Conflict update: December 11


A major bomb (12 kg of TNT) hit St. Mark’s Cathedral (see the photo above) in Cairo this morning, killing at least 25 people, wounding at least 49, and from the photos I’ve seen absolutely pulverizing the interior of the church. No group has claimed responsibility yet as far as I can tell, but ISIS is perpetually a suspect, along with violent Muslim Brotherhood offshoots like the Hasm Movement. Hundreds of people gathered outside the church later in the day to protest against Islamist groups and the Egyptian government, which they blame for failing to keep Egyptian Copts safe. The Coptic community was already souring on President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, with the general sentiment being that Sisi has talked a big game about protecting the Copts from the Muslim Brotherhood and extremists, but hasn’t actually done much to back up his words.


The Kurdish group TAK has claimed responsibility for last night’s bombing in Istanbul that has killed at least 38 people by the latest count, 30 of them police officers. Every TAK attack carries with it a debate on the nature of the TAK–Ankara’s position, and it’s not alone in holding this view, is that the TAK is more or less a front that the PKK uses for cover when it wants to carry out a particularly violent attack, while others, including TAK and the PKK themselves, say that TAK is a breakaway group with no direct links to PKK.


The decision to transfer additional forces to assist the eastern advance on Mosul has apparently left the planned advances from the north and south in limbo for now. This could be a case of being penny-wise but pound-foolish; those additional fronts were meant to force ISIS to disperse its defenders, but with only one active from the militants can concentrate their manpower and focus on tactics (like suicide bombing) that can help neutralize the government forces’ greater numbers.

Work has begun on stabilizing the Mosul Dam, which was weakened by months of neglect owing to the war against ISIS and is now at risk of collapse. Scientists are warning that this maintenance work is only delaying the dam’s inevitable collapse, since it was built on unstable ground to begin with, and are saying that planning should be starting now to evacuate the estimated seven million people living along the Tigris who may very well all be killed if and when the dam goes and a sudden surge of water comes flooding downriver. They’re also urging that the money and manpower being put into maintaining the Mosul Dam instead be committed to finishing the Badush Dam, slightly downstream, the construction of which was begun in 1988 precisely because of fears about the Mosul Dam’s instability, but ended in 1991 due to sanctions. The Iraqi government disagrees with these assessments, so, uh, most likely the dam is going to collapse at some point. The problem is that completing Badush would be very costly in the very immediate term, while maintaining Mosul is cheaper for now but more expensive in the long run and carries the risk/certainty of an extraordinarily destructive collapse. Iraqi politicians being like politicians everywhere, i.e. extraordinarily short-sighted, they’re opting for short-term savings over long-term savings and stability.

To the west, the Popular Mobilization Units are pitching Baghdad on a plan to let them move to secure the Iraq-Syria border. This will raise eyebrows as many of the PMUs do have Iranian ties and may try to use their position on the border to aid Bashar al-Assad in Syria, but on the other hand somebody really does need to secure that border and, right now, Baghdad doesn’t have a whole bunch of options.

Two car bombings in Fallujah today killed at least eight people.


There are reports, which Russia denies, that Washington and Moscow have presented Syrian rebel groups with a deal that would allow rebel fighters and their families to have safe passage out of Aleppo. Russia says that more work is needed to finalize the terms and seems more interested in arranging for civilians to be evacuated than on a deal to get the rebels out.

Meanwhile, Palmyra is now fully in ISIS’s hands, after reports earlier in the day suggested that Russian airstrikes had driven their fighters out of the area. The symbolism here is hard to miss, since Palmyra was the site of ISIS’s previous high-water mark, and Damascus’s operation to retake the ancient city was presented as its effort to help the world eradicate the ISIS scourge. Now ISIS gets to show that rumors of its demise are still exaggerated, while Damascus’s defeat here, caused in large part by its heavy focus on Aleppo, demonstrates that the Russian-Syrian stated commitment to fighting ISIS has been more of a guideline than an actual rule.

Moscow, because up is always down from some perspective, is blaming the loss of Palmyra on the United States, arguing that the sloppy execution of the Mosul offensive allowed thousands of ISIS fighters to escape into Syria and thereby participate in this operation. And, look, there’s no question that a lot of fighters escaped Mosul during the early days of the offensive and many of them undoubtedly reinforced ISIS in Syria. The planned Raqqa operation hasn’t come together and that’s freed ISIS up to engage in its own offensive operations. So America does deserve some blame here. But none of that changes the fact that the way Assad and the Russians allocated their forces and their attention allowed this Palmyra attack to succeed.

Another day of Turkish airstrikes on ISIS positions in northern Syria hit 27 targets and killed 12 fighters, according to Ankara.


Two girls, reportedly “seven or eight” years old, blew themselves up today in a marketplace in Maiduguri, wounding 17 people in addition to killing themselves. Nobody has yet claimed responsibility, but the tactic and location have Boko Haram written all over them. This would be the second Boko Haram suicide bombing involving female bombers to hit northeastern Nigeria in the past three days (the death toll for that Friday attack, by the way, now stands at 45).

The Gambia

Soldiers are a visible presence within the Gambian capital, Banjul, as people inside and outside of The Gambia continue to call on defeated incumbent Yahya Jammeh to accept the results of the election earlier this month and step aside peacefully. So far there have been no protests, but if those start at some point then Jammeh could make things very ugly. At this point he says he’s planning to challenge the election before Gambia’s Supreme Court, though there’s a small problem here in that The Gambia doesn’t really have a Supreme Court. They have a “Chief Justice” but no other justices, mostly because Jammeh seems to enjoy firing justices.

If Jammeh appoints a bunch of new justices to hear his own challenge to the election result, then it goes without saying that there will be a major problem. After all, no democratic system can abide a group of unelected justices interfering with the political process in order to put their preferred candidate in office. You know what I mean?


A truck bomb detonated at the entrance of Mogadishu Port killed at least 29 people and wounded 50 more. Al-Shabaab claimed responsibility and said they were targeting police who are going to be providing security for the country’s upcoming presidential election, whenever it might be held. The vote keeps getting delayed, citing a lack of security, so this attack may very well cause a further delay.


ISIS has claimed responsibility for assassinating that counter-terrorism police officer in Peshawar yesterday.

In northeastern Pakistan’s Swat district, meanwhile, shop owners have suddenly started getting menacing phone calls from the Pakistani Taliban, demanding protection money. This is understandably raising fears that the Taliban, which controlled Swat from 2007 to 2009 but since then has only been able to carry out occasional attacks in the area, is looking to reestablish a more permanent presence. On the other hand, it’s possible that the group has shifted its tactics, from outright violence to this protection racket, because it’s hard up for cash.

Korean Peninsula

North Korean media announced today that its military conducted a “special operations drill,” overseen by Kim Jong-un and simulating a takeover of South Korea, though it’s not clear when this alleged drill took place. I mentioned a while back the bizarre case of South Korean President Park Geun-hye and her influence-peddling cult guru Choi Soon-sil. Well, as you might already know or at least have expected, Park was impeached by the South Korean parliament on Friday. Her case now goes before the country’s Constitutional Court, and in the meantime her powers have fallen to Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, who will also serve as interim president if the court removes Park from office. It wouldn’t be too far-fetched to imagine that North Korea timed this drill, or at least the announcement of the drill, to maximize the amount of panic it might cause in an already chaotic South.

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