The threat spectrum

Planet A

Climate change is likely to worsen armed conflict in fragile and war-torn states, warns a new report from the International Monetary Fund. While climate shocks don’t cause conflict directly, the report found that they can feed into unrest and exacerbate risk factors such as food scarcity and poverty.

The effects are particularly acute in Africa. Twenty-one African countries are classified as ‘fragile and conflict-affected’ by the World Bank, and states like the Central African Republic, Somalia and Sudan suffer more from droughts, floods and other climate-related disasters than other countries, despite having contributed the least to climate change. African leaders have called on highly developed countries to do more to help Africa adapt.

The threat climate change poses for vulnerable African countries will be discussed at next week’s African Climate Summit in Kenya and the UN climate conference (COP28) starting in November.

Democracy watch

Last week, officers from Gabon’s elite presidential guard unit declared a takeover of the country, placing President Ali Bongo Ondimba under arrest just hours into his third term and following a disputed election. Citing irresponsible governance by the Bongo administration—which had been in power for 15 years—the military junta announced the temporary dissolution of all institutions of the republic and termed itself the ‘Committee for the Transition and Restoration of Institutions’. General Brice Oligui Nguema, its leader, said that the dissolution of institutions is aimed at making them ‘more democratic’.

After two decades of ‘relative democratic stability’ in West and Central Africa, Gabon’s is the eighth coup since 2020, following close on the heels of the military takeover of Niger only weeks ago. Many of the coups have received support from citizens frustrated by poor governance,  lack of accountability and corruption. Nevertheless, the trend threatens the future of democratic governance in the region, with fears that normalisation of military takeovers will embolden others to rely on ‘the rule of force rather than rule of law’.

Information operations

Russia is escalating its efforts to spread pro-Russia and anti-Ukraine narratives in the US and Europe. A newly declassified US intelligence analysis reveals that Russia is employing influence-laundering tactics to conceal its intelligence agencies’ efforts to shape public opinion. In the past, Russia focused on short-term goals, such as social media manipulation during the 2016 US elections. Now it’s covertly using ostensibly independent organisations to disseminate propaganda and establish connections with emerging leaders, indicating that its campaigns are intended for the longer term.

These operations include ‘astroturfing’—which mainly involves organising false protests—and cultivating a network of young leaders who are sympathetic to Russia’s cause and may be inclined to promote pro-Russia messages in their home countries. The strategy is reminiscent of the Soviet Union’s approach of nurturing ideological connections worldwide.

Follow the money

Professionals Australia has warned that the Department of Defence will face severe, expensive and lengthy skilled-labour deficits because of its refusal to provide competitive remuneration. The peak industry body for engineers, scientists and technologists says it has been shut out of any upgrade to formal pay recognition of its members’ skillsets. This is despite the 2023 defence strategic review flagging that an innovative approach to retention and recruitment is required to build the defence workforce.

This warning comes amid increased scrutiny of government agencies’ reliance on consultants and contractors, with the Department of Defence the biggest user. Analysis of 2022–23 tender data also highlighted that Australia’s defence industry is struggling because of the dominance of foreign-owned defence companies. These compounding problems undermine Australia’s ability to build a sovereign industrial capability, which is something the nation can ill afford given the challenging strategic environment it faces in the Indo-Pacific.

Terror byte

As the 22nd anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks fast approaches, the Pentagon has sent a letter to the families of victims explaining that plea deals are being considered for the alleged mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, and four others tied to the attacks. Under the agreements, the accused would plead guilty in exchange for not receiving the death penalty.

US forces captured the five men in 2002 and 2003 and moved them to the US detention centre in Guantanamo Bay, where they remain. In 2012, they were charged with conspiracy, attacking civilians, murder in violation of the laws of war, aircraft hijacking and terrorism and have since been set to stand trial in a military tribunal. However, more than 10 years later, the case is still in the pretrial phase after a series of delays and legal disputes, partly related to the CIA’s use of torture in interrogations. The plea deal would end this legal impasse.

However, the proposed deals have triggered strong resistance from victims’ families, who believe the approach contradicts the US’s longstanding policy of ‘not negotiating with terrorists’ and would defeat their 22-year battle for justice.