Asia/Africa/Americas update: May 27-29 2017


The Philippine military says that it’s “close” to defeating a group of ISIS-aligned militants who have dug themselves in to part of the southern city of Marawi over the past week. Over 100 people have been killed in the fighting, most of them Maute Group fighters, and of course there’s no way to tell exactly what “close” means, so this situation could continue for some time yet. The bodies of eight civilians who appear to have been executed were discovered in a ravine outside of the city on Sunday, the first confirmation of reports that the militants have been capturing and executing civilians.

On Saturday, Philippine helicopters were seen using rockets against Maute positions amid concerns that, if the battle isn’t wrapped up soon, other Islamist militants might be inclined to make their way to the city and join in the fighting. Maute and Abu Sayyaf, though they’ve declared their allegiance to ISIS, have been struggling to gain acceptance as full-fledged members of the organization rather than fanboys. The longer they’re able to maintain this operation the more respect they’re likely to earn in that regard.

Marawi is one of the few parts of the Philippines that are majority Muslim, so the city’s minority Christian community has been particularly at risk during this extended attack. Several Christians have been among those taken hostage by the Maute fighters, and their whereabouts are mostly unknown.

While this is all going on in Marawi, something odd is happening in terms of Manila’s relations to its Marxist rebels. On Saturday, the government broke off talks with the New People’s Army, citing increased NPA guerrilla activity. Then on Sunday, President Rodrigo Duterte publicly asked the NPA, as well as the Muslim separatist (but not ISIS-linked) Moro Islamic Liberation Front and Moro National Liberation Front to put aside their various beefs with Manila and help deal with Maute. Citing the ISIS threat as a special danger, Duterte even offered to pay and house these fighters if they agreed to join the fight in Marawi.

Speaking of Duterte, on Saturday he decided to pepper his remarks about the active war zone on his country’s southern island with a rape joke, which amazingly isn’t the first one he’s told in his political career. He’s quite a guy.



As many as 18 people were killed on Saturday in a Taliban car bombing in Khost province. The target seems to have been the Khost Protection Force, a militia that has received CIA aid and training to go after the Haqqani network, the Taliban/al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgent/organized crime organization that’s based over the border in Pakistan. Clashes between insurgents and government security forces in Badghis province and Nangarhar province also killed dozens of people over the weekend.

On Monday, gunmen of some description killed a district governor and his son in Paktika province. Based on the location, this could have been either the Taliban or ISIS. Or neither, I guess. This is Afghanistan, after all.


Hamza bin Laden, the son of Osama, is emerging as a leading figure in al-Qaeda. This is a heady time for al-Qaeda’s core, which still doesn’t have any operational control over any of its affiliates but is watching its main rival for dominance in the global jihadi space get thoroughly wrecked in Iraq and Syria. If the organization were ever going to reassert itself, this would be the time, but it needs a more charismatic pitchman than Ayman al-Zawahiri. Enter Hamza, the heir apparent, issuing a new audio message calling on Muslims to carry out lone wolf attacks against the West–an acknowledgement of the fact that al-Qaeda doesn’t really have the capacity to carry out intricate, large-scale attacks at this point. I mention this under “Pakistan” because, like his dad, Hamza is suspected of being somewhere in Pakistan, probably in the chaotic tribal areas along the Afghan border.

Speaking of the Afghan border, Pakistan reopened its Chaman border crossing on Saturday, weeks after Pakistani and Afghan forces traded fire there.

Islamabad says that an Iranian mortar shell killed a civilian in Balochistan province on Saturday.  It’s not clear why Iran would have been firing mortars into Pakistan on Saturday, but presumably it had something to do with Iranian separatists who are based in Pakistan.


Kashmiri separatist leader Sabzar Bhat, one of the commanders of Hizbul Mujahideen, was killed in a gun battle with Indian forces on Friday night. This is a pretty big win for India, but it’s likely to lead in the short term to more unrest, just like the killing of Bhat’s predecessor, Burhan Wani, did last July. That’s undoubtedly why India imposed a curfew on Sunday…which thousands of people broke to attend Bhat’s funeral.


Thai politicians are concerned that the military junta that’s been running the country since 2014 is preparing to delay elections again. Junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha questioned in an address on Friday whether an elected government would really be in Thailand’s best interest, which could have been a trial balloon. The junta initially promised to hold elections in 2015, then delayed that to 2018, and so this would be the third delay if it happens. Polls suggest that Prayuth would win if he ran, so if that holds he may be persuaded to hold the elections and legitimize himself that way.


New analysis of the ransom note delivered by the “WannaCry” virus suggests that the author may be a native Chinese speaker–only the note’s English and Chinese versions seem to have been written by someone fluent in the language, while the notes in other languages appear to be poor translations. This isn’t much to go on, but the fact that the Korean-language note in particular seems not to have been written by a Korean speaker may be a problem for the theory that North Korea was responsible.


Pyongyang tested another missile on Sunday, this time probably a short-range Scud variant. It landed inside Japan’s exclusive economic zone in the Sea of Japan.



Ansar al-Sharia, once Libya’s largest al-Qaeda affiliate and the group behind the 2012 Benghazi consulate attack, has allegedly disbanded. In announcing the move, the group said that its leadership had been decimated in battles against the Libyan National Army and most of its members had abandoned it for ISIS.

Between last week’s bombing in Manchester, perpetrated by a man whose family was from Libya and who had apparently recently traveled there before the attack, and the attack on a bus full of Coptic Christians in Egypt on Friday that is believed to have originated there, Libya is once again being looked at as a potential incubator for terrorists. That threat is going to continue unless and until the civil war ends and some order can be restored to the country.


On Saturday, violent clashes between protesters and police in the city of Hoceima resulted in the arrest of 20 people by Moroccan authorities. The violence started when police attempted to arrest opposition leader Nasser Zefzafi on charges that he interrupted a Friday prayer sermon in a local mosque.


Horrifying stuff in this Washington Post report on al-Shabab’s effort to cut off the starving Somali population from food aid, and to target displaced Somalis with attacks on refugee camps:

Since the previous famine, government-allied militias together with African Union troops have regained control over Baidoa, a city near the epicenter of the drought. U.N. agencies and African Union troops share a heavily fortified compound next to the city’s airport.

Aid workers from private groups such as Save the Children and SOS Children’s Villages travel with truckloads of hired gunmen when they venture into the camps of displaced people in Baidoa or visit hungry towns nearby. U.N. staff often move in bulletproof vehicles with military escorts. Somali aid workers can travel with greater ease, but their association with aid groups makes them targets for al-Shabab.

“If they caught me, they would kill me — it’s that simple,” said a Somali employee of Save the Children, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of security concerns.


South African President Jacob Zuma managed to survive a vote of no confidence at an African National Congress executive committee meeting over the weekend. Zuma is under suspicion of making cabinet picks at the behest of wealthy donors–and, hey, totally coincidentally he’s also planning to build a second home for himself in Dubai. As one does. The ANC bosses appear to have opted to keep Zuma in place in order to avoid splintering the party.



Two opposition leaders were among those injured by security forces responding to a Monday protest in Caracas against the government of Nicolás Maduro.


More horrifying stuff in this AP report on the whitewashing of a United Nations peacekeeping unit that functioned as a child sex ring in the early 2000s:

It wasn’t the first time that Sri Lankan soldiers were accused of sexual abuse: In 2007, a group of Haitian children identified 134 Sri Lankan peacekeepers in a child sex ring that went on for three years, the AP reported in April.

In that case, the Sri Lankan military repatriated 114 of the peacekeepers, but none was ever jailed.

In fact, Sri Lanka has never prosecuted a single soldier for sexual assault or sexual misconduct while serving in a peacekeeping mission abroad, the AP found.

The alleged abuses committed by its troops abroad stem from a culture of impunity that arose during Sri Lanka’s civil war and has seeped into its peacekeeping missions. The government has consistently refused calls for independent investigations into its generation-long civil war, marked by widespread reports of rape camps, torture, mass killings and other alleged war crimes by its troops.

The U.N. has deployed thousands of peacekeepers from Sri Lanka despite these unresolved allegations of war crimes at home. This is a pattern repeated around the world: Strapped for troops, the U.N. draws recruits from many countries with poor human rights records for its peacekeeping program, budgeted at nearly $8 billion this year.

The UN is trying to implement more stringent screening for peacekeepers, but with the US looking to cut its UN funding to the bone who knows how well this problem will be addressed.


Nobody’s gone to jail yet, so I guess that’s something. Of course, this happened yesterday:


The consensus seems to be that those are ambulance lights being reflected in the White House windows. Which, OK. But Jesus Christ.

Jared Kushner is still employed, and even got Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly to toss away the last remaining shreds of his credibility defending Kushner’s alleged efforts to establish a communications backchannel to Russia:

“I don’t know if it is true or not; I know it’s being reported in the press,” Kelly said on “Fox News Sunday,” before being told by anchor Chris Wallace that the network had confirmed that the discussion between Kushner and Russian officials had taken place.

“I think that any channel of communication, back or otherwise, with a country like Russia is a good thing,” he said. “It doesn’t bother me.”

While the administration seems to be running a two-track defense here, with “fake news” on track one and “he did it for world peace” on track two, what matters here is not the attempt to establish a backchannel itself, it’s the reason for establishing it. If you believe Kushner and Michael Flynn just wanted a quiet way to try to solve the Syrian crisis, then, well, I guess you’ll believe just about anything but certainly you don’t find anything wrong here. On the other hand, if Kushner wanted to talk about eliminating sanctions so that Russian oligarchs could invest in his family’s properties, then that’s kind of a problem.

Anyway, in terms of things that matter, Donald Trump is planning to make a decision soon about whether or not to leave the US in the Paris Climate Agreement. Though he’s almost certainly decided to pull out of it, or else he would’ve given into peer pressure at the G7 and participated in their group climate statement. No worries, I’m sure the climate is doing just fine.

The administration may be planning to ban laptops and tablets on all flights coming into the US, regardless of country of origin. Boy, that must have been some intel they got from Israel Jordan an unnamed Middle Eastern ally.

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