Asia/Africa update: May 26 2017


Fighting between government forces and ISIS-aligned Islamist militants is ongoing in the southern city of Marawi, with yesterday’s government artillery barrages and airstrikes apparently having done little to dislodge the insurgents. Philippine officials say that Abu Sayyaf boss Isnilon Hapilon, whose arrest they were seeking in the raid that started this whole situation earlier this week, is still in the city, presumably holed up with the rest of the Abu Sayyaf/Maute Group crew. President Rodrigo Duterte has already declared martial law for the entire island of Mindanao–though there’s been no fighting anywhere other than Marawi, and keeps suggesting he might expand that order to cover the entire country.

Perhaps to justify taking a step like that, Duterte has really been hyping the nature of the group in Marawi and the threat it poses. His government says that there are “foreign fighters” in the city who are part of ISIS, but there’s no evidence that they’re anything other than the Indonesian and Malaysian nationals who have been recruited by Abu Sayyaf in the past, and also no evidence that Abu Sayyaf and Maute are operationally connected to ISIS in Syria and Iraq (they’ve pledged allegiance to ISIS, but the links don’t seem to go beyond that). Duterte himself is talking about ISIS gaining a foothold in Mindanao as though this were a new and more dangerous threat than the threat Abu Sayyaf and Maute had already posed, when, again, there’s no evidence of that.

Then there’s the case of the police chief of the nearby town of Malabang, who Duterte, while explaining his decision to declare martial law over the entire island of Mindanao, informed the nation had been viciously decapitated by the insurgents. Chilling…or at least it would be if the police chief of Malabang, Romeo Enriquez, weren’t still very much alive. The former police chief of Malabang has apparently been killed in the fighting in Marawi, but he wasn’t decapitated either so it’s not like Duterte just made a simple mistake here. This is Hashtag Fake News being promulgated by a president with obvious authoritarian (to say the least) tendencies, maybe/possibly so as to justify imposing martial law over an entire country in response to a few dozen insurgents holing up in the middle of one city. That seems problematic.



A Taliban attack on a military base in the Shah Wali Kot district of Kandahar province killed 15 Afghan soldiers on Friday.


The Indian army says that it killed four suspected militants who attempted to cross the line of control from Pakistani Kashmir into Indian Kashmir.


This is honestly so important:

A statue of Lady Justice has been removed from the supreme court building in the Bangladeshi capital after objections from Islamist groups.

The sculpture, by the local artist Mrinal Haque, was installed in front of the court in December, and depicts a woman in a sari clutching a sword and scales, similar to the traditional depiction of the Greek goddess Themis.

At first hardline Islamist groups, and later the country’s religious establishment, had been calling for the statue’s removal, on the grounds that its presence was an example of idol worship, forbidden in Islam.

A removal team arrived at the court at midnight on Thursday and began hammering at the base of the statue, using a crane to load it on to a pickup truck. The five-hour process attracted protesters and news networks, which broadcast the event live.

No, seriously, the growing influence of the kind of extremists who see idol worship everywhere they turn is, honestly, important. It’s a short hop from here to destroying Sufi shrines and then you’re pretty much into full-blown ISIS territory.


Much like Myanmar, Sri Lanka has a problem with hardline Buddhist nationalist preachers stoking anti-Muslim sentiments, and it’s gotten bad enough that the government is taking action:

A manhunt is on in Sri Lanka for a hard-line Buddhist leader after a series of attacks on mosques and Muslim-owned businesses that authorities accuse him of encouraging.

President Maithripala Siresena had vowed to investigate anti-Muslim hate crimes after assuming power in 2015, however, attacks have escalated over the past two weeks. Another Muslim shop in the town of Kahawatte was reportedly burned to the ground this week by unidentified attackers.

Bodu Bala Sena (BBS) General-Secretary Galagoda Atte Gnanasara has encouraged his Buddhist supporters to lead another campaign against Muslims following the deadly Aluthgama riots in June 2014, which attempted to create disunity between Buddhists and Muslims.


Stop me if you’ve heard this one before:

Two Chinese fighter jets intercepted a U.S. Navy surveillance plane over the South China Sea on Wednesday, with one coming within 200 yards (180 meters) of the American aircraft, U.S. officials told Reuters.

The officials, speaking on condition of anonymity, said initial reports showed that the U.S. P-3 Orion surveillance plane was 150 miles (240 km) southeast of Hong Kong in international airspace when the Chinese aircraft carried out the unsafe intercept. One Chinese aircraft flew in front of the American plane, restricting its ability to maneuver.

The Pentagon confirmed that two Chinese jets had carried out the intercept, saying it was “unsafe and unprofessional.”

OK, first of all, does anybody besides me read that Pentagon comment and think of this?


Anyway, you’ll recall that something similar to his happened earlier this month over the East China Sea, and you’ll also recall that a US Naval vessel just buzzed an island that China claims in the South China Sea earlier this week. So this seems like a routine thing lately. But for two countries that are supposed to be bonding over the North Korea crisis, this sure is a strange way of expressing it.



There was another outbreak of militia violence in Tripoli today, where at least 28 people were killed in clashes between forces loyal to the Government of National Accord and the self-proclaimed “Government of National Salvation,” headed by Khalifa al-Ghawil. The GNS used to be one of the two competing governments in Libya, alongside the Tobruk parliament/Libyan National Army faction headed by Khalifa Haftar. But when the UN brokered the formation of the GNA, most of the GNS’s supporters shifted to the new body, and the civil war shifted to Tobruk/Hafter against the GNA. Ghawil disappeared for a bit but then resurfaced, while the GNA started to lose support due to its failure to…well, you name it, really.

Now it seems like every couple of months Ghawil’s group attempts to capture some part of Tripoli from the GNA, there are a couple of days of violence, and then everything quiets down again. It’s not clear if Ghawil’s forces had any success this time around, nor does it seem like it matters–if neither of these claimants to national sovereignty can claim full control of one city, how can their claims to govern the country carry any weight?


The Tunisian government has arrested and confiscated the property of eight prominent businessmen accused of corruption. Transparency International ranked Tunisia 75th out of 176 countries for corruption last year, which is pretty freaking corrupt especially when you consider that many of the countries behind Tunisia on that list are not functioning democracies where the venal and corrupt can at least in theory be voted out of office. Corruption is estimated to cost Tunisia billions of dollars every year, which, for a country currently being wracked with protests over a stagnant economy and shitty jobs market, seems like kind of a big deal.


Alex Thurston has a new piece out about the debate within Malian society over whether or not to negotiate with leaders of the country’s Nusrat al-Islam jihadi network. There is apparently a fair amount of interest in opening some kind of dialogue, but there has been strong pushback against that idea from France, which still wields tremendous influence over Malian politics:

Initially, the Malian government expressed openness to the idea of these negotiations. Following the conference, Minister of National Reconciliation Mohamed El Moctar said, “Mali is ready to negotiate with all its children. Every child of this country who wants to lay down his weapons or leave this extremist, jihadist mob, they are welcome in their own home.”

But the government soon changed its line. When France’s then-Foreign Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault visited Mali in early April, he said categorically, “We are engaged in a fight. It is a fight without ambiguity against terrorism…And so there is only one way, there are not two.” Malian President Ibrahim Boubacar Keïta subsequently told Ayrault that there would be no negotiations, and that seemed to settle the question. The debate, however, has continued, perhaps to the chagrin of both France and Keïta (or “IBK,” in the tradition of calling certain Malian politicians by their initials).

There are several reasons why the idea of negotiations still appeals to some Malians, even as France continues to view Mali’s problems in black and white terms.

As you might expect, one of those reasons is “why the hell is France still telling our government what to do,” but there are three others. It’s definitely worth a read.


Militarizing police–it’s not just an American thing:

A former U.S. intelligence specialist has donated surveillance drones to police in Somalia, aiming to help combat a jump in deadly bombings by al Qaeda-linked Islamist insurgents.

The gift comes as U.S. President Donald Trump is increasing military engagement in the region. A member of the U.S. Navy SEAL special forces was killed in Somalia earlier this month on a raid, the first U.S. combat casualty in Somalia since 1993.

The Somalis received five drones, some of which have infra-red or night vision capabilities, from Brett Velicovich, whose service with the U.S. military features in a “Drone Warrior”, a book to be published next month. His life story is also being developed as a movie by Paramount Pictures.

“There’s been a real increase in complex attacks,” the 33-year-old told Reuters on a rooftop overlooking the capital of Mogadishu, as drones swooped and whirred nearby during a four-day police training course.

To be fair, though, Somali police are pretty much in a war zone. If any police force should have surveillance drones, it’s probably these guys.


South African President Jacob Zuma said on Friday that he’s “not opposed to establishing a commission of inquiry” into charges that he’s been making cabinet appointments at the behest of wealthy donors. Which is nice, but you know what he didn’t say? That he was actually going to establish a commission of inquiry. In that sense, I’m not opposed to giving up eating cheeseburgers for the rest of my life. I am, however, going to keep eating cheeseburgers. Zuma may be about to lose one of his jobs, specifically the one as head of the African National Congress, during the party executive committee’s meeting this weekend.

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