. The main obstacle on this path is HTS which took under its wing of protection the Turkestan Islamic Party, Katibat al-Tawhid wal Jihad and Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar not only from Assad’s regime but also from possible attacks by other Salafi-Jihadi rival groups.HTS remains the most powerful Islamist group in Syria. During the last three months, HTS had expanded its territories and imposed control over 90% of Idlib, the last major opposition stronghold, inflicting a crushing defeat on the rival rebel groups Nour al-Din al-Zenki and Ahrar al-Sham, the members of the Turkey-allied National Liberation Front. Therefore, Muhajireen from post-Soviet countries and China feel secure under the umbrella of HTS.

The HTS leader Abu Mohammad al-Julani considers that on the question of mutual relations between Muhajireen and Ansar his group relies on Islamic values when the local inhabitants [Ansar] of Medina warmly welcomed, provided shelter and supported the Prophet Muhammad and his followers [Muhajireen], who had left their homes behind for the sake of Islam in 622.At the beginning of the Syrian civil war Jabhat al-Nusra provided Muhajireen, who migrated from Central Asia and joined al Qaeda, the opportunity to live in separate villages in the northwestern Syria’s countryside where they could lead jihad against the forces of Damascus. Thanks to HTS support the Turkestan Islamic Party, Katibat Tawhid wal Jihad and Katibat Imam al-Bukhari have taken deep root in Syria soil where they opened several madrasahs in which militants’ children receive the education in Uzbek and Uyghur languages. In recent times, cases of joint marriages between Muhajireen and Ansar have become more frequent.

Abu Abdullah al-Shami, the head of HTS’ Shariah Council and the group’s highest ideologue, in his article entitled “Six Issues” clearly defined the position of the HTS regarding Muhajireen. He claims that “HTS will not compromise on its principle of refusing to barter with the Muhajireen. We do not do something that does not please our Lord. We consider it forbidden to hand over the Muslims to the disbelievers [the states]. And the Muhajireen are our brothers and we do not see a difference between a Muhajireen and Ansar, and our throats are beneath the throat of the one who has migrated to us, and we will not allow bartering on their portfolio in any circumstances, for besides the fact that it is in contravention of the Shari’a principles, it is far removed from Islamic ethics and chivalry.”

The strong support of HTS for Muhajireen fully meets the military and religious goals of Uzbek and Uyghur fighters who made Hijrah to Syria for jihad.In turn, they respond to the HTS with reciprocity and devotion to the ideals of jihad and with respect for Ansar.Abu Saloh, the leader of Katibat Tawhid wal Jihad, during the Bayat (oath of allegiance) to al Qaeda stated that Abu Mohammad al-Julani is the lion of Islam, who never uses Muhajireen as a bargaining chip. He compared the HTS leader with the founder of the Taliban movement, the late Mullah Omar, who provided Muhajireen at the head of Osama bin Laden refuge in Afghanistan to conduct jihad against America. According to him, after 9/11, even under the threat of the US military intervention to the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, Mullah Omar did not betray bin Laden to crusaders and remained faithful to Islamic values of Muhajireen until the end of his life.

HTS’s Controversial Turkey policy

Russian and Turkic speaking foreign fighter groups are supporting HTS rapprochement with Turkey which has long been a sensitive issue causing problems among global Salafi-Jihadi movements. Turkey’s factor and the forced collaboration of HTS with Ankara caused sharp criticism from al Qaeda, his loyalist Tanzim Hurras al-Din and many ideologues of Salafism.

In a speech entitled “The Way of Salvation” and published on 5 February 2019, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri criticized HTS for clinging to territory under Turkey’s protection, albeit not mentioning the group explicitly. He rebuked HTS for relying too heavily on Turkish support and its desire to hold onto ground at all costs. In his opinion, the jihadists in Syria are engaged in a misguided “competition for an imagined authority” over territory that is under the oversight “of secular Turkish checkpoints.” Zawahiri strictly warned the jihadists that they shouldn’t rely on Turkey to protect them. The main point of the appeal of the al Qaeda emir is that the HTS jihadists instead, of holding onto Idlib province as a proto-Emirate, it would be better for them to go underground and conduct continuous jihad against the Bashar al Assad regime, Zionists and America.

The HTS’ position on Turkey was sharply criticized by one of the most important spiritual fathers of the Salafi-Jihadi ideology Abu Mohammad al-Maqdisi, who considers that any diplomatic or military ties with non-Muslim rulers count as “sinful wala’.” For Maqdisi, allowing Turkey to control any land at all in Syria is equivalent to allowing the criminal, apostate regime to do so, and makes HTS dangerously close to violating Tawḥid.

The decision of the HTS to allow Turkish troops to enter Syria and establish 12 military posts in Idlib agreed upon at Astana on October 2017 was also heavily criticized by Tanzim Hurras al-Din.The Hurras al-Din amir Abu Hammam al-Shami and its Chief Sharia Counsel Sami al-Uraydi published a statement on 30 January 2019, in which they argued that HTS’s jihad is not founded on correct Aqida (Islamic creed) or Manhaj (Methodology of the Salaf us-Saalih). Further, the leaders said some of HTS’s weapons belong to al Qaeda, and since Hurras al-Din now represents al Qaeda in Syria it is the rightful owner of the weapons.

Along with authoritative ideologues, ordinary supporters of al Qaeda accused the HTS of thwarting its own jihad by forming relations with the NATO army [Turkey] and considered it a traitor. But they could not blame HTS for apostasy.

HTS Shura Council member Abu Al-Fatah al-Farghali denied all this accusations and named three conditions under which the Turks were allowed to enter Idlib that were based on the Shari’a. First, the military superiority in the liberated areas should be for the mujahideen and not the secular Turkish army. Secondly, the Turks should not intervene in ruling or administering the liberated areas in any circumstances or forms, so as not to violate the Sharia rule. Thirdly, the decision of peace and war in the liberated areas should be in the hands of the mujahideen and not the Turkish army. He concluded that today all three conditions are strictly enforced according to the doctrine of loyalty and disavowal (al-wala’ wa-l-bara’).

The vitriolic debate and ideological violent controversy between HTS and Hurras al-Dinal most turned into an armed confrontation, during which an HTS fighter was killed in a checkpoint in southern Aleppo on February 7, 2019.The Central Asian’s Muhajireen were worried that a conflict between al-Qaeda’s former allies was causing damage to the common goals of Jihad. As a result, on February 10, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and Hurras al-Din reached anew agreement, in which both organizations swore to end their war of words and cooperate against their common enemy. HTS and HAD agreed that an Islamic court would handle the controversial issues between the parties.

As we noted at the beginning of our article, the Uzbeks’ KTJ and Uyghurs’ TIP suggested that the Ansars resolve the dispute through an Islamic court, where they promised to protect the HTS with a weapon in the event of an attack on it. They hope for the justice of Islamic scholars at the head of Abu Qatada al-Filastini, who became a member of the Islamic court review the case. It should be noted that Abu Qatada al-Filastini played a key role in joining the Uzbek group KTJ to al Qaeda and HTS.

Uzbek and Uyghur militants support HTS in its pursuit to choose the lesser of two evils and do not see in its forced cooperation with Turkey violating the doctrine of loyalty and disavowal of Salafism in waging Jihad. Muhajireen do not oppose Ankara’s initiatives to create a demilitarized zone in Idlib jointly with Moscow. This is due to several factors.

First, the cultural, linguistic and kinship community with the Turks plays an important role, and they consider Turkey’s initiative helped delay for one year a possible attack by the Assad army, Iran’s Shiite proxy forces and the Russian Aerospace Forces on Idlib. During this time, the Muhajireen and the Ansar were able to prepare for a future battle.

Second, the Uyghurs Muhajireen view Turkey as the only country that provides them with moral and political support in the face of Chinese repression. More than 50 thousand Uyghurs live in Turkey who fled from Beijing’s persecution and Ankara condemned China’s Islam policy .In this regard, the Uyghurs are trying to pay back for this act of kindness. Some Uyghur Muhajireen participated in the military Operation Olive Branch along with the Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army to liberate Afrin in March 2018.

Thirdly, in the Kurdish question, the ideological position of the Central Asian militants coincides with the position of the HTS, who consider Kurdish YPG and PKK as communist organizations and unbeliever (kafir) groups.

The future of Central Asia’s Muhajireen in Idlib’s Safe-Haven

The ideological contradictions and continuous clashes between the rival rebel groups in Syria clearly characterize not only the current state of relations between former al Qaeda allies, but also the complex transformation that occurs within the global Sunni Salafi-Jihadi movement.

In this regard it should be noted that the statement of foreign fighters in support of HTS will have far-reaching consequences. Now, the prospect of finding Uyghur, Uzbek and Caucasian salafi groups on Syrian soil and their participation in global jihad in Middle East will depend on the position of the HTS. It can be expected that further deepening of the contradictions between HTS and al Qaeda in the near future will raise the question for foreign fighters about the choice of a strategic partner, because TIP and KTJ are members of al Qaeda, but at the same time they support the position of HTS in its dispute with al Qaeda.

After the defeat of the last stronghold of ISIS in al-Baghuz the attention of the regional powers will now be focused on the HTS, which built a prototype of the Caliphate, the so-called “Government of Salvation” in Idlib, which is managed on the basis of Sharia. However, HTS’s pursuit to distance itself more and more from al Qaeda and its desire to transform itself into a participant in the political dialogue of the Syrian conflict will force it to distance itself from the foreign Muhajireen. Therefore, in the near future, Uzbek and Uyghur Muhajireen will have to flee from Idlib or they await the bitter fate of ISIS.

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Terrorism

Spurious Assertions May Cause Diplomatic Failure

Jahangir Irshad

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America has once again disregarded the enduring efforts of Pakistan in war on terror. The latest US state department’s report on terrorism 2019, published on 24th June 2020, states that the country took meager actions to counter the menace of terrorism and continued to provide safe heavens to militant groups in 2019. However, Pakistan has contributed financially as well as in the flesh for regional peace. Further, the country has strengthened its institutes to halt the financial support of militant groups and restricted the terrorist movements into its territory. Meanwhile, It has also remained a true ally of America, as the former has played crucial role in soviet war and Afghan-Peace process. Despite the efforts, such recurring pessimistic remarks from US may derail the peace process in the region. It would also impair the strategic and economic interests of the two states. As, both relations are one of the dependency based one. US need Pakistan as a strategic ally in south Asia to negotiate with Taliban in Afghanistan, and Pakistan need US support to finance its economy.

Considering that, in 1954 Pakistan due to strategic compulsion joined US backed military alliances of SEATO and CENTO. It provided a power equation to Pakistan to contain its regional adversary India. In return, Pakistan allowed US military to use its land against the advancements of Soviet Union. Later, Pak-US relation crumbled when America left Pakistan alone without any financial and military assistance during 1971 war with India. From this time onward, relation between two countries failed to prolong ahead. Each of them started to suspect, and disillusioned one another. US proved not helpful, and it brought realization in Pakistan’s foreign policy corridor about US betrayal in hour of need. Thus, Pakistan adopted policy of aloofness with US, and started to look toward Muslim world for financial and diplomatic assistance. In this regard, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto then prime minster of Pakistan played a vital role to establish subtle relations with Muslim countries as well as Republic of China.

But again, strategic dependence from US and Pakistan’s compulsion to get financial assistance brought two countries closer to each other. And, after episode of 9/11 both countries jointly fought war against terror in Afghanistan. Pakistan stood shoulder to shoulder in this war with US. As a result, the former has lost some 75 thousand precious lives and billions of rupees in economic terms so far. Ironically, US under the influence of India and their widening strategic cooperation, started to put screws on Pakistan about its role in war on terror. Consequently, time after time US asked, to do more in countering terrorism, to Pakistan. It has Never, acknowledged the sacrifices Pakistan bore in this war. Similarly, the recent report by US state department echoes same rhetoric of doing more to Pakistan. However, Pakistan helped US to bring Taliban on negotiations table, even though Pakistan’s role is considered moderate.  

While, in last few years Pakistan has brought various institutional reforms through technological and human capital advancements pertaining to counter terrorism in the country and region. The establishment of National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA), formulation of National Action Plan (NAP) and strengthening its institutional capacity to halt financial assistance of militants are the cases in point. Additionally, the country has increased its border security to halt the terrorist movements across its borders. For instance it receives biometric information at land crossings through its International Border Management Security System. Moreover, the military operations against terrorists like, Operation Enduring Freedom (2001-2002), Rah-e-Haq and Rah-e-Rast (2007-2009), Operation Rah Nijat (2009-2010) and Zarb Azb (2014), are also crucial strides taken by Pakistan to eliminate the radical elements from its soil.

Regardless of all above cooperative efforts US has taken no notice of Pakistan’s role in war on terror. Instead, the former repeatedly blamed the country for financial assistance and providing its territory as safe heaven to militant groups. It also breached Pakistan’s territorial sovereignty on various instances.  Drone strikes on Pakistani soil, Salala incident and killing of Osama bin laden without informing Pakistani forces divulges the belligerence of US towards Pakistan. Since then the diplomatic ties between the two countries worsened drastically. As, later Pakistan ordered US military to evacuate Salala Air Base as well as Pakistan stopped NATO supplies for US. Likewise, various instances happened in later years. Despite of America’s skeptical attitude, Pakistan is still playing a paramount role in Afghan peace process and helping US military to exit Afghanistan for the sake of regional peace.

Therefore, US should not forget the sacrifices that Pakistan has rendered since it participated with US in Afghan war and its role while exterminating Soviet Union from the region. The country is yet bearing the repercussions of its partaking with US in its South Asian interests. Due to that various radical groups turned to Pakistan and plotted various terrorist attacks on the country. One of the most devastating attacks was on Army Public School Peshawar where the militants killed hundreds of innocent children. Besides that numerous attempts were made and are still being carried out on various points of time by militias in Pakistan. For instance the recent terrorist attack on Pakistan Stock Exchange on 29th June 2020 in Karachi reveals that the country is still under threat of terrorism. Additionally, due to its allegiance with US, Pakistan lost its bilateral ties with Russia for a long time in past. As, in early years of Pakistan, the country had the choice of building allegiance with Soviet Union or United States; however, it opted for the latter.

Thus, US must recognize the enduring efforts of Pakistan to sustain stability in the region. Such, accusations by US would just disrupt the bilateral diplomatic ties between both countries. Resultantly, both sides would have to bear the consequences. Since, Pakistan needs financial aid from US to strengthen its economy while, strategically Pakistan is significant ally of US in the region. Furthermore, the attitude of denunciation by any side would drastically disturb the peace process. Therefore, it is necessary for the two to make joint efforts to fight against the terrorism and keep the peace process on track to pave the way for regional peace and prosperity.

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Terrorism

Attack on Pakistan Stock Exchange: A Fuel-to-fire in Southeast Asia

Nauman Ahmad Bhatti

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On June 29th, four armed men opened fire in the premises of Pakistan Stock Exchange, Karachi. All four terrorists were successfully gunned down on the spot by the police, whereas one policeman and three guards were shot fighting. A representative account of Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA), a US-designated terrorist organization, on Twitter claimed responsibility for the attack. Prime Minister Imran Khan pinned this attack on India the very next day. This incident could further escalate the already high tensions between Pakistan and India. Apparently, the shootout lasted for only eight minutes but the context of it has been developing for ages.

BLA is a Baloch separatist militia which aims for an independent Balochistan due to ‘economic exploitation by the rest of Pakistan’. Its ultimate goal is to form an independent state of Balochistan where all the regional resources are used for the development of the Baloch nation.

Both India and BLA see Pakistan as their mutual enemy. India seems to never let go of any opportunity that leads to instability in Pakistan. RAW, leading Indian intelligence agency, has been accused of sponsoring this banned outfit on multiple occasions. In an interview in 2009, Hairbiar Marri, founder of Free Balochistan Movement (FBM), said, “We appreciate any kind of aid for BLA, be it moral or any other kind.” An alleged Indian spy, named Kulbhushan Jadhav, was arrested in 2016 on the charges of terrorist activities in Balochistan. In a video confession, Jadhav said, “These activities have been of anti-national or terrorist nature which resulted in the killing and wounding of Pakistani citizens.”

Since the formation of Narendra Modi’s far-right wing government in India, the relations between the two bitter neighbours have continued to soar. Military stand-off on the Line of Control among the two nuclear-armed states has become habitual. Lockdown in Kashmir, 2016 ‘surgical strike’ and 2019 Balakot Dogfight were some of the significant incidents occurred over the recent years. Ajit Doval, PM Modi’s current advisor on National Security, has allegedly devised what is called the ‘Doval Doctrine’ for carrying out covert operations in Pakistan, especially Balochistan. And now, the attack on the economic hub of Pakistan, claimed by BLA, exhibits a similar pattern. “We have no doubt that it [PSX attack] was planned in India”, said PM Khan while addressing the Parliament.

Earlier in June, New Delhi directed Pakistan High Commission to reduce its staff by half. India blamed Pakistani envoys of espionage. Dismissing it as a false claim, Pakistan did the same for Indian High Commission staff.

The Chinese element

With the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, a flagship project of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the BLA considers its ‘national’ identity in danger. It is repeatedly found to threaten and carry out activities against Chinese-backed projects. Chinese Engineers working in Balochistan were targeted in a suicide attack in August, 2018. In 2018, BLA also took responsibility for the attack on Chinese Consulate in Karachi.

The separatists consider CPEC an underhand exploitation of the resources belonging to the Baloch. In an email to AFP, the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA) claimed that the PSX attack was not only on “Pakistan’s economy” but also on “China’s exploitative plans for Balochistan”.

Dr. Moeed Pirzada, a Pakistani columnist, has analyzed that RAW is trying to market BLA’s perspective as ‘Anti-China’ militant outfit. He further draws that RAW is attempting to gain sympathy of western powers for Balochistan cause by exposing the neo-imperial mindset of China. The west is already wary of China’s ‘debt-trap diplomacy’ for the poor, developing nations in Asia and Africa. If they get the ear of the west, things might take a new turn.

The hostility between India and China increased over the past months regarding the Line of Actual Control (LAC). The claims of 135,000 square kilometer area along the border is a dispute between India and China, processing via negotiations and dialogues. Years of negotiations between New Delhi and Beijing failed on June 15th when troops of either sides clashed, resulting in death of 20 Indian and several Chinese soldiers.

If the alleged BLA links with India are officially proved, the ongoing Sino-India tensions could take a new hike. This would create grave repercussions for the entire region. The  state of affairs in Southeast Asia has alarmed the international society as the malice revolving around three nuclear-powered nations is catastrophic to much bigger geography.

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Terrorism

Terrorist groups exploiting COVID-19 in Sahel

Newsroom

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In fighting the coronavirus in Mali, the UN is partnering with authorities to raise awareness. MINUSMA/Harandane Dicko

COVID-19 is complicating an already complex security situation in the Sahel, with terrorist groups exploiting the pandemic as they step up attacks on national and international forces, the UN’s peacekeeping chief said on Friday.

Jean-Pierre Lacroix told the Security Council that the last six months have been particularly challenging as the G5 Sahel group of nations – Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger – deploys a joint force to restore stability to the vast African sub-region.

“We are seeing attempts by terrorists and other groups in the region to capitalize on the pandemic to undermine State authority and destabilize Governments”, with innocent lives being lost daily, schools shuttered and many people denied access to basic social services, he said.

Years to rebuild

“It will take years to rebuild affected communities in the Sahel even under the best of circumstances (as well as) sustained efforts to ensure that nobody is left behind”, added the Under-Secretary-General for Peace Operations.

“In the face of such loss and devastation, we cannot be passive.”

Mr. Lacroix was briefing a videoconference meeting of the Council as the United Nations considers options for beefing up its support for the G5 Sahel Joint Force, including through its MINUSMA peacekeeping mission in Mali.

He said that the Joint Force is making “tangible and encouraging progress” in building up its ranks and establishing a command structure based in Niamey that will cooperate with other international forces in the Sahel.

Military operation ‘progressing well’

Those efforts have led to an ongoing major military operation, code-named Sama, that is “progressing well”, he reported.

With financial support from the European Union, MINUSMA – the French acronym for the UN Stabilization Mission in Mali – is providing “life support consumables” (food, water and fuel) within its mandate.

Mr. Lacroix warned, however, that the Mission is running at maximum capacity and cannot do more for the Joint Force within its current Council-defined mandate and resources.

Comprehensive support package needed Expanding on the Secretary-General’s latest report on the Joint Force, he called for a comprehensive support package, funded by Member States through their assessed contributions to the UN.

“This would not only allow for predictable and sustainable support, it would also make it easier to pursue a long-term strategy to phase out this support and to render the Joint Force autonomous,” he explained.

It would also free up MINUSMA to focus exclusively on supporting the peace process and stabilization of central Mali, he added.

“The G5 Sahel Joint force is on the right track, but there is still a long way to go”, he said, adding that a stronger Joint Force is only part of a comprehensive international approach for the Sahel that includes improving governance, eradicating poverty and protecting human rights for all.

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