Middle East Update

Middle East – North Africa News Brief

MENA Regional Low Intensity Conflicts, March 26 – April 2

[IRAN]:

The American-Iranian, Gholam Reza “Robin” Shahini, 46 years-of-age, was released from Iranian prison on March 31st. He was released on a 200 million Toman bail, equaling about $55,000 US dollars. A Toman bail is a form of religious bail, where the prisoner is released after making a pledge on the Quran that he will return to stand trial, in addition to posting a financial bail. Shahini was originally charged for having collaborated with a foreign government (the US government), and for having made posts on Facebook that put Iran in a negative light. Shahini is not free to leave the country, but is free to move around inside the country, until an appeals court approves his release from legal obligations.

The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) Major General Qassem Soleimani has been seen in the northern countryside of Syria’s central province of Hama. The initial reports of the Major General’s arrival to Hama arose on March 29th. Soleimani is the chief of the al Qods Force (“The Jerusalem Militia”), and is believed to be leading the Hezbollah and other Iranian affiliated militia groups in the battle for Hama.

Hama is currently a disputed area between various non-secular and independent militia groups, anti-Syrian Regime factions, the Syrian Regime and its affiliated supporting troops. Hezbollah, and other Iranian affiliated militia groups, have been heavily involved in the battles across the region. Unverified reports claim the IRGC-controlled Afghan Fatemiyoun Division and additional Iranians have transferred to Hama from south Aleppo. In the past week at least two Iranian IRGC Basij members were killed during clashes with anti-Syrian regime forces. The two individuals killed were named by Iranian media as IRGC Basij members Hossein Moez-Qolami, and Hossein Moez-Qolami, both Iranian citizens.

The Islamic State in the Levant/Syria and Iraq released a video on March 27th where the group specifically threatened the Iranian regime for its involvement in the Syrian conflict. The video is 36 minutes long, with spoken Farsi (believed to be of a particular dialect of Farsi found primarily in the northern areas border regions of Iran), and was released through standard Islamic State social media channels. In the video threats against Jews in Iran was explicitly made, and an accusation against the Iranian government for housing said individuals. Another accusation leveled against the Iranian government was that its support of the Palestinian Hamas organization equals the Iranian regime offering support and protection to Israel.

Iran announced sanctions against an additional 15 US corporations on March 26th. The overt reason given for inclusion on the sanctions list is that these corporations maintain ties with Israel. It is likely that the sanctions are in part a retaliatory move by the Iranian government for the newly introduced and proposed sanctions by members of the US Congress that target Iranian interests in the US.

US corporations facing sanctions by the Iranian government are:

  • United Technologies Corporation
  • Raytheon
  • ITT Corporation
  • RE/MAX (Real Estate Maximums)
  • Oshkosh Corporation
  • Magnum Research, Inc.
  • Kahr Arms
  • M7 Aerospace
  • Lewis Machine & Tool Company
  • Daniel Defense
  • Bushmaster Firearms International
  • F. Mossberg & Sons
  • H-S Precision
  • Military Armament Corporation, which declared bankruptcy in the 1970s and is not on the list provided by IRNA
  • BTS Beni Tal – International Security, which appears to be an Israeli and not US company

The corporations on the list will see a seizure of any assets inside Iran, and a ban from corporate employees from entering Iran. It is not clear how many, if any, of these corporations have any presence of merit inside Iran.

Despite the current turbulence between the US and Iran, Iran has seen an immense increase of European business investments in 2016 and 2017. Among the European companies that have established a foothold in Iran are:

  • Peugeot Groupe PSA SA (France)
    • building cars
  • Renault SA (France)
    • building cars
  • Vodafone Group VOD (UK)
    • cellphone infrastructure, in cooperation up with local partners
  • Royal Dutch Shell (Dutch/UK)
    • provisional agreements to develop energy resources in Iran
  • Siemens AG (Germany)
    • large scale contract to upgrade Iran’s railway and energy infrastructure

European corporate deals with Iran represent billions of dollars in revenue.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani visited Moscow, Russia, on March 27th as part of the renewed ties between Iran and Russia. During his visit to Moscow, Rouhani was received as a head of state and met with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The visit is expected to Rouhani’s last major international trip before the May election.

[SAUDI ARABIA]:

The US is expected to announce the allowance of new arms deals with Saudi Arabia in the coming week. This after the Obama administration blocked several arms transfers of precision munitions to Saudi Arabia because of humanitarian concerns. Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson has signaled that he favors reversing the Obama administration’s decision, allowing US manufacturers, such as Raytheon, to sell about 16,000 guided munitions kits to Saudi Arabia. The sale of the kits is valued around $350 million US dollars.

 The US Department of State released an updated travel warning for Saudi Arabia on March 29th. The new travel warning supersedes the existing July 27th 2016 State Department warning, advising “US citizens to carefully consider the risk of travel to Saudi Arabia due to continuing threats from terrorist groups,” and that the conflict in Yemen is increasingly causing conflict inside the Saudi kingdom. The travel warning also specifies that since March 2015, “40,000 projectiles have been launched into Saudi territory from Yemen”.

Saudi security forces killed two individuals accused of militant Shiite jihadism on March 28th. The individuals were found on a farm owned by Hussein al-Faraj in northern al-Awamiyah, part of the al Qatif area of the Eastern Province. The two individuals are said to have opened fire on approaching police officers. The Al-Mukhtar Brigade released a statement describing the two deceased men as “martyrs”. The Al-Mukhtar Brigade is a Shiite militant jihadist group which operates out of Bahrain, and has alleged ties to the Iranian regime. The owner of the farm, al-Faraj, has alleged strong ties to the group. A search of the farm area resulted in the discovery and subsequent seizure of 130 gallons of what is described as “incendiary acid,” and other materiel that can be used for devising improvised explosive devices. The area of al-Awamiyah is a known and long standing hub for Shiite opposition to the Sunni House of Saud rule in Saudi Arabia.

Saudi Arabia’s Patriot anti-missile system intercepted 4 ballistic missiles over Khamis Mushait Asir Province at 06:40 local time (ZULU+2) on March 28th. The missiles destroyed were, according to the Saudi Military, heading towards Khamis Mushait and Abha, in the Asir Province. The missiles had been launched by al Houthi militia members inside Yemen.

The Ministry of Health (MoH) reported 5 new Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Corona Virus (MERS-CoV) cases in the past week. The individuals affected originate from the Hafr al-Batin, Eastern Province, and Buraydah, Qassim Province, of Saudi Arabia. So far, April has seen 2 new infections reported with 17 having been reported in March, 18 in February, and 23 in January.

[EGYPT]:

Liwa al-Thawra has claimed responsibility for the April 1st explosion in Tanta, northwest of Cairo. Liwa al-Thawra specified in a statement that they carried out the attack in retaliation for the death of four of its members at the hands of Egyptian Security Forces in March. The explosion occurred near the Tanta Police Training center for the Second Police Department. The Ministry of Interior (MoI) has stated that an IED was placed under a motorcycle, and its explosion resulted in the injury of 13 police officers, and 3 citizens. Egyptian Police defused an explosive device found inside the Tanta Coptic Church, north of Cairo, on March 29th.

The Ministry of Interior (MoI) stated that a member of its security services was shot and killed in the Azab el Nahda district of Damietta on March 27th. The victim was struck by rounds from a 9mm pistol as he was riding home on his motorcycle in the evening by people unknown traveling in a medium sized four door sedan, believed to be a mid-2000 make Japanese vehicle.

 The Hasm group, a radical and militant offshoot of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, has claimed responsibility for the March 25th IED attack targeting a police patrol in the al-Qalyubia Province, North of Cairo. The attack occurred at 21:27 local time (ZULU+1) near the Bahtim central roundabout which serves as the main entrance to the Ring Road in Bahtim. There were no injuries according to government reports. This is the second claimed attack by Hasm in 2017. The group has previously claimed the March 9th shooting in Damietta. Analysts are speculating that the decline in the group’s activities is a good indicator that the increased number of reported Egyptian Security and Intelligence forces operations is seeing a certain level of success in disrupting militia group activities.

[TURKEY]:

 Turkish Police arrested 17 individuals suspected of having links to the Islamic State between March 29th and March 30th. The arrests occurred in the Sincan and Adana suburbs of Ankara. The individuals are described as providing the Islamic State with logistics for operations inside and outside of Turkey.

The US Department of State updated its travel warning for Turkey on March 28th. The update noted that DOS is ending its October 2016 order which called for all family members of employees at the US Consulate in Istanbul to leave the country. The travel warning retains its standing travel advisory and warnings, specifying that “increased threats from terrorist groups in Turkey” are a concern, and that US citizens should “carefully consider the need to travel to Turkey”. The warning advises that only essential travel to the southeastern region of Turkey is to be considered.

One person was killed, another injured, in two related explosions at approximately 02:00 local time (ZULU+2) on March 29th in the Camlikule neighborhood of the Buca District of Izmir. The initial blast came from a Suicide Vehicle Bourne Improvised Explosive Device (SVBIED) travelling on 254 Street of Camlikule. It was this initial explosion that killed one man, and injured another. A secondary explosion occurred some 300 meters further down the same road moments later, coming from a garbage container where a small yield IED had been placed. It is believed that the 34-year-old male driver of the vehicle activated an IED that he was carrying inside the vehicle by mistake, while he was planting explosives throughout the area. The Turkish authorities have identified the individual as a member of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK). The PKK has itself disowned the act. Certain elements of the event, however, point towards the PKK-offshoot known as Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK) being involved. The modus operandi of the events is in line with previous similar attacks carried out by both the PKK and TAK groups. Arrests of individuals believed to have been involved in the attack are expected in the coming days.

[PALESTINE and ISRAEL]:

Israel announced on March 28th that it will cut a further $2 million US dollars from its already reduced contribution to the United Nations in 2017. The further $2 million cut is the second cut of Israeli contributions to the United Nations announced in 2017, making the total amount cut $6 million. Instead, Israel has stated that it intends to distribute the funds directly to developing countries based on criterias set by the Israel International Aid agency.

Hamas launched a manhunt throughout the Gaza Strip for a group of “Israeli assassins” on March 25th. This after one of its military commanders, Mazen Faqha (38), was shot dead in his garage on March 24th. Hamas has stated that it believes the killing of Faqha was carried out by an Israeli hit squad. During the nationwide search, Hamas is preventing men younger than 45 from leaving Gaza. It has also imposed a media blackout to prevent details of its investigation from leaking out. Israel has neither confirmed nor denied any role it might have had in the killing of Faqha.

[UAE]:

The Ministry of Safety in Dubai released a statement saying there were no injuries from the April 2nd fire near the Dubai Mall. The fire occurred inside the construction site of the Fountain Views Tower two blocks away from the Dubai Mall. This is the second large fire in Dubai that has occurred in April as of yet. The first was an intense fire that occurred near the Jumeirah Golf Estates on April 1st.

[JORDAN]:

Jordan is expected to repeal a controversial law (Article 308 of Jordan’s penal code) that can be used to allow rapists to walk free as long as they marry the survivor of the sexual attack. A royal judiciary committee released a report on March 27th that recommended the expedited abolishment of the law.

[BAHRAIN]:

The US Government has lifted the Human Rights Conditions on arms sales to Bahrain. This after Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson released a statement in support of the sale of F-16 fighter jets, and other arms, to Bahrain as part of a diplomatic package that seeks to amend relations between the US and Bahrain. The sale of 19 new F-16 fighter jets is worth $2.8 billion US dollars, and in total, the arms sale package proposed is estimated to be worth more than $3.5 billion US dollars over a 3-year period.

The Ministry of Interior (MoI) stated on March 26th that they had disrupted a militia terror cell with Iranian backing. The statement specifies that the group was planning assassinations of civilians throughout the Bahraini kingdom. A total of 14 people, between the ages of 17 and 32, were arrested at a number of occasions during a nationwide counter terrorism raid. According to the MoI, 11 out of the 14 individuals are “suspected of receiving overseas military training” while in Iraq. The training is said to have been overseen, and structured, by the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and carried out primarily by operators from the Lebanese militia group known as Hezbollah. The 11 individuals visited Iraq “on almost 70 occasions during a three-month period”. Their activities were discovered after Military Intelligence operators noticed the travel pattern, and combined this with the suspects apparent surveilling of “senior security personnel.”

During the nationwide security force operation, automatic weapons, IEDs, and other bomb-making materials, were found at safe houses across the Kingdom. The suspicion is, at present, that the individuals were involved in the February 26th IED attack on a police bus traveling down the King Hamad Highway that wounded five police officers. It remains unclear if the 14 individuals detained are the whole of the militant group, and what ties they might have to the 54-member IRGC-linked militant group that the Bahraini authorities had discovered on March 4th.

The call by unofficial Shiite opposition groups for protests continued throughout the week. On March 28th hundreds of workers, consisting of both Bahraini and foreign nationals, in the Sanad area protested against 5 months unpaid wages by a company unspecified. The Bahraini Ministry of Labour (MoL) intervened in the dispute during the protest and negotiated an agreement between concerned parties. Rumors indicate that the agreement includes that the Bahraini Government extends a bridge loan for the unspecified company to handle its debts.

LIMA CHARLIE News Wire, MENA Desk

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