A new piece for China Outlook, an excellent online magazine that I have actually written for before, but failed to post here for some reason. For my previous piece for them, please see here, it looked at foreign investment into Xinjiang and the difficulties the Chinese government was encountering in persuading people to come. This one instead draws and expands considerably on a presentation I did in Beijing. It draws on my time honoured theme of China’s push into Central Asia, and of course, much of my work on this topic can also be found on the site I co-run, China in Central Asia. Special thanks to editor Nick at China Outlook for his work on this and for allowing me to repost here and on my other site.

Related, I spoke to the Associated Press about Xinjiang and how the Chinese government tries to control the narrative, and unrelated, to NBC about the new video featuring European fighters to emerge from ISIS in Syria.

China’s inexorable drive into Central Asia

August 5, 2014

by Raffaello Pantucci

Central-Asia-270x167

Picture from China Outlook

In a speech last September at Nazarbayev University in Astana, Kazakhstan, China’s President Xi Jinping coined a new strategic vision for his country’s relations with Central Asia, calling for the creation of a Silk Road Economic Belt. Coming at the culmination of a sweep through Central Asia during which he signed deals worth $56bn and touched down in four out of five capitals, the declaration may be something that has now received a new moniker from President Xi, but the economic and geopolitical reality that it characterizes is one that has been underway for some time.

President Xi’s declaration of the Silk Road Economic Belt needs to be understood within a wider context, particularly in his October 2013 speech at a work conference on diplomacy in which he set out his first formal statement on foreign policy. There he highlighted the priority he wanted his administration to place on border diplomacy: “We must strive to make our neighbours more friendly in politics, economically more closely tied to us, and we must have deeper security cooperation and closer people-to-people ties.”

The emphasis has continued and China has placed great store by the events it is hosting which focus on regional coordination and connectivity: the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) was elevated from being an unheard-of conference to a spectacle of international importance; whilst the Heart of Asia process (focused on re-connecting Afghanistan to its region) is being hosted in Tianjin later in August to equal fanfare. On the international stage, China has prioritized creating a new development bank to reflect both its increasing rejection of the old global financial structures, but also to increase its ability to influence growth and development in the world.

The clearest expression of the Xi administration’s newly attentive border diplomacy, however, can be found in the focus on economic corridors. The declaration of the Silk Road Economic Belt has been matched by an enhanced focus on three other major economic corridors emanating from China: the Maritime Silk Road, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and the Bangladesh, China, India, Myanmar (BCIM) Corridor.

Talk to Chinese officials or experts and they will talk of these corridors as strings of the same instrument, highlighting the focus on economics, connectivity and the stability that flows from prosperity as the end goal of this ‘corridor’ diplomacy. Officials talk of the ‘One Belt, One Road’ strategy that focuses in particular on the Maritime Silk Road and the Silk Road Economic Belt as the two core elements.

For President Xi’s administration, the aim is to recreate China as the heart and hub of regional politics and economics, to develop China’s poorer border regions and to provide prosperity and opportunity for Chinese firms that are increasingly being pushed to go out into the world. In diplomatic terms, it is the beginnings of a realization in Beijing that it can no longer sit by and let international affairs happen in its neighborhood without taking any role. But as with all Chinese initiatives, it starts by focusing on confidence-building measures, discussion and economics.

China’s rise in Central Asia at the expense of Russian influence and power is not new, but has been underway for almost a decade. President Xi’s visit to Astana came off the back of a number of regional visits by his predecessor President Hu where China had signed a number of huge deals and demonstrated that it was the coming power in Central Asia. As Russian influence has stagnated and infrastructure rotted, Chinese firms have moved in to secure energy fields and mining concessions, as well as rebuilding Central Asia’s physical infrastructure.

Travel along the routes from Kashgar or Urumqi in Xinjiang into Central Asia and you will find roads and rail links that have been refurbished or newly built by Chinese firms. Pipelines from Kazakhstan’s oil fields in Atyrau or Turkmenistan’s super-giant Galkynysh gas field have been built in record time to bring the fuel back to China. Mining concessions across Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan have been snapped up by Chinese firms, while Chinese companies burrow roads and rail links through mountains in Tajikistan and Uzbekistan.

Visit downtown Dushanbe in Tajikistan, and you will now find a city that has had its main roads refurbished in time for a national anniversary by Chinese firms, a Presidential home and library built by Chinese companies, a CCTV traffic system paid for by a China Development Bank loan and built by Huawei, fields of cranes manned by Chinese workers erecting new buildings around the city, and all of this powered by a giant thermal electricity plant built by PowerChina that ensures that Dushanbe’s power shortages during winter are a thing of the past.

China’s relationship with Central Asia can no longer be caricatured as being built on extracting mineral wealth to feed insatiable Chinese factories. Chinese companies build infrastructure and are increasingly becoming regional energy suppliers, as well as supplying Chinese goods into Central Asian markets. From Kyrgyzstan’s southern entrepots of Kara-Suu and Osh to the Caspian Sea at Turkmenbashi in Turkmenistan, Chinese goods fill the markets.

Talk to young students at the Confucius Institutes in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and elsewhere and they will often speak of learning Mandarin at their parents’ demand to help them cut better deals in Chinese markets in Urumqi or Guangzhou. Language training at a more formal level extends to officialdom in Kyrgyzstan, with scholarships offered to bureaucrats in the Presidential administration, ministry of foreign affairs and ministry of the interior. Beijing, Shanghai and Urumqi universities are full of Central Asian officials’ children who are learning Mandarin. When Turkmen President Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedov visited Beijing in November 2011 he was greeted by around 1,000 Turkmen students on scholarships at Chinese higher education establishments.

These scholarships are part of the Chinese soft power push into the region, one that is matched with strong political relations that are advanced at a bilateral basis as well as through the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). And as this multifaceted push develops, its economic force and gravity becomes a draw for random Chinese traders and adventurers seeking prosperity.

One couple in Bishkek reported initially arriving as officials working for a state owned firm and as a travel agent: 15 years later, they owned stalls in Kyrgyzstan’s markets, a Chinese restaurant in Bishkek, as well as a biscuit factory outside the city. In downtown Dushanbe, a generous Chinese businessman who had been in the country for about seven years proudly showed off the factory into which he had designed purpose-built flats for Chinese workers coming into the country. His main industry was a fireworks factory and on his wall he displayed a calendar with pictures of himself with senior leaders and events at which he had supplied the fireworks.

The drive behind all this activity is both directed and haphazard. The latter is mostly the product of industrious Chinese following the economic gravity in the region. At a more directed level, however, the effort is part of a longstanding effort by the Chinese government to increase development and prosperity in the under-developed western regions. Xinjiang, China’s westernmost province that accounts for a sixth of the nation’s land mass, has an under-developed infrastructure with an angry Uighur minority who are increasingly expressing their anger through attacks against state institutions.

The Chinese government’s solution to this is a heavy-handed security response matched with focused economic investment. But for landlocked Xinjiang to be able to prosper it will require trade links through Central Asia to Russian and ultimately European markets, or through Afghanistan or Pakistan to Arab and Iranian markets or to the Indian Ocean.

The push in this direction has been in existence for some time. It was late 2011 when Peking University’s dean of international studies, Wang Jisi, first floated his ‘March Westward’ concept. And it is one that President Xi Jinping appears to have harnessed as one of the cores of his foreign policy direction as he looks out at the world.

Building on the success of this drive into Central Asia and its economic and trade push, with politics and security coming as secondary consequences, the model is now being replicated elsewhere, with the four corridors fundamentally echoing the New Silk Road that had been underway for some time.

For anyone trying to understand China’s foreign policy under Xi Jinping, it is in Central Asia that the first glimmers of understanding can be found. The larger focus on border diplomacy and its short and medium-term impacts and consequences can all be found in Central Asia where China is rapidly becoming the most influential player on the ground.

The region is being re-wired so that all roads go to China, and the economics are slowly becoming increasingly dependent on China. The longer-term implications of this shift have yet to be completely understood, but they will likely strike a path that we will slowly see China following along its other economic corridors.

A short piece for Reuters and their rather wonderfully named ‘Expert Zone’ looking at Sino-Indian relations in Afghanistan. Builds on the earlier paper published on this topic through RUSI and part of an ongoing project.

Afghanistan a building block for China-India ties

By Raffaello Pantucci

JULY 30, 2014

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters, images used in the piece can be found here)

The appointment of a former ambassador to Kabul and New Delhi by China to the role of Special Envoy for Afghanistan highlights China’s thinking of what it can do in Afghanistan.

China is not seeking a leadership role in the country, but is rather looking for regional partners to support its efforts. A key partner is being sought in New Delhi where the Narendra Modi administration has welcomed Xi Jinping’s early overtures for a closer broader relationship. The opportunity presents itself that Afghanistan’s two largest Asian neighbours might be on the cusp of closer cooperation to help the nation onto a more stable footing.

It is clear that there are issues with Sino-Indian collaboration on Afghanistan. First among these are differing perceptions on Pakistan and its responsibility and role in Afghanistan’s current predicament. For China, Pakistani security forces are trying to deal with a monster within their country with links across the border. For Indian authorities, it remains a Frankenstein’s monster of Pakistani construction that is, therefore, fundamentally theirs to address. China’s particularly close relationship with Pakistan plays into this divide, raising concerns in New Delhi as well as complicating China’s approaches to Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, all three sides (China, India and Pakistan) seem to have found some way of working through these concerns, as there has been considerable movement and public discussion (including this project the author has been working on) between China and India in particular about their future collaborations in Afghanistan.

All of this highlights how divergent views on Pakistan aside there remains substantial scope for cooperation between the two in Afghanistan. In particular, both sides agree that terrorism in Afghanistan is a problem that needs to be addressed and a part of this is through the strengthening of Afghanistan’s security forces. Neither power is going to send forces, but there does seem to be the possibility of some agreement to increase their security training contribution. While this has to be managed carefully, it is clear that there is a need to do something to support the Afghan National Security Forces post-2014, and in particular with the more than 100,000 men under arms who will become unemployed in line with the Chicago declarations of shrinking the ANSF from 350,000 to around 228,500.

One idea would be that China and India step in to find a way to support the transformation of some of these men into a ‘mineral protection corps’ or some other paramilitary role that means they will continue to retain jobs rather than becoming unemployed men with arms and military training. This is a logical lead for China and India given it is most likely to be their national firms that are coming in to rebuild Afghanistan and profit from its mineral wealth.

Beyond this, the most obvious strand of cooperation between the two in Afghanistan lies in focusing on developing the country’s economy and building the nation’s technocratic infrastructure. This works through governments ensuring their state-owned firms (those most likely to be investing substantially in Afghanistan’s economy in the future given their higher risk threshold and capacity to make major infrastructure investments adjacent to mineral extraction projects) maintain a certain level of coordination when building infrastructure and that they agree to not go below certain thresholds of corruption when entering into deals within the country.

Given it is state-owned firms that make the most investments in Afghanistan, it is more likely that governments in either country will be able to drive policies forwards in this direction. They can further consolidate this with support to Afghanistan’s bureaucratic future through the creation of a large pool of scholarships at their technical universities for young Afghans. This will have the effect of building a soft link between the nations as well as provide Afghanistan with the needed technocratic capability that will help it build institutions to confidently rebuild the country.

The net result of these efforts is likely to be incremental. Neither China nor India are going to take the lead in Afghanistan having watched the West flounder for the past decade. At the same time, both have an interest in rebuilding Afghanistan and have many of the necessary levers of power to make a difference. The longer-term benefit of this cooperation is a tangible result for the increasingly warming Sino-Indian relationship — something that will only strengthen the hands of both powers in Asian affairs. Afghanistan could become the starting point of a new Asian order, increasingly led by billion-person giants China and India.

Another piece for Longitude, the Italian’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs magazine. Part of a special edition on borders it looks at China’s western land relations, building on the work I have been doing on this subject as part of the China in Central Asia project. It is done in conjunction with Sarah Lain, my new co-editor on the site and RUSI colleague.

Related to Syria, I spoke to La Presse about Syrian Chechen leader Omar al Shishani and Newsweek about threats to aviation.

Creeping Encroachment, China’s Western Surge

While many are concerned with territorial disputes in Southeast Asia, the fact that China is quietly expanding its presence westward often goes unnoticed. Beijing has now become a huge player in Central Asia’s Great Game.

41

A PDF of the article can be found here: Longitude China Central Asia Borders

New piece for my institutional home RUSI, looking at Xinjiang again. Been travelling in the region, so more to come soon.

China’s Domestic Insurgency

RUSI Analysis, 23 Jul 2014

By Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Research Fellow

Five years on from the most lethal rioting seen in China for decades, Beijing has still not managed to refine its strategy towards Xinjiang. Problems in the province increasingly resemble a domestic insurgency needing a comprehensive preventative approach.
Khotan Mosque Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region

The 2009 Urumqi riots marked a watershed for Beijing’s policy towards the region. Largely ignored by the capital as a backwater that was ruled over by strongman governor Wang Lequan, the scale of the riots in Xinjiang obliged then President Hu Jintao into the embarrassing situation of having to leave a G8 Summit in Italy to come and take charge of the situation. In the wake of the rioting, numerous senior security officials in the province were sacked and a year later the 15-year provincial head Wang Lequan moved back to Beijing. At around the same time in 2010, the government announced a new strategy towards Xinjiang, focused heavily on economic investment and developing the province’s trade links with Central Asia.

Four years on from launch of this strategy, the violence and problems in the region continue. Once largely contained in the southern part of the region (the part that is still predominantly Uighur, the Turkic ethnic minority resident in Xinjiang who chafe under Beijing’s rule) and mostly focused on attacking symbols of the state, anger from Xinjiang is now expressing itself in brutal attacks on civilians in Beijing, Kunming and Guangzhou. In April and May incidents took place in the provincial capital Urumqi involving bombs and targeting of random crowds at a market and train station.

It is unclear the degree that the violence in the province is being orchestrated from outside China. So far the evidence offered by the Chinese government seems to suggest that the connection with outside groups is focused on people within the province consuming radical online material produced by extremists outside the country.

Beyond this, the strongest tangible evidence of connections between outside China and the trouble in Xinjiang seems to be focused around the repeated incidents of Uighurs reportedly trying to flee the country and coming into trouble either at the border or once outside. In late January, eleven were killed in Kyrgyzstan in a mysterious clash in which a group of Uighurs confronted border guards. In March a group of some 200 Uighurs were found in Thailand. Claiming to be Turkish, they demanded repatriation to Turkey, only to be discovered to be Uighur and claimed by the Chinese authorities. Then in mid-April a group of Uighurs were caught crossing into Vietnam, only to attack the Vietnamese border guards trying to repatriate them.

Heavy Security and Investment

China’s security forces are clearly uncertain as to how to deal with this problem. The security focus is on hardening public security, with armed police being deployed in major cities, vigilance being increased among public workers at sensitive sites and heavier security checks on public transport. In Urumqi, there is a pervasive security presence and reports from the south of the province suggest an even more robust display of strength and counter-clashes there. The government has focused heavily on curbing radical material online and persuaded the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), a multilateral regional body linking China to Central Asia, to focus its efforts on countering online radicalisation and the dissemination of extremist material.

At a more strategic level, in June the government held a second major work conference on Xinjiang, with a major conclusion that the current approach of heavy economic investment was not ample to resolve the problems. President Xi has spoken of increasing regional ethnic integration and improving educational attainment in the province. He also highlighted the importance of religious tolerance, of focusing on economic benefits reaching minorities in the province and other messages that seemed to suggest a desire to push beyond the traditional dual track approach of economic investment paired with the heavy hand of state security. Whether these messages are getting through on the ground is not always clear, however, with stories circulating of authorities in the province telling officials they could not fast during Ramadan – something that seems at odds with a tolerant approach to religion. It is also not clear that the approaches towards affirmative action in terms of companies in the region hiring minorities is new, with similar proclamations having been made before.

Deepening Disenfranchisement

Rather, indications from the ground (in terms of attacks or reports of people trying to flee) and discussions with locals in the capital Urumqi suggest that many Uighurs continue to feel alienated from modern China. None of this excuses the sort of actions like the savage attack in Kunming, but it does show a deep disenfranchisement clearly exists among China’s minority Uighur community.

There is a need for China to offer an appealing alternative to its Uighur community and to develop a strategy that gives people a sense of belonging within the modern Chinese state. Doing this is not an easy prospect, but it is clear that the current approach is not bearing fruit. The Chinese leadership in Beijing is clearly starting to think in this direction: something highlighted by the President’s comments in June, but this has not translated into effective action on the ground.

Five years on from the most violent rioting to face China in years, Beijing is still seeking a solution to its problems in Xinjiang. Other countries with similar problems have faced them for decades before they are able to manage them into a less menacing form and for China a negative outcome is not an option. It seems likely that China is going to face an equally challenging struggle to resolve Xinjiang’s troubles.

Been travelling so quiet for a while, but a longer Occasional Paper I have been working on for a while as part of a bigger project finally lands with my institutional home RUSI, it offers some practical ideas for Chinese and Indian cooperation in Afghanistan. More on this topic to come. Related, I spoke to the BBC (and featured on the Today show) about Uighurs, Xinjiang and the incident in Kunming earlier in the year. On Syria/Iraq and jihad, I spoke to NBC about ISIS online and music strategy, with CNN about ISIS leader Omar al Shishani, with Belgian outlet Knack about foreign fighters, with the Sunday Mail about plotting coming back to the UK from Syria, with the Birmingham Mail about recruitment to Syria and links to previous plots in the UK, and with Voice of Russia and Daily Beast about the emergence of the Caliphate in Iraq/Syria.

A Roadmap for Sino-Indian Co-operation in Afghanistan

LI53C6AC3D9E1FD-155x219

As NATO and Western powers begin to take a backseat in Afghanistan’s future, one of the most pressing questions is what role regional powers, particularly China and India, can play in helping the country to become a prosperous and stable nation.

Download the paper here (PDF)

Numerous efforts are already underway through multilateral and bilateral forums, yet the key to regional co-operation in securing Afghanistan’s future lies through closer interaction between Beijing and New Delhi.

This paper – which draws on a research project spanning a number of workshops in Beijing, New Delhi and Qatar, and involving influential thinkers and experts from China, India, the UK and Afghanistan – maps out specific ideas that policy-makers in Beijing and New Delhi can explore as avenues for co-operation.

Post-2014 Afghanistan will remain a major regional concern for at least the short to medium term. The earlier that China and India can develop workable collaborative undertakings, the sooner they can forge a stable and prosperous neighbourhood.

The paper is co-authored with Dr Shisheng Hu, Director of South Asia and Oceania Studies at the China Institute for Contemporary International Relations and Lieutenant General (Rtd) Ravi Sawhney, Distinguished Fellow at the Vivekananda International Foundation. Many thanks to RUSI colleague Edward Schwarck for his support in drafting this paper.

The ISIS dilemma

Posted: June 29, 2014 in Longitude, Uncategorized
Tags: , , ,

A more limited post this time for another new outlet, the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs magazine called Longitude. Limited mostly as they do not seem to post everything online, so I am awaiting for the editors to give me the ok before I post it in completeness here. The piece is one I undertook with a RUSI colleague Francesca Capano, and looks at the curious paradox of the conflict in Syria where we now have both sides feeling like they are ascendant. ISIS are clearly buoyed by their gains in Iraq, while the Assad regime feels like it is doing well – or at least well-enough to hold elections. I have posted below what was on their site and will post more when I can. Feel free to get in touch if you have any questions.

UPDATE July 1, 2014: Many thanks to lead editor Pialuisa for passing me a PDF and allowing me to share it here. You will now find the whole article here: 046_051_pantucci_iraq_Base

The ISIS Dilemma

Recent gains by the Assad regime in Syria and by jihadists in Iraq have complicated the Middle East morass. What is to be done when both sides feel they are winning, and both are anathema to Western interests?

Longitutde 40

I had a piece in the weekend’s Sunday Times News Review section looking at the phenomenon of Brits going to foreign battlefields and coming back posing a terrorist threat. For some reason, it only shows up in their e-version of the newspaper and on the iPad version, but not online more generally. Anyway, they have allowed me to republish it here, so thank you to the editors for that.

Beyond this, I spoke to the Telegraph about this topic and the recent ISIS video to surface with Brits in it, about some Brits linked to al Muhajiroun who jumped bail and seem to have surfaced in Syria for the BBC, to Channel 4, NBC and Voice of America about ISIS and Iraq. On the other side of the equation, I spoke to Caixin about China in Afghanistan and South China Morning Post about Xinjiang.

Coming Back to Britain, Bringing Jihad

Sunday Times Review piece how terror comes home

It was the summer of 2001 and two British lads from Beeston, in Leeds, had made their way to a training camp in Pakistan, eager to fulfil their responsibility to support Muslims suffering elsewhere in the world. Having done two weeks’ training, the pair were debating heading back home when two Emiratis at the camp suggested they go to see Afghanistan and the Taliban.

Years later, in court on terrorism conspiracy charges, Waheed Ali recounted to a jury: “I’m thinking, ‘Whatever, innit, Afghanistan, let’s go for a little wander.’” Ali and his companion, Mohammed Siddique Khan — known as Sid — headed off by car to the front lines near Kabul. For Khan this was the beginning of a journey that ended four years later when he led an al Qaeda-directed cell in an attack on London on July 7, 2005.

Last week David Cameron spoke about the Sunni jihadist group the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (Isis). “The people in [Isis], as well as trying to take territory, are also planning to attack us here at home in the United Kingdom,” he said. It is a menace that becomes real through individuals such as Khan, who are first drawn to fighting in foreign fields and end up launching terrorist attacks back home.

British fighters have been a feature of almost every jihadist battlefield since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. Seeing them in Iraq and Syria now is no surprise. What is equally certain is that some sort of terrorist plot will eventually emerge with links to the battlefields in Syria and Iraq. In fact it already has, in the form of a number of disrupted plots across Europe and the murderous rampage at a Jewish museum in Brussels last month.

While not every fighter who goes to Syria will return as a terrorist threat, the question is: how many more such attacks can we expect, and at what point might Isis or some other jihadist group in Syria decide that its crop of foreign fighters is a useful vehicle for launching punishing attacks against the West?

In late 2004 Ali and Khan set off again for Pakistan to return to training camps, this time in two separate groups. Before leaving, Khan recorded a video that featured Ali, along with Khan’s fellow 7/7 conspirator Shehzad Tanweer — whom they affectionately knew as Kaki — in which he said farewell to his baby daughter, telling her: “I have to do this for our future and it will be for the best.”

Arriving in Pakistan ahead of Ali, Khan and Tanweer told the British al-Qaeda connection they met there that they had come to train and ultimately go to Afghanistan “to fight against the Americans”. After a few days they were introduced to “Haji”, a senior al-Qaeda figure who, according to a report by their British al-Qaeda guide, “convinced the brothers [Khan and Tanweer] to return and do a martyrdom operation in UK”.

By the time Ali arrived at the Pakistani training camp, his friends’ behaviour had changed, and within a few weeks they announced to him that they had to go back to “do something for the brothers”. This proved to be the 7/7 bomb­ings in London, part of a chain of plots directed by al-Qaeda against the UK that used the pipeline of zealous young British men who had originally sought to fight in Afghanistan as weapons against the West.

Almost two years to the day after the 7/7 attacks, a pair of car bombs failed to go off in Haymarket, central London, saving unknown numbers of revellers at the Tiger Tiger nightclub. The next day Bilal Abdullah and Kafeel Ahmed attempted to drive a car bomb into Glasgow International airport’s main terminal. Fortunately for travellers, the attackers failed to get inside the building, and their bomb detonated outside, fatally wounding Ahmed and injuring Abdullah.

In court a year later the prosecution produced a letter that had been found on Abdullah’s computer, addressed to the “Soldiers of the Islamic State of Iraq”, in which he declared: “God knows that the days I spent with you were the best and most rewarding days of my life.”

Security officials believe that in 2006, on a trip to visit his family’s home in Iraq, Abdullah had linked up with elements connected to the anti-US insurgency. If the letter is to be believed, it was the Islamic State of Iraq, the precursor to Isis. What he did with the group is unclear, though the similarity of his device to bombs that were often going off in Iraq suggests he may have developed some ideas while there.

Certainly, on the stand at his trial Abdullah spoke of his anger over British foreign policy towards his mother country, but it was not clear that he had received any direction in launching his attack with Ahmed. Instead, online conversations between the two show them joking about “starting experiments” and discussing how to build detonators.

Plots by foreign fighters have also emerged from places where the link between the home country and the battlefield is harder to establish. Mohammed Muhidin Gelle was a Somali Dane who was drawn to the Somali terrorist group al-Shabaab and was picked up by the Kenyan authorities in 2009 as part of a cell plotting attacks during a visit to Nairobi by Hillary Clinton, then the US secretary of state.

He was repatriated to Denmark but did not renounce his extremist ideas and later attempted to murder with an axe the cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, who had created an image that he accused of mocking the prophet Muhammad. Al-Shabaab acknowledged it knew Gelle and praised him, saying “we appreciate the incident in which a Muslim Somali boy attacked the devil who abused our prophet”, but failed to claim Gelle’s act.

Track forward to today and authorities in Europe have already seen a number of worrying plots linked to Syria. Earlier this year French authorities arrested a man identified as Ibrahim B who had spoken in online communications of wanting to “punish France”. At his rented accommodation they found drink cans fashioned into nail bombs with about 2lb of triacetone triperoxide, or TATP — an explosive linked to the 7/7 bombings.

Part of a network of extremists in France that was connected to an attack on a Jewish grocer’s in Paris in 2012, Ibrahim B had fled a crackdown on the network and gone with two friends to Syria, where they had fought alongside Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda’s representative group in the country.

The full details of what the alleged attacker at the Jewish museum, Mehdi Nemmouche, was doing are unclear, but when he was arrested, a machine­gun was found in his possession wrapped in an Isis flag. Soon after his arrest a French Isis fighter in Syria tweeted that Nemmouche had fought with Isis using the name Abu Omar al-Firansi. The tweet was rapidly deleted.

So far there has been no public evidence that these individuals or the plots that have been disrupted have been directed by Isis. However, as history has shown, clear command and direction by a jihadist group is not essential for people who to come back from foreign battlefields with murderous intent. Most chilling for western security watchers is a statement in January by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of Isis, who, singling out America, declared: “Know, O de­fender of the Cross, that a proxy war will not help you in the Levant, just as it will not help you in Iraq. Soon, you will be in direct conflict — God permitting — against your will. The youths of Islam have steeled themselves for this day.”

The question that remains un­answered is whether the “youths of Islam” he was referring to are European fighters — and whether some of them have already been sent back to carry out his deadly threat.