Going to catch up on a batch of belated posting today, starting with a piece for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute’s (ASPI) annual counter-terrorism yearbook looking in particular at what China has been up to in 2016.

China’s Terrorism Threat and Response in 2016

Raffaello Pantucci

Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute

In August 2016, China experienced what appears to have been the first targeted terrorist attack against one of its embassies.1 A Uygur suicide bomber drove a car into China’s diplomatic compound in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, exploding it outside the ambassador’s residence; the attacker was the only fatality, but three Kyrgyz employees were injured. While Kyrgyz authorities were quick to link the attack to a Syrian-based network—although publicly available evidence to date has been limited—for Beijing the attack was the manifestation of an increased threat from Uygur groups, which had now spread beyond China to threaten Chinese interests abroad. Clear and substantial connections between Uygur groups and international terrorist networks were also confirmed in 2016.

During the year, China increased its external security presence to mitigate these threats, while attempting to balance this against its longstanding practice of non-interference. At home, it has continued a hardline approach to managing the Uygur issue in Xinjiang, and 2016 marked a new level of regional control in the region, including an almost complete halt to media reporting of security-related incidents.

China’s terrorist threat comes primarily from the divisions in China’s westernmost region of Xinjiang, where a Uygur minority resents rule from Beijing.2 That resentment has expressed itself through social tensions, an exodus of Uygurs from the country and violence against the state. Beijing has taken a two-pronged approach to dealing with the problem. In the rst instance, it has invested heavily in the region economically (including the‘Silk Road Economic Belt’, which has opened Xinjiang to regional trading markets), but at the same time launching regular ‘strike hard’ campaigns deploying heavy security measures to control the region and enacting new regional and national CT legislation.

Beijing’s focus on terrorism is primarily concerned with Chinese Uygurs, something that has attracted some international and human rights concern as potentially unfairly dealing with its own minority citizens.3 The national CT legislation has similarly attracted criticism for not balancing strong CT measures with transparent and fair judicial process, as well as for a broad de nition of terrorism that may be at odds with international law standards for free speech, freedom of religion and peaceful protest.

Reported terrorist incidents within China decreased in 2016, and then-regional Communist Party chief Zhang Chunxian stated in March that ‘violent terrorist incidents have dropped signi cantly.’4 Indeed, only one incident was reported: an attack on 29 December in Moyu (or Karakax) County in southern Xinjiang, where a group drove explosive-laden cars into a local Communist Party office. Reporting on casualties was mixed, although o cial sources reported that three attackers, one security official and one bystander were killed.5 The explosives, while rudimentary, appeared to demonstrate an increased level of sophistication for attacks in the region.

While this incident capped an otherwise quiet year, non-state sources suggest that more was going on but not being publicly reported. The day after the incident in Moyu/Karakax County, a report published by the Hong Kong-based advocacy group, the Information Center for Human Rights and Democracy, claimed that more than 1,000 violent incidents in Xinjiang in the past year weren’t reported in the press.6 The precipitous drop in reported incidents is indeed surprising, given previous levels of violence, which had been variously estimated at between a few hundred and 2,000 fatalities per year since 2013, but is difficult to evaluate due to the difficulties of undertaking independent research in the region.7

The reported decrease in incidents may be a product of a more aggressive government security posture in the region. In August, the regional government passed CT legislation supplementing national legislation passed earlier in the year. The local legislation was seen as far more wide-ranging than the national laws, focusing in particular on recruitment and radicalisation, the dissemination of extremist material (the definition of which was also expanded) and the deradicalisation of prisoners.8 Soon after its passage, a large CT exercise was undertaken in southern Xinjiang—the part of the region that remains majority Uygur—involving around 3,000 personnel and testing 21 new types of ‘high-tech equipment, including drones, assault rotorcraft and all-terrain assault vehicles’.9

The security approach was further sharpened during the year through changes to the regional party leadership. Leader Zhang Chunxian was moved to the post of Deputy Leader of the Leading Group for Party Building and replaced by Chen Quanguo, the former party chief in Tibet. Upon arriving in the region, Chen immediately introduced hardline policies re ecting those used in Tibet, including establishing a region-wide network of ‘convenience’ police stations, providing increased state presence and surveillance. Recruiting drives for security officers were launched in Xinjiang and neighbouring regions to increase the number available for deployment.10 The importance Chen attaches to shows of strength was demonstrated in the wake of the Moyu/Karakax County attack, when he hosted a large public oath-taking ceremony and CT exercise in Urumqi.11 Nevertheless, this heavy approach to security appears to be unable to completely address the region’s problems, and the attack at the end of the year showed that local anger can still erupt into violence that gets to public attention despite the government crackdown.

Outside China, Beijing has also faced an increasingly worrying threat picture. The August attack in Bishkek followed a growing number of worrying indicators that Uygur militant groups outside the country were gaining strength.

The Syria and Iraq battlefields have also provided opportunities for anti-Chinese groups to link with Islamist terrorist groups. The Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) is the main Uygur terrorist group.

TIP’s close link with al-Qaeda was confirmed earlier in the year through a series of videos released by the two groups. In May, the leader of TIP, Abdul Haq, who had previously been believed killed, re-emerged and released an audio message in which he attacked ISIS, praised al-Qaeda, and highlighted TIP’s proximity to the latter.12 In July, al-Qaeda’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, released a video as part of a bigger series called ‘Islamic Spring’ in which he specifically praised the Uygur contribution to the jihad in Afghanistan and beyond and elevated leaders from the group into the pantheon of senior jihadi leaders.13 Both videos carried threats for China, but in many ways the most worrying aspect for Beijing was the clearly warm and public embrace shared by the two groups.

Al-Qaeda has historically had close links with Uygur militants (Abdul Haq was identified as a member of al-Qaeda’s shura, or leadership council, as early as 2005 14) but has shown little interest in dedicating resources to the Uygur cause. The videos suggested the possibility of a change.

In Syria, TIP ghts mainly alongside Jabhat al-Nusrah / Jabhat Fateh al-Sham groups and regularly publishes videos showing large numbers of well-armed ghters engaged in combat across Syria, as well as releasing messages condemning Islamic State (IS) activity. While the main body of TIP fighters is engaged in ghting in Syria, Beijing considers that Abdul Haq is hiding in northern Afghanistan. The South Asian wing of the group appears to have moved into Afghanistan in response to the Pakistani Government’s Zarb-e-Azb push that ejected them from their previous base in Pakistan’s badlands.

Evidence from the Middle East shows that a substantial number of Uygurs have joined IS. Leaked IS documents indicate between 118 and 167 IS ghters are identifiably Chinese or Uygur. Additionally, Uygurs appear to have been picked up by Turkish authorities as part of the investigation into the New Year’s Eve attack in Istanbul. Yet while IS has added China to its list of enemies, it hasn’t dedicated many resources to attacking it.

The patterns of TIP and other militant Uygur activity in Afghanistan and Syria go some way to explaining increased Chinese security activity in both countries. On 14 August, People’s Liberation Army Navy Rear Admiral Guan Youfei met Russian and Syrian security o cials in Damascus, where he pledged China’s training support to Syrian medical staff.15 In Afghanistan, building on a long history of engagement, China sought to establish a new regional security subgrouping, bringing together the army chiefs of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and China to discuss border security and regional terrorist groups. Tajikistan has additionally publicly confirmed that China is helping to construct border posts between Tajikistan and Afghanistan.16

Beyond warzones, Uygur militants have demonstrated increased contact with Southeast Asian terrorist groups. In August 2016, Indonesian authorities shot and killed a Uygur linked to the East Indonesia Mujahidin, one of the main terrorist groups in Indonesia, led by Santoso.17 This was the tenth Uygur killed alongside the group. The Uygur group was allegedly seeking training with the East Indonesia Mujahidin before returning to China. In November, Nur Muhammet Abdullah al Faris was jailed in Indonesia for his involvement with a network planning a series of terrorist attacks in the region. The network was also reportedly involved in people smuggling to help Uygurs flee China and in some cases receive terrorist training. Some reports indicate that the group received money from TIP (or, as it was identified in the reports, the East Turkestan Islamic Movement), which it was using to advance its own goals as well as to support terrorist training for Uygurs.18

These developments indicate increasingly deep and substantial connections between militant Uygur groups and international terrorist networks. This menacing picture for China underscores the increased need for China to act against the networks externally. The 2016 national CT law recognised this, providing a broader mandate for Chinese security forces to act outside national territory to disrupt terrorist networks. And, as discussed above, China is also increasing the substance and visibility of its security forces beyond its national territory.

The question that remains, however, is the extent to which China’s actions may be exacerbating the very threat that it seeks to mitigate. China’s Uygurs see themselves as a persecuted minority that’s subject to restrictive legislation not imposed on any other groups in China, including other Muslim minorities.19 While there’s been substantial economic investment into Xinjiang, it’s unclear whether the benefits are filtering down to the Uygur community or remaining primarily with the politically and economically dominant Han community. And the lack of information coming out of the region means that it’s impossible to independently evaluate whether the ‘strike hard’ campaign has delivered results.

Certainly, the move of Zhang Chunxian from Xinjiang to Beijing and his replacement by former Tibet party leader Chen Quanguo suggests that the central leadership had mixed feelings about Zhang’s tenure in the region, although it’s hard to discern whether his move was related to failed policies in Xinjiang or his factional connections. Within Xinjiang, it appears that a hard line is taken against officials for failure in areas where attacks occur. A recent report indicated that the party chief in Moyu/Karakax County and the party secretary of Hotan Prefecture (where Moyu/Karakax is located) were both under investigation by the Discipline Inspection Committee for corruption and dereliction of duty, seemingly linking these investigations to the security failures associated with the 29 December incident.20

China’s terrorist problem continues to grow. Last year marked a new point with the attack on the Bishkek Embassy, and the broader threat indicators are not positive. As China continues to advance its ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, its nationals and companies are increasingly going to dangerous countries and potentially finding themselves in the cross-hairs of terrorist groups.21 Also, whereas previously China was able to shield itself from attack somewhat because terrorist groups saw the US and the broader West as their targets, this will change as Uygurs rise up the ranks of international terrorist networks and China assumes a more prominent role in international affairs.

Another side to China’s growing outward push reflects the country’s increasing desire to assert itself internationally and become a more normalised security actor in international affairs. While this is reflected in continuing assertiveness in China’s maritime relationships, on land it’s often seen through the lens of CT, on which China finds a more accommodating international consensus. For Beijing, CT offers a more acceptable way to test the limits of its ability to assert its security interests abroad. But the complicated domestic nature of China’s Uygur issue has led to some calls of concern from members of the international community. At the same time, however, Beijing finds an increasingly worrying international terrorism threat picture connected with its domestic concerns, requiring a more assertive posture. In future, it’s likely that these trends mean that Beijing will continue to crack down at home while expanding its efforts abroad.

Notes

  1. Chinese compounds have previously been struck by terrorist or insurgent networks, but the strikes have typically been incidental to being in a warzone and not speci cally targeted, or have been small-scale individual attacks, as seen in Bishkek in 2009.
  2. China has also faced a number of other incidents that have a terroristic aspect to them, including mass stabbings, occasional bombings and shootings, although for the most part those incidents have tended to be linked to individuals’ complaints against the state.
  3. See, for example, Javier C Hernandez, ‘China says 5 killed in attack on Communist Party o ce in Xinjiang’, New York Times, 29 December 2016, online.
  4. ‘“Violent terrorism” in China’s Xinjiang has dropped: party official’, Reuters, 8 March 2016.
  5. Cui Jia, ‘Terrorists strike, but progress made,’ China Daily, 30 December 2016.
  6. Kenji Kawase, ‘More than 1,000 violent clashes in restive Xinjiang this year’, Nikkei Asian Review, 30 December 2016.
  7. See, for example, reporting in Richard Finney: ‘As many as 700 died in Xinjiang violence in last two years, rights group says,’ Radio Free Asia, 3 March 2015, online and ‘“At least 2,000 Uyghurs killed” in Yarkand violence: exile leader’, Radio Free Asia, 5 August 2014.
  8. Chong Koh Ping, ‘Xinjiang gets tough on terrorism’, Straits Times, 5 August 2016; ‘Xinjiang issues China’s rst local counterterrorism law’, Xinhua, 5 August 2016.
  9. ‘China’s armed police hold anti-terror exercise in Xinjiang’, Xinhua, 15 August 2016.
  10. James Leibold, Adrian Zenz, ‘Beijing’s eyes and ears grow sharper in Xinjiang’, Foreign A airs, 23 December 2016.
  11. Eva Li, ‘Show of force in Xinjiang sends hardline message’, South China Morning Post, 3 January 2017.
  12. Thomas Joscelyn, Bill Roggio, ‘Turkistan Islamic Party leader criticizes the Islamic State’s “illegitimate” caliphate’, Long War Journal, 11 June 2016.
  13. Thomas Joscelyn, ‘Zawahiri praises Uighur jihadists in ninth episode of “Islamic Spring” series’, Long War Journal, 7 July 2016.
  14. UN Security Council Subsidiary Organs,‘QDi.268 Abdul Haq, reasons for listing’, UN Security Council Committee Pursuant to Resolutions 1267 (1999) 1989 (2011) and 2253 (2015) Concerning ISIL (Da’esh) Al-Qaida and Associated Individuals Groups Undertakings and Entities, summary published 13 August 2009, online.
  15. Christopher Bodeen, ‘Chinese admiral visits Syria in show of support’, Associated Press, 18 August 2016.
  16. ‘China to build outposts for Tajik guards on Tajikistan–Afghanistan border,’ Reuters, 26 September 2016.
  17. Ruslan Sangadji, ‘Last Uighur of MIT shot dead’, Jakarta Post, 18 August 2016.
  18. Nivell Rayda, ‘Uighur terrorists sent funds to Indonesia,’ The Australian, 6 September 2016.
  19. Alice Su, ‘China doesn’t mind Islamic extremists’, Foreign Policy, 16 December 2016.
  20. Jun Mai, ‘China probes senior Xinjiang party o cials days after deadly bomb attack’, South China Morning Post, 5 January 2017.
  21. The Belt and Road Initiative, also called ‘One Belt, One Road’, is China’s broad-ranging economic development and trade initiative, aiming to increase prosperity through developing land and maritime trading links. A feature of the initiative relevant to terrorism and CT is infrastructure development across areas in China and neighbouring Central Asia.

A short commentary piece for Reuters on what China is doing in Afghanistan. Been doing a lot of work on related topics which will eventually land. Also spoke to the Guardian about the deaths of a pair of British medical students who were killed alongside ISIS in Iraq, to AFP about a new ISIS video featuring a group of Uighurs in Iraq, to Sky News about a British ISIS suicide bomber in Iraq, and finally an interview on the radio for TalkRadio about his death.

Commentary: China’s expanding security role in Afghanistan

By Raffaello Pantucci

Stories have emerged once again of China’s military presence in Afghanistan. These reports come after China thwarted India’s attempt to get Jaish-e-Mohammed leader Masood Azhar added to the U.N. list of proscribed terrorist individuals, and China appeared to christen a new regional grouping after a meeting in Moscow with Pakistan and Russian officials to discuss the future of Afghanistan.

Seen from New Delhi, the picture could be interpreted as one of growing Chinese alignment towards Pakistan. In reality, these shifts mark the growth of China as a regional security actor whose views are not entirely dissimilar to India’s.

The main characterization of Beijing’s efforts in Afghanistan remains hedging. China continues to engage through multiple regional and international formats. Either through international multilateral vehicles like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), the ‘Heart of Asia’ or ‘Istanbul Process’, the Conference on Interaction and Confidence-Building Measures in Asia (CICA); or through sub-regional groupings like hosting Pakistan-Afghanistan-China trilateral, bilateral engagements with India, Russia, the UK, Germany, the U.S. or Pakistan focused on Afghanistan (some including specific projects – like the American joint training programmes); or finally through Chinese instigated mechanisms focused on Afghanistan like the Quadrilateral Coordination Group (QCG made up of Afghanistan, Pakistan, U.S. and China) or the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM, made up of Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tajikistan and China).

Of this wide range of engagements, the final one is the most significant to note recently as it can be interpreted as a rejection of the SCO, a regional organization which was constructed to deal with regional security concerns around Afghanistan, but appears to have not delivered enough.

As a result in the wake of Military Chief of Staff Fang Fenghui’s visit to Kabul in March 2016, Beijing established a new regional sub-grouping to focus attention on Afghanistan’s security problems. It has met once at a senior level, and at least once at a more junior level since its establishment — reflecting a fairly high intensity engagement that until now has been held publicly in China.

This new regional sub-grouping is a reflection of a number of things. On the one hand, it is about China’s military becoming more engaged in a country that until now they have largely played a secondary role to a Ministry of Foreign Affairs lead. It is also a reflection of a growing concern in Beijing about the shift of Uighur militants to Badakhshan in northern Afghanistan from their previous Pakistani hideaways. This in turn helps explain China’s presence on the ground in Afghanistan as well as their desire to bolster Tajikistan’s capacity to defend its own border with Afghanistan.

The other side to China’s regional engagement is its economic investment — something that comes under the auspices of the Silk Road Economic Belt (through Central Asia and across Eurasia ultimately to Europe) and down the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Afghanistan has always sat awkwardly in between, but recently there has been a particular effort by Beijing to tie Afghanistan into the vision.

In Nov. 2016, Assistant Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou visited Kabul warmly welcoming Afghanistan into the vision and specifically suggested that Afghanistan consider train lines between Quetta and Kabul, and Peshawar and Kabul. It is not clear how these will happen, though soon afterwards the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC) won a $205m contract, issued by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) to build a 178 km road connecting northern Mazar-i-Sharif city to Yakawlang.

For Beijing, a stable and secure Afghanistan is both key to domestic security as well as its growing investments in Pakistan. And it is not always clear that Beijing finds operating in Pakistan easy. There have been stories of lawsuits, a local population who feel they are not being included in the process as well as human casualties as CPEC tries to bring development to Pakistan’s more isolated regions. China is discovering building CPEC is not a smooth ride.

But Beijing still prizes its relationship with Pakistan, aware that an unstable and paranoid Islamabad is worse than what they have at the moment. Consequently, Beijing will continue to support Pakistan vociferously and publicly – including in defending it from being publicly named and shamed as a ‘state sponsor’ of terrorism in the U.N.

Among the most persuasive reasons for China’s refusal to support the listing of Masood Azhar was the view that Beijing saw him as merely another in a long list of individuals that India sought listing. Given the lack of much impact around the listing of Lashkar-e-Taiba leader Hafiz Saeed, listing Azhar seemed a pointless enterprise for Beijing that would do little except make Islamabad feel cornered.

The lesson here is an important one for India to note. Beijing is not doing this as part of an anti-Indian alignment. It is rather out of national interest which seen from Beijing is about managing Pakistan and stabilizing it. This is a reflection of what China is already trying at home where the maxim that prosperity equals stability is a central driving concept, and is the ideological cornerstone of CPEC.

China is acting as a growing regional power with security interests it wants to deal with itself rather than abrogating such responsibility to others. It has tried repeated multilateral formats, peace talks, and now it is recognizing the need for greater security engagement.

New Delhi should seize this moment to enhance its engagement with Beijing on Afghanistan, using its long history of experience and contacts to find a way to help Afghanistan stabilize alongside China. Both countries are already major economic players in Afghanistan, and India has already contributed substantially in military terms.

About the Author

Raffaello Pantucci is Director, International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute in London. He is currently working on a number of projects looking at Chinese influence and interests in South and Central Asia.

Slightly belated posting of a piece for the South China Morning Post looking at how Eurasia may lose out from a US-China falling out. Been very busy with a variety of projects which will produce some interesting outputs in the near-term future. The image is not the one used in the article, but one I found on ChinaMil about the same US-China HADR engagement, as I could not seem to download the one from the SCMP.

Why Eurasia will suffer if Donald Trump makes an enemy of China

Raffaello Pantucci says the US president’s hostile stance not only puts at risk overall ties with Beijing, but could also deprive Eurasia of the cooperation it needs to advance, and a counterweight to China’s potentially overbearing sway

chinaus-hadr

There is a dichotomy at the heart of US-China relations that is best captured by the term “frenemies”. The relationship is both contentious and competitive, while also intertwined and interdependent. The economic side of this discussion is well-worn, but the security one is often overlooked, with a simplistic view concluding that interactions are constructed on an interdependent economic relationship and a tense security one.

This misses recent developments that may exacerbate the potential for a tense bilateral relationship under US President Donald Trump.

There is no denying the tense security relationship between Washington and Beijing in the Pacific and the seas off mainland China. A complicated weave of treaties and relationships gives the US a strong security footprint in an area which China claims as its own.

Yet, look over land and a very different perspective emerges. In Afghanistan, China and the US have cooperated for years in trying to bring the Taliban to peace talks, and undertaken joint training missions to build up Afghanistan’s own security capacity. In Central Asia, the two have discussed how to cooperate, though so far there is limited evidence of progress.

In Pakistan, China has played a positive role – with US support – in ensuring the relationship between Pakistan and India does not boil over into conflict. And the US has occasionally eliminated militant Uygurs of concern to Beijing in drone strikes in Afghanistan or Syria – in a reflection of how much China and the US face a joint threat of terrorism.

And there have been some direct joint operations and cooperative efforts. In November, US and Chinese forces practised a humanitarian disaster relief exercise in Yunnan. The concept was that, in the event of a natural disaster, American and Chinese forces might be able to play a role in mitigating the fallout together.

All of these positive moves may now be under threat as both sides ratchet up tensions in the wake of Trump’s aggressive arrival in office. If the US president lives up to his promises of demanding a shift in the Sino-US economic relationship and a more confrontational approach over Taiwan aimed at further advancing this, it is perfectly possible that we may see China choosing to act in a more transactional manner over its links to the US in Eurasia.

If the relationship becomes too poisoned over the seas, Beijing may choose to refuse to play a productive role over land. China is still trying to work out what role it will play in Eurasia, and how it will enforce its will.

If it sees the US in a more competitive light, it is possible Beijing will start to conclude that it no longer wants to play a cooperative role with Washington. Rather, it will look to others, and start to strengthen its relations in a way to cut the US out of the region.

The potential loser in all of this is Eurasia – a region that needs greater cooperation from all sides if it is to realise the potential of the various proposed Silk Road and connectivity routes across the continent. The long-fallow US “New Silk Road” initiative to help Afghanistan reconnect to its region will dissolve further into irrelevance and American interests in Eurasia will be further reduced.

Currently, the region is dominated by Beijing’s economic push, but it requires greater investment and cooperation from a wider range of actors if it is to truly succeed. This includes both China and the US, which have different and important roles to play, and are both sought after by countries across the continent. If the two powers start to develop a more confrontational approach, it will limit connectivity but also deprive Eurasian powers of a key alternative to China’s potentially overbearing power across the continent.

The US and China have developed habits of close cooperation across Eurasia that have helped open up new markets and opportunities, and reconnect the world as never before. It has also shown how the US and China are able to play a productive and cooperative role together. If Trump forces a more confrontational and transactional relationship, it is likely that China will continue on its path across Eurasia alone or with other partners – a net loss for American power across the region.

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

A new brief piece for the Telegraph looking at the new President’s options for countering terrorism.

Donald Trump doesn’t have a perfect answer to terrorism any more than Obama did

Slightly belated piece for the New Statesman to kick the year off looking at ISIS, tries to sketch out what is likely to happen with the group this year. Separately spoke to the Neue Zircher Zeitung about the threat that Germany faced in the context of the broader European threat.

What Islamic State will do in 2017

In retreat across Syria and Iraq, will the newer terror group emulate the strategy honed by al-Qaeda?

ns-isis-2017

Any predictions of Islamic State’s demise are premature. During the surge towards Mosul at the end of last year, commentators repeatedly suggested this marked the beginning of the end for the extremist group. Yet, it still has the ability to launch attacks against its enemies both within Iraq and Syria, but also further afield. These trends are likely to continue, although security forces are increasingly learning how to mitigate the threat the group poses. The risk, however, is that the threat will continue to mutate.

The prospect of IS finding a way to regroup on the ground in Syria and Iraq can’t be ruled out. While Iraqi forces are pursuing a systematic approach to retaking Mosul, it is possible the group will melt into the countryside and wait for attention to shift before surging back. How the Iraqi forces take back the city and whether they provide those in Sunni areas with reassurance over their political future will determine whether IS is able to find a supportive base from which it can rebuild. In Syria, while confusion continues to reign, it will continue to find a way to embed somewhere.

But there is no doubt that the group has lost some of its lustre and power. While there are still some individuals choosing to go and fight alongside the group, the numbers have fallen dramatically. A report in September last year from US intelligence indicated that from a peak of 2,000 a month, only about 50 individuals were assessed as crossing the border each month to go and fight alongside a range of groups including IS in Syria and Iraq.

In fact, the biggest concern is the flow of people back. Foreign fighters disenfranchised by losses on the ground or tired after years of conflict are heading home. Some are no doubt eager to seek a conflict-free life, but others are being sent back to build networks or launch attacks. German authorities believe they disrupted at least two such cells in June and September of last year, linking them to the Paris bombers and unclear whether they were sent back to launch attacks or prepare ground for others. Similarly, Italian intelligence has raised concerns about the return of Balkan jihadists as a threat to Europe, pointing to the believed return to the region of Kosovan IS leader Lavdrim Muhaxheri with somewhere between 300-400 ISIS fighters. They have already been linked to one specific plot against a football game, and suspected of potentially again laying ground for others.

These individuals will join the continuing ranks of “lone wolf” or “failed traveller” attackers that we have seen in Europe and around the world in the past year. In Anis Amri’s attack in Berlin, or the murder of the priest in Rouen, we see individuals who apparently aspired to travel to Syria, failed to do so, and instead perpetrated attacks in Europe. We also see individuals latching on to the group’s violent ideology to launch attacks. This includes Omar Mateen, who butchered 50 in a shooting at an Orlando nightclub which he claimed to be doing on behalf of the group – although no clear link was uncovered. Given the basic methods used and the broad range of targets, it is highly likely that more of these loners (either instigated or self-starting) will emerge to wreak havoc in the coming year.

Finally, it is important to not forget IS affiliates around the world like Boko Haram in Nigeria, IS in Khorasan (Afghanistan), Sinai, Libya, or Abu Sayyaf in the Philippines. There has always been some element of scepticism around the legitimacy of the links these groups have to the core operation, with speculation that some of their pledges of allegiance are more an expression of anger at al Qaeda or some other local group. Yet there is usually some evidence to support the association – most prominently with IS core in the Levant acknowledging them in their material. As we see the group’s core shrink in strength, these regional affiliates could rise up to take greater prominence or to take on a greater leadership mantle.

It is also possible that the core group in Syria/Iraq will use these affiliates to launch attacks or re-establish themselves. We have already seen how individuals linked to the Paris attacks were reportedly killed in Libya, and there is growing evidence that IS in Khorasan, the Afghan affiliate, has seen some back and forth of fighters. In future, it is possible that we may see these groups rise up in a more pronounced way. More acute problems might start to emerge from Libya, Afghanistan and Sinai where substantial affiliates appear to operate, or Nigeria, Pakistan or Southeast Asia where there is a more confusing aspect to the ISIS affiliates. There, the degree of strong connection with the core organisation is unclear, with it sometimes seeming that the adoption of the IS banner is rather an expression of local divisions between militant groups. If the pressure on the group in the Levant intensifies over the next year, these groups might look like tempting ways of distracting western security agencies through attacks that cause governments to re-allocate resources away from the Levant and thereby take some pressure off the group’s leadership in Syria and Iraq.

This would emulate al-Qaeda’s strategy. There have been moments historically when the core organisation pushed its affiliates to launch attacks to try to take pressure off the core group. This happened between al-Qaeda core in Pakistan and its Yemeni affiliate between 2003-2009. Similarly, al-Qaeda has realised that sometimes not declaring loud Caliphates and committing public atrocities such as televised beheadings, but instead committing targeted acts of terror and endearing itself to local populations to build support from the ground up, is a more productive way forwards.

How the outside world will react is a further unknown element. Donald Trump has stated he will eliminate the group, but he has not outlined a strategy for how he will achieve this. There is little evidence that the US could do much more than deploy greater force on the ground (whose ultimate goal and success would be unclear). The announced Saudi alliance to counter the group has not so far done a huge amount, and European powers remain secondary players. It is unclear that any country is preparing a Russian-style push with the potential human and political risks attached, meaning we are unlikely to see a dramatic change.

For IS, the conflict they are fighting is a millennial one for God’s greater glory and temporal timelines like our calendar are largely irrelevant. Dramatic events like the loss of cities or leadership figures may change its dynamic, and in some cases significantly degrade its capacity, but are unlikely to eradicate the group. Rather, it will continue to evolve and grow regionally primarily, but also internationally, with attacks against western targets a continuing interest.

Once the war in Syria settles down, and Iraq becomes unified, discussions may be possible about how to eradicate the group, but this is unlikely to take place in the next 12 months given the continuing fighting on the ground in the face of a ceasefire which in any case includes neither IS or al-Qaeda affiliates, meaning another year of the world remaining in state of high alert is likely. Were peace to break out, IS would find itself in a complicated situation, but this would require a very substantial change of situation on the ground in Syria and Iraq. That, unfortunately, looks some way off.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of 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’

New piece for the Lowy Institute of Australia’s Interpreter blog, drawing on a batch of Eurasian travel from the end of the year.

Central Asian connectivity: Going beyond China

Central Asia is experiencing a connectivity boom, with China’s ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ the most dominant vision for the region. Yet this dominance has started to worry Central Asian powers, leading to the emergence of a new narrative – that of diversification. With China becoming the region’s most influential economic actor, steadily increasing its role in local security and politics, Central Asian powers are seeking to broaden their engagement and bring to life a long-advocated ‘multi-vector’ diplomatic approach.

I was fortunate enough to spend the end of last year travelling the Eurasian heartland, with stops in Ashgabat, Astana, Beijing and Islamabad. It was a variety of different trips, covering different projects, but one overriding message about China shone through at every stop: the expansion of Chinese investment into its immediate neighbourhood is having a game-changing impact on the ground. This is positive, but it is also worrying those on the ground and is changing the way that Beijing is thinking about its external investments.

Talk to any Central Asian foreign policy planner and you will almost invariably hear about a ‘multi-vector’ approach to foreign relations. Sitting at the centre of Halford Mackinder’s ‘World-Island’, Central Asians envisage themselves as commanding vast power from the heart of the Silk Road. Yet it’s not always clear the degree to which they actually control the options on the table before them, or whether these great powers move around them to their own tune. Nowhere is this balance highlighted more acutely than in regards to foreign investment. Ideally, Central Asian states would want a multitude of options on the table before them, but while their FDI figures are more diverse than is sometimes given credit for, it is clear that Chinese money is increasingly the principal source.

This is increasingly the story across Eurasia, where everyone is both clamouring for Chinese investment and finding themselves uncertain about relying too heavily on a single investor. In Beijing, officials at state policy banks and private companies worry about the countries they are investing in and the fact they do not know the environments, yet at the same time find themselves under great pressure to deliver on Xi Jinping’s vaunted ‘Belt and Road Initiative’ through commercially viable projects. This leads them to trying to puzzle out how to deliver these projects effectively and seek partners to share the burden.

For landlocked Central Asians, however, the story is a different one. Trapped by geography between a sanctioned Russia, a still-recovering Iran and the disputed Caspian, they are only able to find China as a substantial and long-term investor and partner. India has tried and thus far not delivered, and while they discuss with Pakistan, Europe, Korea and Japan, projects as big as China’s have been slow in arriving. In contrast, Beijing signs contracts and infrastructure appears.

But all are aware of the dangers of having a single customer. In Ashgabat, they link Turkmenistan’s most recent push on breaking ground with the Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India (TAPI) pipeline and alternate energy partners to a sharp slowdown in Chinese interest in their gas, as China’s economy slowed down. In Astana, President Nursultan Nazarbayev links Kazakhstan’s Nurly Zhol (Shining Road) economic vision to the Chinese Silk Road Economic Belt, in that the local strategy is intended to build on the Chinese infrastructure, showing how they are making the Chinese investment work for them.

But they also discuss the many other partnerships they are developing. Kazakhstan is planning a consulate in Bandar Abbas, the Iranian port city that provides Central Asia a different route to international markets. This was reinforced in Astana, where senior officials spoke of ‘connectivity being the number one point for Kazakhstan’ and that the country ‘will look in any direction with no discrimination’. At the same time, according to the Kaznex Invest Chairman Borisbiy Zhangurazov, China is set to undertake around 50 investment projects in Kazakhstan worth more than $24 billion, an amount almost equal ($26 billion) to all US investment in the country in the past 10 years.

In Pakistan, people worry about the degree to which they are becoming dependent on Chinese loans. Figures published earlier this year indicate that in Q1 FY17, net loan and FDI inflows from China were $1.1 billion (of which $700 million was a loan). Total FDI inflow is down from $192 million a year ago to $91 million this year. Trends that worry people who on the ground express a high level of concern about the transparency of the projects being undertaken as part of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and the excessive reliance on Chinese investment.

What is interesting about Pakistan, however, is that it is clear that China is finding itself mired in as many problems as others have previously experienced in the country. As a Dawn editorial flagged at the start of this year, ‘for China, the year 2016 was when the country began to discover the complexities of doing business in Pakistan’. Beijing’s answer is to encourage others to become involved to share the burden. Russia is seeking a role. The UK is interested (an idea my institute is currently working on). Other parts of the Belt and Road, such as Kazakhstan, are equally keen. During my recent visit to Astana, senior figures intimated they were contemplating even going so far as opening a consulate in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’s crown jewel, the port of Gwadar in Baluchistan.

Connectivity remains the keyword in Eurasian geopolitics. Talk of Silk Roads continue to dominate regional conversations. Yet diversification will be essential to realise the visions that are being advanced. It will only work if it is a collective project, something even Beijing appears to be beginning to consider as well.

Another piece for the Telegraph, this one made it into the paper as well in a shortened form, see the picture for the published piece. Spoke to a few media outlets, but can only locate this conversation with CNN. Separately, spoke to the Financial Times, Reuters, and the Washington Post in the wake of the Berlin attacks late last year, to the Guardian about the terror threat to the UK, to the Irish Times about UK and European security relations post-Brexit, and the Financial Times again about UK Asia policy.

Isil’s attack in Istanbul is a turning point – and more violence could follow

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The Islamic State group’s claim of the New Year’s attack on the Reina nightclub in Istanbul puts a cap on a grim year for Turkey. Hundreds have been killed in attacks by various terrorist groups during the year, but Isil’s  (Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant) claim of responsibility of the attack nevertheless marked a new point in Turkey’s war on terrorism.

Until now, the group had only formally claimed one attack in the country with others merely linked to networks around the group absent a formal claim of responsibility. The question is what is presages for the year ahead.

The simple brutality of the attack has become the signature of Isil attack planning. There are a number of reasons for this. First, the group continues to aspire to launch more Paris or Brussels style attacks, but it finds itself increasingly constrained by the realities of aggressive counter-terrorism forces that expend every effort to disrupt plans at every turn. Numerous potential plots were disrupted in the run up to the end of the year, including potential attacks in the UK, France and Germany.

Relatives and friends mourn at a coffin during the funeral of Ayhan Arik, one of the 39 victims of the gun attack on the Reina
Relatives and friends mourn at a coffin during the funeral of Ayhan Arik, one of the 39 victims of the gun attack on the Reina

But some still get through. Prior to Istanbul, Anis Amre, slipped through the net and was able to drive a truck into the crowd at a Berlin Christmas market. A video later emerged linking him to Isil . The degree to which he was directed, instigated or self-started remains to be determined, but his attack showed basic simplicity that Isil encourages of its attackers these days. Cognizant that large-scale attacks are more likely to get picked up on and disrupted, the group has taken a more pragmatic approach.

The result is a spate of smaller scale incidents choosing seemingly random civilian targets using basic weaponry that is easier to obtain.

There is also likely an element of pragmatism within the choice of target in Turkey. Whilst the group repeatedly issued menacing warnings of attacks around the holiday period, the only successful incident in Europe was the atrocity in Berlin – likely a product of a more difficult operating environment. In contrast, in Turkey, the group has networks and access to weaponry.

On top of this, Turkey has increasingly turned its firepower against the group. Operation Euphrates Shield was launched by Turkish armed forces in August 2016 which aimed to fight both Kurdish and Isil groups in Syria. And within Turkey, authorities have taken an increasingly more aggressive approach. Earlier in the day of the Istanbul attack, Turkish police arrested eight alleged Isil members in Ankara who they suspected of planning a New Year’s attack. The men were part of a group of 63 that Turkish authorities swept up in the 3 days prior to the attack.

ISIS has responded with violence. In November, the group claimed its first attack in Turkey with a bombing in Diyabakir targeting security forces, something that came immediately after a speech by Abu Bakr al Baghdadi in which he directly threatened the country.

In December it released a video which purported to show two Turkish soldiers being burned alive. In claiming the recent attack, it specifically linked Turkey to the ‘crusader’ alliance – placing Ankara on the other side of the clash of civilizations that ISIS sees itself in. But it is also clear these are not the first atrocities against Turkey – repeated previous incidents have been linked to ISIS networks in the country. For example, early intelligence showing up in the Turkish press has been linking the Istanbul attacker with the same network that attacked Istanbul’s international airport in June of this year. Whether this link will be proven in due course is unclear, but the possibility reflects repeated statements by Turkish authorities that have blamed terrorist atrocities in the country as the responsibility of ISIS.

None of this portends a positive immediate future for Turkey. While authorities have shown a capacity to disrupt networks within their country, they have faced numerous attacks in the past year. If Isil is turning it attention in a more focused way on Ankara, given the proximity to the group’s remaining Caliphate as well as the clearly substantial networks linked to the group that exist within the country, then it seems likely that more will unfortunately get through.

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