Middle East Ticker

The Middle East Ticker

By Jennifer R. Williams, Yishai Schwartz
Tuesday, June 16, 2015, 2:38 PM

Video message from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula confirms leader killed in US drone strike: The commander, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, was not just the leader of AQAP since 2002 but also more recently, the overall #2 in Al Qaeda worldwide. Wuhayshi’s organization had claimed responsibility for the Charlie Hebdo attacks and has been a prime target of American intelligence and elimination efforts for close to a decade, in large part because of AQAP’s repeated attempts to bring down U.S. airliners, including the attempted Christmas Day bombing in 2009 by Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab. According to Reuters, government sources are denying the involvement of the US military, seemingly indicating that the strike was most likely carried out by CIA under its authority to conduct covert operations. Analysts are unsure what Wuhayshi’s death means for the future of AQAP: some argue that Wuhayshi’s replacement, former AQAP military chief Qasim al-Raimi, who was elected by the organization’s Shura Council following Wuhayshi’s death, is “more dangerous and aggressive” than Wuhayshi and that we are likely to see a more assertive AQAP now that Raimi has taken the helm—though whether that assertiveness will be in its efforts inside Yemen or toward the United States is unclear at the moment. Others have pointed out that while Wuhayshi had close personal ties to the core Al Qaeda organization (he was Bin Laden’s personal secretary for years in Afghanistan), Raimi does not. They question whether the loss of this close personal connection to the Al Qaeda core will lead AQAP—which has been one of the core’s staunchest supporters in the power struggle between Al Qaeda and the Islamic State—to move closer to the Islamic State.

Notorious Al Qaeda-linked Libyan jihadist Mokhtar Belmokhtar has reportedly been killed in a U.S. airstrike: According to a statement from the internationally-recognized government of Libya, Belmokhtar, whose Al Qaeda splinter group carried out the terrorist attack on the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria in January 2013 that ended in the deaths of 40 people, including three Americans, was killed in the eastern Libyan town of Ajdabiiya. Pentagon spokesman Colonel Steve Warren confirmed that Belmokhtar was the target of the strike in Libya but would not confirm whether the terrorist leader had been killed. Skepticism over whether Belmokhtar is in fact dead abounds among observers and analysts, as the man has been incorrectly reported killed numerous times before.

Bahrain’s military forces will undergo counterterrorism training at top UK military academies: As part of a new agreement signed between the two countries, Bahraini soldiers, sailors, airmen, and some senior Bahraini officers will attend training at Sandhurst, Dartmouth, and Cranwell. According to Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman Bin Hamad Al Khalifa, the agreement is part of a broader effort to bolster international cooperation in the fight against “theofascist groups that promote extremist views and terrorism,” including the Islamic State.  

Six Yemeni men who had long been detained at Guantanamo Bay arrived in Oman on Saturday: As reported by the Associated Press:

The six new transfers include Emad Abdullah Hassan, who has been on hunger strikes since 2007 in protest of his confinement without charge since 2002. In court filings protesting force-feeding practices, Hassan said detainees have been force-fed up to a gallon at a time of nutrient and water.

The five other detainees sent to Oman were identified by the Pentagon as Idris Ahmad Abdul Qadir Idris, Sharaf Ahmad Mohammad Mas'ud, Jalal Salam Awad Awad, Sa’ad Nasser Moqbil Al Azani and Mohammad Ali Salem Al Zarnuki.

The AP reports, “The 11 detainees transferred so far in 2015 have all been from Yemen. Forty-three of the 51 remaining detainees who have been approved for transfer are from Yemen. The Obama administration won't send them home due to instability in Yemen and has been looking for other nations willing to accept them.” According to Ian Moss, a State Department official who works on detainee transfers, “We are working feverishly to transfer each of the 51 detainees currently approved for transfer...It is not in our national security interest to continue to detain individuals if we as a government have determined that they can be transferred from Guantanamo responsibly.”  

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon called on Monday for an immediate two-week ceasefire in Yemen in honor of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan: Ban stated that Ramadan should be a time for “harmony, peace and reconciliation” and thus called on all parties to participate in a two-week “humanitarian pause.” Monday’s statement came as talks in Geneva aimed at reaching an agreement on a “comprehensive and lasting” ceasefire were supposed to be getting underway; however, the talks were delayed because the Houthi delegation’s plane was delayed in Djibouti.

Israeli Foreign Ministry releases lengthy report on last summer’s Gaza war: The report, “The 2014 Gaza Conflict: Factual and Legal Aspects,” represents the Israeli government’s latest and most extensive attempt to explain the IDF’s actions during the recent war. At its best, the report includes highly specific information about the location of Hamas rocket launches and their proximity to (or presence in) sensitive sites like hospitals and schools, as well as rigorous explanation and legal defenses of the IDF’s use of certain forms of munition. But the executive summary and overall tone often came off as strident and self-righteous. The tone is perhaps understandable given Israeli frustration with international criticism that seems oblivious to the country’s robust legal military culture, but it is unlikely to win many new friends. And given that on many accounts, the report is meant to preempt the results of a UN Human Rights Council inquiry that Israel views as hopelessly biased, this is unfortunate. Relatedly, the Israeli Military Advocate General recently announced that he had opened criminal investigations into three additional events from the recent conflict. The opening of an investigation indicates “grounds for a reasonable suspicion that the attack was not carried out in accordance with the rules and procedures applicable to IDF forces.”

Israeli High Court rejects Palestinian appeal to localize construction planning in Area C: Since the Oslo accords, the West Bank has been temporarily divided into three regions, with varying degrees of Palestinian and Israeli control. The principle was to give Palestinians significant autonomy in areas A and B, while territorial and other issues were negotiated. Area C continued under full control of the Israeli military, including over the construction and planning process. In Town of Dirat-Rafiah vs. Minister of Defense, the Palestinian challengers argued that prior to the Israeli capture of the territory in 1967 (from Jordan), the planning process had included a significant official role for local communities. As international law requires that the military government in occupied territory retain as much of preexisting law as possible, the Israeli changes to the planning process (which came in a 1971 directive) were unlawful from the start, and as they continue in Area C, remain unlawful. A three justice panel rejected these claims, ruling that the Court should not encroach on a political issue so wrapped up in diplomatic and security concerns. Further, they noted that the Israeli military’s recent regulations incorporating community participation in the planning process and the absence of evidence for discriminatory planning of Israeli vs. Palestinian communities in Area C precluded a need for judicial action.

Debate over terrorism and Israeli public funding for the arts: Last week a debate exploded over an Arabic language play that takes an intimate (and some may argue sympathetic) look at a Palestinian prisoner convicted in the murder (and possible torture) of an Israeli soldier. In Israel, where the state provides primary funding for performances, cultural festivals and artistic exhibits, the play touched a nerve and set off a round of public scrutiny of the arts. The often bombastic culture minister, Miri Regev, no doubt seeking to balance her criticism of the Arabic play, threatened to withhold funding from the Jerusalem film festival if it went ahead with screening a movie about Yigal Amir, the right-wing Jewish extremist who shot Prime Minister Rabin in 1995. The film festival has reportedly caved. The controversy may seems strange to an American audience, but it also offers a window into the hard national security choices that a country with far more robust public funding of the arts, and more visceral concerns about domestic violent extremism, may find itself making.