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.

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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

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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.

A piece for a new outlet, War on the Rocks, an online magazine established by some friends formerly of the London War Studies community now in Washington. Good resource with a great roster of writers. The piece offers some thoughts on Mehdi Nemmouche and his alleged attack in Belgium within the context of lone actor terrorism trends and the bigger problem of foreign fighters going to Syria and coming home a problem. Beyond this, I did an interview with Swedish TV about foreign fighters around some interesting cases they have going on, as well as talking to Channel 4 and NBC about the current chaos engulfing Iraq. Per War on the Rocks request, I have only posted the first paragraph here, and the rest can be found after the hyperlinks free of charge.

Mehdi Nemmouche and Syria: Europe’s Foreign Fighter Problem

The capture of Mehdi Nemmouche in France alongside his apparent videoed confession claiming responsibility for a shooting last month at a Jewish museum in Brussels offers the first example of deaths in Europe linked to the battlefield in Syria. EU Counterterrorism coordinator Gilles de Kerchove has spoken of his expectation of more such small-scale attacks, while European security services grow increasingly concerned about the potential scale of the blowback they might expect from Syria. The key problem that has yet to be grappled with is the necessary community messaging that will persuade people of the negative consequences of joining the fight in Syria.

A slight sideways step for me, though if you read it you will see there is some links to other stuff I have done, this is a paper commissioned by the Europe-China Research and Advice Network (ECRAN), an EU vehicle that funds research on China for European policymakers. I have written other papers for them in the past. This one was written late last year and focuses on China’s relations with the Middle East in the wake of the ‘Arab Spring’ and looks in particular at the cases of Libya, Syria, Egypt and Iran. The full paper can be found behind this link. I have pasted the introduction below.

Beyond this, I spoke to the Financial Times about jihadists in Syria and potential blowback in Europe, and to Bloomberg about Boko Haram.

Short Term Policy Brief 79

China and the Middle East

November 2013

Author: Raffaello Pantucci

Introduction

What are China’s key strategic interests in the Middle East and what is the status of its relations with key countries in the region?

During his opening speech at the first China-Arab Expo (an event that had been upgraded from the previous Ningxia International Investment and Trade Fair and the China-Arab States Economic and Trade Forum), Yu Zhengsheng, Standing Committee of the Politburo member and fourth most powerful man in China, highlighted trade and energy as the two main pillars of Chinese-Arab cooperation.Delivered in September 2013, this speech crystallized a policy which has been abundantly clear for some time with China and the Middle East, where the policy priority and focusis on securing energy and developing trade partnerships, while remaining as detached as possible from the intransigent regional politics.

As prominent Qinghua academic in international affairs Yan Xuetong has put it, ‘China can strengthen cooperation economically with countries in the Middle East, but politically, it had better stick with declaring its stand…the complexity of the Middle East politics is far beyond our comprehension.’ With ample domestic turmoil and local difficulties to manage, Chinese
leaders have little appetite to be dragged into a region that has challenged western policymakers’ capabilities for decades.

Nevertheless, events in the wake of the Arab Spring have challenged China in a number of different ways, forcing it to re-evaluate long-held positions and think more deeply about the implications of its growing international footprint. Questions around citizen security were highlighted in the wake of the rushed evacuation of some 35,860 nationals as Libya collapsed, while the decision to abstain from the vote to impose a no-fly zone meant that resolution 1973 was passed. This led to questions about this possibly being a signal that Beijing might be adapting its position on Responsibility to Protect– something it had previously treated as anathema to its sacred ‘non-interference’ principle in international affairs. Particularly raised during the Libya crisis, both issues have hung heavy both over China’s considerations of other aspects of the fall-out from the Arab Spring in the broader Middle East. It remains, however, unclear that they have signalled a dramatic shift, rather than a course adjustment that means such issues are now a higher priority for Beijing policymakers.

Adjacent to these considerations are other larger questions about China’s geopolitical position. For example, the hawkish line often advanced that the current conflict in Syria is part of a larger trajectory of regime change that flows from Damascus, through Tehran to Moscow and Beijing is one that resonates amongst a certain (predominantly nationalist and military) community. This perspective is one that is echoed in Moscow, and is often touted as a reason why the two vote in lock-step with regards to the events of the Arab Spring, Syria and Iran. Chinese foreign policy thinkers who adhere to this perspective often see the world through a binary US versus China lens. For them, the Middle East is an ideological battleground where the US is seeking to upturn the table in favor of a new chaotic order that it controls, and one that will ultimately undermine Chinese national interests. Found amongst academics at prominent think tanks like CASS, it is unclear the degree to which such perspectives dominate senior levels of Chinese foreign policy thinking.

At the same time, China continues to be concerned about the spread of jihadist ideas (with little clear understanding of what motivates them or nurtures their growth) and the possibility that these might filter back into the Xinjiang autonomous region of northwest China still dominated by the Muslim Uighur ethnic group. There have been reports that Chinese nationals – both Uighur and non-Uighur – have participated in the fighting in Syria, and China has grown concerned by the growing appearance of jihadist videos and materials during investigations into violence in Xinjiang from the unrest there in July 2009 until today. China has also increasingly featured as a potential target in a growing array of jihadist material. Most recently, al Shabaab’s al Kataib media published a video in which they discussed the Uighur’s plight, while in May 2013 (though likely produced substantially before his reported death in December 2012) al Qaeda ideologue Abu Zaid al-Kuwaiti released a video through the Turkestan Islamic Party’s media wing, Islam Awazi, in which he provided ‘advice for the Muslims of East Turkestan.’ For China, the potential danger of becoming too involved in Middle Eastern politics is that the eyes of violent Islamists who have thus far focused on the west, might eventually turn to China and portray it as a target– a situation Beijing has thus far managed to avoid thanks to careful diplomacy and the fact that Islamists remain focused on the west as the principle ‘far enemy’. However, Beijing’s concerns remain heightened in the wake of a number of incidents. For example, the suicide attack in Tiananmen Square Beijing in early November 2013 was linked to a Uighur Muslim protester, and was subsequently praised, but not claimed, in a video by TIP. That particular incident came in the wake of110 detentions in Xinjiang of people accused of ‘disseminating religious extremism and material. Highlighting the ongoing violence in the province, in December there was another incident at a police station in Bachu County outside Kashgar that led to 11 deaths (the same county saw 21 killed in another incident in April 2013). All of these examples help underline how nervous the central leadership in Beijing are about this issue.

But these worrying local concerns remain secondary to more large-scale energy concerns, something that reflects a long-standing pragmatism in Chinese foreign policy towards the Middle East. Back in 1994, leader Jiang Zemin highlighted that China should oppose ‘hegemony’ by helping dissident states in the Middle East like Iran, but at the same time should ensure that international stability remains sound in order to facilitate China’s ongoing growth and development. This approach is one that resonates today, where, for example, China is clearly supportive of Moscow’s approach towards Syria and Iran through
measures in the UNSC, but at the same time takes a secondary seat to Russia’s willingness to take a more prominent position in making its point.

For example, in the wake of the use of chemical weapons in Ghouta, east Damascus, Syria on August 21, 2013, the Russian government took the lead in countering the western push to define this as the red line that justified intervention against the Assad regime and instead worked to develop a way for Syria to give up its chemical weapons. Russia’s public interventions culminated in an opinion editorial in the New York Times on September 11, 2013 by President Vladimir Putin. In contrast, throughout this period China made regular statements through the Foreign Ministry, but avoided much further publicity. At the regular MFA briefings, Hong Lei offered support for the Russian efforts: ‘the Russian proposal offers an important opportunity to ease the current tension and properly address the international community’s concerns about Syria’s chemical weapons.’ They later offered Chinese experts to participate in the disarmament assurance group, but otherwise remained relatively low profile. China is publicly supportive of Russia’s positions on Syria, but is not as eager to attract the sort of confrontation that Russia seems to prefer. This Quietist approach to foreign policy is something that can be found across China’s foreign policy agenda.Ultimately, China does not seek to upset the international order that is allowing it to slowly grow into the world’s largest power.

This brief paper touches upon Syria, Egypt, Libya and Iran. This is not a comprehensive overview of China’s relations in the region, but highlights the priority ones as requested by ECRAN. Amongst the important relationships omitted, China continues to be willing to cultivate close relationships with both Israeli and Palestinian authorities, but beyond proposing general suggestions about peace processes, has not engaged in the minutiae of the conversation (nor is it likely to want to). On Iraq, China has profited quite effectively from the toppling of the old regime to get its firms in to develop Iraqi fields (something it has been able to do in part thanks to western firms’ concerns about going in to the country), while Saudi Arabia remains one of China’s biggest energy partners, notwithstanding the mute background of Saudi-style wahhabbist ideology slowly filtering in through Gulf money into Xinjiang. Thus far, Chinese officials have not chosen to acknowledge this linkage too publicly, although some academics discuss the growing spread of such ideas and suggest Saudi Arabia as one of the possible origins. None of these relationships currently seem in any sort of dramatic shift and therefore are placed to one side.