Monthly Risk Spotlight: February 2020

Author: On Call International’s Global Security Team

On Call International’s Monthly Risk Spotlight highlights events of heightened importance in assessing risk to travel and operations abroad.

AMERICAS

The Mexican Government Takes Steps towards Reforms in the Criminal Justice System

In mid-January, Mexican president Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s legal advisor, and the country’s attorney general’s office presented lawmakers with a draft proposal to initiate major reforms to Mexico’s flawed criminal justice system. Met with fervent public outcry, the proposal was sent for revision to include less stringent reforms. These reforms are meant to address several key deficiencies that contribute to the government’s inability to hold criminals accountable at a time when violent crime is reaching record levels. Should they be passed by Mexico’s legislature when they are formally presented, as expected given the governing party’s control of both houses of congress, the moves have the potential to begin to address some of the longstanding structural challenges preventing the rule of law from truly taking hold in Mexico.
Among the proposed reforms presented in the draft are measures to allow law enforcement to present wiretaps and intercepts of private communications as evidence in court, and others to hamper suspects’ ability to delay extradition to the United States. At current, the use of private communications as evidence in court is not permissible without prior approval from a judge. This has hampered efforts to convict serious offenders, according to U.S. and Mexican officials. The measure to ease the extradition process is notable, given that extradition to the United States has long been the ultimate fear of organized crime leaders. Unlike in Mexican prisons at current, prisoners receive far fewer freedoms in U.S. prisons.

These measures, along with several others that would impact defendants’ abilities to issue legal challenges, will require amendments to several articles of the constitution, the creation of a new criminal code at the federal level, establishment of new judicial procedures, modification of one existing law regarding legal challenges, and alterations to the structure and scope of the attorney general’s office. It is perhaps telling that these reforms were announced one day prior to U.S. Attorney General William Barr’s planned visit to Mexico, where security is expected to be at the top of the agenda. The visit follows several high profile incidents in the last few months of 2019, including the temporary seizure of Culiacan by cartel gunmen, multiple confrontations that resulted in Mexican security forces casualties, and the massacre of nine dual Mexican-U.S. citizens by an organized crime group in Sonora. The latter in particular prompted U.S. President Donald Trump to call for the Mexican government to step up its fight against the countries’ numerous powerful criminal groups.

MIDDLE EAST AND NORTH AFRICA 

U.S.- Iran Tensions Persist as the U.S. Refuses to Leave Iraq

On Friday, January 3, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad advised U.S. citizens present in Iraq to leave the country after Iranian military commander, Qasem Soleimani, and deputy paramilitary commander, Abu Mahdi al-Mohandes, were killed by a U.S. airstrike near the Baghdad International Airport. Soleimani was a major general in the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard, responsible for leading proxy militias that have extended Iran’s power and influence across the Middle East. According to the U.S. State Department, Soleimani was actively developing plans to attack American diplomats and service members in Iraq and throughout the region.
Soleimani’s death further escalated U.S.-Iran tensions, already high after a series of recent incidents in Iraq. On December 29, the U.S. military carried out airstrikes on multiple locations in Iraq that were linked to the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an Iran-backed militia group. U.S. officials held the PMF responsible for killing a U.S. civilian contractor, just days prior, in a rocket attack on an Iraqi military base near Kirkuk. The operation stirred demonstrations on December 31, as hundreds of PMF supporters gathered outside the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad to protest U.S. airstrikes on PMF militia compounds. Protesters stormed the Embassy and set fire to a security post, prompting staff to evacuate.
In the ensuing escalation, the targeted killing of Soleimani prompted Iranian calls for retaliation against the United States, raising concerns of U.S. regional allies, particularly those housing U.S. troops. On January 8, Iran responded by firing 22 missiles into Iraq, targeting U.S. forces at the Ain Al-Asad Air Base (Anbar province) and in Erbil (Kurdistan region). Iran state media initially claimed at least 80 U.S. soldiers were killed. However, no casualties were reported by U.S. and Iraqi officials.
 
The Iranian strikes on the Iraqi bases appear to have been carefully designed to avoid U.S. casualties, offering both sides a path to de-escalation. Sources report that Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi received prior word from Iran that its anticipated retaliation was imminent. Tehran reportedly told Abdul Mahdi it would only target locations where U.S. forces were present but did not specify locations. Furthermore, Finland peacekeepers in Iraq also reportedly received an advance warning of the Iranian missile strikes.
Inter-state hostilities have since eased following President Trump’s address to the nation on January 8th, as Trump promised to impose more sanctions rather than engage in further military action. Nevertheless, tensions remain high between the U.S., regional allies, and Iran-backed proxies in the region. U.S. Vice President, Mike Pence, has stated that Iran has directed its militias not to attack U.S. targets. However, just hours after President Trump signaled an easing of tensions, militants fired 3 rockets at the Green Zone in Baghdad, setting off warning sirens at the U.S. Embassy.Although the attack inflicted zero casualties, the incident raises concerns that Iran-backed proxies in the region will continue to seek revenge against the U.S. and complicate efforts to deescalate tensions.
De-escalation efforts have further been complicated by the United States’ refusal to withdraw troops from Iraq. Iraqi Prime Minister Mahdi has called on the U.S. to prepare mechanisms for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, amid concerns of Iraq becoming a battleground in a proxy war between the U.S. and Iran. The Pentagon has rejected this request, threatening to cut military aid if Iraq formally asks the United States to leave. As of the writing of this piece, the Iraqi government continues to house U.S troops on its soil disregarding the strong disapproval of many Iraqi people. Given Iran’s strategic interest in Iraq and the heavy presence of Iran-backed proxy groups in the country, Iraq will likely remain at the front line of U.S.-Iran tensions in the near term.

ASIA-PACIFIC

The Influence of Hong Kong on Taiwan’s Presidential Elections 

Taiwan’s Presidential Election was held on January 11, 2020, and incumbent Tsai Ing-Wen regained her position with approximately 57% of the vote. Tsai and her Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) are seen as staunchly nationalist and avidly against reunification with mainland China. Her opponent, Han Kuo-yu of the pro-Beijing Kuomintang Party (KMT), received only approximately 39% of the vote. Many saw this election as a referendum on public opinion towards Taiwan rejoining mainland China, an espoused national goal of Beijing. While Han and the KMT were able to garner vast support amongst the Taiwanese people during past elections, the recent protests in Hong Kong have eroded the support for their pro-Beijing policies.
Since the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, Taiwan has proclaimed itself as separate and independent from China. In the intervening years, Beijing has utilized a “carrot and stick” approach to regain control over the island nation. Beijing has provided Taiwan with opportunities for economic development and educational exchanges while also convincing other countries to cease their recognition of Taiwan as an independent state and using its superior military to intimidate the island nation. Such policies have had an effect of somewhat isolating Taiwan and convincing many Taiwanese that a pivot towards the mainland would be in their best interests. Public opinion towards this pivot overwhelmingly changed, however, after protests in Hong Kong erupted in June 2020.
Beijing has long proposed that Taiwan rejoin the mainland under the “One Country, Two Systems” method of governance, comparable to that seen in Hong Kong and Macau, whereby Taiwan would maintain vast control of their internal affairs while ultimately surrendering their sovereignty to China. While this reunification was appealing to many, restrictions on freedoms and severe crackdowns on protesters in Hong Kong have convinced many Taiwanese against such a decision. Indeed, pro-Beijing Taiwanese Presidential candidate Han was forced to switch his campaign rhetoric from that of eventually reuniting with the mainland to solely espousing the economic benefits of cooperation with Beijing. Alternatively, Tsai’s nationalist and anti-reunification rhetoric gained overwhelming popularity amongst a large sum of the Taiwanese population due to the unrest in Hong Kong, eventually playing a major role in her reelection.
Despite the resounding win by Tsai, Beijing is unlikely to abandon its national goal of reuniting Taiwan with the mainland. As it becomes clear that the “One Country, Two Systems” method is quickly losing support amongst the Taiwanese, Beijing will look to other, likely more coercive, methods. This is especially the case after the election of the nationalist President Tsai. Regarding the future of Taiwan, the policies taken by Beijing in Hong Kong are likely to have serious ramifications on the Taiwanese political landscape for many years to come.

SUB-SAHARAN AFRICA

An Al-Shabab Attack on a U.S. Military Base in Kenya Ignites Fears of U.S.-Iran Conflict Spillover  

On January 5, 2020, at approximately 3:30 AM local time in Kenya, the notorious Somalia-born Islamist insurgent group al-Shabab successfully launched an attack on a military base in Manda Bay where U.S and Kenya military forces operate. The attack is reported to have lasted four hours and resulted in the loss of three Americans, six aircrafts, and several other military vehicles. Reports suggest that a small group of 10 to 15 men armed with limited weapons performed the onslaughts on what is considered a highly fortified military base. As the world’s attention remained gripped to the developments of U.S.-Iran escalation of hostilities following the death by drone strike of Iran’s top general Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad, Iraq, by U.S military forces, the attack in Kenya easily fell under the radar, thus plausible and high stake connections between the Kenyan and Iraqi attacks were made by few.
Two days following the January 3rd offensive operations by the U.S. against the Islamic State of Iran, an Islamic militant terrorist attack targeting U.S. soldiers and assets occurred. Understandably, those following both stories closely attempted to piece the two together. A fury of questions emerged: Why now? Why would al-Shabab choose such a high profile target? What were the motives? Is al-Shabab in alliance with Iran? U.S. officials were quick to silence conspiracies as they stated the attacks bore no connection to Iran. A confidence grounded on the assumption that al-Shabab being an al-Qaeda affiliate, fights only for the Sunnis and not the Shiites. There are indeed deep and long-lingering tensions between the two Muslim groups; that said, dismissing the possibility of a connection between the attacks before sufficient intelligence can confirm or deny could bear grave consequences. Although U.S. and Iran tensions appear to have appeased, the U.S. cannot afford to have any blind spots. The attack perpetrated by al-Shabab fighters demonstrated skill, and alarmingly, an increase in the groups’ capabilities and confidence. In the past, al-Shabab mostly eyed minor targets, recent events unveiled the critical stage we have now entered. What changed? Who is financing the group? Why did we fail to foresee it? These are pressing questions to ask.
Al-Shabab has much to gain from an alliance with Iran. Religious convictions may create limitations, however, there are common interests, particularly when invoking the West. For years, Washington has speculated that Iran and al-Qaeda were cooperating or had in the past. The extent and motives behind the relationship are ambiguous, however, it remains a probability worthy of consideration. Terrorism has proven unpredictable and fluid, militant groups succeed by using the element of surprise. The attack in Kenya may have been solely strategically timed, but the lack of certainty renders ruling out cooperation with the opposition (against a common enemy) dangerous.

EUROPE/CENTRAL ASIA

Fallout of Iranian Conflict Poses Indirect Threat to Europe

European capitals have tightened security and preparedness measures in the aftermath of the January 3rd targeted killing of the senior leader of Iran’s security and intelligence forces, Major General Qasem Soleimani, by United States military forces. On the 8th of January, the Iranians retaliated against the United States by launching missiles onto Ain Assad Air base in Iraq, enacting no casualties. Iranian officials claim that this attack will end Iranian retaliation, but there remains a significant risk of retaliatory measures against American military bases and institutions abroad on behalf of Iranian proxy groups such as Hezbollah.
While the most direct threat to U.S. interest is likely military bases in the Middle East, a spillover effect can occur in countries with the presence of radical Islamic terrorist organizations, Hezbollah aligned groups, or individuals harboring ill will towards the United States. Hezbollah intelligence organizations are active throughout European countries, posing under diplomatic or business cover. Additionally, Western Europe has increasingly been present to other radicalized Islamic terrorist cells who may use the increased tensions as an excuse to target American tourists or organizations abroad. Iran’s decision to pull out of the nuclear deal is of particular concern because groups operating in Europe on behalf of Iranian interests will not necessarily be held back by diplomatic constraints.
United States embassies and consulates in Europe have released alerts warning American citizens of the potential for heightened tensions that could result in increased security risks for American citizens abroad. Similar warnings were issued by U.S. embassies following the killing of Osama bin-laden in 2011. Many Western European countries, including Germany, have heightened security postures around American government buildings and commercial interests, anticipating a potential counter-attack at these facilities. While there is no specific or credible threat which targets Americans in Europe, caution should nonetheless be practiced at all times.  American citizens are encouraged to maintain a low profile and avoid unnecessary commentary on the developing situation.
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