Still catching up on old posting, new writing has sadly slowed of late. Busy with various projects, including promoting the UK Jihad book. Hopefully usual service will resume soon. In the meantime, the new Brill journal Central Asian Affairs published my contribution to a series of essays commissioned by the excellent Erica Marat about The Chinese Question in Central Asia:

CAA cover

Sinophobia: A Potential Knot in the Silk Road

Sitting in a café in Bishkek recently, a foreign diplomat explained the Chinese problem in Central Asia with a rather simple characterization. The issue, he said, is a “genetic one,” whereby Kyrgyz have an in-built antipathy toward Chinese. While such a simplistic explanation is one that most international relations experts would shy away from, it is one of the clearest issues to leap off the page of Marlene Laruelle and Sébastien Peyrouse’s excellent : , , . The biggest factor in favor of the Chinese often seems to be their very overwhelming presence and the potential that their existence just across the Tian Shan mountains poses to the Central Asian states.

On the ground in the markets at Kara Suu, Dordoi, or Barekholka, the Chinese are largely seen in a fairly passive light. Bored and griping as one would expect from workers who are earning a living grafting and selling products to poor populations, the Chinese salesmen and workers largely operate on the fringe of local societies, aware that attracting too much attention can lead to trouble. Chinese energy giants operating in the region tell of training their workers deployed in country to avoid drinking in public and to always have their documents on them, as well as a phone number, in case they get into trouble with local authorities.

And of course, there is trouble. Early 2014 in Bishkek, 16 Chinese workers beat up a policeman after he came across one of them intoxicated at their construction site. This particular attack on a policeman was novel, but clashes between Chinese workers and locals is a fairly regular occurrence in Kyrgyzstan. But what is fascinating, and in many ways a demonstration of issues China faces going out more broadly, sometimes these clashes involve Chinese workers rioting because they have not been paid by their Chinese employer. Either way they look dangerous to locals. For local Kyrgyz who see their markets full of Chinese goods and a growing presence of Chinese workers on building sites or doing jobs that they feel they could easily do, there is a certain amount of anger and bitterness. This spills fairly easily into resentment that taps into the age-old Sinophobia that Laruelle and Peyrouse attribute to a dearth of Chinese studies in the Soviet era. Where people did study China in Central Asia, it tended to be through the lens of minority populations like the Uyghurs or Dungans—the archetypal Chinese Central Asians.

Into this void fill rumor and conspiracy—concepts endemic to the Russian mindset and consequently ever present in the still predominantly Russian Central Asian region. Stories of a sweeping “yellow peril” fill conversations and discussions. As Laruelle and Peyrouse point out, “Each year the Chinese population increases by more than 15 million people, a number almost equivalent to the total population of Kazakhstan” (p. 183). Or to look at it another way, China will grow by about two Kyrgyzstans plus one Turkmenistan or by two Tajikistans every year.

Of course, these figures and comparisons are completely artificial—a relatively limited amount of this population growth actually takes place in Xinjiang, China’s domestic piece of Central Asia sitting across the border from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan. In fact, Xinjiang’s population is proximate to a large Central Asian nation’s: just under 25 million, spread over a geography that accounts for one-sixth of China’s landmass. But bordering the world’s largest manufacturer with a small population that is increasingly becoming dependent on China is a worrying prospect, especially when, as Laruelle and Peyrouse point out, China’s regional efforts have “profoundly changed the economic status quo in the region” (p. 45). All roads in Central Asia no longer lead to Moscow; the newly paved ones go to Urumqi or Kashgar, with new spurs and projects constantly being announced. Be they in infrastructure, like the rail tunnel in Uzbekistan, a new thermal power plant in Dushanbe, or more pipelines to get Turkmen gas back to China, Chinese firms stepping in to fill the void as Rosneft backs out of taking over Bishkek’s Manas airbase, or receiving a piece of the Kazakh supergiant field Kashagan over an Indian state-owned firm.

But while these are all signs of China’s growth in the region, the reality is that there are a number of games at play here. Since Laruelle and Peyrouse’s book was published, the parameters of a possible strategic outline for China’s push into the region have begun to emerge. Back in September 2013, in the middle of a tour of Central Asia in which he signed almost $56 billion in contracts, President Xi Jinping gave a speech at Nazarbaev University in which he referred to China seeking to create a “Silk Road Economic Belt” that would connect China to Europe through Central Asia.

To take this speech as a full-on strategy, however, is apparently premature. In discussions in Beijing, Shanghai, and Urumqi (as well as across Central Asia), officials, experts, and others all continue to express a lack of certainty about what exactly this Silk Road Economic Belt means. As one prominent expert recently put it in Shanghai, “Our leadership likes to lay out visions and then leaves it to others to work out the details.” Specifically, Beijing appears to be waiting for the National Development and Reform Commission () to outline the practicalities of the vision, and then all the responsible ministries will be able to implement it. This is meant to happen later this year, and after that—by all accounts—we should start to have a clearer sense of what China’s vision for Central Asia looks like.

But as with all geopolitical puzzles, this is a fluid one, and while China seems to be clarifying its intent regarding Central Asia, Russia has upended the chessboard with its action in Ukraine, causing concern across Central Asia. The push toward a Customs Union and Eurasian Economic Union stretching across Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and eventually Tajikistan, as well as the Western sanctions are all having a knock-on effect in Central Asia. In Kazakhstan they are causing concern at an official level as they worry about the impact on their own relations with the West and the fact that through the Customs Union they are tied more closely to Russia’s economy. Talk to traders in Kyrgyzstan’s Dordoi or Kara Suu and they have been feeling this impact for some time; since the Customs Union came into play between Kazakhstan and Russia, re-exporting their goods across Kazakh borders is more challenging. They worry that once their country joins, the cheap Chinese products will have little reason to be re-exported through Kyrgyzstan and it will make more sense to simply go in through Kazakhstan.

And yet, in the face of this, Russia remains the clear primary partner of choice for Kyrgyzstan. Customs Union membership is on track for 2015, and the Kyrgyz still see Russia as an important partner, their primary security guarantor, and employer to the thousands of Kyrgyz who work in Moscow and elsewhere send precious remittances to support family members who stay behind. The first port of call for Kyrgyz politicians remains Moscow, rather than Beijing. Out of choice or fear, they look to Russia as a geopolitical parent even though their long-term economic future lies to the south with China, India, and the other rising powers.

Kazakhstan faces a different issue. Already caught in Russia’s embrace, they are more desperate to make their much-vaunted multivector strategy a reality. China is but one partner in this picture, and Kazakh officials and businessmen will highlight their nation’s growing links to Iran, pending membership, and the fact that they are renewing their partnership agreement with the European Union as evidence that it is alive and well. Russia is an important partner for them, but not the only one.

The key question here is what this means for the logic of China being the increasingly consequential partner for Central Asia. Is it possible that China’s influence in the region is one that is more fragile than it seems and that the underlying Sinophobia is a problem that can be stoked at will to blunt China’s push? The raw economic force behind Chinese investment would seem to belie this, especially as Russia has little chance to properly counter this strength, given a faltering economy that is already facing new burdens in Crimea and over Ukraine.

But it does raise questions about China in Central Asia. And it does cast an ever-larger light on what the meat of China’s proposed Silk Road Economic Belt will be and how they will try to counter these regional forces and the Sinophobia under it.

For the time being, three aspects would benefit from getting greater coverage:

First, what are Chinese views regarding the long-term goal? Both Laruelle and Peyrouse have long experience in China, but the text does not always address the fundamental question of what the long-term Chinese goal is. On the one hand, this is partially because a clear enunciation of it is something that we are only now starting to see with Xi Jinping’s announcement of the Silk Road Economic Belt, but it is something that Chinese strategists have been edging toward for some time.

Second is the reality of the much-vaunted “multivector” foreign policy that Central Asians so often talk about as their strategy. Talk to officials in any country and they will deny Chinese (or any other) dominance, declaring that it is something that they are ably playing one power off the other. The reality of this is often questionable, especially when one considers the irresistible economic force of China compared to all others, making one wonder to what degree the Central Asians actually are able to manipulate and control their destiny.

And finally, there is the dilemma of absorption. How much does China want responsibility or can the Central Asians avoid finding themselves increasingly looking to China to help resolve issues? Is China becoming the regional hegemon by default, with no-one having really thought through the consequences or what it means for regional stability (or who the principal provider of regional security is) in a situation where Beijing is increasingly the most consequential player on the ground that assiduously avoids conflict or becoming embroiled in resolving it? Central Asian tensions and problems will not fade as China rises, and what this means for China is an as-of-yet unanswered question.

Been quiet for a while as am getting very caught up with administrative things which are driving me a bit crazy. Have some more writing which I will publish over this week, mostly around my China looking west work, and more pieces hopefully in the pipeline, but the big push over the next few weeks is going to be my UK Jihad book. Am hoping for more reviews around that. So far, have had the Evening Standard and a very nice write-up based off the book in The Times. More hopefully en route.

This aside, have spoken in the past month to the South China Morning Post about extremists on campus in Guangzhou University and China in Central Asia, to the BBC about new government measures to handle extremist preachers, to the Daily Mail about ISIS, Voice of America about China, to the Associated Press about the attacks in Tunis, Bloomberg about China’s counter-terrorism policy going out and China getting Uighurs sent back to China, El Mundo about al Muhajiroun, and to the Times about ISIS using deaf mutes in its videos. There are also likely others, but cannot find links.

The main body of this post, however, is my submitted written testimony to the US-China Economic and Security Commission (USCC) where I had the honour to testify last month on China in Central Asia. The hearing was an excellent opportunity to hear a lot of the top experts on Central Asia in the same place at the same time. Please note that the footnotes seem not to have survived posting here, please follow this link for the full PDF.

March 18, 2015

Raffaello Pantucci

Director, International Security Studies

Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI)

Testimony before the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission

Looking West: China and Central Asia

 

Background

 

In September 2013 during a visit to Astana President Xi Jinping spoke of establishing a ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ (SREB) that would ‘open the strategic regional thoroughfare from the Pacific Ocean to the Baltic Sea, and gradually move toward the set-up of a network of transportation that connects Eastern, Western and Southern Asia.’ Made during the President’s inaugural visit to Central Asia, the speech was both an articulation of a policy in a region that had been underway for around a decade, as well as the first declaration of a foreign policy vision that has increasingly shaped China’s own projection of its approach to foreign affairs. Founded in Central Asia, the SREB and the development of trade and infrastructure corridors emanating from China that it has come to symbolize, is slowly becoming Beijing’s dominant and most vocalised foreign policy strategy and is possibly set to be the defining public narrative for Chinese foreign policy under Xi Jinping.

 

Xinjiang

 

To understand the SREB in its proper context, it is important to first understand Xinjiang. Xinjiang occupies approximately a sixth of China’s landmass, with around 1.5% of its population (at around 22.09 million according to the 2011 census). It is home to large oil and gas reserves (about a fifth of the national total of oil), and has about 40% of the nation’s coal reserves that are close to the surface and of good quality (coal remains one of China’s main sources of electricity generation). It also has a major agrarian industry, with 70% of China’s tomatoes grown in the province, making the region one of the world’s major sources of ketchup and tomato paste. Xinjiang is a region that is beset with tensions focused around ethnic rivalries. Home to Uighurs, a Turkic speaking people’s whose language, culture and ethnicity is closer to Uzbek or Turkish, the region has faced community tensions between Uighurs and Han Chinese for decades. Uighurs were once a majority in the region. PRC census data from 1953 indicates that at the time the province was 75% Uighur and 6% Han, a figure that today stands instead at around 40+% each according to the 2011 census. There is resentment against the growing presence of Han Chinese, with the Uighur population feeling that their identity and culture is slowly being eroded down as Beijing profits from the region’s natural wealth.

 

Since the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) conquered Xinjiang in 1949, the region has faced tensions with angry Uighurs occasionally rising up against the state or inter-communal violence erupting between the growing Han population and the increasingly minority Uighur one. This has expressed itself in terrorist violence at home and abroad. Groups of Uighurs have travelled abroad into Central Asia or Afghanistan, where they have connected with extremist groups and created training camps to prepare to return to China and fight.

 

Most recent attention, however, was focused on July 2009 when rioting in the region’s capital led to an estimated 200 deaths as mobs of Uighurs rampaged through the city attacking, and killing, Han Chinese. The next day, counter-marches took place with angry Han taking to the streets to protest both against the Uighur-led atrocities, but also the failure of the government to protect them. The local government’s failure to quell the violence was so dramatic that President Hu Jintao had to embarrassingly leave the G8 Summit in L’Aquila to return home to manage the crisis. The result of this was a change in leadership in the region, with of the removal of a number of local figures from their positions (for example, Li Zhi, Communist Party Secretary in Urumqi, and Xinjiang Public Security Bureau head Liu Yaohua) and most dramatically, a year later, the removal of long-time regional party boss Wang Lequan.

 

At the same time as changing the regional leadership, on May 17-19, 2010, Beijing hosted a major conference on the region. The Xinjiang Work Conference was hosted in Beijing by the CCP’s central committee and the State Council, involving then President Hu Jintao and then-Premier Wen Jiabao, as well as both of their successors Li Keqiang and Xi Jinping. This was a rare but significant work conference about a specific region (a number have been done for Tibet), and it led to a number of new policy approaches to the region by Beijing. Focusing on ‘leapfrog development’ the main thrust of the conference was economic development as the key to solving the region’s problems. Amongst the raft of economic measures was the developed of a twinning policy between more affluent provinces in China and prefectures in Xinjiang. For example, Shanghai took on responsibility for parts of Kashgar – something that translated in practice to the transfer of Shanghai officials to work in the region for a year, the delegation of a portion of Shanghai’s GDP as financial support for the region, and delegation visits from Shanghai to the region to advise on developing institutions and structures that had added to Shanghai’s prosperity. State and provincial companies are actively encouraged to invest in the Xinjiang, while different provinces would attempt to teach the parts of Xinjiang that they are responsible for some of the things that helped their success. For example, Shenzhen helped Kashgar develop a Special Economic Zone. Another innovation was the transformation of the then relatively moribund Urumqi regional trade fair into a Eurasian Expo, aimed at bringing in traders, businessmen and officials from across the Eurasian landmass to Urumqi – a city described by an Urumqi official to the author as the ‘closest big Chinese city to Europe.’ Economic investors from Europe and elsewhere were actively encouraged with preferential benefits and gentle persuasion. For example, a Turkish-Chinese business park was developed just outside Urumqi to bring Turkish investment into the region. German carmaker VW was encouraged alongside its Chinese joint venture partner SAIC to build a sedan factory in the region. Central Asian businessmen and traders were actively targeted for the Eurasian Expo, and another Special Economic Zone was established at the border crossing with Kazakhstan at Khorgos. And finally, funding was allocated to develop infrastructure, roads, rail and airports across the region to enable Xinjiang to become ‘a gateway for mutually beneficial cooperation between China and other Eurasian countries’, as put by Premier Wen Jiaobao during the Second Eurasian Expo in Urumqi in September 2012.

 

China’s policy towards Xinjiang was not, of course, solely one of economic investment. Alongside this surge of inward investment (something that had been underway for some time through various ‘develop the west’ initiatives) was a growth in security spending in the region. Emphasis was placed on trying to strengthen the security forces in the region and stamp out the periodic bouts of violence that continue to plague the region. China’s approach was in essence a binary one of heavy economic investment and heavy security clampdown. The balance between these two seemed to be shifted back in favor of ‘stability’ (or security) in the wake of a second Xinjiang Work Conference under Xi Jinping’s leadership in January 2014. However, the State Council also emphasised the importance of economic investment when it announced in June 2014 that the Xinjiang government was to spend approximately $130 billion to develop the region’s infrastructure.

 

But for both the security and economic surges to work, there was clearly a need to develop stronger links to the region around Xinjiang, and it is here that Central Asia starts to play a prominent and key role. Abutting Xinjiang, Central Asia is China’s westernmost periphery. Scattered around the region are pockets of Uighur populations – with major communities found in ethnically proximate Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. In Kazakhstan in particular, Uighurs play a substantial role in the nation, with current Prime Minister Karim Massimov an ethnic Uighur. In Pakistan, relatively large Uighur communities live along Pakistan’s side of the Karakoram Highway. Within these communities and countries, China sees concern and Beijing and Urumqi security chiefs have developed strong links with their local counterparts (at a bilateral level, but also through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization) to ensure that, should any dissident Uighurs flee across the border, they will be rapidly repatriated.

 

More visible than this strong security bond, however, is the huge level of economic activity and investment that is slowly spilling across the border into Central Asia from China. Something that has always happened naturally given the borders, traditionally nomadic people’s and the nature of trading across Central Asia, it has increasingly taken on a life of its own as Chinese investment has poured in to refurbish and revitalize the trade routes across the region. The logic to this growth is simple: Xinjiang is as landlocked as the Central Asian countries it abuts. If Beijing is going to ensure that the region prospers, then it will need to be better connected to the world. Given the relative land proximity to Europe, it therefore makes more sense to develop the region’s physical links into Central Asia, not necessarily for Central Asian prosperity in itself, but rather to ultimately help transport Chinese goods to Eurasian and European markets (and vice versa). Hence the need for infrastructure that helps re-connect and re-wire the Eurasian landmass from China to Europe. Ultimately, if Xinjiang is going to benefit from the push for economic investment within China, it is going to have to have somewhere to trade with and through. Logically, conduit for this has to be Central Asia.

 

China’s Economic Surge into Central Asia

 

It is in many ways the economics of China’s push into Central Asia that is the most significant external aspect of this ultimately domestic policy response. The narrative of Chinese investment into the region used to be one of mineral extraction and exploitation. A late entrant into Central Asian energy through investments in Kazakhstan, CNPC purchased aging Soviet oil fields in Aktobe, western Kazakhstan and rapidly built an oil pipeline back to China. Built with great speed and efficiency, the pipeline became the symbol of China’s relations with the region. Most perceived China as viewing Central Asia simply as a large source of fuel and minerals that it could exploit to feed the seemingly insatiable energy needs its economic development required. This view was further affirmed through CNPC’s major investments into Turkmenistan, where the country has been one of the few to successfully operate and buy Turkmen gas. CNPC has become one of the largest supporters of the Turkmen national budget, through gas purchases and the development of almost four different pipelines to transport gas back to China.

 

This superficial view of China’s growth in the region misses the reality on the ground whereby China is slowly becoming a dominant player in a vast array of different economic areas. From Kyrgyzstan, where the import and re-export of Chinese goods plays a huge role in the national economy, to Tajikistan that is increasingly becoming one of China’s biggest debtor partners. To better understand the breadth and depth of China’s economic influence in the region, it is useful to look at the extent to and manner in which China operates in the energy industry, one of the dominant industries in which China participates in Central Asia.

 

As has been mentioned, China is the major player in Turkmenistan, where it is the sole country that is able to get substantial access to Turkmen hydrocarbons. Russian volumes have shrunk and Iran has had difficulty paying in cash (offering barter instead), making China the preferred player in Ashgabat. This is a similar story in Kazakhstan, where China has not only constructed one of the quickest-built pipelines ever in the country, but it has also bought 8.33% of the supergiant oil field Kashagan, purchasing American firm ConocoPhilips’ stake. Buying into a project run by a multi-national consortium is a new endeavor for a Chinese company in Kazakhstan. It is also a major purchaser of Kazakh uranium. In 2014 Kazakhstan’s state-run nuclear energy agency Kazatomprom said that 55% of Kazakh uranium production was exported to China. In Uzbekistan, China has signed contracts to extract some gas and build a pipeline across the country from Turkmenistan. It has also aided in developing electricity re-metering , as well as helped the country to develop its solar panel production capability, and refurbish solar furnace factories.

 

Tajikistan, until relatively recently considered a very energy poor country, made discoveries of large potential gas reserves in the Bokhtar region. Chinese company CNPC partnered with Canadian Tethys and French Total to undertake further exploration. Downtown Dushanbe, once famous for its blackouts, now has a large Chinese-built thermal power plant that provides electricity to the city through the cold winter months. A major producer of hydroelectric power, Chinese firms have explored the possibility of both exporting Tajik hydroelectric power, but also building some of the infrastructure to support it. And finally, Kyrgyzstan, remaining energy poor has nonetheless benefited from Chinese attention in the energy field. While Russian firm Gazprom remains a major player in the nations energy mix, CNPC has offered to build refineries in the country, as well as helping connect the country upgrade and build power transmission lines. China is a player across Central Asia’s energy fields, not solely in extractives.

 

The funding for these projects comes in a number of different ways. In some cases, like a coal-fired plant in Dushanbe, the project was one that is offered by a Chinese firm in exchange for preferential treatment on another project. In other cases, it is funded through Chinese policy bank loans that are offered at preferential rates and stipulate that the implementing party must be Chinese. One example of this structure is the decision to build a camera monitoring system in Dushanbe to help monitor traffic in the city. Money was offered through an ExIm Bank loan, and the implementer was Chinese telecoms giant Huawei. This approach is not actually novel to the region, with both Korean and Japanese banks offering similar structures in regional contexts, but the scale and size of Chinese loans and rapid implementation is significant.

 

Increasingly one can see China assisting in the rewiring of roads, railways, pipelines and electricity grids across the region so that all lead back to China, or at least in some way benefit China’s access. All of this helps connect up what is happening in Central Asia with the all-important domestic strategy in Xinjiang. Consequently, the economic push into Central Asia by China comes from a blend of economic forces as a result of the economic investment into Xinjiang, as well as the ongoing outward push by Chinese firms and money.

 

Enunciating a strategy

 

While this is how things have been playing out on the ground for many years, prior to Xi Jinping’s SREB announcement, China’s investment strategy for Xinjiang and Central Asia was not something that had been directed or enunciated in any clear or coherent way from Beijing. The closest thing to a regional strategy document can be found in the Xinjiang Work Plan and its acknowledgement of the importance of developing markets and routes into Central Asia to improve Xinjiang’s prosperity. In 2011, Chinese academic and Dean of Beijing’s international school Wang Jisi offered some sort of academic theory to the logic of this push in his influential writing about China’s March Westward. But there was no clear policy expression or formulation offered until Xi Jinping visited Central Asia in 2013 and laid out his SREB vision, in essence symbolizing Xi Jinping’s desire to take ownership over a reality that had been going on for some time and stamping his brand and leadership on an overarching policy concept around it.

 

And since the announcement of this belt, and the later addition of the Maritime Silk Road in a speech in Indonesia in October 2013, amalgamated into the phrasing ‘one belt, one road’ there has been a further surge in development and investment to make this vision a reality. At home, the Silk Road has now become a project with huge implications across the west of the country. Maps have been issued showing the city of Xi’an as the starting point, while $79.8 billion has been announced into investment into Gansu. A further domestic fund of some $16.3 billion has been announced for supporting Silk Road projects at home. Mostly infrastructure investment projects, there have also been more specific investments emanating from provinces in Western China to Central Asian countries – like $800 million invested by Henan into Tajikistan. On the ground such investment efforts can be found in Tashkent in the form of trade fairs bringing Xinjiang traders to the region, as well as in markets across the region that are filled with low-end traders and larger property or market owners who have spent a decade or more in Central Asia building up empires of market stalls, local factories and real estate portfolios.

 

Externally, this surge of infrastructure investment is also clearly visible in the form of a growing constellation of investment banks being directed out of Beijing, as well as the expansion of the concept of the SREB. From an initial vision that seemed focused on Xinjiang development through Central Asia, it has now become something that spans the Eurasian landmass (more than 60 countries now see themselves in its route), but has also developed offshoots in the Maritime Silk Road, the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar (BCIM) Corridor, and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Each of these is less developed compared with the SREB, but at the same time all reflect logical trade corridors that China would like to open up. China has already started to explore how to develop the necessary infrastructure in each case.

 

One of the main reasons why this push seems more credible than previous efforts is the volume of funding that China is pushing towards the projects and the array of development bank vehicles they are creating to help make it a reality. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), the BRICS Bank, and the earlier discussed but never realized Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Development Bank, are all expressions of this. Whilst the AIIB and BRICS Bank are not singularly focused on Central Asia, the model of development they are focused on is one that reflects China’s experiences in Central Asia, using the lever of economic infrastructure investment to help foster trade corridors and routes that ultimately connect China to its markets. The focus on infrastructure reflects not only the reality of a region that has infrastructure huge demand for investment in this area, but also a Chinese policy outlook that is shaped by the concept of regional connectivity and development of a prosperous neighbourhood. This underlying concept is something that has been present in Xi Jinping’s foreign policy outlook from the beginning of his presidency. This is highlighted when in October 2013 he held a rare foreign policy work conference focused on ‘peripheral diplomacy’, meaning China’s relations with its proximate neighbours.

 

Regional repercussions

 

The biggest question in this Chinese push, however, is how the region is going to react to it. Looking to Central Asia in particular, China has played a very careful and sensitive game. This is most clearly exemplified in the SCO, that was first developed as the Shanghai Five, a cooperative grouping focused on delineating China’s borders with the former Soviet Union in the wake of the latter’s collapse. In 2001, Uzbekistan joined China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan, and the SCO was formed with a Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure (RATS) founded in Tashkent. From there, the organization has continued to operate, using counter-terrorism as its main rallying flag, but with little evidence of it developing too much more beyond this. Chinese thinkers and officials have tried to push the SCO in a more economic and development direction, but this has largely been met with skepticism and hesitation by regional powers, in particular Russia, who has hesitated to let the SCO develop too much more beyond its current mandate. At the same time, China’s hesitation to get involved in hard security questions regionally means that the Central Asian members of the organization continue to prioritize the security relationship with Russia over China (though there is some evidence that this is starting to change).

 

With Russia, the question of underlying tensions has remained a major issue, though whenever Chinese officials and experts talk of Russia in a Central Asian context, they go to great lengths to highlight the fact that they would do nothing that would contradict their Russian counterparts interests in Central Asia. For their part, Russian experts recognize that China is the coming force in Central Asia, but seem willing to accept it and highlight that most regional leaders see Moscow as their key international partner who is also able to play a much more decisive security role than Beijing. There have been some deals recently where Russian firms have lost contracts in favor of Chinese companies – for example, the redevelopment of the Manas Airbase in Kyrgyzstan in the wake of American withdrawal, is something that has been passed on to Chinese firms rather than Russian Rosneft who was initially believed to be taking the contract. But at a larger strategic level, both powers seem to have reached a modus vivendi in Central Asia that does not necessarily reflect the strategic balance in outsiders eyes, but that functions for them on the ground.

 

The other key regional question hanging over the region is Afghanistan (and Pakistan). For Central Asia, it is Afghanistan that is seen as the great potential destabilizer, and there is the concern that the massive investments into the SREB that have been done into Central Asia may be negatively impacted should Afghanistan become once again an exporter of instability. This is a concern that Chinese officials will express, though most often when talking about Afghanistan they will express concern that Uighur extremists might once again use the territory as a training ground to export violence back to China. China has increasingly been playing a role in Afghanistan, in particular in trying to offer itself as a broker between the Taliban and authorities in Kabul, as well as mineral extraction, economic investment, and some regional collaboration. But at the same time, it is unclear that Afghanistan necessarily features as part of the SREB, except in some of its northern regions that offer themselves as routes to Iranian and other Middle Eastern markets, in one of the routes offered in Chinese publications of where the SREB actually flows.

 

The biggest regional problem that China faces with its SREB in Central Asia, however, is the question of Sinophobia. Something that is palpable on the ground at times in the resentments that people feel towards Chinese businessmen and traders, there is a noticeable sensitivity when discussions come up about Chinese redrawing boundaries in certain parts of Central Asia. In Tajikistan, online discussions about land deals between Chinese state owned agri-businesses and Tajik authorities were blocked to reflect the perception on the ground that these deals were the government selling the nation to China. In Kazakhstan a similar deal was announced by President Nazarbayev in 2009, but the public outcry against it led to him walking back on the initial deal. Relatively small countries by population, the Central Asians fear overwhelming by China, a sentiment that can also be found in Russia’s border regions with China. This is not only about numbers of people, but also in the fact that all of the Central Asians want to become manufacturing hubs themselves, something that is going to be very difficult when they sit next to the world’s manufacturer.

 

China is not unaware of this Sinophobia, and has attempted through various means to undertake a soft power push in the region. For example, there is a growth number of Confucius Institutes in the region. They have also funded specific research projects in countries like Kazakhstan by local experts and opinion formers to help both shape the individuals views, but also to understand better the nature of the sinophobia so they can react to it. Travel to Aktobe, a city where CNPC plays a major economic role, and it is almost impossible to find a visible Chinese presence in the city. Chinese workers stay outside the city in a compound in an old sanatorium.

 

US Relations and impact

 

From a Chinese and Central Asian perspective, the US’s role is complicated. In the first instance, it is important to understand a bit more of the theory behind the policy. When Professor Wang Jisi drafted his influential work on the need for China to March Westward, his thinking was not only based in trying to get China to focus on its immediate periphery and develop its west, but also to try to get Chinese officials to refocus from their almost obsessive attention to China’s relations with the United States and maritime powers. This underlying logic highlights how to some degree China sees its push into Eurasia as something that it is doing without the United States. At the same time, China has shown itself to being increasingly willing to cooperate with the United States in Central Asia, with a willingness to undertake joint programs in Afghanistan, as well as explore discussions with American officials about what cooperation could be undertaken collaboratively in Central Asia.

 

At the same time, regionally, the United States is seen as something of an erratic actor. With the drawdown from Afghanistan, and the oscillating American attention to Central Asian powers, there is a regional perception that the United States is a fairweather friend or only focuses on the region when national interests are threatened (like in the wake of September 11, 2001). Furthermore, the United States is seen as not offering the same opportunities as China – while there was an interest in the New Silk Road highlighted by then-Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in a speech in Chennai in 2011, little has come from that beyond an expression of interest by the United States in creating a north-west corridor through Afghanistan. Projects like the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India pipeline or CASA 1000 are slowly moving forwards, but without the financial push or heft of China behind them, progress is much slower than China’s efforts.

 

A new piece for RUSI’s in-house bi-monthly magazine Newsbrief, this time looking at China’s relations with the Taliban. I owe a lot of people thanks for talking to me about this topic, and am in the midst of a lot of work on this topic at the moment (China’s relations with Afghanistan). Somewhat related, I spoke to Reuters about the new Chinese counter-terrorism law, but the overwhelming majority of recent media conversations have been around the revelations around the identity of Jihadi John. On that, I spoke to the New York TimesWashington Post, Financial Times, CNN, Sunday TimesAustralian ABC, Daily Mail, Independent, and Voice of America amongst others. Doubtless this story is going to run a bit more and I am hoping to finally get something substantial on about his background sometime soon. Of course, my book in jihad in the UK has finally landed and is getting launched at RUSI on March 19 – so watch this space!

Will China Bring Peace to Afghanistan?

RUSI Newsbrief, 27 Feb 2015

By Raffaello Pantucci

After years of fence-sitting, Beijing appears to have finally decided to admit that it is willing to play a role in Afghanistan’s future. While the exact contours of the part it seeks to play are still uncertain, China’s willingness to be seen to be involved in brokering peace in Afghanistan is surprising for a nation that continues to profess non-interference in other countries’ internal affairs as the core of its foreign-policy credo.

It also remains unclear exactly how China can help to bring the Taliban to the peace table: while it may have the links to both the government in Kabul and the Taliban, it is uncertain that it knows how to bring them together, beyond offering a platform for talks. This activism is nonetheless likely to be welcomed by Western powers. Yet high expectations are not warranted; even if China does ultimately prove that it knows what to do with these talks, its efforts in Afghanistan will ultimately seek to advance its own interests rather than those of the West.

In February, news emerged that the Taliban were undertaking discussions in Pakistan as part of a reconciliation effort aided, in part, by China. This built on news last November that China had itself hosted a Taliban delegation in Beijing. Although this earlier revelation (confirmed during this author’s meetings in Beijing) was a surprise to many, it reflected a longstanding, behind-the-scenes understanding amongst Western policy-makers that China had direct links to the Taliban. The fact that these links became publicly known (although Chinese officials remain circumspect when discussing them in public) only suggests that China is willing to be more open about its possible role in Afghanistan – a development potentially accelerated by the formal conclusion of ISAF operations in the country.

The first public sign of Chinese mediation efforts came with the suggestion in November that China’s special envoy to Afghanistan – a career diplomat and former ambassador to India, Italy, Poland and (separately) Afghanistan – had visited Peshawar (or Doha, reports vary) to move talks with the Taliban forwards. Then came the visit of the Taliban delegation (following Beijing’s hosting of the Heart of Asia process meeting later that month), led by Qari Din Muhammad Hanif, a former minister in the Taliban government and possibly including representatives of both the Quetta and Peshawar Shuras of the Taliban, and potentially others from Pakistan. It was only in February, however, that Taliban spokesmen were willing to confirm that the meeting had taken place, with the same delegation apparently then in Pakistan continuing discussions there.

The revelation that China has maintained direct contact with the Taliban was no great surprise; these contacts predate the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001. In December 2000, a Chinese delegation headed by then-Ambassador to Pakistan Lu Shulin met with Mullah Omar in Kabul to lobby the Taliban authorities not to support anti-Chinese Uighur extremists based in Afghanistan, which were then a source of major consternation for Chinese security officials. China was also amongst those that lobbied, unsuccessfully, to prevent the Taliban from destroying the Bamiyan Buddhas. Nor was such contact limited to simply making demands of the Taliban, with Chinese telecommunications companies ZTE and Huawei both having signed contracts to undertake work in Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.

In July 2001, a delegation of Taliban-associated businessmen undertook a reciprocal visit to China, and on 11 September 2001 itself, a delegation of Chinese officials was in Kabul to sign a number of memoranda of understanding with the Taliban Ministry of Mines. Whilst these economic ties were largely voided in the wake of 9/11, they nevertheless show a credible link between the two and a longstanding Chinese interest in the Afghan economy.

Even in the wake of the US-led overthrow of the Taliban regime contact persisted, apparently directed out of China’s embassy in Islamabad, with relevant officials paying regular visits to Peshawar. Though initially largely handled through Pakistani interlocutors, it is understood that, over time, direct links between Chinese officials and the Taliban were consolidated. The exact nature of these exchanges is unclear, though for China they appear to have provided a means to enlist Taliban help in addressing the problem of Uighur extremists and in protecting their investments in Afghanistan, while also hedging against a persistent Chinese fear that permanent American bases in Afghanistan might be part of a strategy of encirclement.

Chinese concern that Uighur extremists in Afghanistan or Pakistan’s lawless areas might use these countries as a springboard to launch operations within China is not without some basis; indeed, there is recent evidence of this. In July 2011, for example, Memtieli Tiliwaldi was identified by the Chinese government as having belonged to a group that launched bomb and knife attacks in the city of Kashgar, Xinjiang. Weeks later, Uighur extremists in Pakistan, operating under the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP), released a video purporting to show Tiliwaldi at a training camp run by the group. Such clear links are difficult to draw in relation to subsequent attacks, though China occasionally make claims that terrorist incidents in Xinjiang have connections – either in practical or ideological terms – to extremist groups based outside of China. More recently, Chinese security officials have begun to focus on the fact that such links also flow through Syria and Iraq (where there is evidence that ethnically Chinese and Uighur extremists are fighting) and Southeast Asia (where cells of Uighurs have been identified attempting to connect with militants in Poso, Indonesia). Alongside these emerging connections, however, the existence of links between Uighur extremists and both Afghanistan and Pakistan remains a key source of concern.

As importantly, Afghan authorities have long wished for China to play a more positive role in their country, particularly in the hope that the latter will use its historically strong links to Pakistan to persuade Islamabad to reduce its support for the Taliban. During newly elected Afghan President Ashraf Ghani’s inaugural visit to Beijing last October (his first official international trip), he specifically lobbied China to use its relationship with Pakistan to help build peace in his country. At the same time, Afghan security officials have repeatedly attempted to show their Chinese counterparts that Pakistan is playing a double game with them – using intelligence to highlight occasions on which Pakistani officials appeared to be supporting (or at least turning a blind eye to) Uighur extremists. Recently, for example, Afghan officials announced that they had repatriated fifteen Uighurs discovered within their territory – three in Kabul and twelve in Kunar Province. They had apparently been trained in Pakistan’s Waziristan, though it was unclear what their ultimate goal had been.

This revelation might be part of the reason that China has chosen to play a stronger hand in Afghanistan. The news that Uighur cells could be training in Pakistan and moving across the border into Afghanistan, presumably with the ultimate aim of conducting some form of attack in China, suggests that the discreet infrastructure of contacts that China had established to defeat such networks was not, in fact, working. The reported presence of Uighurs in Kunar, in particular, suggests a failure of China’s relations with the Taliban, while the presence of individuals training in Waziristan shows a simultaneous failure by its Pakistani ally. All of this bolsters China’s perceived need to play a more prominent role in negotiations to bring the chaos in Afghanistan to a resolution.

However, while there is now an apparent correlation in the positions of China and the West in Afghanistan, Western hopes should not be excessively raised. Chinese officials admit that they are not clear on the exact nature of internal Afghan or Taliban dynamics, and remain concerned about a potential backlash against greater engagement, making them unlikely to push as hard as the West might hope. At the same time, in seeking to ensure the region’s stability (of which Afghanistan is a key part), China is primarily focused on denying Uighur extremists safe havens from which to operate, as well as developing its Silk Road Economic Belt trade corridors. It is less concerned with the Western emphasis on good governance (though there is growing discussion in Beijing about the importance of this in ensuring stability). And it is certainly not concerned about the perceived legacy of the West’s investment of over a decade’s worth of blood and treasure in Afghanistan. Instead, China’s interests in Afghanistan are ultimately national, reflecting an increasing desire on the part of Beijing to enhance stability on its western periphery on its own terms.

More broadly, however, the most interesting aspect of China’s activity in Afghanistan is the fact that it has shown itself willing to play this sort of role in a foreign nation. This clearly highlights the degree to which Chinese foreign policy is evolving and opening up to the world. The danger is that China is embarking upon this role in a country that has for generations proven impervious to external activism. The larger concern must therefore be what it might mean for Chinese foreign policy should this effort fail.

Raffaello Pantucci
Director, International Security Studies, RUSI.
Twitter: @raffpantucci

 

Still catching up on old things I failed to post when they landed, this time a report on the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) community engagement programme that I undertook and wrote with some RUSI colleagues (Charlie and Calum) as part of Canada’s Kanishka funding programme – thanks again to Kanishka for the support. The project was initially more focused on Lone Actor terrorism, using them as a vector through which to understand how community engagement and policing could be improved. The logic of this flows that given Lone Actors isolation and detachment from known terrorist networks, they do not necessarily set off the usual intelligence or police tripwires. Therefore it is important to try to develop and embed these tripwires within communities, hence the importance of community policing within this context. I have a larger project on Lone Actors in the more classic sense currently underway which should start producing material soon. In the meantime, any thoughts or comments welcome.

Out of Reach? The Role of Community Policing in Preventing Terrorism in Canada

LI54D9D453A4F46-155x221

The terrorist attacks of October 2014 in Ottawa and Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu, Quebec, demonstrated that the historically relatively benign security environment within Canada has given way to a much more uncertain present.

Download the report here (PDF)

The nature of the terrorism threat to Canada has come to reflect broader terrorism trends experienced by other Western countries. While overall cases remain rare, the number of terrorist incidents involving lone actors in both Europe and North America appears to be increasing, attributed to a number of drivers and motivated by a diversity of violent ideologies.

Canada’s approach to counter-terrorism warrants closer attention in light of this changing threat picture and the evolving threat of lone actors – not least because the risk of lone-actor terrorism puts Canadian citizens on the front line of any future response.

Drawing on first-hand interviews with practitioners and policy-makers, as well as wider literature, this report looks specifically at the phenomenon of lone-actor terrorism in Canada alongside the community engagement programme of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. It examines case studies in recent Canadian history to highlight the issues surrounding community engagement pre and post attack, and provides recommendations to improve the programme, offering insights to other countries facing similar threats.

Further catching up on delinquent old posting, here is a piece I wrote for the EU’s foreign and security policy think tank EUISS. Part of a series they did on Central Asia, and bigger work they have been doing recently in support of the Latvian Presidency of the EU which has been focused on this topic. Big thanks to Eva for helping me connect with this project.

Central Asia: The View from China

Pages_from_Alert_3_Central_Asia_China_bfed6354b3

 

China’s rise in Central Asia is not a new phenomenon. For the past decade, Beijing has gradually moved to become the most significant and consequential actor on the ground in a region that was previously considered Russia’s backyard. In September last year, President Xi Jinping announced the creation of a ‘Silk Road Economic Belt’ running through the region. Although this declaration is the closest thing seen so far in terms of an articulation of a Chinese strategy for Central Asia, it nevertheless offered more questions than answers.

To understand China’s approach to Central Asia, a wider lens needs to be applied to explore both the detail of what is going on and how this fits into a broader foreign policy strategy that is slowly becoming clearer under Xi Jinping’s stewardship.

The Long March westward

It is in the first instance important to look at the geographical link that exists between China and Central Asia. This flows principally through Xinjiang, China’s westernmost province which is home to a disgruntled Uighur population, some of whom are currently locked in a painful struggle with the Chinese state. An ethnic minority in China (though almost 10 million strong, with a substantial diaspora in Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Turkey), the Uighurs are closer in terms of culture and language to Central Asian peoples like the Uzbeks. Stemming from Xinjiang (a region that covers a sixth of China’s landmass but contains roughly 1-2% of its population), Uighurs have long complained that their identity is slowly being eroded by Beijing-sponsored Han Chinese immigrants. This alienation has resulted in protests, as well as violence directed against the authorities, the resident Han population, and local Uighurs seen to be collaborating with the central government. The most recent bout of serious civil unrest can be traced back to 2009, when roughly 200 people were killed during riots in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital. In the wake of this event, Beijing’s attention was drawn towards the troubled region, and a subsequent work plan laid out in May 2010 signaled a new push towards fostering development in the province.

This focus was not in fact completely new. Chinese officials had long worried about Xinjiang and the underdeveloped nature of China’s western frontiers. While coastal provinces like Shanghai and Guangzhou were booming, some regions in the centre and west were left behind economically. In addition, China’s foreign policy was almost exclusively focused on maritime disputes and the country’s relationship with the US. The reality is that if Xinjiang is to be developed, China needs a more prosperous region in its vicinity to trade with – and through. Far from the coast, Xinjiang’s southern markets are closer to Europe or the Indian subcontinent than they are to China’s mighty eastern seaports. The result is an approach towards Xinjiang that is focused on economic development and improving its links through Pakistan and the countries of Central Asia.

A Chinese pivot?

The outcome of this approach is the development of the Silk Road Economic Belt, a corridor that (eventually) will connect Xinjiang to Europe. A project that is being implemented by Chinese companies with funding provided by the country’s policy banks, it seeks to help (re)connect Central Asia to China. The region is consequently being transformed from one which is wired to Moscow to one which is increasingly wired to Urumqi – and Beijing. Unlike the US plan to forge a ‘New Silk Road’, China has devoted substantial financial resources to its Silk Road Economic Belt – some $40 billion has been allocated for external aspects, and $17 billion for projects within China. Beyond this, new international financial institutions created and funded by China – such as the BRICS Bank or the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank – all point to a Chinese desire to help and fund the development of its immediate neighbourhood.

There are clearly selfish motivations for China’s investments – from Turkmenbashi to Khorgos, Chinese traders are often the most dynamic players on the ground. But while the overall project is designed to help improve China’s undeveloped regions, there are also clear ancillary benefits for Central Asia.

A grander vision

China is, however, not solely an economic giant: it has demonstrated a growing willingness to engage in security matters in Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan (perceived by Beijing to be the most unstable of the Central Asian states) through bilateral military support and training. Beijing might not want to take full responsibility for the region’s security, but with every visit by a Chinese leader resulting in greater economic connectivity between these countries and one of China’s most sensitive provinces, it is becoming increasingly difficult for its government to simply ignore its place as a regional stakeholder.

That said, Beijing remains uncertain of how exactly to exert its power. And it is here that the EU might step in and play a role in influencing China’s posture. For example, Chinese officials and businessmen often fall into the same corruption traps as their European counterparts active in Central Asia. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) and other European entities, however, effectively operate in the region, and their lessons learned are ones that Chinese enterprises could benefit from. China has likewise little experience in resolving border disputes, while European bodies like the OSCE or projects like the EU’s Border Management Programme for Central Asia (BOMCA) have an extensive history of being deployed in the region. If China’s wish to build a trade corridor through Central Asia is to become a reality, Beijing’s policymakers will have to establish ways to deal with the region’s complicated dynamics. Europe can help China with this aim, while also helping to promote greater regional stability. For example, joint training and capability building missions, cooperative security strategies, and efforts to counter drug trafficking and criminality in the region would advance both Chinese and European interests.

At a more strategic level, there is an opportunity in the Silk Road Economic Belt for Europe to develop its relations with China. It is not only part of Beijing’s vision for Central Asia, but has formed the contours of China’s foreign policy towards a raft of regional partners: economic corridors similar to the Belt are now are sprouting from every direction to and from China (including the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the Bangladesh-China-India-Myanmar Corridor, and the Maritime Silk Road). This increases the importance of the Silk Road Economic Belt and offers a chance for Europe to play a role in a project that is both key for the Chinese leadership personally and important to a strategically significant region which Europe has expressed a keen interest in. The Belt already effectively exists. It has (under different auspices) been a reality for almost a decade or more. China’s leadership has decided this is a cornerstone project which ultimately should stretch all the way to Europe. If Europe were to reach back and thereby improve its relationship with China, there would be significant benefits for all actors involved.

Raffaello Pantucci is the Director of International Security Studies at RUSI.

A very belated posting of an article that came out a while ago for the CTC Sentinel. It has been a very hectic and busy time and I have let things slip, but am going to try to finally catch up. A few longer pieces are working their way through the system and should land soon, and far more exciting my book on Jihad in the UK is finally done and printed. So look to a lot more in that direction soon. To catch up on a few conversations I had with the media, I spoke to ITN about a recent case which is featured in this article, Brutschom Ziamani, to the Washington Post about terrorists getting guns in Europe, to Channel 4 about ISIS, Aftenposten about UK terrorism, spoke to Foreign Policy about terrorism in Xinjiang, to McClatchy about Uighurs going to join ISIS, and a longer interview for NPR in the US about responses and the threat in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack.

Britain’s Terror Threat From The Levant

January 20, 2015

Author(s): Raffaello Pantucci

On January 8, 2014, in the immediate wake of the Paris terrorist attacks, MI5 Director-General Andrew Parker gave his second public speech, during which, among other things, he outlined the nature of the threat that the United Kingdom faces from Syria. As he put it, “Terrorists based in Syria harbour [terrorist] ambitions towards the United Kingdom, trying to direct attacks against our country and exhorting extremists here to act independently.”[1] He highlighted how the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has tried to “direct terrorist attacks in the UK and elsewhere from Syria” as well as “seeking through propaganda to provoke individuals in the UK to carry out violent acts here.”[2] He also highlighted how the threat faced was one that comes not only from ISIL extremists, but also “that a group of core al-Qa’ida terrorists in Syria is planning mass casualty attacks against the West.”[3]

So far, there have been five publicly identifiable, alleged plots disrupted in the United Kingdom as well as a number of scares. The alleged plotting dates back to October 14, 2013, when British police in London conducted a series of dramatic arrests to foil what was at the time characterized as a “suspected Islamist terror plot to attack London.”[4] Almost exactly a year later, the trial against the two defendants charged in the wake of the arrests (two other individuals were released without charge) took place, providing Britain with the most detailed look yet into the nature of the threat that Britain’s security services see emanating from Syria. Ultimately, one of the men pleaded guilty while the jury could not reach a verdict in the other case. Amplifying the perception of the threat to the United Kingdom, as the trial was underway, police arrested another group of individuals who stand accused of plotting terrorism,[5] and the United Kingdom experienced its first reported suicide bomber in Iraq.[6]

This article will examine the current landscape of Islamist terror activity linked to Syria and Iraq in the United Kingdom, examining both recent plotting on the domestic front and the growing role of Britons in Syria and Iraq. It concludes that the lines and links between these two categories of radicalized Britons present a fluid and complicated community that is continuing to produce a steady stream of plots and networks of concern to security services. Both are building on significant challenges that have been extant in the United Kingdom for some time and that were most recently highlighted in a parliamentary report into the May 2013 murder of Lee Rigby by Islamist extremists.[7] That plot, and the parliamentary investigation, showed the complexity of the lone-actor terrorist threat the United Kingdom faces from both isolated individuals and those already on the radar screen of intelligence services, something that is increasingly also seen among the pool of potential threats emerging from radicalization of Britons in the wake of the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).[8]

The threat from Syria and Iraq is increasingly maturing and following a trajectory that reflects broader trends that have been visible in the United Kingdom for some time. Syria and Iraq and the associated foreign fighter flow is something that British security services expect will occupy their attention for the immediate future.

Mumbai-Style Plot
The trial of Mounir Rarmoul-Bouhadjar, a 26-year-old British national of Algerian descent, and Erol Incedal, a 26-year-old of Turkish origin, opened October 8, 2014, at the Old Bailey. Initially, the trial was to be held in secret with the two defendants listed anonymously as AB and CD, but after a media-led battle in the courts, it was decided that only some of the trial would be held in secret and that the two defendants would be named.[9] On the eve of the trial, Rarmoul-Bouhadjar pleaded guilty to possessing a “document containing information of a kind likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism, namely a document entitled ‘Bomb making.’”[10] A second charge of improperly obtaining an identity document was dropped.[11] Incedal, on the other hand, fought the case, and after a month long trial a jury was unable to reach a verdict. The judge dismissed the jury and the Crown Prosecution Services (CPS) declared it would seek a retrial.

Much of Incedal’s defense was held behind closed doors, while the prosecution was able to lay its case out publicly. Incedal had been in possession of a Secure Digital card taped to his mobile phone, in which the same bomb-making material that Rarmoul-Bouhadjar owned was saved, labeled “good stuff.” According to expert-witness testimony provided during the trial, the instructions contained in the document would have made an extremely sensitive mix of triacetone triperoxide (TATP). As the witness stated on the stand, the document “generally contains correct information that could be used to produce viable devices. However, it lacks detail and further information might be required.”[12] In a further reference to bomb-making, another file on the memory card stated, “The first rule of bomb-making is that your first mistake will be your last.”[13]

Incedal was born to a Kurdish family in Turkey, where his father, an active communist, died when he was six weeks old. His mother, an Alawite, moved to Britain when Incedal was a year old, leaving her children to join her later in the UK. His older sister joined the Kurdistan Workers’ Party[14] and died fighting alongside the group, while his older brother was later sectioned (taken into a secure mental hospital) under the mental health act. As a young man in the United Kingdom, Incedal was involved in gangs and arrested for attempted theft in October 2001. A year or so later he became religious, and soon afterward was drawn to Tablighi Jamaat,[15] enjoying the brotherhood it provided. He traveled with the group to Greece, India, Bangladesh, and New York, and met his co-defendant Rarmoul-Bouhadjar in Tablighi Jamaat.[16] Sometime in 2011 he became connected to the now-jailed sons of cleric Abu Hamza, Hamza, Sufyan, and Yaasir, with whom he was allegedly planning frauds and armed robberies of post offices.[17] It is not clear what became of these plans.

The prosecution’s case centered on the accusation that the defendants were planning a Mumbai-style attack[18]or possibly a targeted assassination of former Prime Minister Tony Blair.[19] In Skype conversations in which he used the name Fatima Hamoodi to communicate with an individual abroad who called himself Zaynab Alawi, Incedal wrote, “These straps are not the little ones, they are like the ones we have here – y knw k 1122aa shhh etc.” “Straps” was believed to refer to guns (a traditional terminology amongst urban youth in London) and “k 1122aa shhh” to Kalashnikov.[20] Later in the Skype conversation the two Skype accounts were recorded discussing, “If they’re able to get these type and it works, may want you to MO 88M 55BAY style,” something the prosecution interpreted as being a reference to the Mumbai attacks of 2008.[21] However, at the time of their arrests the men were not found in possession of any guns, though they were overheard through a police listening device discussing purchasing one in their car, using the slang “sausage” to refer to a gun and “sauce” for bullets.[22]

The plotting around the assassination of Tony Blair was far more circumstantial. Incedal was pulled over under the guise of a traffic stop in September, during which time authorities searched his car. In the process they found a Versace glasses case, which contained one of Tony Blair’s addresses. This same case was then later found at a second flat that Incedal failed to report to authorities when he was arrested. They also found evidence of multiple inhabitants and the computer on which Incedal was talking to someone abroad.[23]

At another moment during the trial, the two defendants were overheard seeming to refer to their time in Syria. In a conversation recorded in their vehicle Rarmoul-Bouhadjar was heard saying, “In Syria the weather was . . .” before Incedal interrupts saying, “Wallahi [I swear] it was like minus 20 degrees because we were on a mountain.”[24] At another moment while the men were overheard watching extremist videos in which men were shooting, Incedal comments “we used that,” while in another moment Incedal reports that ISIL undertakes a lot of “drive by shootings” that he finds inspiring: “They do it a love bruv. And they’ve got this special like machine Uzi gun like and silence on it – its nuts.”[25]

It is unclear why the jury returned an inconclusive verdict, though likely the absence of weaponry or a clearly defined plan of attack left some major gaps in the prosecution’s case. It is likely that Incedal’s defense will eventually be revealed, though at this point it is being kept behind the veil of secrecy. The re-trial is expected to occur sometime this year.

Targeting of Officials
This is the not the only plot that British security services believe they have intercepted. In early October 2014, police arrested five individuals believed to be involved in a plot targeting police officers with a Russian-made Baikal machine gun and ammunition.[26] Tarik Hassane, 21, a medical student at university in Sudan; Suhaib Majeed, 20, a physics student at King’s College London; Momen Motasim, 21; and Nyall Hamlett, 24, all stand accused of planning to use the gun and a moped to conduct a drive-by shooting of security officers. A fifth man charged alongside them was accused of supplying the gun.[27] The men were believed to be inspired by ISIL and had allegedly downloaded ISIL spokesperson Abu Muhammad al-Adnani’s fatwa calling on followers to launch attacks, taken pictures of police officers, discussed ISIL online, undertaken online reconnaissance of a police station in west London, and pledged allegiance to the group.[28] Charged with planning a terrorist attack, the men face trial this year.

More recently, on the eve of the 2014 November 11th Remembrance Day celebrations in the United Kingdom, police arrested a further four men in raids that were believed to be linked to a plot to target security officials at a public event.[29] The main suspect in the case, Yousaf Syed, is a 19-year-old who had his passport canceled after security services believed he tried to travel to Pakistan in 2013 for “terrorist purposes” and then in 2014 attempted to go to Syria.[30] On November 20, 2014, three men (Yousaf Syed, Yousaf’s cousin Nadir Ali Sayed, and Haseeb Hamayoon) were charged with plotting to behead a member of the public on the streets of Britain.[31] The men were reported to have “laughed hysterically” as the charges against them were read out in court and were reported in court to have been inspired by ISIL.[32] They also face trial this year.

Reflecting a threat picture that from the security services’ perspective has widened beyond networks of people plotting attacks to include “lone actor” terrorists, police separately arrested 19-year-old Brustchom Ziamani and 18-year-old Kazi Jawad Islam. Both men stand accused of planning to launch attacks against government security forces, though in different ways. Jawad Islam was arrested in east London on August 13, 2014, having reportedly given the order to unknown others to kill a British soldier. In court he was reported to have been overheard saying, “When I give the order I want you to kill a soldier.” He is alleged to have searched for materials to help him produce an improvised explosive device as well as possessed a document entitled “How to Make Semtex.”[33]

A Congolese-British convert, Ziamani was also arrested in August in the wake of the release of the ISIL video in which the American reporter James Foley was beheaded. Accused of planning an attack similar to the one against British soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich in May 2013, Ziamani was arrested with a knife and a hammer wrapped in an Islamic flag in a bag on his back. In presenting Ziamani to the court, the prosecution stated that “he is 19 and of previous good character. He said to (a female teenager) he is going to commit a … terrorist atrocity either on troops or members of the government.”[34] He was further accused of wanting to go to Syria to fight alongside ISIL. Both men are due to stand trial this year.

The lone-actor plot, in particular targeting authorities, has become the heart of the threat that British security services currently see. In early December 2014, a threat believed to have come through social media ignited concern that police officers in Birmingham were to be targeted for attack. One man was arrested as a result.[35] This concern escalated further around Christmas with armed police standing guard outside prominent locations in London where formal sentries stand to attention in dress uniform (such as Buckingham Palace or the famous Horseguards Parade), while service personnel were told not to wear their uniforms to and from work.[36]

Britain’s Levantine Connection Strengthens
This escalating number of plots took place against a backdrop of revelations that British fighters were killed in U.S. airstrikes against Khorasan Group camps near Aleppo on September 23, 2014;[37] that a number of Britons died fighting alongside ISIL in Kobane, Syria;[38] and that a Briton was involved in a suicide bombing attack alongside the group in Iraq. The suicide bomber was Derby-born Kabir Ahmed, who was revealed to have been previously convicted of hate crimes, and had gone to Syria in 2012.[39] Ahmed is the second British suicide bomber to have been publicly revealed as dying in Iraq or Syria, though it is believed more than 30 Britons have died in total during the conflict so far.[40]

Furthermore, British-linked fighters are believed to be rising in the ranks of groups fighting in Syria and Iraq, most prominently in the case of the infamous “Jihadi John,” who is accused of being the executioner in the ISIL beheading videos and separately as the leader of a group called Kateeba al Kawthar. In proscribing the latter group, British Minister James Brokenshire described its leader as an individual with a British accent who is featured in recruitment videos under the name Abu Musab but whose true name was revealed as Rabah Tahari.[41] Tahari’s wife and son were arrested and charged in Birmingham, accused of sending goods to him in Syria.[42] Ultimately, charges against both of them were dropped, and Tahari is believed to continue to be out of  the United Kingdom. All of this presents a worrying picture for security services who are concerned about the fact that British nationals are being radicalized, are fighting alongside numerous different groups, and are taking leadership roles in some cases.

At the same time, the public debate in the United Kingdom has been increasingly colored by and focused on the question of what to do with returning fighters. This debate became livelier with the revelations in early September 2014 that a group of British fighters in Syria contacted researchers at King’s College and asked them to facilitate their return to the UK.[43] Other groups of fighters have also allegedly been identified, though it is unclear the degree to which these clusters of individuals are real fighters or are British nationals who went out under the auspices of aid work and ended up becoming embroiled in the fighting and now find themselves with nowhere to go. The dilemma of what to do with returnees is something that security forces balance against the number of disrupted plots that they have faced. One report to emerge in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris stated that “more than 30 ISIS fighters in the UK have been placed under surveillance by MI5 because they are considered a serious threat” and that “a further 120 who retain ‘extremist’ views but have escaped detailed scrutiny will be reassessed amid fears that they have the firearms training to commit a copycat attack.”[44]

Conclusion
It is not clear whether the plots discussed in this article were directed by foreign groups or networks like ISIL, al-Nusra Front, or the cluster identified as the Khorasan Group on the battlefield in Syria or Iraq. In Incedal’s case, it seems that he was discussing his plans with someone abroad, but in the other cases no evidence of direction from overseas has yet been provided, though clearly the head of MI5 has identified that his service has seen such active plotting. Instead, the publicly identified and detailed plots appear to bear the hallmarks of being inspired by ISIL or potentially loosely linked to individuals with direct experience on the battlefield.

The plots appear to be the product of a fusion of trends, of lone actors and foreign fighters, with some individuals seemingly heeding al-Adnani’s call to “kill a disbelieving American or European–especially the spiteful and filthy French–or an Australian, or a Canadian, or any other disbeliever from the disbelievers waging war, including the citizens of the countries that entered into a coalition against the Islamic State, then rely upon Allah, and kill him in any manner or way however it may be….Do not ask for anyone’s advice and do not seek anyone’s verdict. Kill the disbeliever whether he is civilian or military, for they have the same ruling. Both of them are disbelievers.”[45]

Having already experienced the Woolwich incident, in which a pair of radicalized individuals who were longstanding subjects of counterterrorism investigations abruptly decided to run over in a car and brutally butcher an off-duty soldier, British forces are already alert to the possible threat from such small-cell or lone-actor terrorist activity. But given the potential numbers of individuals of concern connected with Syria and Iraq (of whom about 250-300 are believed to have returned home), the threat picture is one that has multiplied significantly.

Distinguishing the fighters who are genuine in their desire to return home to ordinary lives from those who might pose a terrorist threat is a major challenge. However, given the current trend of plots that appear to have loose connections to the battlefield but limited direction, British security forces seem to be dealing with two distinct groups. One group within the United Kingdom seems to be radicalizing and, inspired by narratives that ISIL is broadcasting, is choosing to plot terrorist attacks at home. The other is choosing to go abroad to fight with some possibly returning home to plan attacks. The line between these two groups is unclear, but what does seem clear is that these two parallel trends, and their increasing collision together, will cause major counterterrorism challenges for the next several years at least.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI).

[1] Andrew Parker, “Terrorism, Technology and Accountability,” Address by the Director-General of the Security Service, Andrew Parker, to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), Thames House, January 9, 2015.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Justin Davenport, “Police foil ‘major Islamist terror plot’ after armed raids across London,” The Evening Standard, October 15, 2013.
[5] Patrick Sawer, Nicola Harley, and Tom Whitehead, “Armed police arrest four men amid fears of Islamist Remembrance Day terror plot,” The Telegraph, November 7, 2014.
[6] Martin Naylor, “Suicide Bomber: report claims Islamic State suicide bomber in Kabir Ahmed, of Normanton, Derby,” Derby Telegraph, November 10, 2014.
[7] “Report on the intelligence relating the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby,” Intelligence and Security Committee of Parliament, November 25, 2014.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Guardian News and Media Ltd vs AB CD, Royal Courts of Justice, Strand, Case No: 2014/02393C1, judgment handed down June 12, 2014.
[10] “Defendant in UK’s first secret trial pleads guilty,” The Telegraph, October 9, 2014.
[11] Ibid.
[12] Duncan Gardham, “Terror suspect had ‘reasonable excuse’ for having bomb-making plans,’” The Times, October 27, 2014.
[13] Sean O’Neill, “Armed police hunted Mercedes of terror suspect and blew out tires,” The Times, October 15, 2014.
[14] In Kurdish, Partiya Karkerên Kurdistanê (PKK).
[15] Tablighi Jamaat is a Muslim movement whose name literally translates as “society for spreading faith” and is an off-shoot of the Deobandi movement in South Asia.
[16] Duncan Gardham, “Terror suspect had ‘reasonable excuse’ for having bomb-making plans,” The Times, October 27, 2014.
[17] Tom Whitehead, “Secret terror trial hears Erol Incedal considered joining forces with Abu Hamza’s sons,” The Telegraph, November 3, 2014.
[18] This refers to the 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai, India, during which teams of Lashkar-i-Tayyiba attackers assaulted multiple targets in Mumbai using small arms and taking hostages, ultimately killing 164 people (including 10 attackers).
[19] Sean O’Neill, “Tony Blair was a ‘terror target,’” The Times, October 14, 2014.
[20] Tom Whitehead, “Erol Incedal secret terror trial: jury discharged and retrial ordered,” The Telegraph, November 11, 2014.
[21] Sean O’Neill, “Armed police hunted Mercedes of terror suspect and blew out tires,” The Times, October 15, 2014.
[22] Victoria Ward, “Secret terror trial hears Erol Incedal used code word ‘sausage’ to buy a gun,” The Telegraph, October 16, 2014.
[23] Victoria Ward, “Tony and Cherie Blair named in secret terror trial as potential targets,” The Telegraph, October 14, 2014.
[24] Sean O’Neill and Duncan Gardham, “Terror suspect ‘discussed Syria and buying firearm,’” The Times, October 17, 2014.
[25] “Terror accused ‘praised jihadist battles in Syria and Iraq,’” BBC News, October 15, 2014.
[26] Fiona Hamilton and Sean O’Neill, “Terror suspects charged with moped plot to shoot police,” The Times, October 18, 2014.
[27] Fiona Hamilton and Sean O’Neill, “Terror suspects charged with moped plot to shoot police,” The Times, October 18, 2014.
[28] Victoria Ward and Nicola Harley, “ISIL terror suspect Tarik Hassane offered place at top UK university,” The Telegraph, October 8, 2014.
[29] Michael Powell and Duncan Gardham, “Teenage suspect in ‘Poppy terror plot’ tried to travel to Syria six months ago to ‘take part in extremist activity,’” The Mail on Sunday, November 8, 2014.
[30] Ibid.
[31] Martin Evans, “Terror suspects plotted to behead member of the public, court hears,” The Telegraph, November 20, 2014.
[32] Ibid.
[33] “Islam: Teenager Gave ‘Kill Solider’ Order,” Court News UK, December 4, 2014.
[34] Martin Robinson, “British-born Muslim convert ‘plotted atrocity and had a knife and hammer wrapped in an Islamic flag,’” Daily Mail, August 21, 2014.
[35] Vikram Dodd, “Man arrested in West Midlands after police warning of security threat,” The Guardian, December 9, 2014.
[36] Abul Taher and Mark Nichol, “Retreating of the Queen’s Guard: End of an era as palace sentries fall back in face of mounting fears of new ‘lone wolf’ terrorist attack,” The Mail on Sunday, December 27, 2014.
[37] Secunder Kermani, “Friend of British jihadist Ibrahim Kamara tells of fight,” BBC Newsnight, September 25, 2014.
[38] Patrick Sawer and Duncan Gardham, “Portsmouth private school jihadi killed in Syria,” The Telegraph, October 25, 2014.
[39] Martin Naylor, “Derby would-be suicide bomber: He is dad Kabir Ahmed with gay-hatred convictions,” Derby Telegraph, July 24, 2014.
[40] Tom Whitehead, John Bingham, and Sarah Knapton, “Up to 30 British jihadists now dead in Syria but toll will rise with ISIS lure,” The Telegraph, October 15, 2014.
[41] Hansard Parliamentary record, June 19, 2014.
[42] “Tahari: Mum and Son Bailed Over Syria Terrorism Charges,” Court News UK, March 17, 2014.
[43] Tom Coghlan, “Let us come home, say young British jihadists,” The Times, September 5, 2014.
[44] Tim Shipman, Richard Kerbaj, Dipesh Gadher, and Tom Harper, “Terror alert over 150 UK jihadists,” The Sunday Times, January 11, 2015.
[45] Helen Davidson, “ISIS instructs followers to kill Australians and other ‘disbelievers,’” The Guardian, September 23, 2014.

A guest column in this weekend’s Sunday Times looking at the question of lone actor terrorism and how it fits into perceptions of the threat picture at home. Given the work I have done on this topic, it might seem I am contradicting myself, but I think the point is that all of these threats have to be kept into perspective. Lone actor terrorism is going to be a growing priority (as the end of this year has brought into sharp focus), but when held up against the sort of plotting we have seen in the past (and might still face in the future), we are dealing with a very different threat and this ought to be reflected in threat perceptions. This aside, spoke to the International Business Times about ISIS’s year.

Stand firm, the lone-wolf strike is a sign of reduced terror

Despite isolated incidents of extremism, we are safer than we think, writes Raffaello Pantucci

The Sunday Times Published: 28 December 2014

The year has ended with a sharp increase in “lone wolf” terrorist attacks. A threat that had been growing for some time finally found its feet in 2014’s closing months with incidents in Canada, America, Australia and France as well as disrupted plots in Britain and elsewhere. Yet while it feels like the threat is on the rise and security services are working at full strength to counter the risk, we are actually safer from the threat of terrorism at home.

None of this is to say that lone terrorists are not a danger. Sometimes these individuals are able to summon the wherewithal to launch attacks that kill many. The Norwegian mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik is the best example with his 2011 bombing and shooting campaign in Oslo and on Utoya island that killed 77 within a few hours. However, he is a rarity and most lone-wolf plots pale in comparison with al-Qaeda’s former ambitions.

For example, in August 2006 British police disrupted an al-Qaeda plan to bring down transatlantic flights with liquid bombs. But while the security services continue to worry about such ambitious plots, they are able to disrupt them. Plots involving lots of people mean communications and other activities that set off intelligence tripwires.

In contrast, an individual planning to stab a random policeman using a knife he already has at home is a hard target to pick up unless he has told someone else. And it is not always the case that the person he is telling will report it or realise what they are being told. This sort of threat slips under the radar, as in the case of the men responsible for the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby last year in Woolwich, southeast London, or like Man Haron Monis, the Sydney siege gunman, this month. In the first case the two attackers were hard to separate from the larger antisocial, but legal, community of radicals in the UK. The Australian case shows the difficulty of spotting prior to an attack an individual angry at society who adopts the appearance of a terrorist to express himself more loudly.

The real question, though, is whether we should react in the same way to these incidents as we did to the July 7, 2005, bombings of London’s transport system. The deaths of more than 50 commuters is surely more menacing to society than the death of a single off-duty soldier in Woolwich, as tragic as any loss is. Almost a decade since the July 7 bombings we are now facing a terrorist threat that is only really able to express itself in the form of lone-wolf attacks. And while such attacks will lead to great suffering for those directly involved, they will affect many fewer people than, for example, the September 11, 2001, attacks on New York and Washington.

Abroad, it remains a different matter. As the year ended, the Pakistani Taliban launched an attack on a school in Peshawar, killing more than 140, and Boko Haram murdered dozens and kidnapped another 180 people in Nigeria. Terrorism on a large scale is still the aim but it is a goal that is increasingly hard to achieve in western countries and capitals. Instead groups push for their supporters to carry out attacks without direct communication.

Individuals who are part of networks, and who are launching attacks with terrorist motives and intent, become confused with deranged or unstable people who see lone-wolf terrorism as their way of joining a larger cause or bringing attention to themselves. However, while the attacks seem more frequent, the casualties at home are less. If work by the security services has managed to reduce the threat down to lone-wolf terrorists or deranged individuals then things are not necessarily as bad as they seem.

The concern caused by lone-wolf terrorism is understandable. The rash of seemingly random incidents towards the end of the year gives the impression of a rising tide. But it must be kept in context. Terrorist groups continue to want to attack the West, yet find it increasingly hard to do so.

The lone-wolf terrorists we have seen are a mix of individuals with connections to other terrorists (but little evidence of direction in launching their attacks), or socially awkward, troubled individuals who demonstrate little ability to do much more (in most cases) than kill or injure a couple of people and try to dress it up as an organised plot.

Terrorist groups continue to be unable to carry out large plots on the scale of the July 7 bombings, though they continue to try. In fact it is even possible that the hyperventilation around lone wolves is helping to attract more people to the idea and exacerbating the problem. If people notice that these sorts of attacks attract attention, then they might want to emulate them to direct some of the spotlight onto their own personal cause. The current lone-wolf panic might ultimately be instigating the very sort of incidents we are all worried about.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of international security studies at the Royal United Services Institute