Mexico: Increasing violence in celebrity retreat of Los Cabos shows criminal influence spreading to previously unaffected tourist areas

Three men were shot dead on 6 August during a daylight attack by five gunmen at a beach in Los Cabos, a high-end resort corridor frequented by George Clooney and other Hollywood celebrities in the Pacific coast state of Baja California Sur. The shootout, which apparently targeted a rival gang, sent tourists fleeing in panic before police evacuated the beach. Previously, on 9 July, three people were found shot dead in a car abandoned in a hotel car park in the town of Cabo San Lucas. In addition, in June a forensics team disinterred sixteen bodies from scrubland behind a beach in Los Cabos.

Baja California Sur – a state which has historically had one of the country’s lowest crime rates – has seen a dramatic rise in murders during the last year. For instance, 252 murders were recorded in January-June, a 342 percent increase on the same period of last year. Police believe that these incidents reflect increased competition between rival gangs attempting to establish dominance over a new drugs trafficking route from other parts of the country to the US through Baja California Sur. The two groups vying for control of the route appear to be the Jalisco New Generation Cartel (CJNG) and one of the rival factions of the Sinaloa cartel.

This crime surge in Baja California Sur follows a similar phenomenon in Riviera Maya, the more popular resort corridor in the Caribbean coastal state of Quintana Roo. Since the start of this year dozens of people have been killed – including several foreigners – in the towns of Cancun and Playa del Carmen, as a result of shootouts among rival gang members, also linked to the CJNG and the Sinaloa cartel, and between these and police. Quintana Roo recorded 134 murders in January-June, up 106 percent on last year.

Both sets of figures are part of a broader trend of rising violent crime which has progressively affected most of the country’s 32 states over the past two years. Nationwide, 2,234 murders were recorded in June, a 36 percent increase on last year and the highest monthly total since data began to be collated countrywide in 1997. The June figure brought the first-half total to 12,155. Most analysts attribute the increase to a more pronounced fracturing of previously dominant crime groups, inadequate public security policies, and failings in the criminal justice system.

Despite the rising trend however, and the high level of violence in certain states such as Guerrero and Sinaloa, the national figure still leaves Mexico’s annualised murder rate below those of Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, El Salvador and Honduras. However, the trends in Baja California Sur and Quintana Roo show that, within the country, inter-gang turf wars are spreading geographically, including into tourism-dependent areas once considered off-limits. This has already happened, for example, in Guerrero State’s Acapulco, whose tourism sector has been decimated since 2011 by gang violence.

Therefore, if crime in Baja California Sur evolves similarly to that in Quintana Roo, which seems likely, businesses in towns such as Cabo San Lucas are likely to increasingly become the targets of related crimes, such as extortion, in the coming months. The Government of President Enrique Pena Nieto is acutely aware of the economic impact if rising crime in such areas begins to deter tourists, and this is likely to prompt it to despatch Federal Police and military reinforcements to Baja California Sur over the next few weeks. However, similar policies have so far had only a very limited impact in the Riviera Maya, meaning that foreign visitors to Los Cabos, along with any businesses there, will likely be increasingly exposed to direct and collateral security risks over the coming few months.

Regional: US lifting of restrictions on electronic devices on airlines shows improved security but militant intent to target aviation remains

The US announced on 19 July the end to its ban on passengers carrying portable electronic devices, including laptops, on inbound flights from several Middle Eastern and North African airports, which commenced on 20 March. The UK, which launched a similar ban on 21 March, announced on 28 July it had lifted its restrictions at three airports – two in Istanbul as well as one in Izmir. The UK’s ban continues to apply elsewhere in Turkey, as well as to major airports in Egypt, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia – which were all subject to the US restrictions – as well as on additional in-bound flights from Tunisia and Lebanon.

We assessed in our 22 March Special Report on the ban that both countries had likely imposed their restrictions in response to fresh intelligence concerning jihadist capabilities, specifically the development of new ways of concealing bombs in electronic devices. The ban may also have reflected increased concern about the ability of some airports to identify such bombs. The US’s decision to lift the ban likely reflects that, following inspections by US officials, the airports affected have now taken sufficient steps to increase security, specifically through more rigorous screening, to mitigate this particular potential threat.

No timeframe has been given for the UK to lift the remainder of its ban, but London has said it is reviewing the matter on a case-by-case basis. Indeed, following the lifting of the US restrictions, it is likely to follow suit over the coming few weeks. In any event, both countries will likely continue monitoring security levels at these airports to ensure continued compliance with enhanced security measures. If these are not maintained it is likely that similar restrictions may be re-introduced in future, even if safety has improved for now.

That said, there have been further significant aviation security incidents in recent weeks, including the disruption of a plot to smuggle an improvised explosive device onto an Etihad airways flight to Abu Dhabi at Sydney airport on 31 July. Two Lebanese Australians were subsequently charged, with police reports saying that they are relatives of Islamic State (IS) members in Syria, and were constructing a bomb under the group’s direction. It is credible that IS or its sympathisers would try to target an airline in retaliation for its territorial losses in Iraq and Syria; that IS would look to target a UAE airline is also particularly plausible, given Abu Dhabi’s long-standing support for Western efforts against Islamist militancy.

Separately, increased explosive screening requirements imposed by the EU on cargo flights from Bangladesh remain in effect, having been imposed on 1 June. These reflect fears that jihadists outside the Middle East could also seek to exploit weak security procedures to target aviation. It is therefore important to note that despite the lifting of the US restrictions, global jihadists’ intent to strike airports and airlines will persist over the longer term. As a result, further restrictions are likely to be periodically imposed in response to the evolving threat.

India: While US annual report on India notes increased militancy in Kashmir, threat from jihadist groups will remain limited

The US State Department released its annual report on “terrorism” in India in July, noting that the number of attacks countrywide increased by 17% in 2016, with incidents in Kashmir up by 93%. The latter statistic largely reflects a period of extended unrest in the region since the July 2016 killing of separatist leader Burhan Wani, with most incidents taking the form of cross-border assaults launched from Pakistan on security force facilities.

The report also highlighted the arrests of at least 68 Islamic State (IS) supporters by the authorities in 2016. While this figure may be understated, it reflects IS’s limited influence in India to date. The group has directed some propaganda toward recruiting sympathisers in the country, and a limited number of Indians have travelled to fight in IS’s self-declared Caliphate, but India is not presently a priority for the group and so it has not devoted significant resources to the country. Consequently, arrests linked to IS have mainly consisted of sympathisers. Indeed, our 10 March Report noted that a pipe bomb attack on a train in Madhya Pradesh, was the first successful IS sympathiser strike in the country.

However, Kashmir is an emotive issue among Muslims in South Asia, and so both IS and al-Qaeda periodically seek to exploit this sentiment to boost their own support. Indeed, on 27 July, a pro-al-Qaeda media channel announced popular Kashmiri militant leader Zakir Musa as the head of a new al-Qaeda-linked cell in the state. However, the group has so far had little success building its support in Kashmir, due in part to the effective security forces in the region, as well as al-Qaeda’s own competing priorities. While Musa’s popularity could provide a temporary propaganda boost, the announcement is unlikely to lead to a significant fresh deployment of resources by al-Qaeda’s central leadership to Kashmir or any sudden increase in its capabilities in India proper.

Nonetheless, the Government will continue to play up the global jihadist threat as part of its efforts to engage Washington on security cooperation, to undermine its rival Pakistan internationally, and to deflect attention from domestic groups with local grievances. For now, the predominant militant threat to India will remain from Pakistan-based groups with links to Kashmir. Such groups will continue to primarily target the security force in cross-border raids. These will mostly occur in remote areas, and are unlikely to affect foreign companies operating in the country. While a large-scale attack targeting civilians or public spaces cannot be ruled out, this threat will be mitigated by India’s effective intelligence and security apparatus, and any such incident would be a one-off, rather than mark the beginning of a concerted campaign.

Egypt: Jihadist attack at Red Sea resort points to elevated risk of attacks against foreigners in response to recent Islamic State losses

A 29 year-old Egyptian male citizen stabbed to death two German tourists, and wounded four other European holidaymakers, at two hotels in the mainland Red Sea resort of Hurghada on 14 July. The attacker was eventually restrained by hotel staff before being arrested, and is reported to have told those who apprehended him that he was “not after Egyptians”. No group has claimed responsibility at present.

A similar attack occurred at a different hotel in Hurghada early last year, when two men armed with knives wounded three European tourists (see our 20 January 2016 Report). That attack was also unclaimed, and we assessed that it was likely conducted by an Islamic State (IS) sympathiser, rather than being directly coordinated by IS’s Egyptian affiliate Ansar Jerusalem (AJ), which now operates under the name Sinai Province.

Given the lack of claim for the latest attack, and its low-level nature, this was likely also carried out by an IS sympathiser. Indeed, IS’s leader in Sinai specifically called for violence against tourists in an interview in IS’s online newspaper al-Naba in late 2016 (see our 4 January Report), and the attacker may have been influenced by this. The Iraqi Army’s capture of Mosul, the largest city held by IS, which was announced by the Iraqi Prime Minister on 10 July, may also have provided a trigger for the attack, given Western involvement in the anti-IS military coalition.

The risk of further violence will remain elevated in the coming months, especially as IS will suffer further territorial loses, with the prospective fall of Raqqa being a notable likely trigger. In addition to sympathiser violence, AJ or its mainland affiliate, whose Emir has called for attacks against “Christians” (see our 17 May Report), could also directly organise attacks on foreigners, as part of ongoing efforts to win increased hardline Islamist and Salafist support and to take symbolic revenge for the loss of Mosul. Although jihadist violence will remain largely focused against Copts, IS and its affiliates have demonstrated significant capabilities during the last year in Cairo, Alexandria and the Nile Delta, as well as in the South, as shown by the killing of 29 Copts in the Minya Province on 26 May. A mass-casualty strike against tourists could therefore include targeting hotels in the capital or touristic sites in Cairo or the Nile Valley. That said, increased security in central Cairo and Red Sea resorts will limit the potential for large-scale attacks there.

Moreover, this attack alone will likely have significant ramifications for the wider Egyptian economy. Tourist numbers, which fell significantly in late 2015, had been steadily increasing over recent months, and were reported to have shown a 33% year-on-year rise in May, after several European countries had lifted travel restrictions in February, bringing vital foreign currency and boosting employment. This attack will however limit and perhaps reverse this recovery. This will undermine Cairo’s ability to undertake planned economic reforms, raising the potential for longer-term socio-economic unrest. The potential for instability will rise if further such attacks on tourists take place.

Lebanon: Heightened risk of further Islamic State-linked violence following Army raids in North-East but future attacks likely to be isolated

Four suicide bombers struck an Army unit on 30 June at the al-Nour refugee camp near the north-eastern town of Arsal, which is located 15 km from the Syrian border. In a separate incident that same day, another attacker detonated a bomb at the nearby al-Qariyeh refugee settlement. A total of seven soldiers were injured and one civilian was killed in these blasts. The violence occurred as the Army was conducting security raids at several refugee camps around Arsal in an effort to oust jihadist fighters from the border areas around the town. Indeed, on 1 July the Army disclosed that it had detained as many as 350 suspected militants during the operations. Roughly 40 alleged members of Islamic State (IS) and the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (JFS) reportedly remain in custody.

In recent years IS has used the camps around Arsal as a base for conducting attacks inside Lebanon, and militants linked to the group were therefore most likely involved in these latest attacks. Their presence in the area has increased pressure on the Government to tackle the use of refugee flows by jihadist groups as a means of infiltrating the country. Nonetheless, major raids such as those carried out on 30 June are uncommon. The Army is aware that local Sunnis believe it disproportionally targets their communities, while allowing Hizballah to move fighters across the border. However, the Shia group recently announced that it would dismantle its positions at several eastern towns in the Bekaa Valley (see our 24 May Report). A reduced Shia militant presence in the area means that the Army is under less pressure to demonstrate to Sunnis that it pursues a balanced approach to the country’s various sects, and so this will have encouraged Beirut to move against the jihadists.

That said, four Syrians detained in the recent security crackdown allegedly died in custody due to injuries sustained in torture. The Government has since ordered a probe into the deaths but the allegations risk reinforcing jihadist claims that the security forces are sympathetic to Shia interests. Anger at the Army could help to boost IS recruitment among both refugees and members of the local Salafist community.

The Government regards IS’s presence in the North-East as a genuine, long-term threat to Lebanon’s stability and so the Army is likely to take additional steps to disrupt jihadists’ capabilities in the area once coverage of the torture allegations subsides. For its part, IS is unlikely to significantly expand its operations outside the Bekaa at this time since it will want to focus on protecting its existing capabilities and avoid provoking further security raids. The group will be further constrained by its limited capabilities, as well as greater coordination between different branches of the security forces. Nonetheless, further isolated strikes by IS sympathisers targeting security or Shia interests are likely in the coming months, especially in the Bekaa. Trained IS militants may also look to carry out a more sophisticated attack outside the North-East, for instance by striking Hizballah sites in Beirut, in an attempt to deter further military campaigns against them and boost the group’s popularity among Sunni hardliners.