What Our Analysts Are Reading — 9/25

Navanti’s data collection and analysis are based on networks of on-the-ground researchers from all walks of life: journalists, academics, and humanitarian workers, to name a few. But our analysts also keep abreast of open source reports to inform their work. Below, Navanti analysts have summarized and contextualized the most important articles they read over the past two weeks, and added some insightful recent quotes from researchers. Some of these articles are breaking news items, while others are academic studies published months ago; all will advance the reader’s understanding of current conflict dynamics.

East Africa

The Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) is undermining some of its own anti-VEO strategies by underestimating women’s role in Al-Shabaab (AS). Women have historically been involved in activities such as recruitment, indoctrination, and intelligence gathering for AS, and have even conducted AS suicide attacks. Without a coordinated federal-level intervention from the FGS, AS may attempt to exploit security forces’ assumptions regarding women to expand operations. — Crisis Group

ISIS’s Somali branch (ISS) increased its rate of attacks over the past year, directly challenging AS at the end of 2018 and prompting a declaration of war. However, given its low-level presence and AS’s history of suppressing local competitors, ISS’s activities are likely to be halted in the short-term. — CTC Sentinel 

AS has spread its taxation structures from the mostly rural areas it controls into Mogadishu, affecting dozens of business owners and undermining the authority of the Somali government. — The Washington Post

In addition to taxing residents of Mogadishu, AS recently distributed cash handouts to 150 poor households in the capital city. Here’s what a Navanti researcher, an engineer who lives in Mogadishu, had to say: “This must be slap in the face of the FGS. It denotes poor intelligence services, it jeopardizes the FGS’s legitimacy, and it keeps the public in AS’s reins. It helps AS’s image among the marginalized and disadvantaged people who AS primarily targets, in order to strike a chord with their grievances. The FGS is popular with the elite, and this type of AS project could further portray [AS] in the eyes of the poor as a reputable entity. The FGS needs not only to prevent such incidents from taking place in areas under its control, but also to replicate and apply this strategy in AS-controlled territories to win the hearts and minds of the people.”

West Africa

In Burkina Faso, smaller jihadi VEOs reportedly allied with larger umbrella groups, like Jama’at Nasr al-Islam (JNIM) or Islamic State Greater Sahara (ISGS), are targeting the military to seize equipment and weapons, and to send a message to the local population about the weakness and illegitimacy of the Burkinabe state. — France24 (French)

The Nigerian military seems to be losing ground in its fight against the northwestern insurgency as experts say Boko Haram and Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) now have more sophisticated equipment than the military, including drones. Furthermore, the army’s new “Super Camp” strategy could backfire, giving insurgents free reign over rural areas. — The New York Times

Mauritanian President Mohmed Ahmed Ould Ghazouani will cement the military’s long-standing hold on the West African country. However, Ghazouani faces violent spillover from central and northern Mali, weak global prices for the country’s mineral exports, and simmering ethno-racial tensions that will test the resilience of both Mauritania and the greater Sahel region. — Chatham House

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Yemen’s Houthi forces claimed a massive UAV attack on Saudi Arabia’s Aramco oil facilities in the districts of Khurais and Abqaiq on September 14, prompting the kingdom to cut its oil production in half. The success and relative sophistication of the attack, however, has raised skepticism over the Houthi claim of responsibility, with the US asserting that it did not originate in Yemen and was rather orchestrated by Iran. — The Washington Post

UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Mark Lowcock criticized the Houthis’ placing of restrictions on humanitarian workers and beneficiaries during a September 16 brief to the Security Council. Lowcock also told the committee that Saudi authorities confirmed they will transfer $500 million to Lowcock’s office on September 25th, in furtherance of the Yemen Humanitarian Response Plan, along with $200 million from the United Arab Emirates. — ReliefWeb

A recent study on Yemen’s Cash for Nutrition program showed the positive impact of cash transfers to mothers in conflict, improving nutrition outcomes by allowing households to purchase a greater variety of nutritious foods. Households were also able to purchase non-food items without depleting assets or incurring debt. — IFPRI Policy Brief April 2019

The UN-brokered al-Hudaydah agreement employs a problematic framework that has normalized the Houthi military presence in the city, incentivized violence on other frontlines, and established a localized paradigm for peace negotiations that is not conducive to achieving a national-level settlement. If al-Hudaydah port is to serve as a springboard for wider political dialogues, the UN mission in the city should return to a framework that underlines the Republic of Yemen Government’s legitimacy. — Middle East Institute

“The security and political situation [in Ataq] has not stabilized after the departure of the Elite Shabwani Forces (ESF) and forces of the Southern Transitional Council (STC).” — Navanti Researcher: Male, student, lives in Ataq, Shabwah


29-year old Sahar Khodayari, dubbed “Blue Girl,” lit herself on fire September 9 outside a courtroom in Tehran, after learning she faced up to six months in jail for sneaking into Iran’s Azadi “Freedom” Stadium dressed as a man to watch a soccer match. Iran has barred women from entering soccer stadiums to watch men’s games since the 1979 revolution. Khodayari’s father, an Iran-Iraq war veteran originally from the holy Shi’ite city of Qom, he stressed his love for the Iranian government in an interview with local news,, stating his daughter’s death was a result of an unrelated “mental breakdown.” This demonstrates stark generational divides in Iran between more liberal youth and their parents who lived through the Islamic Revolution. — Radio Farda (Farsi)

Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Abbas Mousavi confirmed in a press briefing that Taliban officials met with Iranian Foreign Ministry officials in Tehran for the second time this year. Mousavi stressed the meeting is part of Tehran’s policy of “comprehensive consultations” with all parties in Afghanistan. The meeting comes in the wake of collapsed US-Taliban talks. — BBC News (Farsi)

Iran’s Chief Judiciary Head Ebrahim Raisi said in a speech on September 5th that Iranian domestic law would be more strictly enforced to prevent corruption. Those who followed Iran’s presidential elections in 2017 will remember Raisi as the hardline conservative who ran against Iran’s current President Hassan Rouhani. Appointed to the Chief Judiciary position by the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei in March 2019, many analysts believe he is being groomed to succeed Khamenei as Iran’s next Supreme Leader. — Radio Farda (Farsi)

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Inter-communal tensions remain high in the disputed Ninawah Plains as the Shabak Popular Mobilization Units (PMU) militia, the 30th Brigade, refuses to heed Baghdad’s order to vacate the region. The 30th Brigade is accused of receiving arms from the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, making the area in northwestern Iraq a potential conflict zone for the U.S. and Iran. — AlMonitor

Iraq is becoming increasingly enmeshed in the Middle East’s “power politics” between the U.S. and Saudis on one hand, and Iran on the other. The post-Saddam leadership must balance these two forces, while simultaneously prioritizing reconstruction and the peaceful transfer of political power, in the wake of ISIS’s demise. Iraq will become a space for both competition and cooperation — a battleground and bridge-builder. — War on the Rocks

A series of explosions at PMU weapons depots has rocked Iraq over the past year, including an August 12, 2019 blast in Baghdad that wounded 29 civilians. These explosions demonstrate that the PMU has evolved from a force protecting the Iraqi population, to one threatening it. — The Washington Institute for Near East Policy

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Unidentified warplanes, rumored to be Israeli, struck positions held by Iran-backed militias in Deir al-Zour province twice in September. Iran is building up its influence and military presence in Deir al-Zour, a desert province that borders Iraq. This activity aims to secure a “land corridor” that links Tehran, Baghdad, Damascus, and Beirut, providing export opportunities for Iran as it suffers under heavy sanctions, and facilitating the shipment of weapons and supplies to proxies in Syria and Lebanon. — Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (Arabic)

The Syrian government has reportedly frozen the assets of former Education Minister Hezwan al-Wez as he is investigated for corruption. Al-Wez’s case is the latest as Damascus cracks down on businessmen who made their fortunes from the Syrian conflict, including Bashar al-Assad’s maternal cousin Rami Makhlouf. Unconfirmed media reports suggest this crackdown is related to Russian requests that the Syrian state get its finances in order. — SnackSyrian (Arabic)

Eastern Europe & The Balkans

Yevgeny Prigozhin is not merely the Kremlin’s caterer: his portfolio includes a range of entities that have been involved in everything from interfering in the 2016 elections to deploying mercenaries to Syria in support of the Assad regime. Most recently, Prigozhin’s acolytes have been expanding their footprint in Libya, establishing ties with Khalifa Haftar and Saif al-Islam Gaddafi in a bid to spread Russian influence. Proekt documents the convoluted plot, culminating in the final part of its four-part series on Prigozhin’s empire of foreign adventurism. — Proekt (Russian)

Ukraine’s far-right movement is increasingly transnational, and perhaps no one country occupies its attention more than Croatia. With a shared history of recent conflict and complicated memories of WWII, Croatia has become ground zero for far-right activity in the Balkans. As Ukraine’s far-right continues to make inroads elsewhere, Croatia will likely remain at the top of its agenda. — Balkan Insight

What does it mean to be a man in the South Caucasus, a region typecast by many outsiders as a backwoods of blood feuds and warriors? This series of interviews by Chai Khanna illustrates the depth and breadth of masculinity in Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan, breaking down barriers and lending local perspective to the growing global conversation on gender norms. — Chai Khanna

A drive-by bicycle shooting in a leafy Berlin neighborhood claimed the life of a prominent ethnic Chechen exile from Georgia. A joint investigation by Bellingcat, Der Spiegel, and The Insider (Russia) has revealed how the murder suspect traveled to Germany under a fake Russian identity, breaking down possible motives and state-level actors complicit in the killing. — Bellingcat