Is the ICC losing legitimacy in Africa?

by Eric Mugaju. Eric has just completed MSc Social Policy at LSE. He writes regularly for The Observer (Uganda) on Ugandan politics, law and development issues in East Africa. 


Sudanese President Omar al Bashir’s ICC case file is pictured on a desk.


Many African countries have been threatening to withdraw from the International Criminal Court (ICC) over accusations that the court is disproportionately targeting Africans. Recently, these threats have been realised by a growing number of African states. In the last month, the ICC has suffered three possible withdrawals: Burundi, South Africa and now the tiny West African state of Gambia has followed suit in issuing withdraw notice. Could this spell the beginning of the end for the ICC?

The court’s 1st case was referred in 2003 by Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni concerning the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and their activities in the north of the country. In 2005, the court issued arrest warrants for the notorious Joseph Kony (founder of the LRA) and his top commanders. A full decade later, Kony’s second in command Dominic Ongwen surrendered to American soldiers and was then handed to the court on 21st January 2015, despite the fact that he could arguably have been tried in Uganda’s courts. Kony still remains at large.

So, the 1st case has delivered little in terms of justice to the people of Northern Uganda and has even failed to capture its principle target. It has even been argued by some that the President’s referral of Kony was little more than a cynical move meant to curry favour with the court and protect Ugandan top generals from being investigated themselves for war crimes committed in Northern Uganda throughout its civil war.

Furthermore, Kony’s indictment angered Northern Ugandan elders who at the time were in the process of negotiating a peace treaty using traditional justice methods, which unsurprisingly collapsed upon Kony’s insistence that the ICC charges be dropped, or at the very least, that leading Ugandan Army Generals be indicted by the court as well.

The countries withdrawing have cited similar problems with the system, while also questioning why no cases have been brought against the perpetrators of war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan. Amid this ripple of discontent, veteran African statesman Kofi Annan has intervened and sought to defend the court against accusations that it is anti-African by pointing out that Slobodan Milosevic, former Yugoslavian President, was tried at The Hague.

While Annan’s observations are right, Milosevic was tried in a special tribunal before the ICC was created. Koffi Annan is right in pointing out that the court has not done enough to protect witnesses, however, structural problems have beleaguered it since its inception.

In its short life, the ICC has been party to a number of controversies and irregularities. The USA is not a party to the Rome Statute in keeping with its consistent failures to ratify human rights conventions. However, it used its position as a member of the UN Security Council to push for the referral of Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir to the court.

Rwanda indignantly refused to sign the Rome Statute after witnessing the painfully slow progression of the UN-sponsored International Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, and opted for the Gacaca courts, based on traditional justice. Its scepticism to international solutions was perhaps well-founded: the Arusha tribunal subsequently closed, having only managed to try a handful of génocidaires, leaving the majority still unaccounted for.  

Given the perception of incompetence and disproportionate targeting of Africans associated with the court, it is not surprising that Libya’s UN-backed government has refused to hand Abdullah Senussi and others to the court.

Likewise, the ICC has been made a mockery of in Kenya, where its short-sighted impunity clauses were exposed by the collapse of the case against President Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto. The impunity clauses basically mean that even leaders still in office can be tried for crimes against humanity. While in principle this sounds like a good idea, one might ask why the ICC considers its accused any different to the sitting Prime Minister of the UK (who cannot be tried for any crime while in office by the UK). When one considers problems relating to witness protection and evidence collection (let alone stability in the country), the idea seems even more untenable. In fact, this particular issue was directly cited by South Africa in its withdrawal, noting the ICC’s inconsistency with its own constitution (Diplomatic Immunities and Privileges Act 2001).

Another issue is the complexity of legal systems in many African societies, where ‘Western’, ‘International’ and ‘Customary’ forms of justice coexist. The Rwandan tribunal exemplified tensions between state-backed justice and traditional forms of justice. Many of the accused who were tried served their sentences in foreign prisons, and are now unwilling to return to Rwanda in fear of the reception they will receive from their countrymen.

What’s more, reparations for victims remain problematic, due to incongruence with justice outcomes in different justice systems. In many African societies there is no difference between ‘criminal’ and ‘civil’ offences. For example, if a member of one family was to murder a member of their neighbour’s family then in most Western societies, the murderer will have committed a crime against the state that may carry a prison sentance. In most customary legal systems, there are no prisons. In such a system, the murderer’s family might be expected to publically apologise any pay reparations to the victim’s family. This public acknowledgement of wrongdoing is one thing that is credited for the ability of communities to reconcile after large-scale trauma is uncovered at truth-telling commissions, as seen in South African and Rwanda. In this respect, international law is physically and emotionally removed from the victims of war-crimes.

I have heard an anecdote about the trial of of Charles Taylor at The Hague which explains this perfectly. People were gathering to listen to his trail the radio eager to witness the bringing-to-justice of the man who had helped to orchestrate extreme suffering during the civil war. After 10 minutes, an old woman complained: I don’t understand the language. I don’t understand what’s happening. What kind of justice is this?

Courts like the ICC do not usually acknowledge this problem. While its true that traditional systems also have faults, there is a reason why South Africa and Rwanda both chose hybrid systems to tackle the widespread trauma experienced by their citizens during apartheid and the genocide, respectively.

The other issue to consider is whether Gambia, South Africa and Burundi are withdrawing because of genuine concerns over the ICCs practices, or whether the moves are well timed anti-imperial PR stunts. Kenya’s Kenyatta and Ruto successfully pulled this off during the presidential election leading up the trial that never was, frequently branding the court a neo-colonial interference in Kenyan affairs. Uganda’s Museveni, who referred the first case, has teamed up with former enemy Omar al-Bashir to criticize the court and brand its representatives “a bunch of useless people” causing EU representatives walking out of his inauguration following a heavily disputed election. The spectacle of the diplomats sulking out of the inaugural reception served as a minor victory to the President, who appeared to feel that the institution had no right to question Ugandan electoral practices.

Gambia’s own election is coming up soon. With the opposition leader now in jail, the move to withdraw from the court should be viewed with a hint of suspicion that the timing could be an attempt to boosting domestic support. Again, Gambian political hopefuls play up the anti-imperial stance, with Information Minister Sheriff Bojang branding the ICC the “International Caucasian Court, for the persecution and humiliation of people of colour, especially Africans”. However, out of all the withdrawing states, Gambia arguably has the most credibility in its rejection of the ICC given its track record of criticizing international organizations and withdrawal from the Commonwealth.

In South Africa, the ANCs declining popularity and on-going land distribution problems could arguably benefit from something to remind the electorate of its struggle for independence, calling into question the country’s motivation for withdrawal. .

Regardless of motivation the ICC is now facing serious problems. None of these countries notified the UN of their intention to leave the ICC, as is technically required, but also slightly irrelevant: 3 UN Security countries (Russia China and USA) are not party to the ICC anyway. With Namibia, Kenya and Uganda also threatening to withdraw soon, the end of the ICC in Africa may be within sight.

It is still too early to know whether other countries will withdraw, yet what is clear is that the court has lost its legitimacy on the continent. Even the African Union is urging members not to cooperate and is looking elsewhere for solutions: the conviction of Hissène Habré in an AU-backed court in Senegalese court speaks volumes.

PS21 is a non-national, non-governmental, non-ideological organisation. All views expressed are the author’s own.

London Event- 14 Nov, 21st Century Peacebuilding from N Ireland to Syria

Monday November 14, 6pm War Studies Meeting Room, K6.07 Kings College London

According to the Global Peace Index, there are only 10 countries in the world in 2016 which can be considered free from conflict. The ongoing crisis in Gaza; worsening conflicts in the Middle East; the international stand-off  in Ukraine and the lack of a solution to the refugee crisis are some examples of the contributing factors that have made the world less peaceful in 2016 than it was in 2015.

Drawing on the lessons learnt in the Northern Ireland peace process, our speakers will assess 21st centruy peacebuilding strategies in the context of 21st century conflicts. Do we haev the tools to tackle some of these seemingly intractable situations? What have we learnt and what have we not learnt? Our speakers will look at conflict resolution and peace building strategies, contextualised in 21st century examples.


Dr Gordon Clubb is a Lecturer in International Security at the University of Leeds and is the director of the Terrorism and Political Violence Association. He has published on former combatants in Northern Ireland and the disengagement and de-radicalisation of terrorist movements.

Dr. Anastasia Voronkova is Research Fellow for Armed Conflict at the International Institute for Strategic Studies and Editor of the IISS’s new annual publication, the Armed Conflict Survey. Anastasia holds a PhD in comparative conflict studies from Queen Mary, University of London. She has extensive fieldwork experience in Northern Ireland and the South Caucasus. Her research interests include comparative conflict resolution, communication strategies and rhetoric of non-state armed groups, the political economy of armed conflicts, security and terrorism. Prior to joining IISS she held teaching positions at University College London and Queen Mary University of London.

Haid Haid is a Syrian columnist and researcher who focuses on security policies, conflict resolution, Kurdish and Islamist movements. Prior to that, he was a programme manager on Syria and Iraq at the Heinrich Böll Stiftung-Middle East Office in Beirut. He also worked as a senior community services-protection assistant at UNHCR- Damascus office. He has a BA in Sociology, a post graduate diploma in counseling, an MA in social development and has just completed another MA in conflict resolution at King’s College.

Moderator: Professor Joe Maiolo is the Deputy Head of the Department of War Studies, Director of the Sir Michael Howard Centre for the History of War, and Professor of International History. He is an editor of The Journal of Strategic Studies, and co-editor of The Strategy Reader, a member of the editorial board for Intelligence & National Security, and a fellow of the Royal Historical Society. He is currently a Visiting Research Professor at the Norwegian Defence Intelligence School, Oslo.

This event is being run in partnership with the Sir Michael Howard Centre for the History of War, at KCL.

Please sign up here.


The Hamas Model: What makes Hamas so resilient?

women-rally-in-support-of-hamasby Linda Schlegel. Linda is an student of MA Terrorism Studies at King’s College London.

Since the 9/11 attacks, terrorism and the corresponding academic field of terrorism studies have been filling the headlines and cover-stories of newspapers and provided opening stories for news shows on TV. Not one day goes by without reference in the media to terrorist groups, a new terror attack or the question of how the West should respond to this threat. Despite the attention the subject gets in the media, the work of Terrorism Studies scholars is often disregarded in popular debates. While government and other officials are engaging in constant conversation with the scholars and their findings, citizens as a whole find themselves surrounded by popular notions of ‘the War on Terror’, but are rarely given information about the origins and dynamics of the groups engaging in terrorist acts.

In his 2009 book Radical, Religious and Violent: The new Economics of Terrorism, Eli Berman makes a valuable exploration into the dynamics of what he calls the ‘Hamas Model’ of terrorist organisations. Hamas is a group that was founded as the Palestinian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, an organisation founded in Egypt and aimed at providing crucial services to Muslims in both a material and spiritual sense. In Palestine, Hamas ran schools, hospitals and mosques: it was essentially a social service provider. Neither the founder of the organisation, its staff or people making use of its services had the intention to support the global jihad. In other words, in the beginning Hamas was a benign organisation aimed at relieving the socio-economic hardships faced by Palestinian Muslims.

How then does a social service provider, in essence very similar to the Red Cross and other relief organisations, turn to become one of the most active and effective terrorist organisations in the world? Berman’s explanation is twofold. The turn to violence can be explained with the experiences of the Intifada in the 1980s. In order to stay relevant and not lose popular support vis-a-vis Fatah (the Palestinian National Liberation Front. Fatah is Palestine’s major secular political party, founded by Yasser Arafat, former chairman of the PLO) and others, the organisation had to ‘jump on the bandwagon’ and support the violent uprising of Palestinians against the Israeli occupation. A militia was founded and until this day continues to engage in violent acts against Israel. The second part of Berman’s explanation concerns the effectiveness of Hamas as a terrorist organisation. He argues that it has been so successful precisely because of its continued role as a social service provider. This ensures Hamas has a network of supporters in its service users, who also constitute a pool of potential recruits. The social service branch of Hamas is the foundation on which its roof- the militia- is built upon and grew out of, and it makes the organisation as a whole very resilient in terms of popular support and easy replacement of members.

While this model does not apply to every terrorist organisation, it does provide a starting point for re-thinking certain key points in counter-terrorism strategy. Firstly, if organisations start out as and continue to act as social service providers, the accepted definition of a terrorist organisation might need re-thinking. Is Hamas a terrorist organisation or a social organisation with a violent branch? Or maybe a social organisation, which happens to also engage in political struggle through violence? It is important to understand its nature, especially in communications with those reliant on Hamas’ services: labelling an organisation terroristic, while it continues to school my children and care for my sick husband, will likely close down the conversation before it has even really started. It is important to be careful about the words that are used, especially in local counter-terrorism activities.

Secondly, leaving definitions and linguistics aside, knowing that some organisations generate support through social service provision opens new opportunities for long-term counter-terrorism activities.

In order to weaken the organisational resilience and the robust network of Hamas and similar organisations, it is vital to engage in competition with these organisations. Building schools and hospitals is often regarded as a nation-building, as opposed to counter-terrorism, activity.

However, Berman’s findings suggest that it is possible to make a real impact on these organisations by providing social services to those in need and thereby diminishing the support network that bolsters the organisation.  This is also true for circumstances that require immediate response. For instance, during an earthquake or a similar natural catastrophe, radical Muslims are, according to Berman, often the first on the scene, a long time before any humanitarian response has been thought out by the government or the international community. This enables those with a violent agenda not only to stay relevant, but to play an important part in their societies. The resulting popular support associated with the organisations members (if not their cause) is surely not in the interest of counter-terrorism work.

Lastly, the Hamas model calls into question the value of interventions and sanctions. Removing leaders or governments that are not deemed suitable for the West’s purpose risks creating a vacuum for social service provision which may be filled by violent organisations. The same applies to sanctions. Sanctions can be a legitimate tool of coercion in international politics, however if the burden of such sanctions are passed on to a country’s citizens in the form of cuts to education, health care and other services, it is entirely possible that they drive people in the arms of those who provide such services outside of the government framework.

PS21 is a non-national, non-governmental, non-ideological organisation. All views expressed are the author’s own.

London Event September 8th – Baltic Conflict Scenario

CknbxfzUgAA7UIuWHEN: Thursday, September 8, 2016 from 18:00 PM

WHERE: War Studies Meeting Room (K6.07 )King’s College London – Strand, London, WC2R 2LS.


As part of a new series of scenario-based events, PS21 looks at risks of escalation between NATO and Russia in the Baltic states. Also a chance to hear about PS21’s major international crisis scenario, GLOBAL TURMOIL, which will be running in 2017.

Our scenario begins in September 2016, with an armed Russian drone approaching our fictional Baltic state of Livonia…


Peter Apps (Moderator) – Managing Director of PS21 and Global Affairs Columnist, Thomson Reuters

Dr. Zachary Wolfraim – PhD King’s College London, former consultant, NATO Headquarters

Dr. Allan Sikk – Senior Lecturer in Comparative Politics, UCL School of Slavonic and East European Studies

Erik Lin-Greenberg – Former US Air Force Intelligence Officer, PhD Candidate Columbia University

Peter Roberts – Senior Research Fellow in Sea Power and Maritime Studies, RUSI

Brigadier Ben Barry – Senior Fellow for Land Warfare, IISS


You can sign up here.

The PS21 Team

SOLD OUT: London event – the changing face of counterterrorism

Photo 24.11. crowd whitehall

WHEN: Wednesday, August 17, 2016 from 17:30 – 19:00 

WHERE: Whitehall, London, United Kingdom – Exact location to be confirmed to attendees


From Paris to Brussels,, Nice, Orlando and beyond, Western states appear to be facing an almost unprecedented tempo of militant attacks – although they pale in comparison to those in truly front-line nations such as Iraq, Afghanistan and Nigeria. With a growing number of such incidents apparently involving single radicalized individuals, often with mental health problems, how can one really define “terrorism”? And with recent attacks in Europe and North America now helping drive domestic politics, what can be done to protect civilians while avoiding further polarizing communities and deepening divisions?

Peter Apps [moderator] – executive director, PS21. Reuters global affairs columnist

Nigel Inkster – former deputy chief, MI6, now head of transnational threats and political risk for international Institute for Strategic Studies

Omar Hamid – former Pakistani police officer, now head of Asia-Pacific risk at IHS

Julia Ebner – policy analyst specializing in European militant threats, Quilliam Foundation

Frederic Ischebeck-Baum – Sir Michael Howard Centre Fellow at King’s College London and PS21 fellow.


You can sign up here.


The PS21 Team.

South China Sea : The Saga continues

Portion of a Qing scroll on battling 19th Century piracy in the South China Sea (Wikipedia)


Berivan Dilan is a recent graduate from Maastricht University in International Relations, and is starting an MSc in International Political Economy at LSE.  


On 12th July 2016, the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea at The Hague ruled that Chinese claims to territorial rights in the South China Sea have no legal basis, after a case was brought to the Permanent Court of Arbitration in 2013 by the Philippines. The tension in the South China Sea is at a fever pitch, with China vowing that it “will take all necessary measures to protect its territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests,”[i] countered by the U.S. sending an aircraft carrier and fighter jets to the region. This ruling certainly does not mark the end of the South China Sea dispute. In fact, this ruling might just have opened up Pandora’s Box.


The South China Sea has been home to territorial disputes for many decades. The disputes involve claims among several states that all have an interest in the fishing areas, potential natural resources and strategic control of one of the busiest shipping routes in the world. China asserts that its historical claim to these prized waters predate the United Nations Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) however Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Brunei beg to differ and believe the international law regulating the delimitation must be adhered to.


Why does China claim this area?

Money, money, money goes to explain much of China’s so-called “win win” approach to its contemporary foreign policy decisions. The area in question without doubt offers huge economic benefits to the PRC: from the potential for unique access to the immense fishing area, strategic control of one of the busiest shipping routes in the world, and increased access to exploiting potential natural resources (i.e. oil) are to name a few examples. Geopolitically, its security would have been strengthened had the Court chosen to favour China in this dispute, given the current dominance of U.S. backed naval resources in the region. It would be naïve not to recognize the material realities of the dispute. However, in addition to the economic and geopolitical dimensions, there is a third dimension which is often neglected by the popular accounts of the dispute, namely the historical dimension. China is not only claiming the South China Sea because it has vested interests in the region, but also because China views the area claimed within the nine-dashed line as historically theirs. In order to understand Chinese foreign policy fully, particularly as it re-emerges as a superpower, it is necessary to understand the ancient Chinese conception of world order.


In order to understand the way the PRC is currently acting, first one needs to look at the concept of Tianxia, which can be broken down into three parts: the world (in a geographical sense), the will of the people, and the world institution[ii]. What is important to note is that Tianxia does not refer to a nation state as we interpret it, but to a world or society: “traditional China did not see itself as a nation-state or even as an empire with separate subject peoples, but rather as the centre of civilisation.” [iii] This led to the ancient Chinese idea of Sinocentrism, the idea that China is the undisputed centre of civilisation. In the Sinocentric world order China has a hegemonic position. In the past when China aimed to create a Sinocentric world order, it did so by socialising foreign rulers into accepting China’s centrality and superiority. In fact, in some periods, the Chinese rulers were able to accomplish this with some Western visitors as well as in the system of tributary and vassal states.


As China re-emerges as a superpower, it seems clear that this Sinocentric viewpoint is being taken on-board once more by its leaders. Gone are the days of Xiaoping’s “bide one’s time” philosophy, the nation is now taking a lead with assertive foreign policy choices, such as refusing the tribunal’s ruling in the South China Sea dispute, despite being a UNSC power. China will not easily give up its territorial claims in the South China Sea. The first Chinese interaction with Western international law in the 19th century was not easy. China experienced it as traumatic, leaving memories of humiliation, domination and oppression. The unequal treaties signed in this time period, such as the Treaty of Nanking, encroached upon China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity and exemplified how foreign imperialism managed to reduce the Middle Kingdom to a society with semi-colonial status. The Chinese saw international law as one of the tools used by the west to restrain ‘wild foreign consuls’[iv]. Although today international law is part of China’s advancement strategy to catch up with the developed countries, “early Chinese experience with international law still remains a key to the understanding of the present Chinese attitude towards international law”[v]. The Chinese claim to the South China Sea is based on unverifiable historical claims and while this does not hold much power in international law, the Chinese government will not back down any time soon.


What happens next?

The tribunal has no powers to enforce its ruling. China has rejected the ruling and maintained its presence in the South China Sea claiming that it has the right to set up an air defence zone. The U.S. has framed the outcome of the case as a test of China’s respect of international law. China’s rejection could lead to reputational damage, as well as alienating its neighbours if it maintains the current course of action and language. However, it is playing well to its citizens at home who are increasingly seeking a more active role for China in international relations. Whether the tensions in the South China Sea will escalate to a military encounter between China and the U.S., is unclear. However, this ruling has created more uncertainty and unease for both sides. In any case, it is clear that the situation in the South China Sea goes much deeper than merely economic and geopolitical power. To understand contemporary foreign policy decisions made by the PRC, one must look further than simply realpolitik. It seems that China’s assertiveness is a reassertion of an age old worldview which has influenced Chinese governance and self-understanding for over two millennia.


Project for Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, nongovernmental, nonpartisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own. Interested in contributing? Email us at E-mail us at


[i] Reuters. (2016). China vows to protect South China Sea sovereignty, Manila upbeat. Retrieved July 17, 2016, from

[ii] Zhao, T. (2006). Rethinking Empire from a Chinese Concept ‘All-under-Heaven’ (Tian-xia,). Social Identities, 12(1), 29-41.

[iii] Nathan, A. J., & Scobell, A. (2015). What Drives Chinese Foreign policy. In China’s search for security (pp. 1-37). Columbia University Press.

[iv] Zhaojie, L. (2001). Legacy of modern Chinese history: its relevance to the Chinese perspective of the contemporary international legal order. Singapore Journal of International & Comparative Law, 5, 314-326.

[v] Zhaojie, L. (2001). Legacy of modern Chinese history: its relevance to the Chinese perspective of the contemporary international legal order. Singapore Journal of International & Comparative Law, 319.

State of Emergency in Iraq: Will the next U.S. Administration be prepared?

Asha Castleberry is a U.S. National Security Expert and U.S. Army Veteran.  She is an Adjunct Fellow at the American Security Project (ASP) and a member of the Truman National Security Project Defense Council. She tweets at @ashacastleberry.

Project for Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, nongovernmental, nonpartisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

What is going on in Iraq?  The Iraqi government has declared a state of emergency and political turmoil in Iraq is on the rise, as seen from the recent meltdown in Baghdad. The political deadlock seen in the Iraqi parliament has ignited massive protests within the Green Zone, spearheaded by the Shia opposition groups led by Iraqi Shia Cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. He has has launched a de-facto coup, attacking the political legitimacy of the Shia-led Baghdad government. He has done so by demanding Prime Minister Haider to present the new list of technocrat cabinet members.  In addition, the Iraqi government has deployed security forces, in conjunction with Shia militias, to further bolster security in Southern Baghdad.

Political instability in Baghdad poses a direct threat towards the current mission against ISIS and Iraqi national reconstruction.  During Vice President Biden’s recent trip to Baghdad, he underscored that political chaos there would negatively impact current operations in the war against ISIS.  ISIS will then take advantage of this opportunity to exacerbate sectarian tensions by targeting Shia communities, especially during the Shia pilgrimage.  The recent attacks in the Nahrwan area prove this point. ISIS has also claimed attacks against Shia communities in Imam Ali-Husseiniyah in Southern Baghdad. They will also step up more attacks during the commemoration of Imam al-Kadhim, a major Shia holiday.  The timing is just perfect for ISIS, as this has occurred right after another major, violent sectarian incident in Iraq.  The recent clashes between the Peshmerga Forces and al-Hashad al-Turkmani militias in Tuz Khurmatu, Salahuddin Province has shown the country’s inability to successfully prevent such sectarian violence.

Despite political turmoil and ongoing sectarian strife, the Anti-ISIS coalition has made considerable progress during the month of April.  The Iraqi security forces liberated the Hit District in Al-Anbar province and successfully completed clearing operations in key areas in Diyala Province.  According to a recent Institute of Study of the War (ISW) situation report,  the Peshmerga Forces along with Sunni Arab forces liberated key villages in the north of Mosul, with coalition airstrike support. In preparation for the Mosul counteroffensive, the U.S. has authorized an additional 217 troops to be deployed to Iraq and provide additional air assets.  Furthermore, the U.S. has issued a 30 day extension for the U.S. air carrier, USS Harry S. Truman in the Gulf Region to support President Obama’s acceleration of the fight against ISIS. The USS Harry S. Truman provides robust maritime security, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISRs), and counterterrorism capabilities.

Nevertheless, there has been no major economic impact resulting from the political climate in Baghdad.  The Iraqi Minister of Oil has confirmed that the political turmoil in Baghdad did not impact oil exports for the month of April. Indeed, Bloomberg has reported that oil exports reached a record high of 4.3 million barrels a day that month.  However, projections still forecast that it may drop, and the country will continue to struggle to be able to afford this expensive war against ISIS.

The current political instability in Iraq is reminding us just how critical it is for the next U.S. administration to prescribe a viable strategy in such a complex and volatile country.  The U.S. needs competent leadership, similar to the Obama Administration, that knows how to carry out a comprehensive forward plan.  Based on the recent Iraqi political crisis, the American people should be questioning presidential candidates about the U.S.’s future role in Iraq.  Here are some major questions that a U.S. presidential candidate should seriously consider.  First, are Prime Minister Haider Al-Abadi’s political reforms promising to achieve an inclusive and decentralized government?  If not, what then, is the next course of action to help build political cohesion in Baghdad?  Second, the next U.S. administration will inherit a commitment of just over 4,000 U.S. servicemembers in Iraq, with the authorization to continue using airpower.  Therefore, will the next U.S. administration maintain the same number of boots on ground? Third, if the Iraqis are fortunate enough to win back Mosul and terminate ISIS presence there before the end of the year, will the next administration then assist with peacebuilding in a post-ISIS war? Fourth, will the next administration support a three-state solution for Iraq, or continue the policy of national reconciliation with our regional partners?

Moving forward, I believe that Secretary Hillary Clinton is the best U.S. presidential candidate to deliver the best policy strategy for our future role in Iraq.  Secretary Clinton could implement a well thought out position that supports a decisive political strategy in Iraq.  She will not be incoherent and inconsistent about her position. Secretary Clinton has already conveyed her strong understanding and knowledge about countering ISIS in Iraq.  A comprehensive strategy of support, by providing more airpower, as well as Training, Advising, and Assist (TAA) for the Iraqi Security Forces, Peshmerga Forces, and Sunni Tribal Groups.

Imagining 2030: Flashpoint Manama

Imagining 2030 is a series in which PS21 writers describe the world as they see it in 14 years time. 

Russell Waite is a current MA Student in War Studies at King’s College, London.  


The year is 2030. 10 years have passed since the third Gulf War, and the spectre of conflict again appears on the horizon. The cause of the war between a US-Saudi Coalition and an Iranian nuclear state, with surprisingly little Israeli involvement, is now well known. President Trump’s bellicose rhetoric in the lead up to his presidential nomination in 2016 was not all bluster. Thankfully, it was his only “serious” foreign policy venture.

The weak Jus ad bellum for the 2020 conflict – Iran’s “imminent” use of their nuclear arsenal on Israel – proved unfounded. Many analysts have since speculated that this was due to the Coalition concentrating on naval engagements, alongside limited strikes on Iranian coastal positions and military centres. Since the conflict, Iran has refrained from marking a red line in the sand for nuclear deployment. A source of both security and concern for the region.

As in the last war, the fate of Bahrain remains central to power projection in the Gulf. Manama, the capital of Bahrain, has recovered since the war and returned to become a thriving city of nearly three million people. Coalition presence has also expanded, and Manama now hosts one of the largest concentrations of US-UK military force abroad. This is only surpassed by permanent garrisons in Europe and the US commitment towards the now 77 year old Korean conflict.

The recent militarisation of Bahrain can actually be traced to the re-construction of HMS Jufair at the Mina Salam port, all the way back in 2015. This heralded a return of UK naval interests beyond the Suez Canal. The Prince of Wales, one of the UK’s two aircraft carriers, has been on permanent station just offshore.  Since 2017, the port was expanded significantly to accommodate large elements of the US 5th fleet, the basing of which proved pivotal in the shaping of the 2020 conflict.

Since the 2020 Damascus peace deal – made possible with the stabilisation of Syria – Iran and Saudi Arabia have both made commendable efforts to foster better relations. Two notable examples include the re-opening of the Iranian embassy in Riyadh and the proposed Saud-Khomeini highway linking Saudi Arabia and Iran through Kuwait and Iraq.

Iran and Saudi Arabia have developed the warmest relations within living memory. So why is the Gulf now more unstable in 2030? Persistent underlying suspicion is certainly a factor. Even the smallest of issues – for example, what Saudi Arabia calls the Arabian Gulf, Iran calls the Persian Gulf – remain fiercely contested. Nevertheless, the driving elephant in the room is the Saudi Arabian nuclear weapons programme. Despite coming under intense international criticism, Saudi Arabia persists in pursuing nuclear weapons. The reasoning, some have argued, is latent unease with Iran’s nuclear monopoly and increasing economic strains in the region since the move away from fossil fuels. Arguably, control of trade routes in the Gulf, escalated by fears of nuclear competition, is the rationale behind the Iranian Supreme Leader’s increasingly aggressive statements. Of the claims, the UAE’s reclamation of the islands of Abu Musa, and greater and lesser Tunb have received the most attention. Of more concern for escalation is Iran’s claim to Bahrain (which it calls Mishmahig), which had originally been dropped in 1971. This may merely be sabre-rattling, but Iranian concerns over a nuclear Saudi Arabia are very real and shouldn’t be taken lightly. This concern is arguably why the planned drawdown of the US-UK military presence in Manama has been quietly shelved, with further commitment expected.

The Saudi Kingdom also faces another security concern that cannot be ignored. The now decade old chaos in Yemen and now Oman threatens to spill-over into Saudi Arabia itself. If Saudi gained the bomb, they would face very similar security concerns in their hinterland as a nuclear armed Pakistan in the mid-2010s.

Interested in contributing a piece to the series? E-mail us at

Project for Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, non-ideological, non-partisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

How the Brussels attacks could destabilize Europe

A soldier stands near broken windows after explosions at Zaventem airport near Brussels, Belgium, March 22, 2016. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

Peter Apps is Reuters global defence correspondent. He is currently on sabbatical as executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century (PS21).


In many ways, the attacks in Brussels today had a sick air of inevitability. Ever since the Paris attacks on November 13, the Belgian capital has been seen as the likely next target. What happened on Tuesday clearly shows the limits of Belgium’s much-criticized security and surveillance systems. But it is also a reminder of just how difficult stopping such incidents can be.

As always, lessons will be learned and systems tightened. The fact that an apparent suicide bomber was able to penetrate the crowded airport terminal points to one obvious loophole that could have been tightened — many airports in vulnerable parts of the world, such as India, have security screening points at the entrance to such buildings. They cause delays but provide a measure of security.

In reality, however, all that additional security does is shift the problem elsewhere. Nobody really expects such measures to be possible on crowded mass transit systems. And had the attack targeted several points on the Metro system rather than the Metro and the airport, the death toll might still have been similar — a bomb in a crowded place is still a bomb in a crowded place.

The simple truth is that Belgium has been expecting an attack for months. Troops have been deployed on the streets and other nations have dramatically ramped up support to the Belgian security services. Such attention was clearly starting to pay off — the arrest of one of the suspects from Paris last week is proof of that. But it simply wasn’t enough.

Better-coordinated security systems — particularly cross-border cooperation — are not just necessary, but vital. Even if they were to be improved very, very substantially, however, some attacks like this will get through.

What will happen now is relatively predictable, at least when it comes to the security response — we saw it in after Paris last year as well as in Madrid in 2004 after the attacks on its transport system killed 192 people. Security services will relatively quickly identify the attackers and begin to run down their wider networks. In Paris and Madrid, that led to police assaults several days later on the hideouts of the plotters — raids themselves that often end with yet another suicide explosion.

Such militant actions, however, are essentially political. And the political consequences of what happened in Brussels today are only just beginning.

Countries react very differently to attacks like this. The Madrid attacks in 2004 toppled the government, ending Spanish involvement in the Iraq war. The July 7, 2005 attacks in London, meanwhile, had a negligible impact on the mainstream political system — although a very real effect, albeit limited, on community cohesion.

The attacks in Belgium, however, take place against a much wider backdrop — not just the Paris attacks but the wider European migrant crisis. Even if all of the plotters in this case turn out to be homegrown, the attacks will still be seen in the wider European context of a continent already struggling to adapt to hundreds of thousands of new arrivals.

The real risk now is that hardliners on both sides end up playing off each other to destabilize the situation further. Already, hardline anti-migrant parties like Alternative for Deutschland — fresh from dramatic gains in local German elections earlier this month — say the Brussels attacks demonstrate a clear and urgent need to halt new arrivals. Muslim populations in Europe, both established and new, will inevitably find themselves under more suspicion and scrutiny, not to mention facing potential retaliatory violence.

Getting to the core of what motivates those behind attacks like this one is notoriously difficult. For now, for example, we have no real idea whether these attacks were deliberately coordinated by Islamic State or a similar group, inspired by them or perhaps simply the work of an unconnected small group. But it is certainly possible that this kind of polarization is exactly what the perpetrators want.

Some countries in Europe are clearly more vulnerable than others — both to physical attacks and potentially destabilizing political fallout that could have much broader implications. An attack in Belgium — always one of Europe’s least politically functional countries with a record of operating for sometimes years at a time without a government — was perhaps sufficiently predictable that the local political consequences will be limited. Similarly, after Paris another attack in France might also have relatively little impact on its domestic politics beyond providing another minor boost to the right-wing National Front.

A major attack in Germany, however, could prove rather more politically damaging to Chancellor Angela Merkel, essentially now the linchpin of the European project. Germany has not seen a major militant attack since the 1980s, but is struggling to deal with the arrival of more than 1 million migrants in the space of a year. Whatever the reality of the situation, that crisis and any militant attack would become immediately conflated in the public mind.

Those implications may already be crossing the Atlantic. It took little time for Republican front-runner Donald Trump to use events in Brussels to once again push his suggestions for hugely ramped up restrictions on Muslim travel into the United States. Even without attacks in America, pollsters say incidents like Brussels in Europe almost certainly improve his chances of winning in November.

Like America, Britain is relatively protected from attacks like Brussels because the English Channel gives it a much more policeable border, particularly when it comes to flow of weapons. The political fallout there would also be real, however, perhaps modestly boosting the chances of a Brexit vote in June’s EU referendum.

Handling crises like the Middle East and the now indissolubly intertwined political woes of Europe was already hard enough. The point of attacks like Brussels, I fear, is to make that even harder.

This piece originally appeared on Reuters on March 22, 2016.

Project for Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, non-ideological, non-partisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

Why the Syrian war will define the decade


Peter Apps is Reuters global defence correspondent, currently on sabbatical as executive director of the Project for Study of the 21st Century.


Many decades have a war that defines them, a conflict that points to much broader truths about the era — and perhaps presages larger things to come.

For the 1930s, the Spanish Civil War, the three-year fight between Fascists (helped by Nazi German) and Republicans (armed by the Soviet Union) pointed to the far larger global disaster to come. For the 1980s, the Soviet battle to control Afghanistan, a bloody mess of occupation and insurgency, helped bring forward the collapse of the Soviet Union and set the stage for 9/11 and modern Islamist militancy.

For the 1990s, you can take your pick of the Balkans, Somalia, Rwanda or Democratic Republic of Congo. For the 2000s, it was Iraq — the ultimate demonstration of the “unipolar moment” and the limits, dangers and sheer short-livedness of America’s status as unchallenged global superpower.

We are, of course, little more than half way through the current decade. Already, however, it looks as though it has to be Syria’s civil war.
Its broader implications continue to grow by the month. While not the sole cause of Europe’s migrant crisis, Syrians make up a significant proportion — perhaps even the majority — of new arrivals on the continent. The sheer numbers are producing political strains that have already torn up the ideal of a “borderless” Europe and may yet wreck the entire European Union project.In pure human terms, the war dwarfs any other recent conflict. Estimates of the number of Syrian dead range from 270,000 to 470,000 people. The United Nations estimates up to 7.6 million Syrians are displaced within their own country, with up to 4 million fleeing their homeland. From its relatively small beginnings as a largely unarmed revolt, the Syrian conflict has now dragged in more than a half-dozen countries.

Syria has exemplified what Financial Times columnist Gideon Rachmann calls a “zero-sum world.” From the beginning, rival regional powers — particularly Shi’ite Iran and Sunni states led by Saudi Arabia — approached the conflict with the assumption that neither side could afford to back down or compromise without letting the other win.

From that perspective, Syria is part of a larger regional confrontation that encompasses the war in Yemen, the long-term sectarian battle for control of Iraq and, of course, attempts to rein in Iran, in general, and its nuclear program, in particular.

Increasingly, though, the war in Syria has become part of the wider, potentially more dangerous confrontation between Western powers and Russia. That confrontation also goes back years — through Kosovo and the Balkans to the Cold War.

It also goes well beyond geopolitics to a fundamental disagreement over the limits of state power, the acceptable tools to restore order and the sustainability of authoritarian government. As I wrote in September, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s entire domestic justification of his power comes down to the importance of maintaining a stable central government as a bulwark against instability and chaos, whatever brutality that might take.

In Syria, Russia’s military intervention has been a game changer. As in Ukraine in 2014, Moscow has proved itself willing to use a level of military force that the West never anticipated and, as yet, has no real strategy to counter. Nor, for now, has it shown the will or intent to do so.

If the invasion of Iraq showed a United States that saw few real restrictions to its power, Syria has demonstrated the opposite. Washington has continuously prevaricated over what to do about Syria and even now, with Russian action literally redrawing the battlefield, has little in the way of a coherent strategy.

Painting this simply as a tale of Western or U.S. presidential weakness misses the point, however. If Syria shows us anything, it is how complicated the 21st century has become and how few good choices it can leave Washington.

Of course, if the West had signaled more clearly in the Syrian uprising’s early days that it would do nothing and let Syrian President Bashar al-Assad slaughter his way back to stability, it might have fatally undermined the rebellion before it started. But this would also have left many in the West feeling distinctly uncomfortable.

Launching massive military strikes against Damascus following its 2013 use of chemical weapons might have helped the credibility of any future Western “red lines.” But they would also have further undermined what was left of the central government, an outcome now widely seen to have been an error when tried in Iraq and Libya.

The situation on the ground, meanwhile, is ever messier. As in several other recent wars – Iraq, Ukraine, Libya and Yemen — the national armed forces of Syria have become ever less important. Most of the recent fighting is down to relatively disparate militias with increasingly complex loyalties. Already, we have seen U.S.-backed Kurdish forces fighting other U.S.-backed groups, as well as in the growing conflict with Turkey, a U.S. ally.

The one area where the United States and its European allies have been willing to take action has been the fight against Islamic State. That seems reasonable: Of all the elements in the Syrian civil war, Islamic State is by far the most direct threat to Western interests, states and populations. Taking it on is a battle possibly and even likely to be won. Islamic State has already lost significant territory and finances.

That doesn’t, however, come close to providing clarity over what to do about the rest of Syria.

As international mediation and ceasefire talks stutter forward, global and regional powers have a choice.

For most of those involved, the truth is that there may still be much to be gained by fighting. Russia could keep up the pressure and win back more territory for Assad and possibly benefit closer to home if the war helped destabilize the European Union. The United States, for that matter, could finally step up and support opposition fighters, which could block any recovery for Assad and drag the Russian mission into a quagmire. Also, regional powers could throw more resources into the battle, something Saudi Arabia seemingly signaled with its talk of sending ground troops to fight Islamic State.

The alternative, though, is that all sides pull back and demonstrate a willingness to compromise. There are plenty of messy issues. The most obvious is the immediate future of Assad and those around him. What exactly the compromise turns out to be might probably be less important than whether or not there is one.

Based on the past few weeks, the signals are mixed, at best. Some local ceasefires have been brokered, though with limited but very real humanitarian benefits for those on the ground.

If ordinary Syrians come to believe the war might genuinely be over one day, they are more likely to stay in the region, which might spark a whole different collection of conflicts.

A deal over Syria would perhaps be the most positive sign that the world could overcome its myriad growing challenges and confrontations. Failing to do so, however, might point to even worse things to come.

This piece originally appeared on Reuters on March 3, 2016.

Project for Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, non-ideological, non-partisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.


Africa in 2016: Three strategic contingencies

AMISOM_&_Somali_National_Army_operation_to_capture_Afgoye_Corridor_Day_1_01_(7293144058)A printer-friendly version is available here.

Edward Wanyonyi is a security and defence policy specialist. He can be reached on

2016 promises to be an interesting and dynamic year in Africa’s peace and security agenda. Barely 60 days into the New Year, three distinct trends are emerging which will determine major decisions in most defence and national security engagements in the region. While surprises are inevitable, rarely do countries struggle to bounce back when hit with these shocks unless one is talking about disasters such as the catastrophic earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010 or the 2006 Tsunami. However this year presidents, cabinets and security chiefs will be faced with the challenges pertaining to insurgencies, containing shocks brought by the collapse of oil prices and handling political transitions.

Dealing with Insurgencies

The recent attack by Al Shabaab on an Africa Union peace keeping mission in Somalia (AMISOM) stationed on a military base that also housed Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) is the latest indication of the changing nature of unconventional warfare waged by combatants with a well-organized military command and control structure. Although Kenya’s defence establishment has not released the final death toll, the attack seems to have benefited from a highly trained operational planning unit. It is alleged that a heavily armed infantry with over 100 fighters equipped with Russian PKM assault rifles, rocket propelled grenades, and a suicide bombers corps split in two groups and used vehicle borne IEDs to launch their assault. One group took on the Somali National Army, a mere 600 metres away from the AMISOM base, while the other waited in ambush. As soon as the AMISOM base responded to the distress call, the second group of insurgents struck the base.

According to Kenya’s Chief of Defence Forces General Samson Mwathethe, air rescue teams could not be immediately deployed in the area due to the presence of active anti-aircraft missiles.  It is clear that this was a well-coordinated ambush; planned way in advance, endowed with prior intelligence of base deterrence capabilities and aware of AMISOM threat response strategies. The incident provides an important space to ask hard questions when dealing with insurgencies whether at a national level or in a large scale international peace keeping effort.

First, what is the most appropriate intelligence sharing system that counterinsurgency operations should adopt in the face of an enemy such as Al Shabaab, Boko Haram or even Al Mourabitoun? Secondly, counterinsurgency operations in theatres with an active enemy presence require a separate dedicated military base and a refugee camps security component headed by no less than a deputy commander of the peacekeeping forces who is directly answerable to the force commandant. Lessons need to be learned from the 2000 Sierra Leone peacekeeping operation where several blue helmets were captured by RUF rebels and from the South Sudan civil war in 2013, where UN bases and humanitarian camps in Bor and Juba were attacked. Furthermore in 2015 Al Shabaab attacked bases manned by Burundi and Ugandan contingents, yet there has been a serious lack of new measures put in place by the Africa Union Department of Peace and Security institute to secure all other AMSIOM bases. Third, perhaps it is high time to reconsider troop deployment in counterinsurgency operations especially when a) loss of life is unprecedented and b) when the insurgency has been highly embedded in the local population like in the case of North East Nigeria where Boko Haram maintains an active military advantage. Fourth, future counterinsurgency operations will require a joint coordinated agency that is staffed by civilian and military advisors who can relay information to the head of mission and the presidency. This task cannot just be left only to military staff and suffer the fate of collective group think. Neither can this task be delegated to party sycophants who occupy sensitive positions within the presidency and only prioritise regime preservation when dealing with national security challenges. It is essential to include a diverse set of professionals who can avail their expertise and help to shape winning counterinsurgency strategies.

Containing shocks brought by the collapse of oil prices  

As the US overtakes Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest producer of crude oil, the optimism earlier envisaged by oil importers is suddenly being replaced by a sombre mood as they come to terms with effects of cheap oil. In a globalized world, the effect of a recession in most oil companies and the sudden shrinkage of operations means that the entire well-to-market value chain suffers. Therefore, countries in Africa which depend on oil as their core export will have to reappraise their economic forecasts and seek to urgently contain possible unrest and disruptions to their industrial and manufacturing sectors. A number of steps need to be urgently put in place.

First, governments need to bolster the capacity of multi-stakeholder teams so they can provide detailed analytical information for government decisions and investor engagements. This should be considered not just among oil producing countries but also countries which have ambitions for oil production in the near future such as Uganda, Kenya and even Somalia.

Second, ministries of finance and governors of central banks must actively find space to cushion national economies from the knock on effects of low oil prices. Managing the transition and emergence of new market cartels will be a task that will feature regularly. It is possible that we might see a mild form of market regulation by the state especially when cartels seek to hold on to their dominant positions regardless of the need to change for public good. If handled properly, this phase can allow regimes to survive potential protests and even investor boycotts.

Handling political transitions

While 2015 saw an unprecedented appetite for constitutional amendments to allow third terms for incumbent leaders, the greater challenge is how to manage political transitions in a manner that does not lead to civilian unrest, instability and a climate of fear. As the events in Burundi and Burkina Faso reveal, an attempt at incumbency that attracts widespread unrest and civilian agitation is not worth the effort. However the case of Rwanda, which followed its own due process, demonstrates the importance of well thought out transition processes. Another case is Uganda. It is one thing to clamour for the exit of Museveni, but one must look at the capacity and independence of the oversight institutions that are necessary to cushion the country in the event of a power vacuum.

Therefore, agitators for change and reforms should ask, what sequence should this transition take? How shall we embark on structural change, but escape the tragedy of post-Gadhafi Libya? This is not in any way to disqualify attempts at legitimate change of government such as that which took place in Burkina Faso recently. However, it is a call for caution and for a measured approach in handling political transitions that avoid perilous conflicts like those that were triggered by poor management of transitions.

As Africa prepares to lurch forward in 2016, the UN Sustainable Development Goals project promises to provide increased opportunities for ensuring that development does not just take place at the centre in order to cascade to the periphery. Furthermore, at the heart of the SDGs is a call to ensure that development does not stagnate or reverse due to a lack of mitigation measures to cushion against these shocks. It is therefore important that countries prepare for the three contingencies as they pose a significant risk to current development forecasts.

Project for Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, non-ideological, non-partisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.

ISIS Goes for Broke in Libya

DDG/ECHO - Demining Sirte

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Patrick Bury has worked as a Libya specialist since 2011. He is a PhD Candidate at the University of Exeter’s Strategy and Security Institute and a PS21 Global Fellow.

Despite the announcement of a UN-backed Libyan Government of National Accord (GNA) on 17 Dec, the rivalry between the broadly Islamist government in Tripoli and its eastern rival in Tobruk has continued, with neither side ready to accept the new GNA just yet. Meanwhile, capitalising on the security vacuum in the centre of the country, last month we witnessed a significant increase in the number and intensity of ISIS attacks in Libya, seriously threatening the country’s already damaged oil sector and risking the prospect of socio-economic collapse if the group can maintain its current tempo of operations.

Kicking off its new ‘al-Qahtani’ campaign, on 4 Jan ISIS’s affiliate in the coastal city of Sirte – Islamic State in Sirte (ISS) – launched a major assault on the Libya’s largest oil terminals at Es Sider and Ras Lanuf (which combined had an export capacity of over 500,000 barrels per day before they closed due to the ISIS threat) that began with a double suicide truck bomb attack on local Petroleum Facilities Guards (PFG) forces at Es Sider. One bomber hit the main military checkpoint at the entrance to the terminal, killing two guards, while the other struck an airstrip nearby in the first Libyan use of a tactic favoured by ISIS in Syria and Iraq. According to the Libyan National Army (LNA), this was a diversionary attack, and ISS then attempted to gain entrance to Ras Lanuf terminal 18 miles further east by assaulting it with 12 technical vehicles. The bombing of a telecommunications tower on 3 Jan in Ajdabiya – 130 miles east – which cut all mobile and internet networks in the town, and the attack on Es Sider airfield, were most likely attempts by ISS to slow the response of LNA and oil facilities guard reinforcements based in Ajdabiya. However, ISS were repelled by local PFG fighters and air strikes by what appeared to be jets from the Islamist Operation Dawn alliance operating from Misrata. The fighting left at least 12 dead, 25 oil guards wounded, and a 400,000 barrel oil storage tank ablaze. The next day, further fighting erupted south west of Es Sider. After suffering heavy losses (at least 30 confirmed killed but with the number perhaps as high as 150), ISS fired artillery shells and Grad rockets into the Es Sider oil tank farm, setting another tank alight.

With the fires at Ras Lanuf and Es Sider still blazing, on 7 Jan ISS struck again, this time further west when a water truck loaded with explosives detonated at the gates of a military camp in Zliten, 40 miles west of Misrata, killing at least 65 people, many of whom were police recruits,  in the worst terrorist attack in Libya since the 2011 revolution. ISIS’s Tripoli branch later claimed responsibility for the bombing. Worryingly, Zliten sources had reported a number of suspicious men arriving by boat in the days prior to the bombing. The town has been one of the locations for smuggling migrants to the Europe, and the camp was probably targeted because it was being used to train and deploy police and coast guard personnel to curb smuggling, indicating a potential alliance between human trafficking gangs and ISIS in the area.

Only three days later, PFG forces at the Zueitina oil terminal, 100 miles south of Benghazi, repelled an amphibious assault by pro-ISIS fighters in three boats. While it appears that the PFG received a tip off about the attack and were thus ready, the audaciousness of the attack, and, at 300 miles, its long distance from Sirte, is indicative of the lengths that ISS is willing to go to capture oil infrastructure. Meanwhile, on the night of 13/14 Jan an ISS explosion destroyed a length of oil pipeline near Maradah, 100 miles southeast of Ras Lanuf. The same day, the fires at the tanks at Ras Lanuf and Es Sider caused were finally put out, but not before 850,000 barrels had been destroyed in the fires. Worse was to follow.

On 21 Jan, ISS again attacked the Ras Lanuf terminal, deliberately setting another four storage tanks holding up to 2 million barrels of crude alight after they were again repelled by PFG forces. These fires burned until 24 Jan causing substantial damage and risking ‘environmental disaster’ according to Libyan oil officials. A large section of pipeline leading to the Es Sider terminal was also alight by the group.

Although an ISIS attempt to seize the eastern oilfields had been expected since late November, recent developments indicate an increase in its Libyan affiliate’s tactical capability and strategic complexity.  Clearly, the al-Qahtani campaign has seen a rapid increase in both the number and intensity of ISS attacks on Libya’s oil infrastructure. Equally clearly, and far more worrying, is that unlike in Syria and Iraq, the group now appears content to destroy Libyan oil facilities if it cannot seize them. This fact is important as it provides information about the groups capabilities and its longer-term intent in Libya.

Firstly, with ISS’ total strength currently estimated to be about 3,000 – of which perhaps less than a third are available for operations at one time – at present it appears that they still lack the capability to concentrate their forces in order to seize a major oil facility outright. LNA and Operation Dawn airstrikes, backed by international actors such as France (who was likely behind airstrikes by unidentified jets on ISS in Sirte on 10 Jan: no claim of responsibility was made but this may well be to avoid both political blowback and further ISIS attacks at home), Egypt and Jordan, and intelligence feeds provided by US and Italian drones, have contributed to this inability to mass. This has forced smaller ISS forces to rely predominantly on surprise over strength, and airpower has frequently tipped the balance in recent clashes between ISS and the PFG/LNA.

While the latter have managed to hold on to Es Sider and Ras Lanuf, the prospect of further attacks in the area, and indeed on the still functioning Brega terminal 70 miles east of the terminals remains very real. Similarly, ISS could also strike towards the oil fields at Sarir, Messla and Nafoura, which account for about 60% of Libya’s current oil output, and which could prove harder to reinforce if ISIS launched a concerted attack. It is for this reason that the LNA has sent a 95-vehicle column to interdict any ISIS sally towards these fields, as an ISS attack in this area could also cut the oil pipeline north to the Hariga export terminal at Tobruk.

Nevertheless, despite the threat of further ISIS attacks, and the grave danger this now poses to Libya’s oil infrastructure, the fact that the group is happy to destroy these facilities points to its fundamental inability to seize and hold them. There are a number of reasons for this.

Most importantly, the sectarian divides that have helped the group prosper in Iraq and Syria do not exist in Libya, thereby denying the group mass appeal amongst the Libyan populace. Indeed, almost all Libyans and the various militias are staunchly against the group due its strong foreign fighter and Gaddafi-ist elements. Crucially, this limits both its support base and its freedom of manoeuvre. The local uprising against ISS in Sirte in August – and the minor attacks on the group in areas they control since then (an ISS commander was also shot dead in Harawa on 20 Jan) – indicate that even where the group do enjoy military superiority, locals are willing to contest this, despite the dangers. Indeed, ISIS central’s leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi recently dispatched a senior aide known as ‘Abu Omar’ to Sirte to tighten the groups grip on the city, which has caused friction with local commanders.

Secondly, the timing of the new campaign is telling, coming as it does as ISIS faces increasing military pressure in Iraq and Syria, and as consensus around a GNA is growing. ISS and its parent organisation know they face a major threat if the new government in Libya can begin to unite the militias against the common and pressing enemy. Therefore, denying the GNA – and indeed any of its rival governments – the revenues it needs to do so by destroying oil facilities appears to be the groups’ new strategy to react to recent developments. Such a long-term goal would also potentially create the kind of social and economic upheaval that could see support for the group rise.

However, the final element in all this is the oil infrastructure itself. Unlike their operations in Iraq and Syria, many Libyan fields have been closed due to the threat ISIS poses, while a closely monitored coastline, destroyed pipelines, and a lack of other means of getting oil out mean that the group would likely struggle to sell oil without the help of the local population. While the southern smuggling route does provide an option, this route is long, arduous, and ISS lack the trucks to use it at present. As a result of these three major factors, ISS’ campaign is indicative of their longer-term weakness as much as their short-term strength.

However, it is clear that Libya’s oil infrastructure in now facing an existential threat, and its destruction would take years and hundreds of millions of dollars to replace. While it appears that the PFG and LNA forces in the Sirte oil crescent are able to hold their own at present, their longer-term sticking power will depend on reinforcement and resupply, and the knowledge that airstrikes are available if required. Should these fail to materialise, their morale could be threatened.

A concerted Libyan response is now clearly needed, but whether these latest attacks will provide enough impetus for the various armed forces to unite against the ISIS remains to be seen. Further attacks should be expected in the short term, with the threat to Brega a real worry. This knowledge has prompted strong indications that the West is increasingly likely to take decisive military action against ISIS in Libya. This would most likely include airstrikes and the deployment of special forces by the US, UK, France and Italy (all of which have conducted reconnaissance missions in Libya in recent months). Despite ISS’ longer-term weaknesses, such action cannot come soon enough if it is to save Libya’s oil facilities and protect the country’s long-term future.

Project for Study of the 21st Century is a non-national, non-ideological, non-partisan organization. All views expressed are the author’s own.