Al-Shabab renew offensive in Mogadishu

More attacks in Mogadishu, as Al-Shabab steps up its campaign against African Union troops. Convicted Islamists escape prison as fears of militant action in Central Asia increase. Russian security forces kill top Causcaus Emirate leader. Report calls for further US-Russian nuclear disarmament. All this and more in today’s security briefing.
Luke Heighton
24 August 2010

At least 32 people, including six members of the Somali parliament, were killed in an attack by gunmen on the Muna Hotel in Mogadishu on Tuesday. In a statement released by the Somalian information ministry it was revealed that five further government security personnel died when the gunmen blew themselves up. The gunmen, who are reported to have been wearing military uniforms and were also armed with hand grenades, burst into the hotel and began firing indiscriminately. Following the initial attack witnesses described seeing guests scrambling out of the hotel’s windows during a one-hour battle with security forces.

At least 70 people have died in Mogadishu in the last two days, following recent threats by al-Shabab, an organisation that proclaims and is thought to be allied with al-Qaida – of a “massive” war against African Union troops in Mogadishu, whom it sees as an occupying force. In claiming responsibility for the attack, Sheik Ali Mohamud Rage, a spokesman for the al-Shabab militia, said that members of the group’s “special forces” had carried out the attack against those “aiding the infidels.”

Seven foreign-born and three Somali al-Shabab fighters were killed in an explosion in a Mogadishu safehouse on Saturday. The building was part of a compound owned by Sheikh Mukhtar Robow Abu Mansour, believed to be one of al-Shabab’s top leaders. Its cause is not yet clear, though an unnamed al-Shabab member told Garowe that the building was being used to assemble car bombs. 

In May 2009 eleven al-Shabab fighters and three or four “foreign fighters” were reported to have been killed when a car bomb exploded in a compound belonging to Sheikh Muktar Abdelrahman Abu Zubeyr. Observers, however, claimed to have seen “missiles” strike the compound immediately beforehand. In recent years US special forces are known to have conducted a number of strikes against al-Shabab and al-Qaida leaders in Somalia.

Fears of militant attacks on Kyrgyzstan exaggerated, says senior Tajik official. 

Twenty-five Islamic militants serving sentences of between nineteen years and life in prison in a detention centre outside the Tajik capital of Dushanbe escaped on Sunday.  The group, which included at least six Russian citizens, attacked their guards, killing one and seriously wounding another, before seizing their weapons and fleeing. Security at both airports and local border controls was tightened amid fears the group would attempt to cross over into neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan or China. Several of the group are known to have been members of the banned Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) group. Head of the Russian federal security service, Alexander Bortnikov, stated that Russia will give full assistance to the Tajik side in "tracking down and arresting" the escaped inmates. 

Earlier in the day General Adbullo Nazarov, head of Tajikistan’s National Security Ministry’s office in the south-eastern region of Badakhshan, had dismissed reports of Tajik militants infiltrating Kyrgyszstan. Instead, Nazarov claimed Kyrgyz security officials have no idea what is happening in the region, and were merely reacting to earlier reports of increased militant activity by “hitting the panic button”. General Nazarov’s scepticism is echoed by Tajik analyst Qosim Bekmuhammad, who believes reports of cross-border attacks are not only “fake”, but are being used by Russia to validate its growing secuirty presence in the region.

His comments come in response to warnings from Sultonbek Ayjigitov, head of Kyrgyzstan’s Batken region, that additional security measures would need to be taken if further infiltration of militants from Tajikistan were to be prevented. Afghan forces, meanwhile, recently killed or detained several people suspected of being members of the IMU group close to the Tajik border. IMU fighters are also believed to be hiding in towns and villages in the Konduz province of Afghanistan. 

Top Caucasus Emirate leader killed 

Russian security forces in the Republic of Dagestan are reported to have killed a senior leader of the Caucasus Emirate, an Islamist organisation linked to Al-Qaida, on Saturday.

Amir Sayfullah, also known as Magomedali Vagabov, was one of five men killed after they were surrounded in a safe house in the village of Gubin. Sayfullah, who held the position of emir of the Caucasus Emirate in Dagestan, is widely believed to have been behind the Moscow Metro suicide bombings on 29 March that killed 39 people. One of the two female bombers, Mariam Sharipova, was Sayfullah’s wife. 

Sayfullah had been an outspoken supporter of Doku Umarov, leader of the Islamic Caucaus Emirate until his resignation earlier this month. That resignation was later retracted, and there is speculation that Sayfullah’s backing was an attempt to stem growing uncertainty and discord within the movement. Umarov, a Chechen, was instrumental in uniting Chechen and Caucasus jihadists following the death of Shamil Basayev and much of his leadership cadre at the hands of Russian security forces in 2006. Umarov himself was believed to have been killed in November 2009, but reappeared late that year to launch a series of suicide attacks. 

Fewer nukes would not compromise deterrence, argues new report 

Further cuts in the number of the United States and Russia’s nuclear warheads need not compromise either country’s national security interests. That’s the conclusion drawn in a report – written by both US authors and three former Soviet defence insiders – to be published in the next issue of Foreign Affairs.

At present the US and Russia are working towards reducing the number of nuclear warheads in their respective arsenals to 1,500, with a maximum 700 active launch sites on each side. In the report, however, Victor Esin (former chief of staff of the Strategic Rocket Forces), Valery Yarynich (a retired Colonel who served at the Center for Operational and Strategic Studies of the Russian General Staff), and Pavel Zolotarev (former section head of the Russian Defense Council) argue that new computer modelling has demonstrated these numbers can be cut to 1,000 and 500 respectively without posing a threat to either county’s security.

Such a conclusion is likely to contradict the opinion of those in the Pentagon who believe that any further rush to de-arm could precipitate destabilisation and create incentives to strike first. Whether or not the programme already agreed will actually come into being according to the timescale set out by the Senate’s New Start initiative remains to be seen; let alone whether the possibility of additional military spending cuts in the US and Russia will have any significant effect on the nuclear de-armament programme already in place. Yet the report’s authors hope that by conducting analysis more openly and more collaboratively it may yet be possible to shift attitudes away from entrenched Cold War positions, and towards a safer, more cost-effective alternative for all parties. 

Urination, vandalism, supermarkets - the threat to British war memorials 

Residents of the former mining village of Sacriston, County Durham, have failed in their bid to prevent the supermarket giant Tesco from opening a new Express store on the site of an existing war memorial. The memorial has already been fenced off prior to its removal to another site nearby, after the company donated £12,000 towards its relocation. Durham County councillors approved plans to redevelop the land – set forth after it was acquired by property developer Mark Warrior  - on the grounds that the new store would bring jobs and greater prosperity to the area. Locals, however, are not convinced; one has described the scheme as “an insult to all who fell in the war”, while MP Kevan Jones has demanded further explanation from the Council.

Meanwhile, in Blackpool, 32-year-old Wendy Lewis fled court before being sentenced for urinating on a war memorial and committing a sex act in public – incidents captured on CCTV- in June. The incident is apparently just one of a spate of memorial-related incidents reported in the last few months. In November nineteen-year-old Sheffield student Philip Laing was caught urinating against a World War One memorial. That same month, Leeds factory worker Ian Marshall, 49, admitted ‘outraging public decency’, in a similar fashion, while in July, Douglas Tullin, nineteen, was fined £50 urinating on the war memorial in Newcastle-Upon-Tyne. The incidents have led Conservative MP David Burrowes to call for legislation making war memorial desecration a specific offence punishable by long jail sentences. At present general laws covering vandalism, public decency and drunken behaviour are used to punish offenders. 

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