The borders of Colombia have long been violent and lawless with criminal traffickers and guerrilla armies controlling much of the land. However, the recent de-activation of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the deteriorating state in Venezuela has intensified this situation and allowed it to subsequently pour over into neighboring states. This has ushered in a new wave of criminal organizations that are destabilizing the region.
The Colombia-Venezuela border region has for years been a hub for criminal activities of all kinds. From drug trafficking to contraband fuel trade and extortion, Colombia’s most powerful organized crime groups have long used the border region. Most importantly, Venezuela serves as a fundamental trans-shipment point for drug shipments consistently trafficked by Colombian organized crime groups and destined for markets in the United States and Europe.
Venezuela’s continued spiral into an economic, political and social crisis and the demobilization of Colombia’s largest guerrilla group have shifted criminal dynamics on the Colombia-Venezuela border, transforming the region into one of the most important organized crime hubs in Latin America.
Historically, the main actors controlling the border region’s drug market have been the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC), the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) and the Popular Liberation Army (Ejército Popular de Liberación – EPL).
The demobilization of the FARC is causing criminal dynamics along the Colombia-Venezuela border to take a new form. This is being aided by rampant corruption from the Venezuelan government. Systemic corruption and criminality within the ranks of Venezuela’s security forces, which President Nicolás Maduro has largely turned a blind eye to, is one factor contributing to these shifts. The Venezuelan non-governmental Fundación Redes recently criticized the loss of a significant amount of military weapons and munitions belonging to the Bolivarian National Armed Forces (Fuerza Armada Nacional Bolivariana — FANB) from several border states. According to the foundation, the weapons were delivered to Colombian criminal groups.
According to Fundación Redes Director Javier Tarazona, the Maduro administration and Venezuela’s security forces, particularly the shadowy groups within the Bolivarian National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana — GNB) and the military commonly referred to as the Cartel of the Suns, are complicit in working with Colombian criminal groups operating on the border. (insightcrime.org/).
This criminal activity has also spread to the other side of the Colombian border. Since January of this year, Ecuadorean security forces are on high alert after receiving reports Colombia’s ELN guerrillas are planning a cross-border attack, highlighting what has until now been a major blind spot in Ecuador’s border security strategy. Security forces in Colombia have issued an alert to their Ecuadorean counterparts that the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberacíon Nacional – ELN) is planning an attack against military or police in the border region. The report identifies facilities and units in the municipalities of Mira in the province of Carchi and San Lorenzo in Esmeraldas as potential targets.
Police officials reported that, while the ELN was in Ecuador for peace talks, they also worked hard to build a support network within the country. According to the official, the rebels established contacts with high-level national government officials and local political and community leaders in the border region. While authorities believe their main aim was to establish political ties, they are concerned the guerrillas could also have been looking to set up logistical support networks and supply lines.
Sources in Ecuador also talk of a different concern – that the ELN will look to build on the foundations they established during peace talks to use Ecuador as a rear guard, logistical hub and supply line. This would also potentially increase their criminal earnings as it would allow them to control movement through what is one of the main cocaine-trafficking corridors out of Colombia and a region where illegal gold mining is on the rise (insightcrime.org/).
Ecuador’s areas bordering Colombia have long suffered challenging security dynamics. Ecuador’s three border provinces–Esmeraldas, Carchi, and Sucumbios–have higher homicide rates, stemming from the level of criminal activity associated with the cross-border illegal trafficking of cocaine, gasoline, and other contraband, as well as human trafficking.
Even for a historically complex area, the violence that has occurred over the past few months in Ecuador’s northern border region is unprecedented, with bombings, gratuitous attacks, and threats occurring at an inimitable scale. The growing violence shows no sign of easing up.
Few people have gained international notoriety in such a short span of time as Walter Patricio Arizala Vernaza—known commonly as 'Guacho'—an Ecuadorian citizen who was part of the 29th Front of the former Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group. Guacho rejected the 2016 peace agreement between the FARC and the Colombian government and decided to dedicate himself to the trafficking of drugs on the border via the Oliver Sinisterra Front. Although both the Colombian and Ecuadorian authorities have prioritized his capture, Guacho remains at large.
The recent attacks are likely a show of strength by criminal groups and are also in retaliation for government seizures of narcotics—Guacho’s way of demonstrating who is in charge and that he fully intends to take advantage of lucrative illicit activity along the border area. Now that a formal peace process is underway in Colombia, FARC dissidents no longer have the same ideological motives for their struggle and are instead motivated by financial gains.
The conflict is no longer confined to the same geographical boundaries. In the same light, the vacuums of power left by former FARC Fronts are attracting offshoots of national and international criminal groups who aim to gain control of profitable activities (forbes.com). Many of these attacks have been carried out next to police stations within the border area (bing.com/).
In 2018 there was a number of bomb explosions and kidnappings in the northern province of Esmeraldas, bordering Colombia. On 27 January 2018, a car bomb was detonated outside a police station in the town of San Lorenzo. Twenty-eight people were injured, and the Ecuadorean government declared a state of emergency in Esmeraldas. A further bomb attack on 20 March of last year in Mataje left 4 soldiers dead and 11 injured. The Ecuadorean authorities have declared these attacks to be terrorist incidents.
On 26 March, 2 journalists and their driver from the leading local newspaper, El Comercio, were kidnapped and subsequently killed. On April 17, 2018, the government revealed that two other people were being held captive by the same group who killed the journalists, and who are thought to be responsible for at least 10 attacks on the border in the past few months. Also, on 17 April, an Ecuadorean couple was kidnapped and killed. These kidnappings and bomb attacks occurred within 20km of the border.
On 4 April a home-made explosive was detonated in the town of Viche, on one of the main roads connecting the highlands to the coast and various popular beach destinations. This was outside the 20km exclusion zone, in the area of Esmeraldas province (gov.uk/terrorism).
The threats from Colombian groups have extended farther than just terrorism. On October 17, authorities in Ecuador arrested seven soldiers and seven civilians for their alleged role in trafficking weapons to the Oliver Sinisterra Front (Frente Oliver Sinisterra), an ex-FARC mafia group — networks of dissident fighters from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC). An investigation into several soldiers in Ecuador who are accused of supplying weapons to an ex-FARC mafia network operating in a key border region suggests that groups of former FARC fighters are growing stronger and building the capacity to corrupt military personnel.
Authorities are searching military facilities in Guayas, Esmeraldas, Loja, Santo Domingo and Pichincha provinces where they say weapons and ammunition slated to be trafficked were hidden among provisions of toilet paper and rice, according to El Comercio.
On October 9, authorities intercepted a taxi in the town of Quinindé in Esmeraldas that was reportedly trafficking weapons and ammunition hidden in sacks of rice. Investigators believe that the arms trafficking network has been operating since at least 2016.
Ecuador’s army said in an October 17 press release that the institution “deeply regrets” that some of its members may have been involved in trafficking firearms and ammunition to a criminal group, and that it will cooperate with authorities in their investigation.
Colombia’s ex-FARC mafia networks are quickly emerging as a dominant player in the country’s criminal world, and the recent arms trafficking investigation implicating members of Ecuador’s army suggests that authorities may be further from taking down Guacho and his network than they have let on.
Corrupting security forces is essential for criminal groups such as Guacho’s to survive and continue operating. These connections may explain why he has been able to avoid capture, especially after he was wounded last month during a Colombian military operation (insightcrime.org/news/).
Venezuela’s descent into further chaos has created a safe haven for criminal and radical groups once indigenous to Colombia and emboldened them to expand and challenge local security forces. Ecuador, which had not been readily affected by the violence in Colombia, is totally unprepared with an under-equipped military to deal with the wave of criminals pushing across the border (bing.com).
This situation has the potential to degenerate into something similar to what was seen with ISIS in the Middle-East ─ with rebel and criminal groups wrestling for control of territory from the government and destabilizing the region. In this case, we are watching several organizations such as the ELN who have long been at odds with US policy in the region and are looking to export their revolution.
In other cases, the new criminal groups emerging from the ashes of recently deactivated guerrilla armies have taken over the old cocaine-producing areas. They have set themselves up to control a new phase of drug trafficking organizations taking the region back to the old drug cartels of Medellín and Cali, establishing a new front for cocaine trafficking in North America.
Summary: Israel has been highly vocal about the oil smuggling being conducted by Iran. It is in clear violation of the sanctions in effect. Iran has responded by heightening its military presence in the Gulf of Aden with naval force and promising a firm response to any perceived hostilities.
Additional Considerations: In early March, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged world powers to foil any effort by Tehran to evade US sanctions. The Israeli leader told naval officers that Iran was still resorting to clandestine measures to ship fuel that it first used prior to a 2015 nuclear deal easing Western sanctions on its oil sector. He stated Iran is trying to circumvent the sanctions through covert oil smuggling over maritime routes and, to the extent that these attempts widen, the navy will have a more important role in blocking these Iranian actions (algemeiner.com/). According to maritime experts, Iran has used a variety of measures to evade sanctions including changing the names of ships or flag registries, switching off location transponders on ships, and conducting ship-to-ship transfers offshore and away from large trade hubs.
An Iranian Revolutionary Guards commander responded that enemies will regret any confrontation with the Islamic Republic. Major General Gholamali Rashid was quoted by Tasnim news agency as saying. "We never welcome any war, but we are ready to respond to any invasion. We hope the aggressors do not need to understand this point by trying it and paying a high price." Iran's navy has extended its reach in recent years, dispatching vessels to the Indian Ocean and the Gulf of Aden (middleeasteye.net/irans-defence-minister-warns-firm-response-if-israel-acts-against-its-oil-shipments).
While Iran hasn’t confronted any militaries, it has asserted military force. In early March, Iranian naval forces saved one of the country’s oil tankers from a pirate attack in the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, which links the Gulf of Aden to the Red Sea. Commandos of the Navy’s 60th flotilla of warships, which patrols the Gulf of Aden waters in an overseas mission, saved the tanker carrying 150,000 tons of oil products (iranian.com/navy-foils-pirate-attack-on-iranian-oil-tanker/).
The Israeli Prime Minister has threatened possible military recourse if Iran continues to violate the sanctions, explaining that the future role of the Israeli navy will be to block such smuggling operations. However, this statement is made at a time when the Israeli navy consists primarily of missile corvettes and a small fleet of submarines and already has an extensive mission in the Mediterranean and Red Seas (reuters.com/israels-navy-could-act-against-iranian-oil-smuggling-netanyahu-idUSKCN1QN2EM). It also comes at a time when Iran is in the process of modernizing its own armed forces. The new Persian year beginning on March 21, 2019, was dubbed as Iran's year of Defense Products and Achievements Booms by the country's defense minister. They decided to showcase a part of Iranian defensive and technological advances. They intended to display much defense achievements, including all-Iranian fighters of Kowsar, Toofan armored vehicle, Fateh submarines, and Hoveizeh cruise missile that were all the result of Iranian experts (globalsecurity.org/2019/iran-190313-irna01.htm). Back in February 2018, Leader of the Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Seyed Ali Khamenei, called for efforts to maintain and boost Iran’s defense capabilities hitting back at the enemies for disputing the country’s missile program.
On March 12, Iranian Defense Minister, Brigadier General Amir Hatami, highlighted the country’s military preparedness to counter foreign threats and said the Islamic Republic is boosting its defense power to prevent war.
“What they are telling us today is that you should not have missiles and defense power while they allow other countries to make our region filled with weapons and bombs.”
Iranian officials have repeatedly underscored that the country will not hesitate to strengthen its military capabilities, including its missile power, which are entirely meant for defense, and that Iran’s defense capabilities will never be subject to negotiations (tasnimnews.com/en/news/iran-boosting-defense-might-to-prevent-war-minister).
Conclusion: It is not plausible that the hostilities will amount to more than posturing. Both countries are playing to the international community. Israel does not have the resources to effectively carry out their threats against Iran’s oil smuggling. Its hope is that by bringing attention to the situation, it will ultimately force the hand of other countries to enforce the sanctions with their naval force.
Many things are driving Iran’s aggressive response and militaristic talk. Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani, had been a strong supporter of multilateral nuclear deals that had been made with the US. The sanctions the US has imposed on them and the tough stances taken by the Trump administration have left Rouhani politically weakened against the hardliners who had opposed his reforms (news.yahoo.com/rouhani-calls-irans-political-factions-end-infighting-unite-225506534.html). He is now trying to save face and recoup lost political capital by taking an aggressive stance against the West.
The best-case scenario is that all parties will be brought back to the negotiation table and negotiate some practical resolution. While this avenue may be pursued and be achievable down the road, it is unlikely that any such overture will be made in the immediate future. In the meantime, the expectation is that everything will amount to little more than aggressive speeches and saber rattling. The US will continue to publicly support Israel while offering at best token support to the issue while Iran will promise militaristic action in an effort to save face. It will be crucial in the next few months that no one make excessive moves that could heighten the situation.
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Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Russia has tried to maintain a position as a global military force. Though Russia projects the idea of being a modern military, evidence suggests that its true state is far less than what it purports to be.
In May 2018, the NATO alliance would closely monitor Russia's ongoing military drills in the Baltic Sea closely but did not want to worsen relations with Moscow that were already at a low ebb. The Russian Defense ministry said the exercises involved the firing of live ammunition at sea and air targets, shipborne helicopters conducting training flights and practicing searches for enemy submarines, with three corvettes and a frigate participating.
The Russian defense ministry said its Baltic Fleet, based out of its exclave of Kaliningrad, was undertaking what it called ‘routine training’ in the Baltic Sea. Germany's Bild newspaper reported in 2017 citing Russian sources, that the "Zapad" drills were a rehearsals in case of an invasion of the Baltic states and Belarus. Since then, Russia has undertaken numerous exercises that have served to unsettle former Soviet states and Western Europe (dw.com/a-43259850).
It has also undertaken a broad military excursion into the Middle-East with its campaigns to assist the Syrian government of the Assad regime. Russia has used these military exercises as a means to promote itself as a strong military power. However, despite the large-scale show of force, Russia’s true state of military power is far less than what it attempts to project.
In July 2016, Deputy Finance Minister Sergey Storchak admitted Russia’s Reserve Fund may be depleted in 2017. Russia’s Reserve Fund declined by 3.7% in June to 2.5 trillion rubles ($39 bln) while the National Wealth Fund (NWF) dropped by 3% to 4.7 trillion rubles ($73.4 bln). In dollar terms the funds amounted to $38.22 and $72.76 bln, respectively, as of July 2016. In May, the Finance Ministry spent $2.67 bln, €2.34 bln and £0.41 bln worth of funds from the Reserve Fund for financing the budget deficit. No disbursements were reported for June. On the whole, the Finance Ministry may spend a total of 2.2 trillion rubles ($34 bln) to finance the budget deficit, over which the Central Bank had concerns that it may cause a structural liquidity surplus of the banking sector (tass.ru/886656). This was on top of the drastic drop in energy prices that occurred at the time. These financial issues coupled with the high expenditures acquired from the excursions into the Ukraine and Syria had raised serious concern about whether Russia could afford to continue its military modernization program.
During this time most of their heavy armor tanks are still Cold War era. They still continue to use the TU-95 bombers, another cold war relic, for operations aimed at harassment of western militaries (nationalinterest.org/just-how-dangerous-russias-military-16981). By 2018, the US had an overwhelming advantage in conventional forces, including a much stronger navy and air force. Russia's battleships are old, but they are often equipped with very modern cruise missiles.
In regard to naval build up, the Chinese are now undertaking a very ambitious program of ship building and are proving more successful in developing a global blue Navy fleet than Russia. Russia is lacking in many areas of modern military technology, including drone design and production and electronic components, as well as radar and satellite reconnaissance and are still heavily dependent on foreign countries to supply such technologies.
France and Germany were making double-use satellites, which were basically military satellites and recon satellites, for Russia. This has since stopped. For example, Russia is currently producing surveillance drones under an Israeli license, and it is completely lacking in assault drone capability. The technology the Russians produce organically comes with its own problems.
The legacy of the Soviet Union is still very much present in the modern Russian army, as many of its cutting-edge systems are the development of good, old Soviet systems and the modernization of that type of technology.
Russia is also working on updating its command and control centers, which serve to process information from the battlefield then feeding it to the troops. These problems were exacerbated by the 2014 Crimean crisis, according to the analyst. In the years leading up to the showdown with the West, Moscow was spending at least $500 Million per year in the US shopping for the so-called double-use merchandise, which can be used for both military and civilian purposes (dw.com/a-43293017). In 2018, Golts says, the forces were supposed to receive 203 planes and helicopters ─ in fact, they obtained 126. Long-range aviation was supposed to acquire six new planes ─ they received five. The navy was supposed to gain 35 new ships ─ it took possession of only 25. Promised refittings were delayed. So, “in the best case,” the Russian military fulfilled only about 70 percent of its goals, and it is not just in technology and weapons that Russia is behind.
In late 2018, the Russian military announced it had formed ten new brigades and divisions and planned to form another 11 in 2019 bringing the total of new units created since 2014 to about 40. Moscow has dramatically increased the number of divisions and brigades in its Armed Forces even as it has reduced the total size of its uniformed personnel. The result is the return of the paper divisions that were characteristic of the last years of the Soviet Union. In such Soviet units, officers were in place but not the enlisted men who would have the experience and unit cohesion to make the military an effective fighting force.
Paper divisions have plagued their commands in the past. Such units sound impressive but in fact are hollow shells incapable of performing their tasks. Like former Soviet times, these new units are only being staffed by officers. Such regiments and divisions formed 80 percent of the Russian army before the former defense minister, Anatoly Serdyukov’s, reforms. They were absolutely incapable of performing their mission, as anyone could see from the Chechen wars and the military conflict with Georgia. Despite their failed past, paper divisions are evidently returning, and with them, low military preparedness. In truth, since 2015, the number of professional soldiers has not increased, and the size of the draft quota in 2018 compared to the previous year was smaller by 14,000 men.
These new and under-equipped paper divisions will make the Russian military wholly ineffective, particularly against forces of Russia’s smaller neighboring countries. But it is important to underscore that those who take Russian propaganda about its military buildup at face value are deceiving themselves—which is exactly what the Kremlin hopes for (jamestown.org/). Despite the depleted state of the Russian military and the façade it presents, the Russian military shouldn’t be dismissed.
While it possesses only a fraction of the capabilities of the US military, Russia remains the dominate force in the post-Soviet countries. Its military still presents a challenge to the security of Western European countries who would be at a serious disadvantage without US support. Many Russian weapons systems, though antiquated, are still formidable in combat. Its Soviet TU-95 bombers continue to effectively run harassment operations against NATO countries.
Russia remains one of the few militaries capable of conducting expeditionary operations. In its current state, it has the capacity to undertake several small scale interventions and conduct access and area denial to the Baltic, Black Sea and Arctic Basins (nationalinterest.org/just-how-dangerous-russias-military-16981).
Russian armed forces provide Moscow with clear military superiority in the post-Soviet region, despite Russia's troops not being able to match the whole of NATO. Russia is considered one of the world's strongest nations when it comes to military power and still has plenty of arrows in its quiver, most notably the massive nuclear arsenal of some 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads (dw.com/a-43293017). On a global level it still trying to expand it parameters.
A deal between Sudan and Russia on navy port visits could morph into a permanent Russian military presence on the Red Sea coast, the head of Sudan’s parliamentary defense committee told Sputnik. The draft agreement includes security provisions for seamen who will be allowed to go ashore unarmed. Navy ships carrying weapons of mass destruction, nuclear fuel, biological weapons, radioactive substances, toxins or drugs will be banned from entering ports.
The Sudanese Navy is gaining first-hand experience of Russia’s cutting-edge military equipment to help train its naval forces, boosting strategic ties between the two nations (sputniknews.com/201901121071422796-russia-naval-base/).
The geographical map and the Russian order of battle make the Baltics a vulnerable flank for NATO. Russia can invade and capture the Baltics, seize a small parcel of land or deploy forces between Kaliningrad and Belarus, effectively severing the Baltic States from the rest of NATO. Hence, Russia has a panoply of invasion options while NATO’s defense options are slim.
A NATO high-end fight is ultimately an airpower dependent fight. In a Russian contingency, most of NATO’s firepower is in its air force, not its land force. Taking on a large and well-equipped land army like Russia’s is impractical for Europe’s comparatively lighter forces. American land power is not substantially better positioned or equipped for such a fight either.
Russia poses both an irregular and a conventional threat, but the latter is very unlikely to materialize. The former, however, can effectively bedevil NATO, and Russian irregular capabilities remain largely unaddressed. Thus, in a plausible scenario, Russia’s conventional forces will most probably be used for diversion in support of a sub-conventional challenge to the alliance, much as they were on the eastern border of Ukraine. In other words, Russia’s army likely won’t invade, but instead will intimidate NATO, preventing a response to irregular or political warfare. A greater NATO presence does not translate into an answer for this problem (warontherocks.com/the-expensive-pretzel-logic-of-deterring-russia-by-denial/).
Given the lack of transparency by the Russian government, it is difficult to accurately measure the overall status of the military. In early December 2018, Army General Valery Gerasimov, Russia’s chief of the General Staff and First Deputy Defense Minister gave his annual address to foreign military attachés in Moscow. His speech concluded assessing the challenges within the international security system as well as the negative roles played by the United States and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
He addressed the “main source” of destructive factors in the international security system, identified as US efforts to preserve its dominance and exclude competition by other countries. He then attacked the Transatlantic alliance: NATO’s answer to a supposedly mounting threat from Russia is to expand its military presence near our borders. He justified these assertions in terms of the “crisis phenomena” spreading within the global economy, portraying increased tensions over several types of resources, including energy and water.
Gerasimov outlined ongoing military modernization. He explained the various advances in modernizing a nuclear deterrent, enhancing aerospace defense, improving air defense with more S-400 systems and noting that work continues on modern hypersonic precision missile systems such as the Kinzhal. Also, in the conventional Armed Forces, Gerasimov noted the need to further improve command and control and Electronic Warfare capability (jamestown.org/gerasimov-highlights-the-need-to-sharpen-russias-military-dagger/). Russia’s projection of military power is part of its effort to maintain the image of being a world power or, at the very least, the dominate power in the region. It still has aspirations to recoup or at least regain dominate control over its former republics. Beyond that, it still maintains very real concerns about NATO and the growing influence of the US in the region.
Russia is trying to preserve its influence as a major global power. The prices of energy have dropped, heavily reducing its vast natural resources as a means of influence. This has caused Russia to fall back on its military force to maintain its formidable image. Its military still possesses superior strength to many of its neighbors and certainly remains one of the dominate military powers in the world. However, Russia is no longer the Soviet power of the cold war days, and its current position limits its resources. Their incursions into the Ukraine and its adventurism in Syria have deeply exhausted their assets.
Russia will continue to rattle its saber and make moves aimed at promoting the image that it still is a world power capable of serving as a direct challenge to the US. However, it would be impractical for the Russians to use direct military action toward any neighboring countries or overt military force against NATO members. Instead it will pursue a strategy of indirect operations working through its intelligence organs and military Special Forces elements using s series of proxy organizations.
Russia’s strategy will continue to revolve around the concept of trying to reassert control over the old Soviet states and intimidating Western Europe into a more submissive role while trying to maintain influence in strategically significant locations such as the Middle-East. It will attempt all this while operating at an arm’s length from anything that could place it in direct confrontation with the US.
My next report is due out on March 1.
The subject: The Eroding Paper Tiger of the Russian Army.
Russia has been touting itself as a powerful military force on a global spectrum. Far from the image they like to promote, Russia and its military are really more of a paper tiger.
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Central Africa is the new front of the Islamic insurgency and the new front for the Islamic State. Africa has long been a hotbed for Islamic insurgency with several al Qaeda affiliated radical groups carrying out violent insurgencies in many countries.
Right now, it is the most violent region after Syria and Iraq. However, the chaotic violence in the Middle-East and the threat of ISIS have captured the world’s attention largely overshadowing the violence in Africa.
As the Syrian Civil War winds down, and Iraq comes under control, the radical factions of ISIS have followed in the direction of al Qaeda and begun to franchise their operations abroad creating a whole new front in the countries of Western Africa.
While recent news on the Islamic State centers on the threat in Iraq and Syria, the group’s ideological hold in sub-Saharan Africa has been quietly growing, and not simply in relation to its well-known merger with Boko Haram. Indeed, over the past year-plus, three new Islamic State affiliates have gained prominence in sub-Saharan Africa.
In West Africa, the group known as the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara (ISGS) has gained prominence with a string of deadly attacks in September and October 2016. Simultaneously, across the continent, in the semi-autonomous northern Somali stretch of Puntland, a group known as the Islamic State in Somalia (ISS) was recently the first Islamic State affiliate to hold territory in that county, while further south, another Islamic State affiliate known as the Islamic State in Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda (ISISSKTU) has raised concerns (ctc.usma.edu/).
The Islamic State branch in the Sahara is led by Abu Walid al Sahrawi. Sahrawi was originally the spokesman and a senior leader for the al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) splinter group, the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO). Most of MUJAO eventually merged with the forces of Mokhtar Belmokhtar to form Al Murabitoon and pledged allegiance to al Qaeda leader, Ayman al Zawahiri. After several leaders of Murabitoon were killed, Sahrawi eventually took the helms and defected with a faction of the group to the Islamic State. Most of Murabitoon, however, did not and eventually re-merged into AQIM (www.longwarjournal.org/islamic-state-in-the-greater-sahara-claims-second-attack-in-burkina-faso.php).
Sahrawi is a member of the Sahrawi people, who are spread across southern Morocco, Mauritania, and parts of Algeria. He is the former spokesman of Mali’s Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), formed in 2011 as an offshoot of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). In August 2013, MUJAO merged with Moktar Belmokhtar’s al-Mulathamun (“The Masked Men”) Battalion—another AQIM offshoot—to form al-Mourabitoun. The group released a statement that the region’s jihadist movement is “stronger than ever,” and al-Mourabitoun would “rout” France and its allies in the region (www.counterextremism.com/extremists/adnan-al-sahrawi).
ISGS started with the merging of two other jihadi groups: The Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and the Masked Men Brigade, which created a third group, al-Mourabitoun, in August 2013. Under the leadership of Mokhtar Belmokhtar—the infamous, one-eyed commander of al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)—al-Mourabitoun operated without any official affiliation for the first two years after its founding.
An internecine battle within al-Mourabitoun ensued between Belmokhtar’s pro-AQIM faction and Sahraoui’s pro-Islamic State faction. Reports suggest that the battle may have actually been physical. Shortly thereafter, Sahraoui and other pro-Islamic State members of al-Mourabitoun defected, forming the Islamic State in Mali, which has now become the Islamic State in the Greater Sahara. Despite Sahraoui’s defection, his group’s May 2015 pledge to the Islamic State went unanswered. ISGS seemingly fell dormant.
In late 2016, the group showed itself to be far from defunct. In the last quarter of 2016, it carried out three notable attacks near the borders of Burkina Faso, Niger, and Mali. The first attack occurred on the nights of September 1-2, 2016, when ISGS targeted a gendarmerie in Burkina Faso near the Nigerien border and killed two guards (ctc.usma.edu/sub-saharan-africas-three-new-islamic-state-affiliates/). The violence has only expanded to further areas of the region.
Burkina Faso has become a pinnacle to this new Islamic front. Geographically, Burkina Faso is the only country that borders all of the following coastal West African countries: Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, and Benin. Therefore, those countries’ border security inevitably depends on Burkina Faso.
Burkina Faso, shares borders with peaceful countries on the West African coast, such as Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo and Benin. Those countries have largely been spared from jihadist violence, with the exception of the 2016 Grand Bassam attack in Côte d’Ivoire that left 16 dead. Now, however, they appear to be on the verge of suffering from jihadist spillover from Burkina Faso into the northern regions of their countries. AQIM networks have also begun penetrating Burkina Faso and probably have cells that have reached the borders of coastal West African countries or operate there. Nevertheless, Islamic State in Greater Sahara (ISGS) militants have been heavily active in those areas, with that group having, among others, attacked a school and a bar not far from the border with Benin in Tapoa province, Burkina Faso.
What is more troubling is that jihadists may double as bandits and vice-versa. Crossover between militants in ISGS and AQIM groups in Burkina Faso also likely exist, considering they do not appear to be fighting each other; they come from a similar historical lineage with AQIM; and are operating in the same places.
It is also worth bearing in mind that the populations in the northern regions of Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Togo, and Benin are predominantly Muslim and some people—especially in northern Benin and parts of the other three countries—are ethnically and linguistically linked with northern Nigerian Hausas. These populations could enable not only positive trade exchanges but also the spread of negative jihadist ideologies. Shaykh Jaafar Mahmud Adam, who was a mentor of former Boko Haram leader Muhammed Yusuf, for example, conducted preaching (dawa’) in Benin, Togo, and Ghana (jamestown.org/burkina-faso-and-the-looming-jihadist-threat-to-coastal-west-africa/).
Jihadi attacks in northern Burkina Faso have been steadily on the rise. These have largely been attributable to a newly established but understudied jihadi group, Ansaroul Islam, which has its roots in the ongoing insurgency in Mali and is linked to al-Qa`ida’s network in the Sahel. Its budding insurgency greatly threatens the security of Burkina Faso and neighboring countries. State responses to the violence have been heavy-handed, which only furthers the cause of Ansaroul Islam.
In the fall of 2014, a series of events shook Burkina Faso that paved the way for the jihadi insurgency in the north of the country. The then president, Blaise Compaoré, attempted to amend the constitution ahead of the 2015 presidential elections in order to extend his 27-year rule7—sparking a popular uprising that forced Compaoré to resign and flee to neighboring Ivory Coast. The events that followed included a further destabilizing power struggle.
While Burkina Faso did not endure attacks during Compaoré’s regime, parts of its territory served as a recruitment ground and logistics hub for jihadis in the Sahel region. In the early 2010s, AQIM and its allies made several attempts to establish a more permanent presence in Burkina Faso and on its borders.
In addition to its recruitment efforts, al-Qa`ida has been able to conduct several attacks inside Burkina Faso since 2015. This includes the aforementioned kidnapping of a Romanian security guard, as well as the kidnapping of an Australian couple in January 2016. The same day of the couple’s kidnapping, gunmen belonging to AQIM carried out a large-scale terrorist attack in Ouagadougou, killing at least 30 people at the Splendid Hotel and a café popular with foreigners.23 In August 2017, at least 18 were killed at a Turkish restaurant in Ouagadougou popular with expats in another terrorist attack. While no group has claimed the assault yet, it is widely suspected to have been carried out by al-Qa`ida-aligned jihadis.
After the French military intervention in Mali and the deployment of a United Nations peacekeeping mission, the jihadi insurgency in Mali was largely confined to its northern regions. AQIM, its local front group Ansar Dine, and MUJAO routinely mounted assaults on French and U.N. peacekeepers. From 2015, the violence spread southward. According to data compiled for the Long War Journal, there were at least 30 notable attacks in central and southern Mali in 2015. The following year, there were 51. And in 2017, there were at least 90 attacks in central and southern Mali.
Concurrently, the rise in violence in northern Burkina Faso has been directly correlated to the growing violence in central and southern Mali. As the jihadis began to move southward into the regions closer to the Burkina Faso border, more operating space was made for cross-border raids into neighboring Burkina. The jihadis made use of several forested areas and the largely unprotected borders to their advantage. And they had new opportunities to train and facilitate the growth of a local Burkinabe jihadi faction (ctc.usma.edu/ansaroul-islam-growing-terrorist-insurgency-burkina-faso/). It is not just AQIM and ISGS that is posing such a threat.
Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP), formerly (and to a degree, currently) known as Boko Haram, has also been rapidly growing its operations in the region. ISWAP has two factions: the al-Barnawi-led faction that controls territory in the Lake Chad Basin area in northern Borno state and the Shekau-led faction, which controls land in central and southern Borno state, including in the group’s historical stronghold of the Sambisa (ctc.usma.edu/sub-saharan-africas-three-new-islamic-state-affiliates/).
The Nigerian militant Islamist group has caused havoc in Africa's most populous country through a wave of bombings, assassinations and abductions and is fighting to overthrow the government and create an Islamic state. Boko Haram regards the Nigerian state as being run by non-believers, regardless of whether the president is Muslim or not - and it has extended its military campaign by targeting neighboring states. The group then began to carry out more audacious attacks in northern and central Nigeria, including bombing churches, bus ranks, bars, military barracks and even the police and UN headquarters in the capital, Abuja. It has a force of thousands of men - CIA officials have estimated around 9,000 - and cells that specialize in bombings. Through its raids on military bases and banks, it has gained control of vast amounts of weapons and money
African governments have responded to this threat. Amid growing concern about the escalating violence, the government declared a state of emergency in May 2013 in the three northern states where Boko Haram was strongest.
Eventually the deployment of troops and the formation of vigilante groups drove many of them out of Maiduguri, their main urban base and they retreated to the vast Sambisa forest to the south and the Mandara Mountains, close to the border with Cameroon. From there, the group's fighters launched mass attacks on villages and towns, looting, killing, abducting women and children and conscripting men and boys into their army. Boko Haram has outlived other militant groups in northern Nigeria and has built a presence in neighbouring states where it has carried out attacks and has recruited fighters (www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-13809501). Nigeria has also deployed additional 2,000 policemen from the Police Mobile Force, Counter-Terrorism Unit, bomb squads and the Sniffer Dog Section to join forces with the military to combat the threats in the stronghold regions North-East (https://punchng.com/bharam-2000-police-deployed-in-north-east/).
The Islamic insurgency has been a threat in West Africa for several years. In the twilight of the Syrian civil war and the subsequent failure of ISIS, it has gained serious momentum as the new front of the movement. Despite this, it still has not achieved the same levels seen in the Middle-East. Many of the recent IS organizations are either breakaways from pre-existing insurgent groups or existing groups that have simply transitioned into the IS franchise. The changing allegiances have led to a lot of internal conflict as loyalists to the old al Qaeda network have taken to battling those who have pledged to the IS.
While the IS and AQ groups have intensified their campaigns and spread into neighboring countries, none have yet reached the level of strength seen by ISIS in the Levant. They have stepped up a terror campaign of bombings, raids, and assassinations. Yet, none of them have shown the ability to mount large scale military operations or seize territory for any long period of time.
In addition, many of the African states threatened, such as Nigeria, have significantly better security forces than that of the Syrian or Iraqi militaries, which started out in bad condition. They have proven capable as a responsive force quickly taking back towns and villages held by insurgents and directing energies to hostile areas in a rapid timeframe. Additionally, public attitudes have yielded their own negative response to the insurgency. Several vigilante groups have taken to combating Islamic militants on their own.
In the interim, it is unlikely that the Islamic insurgency will gain the level of power seen in the Middle-East with all the resources working against it. However, that could change over time. They are recruiting heavily within the remote communities and trying to establish a new base of power for the movement. They are connected to the greater IS and al Qaeda movements abroad. Many of the African countries currently being threatened host a great deal of natural resources that could give financial capital to the movement. It is more likely that at some point, they could gain the ability to overpower security forces in regions of these countries, creating autonomous zones that could shelter groups working more actively abroad.
Western militaries have for some time been offering the support of advisors and Special Forces tactical teams largely aimed at combating Boko Harem. For now, this should suffice. However, greater emphasis must be placed on Africa as it is destined to be the next front of this conflict.
For years the Lebanese based radical organization known as Hezbollah has held a significant presence in South America. Its activities have ranged from terrorist acts waged against the Jewish community to working through criminal groups to further its goals.
Hezbollah has been building a presence in South America for years. Hezbollah has been linked to the 1992 attack on the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires, which killed 29, and the 1994 attack on the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires that killed 85 (jta.org).
Analysts today say Hezbollah represents a threat to Latin America and the world. In the Latin America region, Hezbollah works with local organized crime, facilitating their work while bribing politicians and officials. Hezbollah is locally involved in crimes including smuggling, violence, and corruption. For decades, the Lebanese arm of the terrorist organization, Hezbollah, operated relatively freely in the tri-border areas of Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay. It does this through a series of front groups.
Governments in the region are now taking concrete measures against the Iran-backed Shiite militia. It does this through a series of front groups. One of these groups is Barakat Clan which is reputed to be involved in smuggling, counterfeiting money and documents, extortion, drug and arms trafficking, money laundering, and terrorism financing, UIF-AR stated in a release. It is suspected that the group raises funds for the Lebanese organization Hezbollah. In 2004, the U.S. Department of Treasury designated Barakat as one of the most prominent and influential members of Hezbollah (dialogo-americas.com).
Hezbollah’s fundraising network operates extensively in the area known as the Triple Frontier crossing between Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay. The Triple Frontier often is mentioned as a place linked to Hezbollah and the Barakat group and has been investigated over the past two decades as a source of money for Hezbollah and other groups’ activities related to terrorism. Argentina’s Financial Information Unit identified at least 14 people linked to the Barakat Clan who registered multiple crossings to Argentina, mainly through the Tancredo Neves International Bridge in the Misiones province. Once in Argentina, the clan members would cash in charges at a casino in Iguazú exceeding $10 million without declaring neither the income nor the discharge of funds when crossing the border (jta.org).
The Brazilian-Argentinian border in the TBA experiences approximately 40,000 transits per day. These include tourists visiting both sides of the world-famous Iguazu Falls and cross-border workers. Given such numbers, authorities cannot control each vehicle without bringing traffic to a halt. Without real-time intelligence, it is virtually impossible for Argentina’s authorities to catch large quantities of undeclared cash and thus prevent the exploitation of the casino, merely a hundred yards beyond Argentina’s customs station, for money laundering purposes. Members of the Barakat criminal network crossed the border hundreds of times with large quantities of cash and used the casino to convert the cash into chips and back – sometimes adding gambling wins in the process. Significant sums of money pass through the casino – more than 18 million Argentinian pesos, or about US$660,000. U.S. neglect of the region since the last round of designations in 2006 meant that U.S. sanction deterrence eroded over time. Hezbollah financiers continued their activities largely unmolested. Local authorities did little to stamp out Hezbollah’s terror finance networks once it became clear that the U.S. lost interest in the TBA (terrorism-info.org).
The activities of these criminal organizations extend beyond generating revenue for Hezbollah. Their practices also include activities aimed at a more discreet means of threatening the United States.
In 2011, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) indicted Ayman Saied Joumaa, a Lebanese-Colombian dual national whose global network of companies operate out of Latin America, West Africa, and Lebanon laundered money for Mexican and Colombian cartels to the tune of $200 million a month of drug proceeds. Joumaa worked with Hezbollah as the kingpin in one of many networks Hezbollah runs globally to sustain its financial needs. When his case came to light, the New York Times quoted a DEA official as saying that Hezbollah operated like “the Gambino’s” on steroids.
Increasing quantities of Schedule 2 drugs like cocaine invade the U.S. from Latin America, adding fuel to the opioid pandemic that has already cost so many lives. Cocaine consumption is as much a national epidemic as opioids and Hezbollah helps make it available to U.S. consumers.
This makes Hezbollah, its senior leadership, and its numerous operatives involved in running illicit drug-trafficking and money-laundering operations on a global scale the perfect candidates for Kingpin and Transnational Crime Organization designations, in addition to the terrorism and terror finance designations already in place. Hezbollah’s involvement in Latin America’s drug trade is significant and expanding. The group – often referred to as the “A-Team” of international terrorism – has reportedly formed partnerships with several of the region’s most notorious crime syndicates, including Mexico’s Zetas, Columbia’s FARC,5 and Brazil’s Primeiro Comando de la Capital. Drug trafficking cases involving Lebanese with suspected ties to Hezbollah are increasingly frequent. Evidence indicates that Hezbollah has ties that span the entire illicit narcotics supply chain. U.S. sanctions, as well as court cases in the United States and overseas, have targeted Hezbollah-linked operatives acting as logistical and financial service providers, traffickers, drug barons, distributors, and, most recently, suppliers of precursor chemicals used to refine cocaine. It seems only a matter of time before Hezbollah-run drug labs emerge, too – the kind that has long been at the center of the group’s operations in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley (docs.house.gov)).
Syrian national Nasif Barakat and the Barakat Transnational Criminal Organization has been connected, along with other groups, as a tentacle of the whole Hezbollah organization. The Barakat TCO is a human smuggling organization based in Homs, Syria, that facilitates the smuggling of Syrian and Lebanese nationals to the United States border using a variety of travel routes.
Since 2013, the Barakat TCO has facilitated the smuggling of hundreds of individuals to the Southwest border of the United States. Nasif Barakat is being designated for materially assisting, sponsoring, or providing financial, material, or technological support for, or goods or services to or in support of, the Barakat TCO, and for acting on behalf of the Barakat TCO (hardnoxandfriends.com).
Barakat and members of his TCO operate a global network of human smugglers that coordinate the smuggling of foreign nationals to the United States for an average cost of approximately $20,000; this sum includes fees to obtain fraudulent and/or counterfeit documents. Nasif Barakat often provides travelers with fraudulently obtained passports from many different countries, including European Union countries, to facilitate his clients’ global movement and smuggling to the United States.
Barakat engages in bribery to facilitate human smuggling. The Barakat TCO often utilizes a common route of travel which begins in Syria and transits Lebanon, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates subsequently arriving in and transiting certain South and Central American countries before reaching the Southwest border of the United States. The Barakat TCO’s smuggling activities are linked to other crimes including document fraud which can significantly impair appropriate vetting processes (home.treasury.gov).
In January 2017, the southern U.S. border was very porous. Border Patrol was standing down for the most part from arresting or holding illegals. There were reports of radical Islamic followers sneaking across our southern border often without often without challenges from media or Congress. In addition, there were more than a few sightings of bus and planeloads of “refugees” being transported by night and dropped at locations across the U.S. This may actually be continuing today as some reports are still being made by observers (hardnoxandfriends.com).
Hezbollah’s services come with a fee – and the money collected for acting as the cartels’ middlemen fuels their war machine in Syria, their arms buildup in South Lebanon, and their efforts to carry out terrorist plots abroad. Targets include both Latin America and the U.S., as illustrated by at least two known, recent cases (docs.house.gov).
Hezbollah has had a deep foothold in South America for decades. It has been a powerful threat to the United States as a terror organization. However, the danger it presents has been largely overshadowed by the more audacious acts carried out by the al Qaeda and ISIS organizations. This has allowed Hezbollah and the networks of Shia affiliates to develop and proliferate virtually unmolested by any security forces. A radical organization that receives significant support and training from Iran, Hezbollah operates extensively on a global scale with abilities to carry out highly sophisticated attacks as it has demonstrated several times in the past.
Though the organization has carried out several terrorist attacks in the region in the past, its current interests are not necessarily oriented towards such activities. Hezbollah’s primary political interests are Lebanon and service to Iranian intelligence. It is not likely that they will carry out any audacious attacks outside of the Persian Gulf. Based on intelligence, Hezbollah intends to use its South American networks for financial gain. The threat it will largely pose to the United States will be through its criminal activities transporting large quantities of narcotics, weapons, and people across the borders. However, this could change if Iran’s strategy shifts towards how it engages the United States or any other country in the Western Hemisphere. If that happens, Hezbollah becomes a powerful threat already thoroughly embedded in the American backyard.
See you in January. Have a Happy Holiday. J.E. Higgins