The Blog / World News

In Berlin, world leaders agreed on a path out of the Libyan crisis – yet won’t commit to it.

Marco Tulio Lara, Regional Security Analyst

The January 19th conference held in Berlin gathered all the parties involved in the Libyan conflict, including PM Fayez al-Sarraj, who heads the Tripoli-based and internationally-recognized Government of National Accord (GNA), and General Khalifa Haftar, the leader of the Libyan National Army (LNA), affiliated with the eastern-based government.

In appearance, the summit took place in a positive atmosphere and did lead to a relatively tangible outcome – one that was not a given, considering that the previous attempt by Russia and Turkey went out the door (alongside Haftar) when the Libyan leader left Moscow without signing a newly drafted agreement. Although the Berlin conference is part of a broader political process and follows several attempts by other European countries to broker a political solution to the crisis, the recent conference marked the first truly multilateral push to address the Libyan crisis.

The agreement signed by all the participating parties involved a range of topics, but a few stand out from the list. The commitment to fully respect the long-ignored UN arms embargo, work towards a permanent ceasefire, end foreign interference in the armed conflict, and pave the way for free and fair elections all represent areas critical to de-escalating tensions and eventually stabilizing the country. Yet whether these steps will indeed materialize in actual de-escalation – both in violence and foreign involvement – is far from certain.

Indeed, the agreement does not include any kind of punitive measures or sanctions for any party breaching it. German Chancellor Angela Merkel confirmed that potential sanctions were not even discussed, suggesting the mediators knew well that such discussions would bring about the collapse of the talks.

To be sure, the EU is discussing a restructure of its ongoing naval mission in the Mediterranean sea, “Operation Sophia” (initially designed to fight against migrant smugglers and human traffickers), to also enforce the embargo. Yet the mission is already understaffed and may not be the appropriate tool to actually enforce the embargo – given that much of the (largely state-sponsored) smuggling of military assets to the country is done by air rather than sea. The Libyan dossier has further exposed significant divides within the EU – to say the least, divides that will likely continue to impact the EU’s ability to enforce the embargo. Beyond that, and even if the flow of weapons to Libya was somehow stopped, the agreement makes no mention of a deadline for the removal of foreign troops from Libya.

The agreement reached in Berlin thus underscores the fact that while each party knows what path should be taken to stabilize Libya in the longer term, none are truly willing to commit to it. The slightest push – in the form of new attacks or the arrival of more foreign assets to the country – will likely lead to its collapse.

What’s bugging the CEO this week?

What’s on all of our minds is the current uptick in tensions between the US and Iran and how this has and may continue to affect the region, particularly the Gulf and the energy sector. The assessment of our analyst team is that things are unlikely to escalate to the level of an actual conflict, but as security professionals, we still need to take into consideration the risk of both miscalculations, as well as that of smaller yet still significant developments that may affect the regional landscape.

Whilst there are always tensions in the Middle East with rhetoric and brinkmanship as a constant backdrop, this can be escalated when external players decide to make their mark. This can be even more worrying when there is no clear message and direction as people will always assume the worst.

For companies located and operating in areas that would be affected if this escalated even further, this is the time to check your security structure is both effective and fit for purpose. Checks should be made on proactive and reactive safety and security measures. It is not often you get the luxury of receiving a warning, so do not make the mistake of ignoring it.

Houthi attack against pumping stations highlights new capabilities

Le Beck’s analysts take a brief look at the recent Houthi drone attack against two Saudi pumping stations, as well as the context of the attack.

Two oil pumping stations located along the Eastern Province-Yanbu Port pipeline were targeted by Houthi drones on May 14. After Houthi-controlled outlets claimed that the group launched seven armed drones against “vital Saudi installations”, the Saudi Minister of Energy confirmed that the attack damaged the two facilities and temporarily halted operations along the pipeline as a basic safety precaution. The targeted installations are Pumping Station 8 (location), about 330 km west of Riyadh, and Pumping Station 9 (location), about 250 km east of Medina. Confirmation of the incident further led to an increase in oil prices.

This is highly significant as it comes amid growing tensions between Iran and the US and comes on the heels of the May 12 “act of sabotage” off the coast of the UAE against four commercial vessels, including two Saudi oil tankers – which some US officials claim may have been carried out by Iran. Indeed, the timing and targets of these recent attacks are in line with Tehran’s explicit threats to disrupt oil flow should it come under attack or should the US attempt to disrupt its own oil exports, along with warnings that Iran will look to retaliate against Washington’s interest and allies.

As assessed in Le Beck’s latest Weekly Security Brief, the recent attacks may be meant to “call Trump’s bluff”. Despite the US President’s harsh rhetoric, Tehran may indeed assess that Washington, and the President in particular, still remains uninterested in a large-scale military escalation and is merely trying to push it to come back to the negotiation table.

In this context, the use of a group backed by Iran is a common tactic employed by Tehran to convey a threatening message across the region, whilst maintaining plausible deniability. By doing so, Iran aims to show its readiness to retaliate and increase its deterrence over the US without actually triggering a potentially destructive conflict.

As notable is the use of drones so deep inside Saudi territory. While the use of armed drones by the Houthis is not uncommon, these attacks had thus far largely taken place close to the border region or inside Yemen. The May 14 was, however, conducted hundreds of kilometers inside Saudi Arabia. What’s more, the level of accuracy of the attack is also notable, as it targeted two specific pumping stations. While satellite images suggest the drones may not have inflicted significant damage to the installations, the mere fact that these managed to get so close to the pumping stations without being shot down raises questions both as to what kind of drones were used, as well as to the effectiveness of Saudi Arabia’s air defence. Beyond that, the use more effective weaponry, and targeting of such vital installations further serves to highlight the possibility that the decision to do so may not have been taken by the Houthis alone, but also approved or even directed by Tehran.

Militant groups in Egypt aim to capitalise on perceived silent unrest in Egypt with rising IED attacks

This section is an updated extract from Le Beck’s Weekly Security Brief that provides in-depth insight on more strategic issues affecting the MENA region.

In the latest in a series of rising numbers of attempted and successful attacks, the Cairo/Giza area has seen four IEDs in as many days. This includes one that detonated on February 18 near the capital’s Dar al-Ahmaras area as police pursued a suspect carrying the device and three that were discovered on February 15. Of those three, one was discovered at Nahda Square and two at Giza Square in Cairo, with one of the latter two exploding as police attempted to dismantle it. This resulted in the injury of one police officer and at least one civilian, while the other two devices were successfully defused. The Ministry of Interior (MoI) subsequently described the events at Giza Square as a failed attempt by “Muslim Brotherhood” (MB) members to attack security forces.

This now brings the total number of IEDs witnessed in the Giza/Cairo area since December to six, following one on January 6 that was dismantled at a Coptic church in Nasr City and another on December 28 that killed three Vietnamese tourists, the latter of which the MoI attributed to radical MB offshoot Hasm. This increase in attacks in and around the capital is especially notable given the decline witnessed over the past year and is likely to serve as a further blow to the already struggling tourist industry in the country.

Regarding these most recent attacks, it is also worthwhile to mention that they targeted distinguishable locations in Cairo, with Nahda Square and, to a lesser extent Giza Square previously serving as focal points for MB protests, particularly those spearheaded by students of the nearby Cairo University. These also do recall the series of IEDs that followed the June 2013 military intervention that led to former president Mohammed Morsi’s ouster and to the rise to power of then-General and now-President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. In this context, while these recent attacks have not been claimed – possibly because they can’t truly be considered successful – these were carried out either by radicalised MB elements, given the locations and the modus operandi of the spate of IEDs seen during the aforementioned time period, or by other groups seeking to potentially attract disenchanted MB members into their ranks.

The first possibility could point to Hasm as behind the IEDs. Indeed, as noted above, the MoI blamed them for the attack that targeted tourists in December, while the group is known to be active in and around the capital. There are, however, a few factors that reduce this likelihood. Firstly, their involvement in the December, January, and February 18 attacks would necessite a substantial shift in modus operandi that is not often seen. The first two (tourists and Copts) would necessitate a shift in targets from exclusively government/security forces and installations – alongside frequent emphasis in their propaganda that they refrain from hitting civilians. The last one would point to a change in their type of attack, with a video of the incident suggesting that the perpetrator deliberately activated the explosive device and committed suicide in order to avoid being caught. Although it certainly could have been a split-second decision, it could also indicate adoption of the more radical jihadist notion of martyrdom via suicide attack, with no indication from all of Hasm’s prior attacks that this is part of their ideology.

Another option is that Hasm was not involved at all and that other radicalised MB elements, including those part of the loose network of “Popular Resistance Committees” (PRCs) and unaffiliated with Hasm, were responsible. Given the modus operandi and at least some of the targets, reminiscent of the previously-mentioned period of time when these networks were far more active, the possibility that these elements are attempting to resurface should not be dismissed. Here too, however, the IED at the Coptic Church wouldn’t fit: although targeting tourists could be legitimised as an effort to reduce the economic benefits that the state obtains from tourism (and thus possibly be equated to the IEDs seen in the lead up to the Egypt Economic Development Conference) attacks against the country’s Christian minority falls outside the PRCs traditional modus operandi.

Finally, there are also other elements capable of carrying these attacks that are both interested in planting IEDs generally and attracting MB members by tapping into the perception among the group’s supporters that the organisation is failing to fight the Egyptian regime. This includes the Islamic State (IS), which has proven capable of operating in mainland Egypt through a series of attacks that have mostly focused on the Coptic Christian community and that has shown a failure to discriminate between civilians and government/security-afflicted targets. The lack of claims of responsibility, however, would be notable, given that they have previously claimed several attacks in mainland Egypt. At the same time, they have also, on occasion, deliberately failed to do so both in Egypt and abroad, whether because it would be unpopular or as a means of stoking tensions between the government and other groups. Similarly, al-Qaeda (AQ)-linked elements are also reemerging, with sources suggesting that they may be behind several attacks, including an ambush in al-Wahat in 2017 that was never claimed yet was later linked to these elements.

Regardless, any of these possibilities point to a growing threat in mainland Egypt despite multiple security raids over the past months and years. While the frequency of these attacks cannot be compared to the near-daily occurrence of IEDs seen across mainland Egypt at certain periods between 2013 and 2015, the recent ones do suggest the potential for such a trend to at least partly return. Radical elements may, indeed, be attempting to capitalise on the perceived (and unexpressed) political and socio-economic frustration, given the lack of a credible and viable political opposition, particularly at a time when the Egyptian regime is consolidating its power in the long-term through the recent constitutional amendments.

The National speaks with Le Beck about Trump and Islamic State

“The danger is not only to see an ISIS resurgence but also to have such a resurgence coincide with potential conflicts between rival forces”, explains deputy Head of Intel Michael Horowitz.

Read the full article here

L’Orient Le Jour (FR) speaks with Le Beck about the future of the US-led anti-IS campaign

“Most participating countries will look to the United States for potential options. They may be disappointed. Elements within the Trump administration still seem to believe that Arab forces could potentially be deployed to replace its own but it was unrealistic months ago, before the announced withdrawal of the United States, and it’s even less realistic now that the United States has made it clear that they are not planning to stay in Syria”.

Read the full article here in French

The National speaks with Le Beck on Pompeo’s Middle East tour

“The withdrawal means that this option is off the table and the GCC now has to revert to a Plan B, namely, trying to drive a wedge between Damascus and Tehran. Whether they will be able to do so is far from certain and I think Gulf countries are realistic about what they can achieve given Iran’s deep penetration in the Assad regime,” said Michael Horowitz, deputy head of intelligence at Le Beck International.

Read the full article here

Le Beck speaks with BILD (DE) about Trump’s remarks on Iran’s presence in Syria

“Following Donald Trump’s statement on Wednesday that Iran can do what it wants to do in Syria”, Deputy Head of Intel Michael Horowitz explained, “Israel will have to accelerate its campaign against Iran and once again play up the possibility of an ‘escalation’ to get Moscow’s attention as Russia remains the last superpower standing in Syria”.

Read the full article in German here

L’Orient le Jour (FR) speaks with Le Beck about Israeli strikes in Syria

“Cooperation between Israel and the US after the withdrawal [from Syria] will certainly continue, but its value (in the eyes of the Israelis) will diminish. Without the presence of US forces (on the ground and in the air), the potential intelligence that Washington can provide will be of much lesser quality”, stated Deputy Head of Intel Michael Horowitz.

Read the full article in French here

Older Entries

International experience. Local knowledge.