Top News: Tunisian Gunmen Trained in Libya; ISIS Claims Responsibility

A Tunisian security official said that the two extremist gunmen who killed twenty-one people at a museum in Tunis trained in neighboring Libya before carrying out the deadly attack.

The attackers slipped out of Tunisia in December and received weapons training in Libya before returning home. Tunisian police have arrested five people described as directly tied to the two gunmen, as well as four others in central Tunisia said to be supporters of their cell. The Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) has claimed responsibility for the attack, although the gunmen’s link to the group cannot be verified. [APReuters, 3/20/2015]



Muslim Brotherhood allying with jihadist militants Interior Ministry Spokesman says
Interior Ministry Spokesman Hani Abdel-Latif blamed Ajnad Misr for an attack near the Cairo High Court earlier this month, which killed two civilians and injured a number of others. Abdel-Latif also said the militant group was behind other smaller attacks in Haram, Giza and Ain Shams. He added that fugitive members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood have indirectly participated in attacks taking place in Egypt. Investigations indicate that “leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood who have fled the country are changing their rhetoric and officially abandoning their commitment to peaceful movements,” Abdel-Latif said. He added that the Brotherhood has been merging with other “terrorist organizations” whose goal is to “spread chaos.” [Ahram Online, 3/19/2015]

Military court sentences university students from two to ten years in prison
An Egyptian military court sentenced fifteen Mansoura University students to up to ten years in prison on Thursday, according to the campaign group No to Military Trials for Civilians. The students must also pay a fine of 50,000 Egyptian pounds. The sentenced students include second year science student Israa Maher, who was given two years prison time, third year law student Said Mohamed who was sentenced to ten years, as well as students from the Mansoura branch of Al-Azhar University who were sentenced to three years in prison. These rulings were made after “security forces raided Mansoura University, assaulted the students, and arbitrarily arrested a number of students,” the group No to Military Trials for Civilians said. These students were taken because they were present on-campus October 28, 2014 and they were taken to the prosecutor on charges of “possessing fireworks, white weapons, inciting leaflets, gasoline, books that contain radical fundamentalist thoughts, protesting without license, and for threatening general social well-being.” [DNE, 3/20/2015]

Refugees held for over 100 days at Alexandria police station
A group of seventy-four Syrian and Palestinian-Syrian refugees have been detained at Karmooz police station in Alexandria for over 100 days. Dozens of them have been on a hunger strike for more than 20 days demanding their release while their fate remains in limbo. In November, 2014 the prosecutor general issued a decision to release all the refugees, but the National Security Apparatus has ordered all the refugees to be detained until they are deported. Thirty other refugees with passports have been deported to Turkey, but the sixteen detained Syrian refugees, including fourteen men and two children—a boy of thirteen and a girl of eight— have no travel documents, and only one of them is officially registered as a refugee with the UNHCR. The fifty-eight detained Palestinian-Syrian refugees have travel documents and are registered by UNRWA as refugees. [Ahram Online, 3/19/2015]

Egypt signs customs agreement with Saudi Arabia, await parliamentary approval
Egypt signed a customs agreement in cooperation with Saudi Arabia, according to Magdy Abdel Aziz, Chairman of the Customs Authority. The agreement, which is applicable for three years, is expected to facilitate the growing commerce cycle between both countries. “We are waiting for the parliament’s approval in order to apply the agreement,” said Abdel Aziz. The agreement fights customs’ violations which negatively affect political, financial and social interests for both countries. Saudi Arabia is Egypt’s foremost commercial partner amongst Arab countries. A customs committee will be arranged, under the presidency of the Egyptian Chairman of the Customs Authority and Saleh Ben Manie Al Kheleui, the General Director of the Saudi customs. It will face any obstacles that might delay the agreement`s application, according to Abdel Aziz. An official will be appointed for communicating with the customs authorities of both countries to set up the meetings to ensure cooperation and that would aim to solve any potential obstacles. [DNE, 3/19/2015]

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UN says attacks on airports undermine peace talks
Following continued air strikes on airports and infrastructure by forces loyal to both the Tobruk-based and Tripoli-based governments, the UN Special Envoy to Libya Bernardino Leon said that these actions are a deliberate attempt to undermine efforts at finding a political solution in Libya. He went on to urge all sides to refrain from reciprocal attacks and called for an end to attacks on infrastructure and civilian targets. The strike on the Matiga airport this Thursday prevented participants from flying to Morocco for the UN-led dialogue seeking to form a unity government in Libya. [Libya Herald, 3/19/2015]

EU plans options for backing future Libyan national unity government
European Union leaders, concerned about migrants using Libya as a jumping-off point for the continent and viewed as a rising terror threat, met to discuss how the EU could help the war-torn country. EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini said that the leaders were planning all possible ways to support a future unified Libyan government, including security arrangements. She specified that Europe could mount a military and border operation and help build Libya’s police and justice systems. Many leaders within the EU remain hesitant to act until Libya has a unity government and has calmed the fighting between its rival Tobruk-based and Tripoli-based governments. Until that time, the EU leaders remain committed to supporting the UN-led negotiations seeking to form a unity government. [AP, 3/20/2015]

Twenty-five Libyan National Army troops killed in two weeks of fighting in Benghazi
Twenty-five Libyan National Army (LNA) troops have been killed and 170 wounded, in two weeks of fighting with the Benghazi Revolutionary Shoura Council (BRSC). The BRSC and Ansar al-Sharia have sought to reclaim the Benghazi port, a key strategic point, which the LNA took over several weeks ago. The continued fighting counters General Khalifa Haftar’s claim that the LNA liberated Benghazi from Islamist militias. Meanwhile, in its most recent propaganda video, the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) said it will make Misrata a new Libyan Mosul and Sirte a “hell like Fallujah,” while accusing the Tripoli-based government ally, Operation Libya Dawn, of betrayal for participating in the UN-led talks. [Libya Herald, 3/19/2015]

Libya’s state oil firm says it operates independent of rival governments
Libya’s National Oil Corporation (NOC) said that it is working independently without taking orders from either the Tobruk-based or Tripoli-based governments. The Tripoli-based NOC explained that all revenue is directly deposited into the Libyan Central Bank. Earlier this week, the Tobruk government said it wants to route oil exports through an eastern NOC entity under its leadership rather than via Tripoli, which has traditionally handled oil exports. Both governments have fought for control of Libya’s oil sector with the Tobruk-government appointing a new head to the NOC, while the Tripoli-government kept the previous NOC leader, but appointed its own oil minister. [Reuters, 3/19/2015]

Tunisian gunmen trained in Libya; ISIS claims responsibility
A Tunisian security official said that the two extremist gunmen who killed twenty-one people at a museum in Tunis trained in neighboring Libya before carrying out the deadly attack. The attackers slipped out of Tunisia in December and received weapons training in Libya before returning home. Tunisian police have arrested five people described as directly tied to the two gunmen, as well as four others in central Tunisia said to be supporters of their cell. The Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) has claimed responsibility for the attack, although the gunmen’s link to the group cannot be verified. [AP, Reuters, 3/20/2015]


United States investigates alleged Syrian regime gas attack
Secretary of State John Kerry said that the United States is looking into allegations that the Syrian regime unleashed chlorine gas in an attack in the northwest of the country earlier this week. “While we cannot yet confirm details, if true, this would be only the latest tragic example of the Assad regime’s atrocities against the Syrian people…What is clear is that the Assad regime continues to flout international standards and norms, including, if these latest allegations are verified, the Chemical Weapons Convention,” Kerry said in a statement. He continued with the warning that the international community would not “turn a blind eye to such barbarism.” Kerry’s statements referred to an alleged regime gas attack in the village of Sarmin, in Idlib province, where six people, including three young children, were killed on Tuesday. [AFP, Reuters, 3/19/2015]

Syria’s Assad fires two top spy chiefs
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has fired two top intelligence chiefs after a fight between the two officials. “General Rustom Ghazaleh, head of political intelligence, and General Rafik Shehadeh, head of military intelligence, were fired at the beginning of the week by Assad after a violent dispute between the two men” over Ghazaleh’s involvement in the southern front of the conflict in Syria, a Syrian security source said. Ghazaleh has been replaced by his former deputy, Nazih Hassoun, and Shehadeh was replaced by Mohamed Mahalla. Ghazaleh is considered a strongman of Assad, since Assad became president in 2000. He was frequently named as a suspect in the planning of the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, though the international tribunal prosecuting the murder has not indicted him. [AFP, 3/20/2015]

Iraqi Shia militias destroyed entire Sunni villages
A Human Right’s Watch report states Iraqi militias, volunteer fighters and members of the Iraqi security forces engaged in the deliberate destruction of civilian property in the town of Amerli after forcing out Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) fighters. The report presented eyewitness testimony as well as satellite imagery and video footage which it said showed that militias had deliberately “looted property of Sunni civilians who had fled fighting, burned their homes and businesses, and destroyed at least two entire villages” between early September and mid-November. In related news, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s top Shia cleric, called Friday for greater professionalism and planning by government forces and allied militias in fighting ISIS insurgents.[Asharq Al-Awsat, 3/20/2015]

Italy urges UN military unit to protect ancient sites from ISIS
Italy’s culture minister has called for the creation of a UN peacekeeping force to protect the world’s heritage sites, following the destruction of ancient cities in ISIS militants. “There should be an international rapid response force to defend monuments and archaeological sites in conflict zones,” he said. The minister was referring to ISIS’s recent destruction of UNESCO heritage sites to include Iraq’s Hatra and Syria’s Nimrud. In related news, Syria says it has reclaimed more than 120 antiquities looted from cemeteries in the heritage site of Palmyra during conflicts between the Syrian army and rebels. [The Guardian, 3/19/2015]


Houthi mosques targeted by suicide bombers in Sana’a
Suicide bombers have blown themselves up at two mosques in the center Sana’a, killing at least forty-six people. Worshippers were attending noon prayers at the Badr and al-Hashoosh mosques when at least two bombers struck. The mosques are used mainly by supporters of the Houthi rebel movement. Another mosque was targeted in Sada’a but there were no casualties. There has been no immediate claim of responsibility, but al-Qaeda militants have carried out similar attacks. [BBC, Al Masdar, SABA, NYT, 3/20/2015]

Al-Qaeda claims responsibility for journalist’s death
Al-Qaeda’s Yemen affiliate claimed responsibility for the murder of an award-winning journalist turned top official of the Houthi militia. A brief statement on Twitter said two terrorists belonging to the group riding motorcycles opened fire on Abdul Kareem al-Khiwani on Wednesday near his home in the center of Sana’a, before fleeing. In 2008, al-Khiwani was awarded the Amnesty International Special Award for Human Rights Journalism under threat. [AFP, 3/20/2015]

President Hadi unharmed after fighter jets attack residence
President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi was forced to evacuate his residence in Aden after unidentified fighter jets attacked it. Sources close to the president claim the attack was repelled by anti-aircraft defenses and that the president was unharmed. They denied reports that President Hadi left the country after the attack. Before being deterred by anti-aircraft guns, security forces say the plane fired on the residence but missed. The targeting of the residence came just hours after deadly clashes forced the closure of Aden’s international airport. [AFP, 3/19/2015]

Dozens dead in clashes between Houthis and tribesmen
Yesterday, Houthi troops amassed on the border between al-Beida and Marib where they clashed with forces of the Murad tribe. After receiving support from other tribes, they were able to repel the Houthi attack killing dozens of Houthi soldiers. Security forces loyal to the Houthis also moved into Taiz on Thursday to prevent any unrest from breaking out in reaction to the attacks on Aden and Marib. [Al Jazeera, Al Masdar, 3/19/2015]

Saudi Arabia to stop issuing visas to Swedes
Saudi Arabia will no longer issue business visas to Swedes or renew the current visas of Swedish nationals living in the country. The decision is in response to Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom’s recent criticism of Saudi Arabia’s record on human and women’s rights. The United Arab Emirates on Wednesday also recalled its ambassador to Sweden to protest criticism of its neighbor Saudi Arabia. [AP, 3/19/2015]


Yemen’s political unrest hits Saudi investments hard
Saudi-Yemeni Business Council President Abdullah Bugshan said the political turmoil in Yemen and the outbreak of unrest in the region has forced the council to halt its activities. The council was previously responsible for organizing meetings, exhibitions, and conferences, but due to the current turmoil, no commercial or investment-related activities in the country have been initiated. Events in Yemen have cast a shadow over the Yemeni economy and the volume of transactions, trade, investments, and exchanges with Saudi Arabia. [Arab News, 3/20/2015]

Iraqi Kurdish region gets delayed budget payment from Baghdad
Iraq’s Kurdistan region received a $420 million budget payment from Baghdad, a long-awaited transfer of funds that puts a bilateral oil export agreement back on track. Baghdad cut budget payments to the Kurds in January 2014 over the semi-autonomous region’s oil policies but they were reinstated in December after the Kurds agreed to export an average of 550,000 bpd. The Kurds were promised 17 percent from this year’s $105 billion national budget, but the payment was missed in February. The central government has severe cash flow problems, burdened by low oil prices and the war it is waging against Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) militants across northern and western Iraq. [Reuters, 3/19/2015]

Morocco inflation eases to 1.3 percent in February
According to the High Planning Authority, Morocco’s consumer price inflation eased to an annual 1.3 percent in February from 1.6 percent in January as rising food and non-food prices slowed. Food inflation was up 1.8 percent after rising 2.1 percent in the twelve months until January 2015. The non-food price index rose 0.9 percent from the previous month. Transport costs fell 3.8 percent, while housing was 5 percent more expensive. [Reuters, 3/20/2015]