Finally posting my second piece from last week around the SCO Summit, this time for the South China Morning Post. Focuses more on the China-Russia side of things. Beyond this, spoke to the Independent about the elusive Abdel-Majed Abdel Bary, the Daily Mail about ISIS and women, and Reuters about Chinese intelligence dealing with the counter-terrorism questions outside the country.

Russia holds the door to Central Asia open for China

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Raffaello Pantucci says to a region in need, the Chinese offer of funds and expertise is too attractive to resist, as agreements at the Moscow-hosted BRICS and SCO meetings show

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 July, 2015, 12:05pm

Late last week, the leaders of almost half the world’s population gathered in Ufa, Russia. The collision of the BRICS and Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) summits was orchestrated by Russia to guarantee exposure and attention, and highlight to the world how many friends Russia has. Dig below the shallow surface, however, and the links between the countries of the two international organisations are barely skin deep, with everyone attending for their own reasons.

For China, the two summits provide another opportunity for global engagement, as well as helping Beijing advance two international financial institutions. A timid player in many ways on the international stage, Beijing has found that its capital is one lever that it can use without raising too many hackles, and the meetings in Ufa gave it another opportunity to flex these financial muscles.

Fixating on the slow path to SCO membership for India and Pakistan, the world largely missed the key takeaway from the summits: China’s growing financial domination of Russia and its immediate backyard.

In the wake of the first Ufa summit, greater clarity was cast around the BRICS development bank, a new financial entity to emerge from the grouping of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, with an initial market capitalisation of US$50 billion. The leaders also created a US$100 billion currency exchange reserve, of which US$41 billion was offered by China, while Russia, Brazil and India each gave US$18 billion, and South Africa contributed US$5 billion.

A day or so later, the SCO members agreed once again to try to advance the concept of an SCO development bank or at least a joint fund.

China has been pushing the idea of an SCO financial institution for some time.

Seeing economic engagement as its major advantage in Central Asia, many years passed before Chinese interlocutors first presented the idea of an SCO development bank.

However, the idea has never quite taken off, with Russia in particular concerned that the vehicle would simply leave the door to Central Asia wide open for Beijing.

We live now, however, in different times, and, rather than be concerned, Russia has opened the door to Beijing. Indeed, Moscow appears to be helping to hold the doors open as China uses its lever in Russia’s backyard. Already endowed with the Silk Road Fund (focused on China’s western partners in Central and South Asia) and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, China’s external constellation of economic firepower has been further enhanced by Ufa.

Russia itself has further opened up its own economy to Chinese investment, offering Chinese state-owned firms majority stakes in its oil and gas fields.

Eager for foreign investment and unable to look west anymore, Moscow is reaching east and apparently willing to throw open not only its backyard, but also Central Asia’s.

The result is a further strengthening of China’s hand in Central Asia, as the country pours finance and infrastructure into a part of the world that is crying out for it.

While in the short term there is little to worry about this investment (these are infrastructure-poor countries that will benefit from China’s appealing combination of low-cost construction firms and cheap loans), over the longer term, Chinese leverage will certainly offer Beijing a grip over the region. The lesson from Ufa is that the region’s one great resistor, Russia, has largely lifted its objections and is now welcoming all the Chinese investment it can attract.

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

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as Russia holding the door to Central Asia open for China

In honour of this week’s Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit in Ufa, I have a new piece for a new outlet, the Indian think tank Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. It explores how India might (or might not) benefit from its joining the organization. Related, spoke to Bloomberg about Sino-American cooperation on Afghanistan and unrelated to Newsweek about the revelation that a couple of Indonesian pilots had gone to join ISIS.

India and SCO: the real benefit

India becoming a becoming a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation will be a significant moment in its engagement with Central Asia. However, there are not a lot of security or other benefits to be gained

post imageIndia’s path to membership of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) now seems certain. It is not clear that the Ufa Summit will conclude with the organization admitting both Pakistan and India, but the next step in membership will be taken with Delhi formally being admitted into the SCO structures next year.

But what will this new membership actually mean for India?

The short answer: not much.

An often misunderstood and overblown entity, the SCO was founded in 2001 and evolved from a grouping born out of the end of the Cold War to define China’s western borders. Over time, the grouping discovered a common set of interests in countering terrorism, agreeing broadly on what constitutes terrorist activity and then developed structures to try to counter it collectively.

In reality, the organization has done little in practical terms to counter terrorism, except for holding regular meetings, establishing the unfortunately-achronymed RATS (Regional Anti-Terrorism Structure) center in Tashkent – really just a repository of information of proscribed individuals – and organizing large-scale joint military exercises under the rubric of counter-terrorism. There has been discussion of a number of other entities being created (like an SCO Bank, most recently raised again by the Kyrgyz leadership), as well as an SCO University (a constellation of universities across the member states where students can earn joint degrees), and various other forms of cooperation.

Little has been practically done, however, with the most visible contribution of the SCO being that at least once a year the leaders of the Central Asian countries will have to sit down with each other. This is not, in itself, a bad thing given how toxic relations are between some of the regional leaders. But considering that it appears to be the grouping’s central achievement, there is a somewhat questionable return on investment in the effort.

There is some benefit to this for India. The regular leadership and other meetings around the SCO now means that both Indian and Pakistani officials at a senior level (from Prime Minister and head of state meetings to Health Ministers, Foreign Ministers and Interior Minister meetings) will now have to encounter each other at least once a year, away from the glare of the annual September UN General Assembly meeting. This is not negative as it will provide another neutral forum in which the two rival powers have an opportunity to interact. Participation in RATS may bring some new levels of intelligence sharing, as well as help the others develop counter-terrorism strategies based on India’s long experience of it.

Beyond this, India’s principal benefit from joining the SCO will be geopolitical. It will help bring India closer to China by supporting the only multilateral security entity outside the United Nations that China has both created, is a part of and refuses India entry into. It will also help clarify India’s growing interest in Central Asia – something already highlighted in President Modi’s visit to the five countries on the fringes of his visit to Russia.

This may be the longer-term gain for India. The sometime fractious China-India relationship has been on a broadly positive trajectory for a while, notwithstanding the periodic border spats, thanks to a concerted charm offensive by the Xi Jinping administration. China and India are able to hold constructive conversations on a wide range of issues, from AIIB membership to joint counter-terrorism exercises. The relationship is moving in a positive, though still slightly tentative, direction. Perhaps the principal exchange emerging from India’s accession to the SCO, will be a new push by China to be admitted into SAARC.

The relationship with Central Asia, however, is one of India’s untapped opportunities. Indian soft power already has considerable influence in Central Asia, far more than China. Bollywood movies are much enjoyed, compared with Chinese entertainment, for instance. But it is unclear whether India has really found ways to profit beyond that. In Tajikistan, Indian doctors and military support play an interesting bilateral role, but Indian companies have not participated in the way they should have in the region.

The main problem for India is the physical impediment of Afghanistan and Pakistan. This reality complicates relations, but India has sought to overcome it by developing the Chahabar Port in Iran – an alternative route for Indian products from Central Asia.

The bigger issue is political attention. The Central Asian powers are sandwiched between China and Russia and find themselves increasingly drawn into China’s economic thrall, in the face of a declining Russia to which they are still bound by history and physical and linguistic infrastructure. They constantly seek new partners and India offers an alternative they can appreciate and work with.

India can surely gain from access to Central Asia’s minerals and energy, as also market access to Russia and ultimately Europe. Central Asia is still deeply underdeveloped, offering an entree for Indian construction firms and others. This will require formal support, something that Chinese leaders have long recognized through their regular visits to the region. Indian leaders seem not to have recognized that yet.

SCO membership will go some way towards changing this, though it will still need a concerted effort by New Delhi if India is to capitalize effectively on the opportunity that Central Asia offers. Indian membership of the SCO will undoubtedly be trumpeted as a major change in regional geopolitics; it will only become A reality if India follows through with its offers to Central Asia.

Raffaello Pantucci is the Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute 

This feature was written exclusively for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations

Marking the sad anniversary of ten years on from the July 7, 2005 attack on London, Prospect asked for an article about where we stand today as compared to a decade ago. Sitting in London writing this and seeing all the coverage today has been quite sad and moving. The threat has really evolved from a decade ago, but in some ways is far more complicated and dangerous. I spoke to quite a few journalists in the run up to today, including Sky News about the threat 10 years on and the 21/7 plot two weeks later, to Al Jazeera English about the impact on Muslim communities, to the BBC about where we stand today, and the New York Times has quoted my book in its write-up on the day.

Ten years after 7/7, is Islamic state plotting to attack the west?

British IS fighters returning from Syria are a potentially deadly threat

Three British recruits for Islamic State (IS) Reyaad Khan with Nasser Muthana and Abdul Raqib Amin

In November 2004, a pair of lads from Beeston met with a young man from Birmingham in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Far from home, the three were linked by a common hatred of the west. For the Beeston pair, Mohammed Sidique Khan and Shezhad Tanweer, their plan was to stay and fight in Afghanistan against Americans (a notion Khan himself was not entirely new to, having previously attended a camp in Kashmir and visited Afghanistan). By the end of their trip, the Brummie, Rashid Rauf, had introduced them to a senior al Qaeda figure known as Haji who had convinced the Beeston pair to turn around and launch an attack back home. The aged jihadi fighter had persuaded the trio that if they really wanted to play a role in the struggle they had come to fight and die for, they would be better served going back home. From foreign fighters to homegrown terrorists, the 7th July bombers’ journey shows how the transition can be made.

Nowadays, the focus of our attention is on the travellers. Stories like the family from Luton, heading en masse with grandparents to live under the Islamic State (IS) black banner. The Bethnal Green trio of girls thought to have been lured in part by a Scottish woman who had gone over before them and the handsome warriors stroking cats on social media pages. Or Talha Asmal, from Mohammed Sidique Khan’s hometown of Dewsbury, who was drawn from his family to earn the dubious distinction of being the UK’s youngest reported suicide bomber at the age of 17. The centre of our attention has moved from the terrorist plots back home to those who are travelling abroad to participate in foreign conflicts.

Why does this matter? If these people want to go abroad and live under IS or fight against the Assad regime, who are they hurting beyond themselves and their families? A sympathetic eye might read these stories as those of idealists who are going to fight in foreign fields to protect or fight for brother Muslims suffering as the world does little. While traditional news broadcasts tend to be dominated by stories of headline-grabbing IS atrocities, online you can also find plenty of horror stories of acts committed by the Assad regime and propaganda images of an idealised Islamic state being created in the Levant.

A more sceptical eye would instead focus on the fact that they are going to join terrorist organisations that are either part of al Qaeda (or are led by men close to the group) like Jabhat al Nusrah, or continue to spout rhetoric that seeks to inspire and instigate terrorism, like IS. At the moment these two groups appear to differ in their goals—IS seems to be railing against the world as it builds its caliphate in the sand, while Jabhat al Nusrah seems to have put al Qaeda’s global ambitions to one side while it focuses on the fight in Syria. But this is only their current state and these are groups with millennarial perspectives. Seen in this light, these travellers might eventually be deployed as weapons. For an organisation with the ideological ambitions of a group such as IS, foreign fighters are a gift. The stories of people going over strengthen their narrative of success. Later on, however, they might also provide a useful network with which to launch strikes against the west, North Africa, or elsewhere.

In fact, we may have already seen this. The slaughter in Sousse last month and the preceding attack on tourists at the Bardo Museum in Tunis were both carried out by individuals linked to IS training camps in Libya. In Verviers, Belgium this January, the authorities had a dramatic shoot-out with a group who they suspected of having recently returned from fighting in Syria. When confronted by authorities—they whipped out their weapons and in the subsequent gunfight two of the fighters were gunned down. A few days prior to this incident, the Kouachi brothers attacked the Charlie Hebdo offices while their friend Amedy Coulibaly stormed a Jewish supermarket in Paris. Coulibaly claimed in a pre-recorded  video to be undertaking the attack on behalf of IS and his wife, Hayat Boumeddiene, was later featured in IS propaganda alongside the group in Syria.

In the UK we have not seen such advanced planning yet, though authorities believe they have disrupted several plots with links to Syria and Iraq in some way. In at least two cases, it is believed the plots include individuals who were foreign fighters at some point. In all of these cases, it is highly unlikely that these young men started out with intentions to launch attacks back at home. People eager to kill do not need to travel to foreign fields to find justification to carry out their acts. More likely, they were eager to see what was happening and were drawn by the excitement of the conflict or the narrative of seeing what a supposed Islamic state looks like up close. Once there, it is unclear what happens to them: some seem to head back disillusioned by the experience, others revel in what they find there, and yet some appear to come back with deadly intent. Where and why this intent spawns is unclear.

This curiosity of visiting an Islamic state is familiar from Mohammed Sidique Khan’s narrative. In the summer of 2003, he was part of a group of Britons who met at the airport in Islamabad, Pakistan. Connected to the same networks in the UK, one group from Crawley were gathering to go and set up their own terrorist training camp where they sought to teach themselves to fight. Mohammed and his close friend from Beeston had instead become curious about what was going on in Afghanistan.

He had travelled previously to Afghanistan just before 11th September 2001 and seen the Taliban for himself. Impressed by the state they were building, he wanted to see how it was now surviving the American-led assault. After the 2003 training camp, Mohammed Sidique Khan’s plot took years to mature, showing the long tail of radical ideas that can sit within a person for some time.

A decade on from the 7th July bombings and we are still as confused as before as to what really draws young British men and women to fight for groups like IS or al Qaeda and launch terror attacks at home. There is an understanding of the ideology and subsequently how individuals are drawn to it. But this does not make prediction any easier. And it does not resolve the horror that these young Britons feel a greater loyalty to transnational groups espousing eschatological narratives than they do their country of birth. Today, as the nation commemorates the lives of the 52 Londoners who died in the attack, we are still seeking understanding as a new generation of foreign fighters head abroad to Syria and beyond.

A new piece off the book ahead of what is likely to be a busy week in this regard, looking at the concept of the ‘Suburban Terrorist’ for the Sunday Telegraph. There are a few other pieces around the book that are going to be emerging this week as we hit the ten year anniversary of the sad events of July 7, 2005. Some news articles have already started to emerge, including this interview I did with Sky News about Mohammed Siddique Khan’s under-explored visit to Israel. In other subjects, I spoke to AFP about China-Central Asia and Voice of America about the AIIB.

The Rise of the Suburban Terrorist

Ten years on from the 7/7 bombings, Britain’s towns and cities are spawning a new wave of homegrown terrorists

“Jihadi John”, unmasked recently as Mohammed Emwazi

“Jihadi John”, unmasked recently as Mohammed Emwazi
By Raffaello Pantucci

But there is one often forgotten player who masterminded the attacks on the capital ten years ago this week. Rashid Rauf was the son of a Birmingham baker who progressed up the ranks of al Qaeda to become jihadi royalty. When the London bombings took place, he was in Pakistan, and it was from here that he co-ordinated the bombings and compiled a post-action report.

“A few months after the operation, I saw a dream, which Sidique and Shehzad are sitting and smiling, looking very happy,” he wrote at the time.

“Sidique” referred to 30-year-old Mohammed Sidique Khan, a married-father-of-one and teaching assistant from Dewsbury, West Yorkshire. “Shehzad” was 22-year-old sports science graduate Shehzad Tanweer, from nearby Beeston in Leeds. Between them, they had murdered 13 people after detonating suicide bombs on the Circle Line on a Thursday morning 10 years ago. The other explosives set off that day by their teenage accomplices, Germaine Lindsay and Hasib Hussain, ensured that 52 innocent lives were lost in total.

The attack was not just al Qaeda’s most successful ever on British soil, but also breathed vivid life into the concept of the homegrown terrorist, born and raised in town and city suburbs and beneficiaries of our schools and universities who suddenly turn murderously against the state. Rauf epitomises this story.

A young Brummie born to a Pakistani family that had migrated to the UK, Rauf grew up in a terraced house in east Birmingham. He helped out at his father’s bakery during breaks at the local Washwood Heath High School, which itself achieved some notoriety in 1996 when a teacher leapt up after a carol singing shouting “Who is your God? Why are you saying Jesus and Jesus Christ? God is not your God – it is Allah!”. From there, he got a place at Portsmouth University.

In 2002, Rauf fled the UK for Pakistan where he quickly rose up the ranks and became a conduit for al Qaeda attempting to draw in excitable young British men. By the time he was killed in a drone strike in 2008, he had moved into a senior role in al Qaeda and was married into a prominent jihadi family.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Talha Asmal fled his home in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, in March

A decade on from 7/7, the rise of the suburban mujahedeen has become an all-too familiar tale. Last month, 17-year-old Talha Asmal – who, like Sidique Khan, also hailed from Dewsbury – became the youngest suicide bomber Britain has ever produced. The former student at Mirfield Free Grammar and Sixth Form blew himself up in a car bomb in Iraq alongside three other jihadis in a coordinated Isil attack. His devastated parents have said he was the victim of the terrorist group’s perverse ideology; they had no idea he was being exploited to make the transition from “ordinary Yorkshire lad” to suicide bomber.

A new wave of terrorism is building in the sands of Syria and Iraq that is already giving birth to the next generation of British terrorists. What ties them all together are their relatively ordinary backgrounds. They see little appeal in the middle-class lives they are headed for, and instead are being drawn to fight in god’s name in the great struggle of their age in the Levant.

There are numerous motivations as to why so many young British men and women are being lured to jihad 10 years after the terrorist atrocity of 7/7. Some are drawn by religious ideology; long term activists and people interested in Islamic ideas who seize upon the end of days narrative which is being peddled by Isil propagandists. Others are attracted to the sheer excitement of participating in a foreign conflict.

Then there is a redemptive value of the fight in Syria and Iraq, perceived by some troubled young Britons as a way of earning respect and shedding troubled pasts. When growing up in Britain, Rashid Rauf and a friend allegedly skirted on the fringes of the local gang community, ending up involved with the Aston Panthers. This is something one sees often among British jihadis, not least Thomas Evans, a 25-year-old from High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, killed in Kenya last month while fighting for the terror group al-Shabaab. Evans floated around in local gangs, a petty criminal who re-invented himself as an international warrior for god.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thomas Evans, who died in Kenya

Richard Reid, who was jailed in 2001 after attempting to ignite a shoe bomb on American Airlines flight 63 from Paris to Miami, who grew up in the London suburb of Bromley and spent time in Feltham Young Offenders institution for petty crime. The 7/7 bomber Germaine Lindsay, who killed 26 on the Piccadilly Line, also came from a broken home and had dabbled in petty crime before focusing on religion.

Others, however, just want to escape their banal, middle-class lives – and it is this which is so difficult for the authorities and families to predict. Glasgow teenager Aqsa Mahmood, who fled to join Isil in 2013, was privately educated and grew up in a happy, close-knit home. Mohammed Sidique Khan wanted to travel and ended up working at a desk job with a degree from a local university. Shehzad Tanweer had a nice car and enjoyed playing cricket. Samantha Lewthwaite, Lindsay’s wife and the so-called “White Widow”, was born to a military family in Aylesbury, Bucks. The decision to go and fight is a reaction against your environment. In many ways, it’s a reflection of young people trying to explore their identities.

What has changed in recent years, as the recent recruitment of schoolboy Talha Asmal shows, is the power of online propaganda and connections to help recruit would be jihadists and persuade young Britons of their connection to the cause and others involved in it. On the internet you can have these multiple identities and completely fictitious online profiles which have no connection with real life. Shami Witness, who ran the most influential pro-Isil Twitter account before it was shut down last year, turned out to be an executive in Bangalore working for an Indian conglomerate. It is easy to reinvent yourself online.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kadiza Sultana, Amira Abase and Shamima Begum

The other interesting aspect that persists is the sense of shared camaraderie that can be a strong lure for young men and women. The 7/7 bombers supposedly laughed and hugged at Kings Cross before embarking on their final, separate journeys. A close bond of friendship is also what motivated the teenage Bethnal Green Academy pupils Shamima Begum, Amira Abase and Kadiza Sultana to travel to Istanbul in February and on to Syria. In 2013, the Pompey Lads, the group of six jihadis from Portsmouth who travelled out to fight for Isil, discussed their upcoming trip as if preparing for any holiday away.

Ten years on from 7/7, we are continuing to see young men and women drawn by extremist narratives to fight in foreign fields. At some point, it is possible they will return to launch attacks in the UK. The next generation of British suburban mujahedeen have yet to completely mature into threats like Rashid Rauf and Mohammed Siddique Khan, but it is likely only a matter of time before they do.

• Raffaello Pantucci is Director, International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) and the author of We Love Death As You Love Life: Britain’s Suburban Mujahedeen (Hurst, £15.99). To order your copy for £13.99 plus p&p, call 0844 871 1514 or visit books.telegraph.co.uk

A new review essay for my home institution RUSI’s own RUSI Journal. It covers a series of books written by three different individuals who managed to penetrate different parts of al Qaeda on behalf of security forces, and lived to tell their tales. The books are written with journalists and are all a good read – for different reasons in each case. I particularly enjoyed the pacey nature of Morten Storm’s account which ducks and weaves around al Qaeda globally, as well as the detailed and deeply personal look at some of the history around Finsbury Park Mosque that I had covered in my book in Reda Hassaine’s (that one would have been useful while I was working on the book I  should add, in fact Morten Storm’s as well given the interesting revelations about some historical cases like Hassan Tabbakh), while Mubin Shaikh’s is a very personal and emotional read. The point of the review was both to try to explore the particular cases and stories, but also more generally the phenomenon of these men who are drawn to serve in this dangerous role. The article is behind a paywall, but can be accessed here, and I have pasted the first few paragraphs below. If you cannot access it, do get in touch and I can see what I might do to help. This aside, been doing bits of talking to the media, but been travelling a lot too. So far, can only find some comments I made to Voice of America on the recent Tunisia attacks and the New Scientist on online radicalisation.

Radicalism and Terrorism

Raffaello Pantucci reviews

Agent Storm: My Life Inside al-Qaeda
By Morten Storm with Tim Lister and Paul Cruickshank

and

Abu Hamza: Guilty; The Fight Against Radical Islam
By Réda Hassaïne and Kurt Barling

and

Undercover Jihadi: Inside the Toronto 18 – Al Qaeda Inspired, Homegrown Terrorism in the West
By Anne Speckhard and Mubin Shaikh

Paranoia, fantasy, omniscience and glory are a combustible mix of emotions. Stoked by handlers keen to advance their own goals, this list provides a snapshot insight into the mindset driving individuals who choose to become undercover agents. Drawn into action through disaffection, a sense of need to improve the world around them or through manipulation by others, they have repeatedly played key roles in the War on Terror. At the heart of almost every disrupted plot is an undercover agent. The three books under review tell a clutch of these tales, exposing the seamy side of the intelligence war against Al-Qa’ida.
The agents at the heart of these tales all became undercover agents through different routes and at different times, though the enemy remains, broadly speaking, the same throughout. Morten Storm (an agent for Danish, British and American intelligence) and Mubin Shaikh (an agent for Canadian authorities) were drawn towards Al-Qa’idist ideology in Europe and Canada respectively in the late 1990s and early 2000s. This marked the beginning of their struggle to counter Al-Qa’ida and its offshoots from within. For Morten Storm this was the beginning of a globetrotting life focused on Al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula, Al-Shabaab and their European contacts, while for Mubin Shaikh it was the entry point into an immersion into Canada’s radicalised community. In contrast, Réda Hassaïne (who worked for Algerian, French and British services) was coerced into the world of espionage and counter-terrorism by a manipulative and brutal Algerian state that saw the young journalist and sometime political activist as a useful tool to be used and disposed of at will. All three had begun with little intention of becoming agents, but after being drawn into radical milieus, found themselves being targeted by security agencies.

A new piece for my institutional home RUSI, looking at something I have been wondering about for a while, which is whether there is anything to be learned from the fact that the flow of foreign fighters between the two places seems to be the same stream. It is something worth a deeper study than this, but look forward to hearing people’s reactions to this stab at the topic.

From Al-Shabaab to Daesh

RUSI Analysis, 23 Jun 2015

By Raffaello Pantucci, Director of International Security Studies

Following the announcement of British deaths in Iraq and Somalia, it has become clear that foreign fighters are attracted to various battlefields. However, there has been a noticeable shift away from Somalia to Syria/Iraq in travel patterns from the UK. Understanding why and how this has taken place might offer some ideas for how to stifle some of the attraction of Syria and Iraq.

ISIS convoy

Thomas Evans’s death fighting against Kenyan forces in Lamu the same weekend that it was revealed that Talha Asmal was involved in a suicide bombing in Iraq reminds us once again that Syria/Iraq is not the only battlefield drawing British foreign fighters. There has always been a curious connection between the Somali and Levantine battlefields, with both conflicts proving able to project a global narrative that appealed to excitable young Britons. However, over time, Somalia’s attraction has shrunk while Syria and Iraq’s has grown: it is therefore an interesting question to try to understand this shift better to see if there are policy lessons that can be learned to counter Daesh’s current draw.

Al-Shabaab’s draw

Emerging from the ashes of the Islamic Courts Union (ICU) Al-Shabaab was an organization that had a strong link to the Al Qa’ida cell operating in East Africa (AQEA). Led by prominent jihadists Saleh Ali Nabhan Saleh and Fazul Mohammed, the AQEA cell was a key draw and conduit for Western fighters going to the Horn of Africa. Amongst those who went was Bilal el Berjawi, a Lebanese West Londoner who, alongside his close childhood friend Mohammed Sakr, ended up fighting alongside the group before both were killed in drone strikes. They were both were young men brought up in West London and excited by the narratives of global struggle and jihad that had most prominently taken root in East Africa in the mid-to-late 2000s. Al-Shabaab had managed to show itself as a key point in the global struggle championed by Al- Qa’ida and, as Afghanistan/Pakistan became harder to travel to, Somalia offered itself as an alternative location with a strong link to Al-Qa’ida core. At the same time, the popular radical preacher Anwar al Awlaki championed Al-Shabaab’s fight from his base in Yemen, amplifying its attraction to the young international warriors.

And for a brief while, Somalia was the big draw to excitable young men and women seeking the glories of jihad in foreign fields. The group would release videos with good production values venerating their dead or re-playing their battles using actors and graphics reminiscent of Hollywood productions. They were even active online (with some who still are now), with their warriors taking to Twitter to communicate with the world and spread ideas, videos and information. All of which is very reminiscent of what ISIS and the battlefield in Syria and Iraq are currently producing.

Shifting networks

It is therefore not that surprising that over time it was observable that the networks sending people to Somalia started to show up in the background stories of those going to fight in Syria. Repeated videos and narratives have emerged in which tales tell of people finding Somalia too difficult and instead turning to Syria. Mohammed Emwazi is the most prominent example of this, who first tried to go to East Africa, but instead ended up in Syria after getting turned back. Others include dead West Londoners like Mohammed el Araj or Choukri Ellekhfi, who came from the same networks that had produced Bilal el Berjawi and Mohammed Sakr. Up in North London, a group that included TPIM absconders Ibrahim Magag and Mohammed Ali Mohammed started off sending people to Somalia and Afghanistan, to more recently helping people go fight in Syria. On the continent of Europe, a network sending people from Belgium to Somalia also ended up re-directing fighters to Syria. In many ways, Thomas Evans’ death is a left over from this earlier time when Somalia was the main conflict and he seems to have simply been one of the few Brits still left fighting out there, as the fight in the Levant slowly became the biggest draw for those seeking jihadi battlefields.

Lessons Learned?

The key policy question here is why did Somalia start to lose its appeal? And are there lessons that can be learned from that experience that might help with Daesh and the appeal of Syria and Iraq? In this light, four aspects are worth considering.

First, sometime in 2011, Al-Shabaab started to undergo internal ructions. Different factions vied for control, leading to others getting killed off. There was widespread belief that Bilal el Berjawi’s death, for example, was the product of these internal tensions, and other prominent foreigners were believed to have been felled in similar ways. The result was to scare some foreign fighters off as they saw prominent contacts getting killed and Al Shabaab turning it on itself.

Second, the conflict in Somalia was always a difficult one to get to. Direct flights to Somalia are hard to get, and even getting to neighbouring countries does not make it easy to get to Shabaab’s camps. Over time, this became harder as regional security forces focused ever more on foreigners travelling to neighboring countries with the intention of trying to get into Somalia.

Third, over time, it became increasingly obvious that Al-Shabaab was losing territory and land. No longer able to project an image of success and ruling territory, the narrative around the conflict instead became of internal struggles, a group on the run and headlines about strikes taking out key leaders.

Fourth, the conflict in Syria took off in late 2011 and soon after that became the brightest light on the jihadi map. Over time, this slowly sucked all the air out of other fields and when taken in conjunction with the previous points, made Syria overall far more attractive than what was going on in Somalia.

The lessons learned are blunt. An unstable conflict in which groups are under substantial external pressure is one that is less attractive to the foreign warriors. Difficulty in getting to the field, a fractured leadership and a narrative of failure is important in reducing the groups’ appeal. Media output – which Al-Shabaab continues to produce with high production values, but no longer attracts attention – is not the key factor. This is important to consider in the sometimes excessive focus on online activity as the key aspect of Daesh that needs countering. In fact, more traditional responses of making life difficult for groups to operate is in fact key in stemming growth. Daesh needs to be seen to be losing and fracturing on the ground before it loses its appeal to the foreign warriors drawn to fight alongside it.

 

Alongside Qingzhen Chen, a former RUSI colleague, I have a piece in the latest edition of ECFR’s China Analysis journal. This looks at the geopolitical risks that Chinese scholars and experts have identified in the ambitious ‘one belt, one road’ strategy that they have been trumpeting around the world. The piece is freely accessible, but a bit too complicated to repost here, so please follow this link to it in its entirety. I have posted below the Chinese pieces that it draws upon as well as the first paragraph which lays out the questions it focuses on (after that it becomes very difficult because of all the footnotes!). China_analysis_belt_cover

The Geopolitical Roadblocks

by Raffaello Pantucci and Qingzhen Chen

Sources: Zhang Yunling, “Analysis says One Belt One Road Faces Five Challenges,” Xiaotang Caizhi, 23 March 2015.

Tang Yiru, “Where does the money come from for the One Belt One Road? Geopolitical risks cannot be ignored,” Guoji Jinrong Bao, 9 February 2015.

Hu Zhiyong, “How to understand the political risks of ‘One Belt One Road’”, Aisixiang, 2 March 2015.

Jia Qingguo, “A number of issues that the OBOR urgently needs to clarify and prove,” Aisixiang, 24 March 2015.

Ge Jianxiong, “The History of One Belt One Road is misunderstood,” Financial Times (Chinese version), 10 March 2015.

Pang Zhongying, “One of the resistances to the One Belt One Road is from India,” Aisixiang, 4 March 2015.

Chinese authorities – and authors selected here – describe China’s “One Belt, One Road” (一带一路, yidai yilu, hereafter OBOR) strategy as one of the most important foreign policy initiatives in the twenty-first century, and Chinese authors agree. Across the country (and, increasingly, across the world), Chinese universities and research institutions are conducting projects to explore how the vision might be implemented. Meanwhile, China’s leadership is offering economic incentives to help make the vision a reality, either through bilateral connections or through the new constellation of multilateral international financial institutions that China is developing.38 However, Chinese comments also reflect that the strategy will have to overcome many challenges. Is Chinese business ready to go global? Are the countries along the routes ready to embrace the initiative? How much does China know about the countries involved and about how they will be changed by Chinese investment? And is China properly prepared to implement this strategy?