What Our Analysts Are Reading — 3/25

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 month.


Recent Houthi advances into Republic of Yemen Government (ROYG) territory in al-Jawf have displaced thousands of families and sent a new wave of IDPs into neighboring Ma’rib. While the UN has set-up basic care facilities throughout the governorate, local and international NGOs have stressed the need for additional resources and attention in Ma’rib. As Houthi forces continue to capture ROYG areas, newly uprooted IDPs may place an additional burden on Ma’rib’s already crumbling human infrastructure. — Belqees TV (Arabic)

As of March 23rd, the WHO reported that Yemen has not recorded any confirmed cases of COVID-19. But Yemeni healthcare officials complain of a lack of preparedness to combat the virus while international observers warn of a humanitarian catastrophe if there were to be an outbreak in the country, which is already contending with the spread of cholera, dengue fever, and other diseases. The ROYG has taken several steps to combat the virus’s spread including suspending flights, restricting ground access via border crossings, and ceasing Friday prayers, and for their part the Houthis are considering suspending school, reducing work hours, and closing markets. — Al-Jazeera (Arabic)

Water-borne improvised explosive device (WBIED) attacks spiked in March, targeting both Saudi-led Coalition (SLC) warships and commercial tankers moving near Yemeni waters. While WBIEDs are primarily a Houthi tactic, some attacks have taken place off the coast of al-Mahra in the Arabian Sea, far away from Houthi territory. An increase in WBIED operations may disrupt naval operations in the Indian Ocean and threaten commercial shipping lanes in the Red Sea. — Naval News


Syrian doctors in the northwest, rebel-held province of Idlib think that coronavirus has already spread amongst informal IDP camps, where residents live packed into tents and running water is a luxury. Social isolation measures are impossible in such conditions. Making matters worse, the Syrian government and Russia have repeatedly targeted hospitals in the province, decimating medical infrastructure and killing personnel. Local doctors estimate 1 million people could contract the virus in the province and over 100,000 could die. — New York Times

Khalifa Haftar, head of the Libyan National Army (LNA), recently visited Damascus in a bid to restart diplomatic relations between his forces and the government of Bashar al-Assad. His visit followed Egyptian spy chief Abbas Kamil’s visit to Damascus to meet with his Syrian counterpart Ali Mamlouk. Al-Sharq al-Awsat reports that the main goal of these visits is to coordinate efforts against Turkish ambitions in the Middle East, particularly in Syria and Iraq. With every additional Turkish incursion into Syria (the most recent being its October 2019 invasion of the northeast), Arab nations move closer to Damascus as a way to counter Turkey. — Al-Sharq al-Awsat (Arabic)

Syrian researcher Mazen Ezzi surveys Hizbollah’s presence in Syria, and explores how the group’s strategy and presence differs from area to area based on local strategic considerations. He looks at how Hizbollah has built its presence through military, economic, and social means, including charitable activities targeting Sunnis and Christians, as well as their primary Shi’ite beneficiaries. Among other notable findings, Ezzi estimates that Hizbollah has recruited 2,500 fighters in southern Syria, near the Israeli border, since mid 2018, mostly from the ranks of former rebels who reconciled with the Syrian government. — Middle East Directions


North Africa

A group of researchers at Chatham House tracks the evolution of Libya’s myriad armed groups since 2014, exploring their community relations and revenue generation strategies. Based on 200 interviews with Libyans across the country, the report finds that the most successful Libyan armed groups (with the exception of Hafter’s LNA) have remained embedded in local communities and economies. A key result is the militarization of Libya’s economy, which should concern international and Libyan actors seeking to bring an end to the current conflict. — Chatham House

Frederic Wehrey analyzes how the Tunisian armed forces have responded to security challenges emanating from Libya. The article warns that the armed forces’ strategic priorities are being overly influenced by foreign partners including the US, and calls for more organic military planning to avoid expensive foreign equipment failing to meet Tunisia’s unique security challenges. — Carnegie Middle East Center

Russian actors have been shown to be exerting influence in Libya via social media channels, but Putin-linked Russian businessman Yevgeny Prigozhin has also been forging ties with traditional broadcast media to promote Khalifa Haftar and Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, a surviving son of Muammar Gaddafi. The Stanford Internet Observatory explores Prigozhin’s financial and content creation support for broadcasters promoting strategically beneficial partners for Russia. — Stanford Internet Observatory


East Africa

The Islamic State in Somalia (ISS) has failed to expand significantly past its stronghold in the north. The group has struggled to compete with al-Shabaab (AS), a Somali-based VEO group with much higher access to local resources and manpower. AS also utilizes media to present itself as a protector of Somalis and Somali ideals, despite its brutality. This contrasts with ISS, a foreign and relatively unknown group that may be seen as having interests diverging from a Somali nationalist agenda. Although ISS has conducted a significant number of small-scale attacks in Mogadishu, its inability to expand south of the capital into AS’s stronghold of southern Somalia indicates that AS competition continues to stifle its growth. — The Jamestown Foundation

Besides Somalia, AS attacks Kenya at a much higher rate than other countries in East Africa. This paper argues that this is not only due to Kenya’s proximity, shared borders, and a large ethnically Somali and Muslim population, as Ethiopia also shares those factors with Kenya. Rather, Kenya’s international status and visibility, compared to other countries in East Africa, prompt a disproportionate number of AS attacks, each of which is likely to be covered by international press. This is reinforced by Kenya’s relatively high degree of press freedom. Additionally, Kenya’s tourism industry presents a desirable target for AS attacks. Finally, Kenya’s democratic system of government allows extremist organizations to impact the government, as populations are able to change leadership when they feel that the incumbent government is not protecting them from violence. — Terrorism and Political Violence

Here’s what a Navanti researcher in Mogadishu had to say about AS’s attacks in Kenya:

“There has been a devastating surge of violent AS attacks in Kenya in the last couple of months and the government of Kenya has clearly failed in terms of intelligence. The scale of AS operations in Kenya is worrying and there are no efforts capable of bringing to an end the cycle of violence that has gripped Kenya. The AS saga in Kenya is now becoming an epidemic, as apparently the Kenyan security system has completely failed to tackle and contain the fighters’ violence. AS is also beginning to use ethnic profiling in an effort to trigger ethnic-based tensions so that Kenya may further plunge itself into unprecedented levels of violence. This is a strategy derived from the clan-based conflicts in Somalia, and under such circumstances, the militants could increase recruitment and radicalization.”


West Africa

As jihadist activity grows in Burkina Faso, the risk of VEOs spreading to West Africa’s coastal states — particularly Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, and Togo — is likewise increasing. While these states have thus far largely avoided the violence seen in the Sahel, they have many of the same risk factors for extremism, including dissatisfaction with the government and poorly governed peripheries. The authors of this International Crisis Group paper argue that rather than increase regional military operations in response to this threat, coastal states should prioritize strengthening border control, intelligence sharing, and building stronger relations with local populations in order to prevent VEOs from gaining a foothold in these states. — International Crisis Group

Europe and the Balkans

Sweden’s approach to coronavirus departs from neighboring countries: hoping that its unique Scandinavian culture will insulate it against transmission, the country has so far refused efforts to pursue a lockdown strategy witnessed elsewhere in Europe. Whether this strategy will be effective remains to be seen as cases continue to climb in the Nordic nation. — Foreign Policy

The coronavirus crisis shows how China and Russia are angling to be seen as providers of aid and leaders in the international order. As China tries to reposition itself as a pillar of aid to Europe following what many allege was an irresponsible handling of the virus early on, Russia has also upped its assistance. Critics note, however, that such efforts may be more talk than action: one major Italian paper reports that the vast majority of Russian aid is said to be ‘useless.’ — The Moscow Times

Italy’s Bergamo has witnessed an expansion of its obituary pages as coronavirus ravages the region’s healthcare system. With crematoriums operating at full capacity and churches ordering coffins for virtual funerals, this idyllic corner of northern Italy offers a grim foreshadowing of what may come for nations unable or unwilling to combat coronavirus. — The Washington Post