Top News: United States Expands Role in Saudi-Led Campaign in Yemen

The United States is expanding its role in Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen, vetting military targets and searching vessels for Yemen-bound Iranian arms amid growing concerns about the goals of the Saudi-led mission, according to US and Arab officials. The Obama administration is skeptical the airstrikes will reverse the Houthi gains. Worried by the risk of more direct intervention by Iran, US officials say they are urging the Saudis to set their sights more narrowly on halting rebel advances and reaching what amounts to a battlefield stalemate that leads all sides to the negotiating table. [Wall Street Journal (subscription required), 4/12/2015]



Egyptian court sentences Muslim Brotherhood leader to death, Egyptian-American to life
The Cairo Criminal Court ratified on Saturday death sentences served to Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohamed Badie and thirteen other Brotherhood leaders. The son of leading member and businessman Hassan Malek, Omar, and leading member Saad al-Hoseiny are among those sentenced to death. Former Brotherhood spokesperson Mahmoud Ghozlan and leading member Saad Emara were sentenced to death in absentia. Thirty-seven other defendants were sentenced to life in prison, including Egyptian-American Mohamed Soltan and Saad al-Shater, son of Brotherhood strongman and business tycoon Khairat al-Shater. The White House lashed out at Egypt on Saturday for Soltan’s sentence, calling for his immediate release in a statement. US State Department Spokesperson Marie Harf said in a statement, “The US government is deeply disappointed in the Egyptian court’s decision in the case of US citizen Mohamed Soltan.” [Ahram Online, DNE, Reuters, Aswat Masriya, The Guardian, 4/12/2015]

Ministry of Defense announces reshuffle of top military officers
Minister of Defence Sedki Sobhi has made several new appointments in the Egyptian military leadership. These include the appointment of Mohamed al-Shahat as head of the Military Intelligence Services, Nasser al-Assy as chief commander of the Second Field Army, and Osama Mounir as chief of the Navy. The new appointments are a continuation of a wave of promotions, as former Intelligence Chief Salah Badry was promoted to Deputy Minister of Defense. [Ahram Online, DNE, Egypt Independent, SIS, 4/13/2015]

Attacks on troops in Egypt’s Sinai kill at least fourteen; ISIS posts new beheading video in Egypt
At least fourteen people, mostly Egyptian policemen, were killed Sunday in separate operations when militants attacked a police station in the provincial capital of Egypt’s northern Sinai and detonated a roadside bomb as an armored vehicle passed by, officials said. A car bomber also detonated his vehicle at the entrance of a large police station in Arish, killing at least seven people and wounding over forty. Meanwhile, a roadside bomb attack on an army vehicle killed six soldiers and wounded two near the North Sinai town of Sheikh Zuweid. A Twitter feed that describes itself as the official account for Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM) claimed responsibility for the attacks. On Saturday, ABM posted a video online that appeared to show an Egyptian soldier shot dead and the beheading of another captive. [AP, Reuters, AFP, 4/13/2015]

Journalist arrested over articles critical of police
Egypt has arrested a journalist on claims he is wanted in seven different cases, just days after he published a series of critical articles about the police. The Interior Ministry announced Sunday, it ordered the arrest of Hussein Abdel Halim, a reporter at al-Dostor newspaper, on Saturday as part of a routine round-up of fugitives. The statement claimed Abdel Halim is wanted for multiple cases dating back to 2003, including drugs, theft, and bribery. A ministry statement also requested that the Public Prosecutor launch an investigation related to Abdel Halim’s recent series of articles critical of the security apparatus. [DNE, AP, 4/12/2015]

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ISIS militants claim attacks on embassies in Libya
A bomb exploded at the gate of the Moroccan embassy in Tripoli early on Monday, causing some damage, but not injuring anyone. The attack came just after gunmen fired shots at the South Korean embassy killing two local security guards and wounding a third person on Sunday. Militants claiming loyalty to the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) said on Twitter they were responsible for both attacks. The bomb damaged the gate and a residential building next to the Moroccan. No South Koreans were injured in the attack on Sunday. [Reuters, 4/12/2015]

Tripoli government formally backs Benghazi Shura Council
The Tripoli government has issued a statement saying it will support the Benghazi Shura Council in its ongoing battles against forces allied to Khalifa Haftar and the Tobruk government. The statement said that the Tripoli government will provide all the support possible to help the Shura Council defeat Haftar, who they describe as a Qaddafi loyalist seeking to overthrow the Tripoli government. The Shura Council is a coalition of Islamist-leaning groups formed last year, after Haftar launched his campaign to liberate Benghazi. Ansar al-Sharia is thought to be cooperating with it. [Libya Monitor (Subscription), 4/13/2015]

UNSMIL demands ceasefire in the west
The UN Special Mission in Libya has demanded an end to the heavy fighting in Warshefana while Libyan National Army units appear to be tightening their grip on Aziziya and pressing toward the southern suburbs of Tripoli. Despite this call, fighting in Aziziya may not be at an end as clashes continued between the Tobruk-allied Libyan National Army and Tripoli-allied Operation Libya Dawn militias. Meanwhile, talks among elders led to an exchange of prisoners and bodies between Warshefana and Janzour. [Libya Herald, 4/11/2015]

Egypt calls for anti-ISIS intervention in Libya
Abdel-Rahman Salah, an aide to Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri has demanded the international coalition against the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) intervene in Libya to drive out the extremists who have been taking root. Despite reservations by the rest of the international community, Egypt has retaliated with air strikes on ISIS targets in Derna in cooperation with the Libyan National Army. He said that the coalition fighting ISIS in Iraq and Syria must also expand the fight to Libya, where ISIS has risen as a major threat. Salah added that the UN arms embargo should be lifted so that the Tobruk government can properly fight ISIS on its own. [Libya Herald, 4/11/2015]

US increases military aid to Tunisia
After meeting with Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid and Minister of Foreign Affairs Tayeb Baccouche, US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States will increase military aid to Tunisia threefold this year and help train its troops. Blinken also announced that the US would provide training for Tunisian military in border management to fight border skirmishes and contain smuggling along the Algerian and Libyan borders. He said that the goal is to enhance Tunisia’s ability to defeat those who threaten its freedom and safety. [Reuters, Tunisia Live, 4/13/2015]


Iraqi Prime Minister to seek arms with deferred payment on US visit
Iraq’s Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is leaving for Washington for talks with President Barack Obama, whom he is expected to ask for substantial weapons deliveries. Al-Abadi will also seek agreement on a strategy for dislodging Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) terrorists from the parts of Iraq that they still control. Facing a cash crunch due to a plunge in oil prices and a budget deficit of roughly $21 billion this year, al-Abadi wants to defer payment for the purchases. An Iraqi official hinted Baghdad could turn to Tehran if it did not get the aid it wants from Washington. “If that’s not available, we’ve already done it with the Iranians and others,” he said, suggesting that was not the first choice. “The Prime Minister is committed to the US … What he also wants to make sure is that he has a partner that he can rely on.” On Monday, al-Abadi retired more than 300 officers as part of efforts to restructure the army after multiple divisions collapsed last year.[BBC, Reuters, 4/13/2015]

Syrian Kurds battle ISIS in Raqqa province
The Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) backed by Free Syrian Army factions (FSA) made headway on Sunday into Syria’s northern Raqqa province, where ISIS has set up its de facto capital. The YPG and FSA factions “took over a large cement factory and three villages” northwest of the town of Ain Issa, less than 35 miles from Raqqa city. At least thirty ISIS fighters have been killed in the clashes, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. [Reuters, AFP, 4/12/2015]

More than 6,000 European fighters in Syria
The number of Europeans fighting with groups in Syria could exceed 6,000 people. “At the European level, we estimate that 5,000-6,000 individuals have left for Syria,” EU Justice Commissioner Vera Jouriva said, adding that the true number was likely to be higher due to the difficulty of tracking foreign fighters. Jouriva said that focusing on those seeking to leave for Syria to wage jihad or those returning from the conflict meant intervening “too late.” The European Union instead wanted to promote prevention, as a means of curtailing the steady flow of European nationals, looking at the diverse reasons why people joined jihadist groups beyond simply religion. [AFP, 4/13/2015]

Video shows ISIS blowing up the ancient city of Nimrud in Iraq
ISIS has posted a video online that shows its terrorists destroying the ancient city of Nimrud southeast of Mosul. The images appear to confirm reports in March that the terrorists had vandalized Nimrud, one of Iraq’s greatest archaeological treasures. The video showed ISIS members using power tools to cut up and destroy stone artefacts at the site. After that, they detonated large amounts of explosives, which appears to have levelled the site. Many treasures from Nimrud are in foreign museums, but a number of giant “lamassu” statues, depicting winged beasts with human heads, and stone friezes were still at Nimrud. The region held by ISIS in Iraq has nearly 1,800 of the country’s 12,000 registered archaeological sites. [AFP, BBC, 4/12/2015]

President Hadi appoints a Vice President
Yemeni President Abdrabbo Mansour Hadi appointed his former prime minister as Vice President on Sunday. The position has remained unfilled since President Hadi took office in 2012. Khaled Bahah is popular across Yemen’s spectrum of feuding parties and may be seen as a figure who could calm tensions and bring warring parties to the negotiating table. Writing in the New York Times, President Hadi squarely placed the blame on Iran for orchestrating a takeover of Yemen using the Houthis as puppets. He appealed to the international community asking for “continued international support to ensure military might on the battlefield” and “assistance for our civil institutions once the fighting has stopped, to return my government to leadership.” [Reuters, 4/12/2015]

Iran denies claims two of its soldiers were captured in Yemen
Iran has denied reports that Iranian military advisors were captured in the Yemeni city of Aden, state news agency IRNA reported on Sunday. Local militiamen in Aden said on Saturday they had captured two Iranian military officers advising Houthi rebels, whose rapid advances in Yemen have drawn air strikes from Tehran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia. If confirmed, the presence of the two Iranian officers whom the local militiamen said were from the Revolutionary Guards would deepen tensions between Tehran and Riyadh. [Reuters, 4/12/2015]

United States expands role in Saudi-led campaign in Yemen
The United States is expanding its role in Saudi Arabia’s campaign in Yemen, vetting military targets and searching vessels for Yemen-bound Iranian arms amid growing concerns about the goals of the Saudi-led mission, according to US and Arab officials. The Obama administration is skeptical the airstrikes will reverse the Houthi gains. Worried by the risk of more direct intervention by Iran, US officials say they are urging the Saudis to set their sights more narrowly on halting rebel advances and reaching what amounts to a battlefield stalemate that leads all sides to the negotiating table. [Wall Street Journal (subscription required), 4/12/2015]

Bahrain extends human rights activist’s detention
Bahrain on Saturday extended by fifteen days the period of detention for prominent rights campaigner Nabeel Rajab, who was arrested on April 2 accused of “spreading false news.” On April 2, his family said Rajab was arrested for posting comments on Twitter denouncing alleged torture in a prison where Shia activists are held. He said in a video posted on YouTube after his latest arrest that he was the victim of an “attempt by the authorities to deprive me of my right to free expression.” [AFP, 4/11/2015]


ISIS militants breach Iraq refinery perimeter, repelled
Militants from the Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) breached the security perimeter around Iraq’s largest refinery in Baiji early on Monday but were beaten back by security forces and coalition air strikes, according to local officials. The refinery was under siege for five months by ISIS until security forces pushed out the militants in November. The militants’ withdrawal left a single supply line to the refinery, which the militants cut on Sunday, surrounding the complex once and setting fire to three oil storage tanks. [Reuters, 4/13/2015]

Tunisia says $1.3 billion needed in foreign loans to meet 2015 budget deficit target
Tunisia’s Finance Minister Slim Chaker announced that Tunisia needs $1.3 billion in foreign financing and loans to meet its budget deficit target this year. That would include $1 billion in loans from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund that Tunis has already said it expects to receive this year. The government expects the budget deficit to narrow to 5 percent of GDP in 2015 and plans to sell minority stakes in several state-run banks to raise around $670 million to help cut the deficit. [Reuters, 4/13/2015]

Saudi Aramco deals boost EMEA Islamic loans to record start
Loan deals worth about $4 billion from the Saudi Arabian Oil Company and its joint venture Rabigh Refining & Petrochemical Company this year have fueled the busiest start ever for Islamic borrowing in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. About $7.1 billion of loans have been raised so far this year, compared with about $3 billion for the same period in 2014. The increase in borrowing highlights how companies in the Gulf Cooperation Council are maintaining investment even after crude prices dropped about 50 percent since June. [Bloomberg, 4/12/2015]

World Bank secures $400 million to support 1.5 million Egyptian families
The World Bank approved $400 million to Egypt’s government for a project set to benefit 1.5 million poor Egyptian families. Earlier this year, Egypt’s government established conditional cash transfer projects called “Takaful and Karama” (Solidarity and Dignity). Takaful targets poor families with children under eighteen to send them to schools, while Karama targets the elderly and the disabled who cannot earn a living wage. The World Bank believes the Takaful and Karama projects will “improve the … social safety net system, which is a critical element to accompany any reforms,” said Hafez Ghanem, the Bank’s regional vice president for the Middle East and North Africa. [DNE, Ahram Online, 4/11/2015]