Monthly Risk Spotlight: April 2021

AMERICAS

Thousands Displaced as Venezuela Targets Colombian Guerilla Group in Borderlands
On 21 March the Venezuelan military-initiated operations targeting an offshoot of the disbanded Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerilla group known as the Tenth Front in Venezuela’s Apure state along the Venezuela/Colombia border. The borderlands shared by these two countries have long been active areas for multiple criminal organizations engaged in narco-trafficking and extortion targeting local communities with little to no government intervention on either side of the border. In a marked shift, intense violence since 21 March has led over 5,000 Venezuelan refugees to flee the Apure state across the border into Arauca, Colombia. Fleeing refugees have reported ongoing conflict between Venezuelan forces and guerillas involving airstrikes, bombings of the local La Victoria tax office, and according to human rights groups the detaining, beating, and extrajudicial killing of civilians suspected of collaborating with guerillas.

Consequences of the conflict, the largest Venezuelan military operation in recent history, have included a surge in refugees over the still officially closed border (due to COVID-19 restrictions) into Colombia’s Arauca state. Resources to house refugees have been quickly overwhelmed despite additional government and international assistance. Though an acute crisis at the local level, the incident has so far had little impact at the national level (and for the majority of organizations operating in either country) due to the relative isolation of the region on both sides of the border.

That being said, the incident does have the potential to escalate existing tensions between the left-wing Venezuelan government and the right-wing Colombian government, who have had no diplomatic relations since 2019 following Colombia’s backing of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó. Tensions between the two governments have since remained high, in part due to the continued flow of Venezuelan refugees into Colombia despite Colombia closing official borders to refugees due to COVID-19 concerns. In recent weeks Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro has accused the Colombian government of providing support for Colombian guerilla groups in the border region, though there is little evidence this is the case. The Colombian President Ivan Duque in turn has said FARC dissidents (like the Tenth Front) and other Colombian guerilla groups like the Army of National Liberation (ELN) operate in Venezuelan territory with support and coordination from the Venezuelan government. While the Venezuelan government has denied the accusation, these guerilla groups have been operating narco-trafficking and extortion operations on the Venezuelan side of the border for some time with little interference from the Venezuelan government. Multiple international observers have also made accusations of Venezuelan government collusion with these groups and President Maduro publicly invited former senior FARC leader Luciano Marín (known to currently lead a FARC dissident group) to come to Venezuela after Marín rejected the 2016 Colombian peace deal.

While the immediate impact of the recent Apure State violence may have limited consequences for greater Colombia and Venezuela, the tendency for both governments to escalate tensions using inflammatory rhetoric and the continued lack of diplomatic ties increases the risk future isolated incidents coupled with miscommunication could spark a broad direct confrontation between the two countries.

MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA

Yazidi Women Reunite With ISIS-Born Children
Just across the Syria-Iraq border, nine women and twelve children reunite in a safe house at an undisclosed location. The children have been living in a Syrian orphanage close to the border. The reunion followed months of negotiations between former U.S. diplomat Peter Galbraith, the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government, and Kurdish officials in Syria. The secret operation has so far been the only reunion of Yazidi women from Iraq and the children they had while sexually enslaved by their ISIS captors.

In August of 2014, ISIS militants attacked the Yazidi community in northern Iraq. Yazidi men were massacred, and women and girls were kidnapped by the thousands. Yazidis are an ancient religious minority that are considered infidels by ISIS. For years, the captured women and girls were sold and assaulted. After the fall of ISIS in 2019, many of these women and girls are now free from ISIS’ grip. Their freedom, however, comes at a cost.

One of the many concerns of returning home after captivity was acceptance. Would the Yazidi community accept these women back after what they had endured? In conflicts around the world, women who are victims of sexual violence are often abandoned, ostracized, and abused. Faced with the loss of thousands of its women, the Yazidi community has since broken with centuries of precedent to welcome back the women and girls captured by ISIS. Yazidi religious leader, Baba Sheikh, instructed the community to welcome back the women and girls and not to harm them. However, Yazidi elders have said they would not accept the children born to Yazidi women and ISIS men back into the community. One said that the children risked being killed if their mothers brought them home. Many of these children were seized at the border upon the women’s return to Iraq. According to the religion, a child cannot be considered Yazidi unless he or she has two Yazidi parents.

To the Yazidi community, the children are a traumatic reminder of the ISIS fighters who slaughtered and captured thousands of friends and family members. The women freed after the fall of ISIS faced an impossible choice. If they wanted to return to their families and community, they had to leave their babies behind. These women who chose to move forward with this reunion have made the difficult choice to cut ties with family and their Yazidi community to rejoin their children. None of the women could tell their families they were leaving. This is the first choice many of these women have been able to make for a while. There is no looking back.

 

ASIA-PACIFIC

Foiled Bombing in Indonesia Indicates Ongoing Threat of Terrorism
In what could have been a significantly more catastrophic event, Indonesian security forces foiled an attack on a Catholic church in the capital of Indonesia’s South Sulawesi province, Makassar, on Sunday 28 March. The two suspects, a recently married couple, approached the packed church during Palm Sunday Mass with what Indonesian authorities described as a pressure cooker packed with explosives. Prior to gaining access to the building, however, security intercepted the couple, prompting them to prematurely detonate the improvised device. Ultimately, the two bombers were the only fatalities while at least twenty others were reported wounded. Authorities would discover the motivation behind the attacks to be religiously driven, with both individuals being connected to the Islamic State (IS) linked Jamaah Ansharut Daulah (JAD) terror group. Rather than being an isolated attack, however, this event confirms the ongoing threat posed by terror groups across Indonesia.

The attempted attack in Makassar was one of several such attacks against minority religious groups in Indonesia over the previous years. In 2018, a similar series of attacks occurred in Surabaya when three Christian churches were bombed leading to the deaths of twenty-eight people, including the bombers who were similarly affiliated with JAD. Attacks by radical Islamic groups have also targeted the secular Indonesian government and various locations interpreted to be symbols of the western/non-Islamic world, including the 2016 coordinated attacks in Jakarta that targeted foreign entities and the more recent attack on the Headquarters of the Indonesian National Police in Jakarta which occurred just days after the foiled attack in Makassar.

In the short-term, such attacks are expected to periodically continue with Western entities, Indonesian government facilities/personnel, and anything deemed to be related to the non-Islamic world. Indeed, following the March church attack in Makassar, JAD itself stated its intention to carryout additional attacks. Additionally, the Indonesian government has advised of a higher threat of terrorism nationwide. Data shows, however, that while the overall radicalization of Indonesian society is on the decline, JAD and like-minded terror groups still have the intention and capability to conduct both unsophisticated and coordinated terror attacks throughout Indonesia.

SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA

The Passing of the President Gives Hope of Better Leadership for Tanzania
On 17 March, it was announced that the incumbent president of Tanzania, John Magufuli had passed. His death came as a shock to the nation and the international community, despite prolonged concern over his health. The now late President Magufuli is said to have died of cardiac complications, for which he had been under observation over the last 10 years. Vice-President Samia Suluhu Hassan has since been sworn in to fulfill the duties of the presidency. Hassan will serve as president of Tanzania until the end of Magufuli’s term in 2025. She makes history as the country’s first female head of state.

Magufuli leaves a country in mourning; he remained loved by many, despite his approval ratings dropping significantly since he took office in 2015. He came out victorious in the 2015 presidential elections due to his demonstrated commitment to ending corruption and his radical political agenda. His politics shifted once in power and he began to embrace a more authoritarian and overly conservative agenda. Magufuli launched a crackdown on various civil liberties such as freedom of speech, freedom to protest, women’s rights, etc. He showed little tolerance to criticism, forced the closure of various media outlets, banned public demonstrations, banned pregnant women from education post-birth, denied the reality and severity of the COVID-19 pandemic, to name a few. His actions drew condemnation from the international community and human rights groups, particularly regarding his handling of the pandemic.

Magufuli’s COVID-19 skepticism, anti-mask posture, “vaccines don’t work” rhetoric, and promotion of alternative remedies earned him a lot of negative press in his final moments. President Hassan, having now taken the baton, is expected to take a different approach from the late president under which she served. It is hoped that the country’s long reputation of political stability, democracy, and peace in a politically-charged region can be restored. Local political experts suggest that President Hassan will lean towards respecting the late President’s agenda for a period of time before she attempts to implement her own. She has always proven loyal to Magufuli but has in the past demonstrated that his values and ambitions did not fully align with hers. It could take some time before any significant change is introduced, but there is room for cautious optimism. President Hassan’s personality and leadership style draw a sharp contrast to that of President Magufuli’s, and she may prove to be the leader the Tanzanian people had hoped to find when they cast their votes for Magufuli.

EUROPE

Brexit Conundrum Sparks Tensions in Northern Ireland
While the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland officially ended over twenty years ago, peace in the region is still fragile. From 1960 to the late 1990s, Northern Ireland was marred by conflict and violence. The conflict was primarily political and nationalistic but was also influenced by strong ethnic and sectarian divides. The Unionists of Northern Ireland were predominantly Protestant and supported keeping the Northern region a part of the United Kingdom. The Nationalists were mainly Catholics supporting a break from the UK and unification of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998 and marked the official end of violence involving Irish Nationalists, British Unionists and U.K. armed forces in which more than 3,000 people died.

Brexit has now shaken the delicate political balance in Northern Ireland. As of January 2021, the UK is no longer a member of the European Union. Tensions in the region have been brought to a boil over a specific part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement, the Northern Ireland Protocol. The NI Protocol’s goal is to eliminate the need for border controls between Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (an EU member). Instead, it has created a de facto border along the Irish Sea as goods entering Northern Ireland from the UK are now subject to EU checks, a move that has angered pro-UK Unionists.

Parts of Northern Ireland have seen consecutive nights of violence this month as Unionists and Nationalists clashed with police and each other. Both parties have been accused of starting fires and throwing gasoline bombs and bricks at officers. At the beginning of March, Northern Ireland Unionist paramilitary groups withdrew their support for the 1998 Good Friday Agreement due to concerns over the Brexit deal’s implications for the region and pledged to oppose it by peaceful and democratic means. The groups have informed British Prime Minister Boris Johnson that they would not support the Good Friday Agreement (also known as the Belfast Agreement) again until the NI Protocol was amended to ensure unrestricted trade between Northern Ireland and the UK.

Unionists are also angry at a police decision not to prosecute Sinn Fein politicians after they attended the funeral of a former Irish Republican Army commander in June. The funeral drew a large crowd, despite COVID-19 rules restricting mass gatherings. The main Unionist parties have since demanded the resignation of Northern Ireland’s police chief over the controversy, claiming he has lost the confidence of their community.

Police have deemed the escalating violence as “unacceptable” and appealed to residents to help diffuse any local tensions and prevent further incidents. These are scenes that have not been seen in the region for years and they can bring back difficult memories for those who lived through it once before. Ireland’s Foreign Minister Simon Coveney is calling on the region’s political and community leaders to work together to ease the tensions.

 

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