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NightWatch 20150316

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For the night of 16 March 2015

Afghanistan: On 15 March, Afghan forces killed ten fighters associated with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Officials said one of the dead was an ISIL commander. "All the militants were associated with the Islamic State group," according to a defense ministry statement. The action occurred in Sangin District of Helmand Province.

The commander was Hafiz Waheed, a nephew of and successor to Abdul Rauf Khadim, who was the former ISIL commander. Khadim died in a drone attack last month.

Comment: Although reports of low-level ISIL activity persist, most ISIL members killed thus far have been Taliban, who defected to ISIL and pledged allegiance. Their connection to ISIL in the Middle East, however, has not been established, except for the unilateral pledges of allegiance.

Evidence of ISIL's active cultivation of Afghanistan is sparse. It declared the region part of Khorasan province of the so-called caliphate, but has done little else. For example, ISIL has not announced its acceptance of the allegiance pledges, as it did with Boko Haram.

Russia: On 16 March, Putin ended speculation about his condition by making his first public appearance in 11 days. He had talks in St. Petersburg with Kyrgyz President Almazbek Atambayev.

Defending the Arctic. Putin showed he remains in charge by ordering the Northern Fleet to full combat readiness for short notice exercises. Defense Minister General Shoigu said the exercises will last through 21 March. Their purpose is to gauge the ability of the forces to reinforce Russian forces on the islands of Novaya Zemlya and Franz Josef Land; defend Russia's borders by land and air, including in the country's far north; and destroy the naval grouping of a simulated enemy.

General Shoigu said that the Northern Fleet was brought to alert at 8:00 a.m. Moscow time (05:00 GMT) on the 16th. He said the Fleet includes 38,000 military personnel; 3,360 pieces of equipment; 41 ships; 15 submarines and 110 airplanes and helicopters.

"New challenges and threats to military security demand the further heightening of military capabilities of the armed forces and special attention will be paid to the state of the newly formed strategic merging of forces in the North."

Comment: This exercise is the first large-scale test of the Joint Strategic Command North (JSCN), which is being built around the Northern Fleet. It is less a show of force than a test of how the new joint command is developing. This command genuinely needs testing, regardless of the political context.

The Command's headquarters is at Murmansk. According to Polish experts, the command merges naval forces with an air defense division, Arctic mechanized infantry brigades, a naval infantry brigade, coastal defense missile systems and island garrisons.

The forces appear to be the operational components of the much larger forces during the Soviet era. The JSCN thus merges existing forces in support of defending Russia's future seabed and ocean resources as the Arctic ice recedes.

Its formation was approved by President Putin last year as part of Russia's new military doctrine. That doctrine identified NATO expansion as the fundamental external threat to Russia. To block further expansion, it specified that Russia would build its military capabilities in three areas: the North, at Kaliningrad and in Crimea.

Russian plans for the JSCN include extensive infrastructure upgrades and additions, including opening and refurbishing closed bases and adding new airfields and facilities. The basing of modern, long range air defense missile systems in the north is integral to the buildup.

Blocking NATO's Expansion. On 13 January, Chief of the General Staff General Gerasimov said, "In 2015, the Defense Ministry's main efforts will focus on an increase of combat capabilities of the armed forces and increasing the military staff in accordance with military construction plans. Much attention will be given to the groupings in Crimea, Kaliningrad, and the Arctic."

In the past year, NATO and Europe have witnessed Putin and his men begin to execute the plan to annex and then strengthen forces in Crimea. Crimea anchors the south as part of the NATO blocking strategy. Russia might not be finished in the south. If Ukraine takes action to join NATO, Russia almost certainly must split Ukraine to preserve a buffer.

This week's exercises in the north and northwest will showcase the development and capabilities of the northern anchor of the blocking strategy.

Russian plans for the central anchor to block NATO, Kaliningrad, are not yet clear, but are likely to be revealed this year.

Kaliningrad is a Russian enclave between Lithuania and Poland with the right of railroad access through Lithuania to Belarus. The city previously was the East Prussian city of Konigsberg. It is a Russian oblast surrounded by NATO countries.

Since 2011, Russia has threatened multiple times to place nuclear-capable missiles in Kaliningrad to counter NATO's plans for an anti-ballistic missile shield in Eastern Europe. It is not clear from open sources whether Russia acted on that threat, but the enclave is slated to receive an upgrade in military capabilities. The Baltic Fleet is based at Kaliningrad.

In identifying Kaliningrad as a strategic focus, the new doctrine implicitly identifies it as a confrontation point between NATO and Russia. The geographic definition of that confrontation point probably includes pro-Russian areas of NATO's three Baltic states.

Yemen: New services reported that on 14 March Yemeni political forces who oppose the Shiite, Houthi militia, formed an alliance. In a statement, the National Salvation Bloc said its aims are to restore state authority and prevent the collapse of the army and the security forces and to rebuild them.

The National Salvation Bloc is a mélange of groups united by the desire to push the Houthis out of Sana'a. They include Sunni Muslim and secular parties; youth groups; tribal alliances and members of the Southern Movement, which seeks greater autonomy for the south.

Other members are dissident southern members of the General People's Congress, the party of ousted president Ali Abdullah Saleh, and major political parties, such as the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Al-Islah; hardline Sunni Islamist Al-Rashad and the Nasserist Unionist People's party.

Comment: The significant omission from the Bloc's membership is the local al-Qaida franchise -- al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula. That omission plus the diverse political and religious agendas of the members ensure that the Bloc will not be an effective opposition. Leadership struggles would appear to be incessant. It might have symbolic value in conveying the extent of southern opposition to the Houthis.

Most open source reporting suggests the Houthis are running a regime in Sana'a without much overt opposition. On the other hand, the southern tribes and groups are still trying to sort out how to respond to the Houthis. They are not organized. The Bloc appears to be an attempt to try to correct that.

Syria: On Monday, 16 March, President Asad rejected a statement by the US Secretary of State that the US would have to negotiate with Asad in the end.

Asad said, "Any talk on the future of the Syrian president is for the Syrian people and all the declarations from outside do not concern us." He also said, "We are still hearing declarations and we should wait for actions and then decide."

Comment: Asad did not reject negotiations to end the fighting. He did reject the assumption of earlier negotiations that he must resign as a condition for an end to the fighting. With the collapse of the more moderate opposition forces, Asad would appear to be under less pressure than before to agree to talks or to preconditions for talks.

Cameroon: Late last week, Cameroonian forces entered Nigeria after residents of Ndaba in Borno State said Boko Haram militants were massing in the hills around the village and planning an attack, according to Colonel Jacob Kodji.

Kodji said that on Thursday and Friday several militants were killed in fighting near Ndaba, about 20 kilometers (12 miles) from the Cameroonian border. He would not give an exact number of casualties and did not say whether any Cameroonian forces were killed or wounded. Some militants fled and some may be hiding out in Ndaba, he said.

Cameroonian troops also destroyed some of the militants' vehicles and ammunition.

Comment: Most of the fights with Boko Haram in Cameroon have been in the same area, northwest of Maroua. That appears to be the operating area of a Boko Haram band and the region on which it relies for sustainment.

Nigeria: Nigerian forces claimed to have cleared Boko Haram from Goniri and Yobe State. According to military spokesman Major General Chris Olukolade, Goniri was the last stronghold of the terrorists in Yobe State.

Comment: While the Nigerian success is significant, Boko Haram attacked and burned a village in Borno State, not far from Goniri on 14 March.

Multiple news services reported that Nigeria has hired South African and Russian mercenaries to provide ground and air support. Their skills would help explain Nigeria's recent counterinsurgency successes.

Chad: A resident of Djargagoroum village said that on 15 March Boko Haram militants attacked the village, which is near Ngouboua. "The attack was repelled. We counted one dead and two houses were burned."

Comment: This was the second Boko Haram attack in Chad and in the same area. The first was against Ngouboua last month. The ability of the self-defense forces to drive off the raiders suggests this might have been an attempt to forage that miscarried.

The three maps above show the dispersed nature of Boko Haram groups. The attacks are not coordinated. The groups appear to regularly pillage a local area, unless summoned to join a large operation. They almost always have sympathizers in the attacked towns and villages. Large attacks have become much less frequent since the central African forces joined the fight.

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End of NightWatch for 16 March.

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