Myanmar’s Tatmadaw engages in fresh clashes with ethnic fighters in Shan State

Following clashes in August involving the Shan State Army-North (SSA-N) and Myanmar’s military, or Tatmadaw, hostilities between the parties once again erupted on October 6. For several hours, some 300 government soldiers from the Eastern Command in Taunggyi clashed with ethnic rebels around one of their posts securing a supply line to the rebels’ headquarters in Wan Hai.

The hostilities come after the SSA-N, the armed wing of the Shan State Progressive Party, opted out of joining the much debated Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA). The government has pushed to have that deal signed by October 15, just weeks before Myanmar holds parliamentary elections. However, just seven of the more than 15 armed ethnic groups taking part in negotiations have said they will sign. Most of those committing to sign have not been involved in recent hostilities. The others have cited this year’s hostilities to avoid signing.

For its part, the SSA-N indicated that its decision spawned the violence on October 6. According to them, the government was punishing the group or forcing it to change its decision. On their other hand, another regional faction that engaged government forces in August and September, Shan State Army-South and its political wing, the Restoration Council of Shan State, are believed to be inching towards signing the NCA.

Determining the exact cause of hostilities in Myanmar’s peripheral regions is difficult. Such violence can easily be pinned to a broader political dispute, like the NCA, but it is also very important to remember that hostilities in ethnic areas regularly stem from very localized disputes. The description of the government’s attack though, if valid, does point to significant assault, beyond simply battling over access to resources. Moreover, the fighting on October 6 comes as numerous rebel groups have accused the government’s military of launching attacks to both coerce factions to sign the NCA, or conversely, undermine the negotiations and the upcoming voting process in certain ethnic areas. The two diverging accusations are testament to the muddled nature of government-ethnic relations, along with lingering rivalries between the military elites and central government. For example, it can be opaque whether the Tatmadaw is acting upon government orders, the interests of local commanders, or the military elite. Ethnic groups also remain players in this game, and competitors among themselves. Therefore, and though their interests are often overlooked by regular media, it should not be ruled out that hostilities may be initiated by ethnic fighters to undermine the NCA or the voting process, if specific interests are at stake.

Regardless of whose to blame, intermittent fighting should be expected to continue in both Shan and Kachin states over the coming weeks. The volatility exhibited in both states has already posed a fundamental challenge to the NCA, seriously degrading the impact of any agreement given the many factions opting out. Notwithstanding the current government’s ambition to portray itself as reformist, the upcoming elections could also suffer. The international community may find it hard to reach optimism with Myanmar’s political transition if populations of whole regions are deprived of their ability to vote because of ongoing violence. In the end though, this may be what the military ultimately seeks.

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Sustainable ceasefire uncertain in Myanmar’s Shan State as government monitors rebels amid report of fighting, lingering mistrust

ShanStateMap1On June 10, the ethnically Han Chinese Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), led by Peng Jiasheng, called for a unilateral ceasefire with the Tatmadaw, Myanmar‘s military and an end to the nearly four-month conflict in the restive Kokang Region of Shan State. The call reportedly came amidst pressure from Beijing to restore stability in Shan State, on the Myanmar-China border. The MNDAA also said it wanted to stability in the region, the November parliamentary elections to go ahead, and for the democratization process in Myanmar to be furthered. Notwithstanding the MNDAA declaration, Zaw Htay, the director ofMyanmar’s President’s Office, said that Myanmar has yet to decide on accepting the MNDAA’s offer. He added that the government is waiting to see if the MNDAA acts on their ceasefire declarations, while depending on the movement and activities of MNDAA forces in Shan State. The insurgent faction said it has the right to fightback against any government attacks.
The MNDAA has signed multiple ceasefires with the central government since breaking away from the Communist Party of Burma in 1989, the most recent lasting until 2009 when the Tatmadaw attempted to regain control of the Kokang region.
The call for a ceasefire comes after a number of tactical defeats in recent months dealt to MNDAA by the Tatmadaw. A number of MNDAA positions have been taken, including allegedly their last mountain top fortification along the Chinese border, several weeks ago. In early February, the MNDAA had the Tatmadaw on the defensive as it launched an offensive to take the regional capital, Laukai. Government troops soon regrouped and have been largely on the offensive ever since.
The fighting in the border region with China has seen the death of hundreds of soldiers and militants. Tens of thousands of locals were forced to flee, with many entering China’s Yunnan Province. After the MNDAA’s announcement, China has since called on the combatants in Myanmar to hold their fire and come to an understanding, in order to restore stability to the border area. On the other hand, unconfirmed reports from June 12 indicated that government forces attacked MNDAA forces, near Border Post 111 in Laukai Township.
The security situation in the Kokang Region of Shan State is likely to remain tenuous for at least the coming weeks. Moreover, tensions in the region are likely to be elevated, following months of hostilities since February. In addition and as was highlighted by the unconfirmed fighting on June 12, the longer the time without a formal agreement, the greater the risk of further, more serious hostilities. More broadly, the level of mistrust amongst the government and ethnic factions in Myanmar is extensive and this is particularly the case in Kokang. This reality is also noteworthy when examining the government’s official reasoning, mentioned above, for holding fast on agreeing to a ceasefire with the MNDAA.
The MNDAA launched this year’s offensive in order to retake territory in Kokang, lost to government troops and local rivals in 2009. Hesitation on behalf of the government implies that it still perceives the MNDAA as aspiring to reclaim territory. Therefore, the government is wary to agree to a ceasefire, only to allow the MNDAA to move its forces to more advantageous positions, regroup, rearm and renew offensive operations at a time of their choosing. But despite the government’s concerns, it remains highly questionable if the MNDAA is in a position to violate a ceasefire and launch such an offensive anytime soon. The group failed to take and hold territory in February, and it is far weaker now after suffering numerous military setbacks. It does, nevertheless, retain the ability to harass government forces and present itself as an insurgent force that could undermine security conditions in the region. This is surely still a source of concern for the government, thus furthering its skepticism.
But the MNDAA call does place the government in a difficult position. Efforts to achieve a National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) are ongoing. For months, the government has cited ongoing hostilities with the MNDAA and its allies, as reasoning to avoid recognizing those groups’ participation in the NCA negotiations. Indeed, this stance has increasingly complicated the talks; furthering tensions and mistrust amongst all parties involved. Now, with the MNDAA ceasefire call in mind, larger ethnic factions pushing for the inclusion of the aforementioned groups could point to the government’s hesitancy to formally agree to a ceasefire, over time, as insincerity towards actually making peace. On the other hand, the government has long stated that a NCA is a primary objective; wanting to achieve an agreement prior to parliamentary elections. It is with this diplomatic nexus in mind, that the government could find itself agreeing to a ceasefire sooner than it wanted.
Likewise, the insistence of China for a formal agreement is noteworthy. Relations between the two countries have become more complicated since fighting erupted. Elements in Myanmar have accused China or elements within, of supporting the MNDAA. This is mainly due to ethnic kinship. For China, the government has had to deal with several cross-border security incidents from Myanmar, including an airstrike that killed several Chinese in Yunnan. Neither Myanmar nor China has shown an interest in escalating tensions with the other, and in fact, shared economic interests in Shan State and elsewhere in northern Myanmar have been a consistent motivating factor for containing the conflict. Aside from nationalist elements rallying for stronger stances against the other, both sides have, until now, controlled the situation diplomatically
If a ceasefire is codified, whether in the coming days or weeks, the state of stability in the region will continue to remain volatile. The nature of the ethnic-government relations in Myanmar’s periphery often leads to instances of fighting. Oftentimes, these erupt over very local issues, mainly economic. Like other groups across Myanmar, the MNDAA is allegedly involved in local criminal activities in addition to normal business interests. The same is also believed to hold true for elements within the Tatmadaw. In that context, fighting may flare not only from a calculated decision by either party, but also due to local access to land and resources. Also, a main cause of the MNDAA-government conflict stems from internal Kokang divisions. These are unlikely to be removed in the near future and still pose a threat to stability. Likewise, some points of any ceasefire agreement may be ambiguous. Such points can include the ability of either side to move forces, supplies, and carry arms if the context of the MNDAA. As a general rule, skirmishes emanating from misunderstandings and existing tensions are not uncommon following a formal cessation of hostilities.
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Ongoing hostilities, new ethnic rebel demands place further strain upon Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement effort in Myanmar

TNLA rebels (

TNLA rebels (

On March 31, a draft agreement of the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) was signed by the government’s Union Peace Making Work Committee (UPWC) and the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT), a coalition which represents armed ethnic factions. A step forward, but reports from May 7 stated that representatives of 12 armed ethnic factions of the NCCT involved in a six-day summit sponsored by the influential ethnic United Wa State Army (UWSA) to discuss the NCA issued a directive consisting of 12 demands for the government to fulfill before an agreement could be signed.

They announced the need to end Myanmar’s ongoing civil wars through negotiations, whereby dialogue will be held between all armed ethnic factions and the government. The groups’ also demanded amendments to the constitution that would allow a federal union in Myanmar with full equality for ethnic groups. More specifically, they called on the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s military, to halt its operations currently taking place against the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), an ethnic Chinese faction, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), and the Arakan Army (AA) in the northern Shan State region. They also pressed for the inclusion of these factions in the final NCA. Although they are part of the ethnic negotiating team, NCCT, the government has refused to recognize them in negotiations. The rebel umbrella group then stated it would cease efforts to ratify the NCA draft agreement if these factions were not included.

This came as the government reportedly floated the idea of signing an agreement on the NCA with the remaining groups of the NCCT, and then negotiating with the aforementioned three on a separate basis. The offer was reportedly rejected, with the NCCT fearing this would propel the Myanmar military to intensify offensives against those factions, rather than negotiate. Nonetheless, the NCCT said it would, if possible, offer assistance to end the fighting in Shan State. On the other hand, the government has earlier this year reportedly rejected a ceasefire offer from the MNDAA. Conversely, Aung Thein Lin, of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP) said offers by the government for talks with the said three militias had gone unanswered.

Meanwhile, the TNLA reportedly claimed on May 14 that the Myanmar military had launched a fresh offensive against their forces close to the Chinese border in Kokang, Shan State. The TNLA claim that the Myanmar military suffered heavy casualties and that at least two artillery shells fired by Burmese troops landed on the Chinese side of the border. Myanmar refuted the allegations, saying its forces were only protecting the Kokang regional capital, Laukai. Additionally, Myanmar state media reported that a military offensive against the MNDAA resulted in the deaths of seven MNDAA troops. Once again, further government reports also state that the Myanmar military was successful in capturing three more strategic hilltops in the region.  In February, the MNDAA launched an offensive to take Laukai, which failed. Since then, its forces have since largely been on the defensive.

Again, unconfirmed reports from May 15 indicated that TNLA forces attacked Burmese troops in Shan State’s Kutkai 4 Township, leading to a firefight that lasted for roughly half an hour. Casualty counts are unknown at this time. Additionally, on May 14, Myanmar President Thein Sein asked parliament to extend martial law in the Kokang Region by another three months. Military rule there was enacted days after fighting erupted in mid February.

Since Myanmar began transitioning away from military rule via a civilian-military government several years ago, its negotiators and the NCCT have made marked progress in regards to advancing negotiations towards the NCA. Notwithstanding mistrust from decades of conflict, President Thein Sein’s reform policies have indeed served to bolster confidence amongst Myanmar’s many ethnic factions that the government, in their eyes, is more serious in pursuing an end to Myanmar’s civil wars. In conjunction with promised reforms in all facets of Burmese society, the government, with hopes of opening the country, both diplomatically and economically to the international community, likely believes that an end to its internal conflicts will show good will and indeed help secure these goals. Most rebel factions are increasingly perceived to have come to the realization that their interests will be far better suited with peace than war. Individual factions, over a dozen, have independently signed ceasefires, of various degrees, with the Myanmar government and military. This does not mean that violence has completely stopped, as ceasefire violations and subsequent violence do periodically occur throughout the country. But these ceasefires have served to allow rebel groups to form the NCCT and continue negotiating with the government as a unified bloc, at least nominally.

While negotiating as a bloc does have its problems, due to individual interests, rivalries and mistrust amongst the different sectarian factions, it has bolstered the bargaining position of the ethnic groups. Speaking to the overall momentum of negotiations, they have persisted through numerous trials and frequent escalations, including at present, while the government has seemingly, for the most part, backed away from its long-held practice or preference to negotiate with rival factions on a bilateral basis. Highlighting this is their dialogue with the NCCT. Yet this practice is not entirely void; underscored by Myanmar’s refusal to recognize the AA, MNDAA, and TNLA within the current negotiating process. With fighting against these groups ongoing, the government and military are likely of the opinion that agreeing to their role in the NCCT will be tantamount to capitulation.  Moreover, another sign of compromise has been the ethnic groups having negotiated despite their initial inclination to see a political agreement prior to a NCA. The government has long wanted the opposite.

Despite the overall progress in regards to negotiations, the said fighting involving these factions, along with several skirmishes with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in Kachin State, have indeed shaken optimism. There are concerns that hostilities could proliferate to other regions, beyond Shan State, and involve other factions. To this point, the military has in the past reportedly targeted groups, seemingly preemptively, which are perceived as assisting belligerent factions or aiming to take advantage of the military’s battlefield commitments further afield. Until now, however, much of the fighting has remained localized to Shan State, near the Chinese border. Nonetheless, statements from within the NCCT point to concerns with regards to the military’s motives. There are likely worries that the military or government seeks to systematically defeat or destroy the MNDAA and the other groups currently operating outside an agreed upon ceasefire with the government; ultimately to either undermine peace talks or negotiate from a position of increased strength. The NCCT is also likely insecure with negotiating peace as fellow members, the AA, MNDAA, and TNLA remain engaged with government forces. Although difficult to ascertain the exact nature of hostilities on the ground due to the Kokang region’s remoteness and limited reporting, it is apparent that the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, is continuing with offensive operations, including against retreating MNDAA fighters. This likely serves to support, in their viewpoint, the rebels’ assumptions. This is reiterated in the recurrent calls by rebel factions for an end to government operations against these groups, along with their inclusion in the NCA negotiation process. Although hostilities are ongoing, it is not assessed that the government aims to undermine negotiations, even if a decisive victory is sought, given President Thein Sein’s overall geopolitical ambitions in Myanmar.

But given the nature of the civilian-military relationship in Myanmar, combined with the military’s deep-rooted interests, there are questions as to the level of civilian or government control over the military units currently operating in northeast Shan State. It is certainly possible that commanders are conducting operations on their own initiative and beyond official oversight, either to settle scores or secure local interests. Bolstering this assessment is the said interests of the military, which include those relating to the economy. In Myanmar’s peripheral ethnic regions, fighting often erupts over control of infrastructure, access to land, resources, and drugs. Therefore, frontline commanders may have vested interests that are worth protecting through hostilities. But in regards to the ongoing Kokang conflict, it is more likely that any such personal initiative is only being taken on the tactical level, rather than strategically. President Thein Sein’s goal to see the continuation of martial law in Kokang, opposition statements showing support for the military’s operations against the militants, along with avoiding including them in negotiations at this time, do lend credence to a general consensus of pursuing strong military action against the aforementioned three belligerent factions. In this regard, fighting in Shan State is liable to continue for sometime.

In this context, along with the new rebel demands mentioned above, have already served to further complicate an already very difficult negotiating process. The longer the process, the greater the likelihood of splintering within the NCCT, as factions become more disgruntled, harden their positions, issue more threats, and possibly abandon the process altogether. The same also holds true for the government, which is likely becoming increasingly frustrated with the NCCT’s support for the AA, MNDAA, and TNLA. Beyond the demands for the inclusion of the said groups and a halt to government operations against them, there are also several fundamental issues that remain unresolved. These arguably remain the most important hurdles towards a comprehensive agreement, and are largely irrespective of fighting in Shan State. They include the debate over a federal army, disarmament, the constitution, equality for ethnic factions, land and resource rights, and extent of autonomy

However, despite the threat to end negotiations if the NCCT’s demands are not met, talks are set to continue and they likely will to some degree. An overall agreement seems less likely at this time under current conditions, yet there is room for more understandings. These will most likely be aimed at keeping the negotiating process alive, in addition to forwarding more goodwill and confidence building measures. Although President Thein Sein aims, officially, to secure the NCA prior to elections later this year, it remains unlikely that he will significantly alter the state’s negotiating principles just to see this happen. Therefore, that status quo is liable to persist, with sides more or less remaining tolerant of ongoing talks, as opposed to no talks and the risk of a more widespread conflict.

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Pakistan bus attack underscores chronic instability in Karachi, notwithstanding intensified security campaign by police, paramilitary

Despite increased attention towards the state of insecurity in Karachi, emphasized by a now expanding campaign by Pakistani Rangers and police to control the streets, the militant attack on May 13 is just the latest reminder to the city’s chronic instability. During the morning hours of May 13 (local time), a group of five to eight militants on motorcycles raided a bus in the Safoora Chowk area of Karachi’s Gulshan City. At least 47 people were reportedly killed, with approximately 30 wounded. The targets were members of the minority Ismaili Shiite sect. Several factions have claimed responsibility for the attack, which saw all the assailants escape. These allegedly include Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), its splinter faction Jundullah, and the Islamic State (IS), which Jundallah reportedly pledged allegiance to last year. According to reports, arrest raids have already begun in Karachi, with the government claiming it has netted dozens of suspects involved in the attack.

Meanwhile, on May 13, sources indicated that violence, of all types, decreased thus far in Karachi in 2015 when compared to the previous year. According to unconfirmed reports, from January 1 to May 12, 2014, at least 1,622 people were killed in Sindh Province, where Karachi is located. The corresponding period of 2015 has seen just over 732 people killed. Sources further indicate that of this number, 234 suspects, whether criminals or militants, were killed by security forces. Altogether, some 3,000 people were killed in Karachi in all of 2014.

Although statistics have been put forward indicating a drop in violence, this is a relative decline, as killings occur in Karachi on a daily basis. Moreover, it remains unclear whether any statistical improvement will be prolonged. For instance, Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city and economic hub, has been plagued by violence for years. Violence has increasingly come to define the city, with government efforts to tackle the problem proving relatively ineffective. The daily threat of security incidents primarily emanates from three sources; criminality, targeted political killings, and militancy. There is a strong nexus between these sources, with one often serving to benefit the other. Oftentimes, and considering the volume of cases, it is difficult to ascertain which source was the motivation for specific killings.

In regards to criminality, it is rampant and the city is home to numerous well organized criminal networks and street gangs. In this context, many of Karachi’s ganglords are well known. Deadly clashes between rivals or with security forces are frequent. Attacks on rivals can include bombings and shootings. Their activities has effectively made several of the city’s districts de facto no-go zones, notably Lyari. Criminal activities include drug smuggling, land seizures, arms trafficking, extortion, murder, etc. While operations against crime networks have also increased, it should be assumed that bribery and corruption are complicating the overall effectiveness of this campaign.

Political violence is also a regular occurrence in Karachi. Political parties in Pakistan are largely ethnic-based, thereby serving to further political tensions given heightened sectarianism in Pakistan. Furthermore, Karachi is highly diverse, with political parties maintaining strongholds in certain neighborhoods considered home to a certain group or groups. This leads to geographical rivalries, including the competition over land, which is scarce inside the city. Not only do local political factions like the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), which mostly represents the Muhajir people, compete with their rivals over ideological influence, the nature of sectarian-based politics means that parties are fighting for the everyday interests of their supporters. Moreover, party supporters periodically clash or are targeted by hired killers. Targeted killings are a known problem, and it is suspected that local political factions utilize such methods against their rivals. They are also utilized by criminal and militant elements. Lastly, political parties in Karachi are often perceived as having a hand in organized crime.

As Pakistan continues its campaign against militant jihadists allied with Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), the militant effort against the state has increasingly focused upon Karachi. TTP-related militants from the northwest tribal regions have sought to further entrench themselves within the local population of Karachi. Infiltrating major cities also provides the group’s members with greater protection, as they are no longer subject to army operations in the tribal regions. To this point, overcrowding, general instability and the large Pashtun population, including refugees, continually serve as cover. In that context, it is a working assumption that security forces are acting to prevent said militants from bolstering their operational networks and capabilities in Karachi. Nonetheless, the attack on May 13 shows that militancy is a daily threat, with militants seemingly able to conduct daylight attacks at will. Above all, the attack underscored their intention to further undermine stability in Karachi and thus the country as a whole. Furthermore, TTP affiliates have frequently targeted law enforcement and minorities. Along with more attacks on politicians, additional TTP attacks in Karachi, whether localized killings or major attacks, should be expected. This includes possible attacks against schools and foreign interests, which includes individuals, government locales, or public places. Also, TTP militants will likely remain able to continue their involvement in criminality, which serves to fund their ongoing activities.

Despite widespread instability in Karachi, and though the militant threat in Karachi does not appear to have abated, there is little indication that these factions will be able to effectively control neighborhoods inside Karachi. Rather, the military will aggressively oppose this and operations against the militants will likely limit them to mostly clandestine operations and attacks, undertaken by small cells. Such attacks will nonetheless continue to seriously undermine stability and government control in Karachi.

Above all, the introduction of expanded Ranger operations inside Karachi highlights the inability of local governance and police to handle the security situation. Furthermore, sources have alleged that the Pakistani military is seeking to exert greater control in Karachi, at the expense of local parties. According to these reports, there is speculation that the military is doing so in conjunction with the Rangers’ operations. To that point, MQM has long dominated politics in Karachi and has in fact been subjected to of a growing number of raids by Rangers, including one which targeted their headquarters earlier this year. MQM claims it is being unfairly targeted, with dozens of its activists allegedly killed and thousands arrested.

Additionally, statements by senior military, intelligence and government leaders point to an intention to only further operations inside Karachi. Following the May 13 attack, reports indicated that high-level security and civil chiefs pledged their commitment to the now expanded Rangers/police campaign, while stating that the rate of operations will be sped up. In that context, it is very possible that chronic instability in Karachi, along with the failed initiatives of government to control the situation, will provide the defense establishment with the necessary platform to improve their clout inside Karachi. Doing so would go along with a trend of growing military power nationwide, which only intensified after the Peshawar school attack in December 2014. For instance, the military has expanded its influence elsewhere by intensifying operations against militants in the tribal areas and establishing military courts.

While the Rangers’ operation will likely continue for some time, it remains unclear whether their operations will significantly weaken the destabilizing elements in Karachi over the long term. Their operations have been ongoing for sometime, with little to show for despite the aforementioned statistics. Much of the city’s problems are fundamental, relating to poverty, overcrowding, and sectarianism. Ever intensifying operations by security forces, with the consequences they carry on locals, could result in a further backlash. This could mean more militant and criminal attacks against civilians and security forces, as a means of deterrence. Likewise, political factions like MQM could initiate countermeasures, like city-wide strikes, should acts against it be perceived as crossing the line.

Taken together, Karachi will remain highly volatile in the coming months ahead. Killings will be reported daily, whether by militants, criminals, or political enforcers. Furthermore, the overall state of instability could still become exacerbated despite the statistical decline mentioned before. Causes of an escalation could include high-level assassinations of political, religious or security officials, or major attacks targeting a specific group.

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Pakistan’s Punjab Province on alert for suicide attack

Pakistani Taliban fighters, Photo: theaustralian

Pakistani Taliban fighters, Photo: theaustralian

Reports released on May 7 indicated that Pakistani intelligence sounded alarm bells of a possible attack in Punjab Province. Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), known as the Pakistani Taliban, has reportedly dispatched two of its militants to the province for an attack, possibly against a perceived high value target. Security forces are on the look out for a black SUV, possibly with a government license plate. In response, the city of Lahore is examining security protocols, with special focus on preventing the said militants from infiltrating.

TTP attacks are a daily threat in Pakistan, including in major cities such as Lahore. Their war against the state has resulted in constant combat in the northwest tribal regions. Islamabad is amidst ongoing campaigns in various zones of the restive region in an effort to take territory from TTP affiliated factions, prevent their use of the porous Afghan border, and reduce their ability to launch attacks into the Pakistani heartland.

To that point, TTP has launched numerous attacks in major Pakistani cities, in addition to engaging the Pakistani military and its allies in the tribal areas. Asymmetric attacks have largely targeted under protected locales, such as religious minorities and schools, in addition to more hard targets, like security forces and government interests in the cities. In this regard, and given the nature of the warning, authorities in Punjab are likely on guard for a suicide car bombing. There are likely concerns that the attackers may aim for an assassination of a high-value target, whether it be a certain party politician or government official. For instance, in late April, Pakistan’s former interior minister was the target of a suicide bomber near Peshawar. It was the fourth time he survived an assassination.

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Militants target another Pakistani school on May 4

In Dera Ghazi Khan, reports indicate that gunmen attacked Sarwarwali High School, killing a guard on campus. All students and teachers were reported safe, however. This latest assault comes after the large-scale attack on December 16, when gunmen belonging to Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) attacked a school in Peshawar, killing 153 people, mostly children. Since then, two grenades were thrown at schools in Karachi. Neither attack led to any casualties.
The attack highlights the continued and considerable threat to educational institutions in Pakistan. Islamists militants, as highlighted by the December 16 attack in Peshawar, maintain an interest in targeting secular schools or those associated with the government. This is in line with a fundamentalist ideological outlook and their campaign against the state. Moreover, militants associated with TTP likely believe that such attacks serve a significant psychological objective, shocking the public, whilst simultaneously furthering the perception that the Pakistani government is unable to provide security. In that context, further attacks on schools in Pakistan should be expected. In response, authorities will likely seek to maintain elevated security protocols around schools nationwide.

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Indian police station attacked by Muslim militants in Jammu and Kashmir State

Indian soldiers, Photo: Reuters

Indian soldiers, Photo: Reuters

On March 20, at least two militants, believed to be from Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeI) raided an Indian police station in Jammu and Kashmir’s Kathua district. Four Indians were killed. The militants, dressed in Indian military fatigues, were then killed in a shootout with security forces. Photos showed the police installation scarred from gunfire, with bodies exposed outside.

The attack, the first in the state since the shaky new state government took power in February, underscores the continued militant threat in the disputed region, despite ongoing Indian counter insurgency operations. India has killed a number of suspected militants in the state recently. Most of these clashes were targeted raids, launched after intelligence surfaced of militants hiding among the population in a specific area.

At this time, however, it remains unclear whether the militants were local residents or infiltrated from Pakistan. If the latter is the case, Kathua’s location points to a militant infiltration across the International Border. This section of the border has been the focus of cross-border fire between Indian and Pakistani border forces in recent months. To that point, India has asserted that such clashes provide cover for militant infiltration. On the other hand, Indian security officials have stated that pro-Pakistan militant factions have increased recruitment of locals inside Jammu and Kashmir State, thereby lessening the use of cross-border attacks. Infiltration has simply become more difficult, thus necessitating greater local involvement in the insurgency.

While India will maintain its stance that Pakistan supports the insurgency, if Delhi deems that Islamabad supported the attack operationally, relations between the two nuclear armed states could once again take a downturn. It may be no coincidence that the raid occurred shortly after high-level talks to improve bilateral ties between India and Pakistan were held earlier this month.

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Taliban suicide bombings during Mass spawn Christian riots in Pakistan’s Lahore

Pakistani Taliban fighters, Photo: theaustralian

Pakistani Taliban fighters, Photo: theaustralian

Pakistan’s sectarian conflict continues to fester. During the morning hours of March 15, two Islamist suicide bombers belonging to Jamatul Ahrar, affiliates of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), chose to target Pakistan’s largest Christian community, in Youhanabad, Lahore. The bombers detonated their explosives and themselves near Saint John Catholic Church and Christ Church during Sunday Mass. In total, 15 people were killed and over 80 wounded.

Almost immediately, local Christians poured on to the streets in anger. Denouncing the perceived lack of police protection, the protests quickly turned violent. While not proven, locals alleged that the police contingent assigned to protect the locales were watching a cricket match instead of doing their job. A main highway was blocked and two suspected militant accomplices were taken by the mob. They were beaten to death, and then set on fire for all to see. Another body was reportedly found with gunshot wounds nearby as well. A local metro station was then ransacked, while cars were overturned on the aforementioned highway. As news of the attack spread, Christians gathered to block roads in Karachi and Islamabad.

The suicide bombings should come as no surprise. Pakistan’s Taliban has threatened such attacks and is adamant on undermining stability throughout the country. Again, a means of achieving this is targeting sectarian minorities. This includes Shiites, Christians and other seemingly non-Sunni Islamic sects. By targeting minorities, seemingly at will, the militants are showcasing the government’s inability to protect its citizens. This assessment is underscored in the fact that the TTP claimed responsibility for the blasts almost immediately.

Pakistan will surely respond, yet the effectiveness of any response remains questionable. Statements will be made denouncing the attacks by most parties, and guarantees of protection will be offered to the nation’s beleaguered Christians. Indeed, security will be bolstered around religious sites and near important government interests, yet this is only a defensive measure. Likewise, government offenses in the tribal areas, the Taliban’s citadel, have thus far been unable to stymie the militant threat. Militants can simply cross into Afghanistan or move to blend in with larger communities. To that point, in Karachi, where the Taliban is seeking to entrench itself among the refugee Pashtun population, nightly government raids have failed to defeat militancy there as well. Karachi only seems to be getting worse.

Amid the expanding influence of fundamentalist Sunni groups in Pakistan, coupled with the ongoing Taliban-state conflict, Pakistan’s minorities will remain under daily threat. The next major attack is only a matter of time.

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Suspected militants stab nine in China’s Guangzhou on March 6

Chinese security forces patrol Guangzhou Railway Station after March 6 attack (Photo: CNN)

Chinese security forces patrol Guangzhou Railway Station after March 6 attack (Photo: CNN)

During the morning rush hour of March 6, at least two assailants stabbed and wounded nine people outside a train station in the southern city of Guangzhou, Guangdong Province. Security forces shot and killed one of the attackers, and arrested the second. The city experienced a similar attack less than a year ago, when six people were stabbed by knife wielding assailants. Moreover, authorities blamed a mass-stabbing attack in March 2014 at a Kunming train station on Uyghur Muslims. That attack left 31 people dead.

In this context, it is suspected that ethnic Uyghur-Islamist militants from the restive Xinjiang region were likely behind today’s attack. Chinese security forces are engaging in an ongoing counter insurgency campaign against separatists in Xinjiang. There, attacks and clashes are relatively commonplace, with a number of incidents over the past month indicating a possible intensification of the insurgency. It should also be noted that given the nature of censorship in China, it is likely that many incidents in Xinjiang are not reported. Along with government operations, counter insurgency measures have included laws against the proliferation of Islamic practices, to curtail local support for fundamentalist Islamist factions. Taken together, this latest attack underscores the lingering threat of militancy in major Chinese as volatility in Xinjiang continues.

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American-Bangladeshi writer, activist killed by suspected Islamists in Dhaka on February 26

American-Bangladeshi writer and blogger, Avijit Roy, and his wife, were attacked after leaving a book fair during the evening hours of February 26 near TSC intersection at Dhaka University in Dhaka. The assailants were said to have used cold weapons, possibly machetes. Avijit later died at Dhaka Medical College Hospital, where his wife remains in critical condition. Reports indicate that the couple arrived in the country about a week ago to showcase two of Avijit’s latest books. Avijit, the author of the Mukto-mona blog, was well known as a perceived defender of free thought in Bangladesh. He was reportedly an advocate for atheism, human rights, science, and metaphysical naturalism. On February 28, reports indicated that a previously unknown Islamist group claimed responsibility for the killing.

After their admittance to the hospital, reports indicated that two crude explosive devices detonated outside the hospital. Also, a protest against the killing took place outside the hospital as well. Furthermore, reports indicate that Abijit was receiving death threats from Islamist militants due to his views. An online bookstore in 2014 stopped selling his works, due to reported threats by Islamists linked to Jamaat-e-Islami.

Almost immediately after the attack, suspicion from the couples’ family and friends focused on Islamist militants. This was largely due to their opposition to his Avijit’s work, recent threats, along with their implication in previous murders targeting like-minded thinkers in Bangladesh. At least two atheist activists have been killed in the past two years, and four since 2004. Overall, the killings highlight continued volatility in Bangladesh, along with the persistent threat of Islamist militancy. Likewise, the attack could exacerbate secular-Islamist tensions in Bangladesh, and further complicate stability at a time of heightened political tensions and persistent violence relating to the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP)-led hartal campaign. Moreover, there are concerns that increased tensions between the two main secular parties, the BNP and the ruling Awami League, along with the subsequent state of political paralysis, will drive more Bangladeshis towards the Islamist camp.

In that context, while such attacks have happened in the past, militants may be aiming intensify attacks against their rivals to take advantage of instability caused by the hartal campaign. Jamaat-e-Islami is also supporting this campaign. As has happened in the past, the latest killings could prompt mass protests or new hartals in Dhaka and elsewhere over the coming days. Secular activists would rally to demand that more be done to curb Islamist influence. Islamists, on the other hand, could hold their own protests demanding harsh punishment for atheist activists and for the government to shut down websites promoting secularism in Bangladesh. To that point, it is also possible that the government will respond with measures to ease tensions by placating to one side.

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Fighting intensifies between Burmese army, TNLA and DKBA

TNLA rebels (

TNLA rebels (

Reports indicate that clashes between the Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) escalated following several skirmishes in recent days. The TNLA said its fighters destroyed opium fields belonging to a pro-military resident, sparking an intensification of hostilities in Nankhan Township in the restive Shan State.

Although periodic and localized clashes between ethnic insurgent groups and the Tatmadaw are common, these latest flare ups come in the midst of an ongoing escalation in Shan State’s Kokang region between ethnic Han Chinese militants and the Myanmar military. Several hundred Kokang militants from the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) launched an offensive against the region’s capital, Laukai, on February 9. Fighting has raged ever since, with the Tatmadaw pursuing MNDAA fighters along the mountainous Chinese border. Considering this, it is possible that other insurgent factions, like the DKBA and TNLA, seek to take advantage of the government’s perceived preoccupation with fighting in Kokang and intensify operations against local government interests, whether they be economic or military-related. The military has reportedly shifted forces to the Kokang region to effectively put down the current insurrection, and better secure Laukai. Therefore, additional hostilities between the aforementioned factions should be expected over the coming days, yet it remains to be seen if either side will seek to escalate further.

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India & Pakistan border hostilities likely to continue as Islamabad seeks to intensify Kashmir debate

Pakistani troops: Photo - AFP

Pakistani troops: Photo – AFP

On January 13, in a joint conference with Sartaj Aziz, adviser to Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif on national security and foreign affairs, visiting US Secretary of State John Kerry asked Pakistan to work with India to establish peace. However, Aziz ruled out any dialogue with India if the disputed Kashmir region was not part of negotiations. Kerry made the comments after holding talks in India, where President Obama will visit later this month. The Pakistani stance comes as tensions have escalated considerably between India and Pakistan since the last quarter of 2014. The said tensions have been most clearly evident in numerous cross-border clashes between Indian and Pakistani troops in parts of the disputed regions of Jammu and Kashmir. Both sides have accused the other of being behind the escalation. Since December, around a dozen fatalities on both sides have been recorded. The most serious incident came on December 31, when five soldiers on both sides were killed.  Much of the recent fighting has been focused to the International Border between India and Pakistan, on the southern flank of Jammu and Kashmir. The International Border is a relatively smaller border portion in the overall disputed Jammu and Kashmir region. Both sides say hundreds of ceasefire violations were recorded in 2014, with unconfirmed reports indicating that the year saw the most border incidents since the current ceasefire came into being in 2003.

In that context, in late December, India’s defense minister instructed commanders stationed along the border with Pakistan to intensify retaliations against Pakistani fire. As a result of cross-border fire, which occasionally lasts for hours on end, Indian officials in New Delhi have reportedly asked local authorities in Jammu and Kashmir to construct fortified bunkers for local populations.  Over ten thousand Indian civilians have fled their communities along the border with Pakistan as a result of cross-border fire, which has mostly involved mortar and small-arms fire. Pakistani reports have also alleged Indian fire into Pakistani civilian areas.

Furthermore, the latest tensions come on the heels of ongoing negotiations to form a government in Indian controlled Jammu and Kashmir. India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) campaigned heavily for the region’s state assembly elections. After performing reasonably well, the People’s Democratic Party (PDP) and the BJP are now trying to form a government. Turnout was deemed a success for the BJP, especially given calls by pro-Pakistani separatists in Jammu and Kashmir to boycott the elections.

Meanwhile, and in conjunction with cross-border hostilities, the threat of militancy in Jammu and Kashmir, and inside major Indian cities, persists. During the morning hours of January 14, two Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) militants reportedly encountered Indian security forces in the Chankhan area of Sopore, 40 kilometers northeast of Srinagar, in Jammu and Kashmir. Reports suggested that LeT commander Abu Huzaifa, was one of the two militants.

On January 15, reports indicated that Indian military officials believe approximately 200 Pakistan-based militants may attempt to infiltrate in order to attack what the government referred to as “soft targets,” including schools, civilian areas, and religious places. The Indian Army believes the militants are poised at 36 launch points throughout the Pakistani controlled area across the Line of Control (LoC) in the Pir Panjal range. Meanwhile, five militants were killed by Indian security forces in Gader in Shopian, Jammu and Kashmir on January 15. The five were reportedly affiliated with the Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) and Hizbul Mujahideen. Indian forces conducted a search of the forested area after intelligence reports indicated militants had entered the region. Unconfirmed reports suggest the Division Commander of (JeM), Mohammad Toyib, was among the militants killed.

Tensions between India and Pakistan are longstanding and this has necessitated a highly militarized border between both countries. At present, the conflict between India and Pakistan is highlighted chiefly by continuous allegations that both sides are using militancy to undermine the others’ security, along with border clashes in Jammu and Kashmir. Both issues are linked. On top of their historic rivalry, there are several new factors that have further undermined bilateral relations between the two nuclear armed states and exacerbated instability along their shared borders.

First and foremost, Pakistan is highly volatile and under a heightened state of alert for militant attacks. Attacks occur daily, throughout the country, including in major cities. Warnings of militant attacks have also escalated following the December 16high-casualty attack in Peshawar. As a result, Pakistan has intensified its counter militancy operations nationwide, especially in the northwest tribal regions. Pakistan claims it has killed over a thousand militants from its now intensified operations in the northwest, named Khyber 1 and Zarb-e-Azb. Pakistan may be aiming to balance its military activity, given the relative controversy of targeting militant Islamists within traditional Islamic Pakistani society, while hostility to India remains a popular policy domestically. Therefore, internal Pakistani concerns regarding the prestige of the military following the launch of campaigns targeting Islamist militants could be bolstering an interest to escalate tensions with India.

Strategically speaking, Pakistan is also likely concerned over the continued American so-called pivot to East Asia. As a major strategic ally of America, Pakistan is likely concerned that the pivot, along with the end of American military operations in Afghanistan, could leave it increasingly isolated, thus forcing it to become more reliant upon American rivals like China and Russia for various kinds of support. Conversely, it is also likely that Pakistan is wary of growing ties between India and the US, highlighted by Obama’s upcoming visit. This could necessitate Pakistan to take steps in order to ensure its interests are secured.

As tensions with India have been a major focus of John Kerry’s visit to the region, it is possible that Pakistan aims to cite the increasing tensions with India to place the US as a mediator between the two sides. Additionally, Pakistan is likely to cite India’s growing military and economic prowess, along with the threat from internal Pakistani militants, when requesting further American assistance.

Pakistan likely has an interest to reinvigorate the Jammu and Kashmir debate, especially on the global stage. Islamabad is likely concerned that the regions will eventually be perceived as de-facto Indian or a non-conflict. As Pakistan ultimately aims to reclaim these areas, this may warrant hostilities in order to showcase Pakistan’s claim. Targeting the International Border could also be a Pakistani attempt to show that all of Jammu and Kashmir is under dispute, not just certain border markings. The lack of international concern resulting from India’s elections in the disputed regions only likely enhanced Islamabad’s views on this matter. Those elections were widely perceived by Indians as a referendum on Indian rule in the disputed regions.

Despite the tensions with India, national security and foreign affairs advisor Aziz’s statement indicates a possible Pakistani interest in renewing talks with India over Kashmir. Direct military pressure could be a method to achieve this goal, especially as President Obama could use his visit to urge India to engage in fresh negotiations with Islamabad. PM Modi of India, however, is a Hindu nationalist and likely wary of entering negotiations meant to retake territory under Indian control. The elections in Jammu and Kashmir likely served to further cement his hesitation towards negotiations over these disputed regions. Also, Modi is likely cognizant of the strategic ramifications of bending to Pakistani demands at a time of rising concerns of future tensions with China. Both China and India have active border disputes in Aksai Chin and Arunachal Pradesh, which led to a brief war in 1962. Furthermore, the recent cases of Pakistani shelling of Indian border villages, as opposed to fighting positions, may have been an effort to exert further pressure on the Indian government to ultimately force it to the negotiating table.

In that context, the Indian threat of severe retaliation was likely meant to deter Pakistan from taking more aggressive steps that could force India into another border war. The current BJP government is likely keen to avoid an escalation at this time, as this could complicate the establishment of a new government in Jammu and Kashmir, and counter an overall national security strategy to reach strategic parity with China. As mentioned above, Pakistan may be hoping that PM Modi will choose negotiations to ease the fighting in Kashmir.

If negotiations are the goal, Pakistan is likely of the impression that a certain and calculated level of force is required to achieve this. This assessment is bolstered in that much of the recent fighting has taken place along the southern International Border of Jammu and Kashmir, which is manned mostly by the Indian Border Security Force. Their positions are less fortified when compared to the regular and better-armed Indian army troops positioned in the rugged mountains of northwest Kashmir. Moreover, tactical analysis from recent clashes points to efforts by both sides to control the level of escalation. They have refrained from using airpower and heavy artillery.

Altogether, tensions will remain high along the border in the coming weeks. Further clashes should therefore be expected, along with the possibility of a more widespread escalation. Such an escalation could result incidentally from unacceptably high casualties suffered by either side during bouts of cross-border shelling. Nonetheless, much of the fighting, even the possibility of an escalation, and will remain localized to Jammu and Kashmir, most likely the southern sector, over the coming weeks. Efforts to avoid such a development are likely as well, as both sides likely aim to keep the situation under control in order to protect their respective interests.

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Mumbai on high-alert as India says four Pakistan-based militant teams infiltrate country, ready to attack

Indian soldiers, Photo: Reuters

Indian soldiers, Photo: Reuters

Once again, India’s largest cities are bracing for militant attacks. Reports on January 22 indicated that four states, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Odisha, and Uttar Pradesh, in addition to Mumbai, are on high alert after the Intelligence Bureau (IB) warned that militants operating from Pakistan have been dispatched for attacks in these areas in the month of January, especially before January 28. President Obama is reportedly planning to visit India over January 25-27 for Republic Day. Pakistan-based militant organisations Jamaat-u-Dawa (JuD), Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) and Hizbul Mujahideen (HM) have dispatched four separate squads of fighters to India in order to carry out attacks in significant areas. Amazingly, the IB is also reportedly cognizant of some the militants’ names, which have been distributed to the public and state security forces. Additionally, as per the inputs gathered by the IB, militants have already infiltrated the four concerned states. Each team is believed to be responsible for attacking targets in the designated states. In Mumbai, meanwhile, the warning was focused on the Siddhivinayak Temple. Authorities believe an attack there is likely to be carried out on Tuesday, due to the large crowds of worshippers that normally arrive on this day of the week. Siddhivinayak is dedicated to Lord Ganesh and Tuesdays are considered holy. The temple is considered sacred, as it is one of the oldest of Lord Ganesh in Mumbai.

The warning comes amidst heightened tensions between India and Pakistan. Numerous warnings have been issued ahead of President Obama’s visit to India on January 25, underlining the continued threat of militancy in India. A number of factions have an interest in carrying out attacks against the state and India is working under the assumption that several of them are working with Pakistan and its intelligence agencies. This concern was evident in recent warnings by the Obama administration to Pakistan, saying any attacks in India, believed to have been supported by Pakistan, during the president’s visit, would have serious consequences. Warnings have been centered on many areas, but especially major cities, the US President’s itinerary, the International Border with Pakistan, along with Jammu and Kashmir. As a result, India has already been in a state of high-alert for several months, in anticipation of planned attacks. However, today’s warning is more specific. The IB has released a possible target in Mumbai, the names of suspected infiltrators, and admitted that they are working under the assumption that the militants are already in India.
Therefore, security will be bolstered even more around the temple and throughout Mumbai over the coming days. Moreover, the four states in general will see bolstered security as well. Security will be enhanced at crowded public places, which includes airports, railways, religious locales, including temples. Security forces are also liable to be increasingly visible in Mumbai, meant to serve as a deterrent to militant plots. Also, checkpoints are likely to be erected in and around major cities to monitor the movement of persons, and prevent infiltration into sensitive areas.
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BNP calls for two-day general strike in Bangladesh’s Dhaka; US government orders personnel to restrict movement as violence continues



Amidst continued violence and heightened political tensions,  the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) called for a 48-hour hartal or general strike in Dhaka and Khulna, south of the capital, on January 21-23. The strike action, meant to shut down the capital, began on January 21 at 06:00 (local time). The BNP’s Joint Secretary General, Ruhul Kabir Rizvi, reportedly stated that the hartal was in response to killings and disappearances, along with the harassment and arrest of opposition politicians by the government. On January 20, reports indicated that a Dhaka court issued warrants for the arrest of BNP Vice-Chairman Tarique Rahman and Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir. Unconfirmed reports indicate that the Jatiotabadi Chatra Dal (JCD), the BNP’s student wing, called for a similar general strike in Dhaka on January 21-23. They are protesting the killing Nuruzzaman Jony, a group leader, during a shootout with police on January 20 in Jorapukur Maath. He was wanted for targeting a police bus with Molotov cocktails on January 17. Protests are also scheduled at universities.

Meanwhile, the Canadian government warned its citizens of the threats emanating from the ongoing political violence in Bangladesh. Also, the US Department of State warned of the fresh calls for another general strike in Dhaka and Khulna on January 21-23. The agency also stated that travel for US Embassy employees and their families has been restricted to the Diplomatic Enclave, which it says includes the Gulshan, Banani and Baridhara areas, from 18:00 (local time) on January 20 until 06:00 on January 23.
The call for a 48-hour strike in Dhaka by the BNP underscores the willingness of the party to intensify pressure on the ruling government, led by the Awami League party. Moreover, the call comes after BNP leader Khaleda Zia said the hartals would continue until the government took the first steps to resolve the political crisis. The BNP-led opposition is demanding fresh elections, after it boycotted elections a year ago. Moreover, the BNP leader’s threat to continue the hartals comes despite a government decision to ease the police presence outside her office in Dhaka’s Gushan district on January 19. The increased security was put in place since the nationwide hartals began. She has been allegedly confined there since early January, and has still not left even though security has been relaxed. The government, however, has consistently denied she was being held there.
Overall, with tensions running high, further violence is likely to occur, and possibly intensify, in Dhaka over January 21-23. Such violence can include clashes between rival factions, with security forces, along with attacks on persons not abiding by the BNP shutdown. Over the past several weeks, enforcement of the blockade has led to daily attacks in general and many reports of assaults on motorists throughout the country. Also in the capital, the homes of political personalities and party offices, are likely to remain targets for assailants. Recently, police have been increasingly targeted. Many attacks in the country have involved Molotov cocktails and low-grade improvised explosives. BNP supporters have reportedly moved increasingly towards the usage of Molotov cocktail-type incendiary devices. Compared to IEDs, they are cheaper and less dangerous to deploy. Furthermore, given the business incentive, very few gas station workers are questioning the increasing number of people purchasing petrol, used to create the devices.
In light of reported government decisions to take more stern action against assailants, further clashes between security forces and opposition activists are likely. This could lead to a rise in fatalities, which would serve to escalate tensions further. Likewise, more arrest raids on leading BNP personalities will also serve to exacerbate tensions, at least in the short-term.
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Hezbollah places forces on high-alert after reported Israeli airstrike in Syria kills commanders

Israeli tank on the Golan Heights

Israeli tank on the Golan Heights

During the early evening hours, reports indicated that an Israeli army helicopter gunship targeted a Hezbollah force on Syria’s Golan Heights in the town of Mazraat al-Amal. A short time later, Hezbollah confirmed that a number of its members were killed. Reports indicate that those killed included the following commanders: Jihad Mughniyeh, the son of Hezbollah’s former military commander assassinated in Damascus in 2008, and Hajj Mohammed Issa. Additional reports are indicating that Iranian military officers were also killed in the strikes. These are unconfirmed, but it would not be surprising, given the presence of Hezbollah commanders. Israel has officially refused to comment.

In the hours after the attack, Hezbollah has placed its forces in southern Lebanon and on the Israeli border on high-alert. Israel likely did the same even before the strikes, to deter a Hezbollah response. Meanwhile, reports now show that Israeli warplanes are flying over southern Lebanon and on the Syrian border.

Although Israel has targeted Hezbollah since 2006, today’s suspected Israeli attack will likely be considered one of the most important developments in the Israel-Hezbollah conflict since the 2006 war. Hezbollah has intensified its threats against Israel over the past year, while Israel has been concerned of possible Iranian and Hezbollah plans to use the volatile territory of Syria’s Golan Heights as a new theater for operations against Israel. The airstrike came just days after Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah again threatened to conquer Israeli territory in the next war, while saying his group’s rockets can target all of Israel. Also, the killing of Hezbollah commanders, especially Jihad Mughniyeh – who was likely considered a major figure of Hezbollah’s future, will surely compel some level of response. Moreover, any Iranian deaths could add pressure on Hezbollah to retaliate.

As has been seen before, Hezbollah will likely choose to respond at a time and way of its choosing. Choosing to retaliate at this moment, when Israel’s army is on alert, could lead to an uncontrolled escalation with an Israeli military that has been continuously warning that the next war with Hezbollah will affect all of Lebanon. Hezbollah’s leaders are likely to contemplate a response that meets the group’s present interests, mainly deterring Israel and preserving the group’s reputation as the chief actor of resistance against the Jewish state. But here lies the problem for Hezbollah, the attack, including its target, shows that Israel is not fully deterred from attacking the group, at least in Syria.

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Pakistani Taliban leader orders fighters to target prime minister, ruling party

Pakistani Taliban fighters, Photo: theaustralian

Pakistani Taliban fighters, Photo: theaustralian

Reports from January 9 indicated that Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) Chief Mullah Fazlullah ordered his militants to target Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif and his party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) or PML (N). Fazlullah said he is against the ruling party’s decision to lift the moratorium on the death penalty for convicted militants and use of military courts to try accused militants. On December 16, 2014, the TTP attacked the Peshawar school, killing 145 people. TTP, meanwhile, has also vowed to carry more attacks like this in recent weeks. TTP is also one of the main militant organizations against whom the Pakistan Army launched operations Zarb-e-Azb and Khyber 1 to target militants in the northwest tribal regions of Pakistan.

Furthermore, police in Islamabad have reportedly decided to register criminal cases against Jamia Hafsa (Shohada Foundation) and its students for inviting the Islamic State (IS) to avenge Operation Silence, which was carried out against the Lal Masjid mosque in 2007. The madrassa is located at the mosque complex in Islamabad. Around 100 people, including militants and security personnel, were killed in the mosque’s siege. The calls against the Pakistani state came from a video made by madrasa students. Police stated that the students’ calls violate sections 121/121-A 505(1) b/505(2) of the Pakistan Penal Code. Security agencies have already warned the government that Lal Masjid cleric Maulana Abdul Aziz has links with known militant groups, and that given his anti-government rhetoric, his resurgence poses a security threat to law and order in Islamabad.

Meanwhile, reports indicate that Pakistani forces killed TTP’s Lahore commander on January 10. He was said to have been the mastermind of the November 2, 2014 Wagah border attack. He was killed along with his aides. Police and intelligence agencies conducted a joint raid on a house on Burki Road in Lahore. Police claimed that all three killed hailed from Bajaur, in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). A cache of arms, explosives, suicide vests, detonators and militant literature was recovered.

The TTP call for action underscores the heightened and daily threat of militancy in Pakistan. Moreover, the call will likely be considered by Pakistan as TTP’s readiness to further escalate their militancy campaign against the Pakistani state. The TTP, for weeks, has threatened more significant attacks. These have largely been proclaimed as punitive measures for Pakistan’s military operations in the tribal northwest and the state’s increased nationwide counter militancy measures following the Peshawar attack. Such threats necessitated a bolstering of security throughout the country since December. Further warnings are therefore likely in the coming days, along with a possible intensification of attacks and counter militancy operations.

To that point, with President Obama’s upcoming visit to India, in addition to Secretary of State Kerry’s visit to Pakistan, Islamabad may feel it necessary to intensify counter militancy operations. The government wants to show it is acting aggressively against jihadist militancy. American aid is at stake. On the other hand, it should not be ruled out that the TTP may attempt a high-profile attack or assassination in the near term.

Moreover, TTP may now have an even greater incentive to carry out such an operation. Recent reports have indicated that a number of TTP fighters, including a former leader, have defected to join the Islamic State (IS). The TTP has for sometime been battling defections to other factions. An escalation could therefore be a strategy to prevent a further fracturing of the group. Also, TTP will likely seek to hit back hard for the killing of their Lahore commander.

In line with concerns of an escalation in jihadist violence, the legal charges against Jamia Hafsa could necessitate a further bolstering of counter militancy efforts in the capital. This is due to likely concerns that militants will retaliate, including by challenging security forces at the mosque. The possibility for such attacks will significantly increase should security forces aim to arrest any of the accused.

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Thousands flee border as fighting between India and Pakistan escalates

Indian Troops Photo:thehindu

Indian Troops Photo:thehindu

Tensions on one of the world’s most fortified borders have escalated over the last two weeks. On New Year’s Eve, days of cross-border skirmishes escalated into hours of heavy cross-border fire between Indian and Pakistani forces over the Line of Control (LoC) in the disputed Jammu and Kashmir region. Fighting then proliferated to the actual India-Pakistan border. One Indian soldier was killed, along with four Pakistanis. The fatalities came after India’s defense minister said his country would intensify retaliations against Pakistan for border violations. But tensions have continued and January 3 witnessed more deadly fighting. Overnight, fighting broke out in the Kathua and Samba districts in Jammu and Kashmir. Both Kathua and Samba have been the focus of recent tensions. India said thirteen of its border positions and several villages were targeted with shelling by heavy Pakistani mortars. India said one civilian was killed in the fighting, which has forced the displacement of over 1,000 people from four villages. Pakistan said one of its civilians was killed as well. Both sides, as expected, accused the other of starting the hostilities. Hours later, in the Tanghdar sector of northern Jammu and Kashmir, two Indian soldiers were killed. Fighting here points to an expansion of hostilities along the LoC.

The fighting is the most serious since October, when days of cross-border fire left thirteen dead and displaced around 32,000 people. But flare-ups on the India-Pakistan border are common. Over 500 border infractions to the years-old ceasefire have been recorded by both sides in 2014. Nonetheless, this latest escalation comes at a time of increased friction between India and Pakistan. Both India and Pakistan are on high-alert for militant attacks in major cities. In India, justification for this can be found in last week’s Bangalore bombing, which left one woman dead. For Pakistan, it would be December’s Peshawar attacks and its ongoing counter militancy campaign against certain factions in the northwest tribal regions. Moreover, India connects the ongoing cross-border fighting to the militant threat. India perceives this latest flare-up as a Pakistani attempt to infiltrate its militants into Indian territory. India has stated that Pakistan has deployed some nine militant squads along the border. They are allegedly awaiting orders to cross into Indian territory under the cover of Pakistani fire in order to carry out attacks throughout the country. It further stated that such an operation was thwarted on January 3. Concerns of such a possibility have been heightened as India perceives such attacks are aimed to coincide with the upcoming visit by US President Obama.

To make matters worse, this fear has been compounded by the widely publicized high-speed chase off the coast of India on New Year’s Eve. The Indian Coast Guard said it tracked a boat from the Karachi area of Pakistan in the Arabian Sea. As the boat approached India’s waters off the coast of Gujarat, India attempted an interception. After a few hours, the four Pakistanis on board committed suicide as they detonated their explosives. The incident has sparked assumptions that Pakistani militants were aiming to carry out another sea-borne Mumbai style attack. To that point, India has bolstered security measures along its western coast, especially in the Gujarat area.

It is this context that makes the recent escalation on the India-Pakistan border so notable. Both sides are likely to continue with statements assuring that they are committed to a ceasefire on the border, yet events on the ground and interests could complicate de-escalation efforts. This is in conjunction with an increased instability in Pakistan, which likewise serves as a destabilizing factor for India-Pakistan relations. Therefore, both sides will likely prepare for further volatility, yet any escalation between the two nuclear powers will likely remain localized to the border region or involve militancy inside India. Strategically, Pakistan has learned that it cannot gain from a full-fledged war with India.

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Concerns of more attacks in India after Bangalore hit by deadly blast

Blast site in Bangalore (PTI Photo)

Blast site in Bangalore (PTI Photo)

After weeks of numerous warnings of impending attacks, another bomb blast struck a major Indian city. During the evening hours of December 28, a low-grade Improvised Explosive Device (IED), filled with shrapnel, exploded in Bangalore’s commercial district, on Church Street. The blast occurred outside the popular Coconut Grove restaurant. Although not very powerful, four casualties were reported, including one fatality. Two people have been arrested, according to reports.

Reports indicate that the device, placed between flower pots, was timed to explode. After the blast, there were reports of more blasts in the city, as well as the presence of other devices, yet these reports were proven incorrect. Rumors of explosions were apparently circulating on social media in the city as well. Further reports indicated that the IED was similar to those used in several previous attacks in India, including the July 11blast in Pune and the May 1 Chennai explosion.

Following the bombing, police were placed on high-alert throughout Bangalore. Reinforcements were also said to have been deployed to the city from other districts. Unconfirmed reports on December 29, meanwhile, indicate that India has declared a heightened state of alert at all air force bases nationwide. Security forces are now, ahead of New Year’s Eve, on high-alert in Mumbai, Delhi, Pune, and Kolkata. More reports, meanwhile, indicated that intelligence has pointed to possible attacks by Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) in Mumbai. The focus is again on five SIMI members who escaped from an Indian prison in 2013. India believes those militants have been contracted by Pakistan’s ISI to launch attacks in India.

Overall, the blast underscores the continued threat of Islamist militancy in India, especially in major cities.  Bangalore has been hit by several bombings, sometimes a series of blasts, in previous years. Moreover, this latest attack comes on the heels of increased warnings of such attacks by both the Indian and the US governments. This prompted a bolstering of security measures in recent weeks throughout major cities. Indian officials have stated that the bombing occurred, despite security personnel in the city already maintaining a heightened state of alert. These warnings primarily focused on possible attacks by Lashkar-e-Taiba and SIMI, with warnings regarding the SIMI threat being the most detailed. In that context, various Indian security agencies have pointed to SIMI’s possible involvement in the Bangalore blast. Accusations were largely based on analysis of the device. SIMI is the prime suspect.

However, at this time, the Indian government has yet to officially accuse a single faction of being behind the attack in Bangalore. Numerous factions are capable and willing to conduct such attacks. In addition to the aforementioned groups, which have been accused of carrying out similar bombings, other factions like Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami (HuJI) from Bangladesh, India Mujahadeen, Al-Ummah, or individuals associated with the Islamic State (IS), are likely to be considered as well. The latter possibility has been spoken of extensively, given that Bangalore’s Police Department was warned by IS sympathizers for arresting a suspected Bangalore-based IS propagandist on Twitter.

While it appears that the attack was not on the same scale of those warned by both Washington and Delhi over the past month, previous American warnings in recent years were followed with similar bombings. Amidst the heightened frequency of warnings, there was, nonetheless, a general feeling in India that Islamist attacks were highly likely. Such concerns were seemingly connected to the Christmas holiday season, President Obama’s upcoming visit to India, along with increasing violence in Pakistan. Moreover, it remains possible that last night’s bombing in Bangalore was meant to target foreigners. This is assessed given the location of the attack, outside a popular restaurant, in the heart of the business district. Further reports indicated that the fatality was in Bangalore to celebrate Christmas.

In line with those aforementioned factors, and continued warnings, there remains a significant risk for more Islamist attacks in India over the coming days and weeks. Therefore, security will likely remain high in Bangalore and major cities. Tactical measures are also liable to be put into place in order to counter planned attacks. This could include bans on vehicular travel, especially motorbikes, in certain areas. Already, authorities in Bangalore have instructed certain businesses and locales to erect CCTV cameras. Also, India is likely to remain increasingly attentive to the Pakistani border, following four days of cross-border clashes over the last week. It is often assessed that Pakistan uses such border skirmishes in order to infiltrate militants into India.

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India and Pakistan again trade shelling in disputed Jammu and Kashmir region

Border position in heights of Jammu & Kashmir Photo: HT

Border position in the mountains of Jammu & Kashmir Photo: HT

With tensions running high in Pakistan following the recent Peshawar killings, and India on high-alert for jihadist attacks emanating from Pakistan, Indian and Pakistan forces have again traded cross-border fire in the restive and disputed Jammu and Kashmir regions for two consecutive days over December 24-25. An exchange of fire took place between Indian and Pakistani forces along the Sialkot boundary with Jammu and Kashmir on December 24. Both sides, as expected, accuse the other of breaking the calm. Pakistani sources report the Abdal Dogar post in Sialkot’s Bara Bhai sector came under fire from Indian forces. However, Indian sources claim Pakistani Rangers fired upon the Pansar border outpost in the Kathu district of Jammu. Regardless, small arms fire and mortar shelling was exchanged for two hours from approximately 01:30 until 03:30 (local time) on December 24. A day later, India’s Border Security Force (BSF) once again exchanged small arms fire with Pakistani Rangers at the Pansar border outpost in Kathua district. There were no reported casualties from either incident. However, clashes on the border of Jammu and Kashmir persisted throughout August and for 15 consecutive days in October, which left 11 dead and over 100 wounded. Thousands of people were displaced by the fighting.

Periodic clashes between both sides are nothing new. The regions are a primary source of contention between the two nuclear armed states. The Indo-Pakistani War of 1947 established the rough boundary of modern Kashmir. A second war was fought there in 1965, which resulted in a stalemate and a UN negotiated ceasefire. Pakistan rejects India’s control over the regions and tensions have remained ever since. This has spawned numerous escalations and several small wars.

However, as mentioned above, this latest round of fighting comes amidst increased concerns over stability in the subcontinent. It also follows announced election results in Indian-controlled Jammu and Kashmir on December 23. The elections saw impressive gains for India’s ruling party, the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The elections were widely publicized in India, with the BJP viewing the results as a positive referendum on Indian rule in the region. In that context, it is possible that India will perceive this latest violence as an attempt by Pakistan to overshadow the election results. Also, it should not be ruled out that Pakistan, or its well-known intelligence apparatus, could be aiming to escalate tensions with India in Jammu and Kashmir for its own internal national security interests. Certain elements within Pakistan are pressing the government to take a more hard-line stance against Islamist militants within the country after the Peshawar school killings. The attack left over 140 people dead, mostly children. But Pakistan’s dubious relationship with Pashtun militants, mainly the Taliban, complicates any campaign to fully tackle the problem of militancy within the country. For Pakistan, the militants play an important role in Islamabad’s strategic objectives with both India and Afghanistan. Therefore, increased attention towards the issue of jihadist militancy within Pakistan could spawn increased focus on India, mainly as a diversion.

For years, India has claimed that alleged Pakistani aggression on their disputed border was used, tactically, to allow Pakistani jihadist or separatist militants to infiltrate India. High-trajectory fire from Pakistan keeps India’s troops pinned down, reducing their ability to detect or thwart entry. To that point, India has already heightened security throughout the country, specifically within the capital, in light of several high-level warnings from the US indicating pending attacks. President Obama is scheduled to visit India next month. Pakistan, a long-time ally of the US, may be concerned with a strengthening of the strategic relationship between Washington and New Delhi. In this context, it is possible that India is concerned that militants crossed the border during the December 24-25 skirmishes under the cover of Pakistani fire. As a result, there may be a further bolstering of Indian security forces in northern India, mainly along the border with Pakistan, over the coming days. Further clashes, with the risk of another escalation, should not be ruled out.

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Violence erupts in eastern India as ethnic Bodo militants reportedly kill close to 70 people in coordinated raids

Indian troops on patrol in Assam - Photo:

Indian troops on patrol in Assam – Photo:

Another wave of bloodshed has rocked India’s restive northeast. Coordinated attacks by suspected ethnic Bodo militants from the National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB) left at least 55 people dead, including many children, in India’s northeastern Assam State on December 23. Unconfirmed reports indicate that five attacks, raids, were recorded in the Sonitpur and Kokrajhar districts. They reportedly targeted non-Bodo people tribesmen, who traditionally worked in local tea gardens. Militants were said to have been wearing military fatigues and armed with AK-47s. A number of executions were reported as well. Afterwards, tribesmen attacked a Bodo village with spears, killing three. Five more non-Bodo locals were killed by Indian forces during protests against the attacks. As a result of the killings and unrest, India imposed a dusk to dawn curfew on five parts of Assam State, mostly in the Sonitpur district. Unconfirmed reports indicate that parts of the international border with Bhutan were said to have been closed as well. The Manas National Park, on the border with Bhutan, will be closed for three days in order to allow for counter militancy operations. On December 21, two NDFB militants were reportedly killed by Indian security forces as a part of a new offensive against the group. In May, NDFB fighters killed dozens of Muslim settlers.

Overall, the raids underscore volatile security conditions in northeast India, as numerous insurgent and separatist factions operate throughout the region. The region, including Assam, hosts a range of ethnic and religious peoples, which serves to exacerbate local tensions. Additionally, overall economic growth in India and efforts to attain resources from the region has spawned an influx of so-called non-native peoples to the region. In that context, the NDFB of the Bodos has been fighting for decades to combat perceived foreign influence and separate from India. This has pitted them against the Indian government, Muslim settlers, other regional militant factions, and rival indigenous peoples.

The latest raids have thus far been perceived as an escalation by India. The NDFB likely aimed to respond to recent counterinsurgency operations against it, while possibly acting to intimidate local voters. To that point, reports indicate that Bodoland Autonomous Hill Council elections are to take place in the near term. Past attacks have targeted those perceived as having not voted for the group. The Bodos are said to have accused rival tribesmen of aiding security forces in their operations against the NDFB.

India has already moved to respond. Some 5,000 paramilitary personnel have been deployed to Assam since the killings in order to maintain order and intensify operations against the NDFB. Moreover, efforts could also be focused on Bhutan to secure its southern border, and once again route any NDFB fighters operating from its territory. In 2003, the Royal Bhutan Army launched its first major military campaign. Its objective was to oust the NDFB from its territory after a series of attacks against India.

However, India’s reactions to the December 23 raids indicate that militants may still be operating from south Bhutan. This was underscored by the closure of border areas, especially Manas National Park. In the past, militants have reportedly utilized the thick jungles and hills around Manas National Park, among other sectors, as a cross-border infiltration route. The topography of the region has hindered India’s ability to totally eradicate the group.

Therefore, further Bodo attacks are liable to occur in northern Assam State in the coming days. On the other hand, the scale of the attacks may prompt militants to seek refuge in the India-Bhutan border region, given likely anticipation of India’s response. Bhutan may also intensify its own operations on its southern border, either to target NDFB positions or more effectively patrol the border. Nevertheless, India will maintain a heightened state-of-alert in Assam State over the coming days, so as to deter or thwart more attacks. Despite this, further violence between rival communities and factions in Assam is likely.

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Rocket attack from Gaza prompts first Israeli air strike since summer war

Shejaiya neighborhood of Gaza after war Photo:Times of Israel

Shejaiya neighborhood of Gaza after war Photo: Times of Israel

Rocket sirens blared in Israel’s Eshkol region on the morning of December 19. Shortly thereafter, an explosion was heard. After security forces canvassed the border area, an impact site was located in an open field. No casualties were recorded. It was the third time since the summer war between Israel and Gaza-based militant groups that such factions have fired high-trajectory projectiles into Israel.

During the early morning hours of December 20, an Israeli warplane struck a Hamas training facility in the Khan Younis area of the southern Gaza Strip. No casualties were reported, but the site was supposedly destroyed. Hamas said the air strike was an escalation. It was the first time Israel launched an air strike into the Gaza Strip since the summer war.

The exchange of fire does however underscore continued tensions along the Israel-Gaza border. Several other border incidents and attacks have taken place, which prompted Israeli armor on one occasion to shell militant positions in the south Gaza Strip. There have also been a persistent number of security incidents in northern Gaza near Jabaliya, on the Israeli border. On a number of occasions, Palestinians approached Israeli defenses there, threw stones and burned tires. Israeli forces then responded with gunfire, which has led to several casualties. Such repeated incidents seem pointless, but point to Hamas efforts to test Israel’s defenses in the area. They are likely aiming to record Israel’s response times to possible infiltrations and willingness to use force. More broadly, Hamas could be seeking to eventually erode Israel’s security perimeter in the area, by making encroachments so routine they become tolerated. Placing explosives on the border while Israeli soldiers are distracted by rioters is also another possible objective.

Overall, this latest escalation, albeit localized, was not unexpected. Although it remains unclear who fired the short-range rocket, Hamas has rattled its sabers in recent weeks. Numerous rocket test firings were recorded, with most landing in the sea. Such tests were most likely aimed at testing weaponry, training new recruits, but also sending a deterrent message to Israel. Hamas also displayed its fighters and weaponry earlier this week with a massive parade, and held military drills. The show of force, however, may have also compelled Hamas’ local rivals to instigate a clash with Israel, so as to upstage Hamas or draw it into another conflict with Israel at an inopportune time.

Despite this possibility, the latest rocket attack comes on the heels of countless Hamas threats to renew war with Israel, especially over the rate of construction following this summer’s escalation. Israel has been accused of slowing the rate of goods entering the strip. Furthermore, reports emerged this week that Gaza has received only a tiny fraction of reconstruction aid promised by foreign donors. Hamas routinely uses force or the threat of it, to extract financial and diplomatic concessions from both Israel and foreign states. The threat of another escalation could compel Israel and foreign states to rethink their policy on aid. Moreover, Hamas is also said to have re-secured its defense ties with Iran after several years of tensions. Over time, Iranian influence in Gaza, mainly arms deals, will have an effect on the sustainability of ceasefires.

Concerning the actual exchange of fire, a similar pattern is evident. A lone rocket attack causing no casualties or damage, by chance, prompts an Israeli military response. Israel’s target choice was not random. A facility associated with Hamas, but empty and in the middle of the night. This was done precisely to show Hamas that it is not deterred to use force, but avoiding inflicting a significant number of casualties that could spawn another escalation. Such policies are merely short-term solutions to a broader problem, as was evident from three wars from similar circumstances since 2008. Slowly but surely, rocket fire escalated, and so did Israeli air strikes. In the past, this led to a situation in which tensions were so high, all that was needed was a political decision by either side to instigate a war.

The coming weeks will be crucial in determining the willingness of the parties to sustain the ceasefire. It is thought that Hamas seeks to avoid another war at this time, however, the same was thought before the summer’s war as well. Should rocket fire intensify, both in terms of frequency or distance, Israel will come under greater domestic pressure to respond beyond the usual tit-for-tat. The key test will be Hamas’ perceived role in the attacks. As the most powerful faction in Gaza, conducting or tolerating attacks by smaller factions will surely increase the necessity for a stronger Israeli response. With Israel’s elections coming in March and Hamas stating it has the right to respond to perceived Israeli aggression, Palestinian militants may see an opportunity to influence its outcome.

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Insurgency in Pakistan escalates as militants slaughter students at school in Peshawar

A plainclothes security officer escorts students rescued from nearby school during a Taliban attack in Peshawar, Pakistan, Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2014. Taliban gunmen stormed a military-run school in the northwestern Pakistani city, killing and wounding scores, officials said, in the worst attack to hit the country in over a year.(AP Photo/Mohammad Sajjad)

A plainclothes security officer escorts students rescued from nearby school during a Taliban attack in Peshawar, Pakistan, Tuesday, Dec. 16, 2014. Taliban gunmen stormed a military-run school in the northwestern Pakistani city, killing and wounding scores, officials said, in the worst attack to hit the country in over a year.(AP Photo/Mohammad Sajjad)

During the morning hours of December 16, seven jihadist gunmen reportedly dressed in military fatigues and wearing suicide vests stormed a military-run school, the Army Public School and Degree College, in northern Peshawar. Their spokesman said they scaled the school’s walls. The gunmen then went room to room shooting pupils. Three attackers were said to have detonated their vests. Unconfirmed reports also indicated that militants burned teachers alive in front of their students. It was originally reported that some 500 students were being held hostage. However, it now appears the operation was not to take hostages. Killing was the objective.

After reacting, the military encountered difficulties clearing the school because militants placed explosives. Nonetheless, Pakistani forces eventually pressed the assailants to isolated areas.  Some eight hours after the attack began, the military was able to eliminate all the attackers. At least 141 people, mostly children, were killed. Scores remain in hospital.

The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP), Pakistan’s most powerful insurgent faction, has claimed responsibility. It said the attacks were in response for Pakistan’s ongoing military campaigns in the tribal areas of Waziristan in the northwest. Pakistan says those operations have killed close to one-thousand militants in recent months.

This latest attack is considered an escalation, both by the Pakistani government and the TTP, given the target and high number of casualties. The Taliban likely sought to conduct a major operation in response to the two simultaneous military campaigns against Islamist fighters in the northwest tribal areas. The TTP most likely aimed for a target that would garner the greatest publicity, create the most shock, and cause the highest number of fatalities. Divisions within the group may have increased the need to launch such a devastating attack, to unite their forces and prevent an exodus of fighters to perceivably more radical factions. As a result, Pakistan is likely to intensify its campaign against TTP and other jihadists in the tribal regions. Such a step could formally be announced in the coming days.

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Washington warns India of major jihadist attacks ahead of Obama visit

India_ParaConcerns are growing in India, with warnings that Muslim militants are plotting attacks against the Hindu-led state. According to recent reports, the US government warned India of possible militant attacks in the capital New Delhi and the restive regions of Jammu and Kashmir. The regions are amidst a phased election period, the latest round taking place on December 14. Moreover, the warnings from Washington come ahead of President Obama’s planned visit to New Delhi next month. On January 26, President Obama is PM Modi’s chief guest at Republic Day celebrations in New Delhi.

In this context, India has already bolstered security nationwide, particularly following a series of cross-border attacks earlier this month in Jammu and Kashmir. Those attacks, which Indian military officials say emanated from Pakistan, killed 13. But Washington’s latest warning was not isolated. Days earlier, the US told India of possible attacks. Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba was reportedly the focus of the report. This prompted Delhi Police Commissioner BS Bassi to discuss security measures taken in Delhi.

Also, on December 8, India went on alert after intelligence indicated that six members of the banned Students Islamic Movement of India (SIMI) were in the process of conducting attacks, most likely in Karnataka, Maharashtra, and Rajasthan states. Five of the militants suspects escaped from Khandwa Prison last year. Authorities suspect they were behind the recent bombings at the Chennai Railway station, Pune’s Dadguseth Temple, and at a Bijnore house. India is operating under the premise that the militants are acting on orders from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI).

The reported warnings from Washington underscore the continued threat of militancy in India. Overall, this threat stems from two primary elements, Islamists and communist Naxalites. Concerning the Islamist threat, Indian security forces are aware of possible attacks from several fronts. This includes Indian Islamists, jihadists in Pakistan, and transnational Islamists based in Southeast Asia. This is underscored by concerns of SIMI attacks, infiltrations into Jammu and Kashmir from Pakistan, along with Pakistani militants launching attacks in major India cities. The latter was evident from attacks in Mumbai in 2008.

The reports of pending attacks have received widespread attention in India. Now, there are increasing concerns that the country is facing a serious threat. Indian security forces have reportedly been operating under the assumption that Pakistan and Islamist militants seek to disrupt the ongoing elections in Jammu and Kashmir. Those elections, which have been highly publicized in the Indian press, are perceived as being a referendum on Indian rule. Pakistan claims the regions as its own. Security has been bolstered for the elections. In addition to attacking targets in the restive Jammu and Kashmir regions, India is likely wary of attempts to retaliate for the elections by launching attacks in major Indian urban centers. Additionally, it is possible that militants seek attacks ahead of or during President Obama’s planned visit to garner increased recognition, undermine India’s new Hindu nationalist government, and further exacerbate tensions between Pakistan and India. Bolstering the last goal, Pakistan-based militants may seek to relieve pressure on their forces in the northwest tribal areas of Pakistan by instigating conflict with India. The Pakistani military is now engaged in two major and sustained operations, Zarb-e-Azb and Khyber 1, against militants in the tribal regions.

As a result of the increased threat, especially ahead of President Obama’s planned visit to the capital, increased security measures are likely to be undertaken in major cities, particularly in New Delhi. This is in addition to the continuation of bolstered defenses along the India-Pakistan border. Cooperation between authorities in various states is likely to be enhanced, to track suspected militants and prevent their exit to other districts. Furthermore, major cities and New Delhi are liable to undergo more reviews of security procedures.

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Israeli warplanes purportedly strike Syrian military sites around Syria’s capital Damascus


Days after Lebanese sources cited a number of Israeli overflights of Lebanese territory, including near the border with Syria, Israeli warplanes reportedly launched a daylight raid in Syria on December 7. The planes, seven according to Syria, were said to have struck at least two areas near Syrian air bases to the east and west of Damascus. Other targets may have been struck as well, as activists reported close to a dozen blasts. Purported video and photos from Damascus show heavy aerial activity in the skies above the city, along with fires on the ground. Initial and unconfirmed reports indicated the targets were newly supplied S-300 air defense missile systems at or near the Al-Dimas and Damascus International airports. Syria has sought the advanced air-defense system from Russia for years, but Russia has withheld the shipments due to foreign pressure, particularly from Israel. However, Israel has in the past shown a willingness to target other, less strategic offensive and defensive systems destined for Hezbollah.

As is usually the case, Israel has yet to either confirm or deny the reports. Nonetheless, Damascus has already accused Israel. In recent years, suspected Israeli air strikes in Syria did not led to military confrontations. The Syrian regime has mostly resorted to increasing rhetoric against Israel. Damascus is too busy with the insurgency, and its military cannot afford a front against Israel. Moreover, and given the history of Syria-Hezbollah relations, it remains highly uncertain whether Syria would risk an escalation with Israel over strikes against weaponry destined to Hezbollah.

However, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) will likely bolster deployments and increase its preparedness on the northern front. This includes the Syrian and Lebanese borders. The latter is especially crucial, given the recent heightening of tensions between Israel and Hezbollah. Overall, deterring or preparing for any potential response emanating from Hezbollah, Damascus, or Palestinian allies, namely the PFLP-GC, is the goal.

On another note, and more strategically speaking, the strikes showcase Israel’s continued air superiority in the region. There was no evidence of any Syrian challenge to the alleged Israeli attackers, both from the ground or from the air. Syria cannot afford to lose anymore aircraft.

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Iraqi forces take Baiji, secure most significant gains in months

On November 14, Iraqi military personnel, Shiite militiamen, and Sunni Arab tribesmen reportedly gained complete control of the strategic city of Baiji in Salahaddin Province after weeks of fighting against Islamic State (IS) militants. Numerous military officers, politicians, and Iraq’s state TV said the city was back in the government’s hands. Reports indicated that the campaign to take Baiji was led by Hadi Ameri, the head of the Iranian-backed Shiite Badr militia. It reportedly began a month ago, when security forces and pro-government fighters pressed north to Baiji, aiming to cut off the defenders’ supplies and take the city from the south and west. Recent weeks saw a steady flow of neighborhoods in Baiji fall to government forces. It now appears the offensive has finally broken IS in the area.
Reports now indicate that government forces are pushing north, past the city, to relieve their comrades holding the strategic Baiji refineries. The refineries are the largest in Iraq. The complex has been under siege by IS for months, and was subjected to numerous assaults.
The reported taking of Baiji marks another strategic step forward for the Iraqi government and its allies. It is the largest locale retaken by government-backed forces. Although setbacks are continuously recorded in many areas of Iraq, recent weeks have seen several gains for the Iraqi government. For instance, IS has seemingly put a hold on its offensives in Anbar Province, although it still controls vast swathes of territory and arguably maintains the initiative there. South of Baghdad, pro-government forces largely cleared the district of Jurf al-Sakhr in northern Babil Province. This region, long considered a militant stronghold, posed a serious security threat to Baghdad, eastern Anbar, and the Babil and Karbala provinces. Reports from November 14, meanwhile, indicated that the government is aiming to press on from Jurf al-Sakhr to secure territory up to Amiriyat al-Fallujah in Anbar Province. Reports indicate that the taking of Jurf al-Sakhr enabled the government to redeploy its forces and invigorate its campaign to take Baiji.
Baiji remained in IS’ hands since June, and served to support frequent attacks on the nearby refineries to the north and further IS control over much of northern Salahaddin Province. It also lies on the main highway between Baghdad and Mosul, IS’ main stronghold in Iraq. This allowed IS more secure lines of communication and supply between Mosul to Tikrit. Taking and then holding Baiji will serve to further isolate IS forces in Tikrit, to the south, and its surrounding areas. Government forces will likely intensify efforts to constrict IS’ supply lines to Tikrit. By enveloping Sunni jihadists in Tikrit, this in turn could relieve the threat to Shiite forces defending Samarra. Therefore, and once military planners consider that the Baiji district is largely secured, fresh offensives against Tikrit may ensue.
Despite the government asserting that city is under their control, fighting is likely to continue in and around Baiji over the coming days. Pockets of resistance likely remain. This is underscored by reported Iraqi announcements by loud-speaker, urging residents to remain indoors. IS is also liable to launch asymmetric attacks against government-backed forces or suspected collaborators in Baiji, including suicide attacks utilizing explosive-laden vehicles. Lastly, there also remains the possibility of extrajudicial killings by the advancing forces.
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Palestinian militant attack in Jerusalem kills one Israeli

Israeli Border Guards - Reuters

Israeli Border Guards – Reuters

Although tensions remained very high, recent days pointed to a slight reduction of violence in Jerusalem. Despite this, the prospects of a more steady reduction in hostilities quickly dissipated on November 5, as another Palestinian militant attack was recorded in the holy city.

North of the Old City, near Sheikh Jarrah, an Arab man from the restive Jerusalem neighborhood of Shuafat drove his vehicle into a number of Israelis. The attacker then exited his vehicle and began to attack cars and pedestrians with an iron bar. It was at this point that he was cornered and shot dead by Israeli security forces. One Israeli Druze Border Guard officer was killed in the attack. A number of people were wounded.

The incident was the third Palestinian vehicular attack in Jerusalem since the summer. Those attacks killed four people. Almost immediately, Hamas praised the operation and called for more attacks in order to defend Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque from a so-called Jewish takeover. Moreover, the attacker was said to have been a member of Hamas.

Successful militant attacks against Israelis tend to stir nationalist fervor on the Palestinian street. Generally, this means more violence. This poses another problem for the Israeli government, which is aiming to stabilize the situation in Jerusalem through various means. Deployments have been bolstered in recent weeks, arrest raids have intensified, and new legislation has been introduced that allows for 20 year prison terms for Arab rock throwers. But despite these measures and the slight decline in the intensity of violence in recent days, daily incidents of unrest, clashes, and localized attacks against Israelis in East Jerusalem are persisting. Just hours before today’s attack, security forces again clashed with Arabs at and near the volatile Temple Mount in the Old City. The riots coincided with a protest by religious-nationalist Jews near the holy site. Those activists met to condemn last week’s assassination attempt against Rabbi Yehuda Glick.

In this context, this latest attack will likely place further pressure on the Israeli government to reduce the violence. However, both the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas are encouraging it, under the pretext of protecting the al-Aqsa Mosque. Therefore, the current level of unrest in Jerusalem is liable to continue for sometime and both sides will remain cognizant to the possibility of a further escalation. Amidst such heightened volatility, the Obama administration will issue the usual calls for restraint. It remains to be seen who will listen.

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Abbas calls for Palestinian “Day of Rage” over Jerusalem

Rabbi Yehuda Glick next to the Temple Mount - Photo:

Rabbi Yehuda Glick next to the Temple Mount – Photo:

Washington has urged all sides to exercise restraint in the holy city. But amidst ever-increasing volatility in Jerusalem, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas has called for a “day of rage” on October 31. His party, Fatah, reportedly stated “Fatah calls to its fighters and to the masses of the Palestinian people to aid the Al-Aqsa Mosque and occupied Jerusalem.” The calls are in response to Israel closing the Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa Mosque Compound in Jerusalem on October 30 after the assassination attempt against Rabbi Yehuda Glick on October 29. His attacker, Mu’taz Hijazi, was killed in a firefight with an elite Israeli police unit this morning. Abbas reportedly added that the Israeli move was a declaration of war on the Palestinian people and the Arab and Islamic nation. This latest rhetoric comes after Abbas called on Palestinians to defend the mosque from “Jewish settlers” by all means necessary. It is in this context that Israel will brace for an escalation in unrest in Jerusalem and the West Bank tomorrow, October 31.

As I wrote before, tensions in these areas have been high for months. They have, however, become exacerbated from several factors. These included this summer’s hostilities in Gaza, allegations of Jewish attempts to conquer the Temple Mount/Al-Aqsa Mosque Compound, Israeli building in East Jerusalem, and inter-Palestinian rivalry. Such tensions have led to daily unrest, including rock and Molotov cocktail throwing targeting Israeli security forces and citizens. Additionally, two recent attacks, one on the Jerusalem Light Rail and the other targeting the aforementioned rabbi, have forced Israel to bolster deployments of security forces in the city. Heightened tensions are likely to continue in Jerusalem and the West Bank in the coming weeks.

Moreover, the calls by Fatah underscore continued competition between the two leading Palestinian factions. Leaders from both Hamas and Fatah have escalated their rhetoric in recent weeks regarding tensions in Jerusalem. With that in mind, traditional rivals are likely competing in regards to increasing instability in Jerusalem to bolster their influence among the Palestinian public.

In that context, Abbas’ call for a “day of rage” is also likely a show of strength. Therefore, protests or unrest should be expected throughout Jerusalem’s eastern neighborhoods, the Old City, and in Palestinian areas of the West Bank. Furthermore, localized attacks, mostly involving rock and Molotov cocktails, are likely to target Israeli security forces and citizens. Security forces will also likely stay abreast of more advanced militant attacks, including shootings and low-grade bombings. As a result of the increasing threat of disturbances on October 31, Israeli security forces will likely further increase their deployments throughout the West Bank and East Jerusalem, including in the vicinity of checkpoints and major roadways to prevent attacks against Israeli motorists.

Throughout this volatile region, Fridays are increasingly restive. Muslim religious and political leaders typically use heightened turnouts for afternoon prayers to mobilize their supporters. This often means hitting the streets. With a “day of rage” planned for tomorrow, a Friday, the outcome is easy to predict.

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Prominent right-wing rabbi shot in assassination attempt in Jerusalem

Temple Mount - Photo: Times of Israel

Temple Mount – Photo: Times of Israel

Initial reports indicate that prominent right-wing activist and rabbi, Yehuda Glick, was shot outside the Menachem Begin Heritage Center near the German Colony in Jerusalem this evening, October 29. A gunmen riding a motorcycle reportedly opened fire when Glick was leaving the site, where he was giving a lecture. He is reportedly listed in serious condition and security forces are combing Arab neighborhoods to the east in search of the gunman. Glick was a member of The Temple Institute, which brought Jewish visitors to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The site has been the focus of increased tensions in Jerusalem as of late, with Muslims claiming Jews are attempting to seize the site and destroy the al-Aqsa Mosque. The attack is already being considered a dangerous escalation in an already tense city. To that point, Palestinians are reportedly shooting off fireworks in Jerusalem to celebrate the attack. Clashes should be expected in the city’s east over the coming hours.

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The Islamic State and Israel


Hamas rally in Gaza – Photo: BBC

The Islamic State’s (IS) highly publicized advances across Iraq and Syria have increased concerns whether other Middle Eastern states will be next. IS has already begun to conduct operations in Lebanon, is on the Turkish and Jordanian borders, and has garnered support from Yemen and several North African jihadist factions. Concerns over the group’s proliferation have forced regional states to heighten their security and modify their national defense doctrines. American-led military action against the group, including the participation of several Arab states in Syria, prompted IS to threaten those who oppose it. But despite the intense focus on IS and the counteraction against it, Israel and the Palestinians have largely avoided being included in the IS story. While this may have largely gone unnoticed, there are several important and fundamental factors that have and likely will continue to limit an IS threat to Israel.

The first of these factors is geography. IS has yet to establish zones of operations on Israel’s borders. Its forces are concentrated in western and northern Iraq, and northern and eastern Syria. Al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra is holding territory on Syria’s border with Israel on the Golan Heights, which is of course a concern for Israel, but those forces are feuding with IS and busy holding off repeated Syrian government assaults to retake the border. IS militants are increasingly launching raids in eastern Lebanon, yet the Lebanese border with Israel is Hezbollah’s turf.  In Egypt, there are concerns of possible IS links with Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, the most prominent jihadist faction in the Sinai Peninsula. Still, these links seem indirect at this time. Moreover, al-Maqdis’ focus is expanding an insurgency against the Egyptian government. The jihad against Israel now appears to have become secondary. In Jordan, action is being taken to root out IS supporters from the inside and bolster border defenses. In addition to the kingdom’s security forces being more capable in comparison to many of its Arab neighbors, the US will also continue to support Amman in reducing the IS threat. In short, these factors, at present, mitigate the threat of conventional IS advances on Israel’s borders.

While IS is surely opposed to a Jewish state in the Middle East, Israel is an objective for a later stage.  IS is a Sunni Islamist caliphate movement, aiming to control the entire Muslim world. In doing so, the group is operating with clearly defined goals. At present, IS aims to defeat sectarian rivals and all opposition to its rule inside its operational territory. This includes deliberate operations against Christians, opposing Sunni Arab tribesmen, Shiites, Yazidis, Shabaks, Alawites, and Kurdish nationalists, while taking on other radical Sunni jihadist militant factions, like those linked to al-Qaeda. Most importantly, the chief goal of IS at this time is Baghdad and defeating the Shiite-led government in power there. War against Israel does not further that goal.

IS is, however, certainly interested in proliferating its version of Islam and attracting like-minded groups to join its cause. This is evident from their propaganda, a number of pledges of support from regional jihadist groups, and extensive use of foreign fighters. A number of Israeli Arabs have enlisted to join IS, and it is safe to assume recruits have also come from the Palestinian territories. Yet within the Palestinian sphere, there are clear obstacles to further IS entrenchment. The Palestinians, at this time, remain overwhelmingly supportive of their nationalist cause. IS on the other hand is anti-nationalist. Additionally, radical Islamist Palestinian factions combat Israel through a religious nationalist narrative. This means defeating Israel. The groups leading this charge are familiar: Hamas, Fatah, and the Islamic Jihad. Palestinian support for these factions is solid and will likely remain so in the coming years. A number of small Salafist jihadist Palestinian factions have indeed emerged in Gaza. But while they may share more ideological and religious similarities to IS, they are inferior in terms of firepower and support. Furthermore, the growth of IS or similar groups in the Palestinian territories threaten the influence of existing Palestinian factions. These factions are competing amongst themselves, yet in both the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, Hamas and Fatah will likely continue to act to limit the growth of groups with perceived similarities with IS and al-Qaeda.

So will the Israelis. The presence of the Israeli army in the West Bank has for years limited the overall threat of organized militancy there. Israel conducts daily operations and nighttime raids to gather intelligence and detain those suspected of aiming to destabilize the West Bank or launch attacks against Israel. The same measures taken to limit Hamas’ growth in the West Bank will also apply to any IS-like faction. Moreover and as long as security cooperation between Israel and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in the West Bank persists, Israel’s actions against these groups will be supported in Ramallah.

All of these factors mentioned above have and will likely continue to hinder the IS threat to Israel over the medium term. However, Israel will likely remain cognizant of those aiming to join the movement or conduct individual attacks with its perceived blessing. Even so, most of those joining the group will likely find themselves in Syria or Iraq, because Baghdad remains the greatest target at this time.

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Lebanon witnesses another clash with Sunni jihadists

Sunni militant fires his rifle - Photo: Egypt Independent

Sunni militant fires his rifle – Photo: Egypt Independent

As I wrote recently, tensions were running high in Lebanon’s second city, Tripoli. Security forces were on alert for a breakdown in the security plan put in place in April to end incessant fighting between the city’s Alawite and Sunni militias. The Alawites of Jabal Mohsen, however, have become a secondary focus for many hard-line Sunni jihadists in Tripoli as of late. Attention has shifted to the Lebanese army, which is accused of backing Shiite Hezbollah, and is actively curbing growing Sunni jihadist activities in northern and eastern Lebanon. It is in this context that violence renewed with a vengeance in Tripoli on October 24.

The army arrested a local Sunni militant accused of recruiting fighters for the Islamic State (IS). In response, Sunni militants attacked a Lebanese army patrol in Tripoli. The army responded with full force. The attack led to days of intense fighting in the heart of Tripoli, mostly in the confines of the city’s restive Bab al-Tabbeneh district and the congested Tripoli Shouk. Fighting also expanded to the Bhannine and Minieh regions, north of Tripoli. Underscoring the intensity of the fighting, the Lebanese army utilized helicopter gunships to target militants in their fortified hideouts. After days of fighting, on October 27, the Lebanese army stormed the militants’ citadel, the Abdullah bin Masoud Mosque. It was a Sunni militant command center manned by militant commanders allegedly linked to al-Nusra Front, Shadi Malawi and Osama Mansour, and their loyalists. But they were not there and no reports of resistance surfaced when the army finally took the position. The fighting to oust the militants, however, left 42 people dead. Over 100 gunmen were captured. Thousands of city’ residents were displaced.

The Lebanese army’s offensive in the aftermath of the militant attack pointed to the government’s objective to finish the fighting in Tripoli quickly and decisively. As was seen in Arsal, the government, backed by pledges of support from many political leaders, was likely hesitant to reach another deal to end the fighting that will simply allow militants to fight again at a later date. Moreover, leaving those militants in place could allow them to establish more permanent and de-facto operational areas.

Still, areas of central Tripoli are likely to stay hotbeds for Sunni Islamists, and heightened security measures will remain. It also remains uncertain whether the army will continue with operations over the long-term to aggressively disarm all Sunni militias in the city. If not, this would indicate a likely continuation of periodic security incidents involving Sunnis, the LAF, and Alawites.  Moreover, it seems some militants have escaped the army’s siege. They will likely attempt to set up operations elsewhere or re-infiltrate the city at a later date. Regardless, Tripoli will likely remain on edge for sometime.


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Infant killed in Jerusalem militant attack

An Israeli border policeman stands guard next to the attack site - Photo: The Guardian

An Israeli border police officer stands guard next to the attack site – Photo: The Guardian

Amidst already heightened tensions, another attack was recorded in Jerusalem tonight. An Arab driver, reportedly a Jerusalem resident of Silwan, rammed his car into a group of Israelis exiting the Light Rail Train near Ammunition Hill in Jerusalem’s northeast. A three-month-old baby girl was killed and eight more people were wounded. The attacker attempted to flee, but he was shot and taken into custody. It is not his first time in Israeli custody, as he was previously held for militancy. Meanwhile, video from the scene shows that the driver made several turns to line up with the train tracks, and then increased speed as he plowed into his targets. Such attacks in Jerusalem are not unheard of. Several similar vehicular attacks conducted by Palestinian Arabs have occurred in the city since 2008. In August, a tractor was used to batter an Israeli bus until it flipped, which left one Israeli dead. This time around, the death of the infant and continued unrest in Jerusalem has many Israelis demanding answers.

In response, Prime Minister Netanyahu met with senior officials and then ordered security measures intensified in Jerusalem. Other Israeli leaders demanded security forces put an end to the unrest. But tensions are running very high in Jerusalem’s eastern neighborhoods. Arab riots and attacks against Israelis or Israeli property are recorded multiple times in many locales on a daily basis. This includes Molotov cocktail or rock throwing against Israeli motorists, public transportation, pedestrians, and Jewish homes in predominately Arab areas. Moreover, the October 22 attack follows increasing concerns over recent Palestinian threats regarding the always sensitive Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City. Both Palestinian Authority (PA) President Abbas and Hamas political leader Khaled Mashaal have condemned Jewish religious visits to the site. These condemnations are routinely partnered with allegations of Israeli attempts to “Judaize” Jerusalem. Amidst the ongoing threat of riots on the Temple Mount, Abbas even called on Palestinians to use all means necessary to stop Jewish entry there. In light of the ongoing rivalry between Hamas and the PA, it appears that both leaders are contending to be perceived as the most ardent defender of the Palestinian cause in Jerusalem.

Israeli authorities have responded in recent weeks with various measures to counter the growing unrest. Most of these measures, however, were tactical. Deployments were bolstered, ambushes were put in place, restrictions were imposed on entry to the Temple Mount, and observation balloons have hovered above routine friction areas. Specialized units were also designated to remedy the situation. These measures have not succeeded and this latest attack carries the risk of leading to a further escalation. Already, riots broke out when Israeli security forces arrested the brother of the attacker during the late evening hours of October 22. With that in mind, it remains to be seen how far the Israeli government will go to reduce the level of violence in Arab areas of Jerusalem. Nonetheless, violence will continue and the government will come under pressure to act with more force. Whether this means curfews, more raids, or overwhelming deployments of security personnel in Arab areas, the coming days will tell.

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Mortar shells explode in fortified district housing US Embassy in Baghdad

Blast walls around the Green Zone - Photo: Washington Post

Blast walls around the Green Zone – Photo: Washington Post

Despite another bizarre claim by an Iraqi official of a great victory against militants around Baghdad, several explosions were heard in Baghdad’s heavily fortified and strategic Green Zone on October 21. Local sources say two mortar shells fired by militants exploded several hundred meters from the massive US Embassy compound, located inside the zone. Other sources say up to five blasts were heard. Regardless, there were no reports of any casualties or damage.

The American period in Iraq saw frequent barrages against the Green Zone. Less fire occurred in recent years. Since September, however, there have been several reported instances of shelling targeting the Green Zone. Although the district is also the home of the Iraqi government, the American Embassy is surely a prime target for militants. It is also what grabs the headlines. With that in mind, the increased frequency of attacks may point to a concerted effort to target the compound as retaliation for US-led coalition operations against the Islamic State (IS).

However, such efforts will not be so easy. While Sunni insurgents certainly have an interest to target the Green Zone by utilizing their preferred tactic of coordinating suicide attacks and car bombs against a specific target, the zone’s perimeter is heavily fortified. Such attacks undoubtedly remain a threat given IS’ ability to launch daily attacks in Baghdad, the Green Zone’s defenses hinder the chances of a successful infiltration. This situation increasingly necessitates the less effective use of indirect fire, witnessed this evening. Militants aim to both intensify pressure in the capital and target American interests in Iraq. Therefore, more rocket or mortar fire against the Green Zone is possible in the coming weeks.

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Can Lebanon prevent Tripoli from becoming the next Sunni jihadist battlefield?

Sunni fighters meeting after clashing with Alawite fighters in Tripoli - Photo: Saudigazette

Sunni fighters meeting after clashing with Alawite fighters in Tripoli – Photo: Saudigazette

In the context of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, which ended in 1990, the country often appears on the brink of war. Likewise, many are wondering if the shared memory of that war will suffice in keeping sectarian rifts in check this time around. The divides are surely escalating, and beyond the shared albeit powerful memory of the war, it remains questionable whether Lebanese factions have the will and ability to counter the instability emanating from Iraq and Syria.

With that in mind, the important northern city of Tripoli will be an important test. The city has remained volatile for years. Sectarian clashes have been routine, often lasting for days. Dozens can be killed, as sides are well-armed and not afraid to use them. Militias walk the streets, with the army mainly serving as an intervening force. Since the spring, however, violence has decreased thanks to a government security plan meant to end the routine bouts of violence between Sunni fighters in the Bab al-Tabbeneh neighborhood and their historical rivals in the Jabal Mohsen district. Jabal Mohsen is largely inhabited by Alawites, thus connecting them with the Alawite-led Syrian regime in Damascus. The Sunnis on the other hand are the force behind the rebellion in neighboring. In Tripoli, Sunnis are deeply hostile to the Damascus regime. Despite the connection to Syria, fighting between the two neighborhoods is historical and has largely remained localized. Localization was likely assisted by sheer numbers; Alawites are a minority and do not have many natural allies in Lebanon. Headlines of dozens of dead fighters and civilians in Tripoli did not spawn similar bloodletting elsewhere in Lebanon, including in Beirut.

But there are concerns that things could change; expanding the significance of Tripoli. In particular, there are reports that Sunni jihadists in Tripoli may seek to set up safe zones for their operations in and around the city for the declared purpose of supporting operations in Syria. They cite Shiite Hezbollah’s use of such zones in the south, Bekaa Valley, and in Beirut. However, the army and Hezbollah are worried these zones will be used against them inside Lebanon. Both sides likely perceive that Sunnis in Tripoli will eventually escalate attacks, possibly with increased focus on the army instead of the Alawites. Therefore and amidst escalating tensions involving state security forces and Hezbollah with the country’s Sunnis, this would be a hard pill to swallow.

Sunni jihadist violence is escalating in Lebanon’s east, mainly targeting the army and Hezbollah. Both players have responded by bolstering their forces in the Bekaa Valley, in anticipation of further attacks. Those attacks are likely intended to increase sectarian tensions in Lebanon, erode Sunni support for the country’s army, bleed Hezbollah, force its withdrawal from Syria, and gain more holdings on the Lebanese side of the border to support operations in Syria. Moreover, the jihadists have also recently accelerated operations in Lebanon’s north, in the Akkar region. This has led to an increasing number of security incidents, along with counter militancy efforts by the government. The region’s proximity to Tripoli has also increased concerns of an expansion of jihadist violence in that city. Additionally, there are reports that Lebanese authorities, along with Hezbollah, are concerned of a plan to target the country’s Shiites in multiple locales during the mourning period of Ashura next week. Furthermore, several Lebanese soldiers, in high-profile cases, have defected in recent weeks to join the Sunni jihadists. While officials have downplayed the defections, it nonetheless underscores a growing concern. Will sectarian tensions push more Lebanese Sunnis to abandon the current state structure and support jihadist factions like the Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra? Many of those new recruits would surely emanate from Tripoli.

In this context, the coming days and weeks could see significant developments in Tripoli. The state security apparatus will likely seek to support the relative calm in the city by avoiding actions that could prompt Sunni attacks on its forces. They could also modify the current security plan to ease tensions. Sunnis in Tripoli, however, regularly accuse the army of leniency towards the Alawites, while targeting them. Hezbollah could seek to negotiate, possibly to find an agreement on changes to the security plan. However, tensions between Hezbollah and the Sunni Future Movement will not help. Nor will the tensions between the two sides’ premier backers, Iran and Saudi Arabia. This includes the obvious rifts over both their efforts to become the main backer for the Lebanese army. Additionally, it remains questionable how much leverage Lebanon’s Sunni politicians actually hold over Tripoli’s more hard-line Sunni Islamists.

All in all, the security plan in Tripoli remains tenuous. Any move by local Sunnis to establish security zones devoid of official intervention or an escalation of attacks against Alawites or security forces would be dangerous developments. Tripoli’s traditionally localized tensions are seemingly on the verge of playing a more prominent role in Lebanon. The coming weeks will be crucial in determining whether they stay in check.

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Suicide bomber targets Shiite mosque in the heart of Baghdad


Islamic State fighers: Photo:

During the evening hours of October 19, another deadly blast struck Iraq’s capital Baghdad. A suicide bomber infiltrated the city’s central Harthiyah district and detonated his vest inside the Abbas el-Adli Shiite mosque. Harthiyah, meanwhile, is located next to Baghdad’s highly fortified and strategic Green Zone. Reports indicate that at least 24 people were killed in the blast, which apparently targeted a funeral. Following the attack, security was reportedly increased throughout the city given concerns of more Sunni jihadist bombings.

Those concerns are certainly well founded, as the bombing points to the Islamic State’s (IS) persistent ability to launch daily attacks in the Iraqi capital. These attacks come in various fashions, but are all meant to maximize casualties, exacerbate tensions, and weaken confidence in the government. Last month, the UN said 352 people were killed from attacks in Baghdad. With that in mind, heightened security measures inside and around the capital have for years failed to prevent IS operations from ravaging the capital. Aside from select districts, militants have the general capacity to conduct attacks when and where they choose. This will not change anytime soon. Additionally, it should not come as a surprise that the coming days may reveal that the bomber was a foreigner. IS often uses non-Iraqis for suicide operations. With the Shiite holiday of Ashura coming next week, Baghdad will certainly ready for the possibility of another intensification in attacks.

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Israel faces another wave of Arab unrest in Jerusalem


Israeli security personnel on guard outside the Old City of Jerusalem. Photo credit: Ynet

Anyone who is familiar with Jerusalem knows that Arab unrest in city’s eastern neighborhoods is nothing new. For years, riots and unsophisticated attacks in these neighborhoods, including in the Old City, have become all too common. Volatility here, however, has increased in recent months. Attacks against Israeli property, citizens, and security forces are a daily reality. Given the frequency of disturbances, Israeli security forces are well-trained for such violence. This ability has thus far contributed to making sure that violence, although increasing, does not spawn a general uprising. Nonetheless, the call by Hamas political leader Khaled Mashal for Palestinians to defend the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, on the Temple Mount, points to a continuation of the current level of unrest in the city over the coming weeks.

As mentioned above, sectarian tensions in Jerusalem are not new and there are realities to life in the city that will make removing them basically impossible. However, the said tensions have seemingly intensified since the summer. Several events may have contributed to this. The abduction and murder of three Israelis in the West Bank, which prompted the murder of a Arab youth in Jerusalem a short time later, is one. Continued anger over the 50-day war in Gaza is another. Also, the recent overnight moving of more Israelis into the heart of Silwan, a neighborhood next to the Old City, has raised tensions in that neighborhood. These factors, however, are secondary. Ultimately, the real issue is that both sides want to control the holy city.

To that point, and if one has ever visited Jerusalem, it does not take long to realize that most Israeli building in Jerusalem’s east is strategic. There are hundreds of thousands of Israeli Jews living there, mostly in large strategically placed neighborhoods. The said neighborhoods generally serve to divide or enclose a similar number of Arabs. Silwan also highlights that a growing number of right-wing Israelis are securing tactical locations for further building in the heart of Arab neighborhoods. Whether they are there for religious or political reasons, most Arabs want to keep the Israelis out or force those already in, to leave. Therefore, unrest around these locations is very common.

With historical tensions in mind, the premier focal point in Jerusalem remains the Temple Mount. For years, Arab leaders have proclaimed that the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem is under threat from an Israeli takeover. Until today, Palestinian religious and political leaders cite Jewish visits to the site. They call the visits by religious Jews, often limited and guarded, as “invasions”, meant to destroy the site and rebuilt the third Jewish Temple. These allegations, in their eyes, provide justification for unrest, as local Arabs, mostly youth, are continually motivated to gather around the mosque to stage riots. Israel’s reaction to the unrest on the Temple Mount is what often makes the headlines. With that in mind, those organizing the unrest likely have little incentive to see it stop. Still, unrest on the Temple Mount generally lasts for several hours. Locals then cool off, and the same episode renews in the coming days.

But the Temple Mount is not the only focal point. Jerusalem’s Light Rail Train, a new and major government project to ease traffic in the city, is attacked daily in the Arab neighborhood of Shuafat in Jerusalem’s northeast. That locale has also been the suspected source of gunfire, on several instances, targeting Israelis in the Pisgat Ze’ev neighborhood since the summer months. Furthermore, Molotov cocktail and rock throwing against Israeli citizens, buses, vehicles, or security forces is reported in multiple locales daily.

It is important to note that recent years saw several waves of increased unrest in the Arab sector of Jerusalem. Those waves, however, did not lead to another uprising against Israel. Likewise, the current wave of unrest has thus far remained just that. Nonetheless, given the importance of Jerusalem in the Jewish-Muslim conflict, the risk of more widespread violence emanating from within the city will persist.

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Turkish airstrikes call Kurdish peacetalks into question

8582864278_eed11369c9_zAnkara has come under increasing pressure to act more decisively against the Islamic State (IS), particularly as the jihadists battle the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) defending the Syrian Kurdish city of Kobane just across the Turkish border. The Turkish government, however, has instead found itself facing an old enemy, the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK). The PKK has fought for decades for greater political and cultural recognition for Kurds in Turkey, along with their self-determination. On October 14, Turkish warplanes reportedly bombed several PKK militant positions in Daglica, in the mountains near the border with Iraq, in Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast. Those air raids were said to be in response to three days of PKK attacks against a nearby Turkish military post. The recent flare up, the most significant since the Turkish-PKK ceasefire talks began in the spring of 2013, is threatening to end those talks and renew hostilities between the two sides.

The timing of the recent events is no coincidence. Tensions between the Turkish government and the Kurdish community, a sizeable minority in Turkey, have escalated dramatically. Turkish Kurds are irate with the government’s handling of the ongoing IS offensive against Kurdish fighters in Kobane. Not only are they demanding Turkey supply the Kurdish defenders or take action against the jihadists to drive them from Kobane’s outskirts, many are demanding permission to infiltrate and fight alongside their ethnic kin. The intense media coverage of the fighting, and the fact that many Turkish Kurds are able to see and hear the fighting, has only exacerbated discontent against Ankara. Kurds across Turkey rose up earlier this month, leading to daily clashes against security forces and Islamist rivals that have left dozens dead. This included several police officers when suspected Kurdish gunmen attempted to assassinate a provincial police chief. Clashes were also experienced in Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey’s two most important cities.

For most militant groups, instability can present significant opportunities, mainly in terms of mobilization, support, and legitimacy. The same holds true for the PKK, which has responded to the recent violence involving Turkey’s Kurds with various threats. Cemil Bayik, one of the PKK’s founders, claimed the group’s fighters were returning to Turkey from Iraq to further protests against the government. A number of PKK fighters redeployed to northern Iraq, in their camps on the Qandil Mountains, as part of the ceasefire talks. Bayik also warned that his fighters would resume attacks in Turkey, thereby ending the peace process.

That process, however, had already stalled. Well before the siege of Kobane began, tensions between the PKK and Islamist-led Turkish government were on the rise. Both sides accused the other of failing to follow through with steps needed to further the process of reaching a final agreement to end the decades-long conflict. This has led to several isolated clashes, but they ultimately did not end negotiations. The combination of stalled peace talks, increased PKK mobilization for combat in Iraq and Syria, along with Kurdish opposition to Turkey’s handling of the Kobane situation, foreshadowed further confrontations.

A confrontation has just occurred, but it remains questionable how far both sides are willing to take it. In that context, the coming days will be crucial. The PKK has responded to the recent air raids by alleging the Turks have violated the ceasefire. The PKK again renewed its threats to resume the insurgency this week if Turkey does not address its concerns over peace negotiations. Similar warnings were declared in the past, meaning they were negotiating tactics. The same could very well be true again, but it is worth noting that earlier warnings were not made following airstrikes, serious unrest in Turkey, and a siege of PKK-allied forces in Syria. One thing is clear, however, should both Turkey and the PKK stand firm, negotiations could be just another chapter in an ongoing conflict.

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Islamic State continues devastating attacks in Baghdad

Mideast Iraq

Iraqi policemen stand near burning vehicles moments after one in a series of bombs hit the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City, in Baghdad, Iraq, Tuesday, May 13, 2014.  (AP Photo/Karim Kadim) From

Tens of thousands of Iraqi military personnel, Shiite militiamen, police, and allied Sunni Arab tribesmen remain deployed in Baghdad and the Baghdad Belt to defend the city against Islamic State (IS) advances. These static deployments, however, are failing to prevent daily attacks in Baghdad. The said attacks, which have persisted for years, come in various types, including assassinations, roadside bombings, mortar fire, suicide bombings, and car bombs. In September, the UN said 352 civilians were killed in Baghdad and similar numbers will likely be reported over the coming months.

The most devastating attacks are car bombs, including those driven by suicide attackers. Most of these bombings, which often occur several times a week, target the city’s Shiite population. Targets are often chosen to maximize casualties, and thus areas with high concentrations of people, like a market, are often targeted. For instance, on October 11, three car bombs exploded in the neighborhoods of Kadimiyah and Shuala, killing 41 people.

These bombings underscore several important points about the state of IS units responsible for Baghdad operations, along with the city’s defenses. For instance, IS has the ability to carry out sophisticated and coordinated attacks in Baghdad at a heightened pace, despite its strategic commitments further afield in Iraq and Syria. Bolstered security measures in and around the capital are failing to prevent car bombs from entering, often from IS bastions dotted around the city. The ability to successfully deploy these car bombs, through preplanned routes, showcases a high degree of intelligence gathering and possible use of corruption within the security apparatus. Moreover, the militant group also has significant manpower and supplies to build car bombs and secure their production locations. Lastly, the use of suicide attackers points to a continued influx of foreign volunteers, as IS has traditionally used foreigners for such operations.

The Sunni jihadist group will continue to allocate resources for attacks in Baghdad, as they serve several strategic purposes. IS seeks to weaken the public’s confidence in the government’s ability to maintain security. They also aim to exacerbate instability and compel the government to reserve large deployments in the capital as opposed to deploying to other fronts. The jihadists additionally aspire to heighten sectarian tensions to a point of catalyzing more Shiite reprisals. Simply, IS wants to force Iraq’s Sunnis to rely on it for protection against Shiite attacks. Those attacks, meanwhile, are already reportedly on the rise.

Baghdad’s defenses have been successful in preventing IS to take territory in the capital. On the other hand, the points made above foreshadow high casualty figures in Baghdad over the coming months. Furthering this assessment is the likely intention to see attacks escalate to undermine Iraq’s new government. In this context, IS will continue to attack when and where it chooses.

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Western Airstrikes Failing to Slow Islamic State (IS) in Iraq’s Anbar Province

Picture: Islamic State black flag (Washington Post)

Picture: Islamic State black flag (Washington Post)

The US-led effort against the Islamic State (IS) is gaining steam. Along with the US, Great Britain, France, Belgium, and Australia have all dropped ordinance against the Sunni jihadist faction in Iraq. Others will join. The US has struck hundreds of targets in Iraq and remains the campaign’s workhorse. Its latest reported attacks were in support of Kurdish forces near Sinjar in Iraq’s northwest on October 9. Analyzing the effectiveness of the air campaign in Iraq and Syria is tasking. Examining the results on a regional basis is most conducive, considering the various operational sectors and belligerents involved across Iraq. And so while having assisted mostly Kurdish forces in northern Iraq to hold and then regain some territory, coalition airstrikes have thus far failed to prevent further territorial losses to IS in Anbar Province west of Baghdad.

From the start of 2014, signficant and populated urban areas of Anbar, including much of Fallujah, have been under the control of IS. The group then realized an opportunity and furthered its holdings in the province after seizing the northern cities of Mosul, Tikrit, and most of Baiji in a lightning offensive back in June. Despite American and Western air support, the countless counter offensives by the Iraqi military and other allied forces in Anbar have failed to win back territory. As a result, the situation for the government in Anbar has only gotten worse.

Recent weeks have seen serious defeats for Iraqi forces in Anbar. Its forces were mostly driven from Ramadi, the provincial capital, and hundreds of Iraqi forces were enveloped and then defeated at Camp Saqlawiyah. Ground forces with coalition air support attempted to break the siege, but these efforts failed. After being overrun there, hundreds of Iraqi soldiers fled to the desert, seeking to find refuge at other government positions. The fate of many of them remains uncertain, although reports show that IS has recently paraded many captured soldiers in Fallujah. Other bases have fallen and IS has recently taken the city of Hit and the nearby town of Kubaisa. In doing so, the militant group is increasingly threatening the nearby Ain al-Asad airbase and the Haditha Dam. This has left IS in control of most of Anbar, with the exception of government-backed forces in Haditha and several isolated bases. To make matters worse, on Baghdad’s western doorstep, reports show that the Iraqi military and its allies are largely confined to garrison in Abu Ghraib, with militants controlling most of the town.

On October 10, the Iraqi military reportedly launched yet another counter offensive in Anbar, this time a three-pronged assault to retake Hit. The military may hope to relieve pressure on Ain al-Asad, and provide a foothold for a counter offensive east on the Tigris River. But first, they must retake the city. If they do, there is certainly no guarantee they will hold it. For above all, the Iraqi military, heavily reliant upon Shiite militiamen fighting far from home, suffers from many fundamental flaws.

Overall, the American-led campaign to degrade and ultimately destroy IS has mostly entailed tactical air support for allied ground forces in Iraq. But the situation in Anbar and elsewhere is indicative of a major problem. The effectiveness of tactical air support in Anbar is dependent on the quality of allied ground forces. Considering this reality and the fact that coalition airstrikes have failed to force IS to abandon large-scale military offensives in Anbar Province, the black flag will likely stay on Baghdad’s western doorstep in the coming months.

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Is Hezbollah risking war with Israel?

The question is a serious one, and one that must be addressed in light of recent events. It is true that Hezbollah is busy fighting in support of President Assad’s forces in Syria. It is also true that the Shiite militant group is acting to defend its interests inside Lebanon by ousting Sunni jihadist fighters from Lebanon’s strategic Bekaa Valley in the east. Fighters from the al-Nusra Front and the now infamous Islamic State have intensified their attacks there against both Lebanese state and Hezbollah forces. These realities alone, however, do not remove the possibility that Hezbollah seeks to escalate tensions with Israel.

This summer’s war between Israel and Hamas highlighted the risks with misjudging an enemy’s will to fight. Few believed Hamas was in a position to wage a war against Israel. Its financial issues, political isolation, and growing rift with Egypt were all cited as reasons to avoid war. But it was mainly these deficiencies that Hamas eventually sought war. Israel has indeed been citing more overt Hezbollah activity on the border in recent weeks, seemingly preparing the public for more conflict.

Hezbollah attacked Israeli forces in the Shebaa Farms region on October 7. The rugged terrain of the Shebaa Farms has been a traditional zone for Hezbollah activity against Israel, and the attacks occurred in the same general area where Israel said it had engaged Lebanese gunmen two days earlier. Hezbollah almost immediately claimed responsibility for the October 7 operation, implying it was a retaliation. Militants snuck to the Israeli-held ridge line to deploy their IEDs within Israeli territory. The devices targeted an Israeli army vehicle, leaving two soldiers wounded. Another blast targeted the response team. Israel retaliated with dozens of artillery shells into the hills around Kfar Chouba, with the army saying it shelled two Hezbollah positions. Although Israel continued with shelling for several hours, the hostilities did not lead to a more widespread escalation. The attack was nonetheless very significant, one of the gravest since the 2006 war.

The border between Israel and Lebanon has been mostly quiet since 2006, yet tensions and occasional incidents of violence have occurred. Hezbollah’s latest attacks, however, threaten to undermine the status quo, which is possibly what the Shiite fundamentalist group wants. It was not the first time Hezbollah has claimed an attack against Israeli forces since the last war. But by attacking Israel so boldly, Hezbollah was propagating a message that it is not deterred from an escalation with Israel, despite its many commitments on other fronts. Hezbollah was likely testing Israel’s response, analyzing the intensity of the Israeli retaliation. This will be under assessment when planning future operations, as its leaders may doubt Israel’s willingness to take on the group in Lebanon so soon after the summer war with Hamas.

For its own domestic and strategic interests, Hezbollah may aim to exacerbate volatility by intensifying its operations on the border. Being perceived as in conflict with Israel is of great importance for a group that prides itself as the defender of Lebanon. To that point, Hezbollah has come under considerable pressure from its involvement in Syria, both at home and abroad. Thus while it should be considered they will avoid operations that could lead to a war, Hezbollah could nonetheless be seeking, more or less, to return the Israeli border to its previous state before the 2006 war. This period was marked by frequent clashes.

If so, this would demonstrate that Hezbollah has an ambition to initiate and control a steady escalation of violence. Such a power play, however, is not without serious risks, as it relies on a perceived understanding of Israel’s strategic intentions. In July 2006, Hezbollah launched one attack too many, bringing Israel into a war the group’s leader admittedly did not expect. With that in mind, the coming months will be indicative of whether they will return to this course. Regardless, further clashes should be expected as both sides are preparing under the pretense that another war is inevitable.

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Roadside bomb kills Army Ranger in Thailand’s Deep South on May 4

The blast targeted a military vehicle in Waeng district, Narathiwat Province. The soldiers were transporting equipment to their base in preparation for a celebration on May 5. A day earlier, a similar attack was recorded in the province’s Ru So district. No soldiers were wounded in that explosion, which took place after the soldiers’ vehicle had already passed.
The blast underscores persistently volatile security conditions in Thailand’s far south. Malay-Islamist insurgents conduct frequent attacks against security forces and local opposition. For example, roadside bombings are relatively common occurrences. Security forces will likely launch raids and bolster deployments in the aforementioned southern regions, yet further attacks should be expected regionally. Certain militant factions likely seek to disrupt reported negotiations between select insurgent factions and the Thai government.

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