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NightWatch 20130121

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For the night of 21 January 2013

Afghanistan: On 21 January at least six anti-government fighters, including several suicide bombers, attacked police compounds in a sector of Kabul City. They succeeded in entering one of the buildings and engaged security forces from it. The firefight lasted seven hours. All terrorists were killed and three security forces died and 20 were wounded. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack, but said their target was a US training facility for Afghans nearby.

Comment: This is the second daring, high-profile attack in a week. On 16 January terrorists attack a building of the National Directorate of Security. The attacks most likely were executed by the Haqqani network, which has specialized in attacks in Kabul.

Security in Kabul was increased after the 16 January attack, but the Haqqanis continue to show that no place is safe, even while a large NATO contingent remains present.

Eritrea: Dissident Eritrean soldiers with tanks took over the information ministry on Monday and forced state media to call for political prisoners to be freed. They did not call for the overthrow of the government. Al Jazeera reported that the defense minister and chief of army staff both were killed, but that has not been confirmed, as of this Watch.

Latest reports indicate the government is back in control of the ministry.

Comment: It remains unclear just what the dissidents hoped to achieve. They reportedly included no senior officers and no one rallied. The press described it as an attempted coup.

Eritrea has one of the harshest regimes on earth, rivaling and possibly surpassing North Korea. It also rivals North Korea in being one of the poorest states in the world. News services variously estimate there are 10,000 to 15,000 political prisoners in the state of 6.08 million people.

It has been in a near constant state of conflict with Ethiopia over its disputed border. As a result it has one of the largest armed forces in Africa, reportedly containing 320,000 active duty personnel. Conscription is universal for men and women.

Jordan: Jordanians will hold parliamentary elections on 23 January. Some 1,400 candidates are contesting the 150 seats in Parliament.

Only 22 are Islamists because the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan announced a boycott of the elections because political reforms have not met its expectations.

Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour said on 21 January that Jordan is making "dramatic progress" toward democracy. He based this on the announcement that King Abdullah will for the first time consult parliament when he picks a government.

Comment: The government expects a high turnout, as governments always do, but prominent Jordanian political experts have observed that the electorate is apathetic and the turnout is likely to be low.

Compared to developments in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, consultation with parliament is a timid move, dangerously out of step with the pace of political change in some Arab states.  

Egypt:  For the record. Egypt plans to hold parliamentary elections in or after April. A Freedom and Justice Party spokesman said Egypt's Shura Council approved a new parliamentary elections law on Saturday sending it to the High Constitution Court (HCC) for review and necessary revision. The HCC has forty-five days to determine the constitutionality of articles in the new law.

If approved, the law will be sent back to the Shura council which would refer it to President Mohamed Mursi, who will set the exact date for new elections for the House of Representatives, formerly the People's Assembly. The new law makes no special provisions to ensure representation by minorities, Christians or women.

Comment: The Freedom and Justice Party is the political wing of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

Algeria: Prime Minister Sellal today defended Algeria's handling of the In Amenas gas plant attack over the weekend. In brief, he said the Algerians moved to prevent the destruction of the plant and when the terrorists received orders to kill the hostages. He also indicated Algeria wanted to send a message to terrorists.

Sallel said the attack involved 30 terrorists from eight countries, including two Canadians, wearing military uniforms. They were helped by a former driver who worked at the plant. He confirmed that 800 workers, including 134 foreigners were at the plant. In all, he said, 38 workers and 29 terrorists died, five hostages are still missing and three terrorists were taken into custody. One report said the mastermind of the operation was Canadian.

Sallel also said the plant will resume operations in a few days. He implied that the outcome was acceptable.

The leader of the terrorist organization, Belmoktar who spoke via a Mauritanian media outlet, said the operation had been planned for a long time. The French intervention in Mali provided the opportunity to execute it. He also claimed that he wanted to negotiate all along and had promised the hostages would not be harmed.

Comment: The nature of the target, multi-national composition of the attack force and the inclusion of three explosives experts are distinguishing characteristics of the attack. If this attack was supposed to be a proof of concept, it represents a more sophisticated approach to targeting than the usual shooting up bazaars and leaving explosives in crowds.

On the other hand, this attack failed, arguably because the planners misjudged the speed and nature of the Algerian reaction, even to rescue a gas plant 800 miles from the coast in the desert. Belmoktar appears to have wasted some of best talent in the international terrorist world, but he has vowed more attacks. It is not clear why any terrorists would trust his judgment.

Mali: Update. The northern Islamist fighters abandoned two towns, allowing the French and Malian soldiers to enter. No source reported where the Islamists went, but a resident of Diabaly said their intention had been to attack Bamako before the French intervened. The terrorists have no effective defense against the French aircraft, which another local said "can destroy any car they want."

End of NightWatch for 21 January.

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