Has the Shifting Islamic State Threat Bypassed India?

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has cracked down on IS suspects at home, but India has opted not to formally join the US-led global anti-IS coalition (Image Source: US DoD)

Since first bursting into global consciousness in mid-2014 as they rampaged through Iraq – and later Syria – the militants of the Islamic State (IS) have looked to extend their reach eastward across Asia. The notorious jihadist group has since gone on to establish some form of presence in places such as Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and the Philippines. The group has also tried repeatedly to make inroads into India in recent years – but after a smattering of low-profile attacks and other IS-linked incidents threatened briefly to grow into something larger, this traction appears to have stalled.

India – a melting pot of cultures and religions encircled by terrorist-affected Pakistan and Afghanistan to the west, and Bangladesh to the east – appears at first glance to be in an ideal geographical location for IS to infiltrate, with segments of its population ripe for exploitation with its extremist ideological mantra. Yet India has experienced very little jihadist activity since the emergence of IS four years ago, despite its large population of 1.3 billion, of which an estimated 180 million are Muslims. With the risk so-far averted and as IS weakens further as a global force, is India free from the latest jihadi scourge?

Background: concerns over IS-linked activities in India

The first signs of IS activity in India emerged in May 2014, when four young engineering students from Thane – near Mumbai – were reported by local media to have travelled to Iraq to fight with the group. Since then, two terror attacks in India have been linked to IS, amid sporadic reports of recruitment in some areas of the country. The first of these occurred in December of that year, when an explosion outside a restaurant in central Bangalore killed one person and left four others injured. Several men linked to homegrown militant group Indian Mujahideen were arrested but links between the suspects and IS could not be proven, despite speculation. A second bomb attack however was claimed by IS on 7 March 2017, when a powerful explosion ripped through a passenger train on the Bhopal-Ujjain line near Jabri railway station. The attack left ten civilians injured, and marked the first terrorist attack in India with definite links to IS. Police soon identified the perpetrators as belonging to a local jihadi cell spread across the states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, making at least seven arrests in the days which followed. The alleged mastermind of the attack – named in media reports as Saifullah – was killed during a siege at his home with elite police counter-terrorism officers in the city of Lucknow.

These attacks appear minor when compared to the scale of the marauding three-day gun rampage in Mumbai in November 2008, which left at least 174 people dead, including 20 members of the security forces and 26 foreign tourists. More than 300 people were also injured during the assault, which sent shockwaves across the country and is often referred to as India’s 9/11. The onslaught was carried-out by ten Islamist militants from the radical Lashkar-e-Taiba group based next door in Pakistan, harming relations and igniting concern from India over the alleged safe-haven provided to terrorists in Pakistan.

While the threat from across the border has been clearly visible since 2008, the internal risk posed by IS has in India remained largely hidden below the surface. The Brookings Institution went some way to exposing the magnitude of this threat in a report last year, documenting the number of reported IS sympathizers – consisting of recruiters, supporters, propagandists and suspected terrorists – present in the country. The investigation revealed that 142 Indian citizens were affiliated with the jihadi group in some way, with the annual figure increasing during 2013-2016 before levelling-out in 2017. It was revealed that the majority came from relatively prosperous states in the south of the country such as Kerala, Telangana, Maharashtra and Karnataka. The report’s authors concluded that the number of IS-linked individuals was very small in comparison to other countries affected by the group. Based on this evidence, IS appears to have made little progress in swaying Indian citizens to its support its cause.

To what extent does IS pose a threat to India at present?

IS’ initial ambitions were to forge a concrete presence in the world’s largest democracy – the group even included India on a map of its desired caliphate back in 2014, and in some literature considered it part of its ‘Khorasan province’ encompassing the south Asian nations of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Propaganda efforts also focused on India, with a video released in May 2016 threatening the nation’s leaders and appealing to India’s 180 million Muslims to either travel to the caliphate or launch attacks at home. The slickly-produced video – featuring an Indian ‘foreign fighter’ and allegedly filmed in the Syrian province of Homs – warned IS would come to India to avenge injustices committed against the sizeable Muslim-minority population. The man in the video – named as Abu Salman al-Hindi – referred to sectarian rioting in the western state of Gujarat in 2002 when more than 1,000 Muslims were killed by mobs in response to the burning of a train carrying Hindus. Current Prime Minister Narendra Modi was accused of inaction as state governor at the time. The independence struggle in Kashmir was also mentioned as justification for targeting India, along with the destruction of the Babri mosque in 1992.

Indian security forces dismantled an IS cell active in the states of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh after a train bombing injured 10 civilians in March 2017 (Image Source: US DoD)

Despite these warnings, the lofty ambitions of maintaining a permanent presence on the ground and incorporating India into some kind of imagined IS super-caliphate have not even come close to being realised. Instead, the main threat has turned out to be from online recruitment and self-radicalization. As mentioned earlier, Kerala and other prosperous southwestern states have been worst-affected, with individuals and small groups of citizens becoming radicalized by extremist ideology disseminated online and through mobile platforms. Websites on the so-called ‘dark web’, social media sites and encrypted messaging apps have served as particularly useful mediums of communication for jihadis seeking to reach out to Indians. A single online recruiter – identified by intelligence agencies as Shafi Armar, or Yusuf-al-Hindi – has been linked to the majority of known cases of radicalization, while rogue Islamic centres and schools may also have played a role in providing a platform for extremist ideology. Radical preachers appearing on television and online platforms represent another area of concern for the authorities. The most prominent controversial preacher – Zakir Naik – has been accused by India’s National Investigation Agency (NIA) of encouraging unlawful activities and promoting religious hatred.

What measures has India taken to combat the threat?

Indian politicians have consistently denied that IS has an established presence in the country but have often warned of the seriousness of the threat posed by the group. In March, Home Minister Rajnath Singh highlighted the ‘radicalization of youth’ as a particular concern; but said India had so-far been successful in dismantling ‘modules that were planning to orchestrate terrorist attacks’ on its soil. Singh added that the ‘shift’ of jihadi networks linked to IS and al-Qaeda ‘from the Middle East to south Asia is a phenomenon which is of serious concern to India’. Singh also expressed confidence in the ability of the Indian authorities to combat the lingering threat, stating: ‘the Indian social fabric has not been affected by the emergence of IS – and I am sure this will not have any further impact in our country’.

This confidence appears to be well-founded, given the authorities’ record of cracking-down effectively on the activities of IS sympathizers. Several years ago, the Indian Intelligence Bureau (IIB) launched Operation Chakravyuh, designed to identify and entrap potential IS recruits online before they could be radicalized fully. Intelligence officers created social media accounts posing as IS recruiters, through which they interacted with more than 3,000 unassuming Indian youths seeking to join the global jihadi movement. The operatives were able to gather information related to the identity of the individuals concerned, which was then used to monitor and impose surveillance on targets and track the activities of emerging terrorist cells. It is thought that this initiative led to the arrest of multiple suspects before they were able to either travel abroad to join IS or carry-out attacks at home. The NIA and local police forces have also played a key role in conducting investigations and launching raids to arrest suspects. The Brookings Institution reported last year that 85 of 142 known IS suspects at the time had been detained. At least 11 others had been confirmed killed either while fighting abroad or during police operations in India, while many of the remaining 43 individuals were also reported to have been killed.

The national police and state intelligence services are also looking to improve their capabilities further, having recently taken part in a new two-day workshop with the EU aimed at countering radicalization online. The NIA has stressed the importance of closer global co-operation in this area, describing the internet and social media as ‘the main vehicles used by extremists and terrorist organizations to incite violence and sow hatred…and allow them to reach a far greater number of people than ever before’.

Future forecast: how might the threat from IS evolve?

Aside from the online sphere, several other areas of concern exist when it comes to IS in India. The decades-old conflict in Kashmir may be a particular weak spot, with IS-claimed attacks in the regional capital Srinagar last November and this February exposing the potential for a worrying new dynamic to the conflict. The attacks left two policemen dead, while a militant killed during the first incident was wrapped in an IS flag for his burial. While the attacks appear to have been isolated incidents, they indicate that a small number of IS sympathizers exist in the region, which some observers say could serve as a potential recruitment pool for extremist groups in the future. However, other analysts in the region argue this is unlikely due to the dominantly separatist nature of the long-running Kashmir independence struggle, while most of the armed groups active in the region are openly opposed to IS.

Secondly, sectarian tensions between Hindus and Muslims could also be a potential flashpoint. IS often looks to stir up such tensions in all countries where it operates, through its production of literature and audio-visual propaganda materials. A previous video aimed at India has disparaged Hindus as ‘worshippers of cows, trees and the sun’, while encouraging Muslims in the country to disassociate themselves from other religious groups. Prime Minister Modi’s alleged failure to take stronger action as state governor in the aftermath of the 2002 Gujarat riots, along with the Hindu nationalist policies of the current administration, could also increase feelings of marginalization among disenfranchised Muslims and play into the hands of the militants. There also remains the dual risk of low-tech, small-scale lone-wolf attacks along with the threat of larger attacks from militants based across borders in neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh. Such an eventuality has happened before, in Mumbai in 2008.

The need for continued vigilance against IS

India – as one of the world’s most populous and religiously diverse countries, located in the heart of a volatile region long-beset by problems related to Islamist militancy – has so-far been remarkably unscathed by IS. Yet as the group continues to lose territory in its former Middle Eastern strongholds of Syria and Iraq, it may yet attempt to open up new fronts to ensure its survival. This is less likely to be in the form of a fixed caliphate, but more likely something more akin to the loose global terrorist network developed by al-Qaeda in the 1990s and 2000s. As authorities around the world crack-down on the group’s activities, remote and long-volatile regions such as Kashmir may become an attractive option for IS. At first glance this appears unlikely, yet there is an existing precedent for such a scenario. Last year on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, IS was able to infiltrate and manipulate a decades-old insurgent movement that had previously been purely separatist in nature, to the point where it was able to take over and rule parts of a mid-sized city – Marawi – under the black flag of IS for almost six months. A similar scenario in Kashmir is just as unlikely; but can’t entirely be ruled out.

Prime Minister Modi’s government, along with India’s intelligence community and law enforcement agencies, will need to remain vigilant and on high alert even as IS’ global influence continues to wane. Although fading, IS’ ambitions for south Asia are not yet dead. Complacency at this stage from India – or any state around the world which appears to have avoided IS’ scourge – would be very dangerous.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.

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The Political Undertones to Cambodia’s Unresolved Border Dispute with Laos

Tensions flared during 2017 after Laotian troops reportedly crossed the border to halt the construction of a road in Stung Treng province (Image Source: Pierre Andre)

Cambodia’s usually low-key dispute over an unmarked stretch of its remote 540-km long border with northern neighbour Laos made international headlines last August, when long-time Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen issued a stern six-day ultimatum for Laotian troops to withdraw from the disputed region or face a forceful military response. Cambodian troops equipped with rocket launchers headed from Phnom Penh toward the contested area but were ordered to turn back the following day after a hastily-arranged meeting between Hun Sen and Laotian leader Thongloun Sisoulith defused tensions.

Despite a renewed commitment from both sides to work on delineating the precise boundary, the dispute remains unresolved and in late-February – a year after tensions first reignited – the Cambodian military held a live-fire weapons training exercise just south of the contested border. Defence Ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat said the drills were designed to improve the army’s capabilities and allow soldiers to ‘‘get to know the location in order to defend our country and our territorial integrity’’, yet emphasized the drills were ‘‘not a threat to any country’’ and unrelated to the border row with Laos.

Are the recent military exercises a sign that lingering tensions over the border are once again rising to the surface? The answer may have less to do with the dynamics of the dispute, and more to do with the upcoming election season in Cambodia. Despite the border issue remaining unresolved, since the flare-up last August relations between Cambodia and Laos have progressed seemingly unaffected by the near confrontation. Yet the dispute remains conveniently alive in the background to be used as a political tool by Hun Sen, who often looks to fan the flames of nationalism to advance his ‘strongman’ and ‘protector of the nation’ image as crucial elections draw closer. The next is scheduled for 29 July.

Background to the dispute

The dispute over the boundary separating the Laotian provinces of Attapeu and Champassak to the north from the Cambodian provinces of Preah Vihear, Ratanakiri and Stung Treng to the south dates back centuries. A large Khmer population was present in modern-day southern Laos during the Angkor empire until its collapse in the mid-14th century, while the northern Lao population migrated further south from the 15th century onward; forming the basis of historical claims to ownership of the border region. The root of the problem today however can be traced to the French colonial era. As a remote inland border far from the coastline and any potential invading force, its precise mapping was not exactly a high priority for the French rulers of Indochina from the late-19th until the mid-20th century.

After the French withdrew in the mid-1950s the boundary remained undefined throughout the next few decades of upheaval, encapsulated by the Vietnam War and the Cambodian Genocide. After the remnants of the Khmer Rouge collapsed in 1998 and a semblance of peace returned, closer attention was paid to the border region. In 2000, a joint bilateral committee was set-up to define the border, and by 2005, the two neighbours announced that around 87% of the boundary had been officially demarcated through the placing of 121 border markers, with only another 24 left to position. Yet due to disagreement over the final unmarked areas the job was never completed and up to 14% of the border remains undefined. Despite tensions occasionally flaring, a peaceful status-quo has prevailed.

Threat of military confrontation in 2017

The relative peace was threatened last year. In early-February 2017 Laotian soldiers crossed into Siem Peng district to prevent Cambodian military engineers from building a road over contested territory, and after a succession of similar incidents over the next few months, Cambodian PM Hun Sen issued an ultimatum on 11 August warning an estimated 30 Laotian soldiers to retreat within six days or face a military response. Hun Sen ordered troops to the border province of Stung Treng, stating he had run out of patience with the ‘‘invasion’’, warning ‘‘if a situation happens, please don’t blame Cambodia’’.

A military confrontation appeared imminent in August 2017 after Cambodian PM Hun Sen ordered troops to the disputed border region (Image Source: RC Army)

Yet soon after rocket launchers were seen heading to the area amid the imminent threat of armed clashes breaking-out, the crisis was de-escalated following a rapidly-convened meeting between the Cambodian PM and his Laotian counterpart in Vientiane. After the meeting, which Hun Sen labelled as a ‘‘huge victory’’ for both sides, troops were withdrawn and both leaders promised to re-establish dialogue channels to reduce tensions and work towards delimiting the rest of the border. Hun Sen later lauded his ‘‘personal relations’’ with Laotian PM Thongloun Sisoulith as crucial to resolving the issue, and in September the two nations’ foreign ministries said they would request detailed colonial-era maps from the French government before agreeing on the final geographical limits of the border.

Has the flare-up harmed Cambodia-Laos Relations?

Despite the live-fire drill earlier this year refocusing minds, the dispute has been pushed firmly aside as relations between Cambodia and Laos have flourished apparently undisturbed by the latent border tensions. The two sides have held a series of high-level security meetings, with Cambodian Defence Minster Tea Banh visiting Laotian counterpart Chansmone Chanyalat in mid-January, pledging to forge closer military ties and avoid confrontation along the border. Later that month the interior ministries of both nations took part in a key bilateral security meeting, where they signed a new memorandum of understanding on co-operation and vowed to jointly combat drug trafficking and other cross-border crimes. In March, the two countries also signed an agreement with neighbouring Vietnam to enhance tourism and economic ties in the 13 provinces surrounding the tri-border between the three countries.

More recently, on 4 April Laotian PM Sisoulith visited Hun Sen in Siem Reap where both men vowed to bolster co-operation in the fields of trade, investment and tourism. It is clear that both leaders wish to build upon their nations strong historical relationship which has been fostered by close religious, cultural and geographical ties over the centuries. Ensuring good relations is especially important given the central role both countries hope to play in China’s ambitious Belt and Road initiative, which will require the careful management of border tensions but should provide a long-term boost to both nations economies. In this context, it is evident why the dispute has had no discernible effect on bilateral ties, leaving many to wonder why Hun Sen seemed so agitated by the dispute last year in the first instance, and why he would risk enflaming tensions again by holding drills so close to the border.

The dispute remains a political tool for Hun Sen

The dispute has arguably been used by Hun Sen as part of a wider strategy to promote his image as the sole capable protector of his country’s national security and territorial sovereignty ahead of upcoming elections. It should not be overlooked that the escalation came in a year when Hun Sen also cracked down on alleged internal ‘threats’ by arresting political opponents on contentious treason charges, dissolved the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and forced the closure of critical independent media outlets such as the Cambodia Daily. The minor border incursion by Laos was presented as another – this time external – ‘threat’ which only the prime minister was said to be capable of responding to. This portrayal was visible through Hun Sen’s claim that the dispute would be ‘‘hard to resolve’’ if it were not for his ‘‘personal relations’’ with Lao politicians, in addition to February’s exercise carried-out by a battalion created by the PM just days after last August’s flare-up.

The August 2017 border flare-up was defused almost as quickly as it began, after Hun Sen met his Laotian counterpart in Vientiane (Image Source: Russian Govt)

To secure enough votes from the public to guarantee an extension of his 33-years in power, Hun Sen appears keen to play the nationalist card and remind voters of internal and external ‘threats’ which he says pose a danger to the once-troubled country. The PM has often used alarmist rhetoric before elections by warning voters of a descent back into civil war if his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) is not re-elected. Laos represents by far the easiest external target to aim at for Hun Sen to boost his ‘strongman’ credentials, with its army being significantly smaller and weaker than Cambodia’s other two neighbours – Thailand and Vietnam – which also have outstanding border issues with Cambodia.

Yet despite the alarm sparked by Hun Sen’s ultimatum last August and the recent military drills, the dispute itself remains low-key and unlikely to escalate or lead to armed conflict any time soon. The border area is remote and sparsely populated, making it geopolitically neutral in relative terms and therefore unlikely to ignite into violence. While the dispute causes few problems on the ground and poses little impediment to bilateral relations, emerging tensions over the trade in natural resources and the proposed construction of dams further upstream could make it more significant in the future.

To avoid such a scenario and prevent the area becoming a flashpoint in decades to come, both sides must take the present opportunity to resolve the dispute and demarcate the final unmarked stretches of the border. Little progress has been made since last year’s vow from both nations to look again at the issue, and achieving meaningful progress will require enhanced political determination. Yet while the dispute remains in the background as a convenient political tool for Hun Sen to draw attention to as elections draw closer, there is even less of an incentive for politicians to push for a faster resolution.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor.

Is Bangladesh Succeeding in its Battle Against Islamist Militants?

Bangladesh launched an anti-terror crackdown in the wake of the July 2016 siege on a Dhaka cafe (Image Source: Jubair1985)

Since Bangladesh launched an anti-terror crackdown in response to the high-profile attack on a popular Dhaka café by Islamist militants last July, the country has fortunately not witnessed another major attack on the same scale. Yet sixteen months on from the siege at the Holey Artisan Bakery – during which terrorists massacred 20 civilians with sharp weapons before Bangladeshi commandos stormed the building – fears over violent extremism in the south Asian nation remain ever-present.

Despite thousands of arrests and the deaths of top militant leaders at the hands of state security forces, signs of heightened political tensions and evidence of militant activity just below the surface have raised concerns over the potential for separatist violence and a new wave of attacks, in a country which until recently had little past experience of dealing with terrorism.

Whilst Bangladesh’s improved law enforcement capabilities have almost certainly prevented further bloodshed over the past year, the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has faced criticism over its somewhat contradictory approach to confronting terrorism. At the same time as pledging to tackle Islamist militants head-on, the government has been accused of facilitating an environment in which extremist ideology can flourish.

This report asks if Bangladesh’s counter-terrorism crackdown will ultimately prove successful in keeping a lid on militant activity, and asks whether the government in Dhaka is doing enough to combat the radical ideology which fuels such violence.

The issue of terrorism in Bangladesh first caught the world’s attention in 2015, after an unrelenting wave of small-scale attacks targeting secular bloggers, university professors, foreign citizens and members of religious minority groups. In all, more than 20 people were shot dead or hacked to death in a two-year period by Islamist militants, with attacks often taking place in broad daylight.

The level of violence was unprecedented in what is usually considered one of the most secular and tolerant Muslim-majority countries, especially in comparison to regional neighbours Afghanistan and Pakistan, which have long been blighted by sectarianism, religious intolerance and suicide bombings. The attacks made global headlines and hit the tourism industry and Bangladeshi economy hard.

PM Sheikh Hasina’s government blamed the attacks squarely on domestic jihadist group Jamaat-ul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), which it said were linked to its political opponents and seeking to destabilize the country.  This was despite claims of responsibility for some of the attacks by trans-national jihadist groups including the Islamic State (ISIS) and Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS). Neither claim could be proven concretely, however the government’s investigation into the attacks was roundly criticized at the time as few people were brought to justice over the killings.

The attack on the Dhaka café in July 2016 – often described by analysts as ‘Bangladesh’s 9/11’ – was seen as a game changer, and prompted the government to take concrete action. A sweeping security crackdown followed and large-scale police raids led to the arrest of thousands of suspected terrorist sympathizers across the country, whilst a number of senior militant leaders were killed during security operations. Nine suspected militants were killed in the Kalyanpur neighbourhood of Dhaka just three weeks after the café attack, whilst on 27 August last year police claimed to have killed the head of ISIS in Bangladesh – Tamim Chowdhury – during a raid in Narayanganj.

PM Sheikh Hasina denies that ISIS has a presence in Bangladesh, blaming attacks on local JMB militants (Image Source: DFID)

A newly-formed Counter-Terrorism and Transnational Crime Unit (CTTCU) of the Dhaka Metropolitan police took on hundreds of new recruits was granted a national mandate several months after the café siege, and has overseen counter-terrorism operations across the country. Authorities have clamped-down hard and have received much praise for their actions.

However, a number of small-scale suicide bombings earlier this year reignited fears and indicated a possible shift in tactics away from the knife attacks witnessed in the past, towards more sophisticated and well-planned operations of the nature seen in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Whilst the threat appears to have been contained for now, these developments show there is little room for complacency – especially given that some of the driving factors behind Bangladesh’s surge in terrorism over the last few years remain unresolved.

The initial wave of machete attacks on secular bloggers and foreign citizens came after a period marked by what some analysts describe as a ‘creeping Islamism and sectarianism’ in Bangladeshi society. The rise of religious intolerance was evidenced by two attacks on Shia targets in late-2015. First, a bomb blast targeting a procession outside a Shia shrine left two people dead, before a few weeks later a Shia mosque in Bogra was attacked, killing one person and wounding several others. These attacks on Shia targets – a minority group in Sunni-majority Bangladesh – raised suggestions that some in Bangladesh were becoming increasingly sectarian in mindset.

Longer-term factors have also played a role. Following the country’s 1971 independence war, senior leaders from the Jamaat-e-Islam party were convicted many years later on charges of crimes against humanity, with several of them sentenced to death by hanging. These events have stoked anger and exacerbated tensions in Bangladeshi politics which remain close the surface to this day. The Jamaat-e-Islam party is part of the current opposition alliance to the ruling Awami League, which has been in power since 2009. Divisiveness has been a key feature of the political scene in recent years, which has only worsened as the government has linked the terrorist JMB group to opposition parties.

In this sense, the government’s counter-terrorism campaign must be viewed in the broader domestic political context. The debate over naming perpetrators and ascribing blame following terror attacks has become a heavily politicized issue. Despite numerous claims of responsibility from international terror groups – including for the Dhaka café siege – Sheikh Hasina’s government has continued to deny the presence of ISIS or AQIS within the country’s borders, referring only to the JMB group and domestic political forces looking to ‘destabilize the government’.

This language has facilitated a corresponding crackdown on opposition political parties such as Jamaat-e-Islam and the Bangladesh National Party (BNP), exacerbating concerns that Hasina’s administration is becoming increasingly authoritarian in its approach to governance. More worryingly, absolving ISIS and AQIS of responsibility allows them to act with impunity – if indeed they are directing attacks within Bangladesh – and establish a firmer foothold under-the-radar.

Whilst terrorism remains a concern in Bangladesh, a repeat attack on the scale of the Dhaka cafe assault has so-far been avoided (Image Source: Souvik.arco)

Whilst launching a crackdown and condemning Islamist terrorism, the government’s approach has also been contradictory. At the same time as appearing to clamp down on terrorist elements, PM Sheikh Hasina has several times in the past warned secular bloggers for criticizing religion, saying ‘I don’t consider such writings as free-thinking but as filthy words. It is not at all acceptable if anyone writes against our prophet or other religions’. Some have labelled this as victim-blaming, and say it constitutes a sympathetic attitude towards terrorism, facilitating recruitment and legitimizing extremist ideology. At the very least, many argue that it is an attempt to stifle debate and restrict freedom-of-speech in a country which had been considered relatively open.

Despite these problems, a high-profile attack on the scale of the Dhaka café assault has not been repeated, to a degree validating the government’s strategy and indicating its improved counter-terrorism capabilities. The tide of less-sophisticated lone-wolf attacks has also slowed markedly. However, this type of attack is extremely difficult to guard against as perpetrators make use of easily-obtainable weapons and often have no known links to militant organizations.

When incidents do occur, the government continues to blame local groups such as JMB. And it is true that concrete links between domestic militants and ISIS or AQIS have not been proven, despite claims of responsibility. Yet the politicization of terrorism remains a concern, and a clear distinction must be made between political parties and militant groups unless there is concrete evidence to suggest otherwise.

The government’s denial of ISIS presence in the country raises fears that the violent ideology of transnational jihadist groups is being underestimated. As ISIS continues to lose ground in Syria and Iraq, it may look to further its recruitment in south Asian countries, including Bangladesh. As we have seen recently in the southern Philippines, local groups can be heavily influenced by such ideology and act upon it, whether concrete links to international groups exist or not.

As a result, the authorities in Bangladesh must remain vigilant and alert. The anti-terror crackdown has undoubtedly made progress, but this alone is not enough. Violent ideology must be countered and criticized, meaning that the space for those who wish to defend secular ideals – as well those who wish to defend various strains of religious thought – must be protected in Bangladesh if violent extremism is to be defeated in the long-run.

A version of this article is also published on Geopolitical Monitor

Philippines Communist Insurgency: Rhetoric Heats Up as Peace Negotiations Remain Stalled

President Duterte vowed when elected to pursue peace talks with the CPP-NPA, aimed at ending one of the world’s longest-running communist insurgencies (Image Source: PCOO)

This feature was first published on Asian Correspondent.

When Rodrigo Duterte was elected as president of the Philippines in May 2016, hopes were raised for a negotiated end to one of Asia’s longest-running Maoist insurgencies. On the campaign trail Duterte had vowed, if elected, to enter into ‘inclusive talks’ with rebels from the New People’s Army (NPA), the military wing of the once-outlawed Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP). Peace talks did indeed begin in Norway last August, and got off to a positive start with both sides declaring separate ceasefires and agreeing to further rounds of dialogue, which took place in Oslo in October and Rome in January. At the turn of the year, it appeared steady progress was being made.

Yet the peace process crashed to an abrupt halt in early February after a series of armed clashes led both parties to declare their separate ceasefires at an end. Talks were briefly revived in the Netherlands in April, before a fifth round of dialogue scheduled for May was cancelled by Duterte. Since the collapse of the peace process earlier this year, violence has spiralled and deadly attacks have become a frequent occurrence. September saw several high-profile incidents, with NPA rebels killing four government troops in an ambush in Nueva Vizcaya at the start of the month, whilst on 20 September, nine Maoist rebels were slain in a clash with the Philippine army in Carranglan.

After several attempts to restart negotiations failed, rhetoric on both sides has become increasingly heated in recent months. In August, President Duterte declared ‘war’ against the Maoists, stating ‘Let’s stop talking, start fighting’, before describing peace negotiations as a ‘waste of time’. The CPP responded by labelling Duterte’s administration as a ‘semi-colonial, anti-peasant regime’, whilst claiming ‘the people have no other recourse but to tread the path of militant struggle and collective action’. Amid the escalating war-of-words and with negotiations still stalled, this report examines the reasons why the peace talks faltered and assesses the prospects of future dialogue.

The history of the modern communist movement in the Philippines dates back to 1968 and the founding of the CPP by a former student activist, Jose Maria Sison, who still leads the organization from self-exile in the Netherlands. The party’s armed wing, the NPA, was established a year later with the aim of overthrowing the central government in Manila through a sustained campaign of armed resistance, referred to by the CPP-NPA as a ‘protracted people’s war’. The movement is rooted in Marxist-Leninist ideology and seeks to establish a political system led by the working classes, which would redistribute land to the poor and expel US influence from the Philippines.

The NPA reached the height of its powers in the early-1980s during the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, when it attracted widespread public support and had more than 25,000 members. In the democratic era, the movement has declined in strength but still retains an operational presence in most provinces across the country, and now has around 4,800 active members. Clashes between NPA rebels and Philippine troops continue to occur sporadically as the insurgency approaches its sixth decade, despite repeated military crackdowns. The NPA remains especially strong in poorer rural areas where it enjoys widespread support and exercises de-facto control through the collection of ‘revolutionary taxes’; payments which Manila describes as extortion.

Peace negotiations have taken place intermittently in past decades between the National Democratic Front (NDF) – a political grouping which represents the CPP-NPA in formal talks – and successive governments led by Estrada, Arroyo and Aquino, yet to no avail. The election of Duterte last year signalled renewed hope for peace, and the first round of talks with the NDF in August 2016 produced a landmark result: the declaration of ceasefires by both sides. The commitment held and the parties convened again in Oslo two months later, before a third meeting in Rome this January. Yet at the beginning of February, months of careful diplomacy unravelled in a matter of days, whilst efforts to rekindle negotiations in the following months made little progress. Both sides blamed each other as clashes resumed between the army and rebels, leaving many wondering: why did the talks falter, and how did the ceasefire collapse so quickly?

Since the breakdown of peace negotiations earlier this year, NPA attacks against government troops have occurred more frequently (Image Source: Philippines Information Agency)

The trigger for the collapse was a result of the peace process reaching a major sticking-point over the release of political prisoners. As the dialogue moved forward, the CPP-NPA had made it clear that the release of imprisoned members was a pre-condition for the continuation of talks, whereas President Duterte maintained he would not release more prisoners until a formal joint ceasefire agreement had been signed. Tensions surrounding the issue were already boiling over before the NPA lifted its unilateral ceasefire on 1 February. Duterte followed-suit two days later after a series of NPA attacks on Philippine troops, immediately terminating the government’s ceasefire and accusing the ‘terrorist’ rebels of ‘wanting another fifty years of war’.

Whilst unsatisfied demands for a prisoner amnesty served as the trigger for the breakdown of talks earlier this year, there are several more deeply-rooted factors which contributed to the failure of dialogue and restrict the chances of ending the insurgency should talks resume.

First, the factional nature of the NPA – with armed units present in almost every province across the Philippines – and a lack of centralized operational leadership, makes it difficult for the largely symbolic figureheads of the CPP and NDF, responsible for negotiating with the government, to control the activities of their fighters. Whilst a ceasefire is imposed from above, realities on the ground make it easy for violent clashes to occur in a local context. This often leads to further attacks and retaliatory violence, dealing a hammer blow to peace talks at the national level.

Second, a lack of trust exists between both sides. This makes progress difficult to sustain as firmly opposed positions have been reinforced over five decades of conflict. For example, as soon as the talks collapsed in February, both the government and CPP-NPA quickly reverted from making careful diplomatic overtures and returned to using divisive language describing each other as the ‘enemy’. As the months have passed, heated rhetoric has replaced the co-operative tones voiced last year, indicating the fragility of progressive dialogue and the difficulty of reversing long-held suspicions.

President Duterte came to power in 2016 promising to negotiate an end to the Philippines’ long-running internal conflicts, yet conditions appear only to have deteriorated. The government is now firefighting on multiple fronts: the army is still battling ISIS-aligned militants in Marawi, whilst at the same time Congress is trying to finalize a long-awaited peace deal with Moro separatist groups. And now, a resurgent communist insurgency is threatening to inflict further bloodshed.

The only way of resolving the conflict without a peace accord being signed is to tackle the root causes of the insurgency, which would undermine recruitment and support for the NPA through improving the livelihoods of the Philippines’ rural poor. This approach alone however would take decades, and without an accompanying peace deal, may not end the violence in its entirety.

To prevent further internal strife, the government and the NPA have a strong imperative to return to the path of negotiation. Duterte is unpredictable, so his declaration that the peace process with the NPA is over does not necessarily signal the end of the road. If there is a lull in rebel attacks and conditions are deemed right, talks may be restarted in the near future.

After five decades of armed resistance, the cycle of conflict will be difficult to break; yet the revival of the peace process represents the only viable path forward. Unless momentum is regained soon, the Philippines’ long-running Maoist insurgency may prove intractable for another generation.

Four decades on, Laos grapples with Vietnam War’s explosive legacy

The national clearance agency – UXO-Lao – has been working with international NGOs to clear unexploded bombs left behind from the Vietnam War (Image Source: Geopolitical Conflict)

This in-depth feature is an extended version of an article published on Asian Correspondent.

More than four decades after the last bomb fell from the skies above the remote and landlocked Southeast Asian nation of Laos, its countryside remains littered with deadly remnants from a conflict which long-ago faded into distant memory for many in the West. For the people of Laos however, the harmful impacts of the Vietnam War continue to reverberate deep into the 21st Century.

A covert nine-year US bombing campaign resulted in more than two million tonnes of ordnance being dumped on Laos between 1964 and 1973. This campaign was dubbed the ‘Secret War’, as the raids were conducted without the authorization of Congress and without the knowledge of the American public. During the onslaught around 30,000 people were killed or maimed, and an additional 20,000 casualties have been incurred since the campaign ended, as civilians have inadvertently come into contact with unexploded ordnance (UXO) left behind.

In recent years there has been a marked reduction in annual deaths and injuries – from more than 300 in 2008 to less than 50 last year – following an intensification of nationwide clearance efforts. However, this success in reducing the direct physical impacts of UXO must not blur the wider humanitarian legacy of the US bombing campaign in Laos: less than 2% of the total contaminated land area has been cleared, in a country which remains amongst the poorest in the region. In short, UXO serves as a major and debilitating impediment to Laos’ development.

Around 80 million cluster bomblets remain hidden in forests, submerged along river banks and buried in fertile soil. This extensive level of contamination renders large swathes of agricultural land unusable, denting crop production and worsening food insecurity. The presence of UXO also hampers construction: vast areas of land need to be painstakingly cleared before building work can begin, making infrastructure projects more dangerous, costly and time-consuming. The long-term injuries suffered by victims have also created a nationwide disability crisis, placing a huge burden on the country’s overstretched healthcare system and depriving many families of income.

These effects combine to harm social and economic development at both the local and national level, leaving many Laotians unable to escape a life of isolation, poverty and hardship.

Before assessing the impacts of UXO on development in more detail, it is essential to first trace the history of the UXO problem in Laos: from the Vietnam War and subsequent bombing campaign to the more recent clearance efforts of the last two decades.

The US bombing of Laos has long been overshadowed by the wider narrative of the Vietnam War, which began in 1955 and ended when Saigon fell twenty years later. The conflict was often viewed through the lens of the wider struggle between the two global superpowers of the Cold War era, when the US sought to contain the spread of communism through halting the ‘domino effect’ in Southeast Asia. In this context in the early 1960s, large numbers of US troops became engaged in an increasingly bloody and intractable ground war against the communist North Vietnamese.

By 1963, the war had spilled across Vietnam’s long and snaking western border. North Vietnamese troops began smuggling arms and equipment to south Vietnam along the Ho Chi Minh Trail; an overland supply route carved through the dense forests of neighbouring south-eastern Laos and eastern Cambodia. At the same time, Pathet Lao communist fighters were increasingly engaging in battles with the US-backed Royal Lao Army in northern Laos, further raising US concerns over the ‘domino effect’ in the region.

In December 1964, the US responded to these developments by launching what became the most extensive bombing campaign in history, aimed at disrupting activity along the Ho Chi Minh Trail. Congress had not been consulted and for several years the US government denied the existence of the campaign, referring only to ‘reconnaissance flights’ over Laos. Over the next nine years Laos became the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in the world. In total, US aircraft flew more than 580,000 sorties and dropped more than two million tonnes of ordnance.

Cluster bombs – each containing up to 700 smaller bomblets which are released mid-air and dispersed over a wide area – were the most frequently-used weapon. Around 260 million bomblets in total were dropped during the campaign. Of these, around 80 million failed to detonate and now make up the bulk of UXO remnants littering the countryside. The scale of contamination is in fact so severe that UXO are present in 14 of Laos’ 17 provinces.

During the US bombing campaign from 1964-1973, aircraft flew 580,000 sorties and dropped two million tonnes of ordnance on Laos (Image Source: Geopolitical Conflict)

The true extent of the campaign only became public knowledge after a series of US Senate hearings in 1971, which first exposed the ‘Secret War’ in Laos. Over the decades, further details have emerged as state department documents have been declassified and US military strike records have been released. Despite an initial public outrage the suffering inflicted on Laos remained in the headlines for only a relatively short period of time. Four-and-a-half decades on, the affair has drifted from public consciousness and has been largely forgotten.

The impacts on the civilian population have been overwhelming. More than 50,000 people have been killed or maimed since the bombing started in 1964, with 20,000 falling victim since the campaign ended in 1973. Children are disproportionately affected as they often mistake spherical cluster bomb casings for toys, accounting for 40% of UXO casualties.

Most accidents are caused by direct impact. This can occur when agricultural workers dig the soil, when villagers attempt to move or defuse bombs themselves, and when children mistakenly play with cluster bomblets. The burgeoning scrap metal trade in Laos has also exacerbated the problem, leading many impoverished residents to take huge risks for a quick financial return.

In the past twenty years UXO clearance efforts have gathered pace after several decades of inaction. In 1996 the Lao National Unexploded Ordnance Programme (UXO-Lao) was established. UXO-Lao works with NGOs and international partners to co-ordinate nationwide clearance efforts on the ground. This was followed ten years later by the establishment of a National Regulatory Authority (NRA) to oversee the management of the UXO sector. International NGOs such as Mines Advisory Group, Handicap International and Legacies of War have played a vital role in raising awareness and undertaking complex removal work.

The direct humanitarian impacts of UXO in Laos are slowly receding. In the past two decades, more than 1.4 million UXO items have been destroyed and more than 3 million people living in the most heavily-contaminated areas have attended risk education classes. UXO-Lao says that since 2010, UXO clearance has made possible the construction of 478 new schools, 78 water systems and 75 new roads. In addition, the rate of death and injury from UXO has been reduced by 86% since 2008, with the government now aiming to limit casualties to less than 40 per year.

These figures are encouraging, yet still more needs to be done to tackle the huge scale of the problem: it is worth remembering that less than 2% of contaminated land has been cleared. Taking time to consider this reality – that 98% of contaminated land remains littered with UXO – allows for further reflection on the potentially hidden, longer-term and more indirect implications of the US bombing campaign. In this sense, it must be asked: to what extent has UXO impacted Laos’ development?

Despite achieving annual GDP growth of above 8% in the last few years, Laos remains one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia. In the latest version of the UN Human Development Index, Laos is ranked 138th out of 188 countries, with only Myanmar (145) and Cambodia (143) faring worse in the region. Whilst there are numerous factors determining a country’s level of development, it can be argued that in the case of Laos, UXO contamination plays a unique role in stunting progress.

Around 260 million cluster bomblets were dropped on Laos in just nine years. More than 80 million failed to detonate, and now litter the countryside (Image Source: Geopolitical Conflict)

The correlation between UXO and underdevelopment is most visible through the prism of poverty. According to the World Bank, 41.7% of people in Laos earn less than $3.10 per day, whilst 16.7% of the population earn less than $1.90 per day. This represents a higher proportion of people living below the poverty line compared to other Southeast Asian states. In addition to a high poverty rate at the national level, a growing divide is emerging between urban and rural areas. The UNDP reported that the poverty rate was three times higher for the 63% of Laos’ population whom reside in the countryside, where the UXO threat is greatest. In fact, the correlation between poverty and UXO contamination is stark, with 42 of the 46 poorest districts being in areas with widespread UXO presence. This trend is especially pronounced in remote mountainous areas where it is more difficult to conduct clearance operations, and along the border with Vietnam where bombing was heaviest.

The correlation between UXO contamination and poverty is clear, yet explaining exactly why the presence of UXO exacerbates poverty and worsens development outcomes is a more complex undertaking. In this sense, UXO contamination has negative implications in three broad areas which are vitally important to Laos’ development: agriculture, infrastructure and healthcare.

Firstly, UXO hampers agricultural production and worsens food insecurity. Even before the bombing campaign, Laos already found itself disadvantaged due to its rugged mountainous geography. Agricultural land accounts for only 10% of total land area, according to the Asian Development Bank (ADB). This is amongst the lowest in the region, and far less than neighbours Thailand (43%), Vietnam (36%) and Cambodia (33%). The presence of UXO across half of Laos’ arable land compounds these existing geographical disadvantages, meaning that only a small proportion of fertile land is able to be farmed. UXO has hit food production hard, leaving the country incapable of providing adequately for its burgeoning population, which now stands at 6.9 million.

As a result, rates of malnourishment are amongst the highest in the region. A 2016 study found that 18.5% of the population were undernourished, compared to 14% in Myanmar and Cambodia, and 11% in Vietnam. Laos was also found to have the highest rate in the region of stunting in children under five years of age, which stands at a staggering 43.8%. As the population continues to grow, food insecurity is likely to worsen. This is already pushing villagers to take great risks in attempting to conduct UXO clearance themselves and farm land which may be contaminated.

Whilst it is true that geographical constraints have historically restricted agricultural development in Laos, it is equally undeniable that the widespread presence of UXO – rendering hundreds of square kilometres of farmland unusable – is a decisive factor in explaining the difficulties endured by Laotian farmers and the poor performance of the country’s agricultural economy.

Secondly, UXO acts as an impediment to the provision of critical infrastructure. Laos’ geographical features – notably its mountainous terrain, dense jungles and lack of coastline – unfortunately serve as natural barriers to construction and free-flowing trade, yet the presence of UXO again compounds these problems. As a landlocked nation, Laos depends on overland transportation to move goods around the country, yet UXO contamination makes the construction of transport routes more dangerous and time-consuming than almost anywhere else on the planet. Land must be extensively surveyed and painstakingly cleared before construction work can begin, lessening the incentive for foreign investment in infrastructure projects.

As a result of UXO, Laos is desperately lacking in adequate road and rail links, leaving vast areas of the country isolated and disconnected from the main urban centres of Vientiane and Luang Prabang. This makes it difficult for goods to be transported to and from the countryside, leaving many rural areas to sink deeper into poverty whilst the cities prosper.

Large construction projects also face considerable delays and extra costs as a result of UXO contamination. For example, construction of the 1,075-megawatt, 350-metre tall Nam Theun II Dam, completed in 2010, was only able to get underway after three years of prior UXO removal work costing almost $17 million. The Dam project provides just one example of the many instances where additional costs have been incurred to build on UXO-contaminated land.

Thirdly, UXO has placed a huge burden on the healthcare system in Laos. There are more than 12,000 survivors of UXO accidents across the country, most of whom have some degree of disability and will require support for the rest of their lives. The most common injuries sustained are the loss of a limb, blindness, hearing loss and shrapnel wounds. It is estimated that 40% of survivors require limb amputation, leading Laos to have one of the highest rates of disability globally. In the heavily-contaminated Xieng Khouang province alone, there are more than five-thousand disabled residents. The high amputation rate results from the majority of incidents occurring in remote, inaccessible areas, meaning that professional medical attention is often several hours away.

In the past 20 years, UXO-Lao has made more than 11,000 risk education visits to villages in the most heavily-contaminated areas, warning 3 million Laotians of the dangers of UXO (Image Source: Geopolitical Conflict)

The strain placed on Laos’ fragile healthcare system is overbearing. Many facilities are ill-equipped to deal with the severity of injuries in the immediate aftermath of an accident; for example, blood transfusions are often not possible in rural clinics, meaning that blood loss, rather than the injury itself, is a leading cause of death amongst UXO victims. In the longer-term, survivors require years of physical rehabilitation, psychological counselling, and custom-made devices to replace missing limbs.

Survivors face difficulty in resuming their normal lives, and households are plunged into poverty as families become unable to rely on the productivity of the main breadwinner. Relatives are forced to give up work to help care for injured family members, whilst children often stop attending school and instead seek employment to replace lost income.

The poverty-inducing effects of blast injuries and the additional burden placed on health services exacerbates the negative impacts of UXO on development. A high rate of disability means a depleted workforce, whilst families are weighed down under the burden of care, leaving tens-of-thousands of Laotians unable to contribute towards economic growth.

In recent years the UXO problem has been addressed with greater urgency, alongside a growing recognition that UXO poses a threat to development. In September 2016, Laos’ Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith and then-UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon inaugurated a new sustainable development goal for Laos, entitled Lives Safe from UXO: Remove the UXO Obstacle to National Development. This initiative – known as SDG18 – aims to further reduce casualties, address the needs of victims and clear the highest-risk areas by 2030.

Last year the government also announced plans to carry-out a nationwide UXO survey, aiming to produce a reliable estimate of contamination across the country by 2021. This will enable the most heavily-contaminated areas to be prioritized and facilitate closer co-ordination between UXO-Lao, international NGOs and private sector firms.

The most significant boost to clearance efforts however came last September, when then-US president Barack Obama announced a $90million funding package to be spread over the next three years, dwarfing previous US commitments. In a speech in Vientiane – during his historic first visit to Laos by a sitting US leader – President Obama acknowledged the harm inflicted by the bombing campaign, stating: ‘‘I believe the United States has a moral obligation to help Laos heal.’’

President Obama visited Laos in September 2016, pledging $90 million in funding to aid clearance efforts over the next three years (Image Source: White House Archives)

The successful visit followed a period of sustained engagement with Laos as part of the previous administration’s ‘pivot’ towards Asia, in which the US sought closer alliances with ASEAN member states as a counter to China’s growing influence in the region. However, Donald Trump does not appear to view Southeast Asia as such a high priority, prompting concerns over future UXO funding and raising questions over whether the US commitment to ‘‘help Laos heal’’ will be a long-term one.

Over the last two decades, steady progress has been made in tackling the UXO threat in Laos. The US has finally recognized the harmful legacy of the covert bombing campaign it conducted during the Vietnam War, which was overwhelmingly disproportionate in terms of its devastating long-term impact on civilians. In the last few years, greater engagement and funding has enabled clearance operations to move forward at a faster pace. In humanitarian terms, the recent intensification of clearance work has brought dramatic improvements: casualty numbers have reduced to an all-time low, and the majority of the rural population are now aware of the dangers posed by UXO.

Yet there remains an awfully long way to go. Four decades on from the US’ ‘Secret War’, its humanitarian legacy may be fading; but its developmental legacy persists. Despite recent economic growth, Laos still lags behind its neighbours and remains amongst the poorest nations in Southeast Asia. Given the painfully slow and careful nature of the work required to clear even the smallest area of land, UXO contamination will continue to pose a severe impediment to Laos’ development for decades to come. The widespread presence of UXO compounds the natural constraints imposed by Laos’ mountainous geography, denying it the opportunity to lift itself out of poverty and join Southeast Asia’s growing band of middle-income countries.

The ongoing experience of Laos serves as a painful reminder of the potential for conflicts to kill, maim and hold back development long after they have been consigned to the history books. Given the fact that only 2% of contaminated land has been made safe since clearance activities began more than 20 years ago, further international engagement and funding reassurances will be needed if there is to be a sustained, long-term effort to tackle the crippling legacy of UXO in Laos.

Dokdo-Takeshima Islands: South Korea and Japan’s Intractable Maritime Dispute

The disputed islands are located in the Sea of Japan – also known as the East Sea – approximately half-way between Japan and South Korea (Image Source: Flickr, ROK)

Over the last few years, maritime disputes in the contested waters of East Asia have made global headlines. In the South China Sea, China has faced opposition from Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines for its claims to sovereignty over the Paracel and Spratly Islands. In the East China Sea, relations have remained tense between China and Japan over the disputed Senkaku-Diaoyu islands.

Yet another long-standing maritime dispute in the region has continued to exist under-the-radar, and remains unresolved after more than six decades. The dispute concerns a collection of small islands located in the Sea of Japan – or the East Sea as it is known on the Korean peninsula. The contested islands are called the Dokdo Islands by South Korea, yet are known as the Takeshima Islands by the Japanese, and the Liancourt Rocks by many in the West.

The isolated maritime territory – consisting of two larger islands and more than thirty smaller features – is officially controlled by South Korea, yet is also claimed by Japan. The islands sit roughly half-way between the two countries, being located approximately 134 nautical miles from South Korea’s mainland, and around 155 miles from the Japanese coastline.

This article will seek to review the background context and current situation related to the long-running dispute over the Dokdo-Takeshima Islands, before assessing its impact on South Korean-Japanese bilateral relations and asking why the dispute has proved so difficult to resolve.

Both sides claim that their right to sovereignty over the islands stretches back hundreds of years, yet there is a significant degree of historical ambiguity to these claims. Instances of conflicting evidence make a clear and objective timeline of the disputes almost impossible to ascertain.

South Korea argues that the islands were first mentioned in historical literature from as long ago as 512-AD, whilst Japan argues that South Korea has failed to prove their control over the islands prior to their occupation by Japanese forces in 1905, several years prior to the Japanese colonization of the Korean peninsula. Japan’s Foreign Ministry has also stated that its claims originally date back to the mid-17th Century when the islands were used by Japanese sailors.

South Korea insists that the islands were rightfully handed back to the country following the 1951 Treaty of San Francisco, signed between the United States and Japan after the end of WWII. However, the islands had been omitted from the final text of the treaty, leading to confusion over which country was entitled to administer the territory. South Korea established formal administrative control over the islands in the mid-1950s – a move which Japan has described as an ‘illegal occupation’.

Today, the Dokdo-Takeshima islands remain administered by South Korea and the dispute has rumbled on at a relatively low level, albeit damaging bilateral relations between the two countries. South Korea has constructed a coast guard station on one of the two main islands, whilst on the other resides a Korean fisherman and his family – the territory’s only permanent residents.

The long-held views of both countries regarding the dispute are not expected to change, despite the election of new South Korean president Moon Jae-In (Image Source: Flickr, ROK)

There are several reasons why the dispute has proved so resistant to a resolution over the past six decades.

Firstly, nationalism remains a key factor on both sides, with the islands holding symbolic importance to both the South Korean and Japanese populations. Many South Korean’s see Japan’s unrelenting sovereignty claim as a neo-colonial attempt to retain a strategically-important territory acquired during Japan’s days as an imperial power. This aspect of the dispute is arguably the most sensitive, with many Koreans still feeling a sense of anger and humiliation over their country’s annexation by Japanese forces in 1910 and the lengthy occupation of the mainland which followed.

Nationalist sentiments have also been a feature of Japan’s continuing claim, with the southern Shimane Prefecture introducing an annual ‘Takeshima Day’ in 2005. In both countries, nationalistic feelings centred on historical animosity between the two regional powers have dominated thinking with regard to the dispute – resulting in occasional street protests by civilians and rhetorical flare-ups from political leaders in the aftermath of sensitive incidents.

Secondly, the dispute has proved even more intractable due to the economic and geo-strategic importance of the islands. The Dokdo-Takeshima islands are located in the middle of an important route for shipping and regional trade, and are surrounded by plentiful fish stocks. In addition, there is significant potential for the unexplored sea-bed around the islands to contain large amounts of oil and natural gas deposits.

Full political control over the islands would enable access to a 12-natuical mile Territorial Sea, along with a 200-nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) stretching out from the coastline, under the terms of the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). This international agreement has further entrenched the position of both sides – as has also been the case with claimants in other territorial disputes in the South and East China Seas – due to the potential for large rewards in terms of energy security and economic prosperity, as a result of preferential fishing rights and greater access to natural resources within the legally delimited zones.

Whilst the disputes have continued at a low level for the past six decades, recent years have witnessed several flare-ups and periods of increased friction. In 2012, tensions reached their highest point when Japan recalled its ambassador to Seoul, following a high-profile visit to the islands by then-South Korean President Lee Myung-bak – the first visit by an incumbent Korean leader.

Concerns have also been raised over the impact of the dispute on bilateral relations and security co-operation between the two countries – both of which are allies of the United States. This question is especially important given the rapidly escalating nuclear threat emanating from the hostile regime in North Korea, after it conducted a series of missile tests earlier this year in contravention of a UN ban. The successful management of this issue will require a unified response involving close cooperation between the United States and its regional allies. This provides a strong imperative for South Korea and Japan to put their long-running maritime dispute to one side, at least for now, and work more closely together to tackle a common threat.

At first glance, the dispute over the Dokdo-Takeshima Islands appears relatively minor in scale, especially when compared to the more complex maritime disputes underway in the East and South China Seas. However, the islands occupy a position of great national importance for many in both South Korea and Japan, a factor which provides a significant obstacle to resolution and has resulted in deeply-ingrained positions on both sides.

Whilst tensions occasionally rise to the surface, the dispute is not one which looks likely to result in military conflict any time soon. For now, with little sign of compromise or willingness to debate the issue of sovereignty on either side, the status-quo over the islands looks set to remain unchanged – especially whilst a serious threat to the entire region looms large on the horizon.

A version of this article was also published on Eurasia Review

Cyprus: an island divided, but for how much longer?

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Since 1974, a heavily-guarded UN buffer zone has divided Cyprus’ Greek and Turkish communities (Image Source: Jpatokal)

After more than four decades of division, recent peace talks between leaders on both sides of Cyprus’ infamous Green Line have led to a renewed sense of optimism, bringing fresh hope that the long-troubled eastern Mediterranean island could finally be reunified. Since 20 July 1974, Cyprus has been split across the middle, with a 180km-long UN buffer zone separating the Greek-Cypriot south from the Turkish-Cypriot north. Despite the failure of several previous attempts at resolution, there now appears to be a greater chance of success due to a growing political will – reinforced by firm commitments from the island’s leaders – to achieve reunification.

The current phase of negotiations between Greek-Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish-Cypriot President Mustafa Akinci began in May 2015, and significant progress has been made over the last two years. Recent media reports – as of January 2017 – have indicated that the talks are now entering the latter stages, with a final deal expected to be announced in the near future. However, whilst this apparent progress should be welcomed, it is important to apply a note of caution and avoid celebrating prematurely. As talks continue further into the year, it must be acknowledged that the issue of reunification is complex and fraught with many difficult and emotive issues, which will not simply be resolved overnight – irrespective of the outcome of the current discussions.

In order to better understand the complexity of the issues to be resolved, it is first necessary to return to to the roots of Cyprus’ division, and trace the key developments across four decades of a conflict which has remained frozen in time.

In the aftermath of WWII, Cyprus initially remained under British colonial control despite the desire of many Cypriots to unify the country with Greece. Cyprus, however, never came to be under Greek control. Instead, it became a sovereign nation after being granted full independence from Britain in 1960, on the basis of a power-sharing agreement between the Greek and Turkish populations resident on the island. The Greek-Cypriot community leader – Archbishop Makarios – became president, whilst it was determined that a Turkish-Cypriot should hold the position of vice president. The status-quo didn’t last long: in 1964, inter-communal clashes broke out after Makarios proposed constitutional changes which undermined the shared governmental structure, and the fragile system of power-sharing broke down. Following these events, the United Nations sent a peacekeeping force to patrol the Green Line, which by the mid-1960s had been set up to divide the Greek and Cypriot sectors of the island’s capital city, Nicosia.

Events gathered pace in the summer of 1974. First, Greece’s nationalist government deposed Greek-Cypriot leader Makarios in a military coup, in an attempt to move forward the process of unification between Cyprus and Greece. In response to the coup, Turkish troops invaded the shores of Northern Cyprus on 20 July, quickly advancing inland before stopping at the line of division which ran through the centre of Nicosia. From that day onwards, Cyprus has remained divided in two, with the Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot communities partitioned by a heavily-guarded buffer zone.

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Planes lie in ruin at Nicosia Airport, which has remained frozen in time since being abandoned four decades ago (Image Source: Dick Elbers)

In the four decades since – despite being split in two – Cyprus has remained largely at peace. The northern section of the country – named the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) – declared independence in 1983, yet remains recognized only Turkey. Meanwhile, the southern part of the country became a member state of the European Union in 2004, whilst the local economy has grown and the tourism industry has flourished. The only reminders of the conflict are found in the buffer zone, which is up to 7 kilometres wide in places. The landscape within the prohibited zone remains exactly as it looked at the time of abandonment 1974, with the now-defunct Nicosia International Airport serving as a lasting physical symbol of the four-decade-long stalemate. Numerous towns and villages are effectively frozen in time, after their residents fled at the height of the conflict.

Today, Cyprus has more than 1 million inhabitants. Around 80% of the population are Greek-Cypriots living in the south, most of whom are Orthodox Christians; whilst 20% are Turkish-Cypriots living in the north, the majority of whom are Sunni Muslims. The internationally-recognized government of the Republic of Cyprus controls the southern two-thirds of the island, whilst the remaining one-third of territory north of the buffer zone is controlled by the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.

All previous attempts to negotiate a resolution have failed, first in 1987, and more notably in 2004. As part of the 2004 attempt, then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan put forward a proposal to make Cyprus a federation of two separately-administered states. The idea was the cause of much optimism at the time, but was ultimately rejected by Greek-Cypriots in a referendum – despite being accepted by the Turkish-majority population in the north. The rejection of the 2004 deal now serves a signal of just how difficult the dispute is to resolve, indicating how simmering tensions and a long-standing lack of trust between the two communities could stand in the way of future efforts.

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The Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) declared independence in 1983, but is only recognized by Turkey. The southern Republic of Cyprus is recognized by the UN, and became an EU member state in 2004 (Image Source: Golbez)

In the decade since, however, there is a sense that the political atmosphere on the island has shifted markedly, allowing for a new-found sense of optimism which has enveloped the current round of negotiations. The island’s leaders – Greek-Cypriot Nicos Anastasiades and Turkish-Cypriot Mustafa Akinci – share a mutual commitment to pursue reunification, and appear to have more in common than previous generations of politicians on the island. When the talks first began in May 2015, both leaders enthusiastically promised to meet regularly, in order to maintain momentum and continue moving forward with the peace process. Towards the end of 2016, the negotiations – brokered in Switzerland by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon – significantly gathered pace, leading to hopes that a settlement could be reached before the end of the year, and before Mr Ban’s term as UN head came to an end. However, despite significant progress in a number of areas, this deadline has now passed and intense discussions have continued into the new year.

In recent months, large sections of the mainstream media – particularly in the West – have often over-simplified the dispute, with the majority of reporting on the issue striking a triumphant tone and emphasizing that a resolution is close. However, this enthusiasm and positivity must be tempered by greater recognition that as the talks reach a critical stage, significant obstacles remain to be overcome, in a complex frozen conflict which has to this point proved intractable.

In particular, discussions on critical issues such as territorial realignment, land swaps, property returns and displaced persons will be highly emotive and fraught with difficulty. When the conflict was at its height in the 1960s and 1970s, around 200,000 people were displaced from their homes and driven from their businesses, many of which now lie unoccupied and in a state of ruin, abandonment and disrepair inside the buffer zone. Drawing up new boundaries, determining the control of territory, and deciding upon compensation payments and land returns will be pivotal issues in finding a resolution to the dispute, with both sides so far reportedly unable to reach agreement on difficult questions of this nature.

In addition, two wider issues remain unresolved, surrounding the questions of governance and security. Firstly, it must be determined what the new state of Cyprus should look like, and how it will be administered. Both sides are in broad agreement that the new state should be based on some kind of federal model, yet the extent of power-sharing and the exact nature of governance structures remain unclear. Secondly, the island’s security remains a core issue, which often stokes high emotions on both sides of the Green Line. For citizens in the south, the presence of 40,000 Turkish troops is often viewed as a threat, and to many constitutes an occupation; yet for citizens in the north, the continued Turkish military presence is seen as vital and offers significant reassurance to Turkish-Cypriots. These issues remain particularly contentious, and will require careful diplomacy and compromise on both sides. Finding such compromise, however, will not be easy: a high degree of opposition and scepticism remains in the south, whilst the northern side remains concerned over losing-out on issues of power-sharing and securing a rotating presidency. In any case, any proposed final peace settlement will need to gain the approval of local politicians, in addition to being deferred to the people of Cyprus in a nationwide referendum

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The latest round of peace talks between the island’s Greek-Cypriot and Turkish-Cypriot leaders have moved the country closer towards reunification (Image Source: Adam Jones)

With the peace negotiations being open-ended and having no set timetable, talk of an imminent end to Cyprus’ division is premature. The political will for reunification does exist, and there remains a strong chance that the talks will be successful, yet the issues are complex and positions deeply-ingrained – meaning that if a solution is to be found, significant compromise will be required on both sides of the Green Line. Even in the scenario where an agreement has been reached, approved and implemented, only time will tell if the two communities can live together in peace and harmony once the physical barrier has been removed.

If this best-case scenario – for so long desired by many Cypriots – does indeed materialize, then the benefits for the island in the coming years – particularly in terms of tourism and economic growth – could be huge. More importantly however, at a time when peace-making is failing miserably in other parts of the region (such as in Syria and Yemen, where attempts at peaceful resolution have given way to years of bloodshed and multiple external military interventions), the reunification of Cyprus would serve as a timely reminder of what concerted and determined diplomacy can achieve.

Angola’s low-level Cabinda insurgency shows signs of life

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The disputed Cabinda Province is an exclave of Angola situated between Congo-Brazzaville and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The FLEC rebel group has fought for independence since the 1960’s. (Image Source: CIA; Wikipedia)

In the six years since a high-profile militant attack in Cabinda on the Togo football team gained global attention, the long-running insurgency in Angola’s isolated Cabinda province has once again drifted out of international headlines. The conflict and fight for independence – led by separatist group The Front for the Liberation of the State of Cabinda (FLEC) – was assumed until recently to have fizzled out, underpinned by the assumption that FLEC has been in a state of gradual long-term decline, with less than 200 active members and dramatically reduced fighting capabilities. However, a recent spate of attacks have followed FLEC’s pledge earlier this year to resume its armed campaign against the Luanda government, signalling a period of heightened intensity and demonstrating that the struggle for Cabinda is far from being over.

FLEC can best be described as a relatively small and fragmented insurgent group, who contest Angola’s ‘occupation’ of the territory and have fought for independence since the early 1960’s.  The group first took up arms against the former colonial power, Portugal, before continuing their insurgency after Angola gained independence in 1975. Cabinda – a thin slice of territory situated between Congo-Brazzaville and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – is home to around 700,000 people, and as an exclave, is geographically isolated from the rest of Angola. The insurgency was at its strongest during the Angolan civil war, which ended with a peace deal in 2002 between the government and the main rebel group UNITA. The nationwide conflict allowed FLEC to exploit an atmosphere of chaos and disorder within the country, enabling it to run an effective campaign of guerrilla warfare which was successful in destabilizing the region.

At the end of the civil war, Angola’s newly-elected MPLA government launched a direct and sustained offensive against FLEC, severely degrading its military capabilities and sending its leaders fleeing into exile. During the 2000’s, the group’s presence significantly waned as it splintered into disparate factions, including FLEC-Posicao Militar (Military Position) led by an exiled leader in France, and FLEC-FAC (Armed Forces of Cabinda) – a larger and better-organized faction, which continued to wield considerable influence over the organization. In 2006, Angola’s government reached a controversial peace deal with one of the group’s factions, which was signed on behalf of FLEC by divisive figure Antonio Bento Bembe, who later joined the Luanda government. Bembe had little credibility amongst the majority of FLEC’s supporters, and as a result, the memorandum has been described by analysts as largely meaningless and ineffective. The peace deal served only to cause further divisions and frictions within the group, which has since fractionalized further and continued its insurgency, albeit at a low level of intensity such that it has barely registered with the outside world.

However, this widespread perception of FLEC’s diminishing power altered dramatically in January 2010, when separatists launched a surprise attack on the Togo football team’s bus, as it passed through Cabinda province for a match in that year’s African Cup of Nations tournament, which was hosted in Angola. The government and armed forces were drastically under-prepared and three people were killed by the rebels, drawing international attention to their struggle for independence and reminding the world of FLEC’s determination to pursue its cause. While a tragedy for the innocent people killed, the event sparked concerns at the time from analysts and human rights advocates that the government would launch a fresh crackdown on Cabinda, which had already been subjected to years of repression to compound its economic underdevelopment and high poverty rate. Prior to the attack, a 2009 report from Human Rights Watch had already raised concerns over arbitrary arrests, torture and inhumane treatment by Angolan security forces in Cabinda, carried out with impunity away from the scrutiny of international media spotlight.

Looking at Cabinda’s situation in the wider geopolitical context, a single most significant driving factor in its troubled history can be identified: oil. The presence of extensive energy resources in Cabinda is key to understanding its insurgency, along with providing an explanation for Angola’s desire to retain control of the province. Angola is amongst Africa’s largest producers of crude oil and has signed highly lucrative contracts with energy firms from the Unites States and China. It produces more than 1.75 million barrels of oil per day, of which approximately half is pumped from offshore fields off Cabinda’s Atlantic coastline – making the province a rich source of export earnings and providing an essential source revenue for the Luanda-based central government, which for this reason is unlikely to ever allow Cabinda to declare independence. Despite its resource-wealth, Cabinda remains Angola’s most impoverished region, with few benefits from the oil industry trickling down to local people. This causes much resentment amongst the region’s inhabitants, and continues to provide motivation for FLEC’s armed struggle against the state.

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Angola’s government announced a controversial peace agreement with FLEC in 2006. However, the group has since splintered into factions and the low-level insurgency continues. (Image Source: David Stanley, Flickr)

Since the attack on the Togo team bus, the insurgency has continued at a low-level, under the radar of western news outlets. However in February 2016, FLEC issued its most significant statement in years, declaring that it would resume its armed campaign after the government failed to respond to its request for talks. The press release stated that FLEC would once again adopt the ‘’military way’’ until the Luanda Administration agreed to a ‘’serious and concrete dialogue’’.

So far, FLEC appears to have stood by its tough rhetoric, evidenced by a spate of attacks throughout 2016. FLEC released a statement earlier this year to AFP news agency, saying that it staged two attacks in March resulting in the deaths of around 30 Angolan military personnel, including an ambush on 13 March in the northern town of Buco-Zau which killed 20 government troops. This was followed by an extremely rare incident in May, during which armed men claiming to be from FLEC boarded an offshore Chevron Gas Platform off the coast of Cabinda. According to witnesses, the group of 5 militants approached the rig on a speedboat, before boarding the platform and warning foreign energy industry workers that they should leave the province. Although no-one was harmed, this incident offers the most significant indication yet that FLEC possesses the level of capability necessary to target the country’s heavily-guarded energy installations. Since the altercation, the Angolan Navy have stepped-up patrols around the dozens of oil and gas rigs dotted along Cabinda’s coastline, whilst civil society activists have reported an increased military presence in the province.

Recent months have seen further reports of clashes between FLEC fighters and the Angolan armed forces. FLEC has claimed that 9 Angolan soldiers were killed and 14 wounded in clashes during July, in addition to another 12 troops killed during an ambush on 4 September in the Buco-Zau region close to the border with the DRC. However, it must be noted that Angola’s government has neither confirmed nor denied these reports, which are often difficult to independently verify due to the supposed location of the incidents in remote areas. Some analysts have indicated that the reported rise in violence could be attributed to the death of 88 year-old FLEC-FAC founder Nzita Henriques Tiago in Paris earlier this year. This theory suggests that the death of such a unifying figure has the potential to cause further splintering into sub-groups, which would then naturally seek to increase their influence by raising the intensity of their operations, which could provide an explanation for the increased level of separatist activity witnessed so far in 2016.

The renewed violence puts Cabinda’s plight back under the spotlight: it remains a geographically-isolated, underdeveloped and impoverished region, with its people receiving few benefits from the province’s substantial oil wealth. Some have even drawn parallels with the situation in the Niger Delta, where militants have long fought for greater control over resources from the central government and foreign-owned energy companies. Despite the reports of renewed clashes, the Angolan government maintains that FLEC poses no overall threat to stability in the region, with provincial Governor Aldina da Lamba Catembo confidently declaring that FLEC ‘’does not exist’’. However, recent events contest this assertion, and instead suggest that Cabinda’s five-decade old insurgency may be about to enter a period of heightened intensity.

In the wider context, the deteriorating situation in Cabinda is unfortunately not a one-off: instead, it serves as yet another reminder of the problems long-associated with the ‘resource curse’, which appears to remain prevalent across many states in Africa and across the developing world. Cabinda is therefore an example of how the resource curse can make already-complex territorial and nationality-based disputes worse: fuelling resentment, compounding failed attempts at development, and often giving rise to intractable conflicts.

Northern Mali gripped by chronic instability

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Tuareg rebels have been fighting for independence in northern Mali since January 2012 (Source: Wikipedia/Magharebia)

Mali appears to be in a state of perpetual instability: a string of recent high-profile terrorist attacks has added to a picture of nationwide de-stabilization, amid continued fighting between numerous armed groups in the West African country’s fractured northern region.  After a period of relative calm since last November’s attack on a hotel in Bamako which left 20 dead, renewed violence has broken out: in July, Tuareg fighters attacked an army base in Nampala, leaving 17 soldiers dead and 35 wounded. As a result, Mali’s lawmakers have now extended the state of emergency for an additional eight months, reflecting the worsening security situation in a country which has been plagued by conflict from multiple sources across the past five years.

Mali’s current wave of violence began in January 2012, when several insurgent groups launched a sustained campaign against the Malian government directed towards achieving independence or greater autonomy for the north, in an area known as Azawad. In March of that year, President Amadou Tourmani Toure was removed from office in a military coup, launched as a result of his poor handling of the ensuing crisis. In the power vacuum that followed, the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA) – a group fighting to forge an independent homeland for the Tuareg people – took control of large swathes of Northern Mali.

This event became known as the ‘Tuareg Rebellion’, which was fuelled by an influx of weapons to the Sahel region following the ousting of Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Gaddafi in 2011. The collapse of the Gaddafi regime left Libya to descend into a state of chaos and lawlessness; prompting many ethnic Tuareg’s living in the North African country to return home to the Sahel, becoming involved in the insurgency in Mali and other conflicts across West Africa.

The success of the Tuareg rebels however was short-lived: their rebellion was hijacked and their territorial gains were soon wiped-out by a collection of more extreme Islamist groups such as Ansar Dine and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). By the end of 2012, Islamist groups had taken-over large portions of territory encompassing more than 50% of Mali’s land area, imposing strict sharia law in areas under their control.

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After an uprising in 2012, Tuareg and Islamist rebel groups seized large swathes of territory in northern Mali (Source: Wikipedia/Orionist)

By January 2013 the situation had spiralled out of control, and Mali’s government asked for external assistance to re-take the north from the rebels. On 11th January the French military began operations against the Islamists, whilst on 23rd April the UN established the United Nations Multi-dimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), deploying 12,000 peacekeeping troops to Mali’s troubled northern region. In support of these engagements, the US established a drone based in Niger to provide intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance to France and its partners in fighting extremism. African Union (AU) Forces from the neighbouring states of Burkina Faso, Chad, Mauritania and Niger also played a role in combating the militants, fearing the spread of instability across borders and into the surrounding region.

By the end of 2013 the situation had stabilized: Mali had a new President, Ibrahim Boubacar Keita; whilst the government had regained the majority of Islamist-held territory, facilitated through the support of its international partners. In June 2013 a preliminary peace deal was signed between the government and Tuareg rebels; however many Islamist groups were not included and some of the original signatories later pulled-out of the agreement. The next two years saw the continuation of sporadic violence until a more meaningful ceasefire was signed between the major parties in Algeria in February 2015.

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12,000 UN peacekeepers are based in Mali as part of MINUSMA, at the request of Mali’s government (Source: Wikipedia/Marie-Lan Nguyen)

An initial hope that the deal would signal an end to the conflict proved to be unfulfilled. Fighting is still ongoing despite the continued presence of French troops and UN forces, whilst the number of terrorist attacks increased dramatically throughout 2015. In March, a gunman representing militant group Al-Mourabitoun killed five people in a gun attack on a restaurant in Bamako, whilst six MINUSMA soldiers were killed by members of AQIM in a roadside ambush near Goundam in July. In August, gunmen attacked a residential building housing UN sub-contractors resulting in the deaths of ten people, whilst in October six civilians were killed in a rocket attack on a UN convoy on-route to the northern city of Gao.

However, the most dramatic attack occurred in November 2015 when militants from AQIM and al-Mourabitoun attacked the Raddison Blu hotel in Bamako, in a well-coordinated gun assault. The militants took 120 hostages and killed 14 foreigners along with six Malians, before the siege could be brought to an end by security forces. The attack claimed international headlines, and for the first time focused global attention on Mali’s worsening predicament.

The Bamako hotel attack led many western policy-makers and media analysts to frame the instability in Mali in the context of the wider global picture of Islamic terrorism, linking the situation to the ideology of groups such as ISIS in Syria and Boko Haram in Nigeria. Others were keen to frame the situation in the national context in the form of a simplistic North-South divide, between the secular government in Bamako and Islamist militants fighting for an independent state in the north. In reality however, the roots of violence in Mali are far more complex, with a history of grievances and conflict stretching back over many years.

Firstly, there are no clear ‘sides’ which can be distinguished, as the various inter-locking conflicts consist of multiple actors with opposing, contrasting and contradictory aims. For example, over the last four years the MNLA umbrella grouping which originally led the 2012 insurgency has splintered into numerous groups and militias, including Ansar Dine and a number of smaller Islamist groups. In addition, AQIM and Al-Mourabitoun have grown in prominence and capability, whilst the Malian government is allied with external forces from France, the UN and several AU countries in combatting an increasingly diverse array of opponents. As a result, the Malian conflict can be described as multi-faceted with no clear narrative: it is more a collection of separate integrated conflicts which feed into an overall climate of instability, resulting in the de-stabilization of the country and the fracturing of society.

Secondly, a history of economic underdevelopment goes a long way towards explaining the repeated patterns of violence which have plagued the region. For many ordinary people in the north, sympathy for rebel groups is fuelled by more basic and instinctive considerations than adherence to an ideology of independence or Islamism. A high youth unemployment rate, along with lack of access to vital services such as education and healthcare, has culminated in widespread discontent with the central government in Bamako. The UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) estimates that 1.5 million people in Mali are threatened by food insecurity, whilst 150,000 have been made refugees and another 90,000 internally displaced by the conflict. Discontent has also been heightened by the government’s failure to address corruption; leading many Malian’s to grow tired of the country’s poor governance and unequal society. Many across the north feel that the region has been neglected by the Bamako elite, culminating in a strong sense of frustration and resentment which fuels jihadist recruitment.

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The conflict has resulted in 150,000 refugees, along with 90,000 internally displaced (Source: Wikipedia/EU ECHO)

Thirdly, climate-induced environmental stresses are an exacerbating factor, adding to the multiple political and economic drivers of an already-complex conflict. In recent decades drought has become more frequent, whilst average rainfall in northern Mali has dropped by 30% since 1998 according to a study by the US Strategic Studies Institute. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (UNAO) estimates that more than 270,000 people here face starvation, with more than 660,000 children in need of food aid in order to survive. Looking further into the future, the Sahara desert is predicted to expand southward at a rate of 48km per year. This could force nomadic herding communities to migrate into lands historically occupied by other groups, fuelling resource-based tensions and resulting in an increased frequency of inter-communal conflicts in the Sahel region.

Such a dire scenario fits in with long-held predictions from researchers that climate change has the potential to worsen conflict in the world’s poorest regions, leading groups to take up arms to fight over increasingly scarce resources. In the already-complicated conflict landscape of northern Mali, there is a clear potential for environmental stresses to exacerbate poverty, fuelling grievances and providing further motivation for deprived individuals to join rebel groups in a region which has long been neglected and has few economic opportunities.

Overall, the conflict in Mali cannot be defined through any simple narrative: it is not a clearly-demarcated battle between north and south; and neither does it fit squarely into the wider global picture of ISIS-inspired Islamist extremism. Instead, the conflict in Mali is complex: it has numerous causes and drivers, and is typified by multiple actors fighting for territory, resources and ideology in an under-developed region which offers few alternatives or opportunities. Therefore there is no simple solution: whilst substantial diplomatic engagements and co-ordinated multi-state military operations may have the effect of temporarily lessening conflict and creating a momentary illusion of stability, the repetitive cycles of deprivation and conflict will only be ended once the underlying issues are tackled over the long-term.

Lebanon struggles to escape Middle East turmoil

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Lebanon has been without a President since May 2014, and is increasingly under strain from the conflict in neighbouring Syria. (Image Source: Wikipedia, craigfinlay)

Amidst the chaos of its surrounding region, Lebanon has been an anchor of relative stability in the Middle East over the past few years. However, recent developments suggest the upheaval is finally beginning to take its toll on a state which is showing increasing signs of fragility under the strain of overwhelming internal and external pressures. The devastating civil war in neighbouring Syria has worsened the existing political deadlock in Lebanon, which has left the country of 4.5 million people without a President for more than two years. More worrying than the lack of an elected government figurehead, is that the political vacuum is leading to economic stagnation, and contributing to a rise in sectarian tensions 26 years after the end of Lebanon’s own civil war.

The current political situation has been steadily worsening since President Suleiman’s term in office came to an end in May 2014. Since then, political paralysis has gripped the country as Lebanon’s power-brokers have failed to reach consensus or find a way forward. In a nation of more than 18 predominant religious groups, it may come as little surprise that a collective agreement has been difficult to reach. The political system put in place in Lebanon after the end of the civil war is based on the principle of power-sharing, and dictates that the President must be a Maronite Christian and the Prime Minister must be a Sunni Muslim, whilst the Parliament Speaker must be Shia.

Sectarian divisions have played a prominent role in the political stagnation, with the parliament being unable to elect a president – despite attempting to do so on more than 40 occasions – primarily due to resistance from Hezbollah and its allies in Lebanese politics. To fill the void, Prime Minister Tammam Salam has operated as the country’s de-facto leader for the last two years, taking up the role of ‘Acting President’ whilst the current situation remains unresolved. Over that period, Lebanon’s infrastructure and public services have rapidly deteriorated, with the government unable to provide basic services such as refuge collection for 6 months up until March this year. Economic activity has also suffered greatly: exports have decreased, whilst national debt and the government deficit have risen sharply, with the situation unlikely to improve as long as there remains no new national election on the horizon.

The current crisis is not just a result of divisions within the current legislature, but also a product of Lebanon’s complex historical domestic politics and the wider regional context. For decades, Lebanon has been viewed as the site of a ‘proxy war’ between two regional powerhouses: Saudi Arabia (which along with the other Gulf States, has been a supporter of Lebanon’s Sunni political movement); and Iran (a supporter of Hezbollah and the wider Shia population). Whilst this divide has long been a feature of Lebanon’s domestic politics, tensions were heightened significantly after the 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, in a bomb attack in the capital, Beirut, which has repeatedly been blamed on Hezbollah.

Hariri’s death led to mass street demonstrations across Lebanon which became known as the ‘Cedar Revolution’. The protests resulted in the complete withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanese territory, and the establishment of an international tribunal to investigate Hariri’s assassination. In the immediate aftermath, Lebanon’s political parties effectively split into two competing camps: the 8th March Coalition, which is largely Shia and pro-Iranian; and the 14th March Coalition, which is predominantly Sunni and has the support of Saudi Arabia. The upheaval after Hariri’s death retains a lasting legacy today, visible in the partial polarization of Lebanese society and the division which still characterizes its domestic politics.

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Former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated in Beirut on 14th February 2005 – his death had a lasting impact on the country’s politics. (Image Source: Wikipedia, st1ke)

The ongoing five-year-old civil war in neighbouring Syria has further complicated the situation. Hezbollah – which can be labelled as both a political party and militant organization, and is also designated as a terrorist group by the United States – has become deeply involved in the conflict, supporting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. More than 1,200 Hezbollah fighters have been killed in Syria since the start of the conflict, including their commander Mustafa Badreddine who was killed in an explosion in Damascus earlier this year. Hezbollah’s involvement, along with Russian air support for the Assad regime, may have helped push the threat from ISIS further away from Lebanon’s border; however there have also been negative consequences in the form of retaliatory terrorist attacks on Lebanon’s soil. The deadliest atrocity came on 12th November 2015, when ISIS launched a double suicide bomb attack in Beirut, killing 43 civilians and injuring more than 200 people.

Lebanon is also struggling to cope with the unprecedented number of refugees crossing its borders. In addition to 500,000 Palestinian refugees, an additional 1.6 million refugees from Syria have streamed across the border over the last five years, fleeing the violence of ISIS and numerous other militant groups. The overwhelming number of new arrivals – which now make-up more than 1/3 of Lebanon’s total population – has put significant strain on Lebanon’s crippling infrastructure, whilst adding to the existing problems of high unemployment, poverty and limited service provision. Amidst division in Europe over how to handle the refugee crisis, Lebanon, along with Jordan, is struggling under the burden of accommodating the highest per-capita concentration of refugees anywhere in the world.

In light of the upheaval in the Middle East and North Africa over the past few years – particularly in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya and Egypt – Lebanon has served as an example of stability and relative peace. Despite the recent strain from unprecedented internal and external pressures, Lebanon is still remarkably managing to hold itself together as a functioning sovereign state, amidst nations which appear to be splintering into pieces. However, facing the pressures of an expanded population and sectarian divisions whilst still experiencing continuing political deadlock, the country may not be able to cope for much longer. The United Nations Security Council recently expressed concerns over the ‘’security, economic, social and humanitarian challenges’’ facing Lebanon, and called on all Lebanese political leaders to put ‘’stability and national interests ahead of partisan politics.’’ If the political impasse can soon be ended and a new President put in place to unite the country, there remains a chance for Lebanon to avoid the large-scale violence which has engulfed its neighbours, and continue to serve as an example of stability and pluralism at the heart of the Middle East.