ECFR Report Gives Mixed Grades on Counterterrorism Strategies to Morocco and Tunisia – Part 1

A recent study by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) illustrates the challenges of proposing approaches to terrorism prevention in other countries whose methods may at times conflict with Western values of due process, reflect local power dynamics that are unique to each country, and reflect how those governments view tradeoffs between short vs long-term efforts to combat terrorism.

Europe is increasingly concerned that the large numbers of foreign fighters returning from the Middle East to the Maghreb, particularly Tunisia and Morocco, will in time spill over to Europe creating much larger threats than previously encountered. “European countries have a strong interest in understanding security threats that emanate from North Africa, and in working with North African countries to address them,” according to the study. The study has several themes: the nature of security challenges in the Maghreb with attention to how they counter threats within their borders; the types and level of cooperation with the EU on countering terrorism; how each country is fighting terrorism given their unique societies and histories; and how their strategies impact the EU’s options for cooperation and collaboration.

While most of the analyses believe that Tunisia and Morocco are making important and successful efforts in their struggle with countering terrorism, “Nevertheless, the countries’ counter-terrorism strategies share a common shortcoming: both Morocco and Tunisia have prioritized the prevention of attacks and the disruption of terrorist cells, but have failed to pay sufficient attention to the legal and judicial framework for handling people detained on terrorism charges – or to the wide range of factors that contribute to radicalization.” This caveat has as much to do with the historical roots of notions of justice in both countries as well as structural and resource constraints faced in dealing with those groups at risk of radicalization.

The study calls for stronger cooperation and integration of efforts between the EU members and Morocco and Tunisia who “make up the front line in the EU’s efforts to establish zones of security on the southern shore of the Mediterranean.” It specifically mentions the need for “greater attention to areas such as the treatment of arrested suspects, socioeconomic factors that may contribute to radicalization, and the state’s broader relationship with communities that are disproportionately vulnerable to terrorist recruitment,” as critical priorities in terrorism prevention.

Tunisia – changing of the guard

Given the terrorist attacks in 2015 that exposed the weaknesses in Tunisia’s security platform, “With substantial foreign support, the Tunisian authorities responded to this moment of crisis by launching a program that restructured the security services and improved the country’s defenses against terrorism.”

On balance, the study gives the government high marks in that since 2014, it has markedly improved the army and internal security forces’ capabilities, training, equipment, and coordination.

“In 2015, the government launched the National Commission on Counter-Terrorism, which joined the National Security Council in developing the new, comprehensive strategy on counter-terrorism and extremism unveiled in 2016.” As the study points out, it bears “a strong resemblance to European models, this strategy centers on the four pillars of prevention, protection, prosecution, and response to attacks. Finally, in early 2017, Tunisia set up the National Intelligence Centre, an institution designed to overcome problems with coordination and information-sharing between intelligence agencies that had plagued the country’s counter-terrorism efforts since the revolution.”

These steps, plus the construction of barriers in a militarized zone bordering Libya and Algeria, along with enhanced surveillance and detection equipment, are key factors in the country’s upgraded capabilities. The report states that “Tunisia stands out among North African countries for its readiness to work with international partners on reforming and improving the capability of its security sector. European officials generally agree that Tunisia’s security services have considerably improved their capacity to prevent and respond to terrorist threats since 2015.”

On the other hand, it notes that, “Nevertheless, the overhaul of Tunisia’s security and counter-terrorism strategy and structures has failed to resolve some problems and even created a few new difficulties. The reform of the security services under the authority of the Ministry of the Interior has made little headway… as many officials continue to believe that police transparency and accountability would be an impediment to fighting terrorism.”

While Tunisia has sharpened its skills to prevent terrorist attacks, there still remain several concerns that must be addressed according to the report. First of all, the internal security services need to be reformed, especially reducing its immunity for violating human rights and arbitrary arrests and detention. “Using emergency powers, the security forces have carried out thousands of raids and house searches without judicial authorization, and placed dozens of people under assigned residence orders,” it states, calling for independent oversight of its operations.

Additional challenges include the economic impact of border closures with Libya, which severely restrict cross-border trade; and more importantly, the lack of a comprehensive government-wide strategy for dealing with radicalized individuals. Also of concern is the lack of intelligence on Tunisian diaspora in Europe, in sharp contrast with Morocco, which has significant interactions with its intelligence counterparts in Europe.

Among its conclusions regarding Tunisia, the study recommends, “In Tunisia, international partners should follow through on existing reform programs, encouraging further openness within the Ministry of the Interior to help the institution improve its cooperation with the country’s citizens. Greater professionalism within the security services would make it easier for European partners to share intelligence with Tunisia. European countries and the EU should also encourage and support Tunisia in developing programs to promote religious education and awareness, gearing them towards pupils and their families from an early age.”

In my next blog, I’ll look at the ECFR assessment of Morocco’s counter-terrorism capabilities and strategies.

The Way Forward – Counterterrorism Cooperation between Morocco and the EU – Part 2

In many ways, the headline Morocco: capabilities and deficiencies of a strong state sums up the section of the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) study on counterterrorism cooperation between the EU and Morocco and Tunisia. While it notes Morocco’s breadth of capabilities and its reputation as “a model of political stability, economic development, and regional integration in Africa and the Middle East,” the study goes on to say that “Morocco’s approach to counter-terrorism is inseparable from the state’s tight control over its domestic population and its undemocratic and unaccountable political system;” a harsh and only partially accurate rendering of Morocco today and its commitment to countering both domestic and international terrorism.

Morocco is supported by Europe and the US in building its CVE tactics and skills, and has initiated a number of programs, with international assistance, to diminish the economic drivers that support radicalization such as unemployment, wealth disparity, corruption, lack of transparency, and marginalization of rural and underserved urban populations. It has also taken on a broader role as co-chair of the Global Counterterrorism Forum.

While the study acknowledges Morocco’s success in thwarting plots internally, it expresses reservations that can be summed up as “at what cost?” Calling Morocco a “surveillance state,” it points out that both “domestically and abroad, Morocco has a proven track record of expertise in human and signals intelligence. Morocco operates as a tight and effective security state, working through an extensive network of security officials and informants that blankets the nation.”

It allows that “European officials have admitted that a number of attacks in Europe might have been prevented had domestic intelligence services been allowed to employ the kind of human intelligence network established in Morocco.” Some detail on these capabilities is instructive. Aside from a national network of some 50,000 locally-sited observers, called mqadmin, who report suspicious activities and personalities, there is a national coordinating center for combating terrorism, the Central Bureau of Judicial Investigation (BCIJ). While the mqadmin ”have an ambiguous status as both official and temporary public servants, a situation that is convenient for the authorities, which avoid accountability by keeping the mqadmin’s role and potential role unregulated, [they] have a reputation for involvement in corruption and human rights abuses.”

The BCIJ, on the other hand, has earned recognition for its effectiveness in breaking up cells of potential terrorists. Morocco is also expanding its work in signals intelligence with the assistance of its European partners, primarily France, the UK, and Germany. The study says that “The Moroccan authorities use a variety of pre-emptive digital surveillance techniques to identify and prosecute suspects, such as monitoring phone calls involving individuals on watch lists, and registering suspicious internet searches. In all, the Moroccan authorities are believed to use 19 human and digital platforms to monitor the population, including on the dark web.”

With these instruments and the new reconnaissance satellite launched in November 2017, Morocco has an integrated effort to counter terrorism, monitor movements on its borders and in the Western Sahara, and track migration in the open spaces of the Sahara and Sahel. An additional tool, dubbed Operation Hadar is also of great value. “The operation was designed to protect Morocco from terrorist infiltration using patrols of airports, train stations, and other transport hubs, as well enhanced border monitoring.” Initially deployed in large cities, it is now being extended throughout the country, the study notes.

The role of King Mohammed VI

As the study points out, “As commander of the faithful, the king retains overall religious authority in the country, enabling the central government to not only retain a measure of religious legitimacy but also to dictate which religious practices and interpretations are deemed acceptable – including those among the religious establishment.” Control of the religious establishment includes media distribution of approved religious texts and sermons, controlling the issuance of fatwas, and treating imams as public servants.

Other initiatives include Morocco’s pioneering work in involving women counselors, mourchidates, in communities and rural areas and the training of imams from Africa and Europe. Also, “Morocco has established a religious council for the Moroccan diaspora in Europe, aiming to assist host countries with religious education. Together with intelligence cooperation, Morocco’s religious training initiatives appear to be a form of security diplomacy designed to improve the country’s reach and international standing.”

While complimenting Morocco on its efforts, the study is concerned that “Indeed, counter-radicalization remains Morocco’s weak point. The fact that the security services have thwarted a high number of terrorist plots reflects their capacity to detect and prevent attacks, but it also indicates the extent to which many young men and women remain susceptible to extremist messaging. In an all too familiar pattern repeated across the world, the government points to the tactical successes of its counter-terrorism operations while downplaying the underlying conditions that necessitate these operations.”

The EU study finds that the government’s outreach to the EU and US for help in prison reform, rehabilitation, police corruption, and training medical staff to recognize signs of abuse are moves in the right direction. It recognizes that “Moroccan counter-terrorism cooperation with both European countries and the US is not only a security endeavor but also a crucial component of Rabat’s long-term efforts to strengthen economic and political ties with these countries. Morocco aims to minimize international outcry over the Western Sahara issue, encourage greater foreign investment and tourism, maintain access to Western military equipment and training, and promote Morocco’s integration into NATO’s strategic plans.”

The path to more effective collaboration must reconcile, according to the study, Morocco’s commitment to a robust CVE strategy firmly grounded in the Moroccan experience, which may or may not take into consideration concerns of its friends in the EU and US on such issues as human and civil rights, internal security and judicial reforms, and social and economic disparities among the population. Working through these issues of accountability and equitable development are as important to the EU as Morocco’s stress on security within stability in the short term. In this regard, the study overlooked two facts in Morocco’s efforts to reduce economic disparities: its national campaign to promote development in rural and marginalized communities, and its need to attract foreign investment to ensure a steady growth in employment opportunities. Facing these concerns as well as the challenges of returning militants from conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere are the next chapter in this complex saga.

Another Election in the Middle East – Why It Matters in Lebanon

Lebanon is bracing for its first parliamentary election since 2009, having extended its term twice since the in the absence of the security and consensus needed to proceed. While no one expects a shake-up in the results based on a new electoral law that may enable newcomers to win several seats, there are strong currents building that may alter future “election results as usual” predictions.

Currently, the Amal-Hezbollah-Free Patriotic Movement is considered the front-runner to secure the largest number of seats, not a majority, but more than enough to have its veto over any Parliamentary actions. But there are cracks in that alliance as well as the new electoral format does not assure them of all of the seats in districts in which they may have a majority of the population. In some districts, the outcomes will depend on real contests among candidates appealing to voters directly rather than through pre-ordained party lists.

Other variables that will influence the results will be the level of voter enthusiasm for Hezbollah’s continued foreign adventures on behalf of Iran, pressures to include more women candidates, participation by Lebanon’s millennial and independents, and pressure from regional actors such as Iran and Saudi Arabia.

As an article in Lawfareblog recently pointed out, “It is not yet clear how much or how little the new law will affect Lebanon’s elections—a robust debate is already underway. Neither is it clear how the foreign powers aligned with various Lebanese political actors will react to significant shifts in Beirut.  What is clear is that the new electoral law—which many Lebanese welcomed enthusiastically—might disrupt almost 9 years of status quo.”

The specter of a war with Israel, as a result of overreach by Hezbollah or Israel also plays on the minds of voters. From Hezbollah’s continued role as a surrogate for Iran in Syria, Yemen, and elsewhere to flare-ups due to miscalculations or probing of Israel’s defenses by Iranian-backed forces along the Syria-Israel border, the majority of Lebanese remember all too well the price they paid for Hezbollah’s adventurism in 2006.

Let the Women Speak

Lebanon is one of the few Arab countries that has not made a concerted effort to ensure greater participation of women in Parliament through mandatory allocations of seats or requiring parties to field women candidates.

As Annaharnet wrote recently, “Despite a comparatively free press, different religious groups, and women in high-ranking positions in the corporate world and the job market, Lebanon ranks shockingly low when it comes to female representation in politics, and politicians have been unsuccessful in acting on a movement to establish a quota for women in parliament.”

When Lebanon’s new government was announced in December 2016, it was criticized for its lack of women members. Even the Minister of State for Women’s Affairs is a man, Jean Oghassabian, such is the reality of balancing the sectarian membership of the government. Yet the Minister has been active in moving forward with promoting the participation of women at all levels of government. “Keeping women from public life is not only a loss for women. It is a loss for the parliament,” he said. In cooperation with the UN and EU, his ministry is working to bring more women into the election process.

On the other end of the spectrum is Rima Fakhry, a senior member of the political bureau of Hezbollah, who told AP in an interview that “the women’s movement considers that women should reach decision-making positions; for them, it is in parliament. We differ with those movements. Hezbollah doesn’t see the role of a lawmaker suitable for a woman in Lebanon. For us, a woman is a woman. She must work to fulfill the main goals she exists for. These are not different from those of men. But the difference lies in the details. She has a home. She is a mother and must bring up future generations. This takes a lot of the woman’s time.”

Hearing from the Outliers

Among various independent groups and coalitions that are maneuvering to join the election process are those who believe that transparency, an end of nepotism, and a greater emphasis on rule of law, providing services such as waste management, clean water, quality education, and respect for human rights are essential. Politics as usual in Lebanon avoids talking about issues except in very general terms. The lack of political platforms from legacy candidates representing the existing power structure may create vulnerabilities in some districts.

As one analyst remarked, “Elections in Lebanon are not based on a clear scientific, ideological, and political track, as much as being founded on the absence of real awareness, which justifies why several candidates disregard presenting their electoral programs and plans, based on which they will be later held accountable.”

Another electoral expert Abdo Saad asserted that “No candidate or political party has ever presented a political program while running for elections in Lebanon because voters do not hold those candidates accountable for their actions, but rather base their judgments on political and religious dependence.”

As with the US electoral map where literally less than 10% of seats not held by incumbents are real contests, the majority of seats will go to party surrogates whose victories will result from affiliations rather than policies. This has not dimmed the enthusiasm of those activists who believe that time in on their side as Lebanon is caught in regional cross-winds that make its role as a multicultural, multi-sectarian, independent, and tolerant country even more critical.

Secretary Tillerson Came to Lebanon, Spoke, and Left – What’s Better Now?

It has been an extraordinary week in the Middle East, a region that continues to defy normalcy. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson set out for the Middle East to bring some measure of calm to America’s bilateral relations with Egypt and Turkey, promote funding for Iraq’s reconstruction in Kuwait, and reassure Jordan and Lebanon that the US valued their survival. Against a background of continuing chatter about the lack of US leadership in the Middle East, a rather opaque foreign policy, except for US ties with Israel, and no inkling of what’s next, Secretary Tillerson was not accorded a hero’s welcome.

Regarding Lebanon, even a brief stopover had its complications. First of all, the Secretary spoke out about a maritime and land border dispute between Lebanon and Israel, cautioning both sides to use diplomacy to settle the issues. According to the US News, “The U.S. has been trying to mediate in the dispute, and Tillerson suggested Israel should stop building a border wall until the border between the two countries is agreed on.”

Of course Hezbollah did not escape his radar. Tillerson called its growing arsenal a threat to Lebanon’s security and said that it should cease its military activities in other countries to help draw down tensions in the region. “Hezbollah’s presence in Syria has only perpetuated the bloodshed, increased the displacement of innocent people and propped up the barbaric Assad regime,” Tillerson said, at the news conference with Lebanese PM Hariri, “a western ally whose coalition government includes the group,” the article added.

Hariri made it clear that Lebanon will uphold its position on the border issues. “What is ours is ours and what is Israel’s is Israel’s. We are trying to find solutions that will be fair to us and fair to everyone.” In this he echoed the Secretary’s position when Tillerson said, “Let’s get the border agreed first and then people can think about if they need a security wall or not at that point.”

During his visit, Tillerson reiterated US support for Lebanon’s government and the Lebanese armed forces, which is a major recipient of U.S. military assistance. reported that “Discussions also touched on the recent introduction of legislation targeting Hezbollah’s financial network.” Lebanon’s President Aoun made it clear that Lebanon has been “abiding by regulations that restrict terrorist money laundering activities,” yet noted that some of these sanctions have hurt Lebanon’s economy, throwing off potential investors. He highlighted that the US reduction in aid to UNRWA from $264 million to $60 million will gravely affect Lebanon’s ability to deal with the Syrian refugee crisis.

“Aoun assured the Secretary of State that Lebanon is committed to its policy of dissociation, whereby the country refrains from involvement in regional conflicts, yet is “not responsible for any regional conflicts that might influence Lebanon, as this out of our control.” In his note in the visitors’ book, Secretary Tillerson said that the US will “stand with the Lebanese people for a free and democratic Lebanon,” while confirming the US’ “continued support for the Lebanese Army and Internal Security Forces,” and the article added that the US “yet maintained that it considers both the political and military wing of Hezbollah as terrorist organizations.”

In meeting with Nabih Berri, the leader of the Shia bloc in Parliament and Speaker, Tillerson reaffirmed “the importance of the close US-Lebanese partnership as the “two countries work together to pursue common goals that advance Lebanon’s sovereignty, stability, and prosperity,” according to Naharnet.

So where is the US and what is its game plan?, were questions raised in several articles. For example, New York Magazine said that in the recent crises between Turkey and the US over its support for Kurdish fighters; Iran, Israel, and Syria over the recent cross-border military actions; and Lebanon and Israel’s borders, “Washington is pursuing its interests from the edges, rather than the center of the action.” The article gave several examples of Russia’s ascendant role in the region including its power broker role in Syria, influential relations with Turkey and Iran, and its continuing bromance with Israel.

“Washington has relatively few levers to affect what happens in Syria, not so much because of the limits of its military stance but because it has so little to offer on the diplomatic front. Not aid for rebuilding even post-ISIS Iraq, let alone any part of Syria. Not aid or placement for refugees. Not political leadership at peace talks. Not the ability to cut a deal with Russia or Iran, given the levels of domestic political rhetoric on both topics in Washington,” the article mentioned.

The Atlantic was equally critical of Washington’s lack of leadership while Russia is “a power broker in the Middle East, a spoiler in North Africa, and a partner (of sorts) in Asia, making it at least a global player if not a superpower.” It pointed out that “Russia is learning the lesson of so many imperial powers past: It’s much easier to get into a Middle Eastern conflict than to get out of one. For now, Putin has won his desired role as a geopolitical player. So far, he probably feels he’s winning in Syria. But the game is not over, and the costs are rising.”

Secretary Tillerson’s visit and words of support for Lebanon were welcome indeed, and as Edward Gabriel, President of the American Task Force for Lebanon, a leadership group of Lebanese-Americans who support strong US-Lebanon ties noted, “Without a comprehensive strategy for the region that commits the US to proactive policies that support our interests and our allies, the US risks its larger role of global leadership, a goal that can’t be attained without thoughtful and credible engagement.”

Of Note: MEI Panel weighs in on Protests in Morocco and Tunisia

The Middle East Institute (MEI) recently presented a panel discussion on “Protests in North Africa: parallels and prospects.” Speakers addressed “the social and economic drivers behind the recent demonstrations [in Morocco and Tunisia], as well as prospects for resolving these inequities.”

The Washington, DC panel included Intissar Fakir (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace), Dokhi Fassihian (Freedom House), William Lawrence (George Washington University), and moderator Paul Salem, MEI’s senior vice-president for policy research and programs.

Although the immediate causes of the most recent demonstrations are very different – in Tunisia protesters want a change to the country’s new austerity laws, while in Morocco the flashpoint is the death of two young coal miners, Houcine and Jedouane Dioui in Jerada – the root causes are the same: economic inequality, perceived lack of investment and development resulting in high unemployment, and ineffective government responses to local needs due to corruption and lack of accountability.

In Tunisia, protests have been continuing for many months due to the lack of economic growth in the country, corruption and lack of government accountability, and strong feelings of marginalization among youth. Laws exonerating wealthy businessmen and politicians from persecution for actions during the Ben Ali regime overthrown in 2011 have soured public confidence in the government. Despite large amounts of international assistance, some significant international investment, and large doses on congratulations for Tunisia’s democratic progress, many citizens are unhappy with the government’s inability to develop sustainable and equitable strategies for moving forward. Its nascent democracy is challenged by these protests as the government is resorting to tougher security measures, arresting hundreds of demonstrators.

Although Ms. Fassihian, senior program manager for MENA at Freedom House, characterized Tunisia as “more free” than Morocco due to its strong and more open human rights record, she notes that the continuing demonstrations have led to extensive arrests and to trials in military courts, further undermining the civilian government’s credibility. Arrests are both planned, i.e. targeted at certain leaders, and random of people at the demonstrations. This has resulted, according to Ms. Fakir, who is the Editor-in-chief of Sada, CEIP’s Middle East blog journal, in a growing lack of trust in the government and impatience with its inability to resolve the economic crisis. The lack of transparency in decision-making has also undermined the public’s faith in the government.

In Morocco, one can link the Jerada protests to the 2016 marches in the Rif protesting the death of fishmonger Mouhcine Fikri in El Hoceima. Both incidents highlighted the regional and local governments’ lack of accountability and corruption, leaving them unable to move effectively to solve local programs of unemployment, lack of investment in infrastructure and social services, and providing the services, education, and job opportunities that citizens expect.

The protests, which spread beyond the Rif region, drew a strong response from King Mohammed VI who showed his displeasure with those officials charged with not having carried out the more than $100 million of development projects allocated to the region over the past six years. He fired and blacklisted past and current ministers, director generals, and other officials responsible for the economic development and governance of the region. The King sent his personal envoy, Aziz Akhannouch, Minister of Agriculture, to meet with leaders of the Rif protests.

Now, the King faces a similar crisis some 120 miles away where young men, working to mine coal in abandoned quarries, died in attempts to scrap out some income for their families. Again, there are charges of local government inaction, extensive unemployment, corruption and lack of accountability, and insufficient investments to retool the local economy, create jobs, and build needed infrastructure.

While Ms. Fassihian pointed out that Morocco is at least attempting to observe freedom of assembly by allowing protests, security forces eventually cracked down on the protestors. The judicial system is still dominated by the security forces, controlled by the Palace. So without an independent judiciary, there is an observable regression in observing civil and human rights, more protests, and a decline in public confidence. Hence, demonstrators continued to come out in order to reach out to the King as the ultimate arbiter in the country.

One of the recurring themes mentioned by the panel is the need for credible decentralization or regionalization that devolves effective decision-making from the central government to local elected authorities. Both countries have committed to decentralization as a means of promoting political and economic development. Ms. Fassihian noted that although Morocco is a leader in the region in decentralization, the process is very slow and many obstacles are due to lack of clarity from the central government on issues such as power-sharing between elected and appointed leaders, budgetary guidelines and allocations, and standards of accountability and transparency in government transactions and services.

Despite these challenges, there was agreement among the panelists that US policy can play an effective role in both countries. Dr. Lawrence pointed out that he US government has many links to Morocco and Tunisia through various agreements, assistance programs, training programs, as well as educational and cultural ties. A more strategic and targeted approach, especially focused on economic issues and youth can have a significant impact as these are the root causes, along with corruption and accountability, that drive the protestors.

It is a conundrum in Morocco and Tunisia, as well as other emerging economies in Africa, to meet the rising expectations of the majority of their citizens without a more efficient use of their limited resources. There are no single or simple solutions. Each country, given its historical and recent experiences, must confront dilemmas that arise from inequities in their societies that reinforce social, economic, and political disparities. Morocco is fortunate in that it has a King, widely respected, but a government which lacks widespread credibility with the people is not trusted to carry out needed policies.

Tunisia’s struggles are well-known, some historical, others part of the generational shift from an authoritarian regime to a democracy that seeks to balance its forward progress without weakening the country’s economic, cultural, and social infrastructure.

A major step in the right direction could be a firm and consistent commitment to forms of decentralization/devolution/regionalization implemented within a context of clear government authority, responsibility, and accountability. The people of Tunisia and Morocco are demanding to be at the core of their countries’ futures. The US can continue to upgrade its commitment to its partnerships by working to target both the short and long-term efforts to enable and ennoble the government-citizen relations.


2018 Starts Off Much Like 2017 – Garbage, Mending Fences, and Syrian Refugees Top Agenda

An ill-wind brought trash to beaches north of Beirut that once was part of a landfill
near the town of Jiyyeh. A major storm washed the garbage out to sea and then
returned it to cover Zouq Mosbeh beach. Members of Parliament are crying foul and
condemning a system that has been broken for years, causing the 2015 garbage
crisis, and subsiding only with promises from the government that have yet to be
implemented. The waste management issue is still before the government and
perhaps this latest round of trash terror will bring about some sustainable results.

Aoun visit to the Gulf

President Michel Aoun made his first trip to the Gulf as the head of state, visiting
“brotherly” Kuwait, discussing economic support and cementing agreements on
several issues. According to various sources, President Aoun had very productive
meetings and was accompanied by Gebran Bassil, Jamal Jarrah, Ayman Choukair,
Inaya Ezzeddine, Maj. Gen. Abbas Ibrahim, and Abdul-al Al-Qena’i, Lebanon’s
representative in Kuwait.

The Emir of Kuwait, Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah announced that the Kuwait
Fund for Arab Economic Development would issue an aid package “in support of
Lebanon” aimed at enhancing the country’s economy. Kuwait’s support is key both
for Lebanon’s economic development and also dealing with the Syrian refugee

Since PM Hariri’s resignation last year forced an earlier planned visit to be
postponed, Aoun’s visit is seen as important to rebuild Lebanon’s relationship with
Kuwait. The emirate has attempted its own “dissociation” policy on several regional
concerns such as Qatar and the Saudi Arabia-Lebanon tension around Hezbollah,
which it has accused of setting up a terror cell in Kuwait.

News reports mentioned that “The two leaders agreed on the need for a unified
Arab stance “in the face of Arab and regional developments because the unity of
Arabs is primary in this case.” Both Aoun and Sabah reiterated condemnation of the
recent US decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Aoun also
lamented what he said was the United Nation’s inability to enforce its decisions.

Aoun asked Emir Al-Sabah to participate in the three upcoming conferences on
Lebanon in Rome, Paris, and Brussels to deal with refugees, security, and the
refugee situation in Lebanon. Kuwait’s emir believes his country’s current
membership of the UN Security Council “can help highlight the rightness of Arab


Refugees weathering a difficult winter with various press stories recounting
deaths due to freezing, limited or no adequate shelter from the snow and cold
temperatures, with worse weather expected in the Beqaa Valley and elsewhere.
Many refugees have gone through this before, some who fled to Lebanon as long as
six years ago.

Being better prepared carries its own drawback since the bulk of the housing
supplies goes to those who are most in need. Recently, a shipment of stoves
arrived from the UAE but with at least a million Syrian refugees in need, it’s a small
comfort for those who are not at the distribution sites.

With limited assistance from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR),
access to medical supplies and cash subsidies are also in short supply, going to the
most vulnerable. But the UNHCR is not slowing down its efforts. It distributed cash
assistance of between $225-375 to families totaling some 780,000 people in
November, although the program is not guaranteed to continue through the winter

Working to Grow Lebanon’s Economy through Enabling Entrepreneurs

I recently wrote about the visit of Lebanese entrepreneurs to the US to learn more about how we support the growth of entrepreneurs on the local level. Many of them have met Tony Fadell, the Lebanese-American who is credited as co-creator of the I-Pod, I-Phone, and Nest, and believe that they can only benefit from more interactions with overseas Lebanese. One of the participants, Hani Mawlawi, provided me with information on a program that may be of interest to overseas Lebanese who want to provide concrete encouragement to young people working to advance Lebanon’s economic growth.

Lebanon Science and Technology Park (LSTP) provides support to entrepreneurs to transform their innovative ideas/R&D science or technology projects into successful businesses, creating more job opportunities, and promoting the country’s economic development. Although currently targeting the north of Lebanon, it has aspirations to take its work throughout the country. In order to do this, it is necessary to recruit international donors and specialized agencies as partners who can bring their experiences and resources in support of LSTP projects.

In orders to reach the minimal size and development to become a viable entity, entrepreneurs must rely on an entrepreneurship ecosystem that includes access to technology infrastructure, financing, mentoring, skilled human resources, business and market strategic planning, and testing, marketing, and distribution of the final product or service. In Lebanon, boosting and enabling this ecosystem has been a focus of a number of programs within universities, government agencies, and international donors.

LSTP is collaborating with the UK Lebanon Tech Hub (UKLTH) to make the ecosystem a reality. UKLTH is a joint initiative spearheaded by the Lebanese Central Bank (BDL) and the British Government with a mission of creating jobs and sustainable economic wealth in Lebanon. Since its inception, the UKLTH has supported 77 startups locally, helped 7 enter the UK market and scaled up 3 into the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) regional market through Dubai. It is reported that 1257 jobs have been created in the process and the cohort startups are collectively valued at $206 million. Another competitive round to identify new candidates for the program has just closed and there are high expectations that the project will successfully continue to advance entrepreneurship in Lebanon.

At the current time, the UKLTH’s programs include:

  • The Nucleus: Early stage venture-building program focused on product development.

  • The International Research Centre (IRC): Funds and manages applied research projects between Lebanese universities/startups and international partners.

  • The Scale-Up Program: Aimed at internationalizing and expanding MENA based startups into global markets.

  •  GEM: The Global Entrepreneurship Monitor is the world’s foremost study of entrepreneurship that looks at the entrepreneurial behavior and attitudes of individuals alongside the national context and how it impacts entrepreneurship.

The UKLTH wants to hear from overseas Lebanese with an interest in promoting technologies and applications from Lebanon to the world. So if you’re a tech person or someone who markets and distributes technology devices and applications, contact them and see how together you can make a better world for Lebanese entrepreneurs!

Hezbollah in the Crosshairs of new DOJ Taskforce

According to a three-part series released by the online paper Politico, the US has
been tracking Hezbollah’s role at the nexus of drugs from South America, arms to
Iran and Syria, and drug shipments to the US and Europe via a clandestine network
of used car dealers in West Africa since 2008.

The probe, dubbed Operation Cassandra, was, according to the series, obstructed
by the Obama Administration, which concerned how it might upset US negotiations
of the nuclear deal with Iran. The claims in the series are nettlesome enough that
the Department of Justice has vowed to refresh the investigation and bring a harsh
light onto Hezbollah’s international activities in funding terrorism and arms
transfers through illicit drug operations, money laundering, and other criminal

The Politico investigative report is quite detailed and includes charges made by
those intimately involved in the operation and its predecessors and well as former
Obama officials who do not agree with their allegations and characterizations.
The series notes that the backbone of the supposed Hezbollah network is in large
part Shiite diaspora communities in South America, West Africa, the Middle East,
and Europe where interconnected business ventures, transport systems,
government officials, dealmakers, and arms dealers collaborate in an efficient and
well-organized network able to turn drugs into cash used to purchase arms for
Hezbollah, Syrian, and Iranian militaries.

Interesting, one of the chief architects of the network, according to Politico, is
Abdallah Safieddine, whose cousin is the Secretary General of Hezbollah, Sheikh
Hassan Nasrallah. Safieddine’s son is identified as a key component of the network
residing in Beirut.

Worth reading, the series provides part of the rationale for the announcement by
Attorney General Jeff Sessions of the Justice Department of a new government
taskforce to investigate the alleged involvement of Hezbollah in many illegal
activities, including drug trafficking. Called the Hezbollah Financing and Narco-
terrorism Team (HFNT), it is the strongest evidence yet that the new Administration
takes the implications of the Cassandra Project quite seriously.

The naming of the Task Force follows the October 2017 passage by Congress of
legislation to apply additional sanctions to Hezbollah and any organizations and
individuals that provide support to it. Sessions described the team as “a group of
experienced international narcotics trafficking, terrorism, organized crime, and
money laundering prosecutors,” who are “tasked with investigating individuals and

networks providing support to Hezbollah, and pursuing prosecutions in any
appropriate cases.”

In his announcement, the Attorney General specifically mentioned the need to
examine evidence from earlier investigations, including cases resulting from Project
Cassandra, which targeted Hezbollah’s drug trafficking and related operations. “The
Justice Department will leave no stone unturned in order to eliminate threats to our
citizens from terrorist organizations and to stem the tide of the devastating drug
crisis,” said Sessions.

He also noted that the Obama Administration had failed in its support of the
investigation, pledging to “ensure that all Project Cassandra investigations as well
as other related investigations, whether past or present, are given the needed
resources and attention to come to their proper resolution.” The team has the
power to “initiate prosecutions that will restrict the flow of money to foreign
terrorist organizations, as well as disrupt violent international drug trafficking

Assistant Attorney General John Cronan of the Criminal Division is tasked with
supervising the HFNT and build interagency coordination to identify and combat
individuals, companies, and networks supporting Hezbollah. Other agencies include
the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), which initiated Operation Cassandra,
the FBI, Homeland Security, and Justice Department offices across the country and

“The Justice Department will leave no stone unturned in order to eliminate threats
to our citizens from terrorist organizations and to stem the tide of the devastating
drug crisis,” Sessions said.

In additional reporting from CBS, it mentioned that “US government officials allege
the group's [Hezbollah] External Security Organization Business Affairs Component
(BAC) is involved in international drug trafficking and money laundering, and that
the proceeds are used to purchase weapons for Hezbollah's activities in Syria.”

“According to the DEA, members of Hezbollah's BAC have established business
relationships with South American drug cartels that supply cocaine to the European
and US drug markets and then launder the proceeds. Over the past year, the DEA
has uncovered what it describes as an intricate network of money couriers who
collect and transport millions of dollars in drug proceeds from Europe to the Middle
East” for arms purchases and funding terrorism.

The DEA says the international investigation is on-going, and involves numerous
international law enforcement agencies in seven countries.

Deep Concern over Potential Escalation between Israel, Syria, and Iran

Recent cross-border military actions between Israel and Syria, the first since 1982, have raised concerns in Lebanon and the United States over the potential for increased hostilities in the region. The current tensions came on the heels of a February 6 inspection visit by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman to the Israel-Syria-Lebanon border area.

As reported in Al Monitor, “According to official reports from the Syrian army, that same night, Israeli aircraft attacked a target on the outskirts of Damascus. That same area, where a Syrian research facility involved in the “Precision Project” for missiles is located, had already been bombed in the past. Indeed, this site is considered by Israel to be a direct strategic threat.” Since the missiles were fired from Lebanon, some analysts opined that Israel was sending a message to Hezbollah as well as Syria.

While the Cabinet was in the north, it received briefings from senior military officials that focused primarily on Hezbollah’s increased capabilities in Lebanon and Syria. As the article phrased it, “In the past few weeks alone, the winds of war blowing across the region have turned into a veritable hurricane.”

It has not taken long for the situation to deteriorate. Despite a Lebanese government statement challenged Israel’s construction of a wall along the Blue Line, which demarcates the border with Lebanon, Israel retorted that it has every intention of moving ahead aggressively. Israel has made clear that if there is a third Lebanon war, “The damage to Lebanon will be enormous, with most of its national infrastructures in ruins and thousands, if not tens of thousands, of casualties. Hezbollah will also suffer a resounding blow, though it is hard to imagine that it will be completely defeated and obliterated,” according to Al Monitor.

Within days of the Lebanese statement, Israel carried out major air strikes in Syria, including facilities that house Iranian and Russian military forces, brought about by the interception of an alleged Iranian drone over Israeli airspace. While Israel’s regular overflights over Lebanon’s territory are tolerated since Lebanon has no air defense system, the same is not true of Syria. When Israel destroyed the drone and attacked the command and control center in Syria, it engaged Russian, Iranian, and Syrian military and Israel lost an F-16 in the strike.

This loss increased tensions, leading to alarm bells going off in the region in advance of US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit this week. “The events, including Israel’s direct engagement with Iranian forces, threatened to intensify the crisis in Syria and showed the extent to which the country [Syria] has become a battlefield between Israel and Iran, bitter foes in the region,” noted the New York Times.

From the Israeli side, the warning is clear, “We are ready to exact a very heavy price from whoever acts against us,” said Brig. Gen. Ronen Manelis, the chief spokesman of the Israeli military, “but we are not seeking an escalation.” Spokesperson Lt. Col. Jonathan Conricus added, “Syria and Iran are playing with fire.”

Heather Nauert, a State Department spokeswomen said in a statement that “The United States is deeply concerned about today’s escalation of violence over Israel’s border, and “Iran’s calculated escalation of threat, and its ambition to project its power and dominance, places all the people of the region — from Yemen to Lebanon — at risk.”

United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres called for an immediate and unconditional de-escalation, as “civilians in the war-torn country [Syria] suffer through one of the most violent periods in nearly seven years of conflict. In a statement he said that “all concerned in Syria and the region have a responsibility and must abide by international law and relevant Security Council resolutions.”

According to several sources quoted in The Washington Post, the recent strikes “could have serious consequences for the war in Syria – and for the region as a whole.” Israeli leaders and commentators mention three overlapping issues: the presence of Iranian forces including its surrogate Hezbollah on Israel’s northern border, the potential arming of Hezbollah and others with precision-guided missiles, and the continuing upgrading of Hezbollah forces across the border in Lebanon.

“If the conflict escalates, it could end up adding a dangerous angle to the ongoing Syrian conflict — and one that could wind up involving other powers in the region and beyond.

An open conflict between Israel and Iranian-backed forces would add to the entanglements and chaos in Syria. It would also risk pulling neighboring Lebanon or other Arab states into a new war, too,” according to the Post article.

All of the recent regional escalation cloaked continuing domestic devastation as Syrian attacks continue on civilian facilities. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, underlined the need for urgent international action to protect civilians caught up in “wave after wave” of deadly airstrikes. “The no-holds-barred nature of this assault is evidenced by reports that at least nine medical facilities, six of them in Idlib and three in eastern Ghouta, were hit by airstrikes. “Even by Syria’s atrocious standards, these are exceptionally deplorable developments – and a cruel irony given that both have been declared ‘de-escalation areas.”