An earlier version of this piece appeared in the South China Morning Post and was re-posted on China in Central Asia, however, this expanded version was done for my institutional home RUSI. An interesting topic a bit adjacent to my core interests, an aspect I may return to is the impact of events in Ukraine on Central Asia and China’s relations with the region.

Tensions Over Ukraine: Where Does China Sit?

RUSI Analysis, 11 Apr 2014

By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow

On the growing crisis over Ukraine, China has remained quietly supportive of Russia. Yet, Russia overestimates and exaggerates China’s level of support that is closer to acquiescence rather than actual support for the turmoil that Russia is engendering.

Putin and Xi Jinping

China has largely sat on the sidelines of the current dispute over Ukraine. Hawkish Chinese commentators have stated that this approach of standing aside and watching is part of a bigger Chinese strategy to encourage a multipolar world, while the official position has largely been quite bland. In contrast, Russian commentators and officials have used every opportunity to highlight the fact that Beijing was on the same page as Moscow.

Recently, in an interview on Russian state television, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov characterised China as ‘our very close partners’ of whom he has no doubts. For Russia, asPresident Putin put it when he formally announced Crimea’s annexing in the Duma, ‘we are grateful to the people of China, whose leaders have always, when considering the situation in Ukraine and Crimea, taken into account the full historical and political context.’

Chinese Conern

On the face of it, these interpretations of China’s support are accurate, but the reality is far more complex, with China uneasy about Russia’s actions though it may share Moscow’s concerns.

For all the bombast in its Pacific seawaters, it could be argued that China remains largely a status quo power that sees advantage in letting the current global order proceed along what it perceives as a natural trajectory in which it is ascendant. For policymakers in Beijing, this is a path that ends with China atop a constellation of new and old power centres from the UN Security Council to the G20 and BRICS.

China can see that its economic might and physical size places it in a position that current global trends favour. The question is how to manage this rise in a smooth manner so as to ensure the Communist Party can maintain supremacy in this complicated world.

Russia’s actions in Ukraine do little to smooth this path. In fact, they cause chaos and instability in a number of key Chinese markets, from Russia to Europe, as well as stirring up concerns in adjacent Central Asia.The former Soviet states of Central Asia worry about Russia’s long-term intent and the implications to them of sanctions. They have little interest in becoming involved in Russia’s spats with the West and are concerned that Moscow may try to exert its considerable leverage over them in some manner contrary to their interests.

China is the ascendant power in the region, but the Central Asians have little interest in completely re-aligning themselves towards Beijing and, in any case, China lacks the weight (and interest) to become the main regional security guarantor. In Europe, markets are in turmoil as leaders fret about how to punish Russia in a way that is not damaging to themselves while also worrying about the longer term implications of growing tensions between themselves and Russia.

All of this will doubtless have a knock-on effect on Chinese markets, be this through shrunken global trade or weakened regional trade: these factors might damage China’s already slowing economic growth. The Chinese leadership has little interest in such tensions that do nothing but disrupt markets.

Moreover, China does not look favourably on people recognising separatist states and has traditionally maintained, at least rhetorically, to its sacred non-interference principle (though this is in fact an increasingly obsolete principle). China fears the dangerous precedent that has been set in recognising a separatist province. Previously, when Russia carried out similar behaviour in Georgia in 2008, China was clear in using the Shanghai Co-operation Organisation (SCO) to block a call of support for Russia’s actions. Both China and the Central Asian members of the SCO have their own set of concerns about separatist or minority communities – the last thing that they are interested in is supporting a new international trend of recognising breakaway states.

Explaining Chinese Acquiescence

Yet behind all these concerns, there is also a sense of agreement with Russia’s actions, something that helps explain China’s quiescent pose on Ukraine.These are captured in an attentive reading of Lavrov’s comments. As he put it: ‘Our contacts with Chinese partners have shown that they not only understand the lawful interests of Russia in this entire affair but that we have the identical understanding of the initial causes of the current deep crisis in Ukraine’

This is a more nuanced comment than it might sound, explaining in part how China recognises the validity of Russian concerns, but does not express its own views of Russian actions. China fundamentally agrees that the chaotic governance that led to the collapse of the Yanukovich regime and subsequent trouble is a bad thing. China, like Russia, sees great potential danger in public protests that culminate in the overthrow of a government.

Both countries were appalled at the chaos stirred up by the ‘colour revolutions’ in Ukraine (2004), Georgia (2003) and Kyrgyzstan (2005) and have looked on unhappily as the West has watched the Arab world implode in response to public protests during the Arab spring:as emphasised in particular in Syria. The Arab world has yet to really recover, while arguably, the ‘colour revolutions’ in former Soviet countries are still resonating today with difficult governments in all three.

In this analysis, Ukraine today is merely the latest iteration of this trend, and it is one that both China and Russia fear might lead to repercussions or even emulation at home. This fear, added to China’s unwillingness to turn completely against Moscow seeing it as a long-term geostrategic ally on important international issues like Iran, Syria or others, will ultimately bind the two countries together and will see China continuing to play a largely observer role in events in Ukraine.

For outside observers, the lesson is an important one. China is a passive ally of Russia over Ukraine, something borne out of an ideological and geopolitical concerns rather than an appreciation of the Russian heavy-handed response.

How Best to Appeal to China?

This difference is key to note if the West is going to find a way to get China to grow into a bigger role internationally. China is not the same sort of difficult global power like Russia, it is rather a power that sees trends going in its direction and is happy to continue to nurture them along.

This means that China’s interests can be appealed to if care is taken to understand China’s motivations. In the longer-term China wants a stable Ukraine, Europe and EU-Russia relationship. All of these will provide it with the sort of economic partners that it can profit and grow from. China may be sitting on the sidelines in the current difficulties, but their eye is on longer-term global picture where they see themselves triumphant.

A new piece with former colleague Laura looking at the phenomenon of criminals showing up on the battlefield in Syria. More on the topic of foreign fighters from Europe in the near future – including something longer that will eventually land! Thanks to the Airey Neave Trust for their generous support of this work.

Thick As Thieves: European Criminals Take to Syria’s Battlefield

RUSI Analysis, 31 Mar 2014 | By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow

Individuals with known criminal histories are a surprisingly common feature of the current Syrian battlefield. While their motives may be a combination of redemption and opportunism, returnees in this mode pose a complicated threat picture for security services to process if they return.

By Raffaello Pantucci and Laura Dawson

Syria Report

Since the conflict began in 2011, Syria has become a magnet for European foreign fighters. Determining exact numbers is an imprecise science, but the most recent alarming figure to emerge in the UK is the anonymous government claim that some 250 British fighters are now back on UK shores having experienced the battlefield.

Although there is no single profile of those who decide to leave their homes to join the fighting in Syria, an interesting feature is the seemingly high proportion of individuals with criminal pasts who are appearing on the battlefield. This is an aspect of particular concern to security services since it gives them access to criminal networks for whom weapons are easier to obtain, helping them climb over a crucial hurdle when putting together a terrorist plot.

Hardened Criminals and Low Level Jihadists

There are three broad criminal profiles seen among those travelling to Syria: those with a history of petty crime; those who have been incarcerated for extremist Islamist behaviour; and career criminals.

Petty criminals are amongst the most common feature of the battlefield in Syria. 23-year-old Ali Almanasfi was born into a Syrian family in West London and had a troubled childhood involving gangs, theft, drug and alcohol abuse. His father – a bus driver originally from Syria – had sent Almanasfi back to Syria in an attempt to change his behaviour.

In 2009, however, Almanasfi was arrested and sentenced to prison after he attacked an older man while drunk. He was initially sent to Feltham Young Offenders institution, a prison that has had the leader of the 21/7 London bomb plot cell, Muktar Said Ibrahim and Shoe Bomber Richard Reid pass through its gates. It is believed that it was in prison that he grew religious, and in January 2013, he left for Syria.

Falsely believed to have died in May after Syrian security services showed images of a mangled body and his (previously lost) passport, Almanasfi was last heard from in June when he confirmed he had fought with the Ahrar Shaam brigade of fighters under the Islamic Front umbrella organisation.

Others draw on their criminal pasts to fund their travel to Syria. Last September, five Frenchmen – including one who claimed to have recently returned from Syria – stole €2500 from a fast-food restaurant in Paris to fund their travel to Syria. Choukri Ellekhlifi, a 22-year-old Londoner was alleged to have funded his travels to Syria by mugging people in London’s affluent Belgravia with a taser-style gun. His fellow mugger, 21-year-old Mohamed ElyasseTaleouine, is currently serving a ten-year sentence in part for possession of a converted 9mm machine gun and 24 rounds of live ammunition. Ellekhlifi was sentenced in absentia to 6 years in prison but escaped to Syria when on bail. He went on to fight with Jabhat al-Nusra and was eventually killed in an August 2013 battle against pro-Assad forces.

In addition to petty criminals, Europeans with Islamist-related arrests have also appeared in Syria. The 23-year-old Mohammed el-Araj (who trained in Syria alongside Choukri Ellekhlifi) from Notting Hill was the second Briton confirmed dead in Syria in mid-August last year. A mechanical engineering student, el-Araj served 18 months of a two-year sentence in prison for violently protesting outside the Israeli embassy in London in 2009. Others arrested alongside him at the protest later died in Somalia alongside al Shabaab.

In some ways most alarming, however, is the presence of hardened criminals on the battlefield. Danish Abderrozak Benarabe was the leader of the recently disbanded, notorious Blågårdsgade gang, commonly known as ‘Big A’. In 2006 he was acquitted of hiring two hit men to kill five others and instead charged with aggravated assault and blackmail, serving four and a half years in prison. After his release, he traveled to Syria accompanied by a journalist to apply his skills in a war setting before returning again to Denmark. He is currently in custody on more recent charges of assault and robbery.

Coming Home

Some of these fighters will die in battle in Syria,or stay out in the region. Hundreds, however, are returning home where in some cases they are returning to criminal activity. Two Dutch returnees from Syria who are understood to have been involved in youth criminal gangs prior to their travel were part of a five-person cell arrested last month for planning an armed robbery in the Netherlands. Genc Selimi, a 19-year-old Kosovar, was one of the six arrested for plotting a terrorist attack on a major European city after he returned from a stint in Syria. Prior to leaving for the conflict, he had been arrested in 2012 for gun possession. A number of other, less public, cases have emerged in the UK of fighters in Syria with already strong connections to hardened criminals who have already flirted with radical ideas and had access to weaponry, though so far it is unclear whether these have translated into plots. In some cases, there is evidence thatthese connections providing useful logistical support for those trying to leave. The one plot that has publicly emerged in any detail in the UK is the cell that had allegedly come back with plans to launch a Mumbai-style attack, though it is unclear that they had secured any weapons.

The terror-crime nexus is not a new one. People with criminal pasts are often drawn to extremist ideologies as a way of atoning for past sins, though often they donot leave their pasts completely behind. But the high instance of people going to Syria with criminal pasts of every sort adds a further worrying dimension to the phenomenon of foreign fighters going to Syria.

RUSI is grateful for the support of the Airey Neave Trust in its work on foreign fighters and Syria

Been offline for a while for many different reasons. Lots on at work and some longer pieces that will take a while to land. This is a longer piece for Jane’s on what has been happening in Xinjiang that was actually drafted prior to the Kunming incident so needed some updating. Since its behind a firewall, I cannot just post it here so have instead put up the key points. I have asked to post it in its entirety in due course. I did a few interviews around the grim event, including the Associated Press and the Telegraph. I also spoke to NBC and Voice of America about Syria, and did an event about ISIS and Syria for The Frontline Club.
Key Points
Chinese authorities have attributed a mass knife attack on 1 March in Kunming to Uighur extremists from the restive western province of Xinjiang.
The attack confirms a domestic trend of increasing violence linked to Uighur militancy, with ‘swarm’ attacks spreading outside Xinjiang and being supplemented by greater use of rudimentary improvised explosive devices (IEDs).
Further such attacks seem likely in the coming months, potentially prompting Beijing to revisit the issue of counter-terrorism legislation that in itself could fuel further Uighur resentment.

After a while’s silence due to some larger projects I am working on finishing and other reasons, here is a new piece for my institutional home RUSI looking at the news that a Briton has carried out a suicide operation in Syria. I have done interviews around this subject for CNN, The Times, as well as a video for RUSI. I also talked to DW about Syria, VoR about groups using ransom money, Sky on TPIMs and the Daily Beast about the news Brits were possibly videoed torturing someone in Syria. An expanded version of the below piece is going to appear early next week with lots more detail about Abdul Wahid Majid’s background.

Syria’s First British Suicide Bomber: The UK Jihadist Backdrop

RUSI Analysis, 14 Feb 2014

By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow

The revelation that the Syrian conflict has perhaps claimed its first British suicide bomber poses urgent questions for the UK radical group from which he came, and the threat from extremists radicalised over a long period of time.

AbdulWahidMajeed

Abdul Waheed Majid, who allegedly died in Syria last week, is not the first British suicide bomber. If the claims of his activism with al Muhajiroun are proven to be correct, then he is also not the first activist from within this groupto have decided to kill himself in a foreign conflict.

The news, however, calls into question the actual danger and risk posed by such long term hardened communities of radicals associated with the provocative group, al Muhajiroun. Last year saw the brutal attack by Michael Adebolajo and Michael Adebowale, individuals who had also featured on the fringes of al Muhajiroun events for some time. Now the UK has seen its first, suicide bomber in Syria associated with the group.  Previous suicide bombers linked at least peripherally to the group have killed themselves in Pakistan and Israel. All of which calls into question the viability and sagacity of the current approach that seems to simply manage al Muhajiroun rather than conclusively deal with it in any particular way.

Abdul Waheed Majid had been a feature of al Muhajiroun circles in Crawley in the late 1990s and early 2000s at least, and was spotted by self-confessed group member and later government witness Mohammed Junaid Babar at a meeting of radicals in Crawley in late 2002.

The group he met with n Crawley was made up of at least two men who went on to be convicted of serious terrorist plotting in the UK. Others included one man who died in a drone strike in Pakistan and his brother who was later placed on a control order. They were there to hear, by Mohammed Junaid Babar’s account, preacher Abdulla el Faisal (who has since been jailed and then deported), hook-handed preacher Abu Hamza (who is currently fighting a case in the US having served time in the UK) and Ausman Ali – a preacher who has not been convicted in any terrorist investigations and was a regular traveller on aid convoys to Syria. As well as speeches, the men watched martyrdom videos filmed by the11 September 2001 hijackers.

After 9/11, al-Muhajiroun continued to maintain its provocative stance, holding meetings with particularly inflammatory titles like the one describing the 11 September  attackers as ‘the magnificent nineteen.’Over time, al Muhajiroun changed its name on numerous occasions, each time operating under a new name until the government added them to a proscribed list. And over the years, individuals associated with these groups have repeatedly been convicted in terrorist operations. Richard Dart and Mohammed Chowdury are two prominent examples, though the list is far longer than this and is gone into some detail in a recent report published by Hope Not Hate. Whether individuals are active members at the time of conviction is not always clear, but their journey through the group is well documented.

Is ‘al-Muhajiroun’ Nurturing Fighters for the Long-Term?

Abdul Wahid Majid’s case presents two problems. In the first instance: his age and persistence. The fact he waited after almost 15 years of activism and participation in foreign battlefields before deciding to conduct a suicide operation is significant.

This highlights how ingrained his beliefs were, and while it may be true that his ultimate decision was to conduct an operation abroad, he nevertheless remained a dedicated extremist involved in known circles for almost 15 years, meaning he would have been known to  security services for much of this time. The case of Michael Adebolajo is instructive of a long-term extremist can become a problem at home. A feature of al Muhajiroun events since the mid-2000s, he tried to go and fight abroad and retained his extreme ideas for almost eight years before finally deciding on action.

The second issue is the broader group around al Muhajiroun. The problem there is more complicated. Clearly the group provides an ideological backdrop that is stimulating to individuals who go on to conduct terrorist activity. But at the same time, in whatever incarnation it exists, the group and its leaders are careful to try to stay on the right side of the law, while remaining firmly provocative.

Occasionally this red line moves and the latest group name is proscribed (be it al Ghurabaa, the Saved Sect, Islam4Uk or others) or some of them stray into criminal activity. But the core of the group remains and as we can see, their members appear in repeated terrorist or other criminal investigations: be this public disorder offences or incidents like the murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich last year. It is never clear whether the individuals are members of the group at the time – in part as it is not clear what denotes membership of these groups given they operate more like communities rather than organisations with clear criteria for individual membership.

But whatever the case, the group persistently features in the background of terrorist investigations. This is not to say everyone who passes through the group is a criminal – an unclear number become part-time members for a while before moving on to other lives. But the question becomes: what can be done to address the groups persistent appearance?

Clearly, from a legal perspective, approaches have been tried but with limited success. Individual members of the group who break the law are often incarcerated for some time, but usually come out and return in relatively short order to their old lives. A longer-term solution requires a more dynamic approach that focuses on depriving the group of its oxygen of publicity; that focuses on containing older members who keep the group’s  flame alive, while individually de-radicalising recent recruits or younger members.

All of this alongside already existing and excellent  efforts by the Muslim community around the UK to ostracises the group (in whatever form it takes) and its leaders from Muslim public spaces. This approach will not rid the United Kingdom of the problem of individuals being attracted to radical ideas, but at the same time it will maybe remove one focus of extreme ideas in the UK that has been involved in driving young Britons towards self-destructive radical ideologies for almost two decades.

Another piece for my institutional home’s analytical publication, Newsbrief, this time looking at the relationship between Pakistan and China. While this is not exactly Central Asia, it still forms a component of my bigger research project looking at China in Central Asia with Alex. More on this broader theme on the way.

China in Pakistan: An Awkward Relationship Beneath the Surface
RUSI Newsbrief, 15 Jan 2014
By Raffaello Pantucci

Characterised by soaring rhetoric, at first glance the China–Pakistan bilateral relationship appears to be one of the world’s closest. Yet below the surface calm bubble concerns, with policy-makers in Beijing particularly worried about the implications of the 2014 withdrawal from Afghanistan for stability in Pakistan. Western policy-makers should not, however, be optimistic that these concerns will soon translate into Chinese willingness to somehow assume responsibility or leadership in helping Pakistan to develop in a way favourable to the West. Rather, Chinese concerns should be seen within the context of a regional relationship that is likely to grow in prominence as time goes on, ultimately drawing China into a more responsible role in South Asia at least.

China’s Pakistan policy has three principal pillars – political, economic and security – which, together, leaders in Pakistan see as their main bulwark against international abandonment. Elites in both countries have publicly signalled the importance of the Sino–Pakistani relationship. For example, Premier Li Keqiang was the first foreign leader to visit Pakistan after Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was elected in June 2013, while Sharif made China his first international destination as prime minister. Meanwhile, speaking about the region more broadly, China’s Ambassador to Islamabad Sun Weidong told Pakistan’s National Defence University in October that ‘the Chinese government attaches great importance to developing relations with South Asia, and takes South Asia as a key direction of China’s opening up to the west and a prominent position in China’s neighbouring diplomacy’.

However, the decision to refer to Pakistan in the regional context reflects a divergence of views between the two countries on the importance of the relationship. While China clearly cherishes its links with Pakistan – indeed, Ambassador Sun closed his speech with the rallying call: ‘May the China–Pakistan friendship last forever!’ – the relationship between the two is imbalanced, with China the big brother and Pakistan the supplicant.

Indeed, for China, Pakistan is significant particularly within the broader regional context of relations with the countries along its western borderlands – stretching from Kazakhstan in the north to India in the south. Ties with Pakistan are seen by Beijing as part of this wider picture, rather than constituting a bilateral relationship in its own right.

This has been evident, most recently, in the relatively slow progress on the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) – a 2,000 km route connecting the Pakistani port of Gwadar with Kashgar in the northwestern Xinjiang region of China – which was formally mentioned during Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s May 2013 visit to Pakistan. Always an ambitious project, at a Sino–Pakistani track-two meeting in Beijing in August 2013, Lin Dajian, vice director general of the Department of International Cooperation at the National Development and Reform Commission, highlighted ‘the security issues and challenges that could impede the speed of [the] project’. A month later, Ambassador Sun more pointedly stressed the expectation of Pakistani support in ‘safeguarding the security of Chinese institutions and citizens in Pakistan’ as they developed the CPEC.

Other Chinese firms with investments in Pakistan have previously expressed similar concern for the safety of staff based there. In September 2011, China Kingho Group, one of the country’s largest private coal-mining firms, backed out of a $19 billion deal in Pakistan’s southern Sindh province, telling the Wall Street Journal that this was out of security concerns for its staff. In 2004, the Chinese state-owned enterprise Sinohydro, which had won a contract to build the Gomal Zam Dam in Pakistan’s restive southern Waziristan province, suspended work when Chinese engineers were kidnapped near the site. One died during a rescue attempt, and the project was delayed for a further three years while Sinohydro aggressively renegotiated the contract (more than doubling its price). While this dam has now been completed, other Sinohydro projects, like the Duber Khwar hydropower project, have encountered similar problems.

These examples highlight the difficulties – even for Chinese companies – of doing business in Pakistan, belying the overly positive vision of the relationship often portrayed by the media. It also casts some doubt on the feasibility of the CPEC. With the state-owned China Overseas Holdings Limited responsible for managing the Gwadar port since February, focus has turned to the attendant ambitious plans for the Chinese-led re-development of Pakistan’s roads, railways and pipelines, with the aim of transforming the country into a giant highway conveying Chinese goods to the open seas. So far, however, it is unclear how much progress has been made on rendering the port usable. In July, it was revealed in the Pakistani media that an investigation would be initiated into why a Chinese ship had been unable to reach the port due to heavy silt, despite ‘billions of rupees’ having apparently been spent on dredging work.

Yet China’s security concerns with regard to Pakistan extend beyond apprehension about the safety of its nationals. In October 2013, a BBC Urdu report indicated that, at the behest of the Chinese government, Pakistani authorities had added the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM – known within the group itself as the Turkestan Islamic Party) as well as the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU) and the Islamic Jihad Union (IJU) to its list of proscribed terrorist organisations. This announcement came amidst a period of turbulence in China, which saw attacks in Xinjiang and one in central Beijing in Tiananmen Square in late October. Although Chinese authorities did not specifically mention a Pakistani link in relation to these attacks, they have previously referred repeatedly to Pakistan or South Asia (which is usually read as Pakistan) as the source of such plots. They also reported, in the aftermath of a number of the attacks in Xinjiang and the Beijing incident, that radical material produced by ETIM had been found at the homes of those involved.

The nature of this connection with ETIM is unclear. While there are radical elements in Xinjiang who might use the ideological inspiration of the group as cover for their actions, it is not clear that there is a command-and-control connection. Certainly, those elements of ETIM that do exist outside of China mostly reside in Pakistan’s badlands, under the protection of those close to the most fervently anti-state members of the militant outfit Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). There, they produce a constant flow of radical videos, magazines and audio messages, calling for the overthrow of the Chinese state and for funding and support. In two messages in 2013, ETIM leader Abdullah Mansour praised those behind recent acts of violence in China: one message was released following an incident in Bachu County in April in which twenty-one were killed after a confrontation with authorities, and the other in the wake of the Beijing attack. However, Mansour did not claim responsibility for these two attacks, instead appearing more eager to give the impression that such acts are not the product of mindless anger, but of a global jihad.

Indeed, domestic messaging about international links to recent incidents in China tends not to refer specifically to Pakistan, but – increasingly – to Syria. For example, Chinese officials have suggested that individuals involved in attacks in Xinjiang also intended to go to Syria while reports in the Chinese media in July 2013 suggested that ETIM members were already fighting there. Subsequent reporting indicated that one member of the group had confessed that he had been dispatched from the battlefield in Syria with orders to conduct some sort of attack in China. Whilst the specifics of these reports are unconfirmed, videos have emerged showing Chinese-speaking individuals and Uighurs on the battlefield there – although whether they hail from China originally or from the large diaspora community in Turkey is unclear.

Despite this, for Beijing, the decision to push for Pakistan to list these groups as terrorist organisations seems more closely linked to concerns that ETIM is increasingly seeking and receiving support from other Central Asian groups based in Pakistan’s badlands. Indeed, the increasingly broad fusion of jihadi groups in the region is likely to be appealing to ETIM, which has historically had difficulty sustaining itself and gaining traction among its counterparts internationally. Furthermore, Central Asian groups like IMU and IJU would be natural partners given their linguistic and ethnic proximity, and recent reports indicate that IMU in particular has been moving northward through Afghanistan, possibly heading back towards its primary ideological target – Islam Karimov’s regime in Uzbekistan. As such, Chinese analysts speak with growing concern about the ‘re-networking’ of extremist groups across the broader Central Asian region.

This is where the importance of Pakistan to China, due to its role and position in the region, becomes clear. Although China has invested substantially in Pakistan itself, it has also invested heavily in the broader region. Afghanistan, Central Asia and India are all potential trade partners and sources of the natural resources needed by China to bolster national growth and, more specifically, to enhance development in Xinjiang. Instability in Pakistan – perhaps through the presence of terrorist organisations – has the potential to undermine such efforts. Thus the prosperity and, indeed, the survival of the Pakistani state is essential to China.

Yet Western policy-makers must remain cautious in their interpretation of this relationship. While China may have a great deal invested in Pakistan, the way in which it pursues its interests there is not likely to further those of the West. Indeed, China will advance an agenda that, first and foremost, safeguards its citizens and assets. It will be unlikely to take on a major security role, preferring to bolster local authorities with whatever they say they need to counter the threat. Human-rights issues are unlikely to be prioritised, and in cases where bribes are required to expedite a process, it is unlikely that Chinese firms will hesitate to oblige.

The positive side of all of this is that China will provide Pakistan with useful infrastructure, be it roads, ports, railways or alternative sources of electricity. China has also demonstrated a willingness to lean on Pakistan when the mutual hostility with India becomes too tense: in the wake of the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attack, Chinese shuttle diplomacy was important in soothing tensions. Following a visit by then-President Zardari of Pakistan to India in 2012, former Pakistani Prime Minister Gilani told the press that it was ‘our best friend China … [which] advised us to promote trade relations with India’.

The end result is a situation in which China will increasingly find itself as the responsible partner to Pakistan, drawn more closely into Pakistani affairs. However, Beijing is unlikely to push for reforms within the Pakistani system or to try to influence affairs beyond its own specific interests. Any Western–Pakistani spats or discussions will be left to one side, with China more eager to nurture a stable country than one that is friendly with the West.

Raffaello Pantucci
Senior Research Fellow, RUSI
Twitter: @raffpantucci

And on the topic of Syria and foreign fighters from Europe, here is a piece that I wrote a little while ago that has now gone live for a new outlet, Alternatives Internationales Hors-séries a French outlet. For those who cannot read the below French, it is similar to this piece I did for RUSI. More on this subject en route.

Les Jihadistes occidentaux rentrent à la maison

Raffaello Pantucci, chercheur au Royal United Services Institute (Rusi), Londres
Alternatives Internationales Hors-série n° 014 – janvier 2014

Des centaines de jeunes Européens sont partis faire le jihad en Syrie. Et la plupart en reviendront. Radicalisés, vengeurs, ou indifférents, ils sont devenus la bête noire des services de renseignement.

Le conflit syrien est devenu le terreau le plus fertile du jihadisme mondialisé. Alors que l’on va entrer dans la quatrième année du conflit, la guerre civile syrienne est devenue un pot-pourri d’extrémistes, jeunes sunnites ou chiites venant combattre aux côtés des différentes factions en présence. Parmi eux, on trouve de plus en plus de jeunes Européens.

Ces jihadistes occidentaux renforcent-ils la menace terroriste dans les pays européens ? Pour le moment, la guerre en Syrie a surtout alimenté la menace terroriste au niveau régional : une cellule planifiant des attentats en Jordanie a été démantelée, des attaques ont été commises en Turquie ou au Liban. De même, faut-il le rappeler, il n’y a pas de branche européenne d’Al-Qaïda. Parce que l’organisation terroriste peine à faire des émules sur le Vieux Continent, mais aussi parce qu’aucun groupe ne remplit les critères d’adhésion – autonomie logistique et financière, liens établis avec la haute hiérarchie du mouvement – édictés par la maison mère. En outre, si une branche européenne venait à officiellement se faire connaître, la réponse des services de renseignement et de sécurité ne se ferait pas attendre, et elle serait aussitôt arrêtée.

Mais les responsables européens ont raison de s’inquiéter, car historiquement nombre de terroristes ont d’abord été des combattants jihadistes. Et à moyen terme, les Occidentaux vont devoir se pencher sur leurs jeunes ressortissants revenant du front syrien, avec l’expérience, l’entraînement et les réseaux qui peuvent être utilisés à des fins terroristes sur leurs sols.

Les plus inquiétants sont ceux qui sont directement missionnés par des organisations jihadistes, comme le montre l’exemple de Mohammed Siddique Khan et Shezad Tanweer, le duo au coeur des attentats de Londres de juillet 2005. Khan, la tête pensante, avait réalisé nombre de voyages au Pakistan et en Afghanistan où il s’était entraîné dans un premier temps avec les groupes jihadistes du Cachemire, puis plus tard avec les Afghans. Son troisième voyage en Afghanistan aurait dû être le dernier – il avait prévu d’y mourir comme il l’a indiqué dans une vidéo adressée à sa jeune fille – jusqu’à ce qu’il rencontre des membres d’Al-Qaïda le convainquant de l’intérêt de mener une attaque sur son sol d’origine. D’autres ont emprunté ce chemin, mais sans parvenir à leurs fins, comme Faisal Shahzad et Najibullah Zazi, qui voulaient chacun commettre un attentat à New York après des voyages en Afghanistan et au Pakistan.

Avant de partir combattre déjà, ces hommes nourrissaient une haine de l’Occident, et voyaient dans le fait de détenir un passeport occidental l’occasion de commettre plus facilement un attentat. Un tel sentiment anime-t-il ceux qui sont aujourd’hui en Syrie ? Leur rhétorique et leur allégeance à Al-Qaïda pourraient laisser penser qu’ils partagent ses convictions, mais, pour l’heure, leur priorité est bel et bien de faire tomber le régime d’Assad, pas d’attaquer l’Occident.

Seul contre tous

La deuxième façon dont la menace s’est exprimée dans le passé, c’est à travers des individus qui se sont rendus sur les champs de bataille jihadiste, qui s’y sont constitué un réseau, s’y sont entraînés, puis sont rentrés pour planifier une attaque de leur propre chef. Par exemple, Bilal Abudllha, un médecin irako-britannique qui avec le soutien de son ami Kafeel Ahmed, a tenté de faire exploser deux voitures piégées en plein Londres, et réussi à lancer une voiture remplie d’explosif dans l’aéroport international de Glasgow, en 2007. Abdullah s’était auparavant rendu en Irak, s’était entraîné parmi les insurgés, mais il n’est pas sûr que ces derniers lui aient demandé de commettre des attentats au Royaume-Uni. Dans la même veine, Mohamed Muhidin Gelle, un jeune dano-somalien proche des Chebab avec qui il s’était entraîné, a été accusé de fomenter avec d’autres un attentat contre Hillary Clinton. Le complot a été découvert, et Gelle a été extradé vers le Danemark. Là-bas, il semble qu’il ait pu reprendre une vie normale, jusqu’au 31 décembre 2009 où il s’est attaqué au domicile du caricaturiste Kurt Westegaard, armé d’une hache et de sabres. Mais, même si les Chebab ont admis connaître cet individu, rien ne prouve qu’ils ont été les commanditaires de cette tentative d’assassinat.

C’est plutôt ce profil que l’on retrouve en Syrie. Parmi la foultitude de jeunes hommes prêts à faire le jihad à l’étranger, il est quasiment certain qu’au moins l’un d’entre eux rentrera à la maison vivant, entraîné, et décidé à agir en son nom propre. Est-ce cela qui explique le faible soutien des pays occidentaux à la rébellion syrienne ? En tout cas, c’est ce genre d’individus qui devrait inquiéter leurs diplomates et gouvernants.

Recommandé par les anciens

Enfin, il y a ceux qui partent se battre, rentrent pleins de colère, mais pas suffisamment pour commettre un attentat. Ils préfèrent aider les autres jihadistes à trouver des fonds et deviennent des figures du radicalisme, à l’instar du prédicateur anglo-égyptien Abu Hamza al Masri, célèbre pour ses prêches enflammés dans la mosquée de Finsbury Park à Londres. Jeune homme fuyant la conscription en Égypte, Abu Hamza (alias Mustafa Kamel) était parti combattre les Soviétiques en Afghanistan. Là-bas, il a rencontré Abullah Azam, figure tutélaire du jihad antisoviétique, avant de rentrer blessé et mutilé, ce qui a d’ailleurs contribué à sa renommée. De retour au Royaume-Uni, il est devenu prédicateur, puis petit à petit il est apparu comme une figure incontournable de la mouvance extrémiste britannique. Même s’il ne s’est jamais personnellement impliqué dans une attaque terroriste, il a radicalisé et influencé toute une génération de jeunes hommes, les persuadant de partir se battre à l’étranger, de s’entraîner, voire de perpétrer des attaques en Occident. Il y a, à des niveaux d’influence moindre, bien d’autres exemples comme Abu Hamza, et la plupart d’entre eux n’ont jamais attiré l’attention. Ces individus sortent souvent des radars publics, soit parce qu’ils rejoignent un groupe encore inconnu des services, soit parce qu’ils sont très prudents, soit parce que tout simplement ils n’ont pas l’intention de commettre un attentat.

À cause d’eux, non seulement plus de jeunes sont tentés d’aller combattre en Syrie, mais surtout l’idéologie du jihad se répand en Europe, car leur expérience personnelle est aisément transposable dans le récit plus global du jihad. Ainsi, le problème du terrorisme islamique qui semblait en déclin va en fait s’étendre et se prolonger en Europe.

Même s’il est impossible de savoir combien exactement de jeunes Occidentaux sont partis (ou prévoient de) combattre en Syrie (quelques centaines d’Européens, estiment les services de renseignements, mais ils sont certainement plus nombreux), l’expérience montre que lorsque des Occidentaux rejoignent les champs de bataille jihadiste, la menace terroriste se renforce de manière générale. Reste pour les services de renseignements à déterminer quand et comment celle-ci pourrait se matérialiser. La Syrie hantera l’Europe pendant de longues années encore.

My latest for Jane’s Intelligence Review about European Foreign Fighters going to Syria. Unfortunately, its behind a firewall, so I cannot just post it here now, but they have agreed to let me put up what is below so far with the rest later in the month. Get in touch if you have any questions. In the meantime I did interviews for the Sunday Times on the same subject, something with Sky News about prison radicalisation and something for NBC about the Iraq-Syria troubles and its links back home. Many thanks to the Airey Neave Trust for their support of my work on this topic.

UPDATE: March 22, 2014 – per agreement with Jane’s I have now posted the entire article here. Thanks to my editors!

Foreign Fighters – Battle-hardened Europeans return from Syria

Key Points
  • Rising numbers of European citizens travelling to fight for Islamist groups in the Syrian civil war increase the domestic terrorism threat as they return home.
  • European fighters in Syria are from a diverse range of nationalities and ethnicities, with the domestic threat seemingly most elevated in the Balkans, Belgium, and the United Kingdom.
  • The risk of domestic militant attacks in European countries will rise further should Syria’s civil war continue.

Increasing numbers of European citizens have travelled to Syria to fight for Islamist groups in the civil war. Raffaello Pantucci examines the threat facing Europe from fighters returning home and the risk of domestic militant attacks as a result.

Syrian militant group Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) on 7 December 2013 posted an announcement on its Facebook page stating that a Luxembourg national using the battlefield name Abu Huthaifa had died in al-Safira, Aleppo governorate. The news – although unconfirmed in any mainstream press – marked a new chapter in the history of global jihadism.
As the first national from Luxembourg publicly known to have died fighting alongside jihadist groups in Syria, he became another ‘first’ in a war that is rapidly eclipsing all previous jihadist battlefields. For European security officials who are increasingly concerned about the conflict, 2013 marked a new high in a trend that had been rising since 2012.
In its annual report on terrorist trends in Europe, the EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report (TE-SAT) 2013, the European Police Office (Europol) reported that, “in 2012, there was a distinct rise in the number of EU citizens travelling to Syria, in a number of cases fighting alongside groups associated with religiously inspired terrorism”.

In 2013, this trend accelerated further, with an assessment published by researcher Aaron Zelin of King’s College London suggesting that over the period from April to December 2013 the number of Europeans heading to fight in Syria had almost tripled, and could total between 5,000 to 10,000.

More worryingly, in 2013, further evidence started to emerge suggesting that the return of these fighters home may have increased terrorist threats in Europe.

Jihadist profiles

Little is known about Abu Huthaifa. The brief statement posted about him on JeM’s Facebook page indicated that he had entered Syria through Turkey and that he might be as young as 18 years old. Beyond this, he was a young Caucasian wearing traditional army garb. However, in his portrait there are a number of features observed among the European contingent fighting in Syria.

First, the lack of clarity about his ethnicity reflects the broad background of the European foreign fighter contingent in Syria. Unlike the civil conflict in Libya, which seemed to draw mostly, but not only, Libyan Europeans to fight, the civil war in Syria has attracted Europeans of various ethnic backgrounds, from Arabs and South Asians to converts of every ethnicity.

A review of available information about foreign fighters in Syria reveals that the broad base of fighters in the country reflects the ethnic breakdown of Muslims across Europe. According to the 2011 census, the majority of Muslims in the UK are of South Asian origin. Citizens of that origin equally represent the largest contingent of British foreign fighters in Syria.

Europeans of multiple ethnicities with distinct national accents appear in videos recorded by jihadist groups on the battlefield. One video discovered in early June 2013, which purported to have been taken in March, showed a group including Dutch-speaking individuals beheading someone identified as a Syrian government supporter, with at least one of those involved speaking Flemish (Belgian Dutch).

Other videos to emerge actively encourage individuals to join the fighting in their native languages: English – by a Briton of seemingly African origin talking by the side of the road as he loads a pistol; Swedish – by Swedes of Arab origin; Danish; French; and other languages.

German authorities have grown increasingly concerned about the activity of a 38-year-old former rapper, Denis Mamadou Cuspert. A Ghanaian-German convert, he was known by his stage name Deso Dogg or his battlefield kunya (an honorific title) Abu Talha al-Almani. Prominent for his radical views in Germany before going to Syria, Cuspert has become the face of German jihad in Syria, releasing videos of himself rapping and calling on others to join the fight. It is unknown whether or not he is still alive.

Second, Abu Huthaifa’s age reflects the fact that jihad in Syria remains primarily attractive to the younger demographic, with a large number of teenagers in particular drawn to the fight. In October, Burkhard Freier, head of the North Rhine-Westphalia branch of the German domestic intelligence agency Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz (BfV), told the ZDF (Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen) television network that his service had “observed adolescents who departed for Syria in order to fight there”.

In September, he reported that a group of more than 20 young German Muslims had gone from Germany to Turkey and onwards to Syria. Among the group there were five teenagers, including a 15-year-old. In December, the minister of the interior of the German federal state of Hesse, Boris Rhein, highlighted a study commissioned by his ministry, which suggested that of 23 males who had gone to fight in Syria, nine were still at school.

In Norway, a pair of Somali-born sisters aged 16 and 19 declared in an email to their parents, “Something needs to be done [about Syria]. We want to help the Muslims, and the only way to do so is to be with them in their pains and their joy.” The girls’ father tracked them down in Syria, but failed to persuade them to return. In Belgium, the worried parents of two teenagers – Jejoen Bontinck and Brian de Mulder – separately spoke to the international media in March and April of 2013, expressing their concerns about their sons, who had gone to fight in Syria.

However, the spectrum of fighters also includes those who are middle-aged. Abdal Munem Mustafa Halima (also known as Abu Basir al-Tartusi) – a London-based extremist preacher, believed to be in his 50s and originally from Syria – emerged in videos published online by the group Ansar al-Sham in October 2012, seemingly addressing crowds in Latakia. One video posted on the video-sharing website YouTube is dated 8 August 2012.

In February 2013, reports emerged that Slimane Hadj Abderrahmane, a 39-year-old former Guantánamo Bay camp detainee, had died fighting four months after arriving in Syria. Abderrahmane was born in Denmark. At the age of seven he moved to Algeria with his family and then returned to Denmark in his late teens. Formerly a popular techno DJ, he became concerned by the suffering of Muslims around the world and trained in Afghanistan. In February 2002, he was captured and handed over to the US forces, which held him in the Guantánamo Bay detention camp for two years before releasing him to Denmark, where he wrote a book about his experiences, protested against Danish support of American foreign policy, and was imprisoned for credit card fraud.

The reason for Abderrahmane’s decision to go to Syria was unclear, with the Facebook group Islamisk Budskab (Islamic Message), which posted news of his death, merely saying that he “packed his backpack, said goodbye to his wife and children, and gone off [sic] to Kastrup Airport [Copenhagen Airport]“.

However, the average age of foreign jihadists seems to be somewhere between the mid-teens and middle age. In his detailed public records study of 18 Swedish nationals who had fought in Syria, Swedish researcher and journalist Per Gudmundson found that the fighters’ average age was 23.5 years. The results of this study were published in the September 2013 edition of the New York City Combating Terrorism Center’s (CTC) monthly publication CTC Sentinel.

In June 2013, Belgian minister of the interior Joëlle Milquet stated that the average age of Belgian nationals fighting in Syria was between 23 and 25 years old. A BBC radio File on Four programme from October quoted UK officials who told Shiraz Maher, a researcher at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation (ICSR) at King’s College London, that the average age of Britons going to fight was in their 20s. Public data and specific instances across Europe suggest that the majority of those reported to be fighting in Syria are in their 20s, with a few more seasoned fighters in their 30s.

Moreover, although the overwhelming majority of those travelling to Syria are men, there has been some evidence of young women also going to the battlefield, but it remains unclear what roles they perform. The case of the teenage Norwegian sisters has already been mentioned, and a report for the UK’s Channel 4 television channel from July also highlighted the case of British citizens “Maryam” and “Aisha”. The two women were living with their husbands, who were fighting alongside the Sunni militia Katiba al Muhajireen in Syria.

Having converted to Islam four years before, Maryam decided to move to Syria in early 2013, where she met her Swedish-Arab husband. Aisha moved to Syria with her British husband, and the two families lived in the same building near the Syrian frontlines. According to the documentary, the men fought together, while the women stayed behind to look after their children.

There are more such cases of married partners moving to Syria. A report in the Bosnian press published in December highlighted the case of approximately 10 married couples who had gone to Syria, with some of them taking children who were as young as three months old.

Although many women appear to adopt domestic roles, some have died on the battlefield. In late May, the Syrian government published pictures of what purported to be the passport of a British man, an American woman, and a third individual killed in a car outside Idlib in the northwest. It transpired that the British man was in fact alive, because he had handed over his passport to his handlers, who then gave it to someone else – a typical practice for foreign fighters in Syria. The American woman was identified as Nicole Lynn Mansfield, a 33-year-old convert whose death was confirmed by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). The details of her case remain unclear, but Mansfield’s death demonstrated that some foreign females who go to Syria also take on frontline roles.

Travel and recruitment

A third element that Abu Huthaifa’s case highlights is the method of travelling to Syria. Having entered the country through Turkey, his case reveals the main route used by European foreign fighters to the battlefield. In most cases, individuals travel to Turkey and from there cross the porous border into Syria, where they connect with Islamist groups on the ground.

Sometimes it is done by road under the auspices of aid convoys from Europe. The convoys often carry genuine medical supplies or other essential goods and are driven by individuals who have raised money with a genuine intent to hand it over to refugees. Yet often unwittingly, the convoys also transport individuals who seek to join jihadist groups in Syria. As a result, border authorities at the UK port of Dover frequently stop and search suspicious individuals in convoys under Schedule 7 on port and border controls of the UK Terrorism Act 2000.

Others fly into Turkey (sometimes on unused package holidays), using the country’s well-connected main cities as points of entry from where they travel to the Syrian border by internal transport. In other instances, individuals take circuitous routes across Europe, driving to a smaller European airport to then take a flight to Turkey. Some go through North African countries such as Egypt and then take flights on to Lebanon or Turkey.

A senior Turkish official at a presentation in London in late October 2013 reported that Turkish authorities had prevented several hundred individuals from crossing the border into Syria. However, given the reported number of European fighters on the ground, which could be in the low thousands, this highlights the porosity of the border. According to media reports from early December, Turkey informed its European partners that during 2013 it had arrested and deported approximately 1,110 EU citizens who had arrived in Turkey with the intention of joining jihadist groups in Syria; requests for their detention had been received from other countries or the sharing of intelligence through the International Criminal Police Organization (Interpol).

The fourth element of Abu Huthaifa’s profile becomes salient once he arrived in the country. Given that his biography was posted on a Facebook page that is managed by a group close to one of Al-Qaeda’s affiliates – the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) – it seems likely that he was serving alongside this group. According to Zelin’s study, only 20% of subjects reported group affiliation; the two primary Al-Qaeda affiliates on the battlefield, based on their responses, were ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra.

Nevertheless, although these groups attract many of the foreign fighters, they are not the only ones that draw Europeans to their ranks. Numerous other groups also count on European members, including Jund al-Sham, Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya, Jaish al-Muhajireen wal-Ansar, and Jund al-Khilafah.

From a threat perspective, those sub-groups affiliated with Al-Qaeda are of the greatest concern as their rhetoric and approach hardly differ, and it is likely that a number of plots have been initiated by groups associated with them.

It is currently unclear how actively those groups are recruiting for the battlefield in Syria, or whether individuals are being drawn there by a compelling news narrative that attracts them to fight. It appears that extremist groups operating camps on the ground in Syria have a vetting system, as prospective jihadists often need to have a group connection back home to support them as they travel to the battlefield. Volunteers are usually expected to pay substantial amounts of money for their training and are required to hand over their documents upon arrival in Syria. These are often circulated among other individuals in the group for use as false identification.

Many of those travelling to Syria also appear to be individuals who have previously been involved in a terrorist act or criminal investigations in their home countries. Their exact number is not available, but many media reports suggest that such individuals have criminal records for either extremism or common criminality. Per Gudmundson’s study of Swedish fighters indicated that at least eight out of the 18 subjects had criminal records.

Those connected to recognised radical movements include a group in Bosnia that was linked to Mevludin JaÜarevic, who opened fire at the US embassy in Sarajevo in October 2011; and the extremist Belgian group Shariah4Belgium, which was associated with a number of cases of radicalisation of individuals who went to fight in Syria. In Europol’s TE-SAT 2013, the agency specifically identified Shariah4Belgium as contributing to “the radicalisation and engagement of EU citizens in the Syrian conflict”.

Returnee threat

Shariah4Belgium has become notorious among European affiliates of the British group al-Muhajiroun – initially established in 1996 in the UK by now-excluded preacher Omar Bakri Mohammed and is currently overseen by preacher Anjem Choudary – because of allegations in the Belgian press that individuals connected to Shariah4Belgium in Syria had been recorded threatening attacks in Europe. For example, a Facebook message was sent to Dutch-language Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws listing a series of targets in Antwerp and Brussels to be attacked on 31 December 2013.

In July 2012, one of the leaders of Shariah4Belgium, 22-year-old Houssien Elouassaki, was sentenced to 200 hours of community service in Belgium for “insults, threats, and racist comments” to a police officer. He failed to serve his sentence and subsequently fled to Syria, where he became the leader of a group of approximately 35-40 Belgians who were connected with Jabhat al-Nusra.

In April 2013, Elouassaki’s younger brother Hakim returned home from Syria to Vilvoorde, Belgium, having been seriously injured. Houssien was killed fighting in Syria on 13 September, according to sources quoted in the Belgian press. Based on reports in Belgian media verified by official sources, Houssien was overheard talking about wanting to attack the Palais de Justice in Brussels. Whether or not these threats were anywhere near becoming actual plots remains unclear.

A far more dangerous militant cell was discovered in Kosovo in early November. Kosovar authorities conducted operations in the cities of Pristina and Gjilan, arresting six ethnic Albanians. A seventh suspect escaped. Two of the men were alleged to have attacked a pair of American Mormon missionaries in Pristina on 3 November, and those group members were arrested as they tried to purchase weapons from undercover officers. The status of legal proceedings against those detained was unknown at the time of going to press.

According to the authorities’ briefing with the Associated Press, the investigation into the cell had apparently lasted three months, and following the interception of a telephone call in which group members were heard discussing a possible attack in an unnamed European country, the group was arrested.

The group was found to have in its possession a sniper rifle, a carbine, an assault rifle, two handguns, 1,200 rounds for an AK-47 assault rifle, and explosive materials for possibly making an improvised explosive device (IED). According to officials talking to the press at the time, two of the detainees had fought in Syria, and the broader cell was linked to a wider community of radicals who had been travelling back and forth to Syria.

Far more mature than the threats emanating from the Belgian group, the Kosovo plot was of the type with links to Syria that concerns European security services, namely, individuals with battlefield experience and access to weapons who return home with the intent to carry out an attack. Kosovar authorities reported that following the arrests they received threats and demands to release the detainees, identified in the Serbian press as a group known as ‘Jihad of Kosovo’.

The Albanian group’s targeting was not clear, but a long tradition of jihadist fighting in the Balkans has made the region a source of concern for authorities across Europe, with the problem aggravated by the fact that an estimated 150 Albanians are believed by Kosovar authorities to be fighting in Syria.

Despite the apparent severity of the Albanian threat, the most serious warnings are increasingly coming from the UK. The director general of the Security Service (MI5), Andrew Parker, and the head of the Counter-Terrorism Command (CTC), or SO15, at the Metropolitan Police, Commander Richard Walton, have mentioned the fact that the jihad in Syria is increasingly becoming a security threat beyond its borders.

In his speech at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) on 8 October, Parker highlighted that MI5 had noted a substantial increase in cases with connections to Syria. According to Parker, “a growing proportion of our casework now has some link to Syria, mostly concerning individuals from the UK who have travelled to fight there or who aspire to do so”.

He also spoke of how MI5 judged that “[Jabhat] al-Nusra and other extremist Sunni groups there aligned with Al-Qaeda aspire to attack Western countries”.

This threat was brought into sharper domestic focus in December, when Walton told an audience in London that his officers were “starting to see signs” that Britons were returning from Syria tasked with carrying out attacks back at home.

The assessment of an expanding threat from the European contingent in Syria was also emphasised in December by Belgian authorities, which told the press that they were assessing a group of “Dutch-speaking Belgian jihadists” who had participated in an attack in Iraq. A source from the Belgian police believed that “the leaders of the Syrian networks are determined to export – in time – to Morocco and Tunisia the fighting capacity that is now assembled in Syria”.

The Belgian officials were also quoted saying, “Al-Qaeda has four to five thousand jihadist combatants at hand deployed in Syria who have passports from a Schengen area country”. This is a very high figure that exceeds most public assessments provided by European security officials so far.

Outlook

There is a rising level of concern among security officials across Europe consulted by IHS Jane’s about the threat emanating from Syria. The plots highlighted to date probably represent only the beginning of a threat that will evolve in various ways in the coming years.

Although it is by no means the case that every individual returning from Syria will pose a domestic threat or will launch an attack, the high number of European jihadist fighters in Syria means that a threat of some sort is likely to emerge. Moreover, a protraction of Syria’s civil war would mean more individuals would be drawn to the battlefield, therefore increasing the pool of potential jihadist recruits who could be a threat back at home.

Indeed, the gravity of the situation was highlighted by a US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) assessment reported in The Wall Street Journal on 31 December, that drew on analysis of previous insurgencies, concluding that the civil war in Syria “could last another decade or more”.

The foreign fighter contingent in Syria is likely to match this timescale and is therefore also likely to be at the heart of Europe’s militant threat for the next five years at least – a period of time that will only increase the longer the conflict continues.

Case Study: Abu Huthaifa

Abu Huthaifa’s profile appears on the Facebook page of the “Army of Mohammad Peace and Blessings be upon him – Abu Ubaidah al-Muhajir” (which translates as the migrant – meaning that the fighter is or was outside his homeland). Abu Ubaidah al-Muhajir appears to be the name of one of the units fighting in the conflict.

IHS Jane’s assesses that the Arabic-language page has an international jihadist tenor, rather than exclusively Syrian jihadist.

Unusually, most of its updates are about members who have been killed in action rather than about major victories or battles, with a particular bias towards recording the deaths of Tunisian citizens.

According to the Facebook account, the ‘brother’ and media activist from Luxembourg, Abu Huthaifa, left his family back home. He entered Turkey to study, then moved to Syria to support the religion of Allah. He was not more than 18 years old. He was martyred in al-Safira, Aleppo governorate.

The comments following the entry about Abu Huthaifa’s death are all blessings calling for Allah to rest his soul. Two more individuals who had been killed and mentioned on the page were a Tunisian called Abu Maryam, and media activist Abu Usama. The comments also include links to YouTube videos that allegedly were produced by Abu Huthaifa.