IS Harvests Rommel’s North Africa Legacy in Pursuit of Mayhem

The North Africa Campaign of WWII comprised some of the fiercest fighting ever seen across desert terrain, with momentum swinging violently between the Axis and Allied powers, before the latter’s eventual victory in 1943. The eventual success of the Campaign set up the invasion of Sicily and the subsequent Allied advance through the Italian mainland.

British tanks rumble across the desert during the North Africa Campaign
Allied tanks rumble across the desert during the North Africa Campaign

Almost 100,000 troops lost their lives on both sides, with more than 5,000 tanks and 9,000 aircraft destroyed along with countless thousands of tons of other war materiel. The rusting carcasses of some of these machines are a stark reminder of the intensity of the Saharan battles but even more significant is the legacy of Unexploded Ordnance (UXO) left by the conflict.

Mile upon mile of dense minefields were laid by both sides during the fighting, with thousands of artillery shells, mortars, bombs and other munitions failing to detonate and remaining primed and deadly in the ground 75 years on.

This legacy has been a constant menace to the Bedouin tribes that continue to inhabit the region, with only sporadic Explosive Ordnance Clearance (EOC) tasks undertaken by the Egyptian government and international bodies since WWII. What remains a constant menace to the indigenous population has only recently been brought to global attention by the actions of the barbarous Islamic State (IS).

IS has made steady ground in Egypt, with the lawless deserts of the Sinai Peninsula and the Sahara now sheltering hundreds of jihadists intent on waging their terrorist war across international borders. It is has been noted that amongst IS’s wide-ranging and ad hoc armoury are devices with explosives harvested from UXO relating to the North Africa Campaign.

IS fighters in Sinai province
IS fighters in Sinai province

With more than 17 million land mines thought to remain buried across the Sahara, it is little wonder that IS has taken the opportunity to increase its chain of supply. Removing the munitions and reusing them in their crude Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) appears to be a further sign of the group’s adaptation in the face of an international onslaught.

Such a tactic may not be novel, however, with the 2004 truck bombing of the Taba Hilton now believed to have been caused by a bomb using explosives pilfered from WWII UXO.

Whilst the exact origin – i.e. Allied or Axis munitions – of the IS explosives is unclear, most media reports are attributing it to the Nazis and to one general in particular: Erwin Rommel.

Rommel, the ‘Desert Fox’, established a reputation for tactical mastery during the early phases of the North Africa Campaign, with his Panzer Divisions routing the chaotically-managed British Army during the initial exchanges in the desert.

Erwin Rommel: the Desert Fox
Erwin Rommel: the Desert Fox

Renowned and revered both in Germany and across the Allied world, Rommel would eventually be forced to commit suicide by Hitler after his alleged involvement in an assassination attempt against the Fuhrer in 1944. By then his Axis forces had been pushed out of North Africa with an invigorated Allied army led by Bernard Montgomery seizing the upper hand after the decisive Second Battle of El-Alamein in the Autumn of 1942.

Australian troops during the Second Battle of El-Alamein
Australian troops during the Second Battle of El-Alamein

UXO has contaminated huge tracts of land across the world since the 19th century, killing and maiming hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians unable to escape the horrors of the past. It is no irony that IS – already one of history’s most hideous formations – should choose to harness this tragic legacy to inflict even more misery on those powerless to defend themselves.

Whilst it might give the Egyptian authorities and their allies a vigorous prod towards addressing this unwanted legacy – and Cairo should by no means be solely responsible for a job whose necessity has primarily been caused by the European powers – it is equally likely to encourage other terrorists to attempt similarly risky feats, harnessing the explosive remnants of war in their quest for ever greater devastation.

The days of ‘gentlemanly warfare’ – if such a thing ever existed – have long since past.

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Bangladesh On the Brink: Sectarian Conflict and IS Await After More Murders

A leading LGBT activist in Bangladesh has been murdered in the latest in a worrying list of assassinations carried out by Islamist militants in the South Asian nation. Xulhaz Mannan was reportedly hacked to death for his social commentary in support of LGBT rights in a country where homosexuality remains illegal, with more than 90% of the population Muslim.

Xulhaz Mannan was the editor of Bangladesh's only LGBT magazine
Xulhaz Mannan was the editor of Bangladesh’s only LGBT magazine

Atheists, Hindus, Christians, secularists and even Shia Muslims have also been amongst a spate of victims to have fallen prey to brutal attacks during the past couple of years. The government in Dhaka, meanwhile, appears either incapable or unwilling to address this terrifying security situation, where Islamist extremists can seemingly commit murder with impunity.

The Islamic State (IS) – as is its wont these days – has claimed responsibility for this latest killing. Whilst IS involvement is certainly far from definite, the Bangladeshi government’s assertion that the terrorist group has absolutely no presence in the country is both fanciful and arrogant.

Indeed, Bangladesh is facing one of its gravest challenges since its War of Independence from Pakistan in 1971. This conflict became renowned for its indiscriminate violence, which resulted in the deaths and rapes of hundreds of thousands of civilians, displacing several million more.

Unexploded Ordnance surrounds two children during the bloody 1971 conflict
Unexploded Ordnance surrounds two children during the bloody 1971 conflict

One of the main perpetrators of what some have labelled the ‘Bangladesh Genocide’ was Jamaat-e-Islami, a radical Islamic militant group that sided with the forces of West Pakistan in trying to prevent the cession of the Bengali-majority East, the land that would subsequently become Bangladesh.

Jamaat-e-Islami retains a presence in Bangladeshi politics and social life, even if the Supreme Court declared the organisation illegal in 2013. With an aim to create an Islamic state under Sharia law, the group is a prime candidate to come under the IS umbrella and has been linked with several of the recent murders in Bangladesh. Several of its members have been indicted for war crimes committed during the 1971 atrocities, a move that prompted a murderous, rampaging reaction from the group’s supporters.

Capture
A candle light vigil demanding the execution of Jamaat-e-Islami leaders for their role in the atrocities of the 1971 War of Independence

Added to the mix is Jamiatul Mujahideen Bangladesh (JMB), a fundamentalist offshoot of Jamaat-e-Islami responsible for a coordinated 2005 bombing campaign, in addition to a slew of murders. Despite the arrest and execution of many of its leaders, rumours abound that the JMB is not finished. A further 15 to 20 Islamist militant groups may currently operate in Bangladesh.

As in Pakistan, there is a suspicion that Islamist views hold sway amongst large sections of the ruling elite, severely undermining the security of religious minorities and ‘non-traditional’ civil society groups. Such a scenario, if true, could lead to violent retaliations by more moderate Muslims and minority groups,adding internal conflict to an already toxic mix of economic malaise and demographic pressure.

Put simply, sectarian bloodshed seems on the cards. With IS willing to delegate its barbarous mandate to local militant groups, Bangladesh stands as a perfect candidate for the next wave of civil war in Asia.

The government has to react before it’s too late. Whether its leaders have the inclination, the political capital, or the moral capacity to rise to the challenge remains to be seen, but nobody should want to be reminded of the realities of 1971.