A week and a bit later, finally posting my most recent piece for local paper Straits Times. This one explores the Digital Silk Road, something I have been looking at a growing amount for this larger RUSI project I have been working on which has a specific cyber and digital strand to it. In other words more on this to come, though more likely from the policy angle than the technical one which I am continually learning about.

Bumps on the Digital Silk Road

Chinese tech giants are superb builders but feared for their prowess and government links. But what if the greater risk lies in these firms themselves?

A potentially bigger problem the Digital Silk Road faces comes from within China.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

At the height of the Sino-Indian Himalayan border clash last year, New Delhi suddenly slapped a ban on dozens of Chinese mobile phone apps on security grounds. Most prominent among them was TikTok, the video-sharing app which has taken the world’s teenagers by storm.

The Indian ban came amid a wider wave of pushback against China’s digital and technology companies, led by the United States but taking effect globally in different ways, creating bumps in the building of China’s Digital Silk Road (DSR).

India has always been a major point of interest for Chinese technology firms. With a market size potentially the same as China’s, it offers an opportunity for exponential growth right next door. For TikTok, before the abrupt cut-off, India was its biggest market outside China with some 200 million people on its platform and proof that a Chinese company could take on America’s Big Tech in new markets.

Hardware companies such as Xiaomi and Huawei have long listed India as a major source of growth. In 2018, Huawei announced an “India first” policy and started to establish a growing volume of its manufacturing for the market in the country itself. In 2017, Xiaomi’s sales in India topped US$1 billion (S$1.3 billion), while in the first quarter of this year (notwithstanding political tensions and Covid-19 economic slowdowns) it shipped some 38 million units to Indian customers, accounting for 26 per cent of the smartphone market with an impressive 23 per cent year-on-year growth.

On the software side, Bytedance (TikTok’s parent company) had bet heavily on India prior to the banning, hoping to grow its user base with a local team of around 2,000 staff. Mr Jack Ma’s Alibaba is reported to have invested some US$2 billion in the Indian market since 2015.

This push into India was the realisation of the vision of the DSR, a concept first laid out by Beijing in a 2015 White Paper. At the time, the DSR was somewhat ignored except in specialist circles as it seemed to be the latest variant of the Silk Road nomenclature in the wake of President Xi Jinping’s 2013 Belt and Road speeches in Astana and Jakarta.

Yet this rather dismissive view belies the potential impact of the expansion of the DSR, which sees China, through its technology firms and state loans, helping recipient countries build their telco networks, e-commerce, mobile payment, smart city and other high-tech infrastructure. Chinese technology companies are paving parts of the world’s digital future.

In the global market, China’s technology firms are more than holding their own. Huawei and Xiaomi phones are affordable and of good quality. Huawei is increasingly the only firm that is manufacturing the infrastructure needed by countries to upgrade their next-generation Internet network. Huawei and ZTE are among the dominant providers of telecoms hardware in the countries surrounding China, while firms like Hikvision or Dahua are offering new technologies at accessible rates.

Chinese online payment applications and fintech are at the cutting edge, while across growing swathes of Asia, Alibaba, Taobao and JD.com online sales platforms are competing robustly against Amazon and other online marketplaces. The easy access to cheap Chinese products makes them very attractive.

An entire sub-economy has emerged of local entrepreneurs in countries such as Kyrgyzstan and Indonesia who create websites in local languages that provide people with access to the Chinese platforms. Across Asia (and more widely), these online middlemen set themselves up as interpreters of Chinese platforms to those who are unfamiliar with the language but want access to the bountiful and cheap products on offer.

In some ways, this is a classic win-win. The countries get affordable technology, investment and access to the Chinese market.

DATA SECURITY CONCERNS

Yet there is another side to it which India was trying to address with its abrupt closure of a whole raft of Chinese apps. Part punitive and part defensive, India’s pushback was amongst the sharpest that China had yet encountered as it paved its Digital Silk Road.

Concerns about privacy, access to data and espionage have increasingly dogged Chinese technology firms. Former president Donald Trump’s White House was aggressive in calling out the dangers of Chinese technology, though his scattershot approach did not always deliver the impact that was intended. Chinese firms and the government have repeatedly denied the accusations levelled against them.

Notwithstanding the Chinese denials, there are areas of concern. In 2017, Huawei removed a Wi-Fi module in a surveillance system sold to police in Lahore when it was discovered by locals. The discovery of the module, which provided an option for remote control that the company had not advertised, caused consternation in Islamabad. Not enough, however, to stop the Huawei chief executive from meeting Prime Minister Imran Khan in 2019 and signing a memorandum of understanding for the company to build a giant cloud data centre in Pakistan. And there have been repeated reports that Chinese-installed technology in the African Union’s headquarters in Addis Ababa have been used to send information back to China.

Separately, TikTok has come under fire in various jurisdictions for censoring data, in part to adhere to Chinese government concerns. In Europe, the Italian government is suing the company for not having adequate protection for children’s data.

The biggest fear at the moment, however, is data collection and access. Driving this is the fear that the Chinese government could in theory demand that any Chinese company hand over whatever data it might have on foreign nationals using its application.

The reality, however, is far more complicated than this. In response to different data protection requirements of the countries they operate in, Chinese tech companies have built data centres around the world to store client information. Singapore, for example, is a particular beneficiary of this trend in Asia, offering a secure location outside China in the heart of Asia. Such centres should be beyond the Chinese government’s reach, though, of course, it can be difficult to monitor this.

But this is not the most interesting aspect of this data collection. Far more important is the volume of information this provides Chinese firms to hone their technical capabilities.

The current rush in new technology is to develop new artificial intelligence tools. In order to train these tools, you need massive amounts of data for them to learn from – something these Chinese behemoths are increasingly gathering in vast volume from around the world and particularly in Asia.

For countries leery of China’s ambitions, this advantage makes the growth of Chinese tech companies not only a potential national security threat, but also an economic threat that could stymie if not kill off rival plans to develop similar tools.

Given all of these concerns, it is not surprising that India decided to block Chinese penetration of its market. For India and others, the worry is not just the DSR burrowing too deeply into their local economies but also the longer-term risk of taking over their digital futures and exposing them to unknown future problems.

VULNERABLE GIANTS

For all that, a less discussed but potentially bigger problem the Digital Silk Road faces comes from within China. The abrupt defenestration of China’s most famous tech entrepreneur, Mr Ma, after he had carried Beijing’s flag for tech growth and innovation around the world, highlighted how vulnerable Chinese private companies really are. Not even China’s biggest tech company, Alibaba, is immune to political censure and punishment.

So far, it appears a chastened Mr Ma is having his wings clipped for challenging China’s domestic lenders too brazenly. His future remains unclear, but the slapdown halted what would have been the world’s largest-ever initial public offering of Alibaba’s payments off-shoot, Ant Financial.

While the scenarios are speculative at this stage, some questions about the relationship between the central government and Chinese tech companies need looking at. What are the implications for contracts or activities run by these companies should they fall foul of the government? What if the Chinese government was to abruptly nationalise or take over parts of Alibaba’s global empire? Countries could find themselves suddenly facing a situation where their entire online payments system was in fact owned by a foreign government.

In other words, the Digital Silk Road’s greatest dangers may not necessarily lie in the possibility of Chinese firms secretly accessing private data or the Chinese state using the infrastructure to hack people around the world, but the political vulnerabilities these firms face back home. If they are less stable than they appear and given the world’s growing reliance on digital economies and infrastructure, the unravelling of key parts of this silk road is a far graver threat than meets the eye.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and has a forthcoming book looking at China’s relations with Central Asia.

The wonderful Katie Putz of the Diplomat was kind enough to invite me to do an interview with her excellent publication – covering a wide range of China in South and Central Asia questions, though mostly looking southward with a bit of a focus on Afghanistan. Have not posted it all here as behind a firewall at the moment, but will hope to later. Am posting after it a podcast recording that I did with Suzanne Raine of Cambridge University (and formerly of the Foreign & Commonwealth Office) looking at how terrorist threats are evolving.

Raffaello Pantucci on China’s Presence in South Asia

The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan highlights the importance of South and Central Asia to China.

Pakistan and Chinese soldiers take part in a joint exercise in Jhelum, Pakistan Thursday, Nov 24, 2011.
Credit: AP Photo/B.K.Bangash

As the United States embarks on its withdrawal from Afghanistan, some wonder what China will do given the country’s critical interests in South and Central Asia. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s Belt and Road Initiative is merely the latest articulation of a strategic narrative that imbues the South and Central Asian region with critical importance to China. As Raffaello Pantucci, a senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI), explains in the following interview, China has long-running interests in the wider region. While Beijing is not poised to follow the Soviet Union and now, the United States, into the “graveyard of empires,” those interests remain important to China.

What interests in the wider South and Central Asia region most draw Beijing’s attention?

China is most worried about security problems it perceives as being based in South and Central Asia which might threaten domestic stability. Principal amongst these is a fear that the region might become a staging ground for Uyghur dissidents or militants to create instability in Xinjiang. A secondary group of concerns emanates from a fear of threats to Chinese economic investments and interests in the region. In Beijing’s conception these investments are also linked to Xinjiang as well, as their success is in part linked to prosperity and growth in Xinjiang, which China sees as the key to longer-term stability within its borders.

At a wider strategic level, China is worried that the region could be used by adversary powers, like the United States, as a place from which to foment instability within China. This has most recently been tied by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs directly to Afghanistan, but is a persistent fear that has always lurked in the back of Chinese minds. From their perspective, the region is their backyard and directly linked to some of the most sensitive parts of their country.

Finally, this region is the cradle of Xi Jinping’s foreign policy vision, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The concept was launched in the Kazakh capital, then-Astana (now Nur-Sultan), and the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is called the keynote project of the vision. This gives it a particular importance conceptually to Beijing as failure here would be tantamount to failure of his vision. The economic interests that are linked to BRI in the region are important to China, but are often overstated as the priorities for Beijing’s concerns. The economic interests are important to the specific firms involved; the strategic aspect comes in terms of the impact they might have on domestic growth and stability, in particular in Xinjiang.

Read more here.

Also, am posting the podcast discussion with Suzanne Raine for the Centre for Geopolitics at Cambridge University.

Some more late posting on a subject been doing a lot of work on this year China in Afghanistan, this time for the South China Morning Post. Have a longer paper on this landing soon, and there is a whole chapter in my upcoming book which draws on some time I spent there a while ago. This is going to be an important year for Afghanistan, let us hope things go well for everybody there.

How US withdrawal from Afghanistan offers promise and peril for China

  • The balance in Afghanistan seems weighted more towards opportunity than challenge for China as the geopolitical equation changes
  • Beijing might believe it knows how to avoid pitfalls, but history is littered with powers that were confident they had sway over the Eurasian heartland
US Marines patrol as they clear improvised explosive devices in Trikh Nawar on the outskirts of Marjah, Afghanistan, on February 21, 2010. Photo: AFP

US President Joe Biden’s decision for the US to leave Afghanistan is both a challenge and an opportunity for China. On the opportunity side, China rids itself of worrying US military bases near its border. On the challenge side, it leaves open the question of who will deal with the instability that might grow in Afghanistan.

China still lacks the hard power to do this itself, and it is unclear whether Afghan forces can deliver such security assurances. None of this is new for Beijing, but the balance now seems weighted more towards opportunity than challenge.

China has long worried about instability from Afghanistan, but more indirectly than directly. This is based on an understanding of the region – the Taliban has not been known to attack north into Central Asia and are wary about irritating supporters in Pakistan – as well as the fact that Afghanistan’s border with China is remote and fairly firmly secured.

There is always the fear that Afghanistan could be a base from which trouble can brew, though. Militants who want to launch attacks elsewhere might see Afghanistan as a convenient home from which to operate. We have seen this play out with al-Qaeda and are seeing hints of it with Islamic State forces. China is worried Afghanistan might become a staging point for Uygur militants.

Since President Xi Jinping’s visit to Xinjiang in 2014, there has been an increase in Chinese security attention on the border with Afghanistan to mitigate this risk. This was in part driven by the declaration that the US was leaving Afghanistan.

Beijing has supported border forces in Tajikistan and Pakistan, and it has worked with Afghan security forces to strengthen their side of the Wakhan Corridor. It has developed deeper relations with Afghanistan’s security apparatus, strengthening political links and providing support to build bases.

From Beijing’s perspective, this is a relatively small and tight seal at the moment, though complacency in these cases is lethal.

Afghan security officials appear conscious of these concerns. They continue to refer to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM) as a potential danger, to soothe Chinese worries and as a snub to the US, which has removed the ETIM from its list of terrorist organisations.

In other words, Afghan leaders are referring to a specific threat the US says does not exist. Additionally, the Taliban has shown itself willing to engage with Beijing and mentioned a willingness to provide protection for infrastructure being built in Afghanistan.

Having covered security up to a point, China has the opportunity side to consider. The often overplayed economic opportunities are not the biggest prize, as basic economic geography dictates that China will be a major beneficiary of Afghanistan’s resources. Their slow uptake so far is a reflection of Afghanistan’s complexities rather than Chinese appetite.

From Beijing’s perspective, the removal of a US military base from its backyard as relations with the US become testier is a relief. There was always secret gratitude that the US was in Afghanistan, dealing with the Taliban and other worrying groups, but this was balanced by Beijing’s principal adversary operating in its backyard.

Now that this is gone, China has a clear sweep across the Eurasian heartland. With Iran and Russia as anti-American brackets on the other side of Central Asia, Beijing has geopolitical sway over the entire region. With India and Pakistan growing closer and New Delhi willing to step back from the brink along the Sino-Indian border, China finds itself comfortably placed in Eurasia.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), which includes these countries as members or observers, celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. The SCO has been derided as a do-nothing entity, but the American withdrawal leaves a hole the China-led grouping is well-placed to fill.

This is not to say the SCO will deploy in force. Instead, it provides China with an existing framework to play a role in determining the region’s future.

The problem for Beijing is this role comes with responsibilities and issues that China has repeatedly failed to figure out how to address. The Taliban is not a responsible player and, like everyone else, Beijing will be sceptical about any assurances it receives.

At the same time, none of the other SCO members are enamoured by Chinese power or aspire to it; rather, they fear it. Governance by fear might be effective, but it leaves you exposed if those powers are presented with other options. Russia and Iran, for example, would probably turn on China if the West abruptly shifted its posture towards them. 

None of this appears to unduly concern China. It is focused on highlighting American behaviour and spreading conspiratorial narratives about the US using Afghanistan as a base to mobilise Uygurs to attack China.

It is going to get dragged into regional geopolitics in the longer term, though, and while China has managed to avoid such clashes so far, it will eventually have to make some hard choices.

Beijing might believe it knows how to avoid such forks in the road, but history is littered with powers that were confident they had sway over the Eurasian heartland. China might enjoy the American withdrawal from Afghanistan but, in the longer term, the scales might tip more towards challenge than opportunity.

Raffaello Pantucci is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London

Into a new month, and a few things left over from the last one to publish. First up a short letter for the Financial Times which got a surprising amount of resonance, which reflects the fact that size is not everything I suppose!

Am also using this moment to do a media catch up which I have not done in a while. At the bottom of this post am putting a podcast I did with Veerle as part of a project I have been working on with RUSI (and partnering with Chatham House) which looks at trying to develop an agenda for a Transatlantic Dialogue on China.

This aside, spoke to RFE/RL about China in Afghanistan and separately about the Belt and Road; to the South China Morning Post about what the withdrawal from Afghanistan means to China, how China characterises its counter-terrorism program in Xinjiang, why ISIS has not talked much about China, what China is doing in Afghanistan, and China-Japan; to CNN about the China policy that Biden inherited; to the Mail on Sunday about Jack Ma; and on the other side of my work, to the Telegraph about 10 years on since bin Laden’s death; to The National about UK air strikes on ISIS in Syria; and, finally, to Australian ABC about the excellent work of the Unity Initiative.

Letter: West needs ‘grey zones’ not red lines in Ukraine and Taiwan

From Raffaello Pantucci, Senior Associate Fellow, Royal United Services Institute, London SW1, UK

A Russian navy ship is seen during navy drills in the Black Sea on April 14, 2021. © AP

Gideon Rachman (“Why China and Russia will now test Biden”, Opinion, April 20) is right to identify Taiwan and Ukraine as places where the US (and its allies) will find themselves tested by China and Russia.

Setting red lines, however, is not necessarily the answer. It might instead create a series of tests which Beijing and Moscow feel compelled to probe in creative ways.

The challenge of setting red lines is that people will tend to run towards them. Knowing exactly where the lines in the sand are drawn provides adversaries with a target. And once they have reached the line, they explore ways in which they can softly undermine it — using the very “grey zone tactics” that Rachman identifies as being key weapons in Beijing and Moscow’s toolboxes.

The net result is further confusion. If they have not clearly crossed the line by using deniable cyber tactics or proxies, what is to be done?

It may take time to clarify. But for the moment, the discussion will be about whether they crossed the line or not — with the mere debate about it suggesting they did and the west did nothing about it. No good comes of this beyond seeming to undermine western commitments.

The question is not are China and Russia adversaries in these situations. They clearly see themselves as such and continue to act as though they are. Rather it is a question of whether the west is committed to helping Ukraine and Taiwan. So far, the west has remained resolute in its support for both countries — President Joe Biden is sending delegations of close allies to Taipei while his most recent round of sanctions suggests a willingness to confront Russian behaviour. Both countries continue to be recipients of US military aid.

The only additional benefit a clear red line would contribute would be to suggest the throwing down of a gauntlet after which presumably the west will have to reply with harder force.

Far better to keep a deniable grey zone on the west’s side as well, which keeps adversaries wondering how we might respond and how far they can go. A jockeying may seem to leave things open for miscalculation, but is also likely to be the best we can hope for, short of open warfare in a geopolitical context of great power conflict.

Raffaello Pantucci
Senior Associate Fellow
Royal United Services Institute

And now for some links to other media outputs which are online that have popped up in the past period. First up is the podcast referenced above which is part of the bigger Transatlantic Dialogue on China project Veerle and myself are working on at RUSI.

Next up a panel discussion with Turkish TRT Television looking at what Biden’s pledges towards NATO mean for Europe and international security in particular, with former NATO policy planner Dr Jamie Shea CMG and Dr Thomas Sutton from Baldwin College.

And finally, another panel with TRT, this time looking at what the UK’s new Integrated Review means with the Evening Standard’s Defence correspondent Robert Fox and former Foreign Office Permanent Under Secretary Sir Simon Fraser.

Another short comment piece, this time for the Telegraph, looking at the withdrawal announcement from Afghanistan. Suppose we still have to see what actually transpires, but this decision does feel different. There’s another piece in the pipeline on this topic from a different angle, which you will have to check back and see.

Withdrawal from Afghanistan is the right call, but at what price?

The invasion became a Sisyphean endeavour but many Afghans worry about what it means for the Taliban’s return of power and influence

The Taliban has learned that by simply holding on, victory against even the mightiest military machine is possible CREDIT: Jim Hollander /REUTERS

As emotionally challenging as it might seem, President Biden’s decision to end the United States commitment to Afghanistan is probably the right call.

Many American Presidents have come into power declaring they will end their country’s involvement in the conflict, only to find themselves continually stuck in the mire. Having repeatedly pushed for a shrunken US presence during the Obama administration, Mr Biden is now finally in a position to force the decision through. 

It is exaggerated to say this is the end of American power, but it does highlight the limitations of a form of conflict that dominated the 2000s.

While the initial impetus for going into Afghanistan was to destroy Al-Qaeda and punish those who supported it, as time went on it became clear that what the Western alliance was getting into was in fact merely the latest phase in a conflict that has been troubling Afghanistan for decades.

Trying to resolve the larger conflict was something that would likely take generations of state building and transformation – none of which was necessarily wanted or accepted by everybody in Afghanistan.

The invasion became a Sisyphean endeavour being carried out while people died, vast sums of money were spent and political capital slowly ebbed away.

The other key lesson is being learned by insurgent and terrorist organizations, who can see once again that by simply holding on, victory against even the mightiest military machine is possible.

While the direct threat to the west from terrorist groups in Afghanistan is vastly reduced (though not entirely gone away, there is a case currently on trial in Germany of a cell who were talking to the Islamic State in Afghanistan), Al-Qaeda will undoubtedly celebrate the victory loudly and the Taliban will no doubt present themselves as victors. Terrorists may gather again in the ungoverned spaces that emerge from the withdrawal. 

Nevertheless, it is far from clear that we will see another attack on the scale of September 11, 2001. Intelligence agencies are far savvier about the potential of such threats and while withdrawal means coverage of Afghanistan will go down, it will not entirely go away. 

Within Afghanistan, people are concerned about the Taliban’s return of power and influence.

An organization with a medievalist outlook that has not significantly changed in the past twenty years, it still clearly has substantial appeal among Afghans.

Many in the country are doubtless concerned about a return to the civil war and warlordism that scourged the country during the 1990s. Both of these are sadly possible outcomes.

But this is not the same country as it was before. And it is not clear that all the gains of the past two decades will immediately be lost.

Regional powers still have a vested interest in ensuring that some stability exists, and that violence in the country does not get too out of hand.

The key question in all of this, however, is what the Afghan people want and how their leaders will help them achieve it. The ultimate answer to Afghanistan’s long troubles will only ever come from within the country.

Raffaello Pantucci is Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI)

Have not been posting for a while, need to catch up. Been very busy with some longer projects some of which will eventually emerge. But for the time being, enjoy this comment for the South China Morning Post on Wang Yi’s Middle East tour following the blow-out in Anchorage.

How China’s Middle East charm offensive succeeded despite affecting little change

  • What Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to the region may lack in material achievements, it makes up for in good optics. China is a major player in the region
  • In highlighting this, Wang has undermined the Western-driven condemnation of the week before and achieved China’s foreign policy goals
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (right) greets Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi after a document-signing ceremony in Tehran on March 27. Photo: EPA-EFE
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif (right) greets Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi after a document-signing ceremony in Tehran on March 27. Photo: EPA-EFE

US-China tensions have continued seamlessly into the Biden administration. Beijing’s desire for a reset was bluntly rebuffed in Alaska, however China is trying to spin that story now. The sanctions dispute over Xinjiang will only further strengthen a transatlantic desire to confront China. 

Sensing this, Beijing has launched a diplomatic offensive, first hosting its traditional ally, Russia, followed by a Middle East roadshow by Foreign Minister Wang Yi.

But while the Middle East visit was largely a repeat of what we have heard before and showed the limits of China’s ability to change the region, it did highlight again the world’s desire to not get caught in the middle of a spat between Beijing and Washington – an outlook that strengthens China’s hand.

The one place in which change was delivered was Iran, a country that is struggling for options at the moment in the grip of Western sanctions. For Tehran, the relationship with Beijing is a window onto the world and an opportunity when it is running out of options.

But the 25-year cooperation agreement the two sides signed is not a cheque for US$400 billion as was widely reported but rather a list of areas in which China will engage with Iran during the next two decades.

Given China’s and Iran’s generally negative image and collective confrontation with the United States, there is clear utility to the imagery of striking a loud public deal like this for both countries. It does change Iran’s calculus and position, but the biggest benefits are likely to accrue to China, whose companies will be able to pick and choose the opportunities they want at prices they like, given Tehran’s lack of alternatives at the moment.

The other new – and very contemporary – aspect to this visit was the push on medical or vaccine diplomacy. While in the UAE, Wang oversaw the launch of a joint project between Sinopharm and local firm G42 Medications Trading in the Khalifa Industrial Zone of Abu Dhabi.

Intended to open later this year, the project aims to manufacture Covid-19 vaccines to help the region inoculate against the virus. The project builds on earlier engagement by the Chinese firm in the UAE, which hosted phase 3 trials of the vaccine last year. It is undoubtedly positive that more people will get access to the vaccine as a result.

But much of the rest of Wang’s visit was a repeat of what we have heard before. The overall five-point structure he proposed, advocating mutual respect, upholding equality and justice,  non-proliferation, fostering collective security and accelerating development cooperation are a fairly predictable roster of declarations by a Chinese leader. They are not anything one can disagree with, but it is difficult to see China achieving some of those goals in the region.

Wang proposed China would try to help broker peace between Palestine and Israel. Beijing has declared this goal before and it has always been warmly welcomed, but it seems unlikely that China will be able to deliver. The offer to host another meeting between the two sides is unlikely to break that deadlock.

Additionally, China said it was going to work with Russia to unlock the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action with Iran. This is not going to move ahead unless the Western partners are all on board.

The more interesting chasm which Beijing instead managed to navigate is the clash between Iran and Saudi Arabia. Wang did not offer any new ideas here, but more intriguing is that both countries were equally eager to engage notwithstanding the tensions they share.

This is the confusing magic of China’s Middle Eastern relations – its ability to float between adversaries in ways which others cannot.

The extent of Wang’s demands on the visit appeared to be having good optics and statements supporting China’s treatment of its own people at home. Even during his stop in Turkey, where he was confronted with protesting Uygurs, the Turkish government offered no strong criticism and instead, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan praised the Sinovac vaccine his country has received.

Little materially changed in the region as a result of the visit, and it is unlikely anyone expected much to. Even so, the world was reminded once again that China is a major player and has the red carpet rolled out for it wherever it goes.

Wang also sought to ensure that the visit focused on positive aspects – connecting national development strategies, taking advantage of the region’s natural resources and helping the region develop new health care industries. While there was some discussion about Xinjiang, it was largely kept to Chinese talking points and controlled protests in Turkey, a contrast to the sanctions and tone coming out of Western capitals.

The difficulty for Western countries is not so much that China is displacing the United States – it still lacks the means, experience or interest to try to untangle the tangled complexities of the Middle East – or that anyone in the region changed their strategic positions towards the West. Instead, the visit reflects a region that follows China’s brutally realist view of the world, where values come second to interests. In highlighting this, Wang has undermined the Western-driven condemnation of the week before and achieved his foreign policy goals.

Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Associate Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute in London

A new piece for my Singaporean institutional home’s keynote journal, Counter-Terrorism Trends and Analyses (CTTA), this time trying to put some hard data on the question of what has the actual impact of COVID-19 been on terrorist threats. Whilst acknowledging it is hard to draw any hard and fast lessons, or really understand the causal links, the piece tries to explore the question using databases and existing information. This is part of a broader stream of work on this topic, including earlier pieces looking at how ideologies might adapt or develop going forwards, and some more data based projects that are in the pipeline. Watch this space.

Mapping the One-Year Impact of COVID-19 on Violent Extremism

Synopsis

One year since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, looking across militant violence, ideological narratives, recruitment and funding, it is evident that so far the impact of the contagion on violent extremism has been relatively limited. Notwithstanding COVID-19, the downward trajectory of global militant violence which started in 2016 continued through 2020 as well. Likewise, in the ideological realm, after initial incorporation of COVID-19 in their narratives as divine punishment or seeking to demonstrate capability to manage the virus, the subsequent messaging by violent extremist groups was more mundane about day-to-day developments. Looking at recruitment and fundraising trends, no significant change is visible except for the fact that lockdowns and travel restrictions have constrained extremist groups’ physical mobility and the ability to collect funds. In conclusion, the article notes that COVID-19 has been more of an enabler and accelerant of existing violent extremist trends but it is difficult to conclude whether, in the post-pandemic scenario (whenever that arrives), it will result in greater violence or if the downward trajectory which started in 2016 will persist.

Introduction

This article investigates the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on violent extremism since its outbreak one year ago. Notwithstanding vaccination rollouts, large parts of the world are still dealing with the virus as a very immediate problem with no clear end in sight. Methodologically, this fluid situation makes the actual assessment of the virus’ impact on violent extremism a difficult task. We are still in the midst of the pandemic, so it is hard to conclusively assess what its full impact has been as it has not yet been entirely felt. It is already difficult absent the pandemic to draw clear causal links to explain why people become motivated by terrorist ideologies. To try to understand the specific impact of COVID-19 as it is still surging around the world is an  even harder task.

In an attempt to sketch out some preliminary understanding on the nature of the impact, this paper will focus on four broad areas of terrorist activity and explore what available research and information indicates about the impact of COVID-19 on violent extremism. First, the paper will explore how terrorist violence has changed over the past year. Then, it will probe the evolution of how extremist ideologies and narratives have coopted, altered or responded to COVID-19. Lastly, it will look at how the coronavirus has impacted terrorist fundraising and recruitment.[1] Though this does not capture the full spectrum and detail of terrorist activity, it does hopefully provide a perspective on the impact of COVID-19 on violent extremism.

The author has consulted multiple reports and databases for this paper, though the information has not always been methodically collected. Where the author is aware of openly accessible databases, they have been used to corroborate analysis or speculative writing that has been produced.

The overall picture is – as might be expected given we are still only in the midst of the pandemic – unclear at the moment. There is some evidence to suggest terrorist groups have profited from the pandemic, but nothing conclusive has been produced yet which shows how it has translated into longer-term material benefit. However, it is highly likely that over a lengthier trajectory the impact of COVID-19 will be to make terrorism trends worse, though exactly how this plays out (whether through new ideologies emerging or existing ones getting graver) is yet to be determined.

Violence

Violence is the most obvious indicator to measure the impact of COVID-19 on terrorism over the past year. A number of databases exist looking at conflicts, counting incidents of violence and death. Of course, each of these has its own limitations and focuses on slightly different aspects of the conflict. The Armed Conflict Location and Event Data Project (ACLED) is distinct for having mapped various conflict indicators for a few years. ACLED started in the late 1990s by focusing on Africa; it now appears that most conflict regions around the world have been measured from 2018 until the present, though most of Europe appears to have only been added to the dataset in 2020.[2] While there are other similarly substantial datasets in existence like the Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP)[3] or the Global Terrorism Database (GTD),[4] neither of these appears to have data through the pandemic period available yet with both concluding in 2019.[5]

The most up-to-date public analysis of violence data during the pandemic year appears to have been produced by the University of Chicago’s Chicago Projects on Security & Threats (CPOST). Published in March 2021, the CPOST report draws on ACLED and their own Suicide Attack Database and concludes that across “The Middle East; Sub-Saharan Africa; North Africa; South-Central Asia (including Pakistan and Afghanistan)”, there was a drop in violence in 2020. “All four regions saw attacks fall on aggregate by 5 percent. That fall was sharp in the first six months and rose again in the next six months.”[6]

But CPOST’s overall conclusion is consistent with ACLED’s cumulative annual data that is clear on the broader global trends, which show that by almost every metric calculated, violent activity is down year-on-year between 2019 and 2020. The exceptions to this trend in their data are what ACLED terms as “strategic developments” which show some limited growth and “protests” showing a much sharper rise.[7]

ACLED Overall Numbers:

ACLED Overall Numbers. Source: ACLED dashboard (accessed March 2021)[8]:

The broader trajectory on most of the violent indicators that ACLED gathers data on shows a downward trend from 2018 (with some exceptions). Removing “protest” data in particular reveals this trend more clearly. Looking at this against terrorism data more specifically, this downward trajectory is corroborated by the Institute for Economics and Peace’s Global Terrorism Index (GTI) for 2020. Using data from 2019, GTI reports that “deaths from terrorism fell for the fifth consecutive year, after peaking in 2014. The total number of deaths fell by 15.5 percent to 13,826. The fall in deaths was mirrored by a reduction in the impact of terrorism.”[9] CPOST analysis of ACLED data identifies a similar trend in 2020, highlighting a 5 percent overall decline in violence year-on-year. At the same time, it specifies that in the first two quarters of 2020, this drop was noticeable, but by the third quarter of the year, violence was rising again, and by fourth quarter, the numbers were the same as a year earlier in quarter four.[10]

ACLED overall numbers without “protest data”:

Figure 2: ACLED overall numbers without “protest data”. Source ACLED dashboard, accessed March 2021.

The broader fall in violence that ACLED records since 2018 drawing on all conflict data is even sharper when focused just on violent acts. The two data points which ACLED notes as increasing, “protests” and “strategic developments”, suggest potential precursors to terrorist violence.[11] In both cases, they suggest that there is a continuing anger, or brewing tensions, which could later express themselves as violence. Anecdotally, in the Philippines there has been some suggestion that groups are using this moment to re-group and refresh,[12] while in Indonesia, there were reports that groups had seen the arrival of COVID-19 as a signal of impending apocalypse and had consequently stopped their operations and sat at home waiting for the end of days.[13] More frequently, however, reporting has suggested that repeated lockdowns have complicated groups’ physical mobility and ability to carry out attacks.[14]

When compared with other available datasets, a generally static picture in violence year-on-year appears. For instance, the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) annual assessment of 2020 shows across regions covered in the report (South, Southeast, Central Asia, as well as the Middle East broadly) that violence year-on-year has reduced or remained the same during the pandemic year.[15] An IS-specific Southeast Asia dataset maintained by ICPVTR shows a year-on-year drop.[16] Noted Middle East terrorism scholar Aaron Zelin’s dataset tracking IS-claimed attacks during 2020 in Syria and Iraq has remained relatively static.[17] Likewise, the Deep South Watch, which monitors violence in Southern Thailand, illustrates a dip in terrorist attacks during the first half of 2020, but by the end of the year violence had returned to roughly the same level as 2019.[18] The South Asia Terrorism Portal (SATP) also recorded a drop in terrorist activity from 2019 to 2020 in South Asia, but it broadly appeared to be on roughly the same pattern as the fall from earlier years. There was a more pronounced drop in SATP’s figures for Afghanistan, but this is likely attributable to the US-Taliban deal signed in February 2020.[19] An exception to this trajectory can be found in Europe, where according to research by the International Center for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT) in the Hague, there was a spike in violent Islamist incidents in Europe in 2020 – though the rates of casualties or incidents remain in the low double digits.

Critically, there is little evidence to show that COVID-19 had a material impact on militant violence – trajectories over the year were for the most part with some specific drops which might be linked to restrictions on movements or activity that came from COVID-19. The spike in Europe of violent Islamist attacks still requires greater research and understanding, but there has been very little evidence presented that COVID-19 might have been a driver in some way. Rather, it is possible that the incidents might in part have been inspired by each other and broader social tensions (amongst different communities, as well as in the form of extreme right-wing violence) in Europe.

Ideologies

An absence of violence does not equate to an absence of threat. There are many reasons why violence could have gone down and it is not clear that they are necessarily linked to COVID-19. Some experts even note that lulls in violent activity are in fact more dangerous moments as it is during these moments that groups are able to prepare and plan for more attacks away from security services’ attention.[20] Clearly, extremist groups have brought COVID-19 related ideas and commentary into their narratives. However, the degree to which these narrative shifts have materially changed group capabilities or how long these narrative shifts will last is hard to assess.

There has been a lot of writing and analysis on how violent Islamist groups have talked about COVID-19, blending it into their worldviews or talking up the opportunities that it might afford them. There have even been examples of cells talking about trying to weaponise COVID-19 in some way – for example, a cell linked to IS in Tunisia was discussing coughing and spitting at security forces,[21] while Indonesian authorities reported overhearing a cell harbouring similar intentions.[22] However, there is little evidence indicating that COVID-19 has materially changed extremist ideologies.

For example, in its regular six-monthly report on IS(IL), Al Qaeda and associated individuals’ activity, the UN Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team notes:

“IS(IL) continues to emphasise the “divine punishment of arrogance and unbelief” narrative regarding the pandemic that it adopted in March 2020, and to exhort followers to attack the enemy while counter-terrorist defences are supposedly weakened. (It should be noted that some Member States have observed a shift in recent months away from the “divine punishment” narrative as the pandemic’s impact has spread.) However, no developed IS(IL) strategy has evolved for the pandemic. This includes weaponisation of the virus by using contagious supporters to infect opponents, which was mooted within IS(IL) in March but has not progressed as a practical proposition.”[23]

The Monitoring Group’s commentary on al-Qaeda is focused on the high level of leadership attrition that the group has suffered, with little evidence of the group focusing much on the pandemic. The group in fact waited until late March to issue some comment on the pandemic, and this was largely a broad commentary on how badly the west was handling the virus.[24] Later comments focused instead on the fact that western governments had failed to protect their elderly and infirm, though much of al-Qaeda’s commentary during this period seemed focused on proving their leader was alive or that they were not going to be negatively affected by the fact that the Taliban were seeking to strike a deal with the US in Afghanistan which would specifically eject them from Afghanistan.

Affiliates of al-Qaeda commented about the pandemic, and in some cases suggested that they were going to offer healthcare to help local affected communities, but it was not clear how useful or realistic this was.[25] According to UN reporting, al-Shabaab found itself obliged to provide some response after local communities and followers highlighted their failure to effectively respond.[26] Syrian Hayat Tahrir al Sham has continued to support the Salvation Government in the parts of Northern Syria where they exert control and have offered reporting on COVID-19, as well as limited medical care service.[27] And in any case, it was clear that the groups were simply seeking to advance a narrative of offering themselves as alternatives to the state in tune with their broader visions of their goals, rather than something new.[28]

In contrast, extreme right-wing groups in the West not only talked a great deal about the pandemic but even changed their behaviours or ideologies to absorb COVID-19 related narratives.[29] US and UK authorities separately noted an uptick in threats towards Jews and attacks using COVID-19.[30] In some cases, there has been credible evidence that this surge in right-wing propaganda has resulted in forms of violence. The most obvious example of this is the growing instances of violence against 5G masts, emerging from conspiracy theories related to the development of such masts and the spread of COVID-19.[31] In the US, narratives around COVID-19 restrictions became caught up in anti-federal government discourses, inflaming already angry groups.[32] In April 2020, an individual tried to derail a train in the Los Angeles Port Yard in an attempt to stop a US Navy vessel bringing aid to other parts of the country.[33] In Australia, there were reports that the local branch of the Proud Boys was using anti-lockdown protests as opportunities to specifically attack police.[34] Australian security forces repeatedly pointed out that they had seen an increase in their far right activity during COVID-19.[35] UK authorities also expressed concern about young people being radicalised as they were stuck online during lockdowns,[36] a concern which might have materialised in the growing numbers of teenagers being charged with extreme right terror offences.[37]

In some instances, however, far right groups have sought to use the pandemic as an opportunity to instead push themselves further into the mainstream and used the pandemic as an opportunity to show their civic mindedness. In Ukraine, the Azov Movement and its offshoots have sought to offer training videos for people caught in lockdowns, support for those who are unable to get their shopping or need other forms of assistance.[38] This approach is similar to the modus operandi of violent Islamists who offer themselves as aid or healthcare providers during the pandemic. The key difference being that the violent Islamists need to control the territory in which they are doing it, while the extreme right (in Ukraine at least) are doing it within the broader societies in which they live. The idea is to generate more sympathy for their cause, rather than demonstrate governance capability.

Beyond these two core ideologies, it is very difficult to discern much of a change in other ideologies or groups as a result of COVID-19. In part this is due to a lack of data and research, but also as it is not even very clear that COVID-19 has produced the specified change in the two principal ideologies to receive attention. The extreme right was ascendant prior to COVID-19, while violent Islamists have always held escatalogical narratives and sought to demonstrate governance capabilities. The only discernible shift in violence that could be credibly linked to COVID-19 is from the extreme right that has incorporated the pandemic into its radicalising narratives more convincingly and with greater impact than violent Islamists. The fact that the far right in the US has managed to penetrate the mainstream, and that conspiracy theories have now developed such a wide-ranging impact including driving people towards terrorist violence, opens the door to future potential ideologies.[39]

At the same time, it has to be remembered that the year 2020 was also the final year of the Trump presidency. This is important to bear in mind as with President Trump in the White House, the world’s most powerful leader was using his platform to provide oxygen to elements of the extreme right narrative – be this in terms of his tendency to fail to condemn the extreme right in the United States[40] or re-tweet far right extremist material.[41] Rather than being a fringe ideology, it became associated with the mainstream, an intoxicating elevation which may also help explain the level of fury and activity around the global extreme right. Seen in this light, COVID-19 may have simply been further fuel into an already inflamed global situation.

Recruitment and Fundraising

Very little published data has been released highlighting the impact of COVID-19 on terrorist group recruitment. There has been some reporting around the impact on terrorist fundraising. The UN Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team February 2021 report provides some references to member states noting changes in fundraising patterns. Specifically, they point to enhanced difficulties of transporting money across borders due to travel restrictions complicating money transfers. But at the same time, the report indicates a growing level of use of cryptocurrencies and online transfers suggesting the impact might be mitigated through alternative cyber-routes.[42] Showing how these issues can intersect with COVID-19 specifically, there was the reported case of an ISIS fundraising network that was selling fake personal protective equipment (PPE) online.[43]

These concerns echo those articulated by the Eurasian Group (EAG) on combating money laundering and the financing of terrorism, though very few cases were provided to illustrate the particular terrorism financing concerns.[44] These findings were in turn similar to those generated by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF)’s report, which again mentioned terrorism financing as a potential issue and highlighted how charitable money flows in particular could be abused by terrorist organisations.[45] Both the FATF and EAG reports, however, pointed to the far greater risk coming from COVID-19 related fraud, be it in terms of fake (or non-existent) medical equipment, as well as abuse of COVID-19 relief packages offered by governments.[46] A sense of the potential scale of the fraud involved is illustrated by the UK case, where some reports suggested that as much as half of the £46 billion being doled out by the government could be lost to defaults and fraud.[47] While theoretically some of this money could have been taken by terrorists, no clear examples have been presented yet of this taking place in the UK or elsewhere.

Looking at more specific examples of where these threats intersect, the UN Monitoring Team report also points to a decrease in maritime kidnapping for ransom in the tri-border Southeast Asian region between Indonesia, Malaysia and the Philippines.[48] However, this contrasts with reporting by the International Maritime Bureau’s Piracy Reporting Centre (IMB-PRC) which reports that there has been an increase in maritime piracy, with a particular growth in the Philippines and the Singapore Strait.[49] IMB-PRC does not specify whether there is a link to terrorism in this criminal activity, but the contrast to the UN report underscores this is an area where there is inadequate research at the moment.

Recruitment is equally challenging to track. While repeated reports show an increase in online activity, especially amongst extreme right wing groups[50], it is not yet clear whether this is pulling through to recruitment. UN reporting indicates how Eurasian member states have reported groups using the pandemic as an opportunity to offer individuals support and money, something which increases popularity and recruitment.[51] In most cases, however, the reporting is non-specific, suggesting that groups are increasing their propaganda and this theoretically translates into more recruits. However, there have been no evidence based reports showing this link successfully delivering new recruits in practice. There is repeated reporting and discussion around the threats from the increased amount of time that people spent online during the pandemic and the increased opportunities this presented for online radicalisation, but so far there has been no evidence based assessment of what the actual impact was.

Many of the specific cases of terrorism linked to COVID-19 that have emerged during the pandemic  are in fact individuals who had been involved or interested in extremist activity prior to COVID-19. For example, an early prominent attack which was linked to the pandemic in the US against a hospital focused on COVID-19 care was undertaken by an American extreme right wing adherent who had long been on FBI radars.[52] Even the very young followers in Europe who have emerged through arrest and conviction during this past year appear in many cases to be young men who had already been active on extreme right wing forums pre-pandemic.[53] COVID-19 related lockdowns may have been an accelerant towards more violent online rhetoric or given groups greater opportunities to reach out to captive audiences online, but so far it is not clear if it has translated into more violence from them. Overall, it is still inconclusive how terrorist group fundraising and recruitment have been impacted yet and whether the increased online rhetoric or activity has resulted in material change to groups’ coffers or numbers.

Conclusion

A year into the pandemic, it remains entirely unclear the exact impact that COVID-19 will have on violent extremism in the longer-term. It is clear that it has affected groups’ behaviour and action in the same way that it has affected everyone else, but it is not clear that it has materially changed things in a way that is utterly unique to the pandemic. Previous natural disasters have produced contradictory comparisons. For example, the Spanish Flu of 1918 was followed by a spate of anarchist violence which did not appear linked to the pandemic, while the 2004 Asian tsunami helped bring peace to Aceh and accelerated violence in Sri Lanka.[54] A RAND study from 2011 which sought to apply some methodological rigour to the question found that there was in fact an increase in terrorism-related death in the wake of natural disasters.[55] The same report explored the impact of natural disasters on government capacity to respond to terrorist threats and showed a dip in capability following the disaster which groups take advantage of, but within two years authorities are usually able to regain the upper hand.[56] This suggests something to pay attention to once the pandemic has been definitively brought under control.

At the moment, the most noticeable change in behaviour to have been generated by the pandemic has been the acceleration to prominence and wider acceptance of the use of violence to advance conspiracy theories. While at the moment this violence is an irritant, it is a first step on an escalatory path. Furthermore, the indicators in ACLED data that protests and groups’ preparatory action has persisted and even grown during the pandemic, suggest that while COVID-19 seems to have acted as an inhibitor of major terrorist activity during the first pandemic year, it has most certainly not gone away and might even be biding its time rather than in retreat. COVID-19 has in fact appeared to be something of an enabler and accelerator of existing trends and threats. The key question which has yet to be addressed is whether this means that terrorist violence will continue on the downward trajectory that most indicators appeared to show over the past few years, or whether in fact the COVID-19 pandemic will result in an increase in threats. In the longer-term, it is likely that COVID-19 will help foster a new wave of ideologies, though whether the pandemic is entirely to blame might be difficult to conclude. The end of the pandemic will expose a world which is likely to be even more divided than before, alongside a likely global economic recession. All of which will create a context in which the threat picture from terrorism might start on a gradual path upwards again in contrast to the trends over the past few years.

About the author Raffaello Pantucci is a Senior Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence, Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit within the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He can be contacted at israffaello@ntu.edu.sg.


[1] The author is grateful for his ICPVTR colleagues’ comments during a brainstorming session in late 2020 which helped inform the creation of this list.

[2] “ACLED coverage to date” https://acleddata.com/acleddatanew/wp-content/uploads/dlm_uploads/2019/01/ACLED_Country-and-Time-Period-Coverage_updFeb2021.pdf

[3] Uppsala Conflict Data Program: Department of Peace and Conflict Research https://ucdp.uu.se/#/

[4] Global Terrorism Database: START https://www.start.umd.edu/research-projects/global-terrorism-database-gtd

[5] It is further worth noting that the Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) annual terrorism review the Global Terrorism Index draws on data primarily from the GTD meaning it has also not provided any analysis or data for 2020 yet (https://www.visionofhumanity.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/GTI-2020-web-1.pdf).

[6] “Political Violence: January 1 – December 31, 2020,” Review, Chicago Project on Security & Threats, March 2021

[7] ACLED Full Dashboard: https://acleddata.com/dashboard/#/dashboard; In ACLED terms, “strategic developments” is classified as events which are linked to politically motivated groups that usually indicate a precursor to possible violence, but do not involve violence, while “protests” are classified as peaceful events. In other words, the two indicators that ACLED sees as having increased during the pandemic are non-violent ones.

[8] ACLED Full Dashboard: https://acleddata.com/dashboard/#/dashboard

[9] “Global Terrorism Index 2020: Measuring the Impact of Terrorism,” Institute for Economics and Peace, November 2020 https://www.visionofhumanity.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/GTI-2020-web-1.pdf (p.2)

[10] “Political Violence: January 1 – December 31, 2020,” Review, Chicago Project on Security & Threats, March 2021

[11] Peaceful protests are events which articulate mass public political anger, while “strategic developments” are activities which groups are undertaking (or experiencing, given arrests are also included within this category) that reflect non-violent action which could be interpreted as preparatory. “Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) Codebook” https://acleddata.com/acleddatanew/wp-content/uploads/dlm_uploads/2019/01/ACLED_Codebook_2019FINAL.docx.pdf .

[12] “The Fusion of Offline and Online Interventions against Extremism in the Philippines,” GNET-CENS workshop report, 16 December 2020 https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/GNET-CENS-Workshop-2-Philippines-210114.pdf

[13] “IPAC Short Briefing No.1: COVID-19 and ISIS in Indonesia,” Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC), April 2, 2020 http://file.understandingconflict.org/file/2020/04/COVID-19_and_ISIS_fixed.pdf

[14] “The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on terrorism, counter-terrorism and countering violent extremism: Update” UN Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate, December 2020 https://www.un.org/sc/ctc/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/CTED_Paper_The-impact-of-the-COVID-19-pandemic-on-counter-terrorism-and-countering-violent-extremism_Dec2020.pdf

[15] Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses, vol.13, no. 1, January 2021 https://www.rsis.edu.sg/wp-content/uploads/2021/01/CTTA-January-2021.pdf – there are exceptions to this, like Myanmar where the report suggests an “intensification” of violence (p. 34). In other cases, the data is less categorical, but the characterization is of problems over 2020 that have either remained the same or reduced in violence.

[16] Closed database maintained by ICPVTR, February 2021

[17] Aaron Y. Zelin, @azelin, February 2, 2021 https://twitter.com/azelin/status/1356361479881183234

[18] “Summary of incidents in Southern Thailand, January 2021” Deep South Watch Database, February 15, 2021 https://deepsouthwatch.org/en/node/11973

[19] “Number of terrorism related incidents year wise” March 14, 2021 https://www.satp.org/datasheet-terrorist-attack/incidents-data/southasia

[20] “What Happens Now? Terrorism and the challenges of counter-terrorism in the next decade” ICPVTR webinar by Suzanne Raine, Affiliate lecturer, Centre for Geopolitics at Cambridge University, January 27, 2021 https://www.rsis.edu.sg/event/icpvtr-webinar-on-what-happens-now-terrorism-and-the-challenges-of-counter-terrorism-in-the-next-decade-by-suzanne-raine/#.YC9oFHczZ5w

[21] “Terrorists plotting COVID-19 contamination attack on Tunisian security forces arrested,” North African Post, April 17, 2020 https://northafricapost.com/40082-terrorists-plotting-covid-19-contamination-attack-on-tunisian-security-forces-arrested.html

[22] “Adjustment and Resilience: Preventing Violent Extremism in Indonesia during COVID-19 and beyond,” UNODC and Guyub Project, February 2021 (primary author Cameron Sumpter) https://www.unodc.org/documents/southeastasiaandpacific/Publications/2021/indonesia/Main_COVID_CT_Indonesia_PRINT_EN.pdf

[23] “Twenty-seventh report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities” United Nations Security Council, February 3, 2021 https://undocs.org/S/2021/68

[24] “Al-Qaeda invites ‘Western nations’ to Islam amid COVID-19,” BBC Monitoring reporting Rocketchat messaging service in Arabic, April 1, 2020 https://monitoring.bbc.co.uk/product/c201l1q3

[25] “The Limits of ‘Shabaab-CARE’: Militant Governance amid COVID-19,” CTC Sentinel, vol.13, No.6, June 2020 https://ctc.usma.edu/the-limits-of-shabaab-care-militant-governance-amid-covid-19/

[26] “Twenty-seventh report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities” United Nations Security Council, February 3, 2021 https://undocs.org/S/2021/68

[27] “Coronavirus and The Salvation Government – Hay’at Tahir al-Sham,” Jihadology.com, March 1, 2021 https://jihadology.net/coronavirus-and-the-salvation-government-hayat-tahir-al-sham/

[28] Kabir Taneja and Raffaello Pantucci “Beware of terrorists offering COVID-19 aid,” Raisina Debates, Observer Research Foundation (ORF), April 17, 2020 https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/beware-of-terrorists-offering-covid19-aid-64731/

[29] “Member States concerned by the growing and increasingly transnational threat of extreme right wing terrorism,” CTED Trends Alert, July 2020 https://www.un.org/sc/ctc/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/CTED_Trends_Alert_Extreme_Right-Wing_Terrorism_JULY.pdf

[30] “COVID-19: How Hateful extremists are exploiting the pandemic,” Commission for Countering Extremism, July 2020 https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/906724/CCE_Briefing_Note_001.pdf and “Lauder: National Guard must protect Jews from Neo-Nazi coronavirus threat,” Jerusalem Post, March 25, 2020 https://www.jpost.com/International/FBI-Neo-Nazi-groups-encouraging-spread-coronavirus-to-police-and-Jews-622006

[31] Amongst the many conspiracy theories circulating was one which linked the expansion of 5G to the spread of the virus – in part technophobia, in part anti-Chinese sentiment. The result has been a spike in destruction of 5G infrastructure (usually masts) in parts of Europe in particular, though also in North America. Michael Loadenthal, “Anti-5G, Infrastructure Sabotage, and COVID-19,” GNET Insight, January 19, 2021 https://gnet-research.org/2021/01/19/anti-5g-infrastructure-sabotage-and-covid-19/

[32] Blyth Crawford, “Coronavirus and conspiracies: how the far right is exploiting the pandemic,” The Conversation, September 15, 2020 https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-and-conspiracies-how-the-far-right-is-exploiting-the-pandemic-145968

[33] “Train Operator at Port of Los Angeles Charged with Derailing Locomotive Near US Navy’s Hospital Ship Mercy,” US Department of Justice, Central District of California, April 1, 2020 https://www.justice.gov/usao-cdca/pr/train-operator-port-los-angeles-charged-derailing-locomotive-near-us-navy-s-hospital

[34] Michael McGowan, “Australian Proud Boys sought to combat-trained supporters to ‘arrest’ police at COVID lockdown protests,” Guardian, February 15, 2021 https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/feb/15/australian-proud-boys-leader-sought-combat-trained-supporters-to-arrest-police-at-covid-lockdown-protests

[35] Samaya Borom, “Increased visibility of Far-Right movements in Australia during the COVID-19 pandemic,” GNET Insights, September 24, 2020 https://gnet-research.org/2020/09/24/increased-visibility-of-far-right-movements-in-australia-during-the-covid-19-pandemic/

[36] Caleb Spencer, “Coronavirus: ‘children may have been radicalised in lockdown’,” BBC News, June 30, 2020 https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-wales-53082476

[37] Lizzie Dearden, “Boy, 14, started making bombs during lockdown after watching ISIS propaganda, court hears,” Independent, September 29, 2020 https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/terror-plots-uk-teenage-boy-eastleigh-bottle-bombs-isis-online-radicalisation-b693441.html

[38] Michael Colborne, “For the Far Right, the COVID-19 crisis is a PR opportunity,” Fair Observer, April 13, 2020 https://www.fairobserver.com/region/europe/michael-colborne-far-right-coronavirus-pandemic-assistance-covid-19-crisis-pr-news-10109/

[39] Raffaello Pantucci, “After the Coronavirus, Terrorism won’t be the same,” Foreign Policy, April 22, 2020 https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/04/22/after-coronavirus-terrorism-isis-hezbollah-5g-wont-be-the-same/

[40] David Smith, Lois Beckett, Maanvi Singh and Julia Carrie Wong, “Donal Trump refuses to condemn white supremacists at presidential debate,” Guardian, September 30, 2020 https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2020/sep/29/trump-proud-boys-debate-president-refuses-condemn-white-supremacists

[41] “Donal Trump retweets far-right group’s anti-Muslim videos,” BBC News, November 29, 2017 https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-42166663

[42] “Twenty-seventh report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities” United Nations Security Council, February 3, 2021 https://undocs.org/S/2021/68

[43] USA vs Facemaskcenter.com and Four Facebook Pages, Case 1:20-cv-02142-RC, Filed 08/05/20 https://www.justice.gov/opa/press-release/file/1304296/download

[44] “Information Note: Concerning the COVID-19 impact on the EAG countries’ AML-CFT efforts and measures taken to mitigate the ML/TF risks stemming from the COVID-19 pandemic” Eurasian Group (EAG), https://eurasiangroup.org/files/uploads/files/%D0%9C%D0%B5%D1%80%D1%8B_%D0%B2_%D1%81%D0%B2%D1%8F%D0%B7%D0%B8_%D1%81_COVID-19/Information_note_on_COVID-19_measures_eng_rev4.pdf

[45] “Update: COVID-19-related Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing,” FATF, December 2020 https://www.fatf-gafi.org/media/fatf/documents/Update-COVID-19-Related-Money-Laundering-and-Terrorist-Financing-Risks.pdf

[46] “Update: COVID-19-related Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing,” FATF, December 2020 https://www.fatf-gafi.org/media/fatf/documents/Update-COVID-19-Related-Money-Laundering-and-Terrorist-Financing-Risks.pdf

[47] Daniel Thomas and Stephen Morris, “A giant bonfire of taxpayers money: fraud and the UK pandemic loan scheme,” Financial Times, December 20, 2020 https://www.ft.com/content/41d5fe0a-7b46-4dd7-96e3-710977dff81c

[48] “Twenty-seventh report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team submitted pursuant to resolution 2368 (2017) concerning ISIL (Da’esh), Al-Qaida and associated individuals and entities” United Nations Security Council, February 3, 2021 https://undocs.org/S/2021/68

[49] “Maritime piracy hotspots persist during 2020,” Hellenic Shipping News, Febrary 1, 2020 https://www.hellenicshippingnews.com/maritime-piracy-hotspots-persist-during-2020/

[50] “Member States concerned by the growing and increasingly transnational threat of extreme right wing terrorism,” CTED Trends Alert, July 2020 https://www.un.org/sc/ctc/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/CTED_Trends_Alert_Extreme_Right-Wing_Terrorism_JULY.pdf

[51] “The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on terrorism, counter-terrorism and countering violent extremism: Update” UN Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate, December 2020 https://www.un.org/sc/ctc/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/CTED_Paper_The-impact-of-the-COVID-19-pandemic-on-counter-terrorism-and-countering-violent-extremism_Dec2020.pdf

[52] Pete Williams, “Missouri man planned to bomb hospital during pandemic to get attention for white supremacist views,” NBC News, March 31, 2020 https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/missouri-man-planned-bomb-hospital-during-pandemic-get-attention-white-n1172346

[53] Lizzie Dearden, “Boy, 14, started making bombs during lockdown after watching ISIS propaganda, court hears,” Independent, September 29, 2020 https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/terror-plots-uk-teenage-boy-eastleigh-bottle-bombs-isis-online-radicalisation-b693441.html

[54] Abdul Basit, “COVID-19: a challenge or opportunity for terrorist groups?” Journal of Policing, Intelligence and Counter Terrorism, vol.15, No.3, October 2020 https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/18335330.2020.1828603?needAccess=true

[55] Claude Berrebi and Jordan Ostwald, “Earthquakes, Hurricanes and Terrorism: Do Natural Disasters Incite Terror?” RAND Working Paper, 2011 https://www.rand.org/pubs/working_papers/WR876.html

[56] Claude Berrebi and Jordan Ostwald, “Earthquakes, Hurricanes and Terrorism: Do Natural Disasters Incite Terror?” RAND Working Paper, 2011 https://www.rand.org/pubs/working_papers/WR876.html


I have a few longer papers that are due to land over the next few weeks, mostly on terrorism for a variety of different outlets. Some bigger China ones coming after that. First up is this piece which was actually written last year and was commissioned by the lovely people at the Vienna based European Institute for Counter-Terrorism and Conflict Prevention (EICTP), and which draws on ideas which were first loosely sketched out in this earlier Foreign Policy piece. It is a bit of a forward looking piece trying to explore where trends might end up going. There are a couple of more empirically based pieces coming looking at the impact of COVID-19 on terrorism and extremism.

Terrorist Threats Post-COVID-19

It is too early at this stage to draw any definitive conclusions about what the impact on terrorism from COVID will be, but some early sketches can be drawn of problems which appear to be being exacerbated. The causal link to COVID is hard to tell. But there has been a noticeable shift in various terrorist ideologies in COVID’s shadow which merit a stock-take. The aim of this article is to dig into these shifts and try to offer some broad thoughts about where the longer- term threat picture might be going.

What have terrorists said about COVID-19?

As a start point, it is useful to explore what terrorist groups have actually said and done about COVID. In the early days of the virus, groups were commenting on it in much the same way as everyone else was. In some cases, they drew the ideas into the larger conspiracies they are signed up to seeking to explain it as part of a master plan to destroy the world and advance their ideology. Less apocalyptic responses focused instead on the practical things that groups could do to help populations fend off the virus. This form of social services was an attempt to win over hearts and minds to demonstrate how governments were failing. In many cases it built on a history of offering social services to their communities, and merely served to further endear them. And yet others instead chose to make the strategically sensible point that the net result was likely to be less attention by security forces and distracted authorities, therefore offering a useful moment to strike or take territory.216

There was also considerable discussion around the idea of trying to weaponize the virus, though the evidence around this happening has been very thin. Extremist forums churned out propaganda about what could be done, but very few actually moved forwards with their plans. One plan was dramatically uncovered in Tunisia, where a preacher was telling his followers to cough or sneeze on security forces in advance of an attack.217 For the most part, security services have not reported much change in the threat picture as a result of COVID.218 In the US some people have been prosecuted under terrorism legislation for threatening to actively spread the virus, though it is not clear there was any political motive behind their act.219

Having said this, there has been a noticeable increase in the volume of noise around terrorist groups,220 though it is not clear this has actually resulted in an increase in violence. While metrics are hard to get, using the data offered by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), it would appear that all of the conflict and political violence metrics that they follow are down year on year across the world, and in particular in regions where terrorist groups are dominant.221 This is not an entirely surprising outcome. Given the general lockdowns and difficulties in travelling, it has become harder to practically mobilize in the same way as before. And while online activity has made the spread and virulence of extremist ideas and disinformation alongside it easier, it is not yet in a state to replace the physical act of violence.

But a lack of violence does not unfortunately necessarily equate to the absence of a problem. The underlying issues that can cause radicalization can take considerable time to turn into a visible terrorist threat. And the current immediate news environment can telescope our ability to properly assess the timeline required for problems to develop. Given the constant noise of threat that is now produced by groups, alongside constant reporting of threats globally at the same time, it can be harder to assess longer-term changes and patterns. The constant coverage gives an impression of an accelerating threat. This results in an expectation that threats materialize immediately, when in fact they can take time to mature.

This is not an entirely new phenomenon, nor is it one that is exclusive to the study of terrorism and political violence. In general, societal expectations around issues are wildly accelerated by a relentless news cycle which requires a constant digest of new information and news. The net result is a lack of patience in tracing consequences and impact from specific actions. From an analytical perspective, it can make it more complicated to appropriately describe problems and threats as the expectation is often that causal impact will be rapid and immediate. In fact, problems often take time to develop and ultimately articulate themselves in violence. The confusion that this reality creates is augmented in a static situation like that created by COVID-19 which has brought vast sections of human activity around the world to a standstill. Objectively standing back, it is hard to assess that COVID-19 has materially changed for the better many situations that were affected by terrorism, in fact, it can appear that the longer- term situation has likely been made worse.

A current stocktake

A complete overview of all terrorist threats globally for such a short paper would be by its nature incomplete and incorrect. Consequently, the author will focus on two dominant threat ideologies (violent Islamists and the extreme right wing) and provide a brief overview of their current status with some broad analysis of how things are advancing in the shadow of COVID.

Within the violent Islamist cohort, al Qaeda and ISIS-affiliated organizations are the dominant representatives. And in both cases, an assessment with relation to the impact of COVID on them is fairly limited at this stage. Both groups continue to thrive in their different ways, though they appear to be facing issues related to their respective broader operating environments rather than anything linked specifically to COVID. Outside rhetoric, at this stage it is very difficult to find many studies that have conclusively pointed to any major change in behavior.222

For example, in 2020 al Qaeda marked the nineteenth anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attack. This was communicated across al Qaeda publications and media channels, though the outputs were for the most part repetitive of previous years and revealed little that was new. The key message from leader Ayman al Zawahiri was an attack on an Al Jazeera documentary made about the attack.223 This reflects a broader stasis around the group which while not defunct, has largely faded from the high points of the past few decades. A useful overview of the organization by BBC Monitoring’s Mina Al Lami showed how its affiliates in Mali and Somalia are its best beacons of success, while its other affiliates are under considerable pressure.224

Similarly, while ISIS continues to exist as a global organization, it is very different to the organization which dominated the airwaves during its peak years of controlling territory in Syria and Iraq. Its core entity in the Levant is a shrunken version of its former self but is gradually gaining some space on the ground in Iraq in particular.225 Its global network of affiliates remains loose, with different ones showing greater degrees of effectiveness and connection to the core. Some are reduced in effectiveness, while others appear ascendant.226 As an overall organization, however, it appears to be in a stage of being an irritant in most of the environments it is present, rather than the existential threat it previously posed when controlling vast pieces of territory in the Levant.

This is certainly not to say that either organization is completely down. Key for the current paper, however, is the fact that neither group appears to have been impacted particularly by COVID. Rather, both persist on roughly the same trajectory that they did before the outbreak of the virus. The threat from them remains relatively constant, with some parts of the threat rising and others falling. The key point, however, is persistence with security agencies still prioritizing the threat from violent Islamist actors.227

More dynamic and impacted to a greater degree in some ways by the virus is the extreme right wing. A threat which was ascendant across Europe, North America and select parts of Asia (Australia and New Zealand) before the outbreak of COVID-19, white supremacist terrorism was something which has been an escalating concern for some time.228 However, in the shadow of the virus, the problem appears to have mushroomed in a number of different directions. Most prominently in the United States there has been a growth in prominence of a number of different groups, ideas and violence. Whilst their individual strains might be slightly different, there are key themes which appear to tie many of them together. From the anti-state Boogaloo Bois who are expecting an impending civil war, the now-prominent Proud Boys (a drinking club dedicated to fighting leftist protestors), to more classic far right groups stoking race war or the constellation of new groups clustering around aspects of the far right like the Incel movement, QAnon conspiracy theorists or angry online communities gathering on sites like 8kun, 4chan or Gab. The world of far right in the United States has achieved greater prominence recently.

These have all been exacerbated in recent times, though it is not clear whether this is related to the virus, or more simply American politics which have gone in a deeply divisive direction under President Trump. His active inflaming of racial tensions and anger towards left-wing protestors feeds the extreme right, groups he has actively promoted from his position as President of the United States of America. During the first Presidential debate, his comments about the Proud Boys group quite specifically brought prominence to them229, while his earlier tweeting has brought international prominence to a far-right British group Britain First.230

But he is not solely responsible for this rising right-wing. Under the auspices of COVID, some aspects of the acceleration of extreme right anger can be linked to the expansion of the state, something that has been happening in some parts of the country in response to COVID- 19.231 And there has been a growth in conspiracy theories linked to COVID-19 response – like fears around vaccines or the impact of 5G technology – which have often stoked some of the growing constellation of groups gathered on the extreme right.232 This will be covered again later, but they are clearly playing into long-standing US narratives of an overbearing federal state which is seeking to disenfranchise groups, removing their guns, infringing on their liberties and generally becoming a menace to the free state as defined in the US constitution. Such Patriot or Sovereign Citizen groups have long been a feature of the American discourse, but recent political clashes, somewhat exacerbated by the further expansion of the state in response to COVID and polarized political narratives, have strengthened their hold amongst fringe communities.

In Europe, a more classic extreme right tends to dominate, with racist networks flourishing in the shadows of a growth of far-right political movements and a polarized debate around immigration. This phenomenon has been developing for some time, with Germany facing the National Socialist Underground (NSU) in the late 2000s, while angry protest groups like the UK’s English Defence League (EDL) spawned imitators across Europe. Annual Europol reports point to a growing extreme right wing threat in Europe, while individual security forces point to disrupted plots.233 Renaud Camus totemic text The Great Replacement has captured a particular mood across the continent234, while mass violence associated with such ideas can be found earlier in Anders Behring Breivik’s 2011 attack in Oslo and Utoya Island.235 Europe has also seem an emergence of conspiracy theorists, QAnon236 and Incels,237 and a growing rumbling of anti-government anger similar to that in the US.238

But similar to the narrative on the violent Islamist side, what has been happening on the extreme right is in many ways merely an extension of what was going on before. Extreme right- wing terrorism had been a growing phenomenon for the past few years and its fragmentation had started even before the outbreak of COVID-19 and the lockdowns that followed. For some countries, the return to dominance of the extreme right was a reflection of a balance of threat that existed pre-September 11, 2001.239

Future threats

COVID-19 has, however, changed how society is functioning and this will have some sort of effect on terrorist threats. In particular, the change to society that is going to be wrought in the longer time by the virus or existing issues whose impact was accelerated by the virus will have some effect on terrorist threats.

As stated at the outset, it is at this stage quite difficult to measure the exact causal effect, but some trends appear to be accelerated in the shadow of the virus which point to how this moment might impact the longer-term threat picture. While life is returning to some semblance of normality, the constant fear of new waves of the virus and the consequent disruption to society that follows continues to hang over things. The economic damage done by the virus has still not been calculated and may be being artificially suppressed temporarily due to economic stimulus programs. But their impact will be felt in many different ways in terms of government budgets both at home and abroad. The abrupt shift online is likely to permanently change some industries and eliminate others. The effect on the workforces will be dramatic and abrupt, creating potentially large unemployed or underemployed communities.

The potential impact on political violence and terrorism is hard to gauge, but three areas stand out as potential spaces in which political violence may grow in the future in part as a result of the impact of COVID-19’s ravaging the planet. In many ways these are also extensions of previous problems, but their acceleration against other trends impacted by COVID is potentially going to create greater problems than might otherwise have emerged.

A web spun by COVID

One of the biggest winners of COVID-19 is the Internet. With the advent of lockdowns and working from home, people found themselves increasingly spending time online. The impact of this on terrorism is complicated and goes in many different directions. In the first instance there is the impact on online radicalization. Something that used to be seen as a peripheral aspect of the problem, with the majority of radicalization still requiring physical contact with other extremists, the last few years have seen a growth in cases involving individuals who are choosing to move towards terrorist ideas and then into action solely on the basis of contacts or material they have found online.

In some cases, this is simply a shift online of what used to happen offline. The phenomenon of remote direction as popularized by ISIS is a shifting of the relationship between group and individual attacker online. Whereas previously individuals would head to a training camp and then be directed to launch an attack back home, now the approach was to simply direct people from a distance to launch their attacks using the many encrypted applications that exist. Individuals like Junaid Hussain240 or Rachid Kassim241 became infamous for the networks of young westerners they directed from ISIS held territory to launch terrorist attacks.

But more recently this has developed differently where people are now seemingly ready to launch attacks in advance of ideas they have found online with little to no connection with the actual group itself. In some cases, the individuals are not even joining a group. In the case of something like Incel or QAnon, they are simply following an online phenomenon or chat group and stirring themselves onto violence. The connection between terrorist violence and organized networks and hierarchies is shifting. This has been described as ‘post-organizational’ terrorist plotting where groups, their links and structures are no longer as clear as they used to be.242 While structured organizations still exist, the growth of ideologies online which people can piece together themselves, connect with as imprecisely as they would like, and ultimately interpret in any way that they would like has created a range of problems which live beyond our current interpretations of political violence.

The expression of this can be found in how security services find themselves talking about threats. In the United Kingdom, there has been a growth in individuals who are radicalizing with an ideology which appears to be a mix of contradictory issues and ideas, they are being bracketed by the Home Office as being “mixed, unstable or unclear”.243 In the United States, terrorism is now handled by the Department for Homeland Security (DHS) alongside “Targeted Threats”.244 In Canada they talk of “ideologically motivated violent extremism”.245 The key point is that there is a growth of individuals who are acting out in a manner which is reminiscent of terrorism, and yet when some investigation is done into their ideological motivation, it is unclear exactly what it is. It is even possible to question whether this should properly be called terrorism or whether it is in fact simply an expression of personal anger using the vernacular of terrorism to give it greater meaning.246

Whatever the case, this cohort of individuals is a growing phenomenon. There is a number of individuals who are becoming involved in terrorist activity who are suffering from mental health issues, others that are being identified as having autism spectrum disorders and a growing proportion of very young individuals being drawn into violent activity. Again, absolute numbers are hard to identify, but the number of studies looking into the question has grown while security agencies have increasingly expressed concerns. And while none of these phenomena are new, there is some evidence that the cases are being exacerbated as a result of the lockdown from COVID. In the UK there is the case of the fourteen-year-old boy who reportedly became fascinated with ISIS videos while stuck at home in lockdown, and started to make bombs off models he found online (he was ultimately cleared by a court).247 In Spain, a radical who had been under observation by security services, was arrested after authorities started to grow concerned about the fact that he was radicalizing further and moving towards action during lockdown.248 Finally, there have been lower level cases, like individuals who were going through periods of probation and suddenly found themselves underemployed who instead turned back to online activity.

And this roster accounts only for those of violent Islamist inclination. There is a growing concern around these issues for other ideologies as well. Focusing on the UK, there have been the disturbing cases in recent history of a deeply disturbed man arrested on charges related to left-wing terrorist activity who committed suicide while incarcerated.249 Online extreme right networks in Europe have been found to have been led by very young teenagers.250 There have been Incels found in Europe making explosives, including very young teenagers who have been identified as suffering from autism spectrum disorders.251 And then there is the confusing phenomena of very young individuals whose ideology appears to be a self-created mix of ideas drawing on a wide pool of extreme material they find online.

Such individuals who are self-assembling extremist ideas are often drawn towards conspiracy theories, or dark holes on the internet where such ideas can lurk. And the strength and potency of such online conspiracies has only grown – enhanced by the uncertainty and instability that COVID and geopolitics has created. Conspiracy theories like fears of the dangers of 5G, the threats from vaccines, super-conspiracies like those underpinning QAnon about dark cabals of pedophiles ruling the world are all now circulating online amongst communities of people who are spending ever larger volumes of time online on social media. While work has gone into trying to change or break the algorithms, companies are still struggling to completely control them and often these ideas grow in spaces beyond the big social media companies.

All of this is further exacerbated by active government disinformation campaigns that are working to stir up tensions online. In part this is directed against elections, but it is also simply a way of causing trouble. Sometimes it is not even clear the degree to which it is directed by states, rather than angry groups or bored children. But whatever the case, its impact is felt much more deeply part as a result of the general polarization that is taking place in politics, but also by the fact that an ever-increasing volume of people are spending time online.

Left, luddism and environmentalism

Tracking all of this forwards, the time spent online is not only something which is transforming our methods of communication and absorption of information, but it is further likely to have longer-term repercussions on the shape of our economies and workforces. As lockdowns and restrictions continue, entire industries are suffering and likely to be closing down. Physical retail, already in retreat thanks to the boom in online markets, is likely to take a further beating, while the food and beverage industry is going to continue to suffer for some time to come. The fundamental point is that a growing number of these services will shift online in some capacity, meaning that the physical jobs needed in shops or restaurants to serve people will not necessarily exist anymore. This will create a growing community of unemployed people, or people who end up under-employed or forced to take even more menial jobs. It is hard to gauge exactly what the volume of this shift will be, but it might start to inspire a backlash against the technology and firms that are abetting this shift.

Luddism, a concept first advanced in the 19th century by textile workers angry at the advance of modern technology which was rendering their jobs redundant, could make a comeback. This is not new. Theodore Kaczyinski, the infamous Unabomber, was an earlier luddite whose anger at technology’s dominance of society was something which led him to launch a one-man letter bombing campaign from 1978 to 1995 from a remote cabin in Montana.252 His manifesto, “Industrial Society and Its Future” was published September 1995 in the Washington Post and started with the premise that “the industrial revolution and its consequences have been a disaster for the human race.”253 He may have been twenty years early, but many of the issues he raises in his manifesto are relevant today. As we enter an ever more interconnected and online world, not only are we likely to see more people reacting negatively to it, but also we will see more people becoming disenfranchised as a result. Stories have already emerged about the horrors of working for some of the big online retail companies,254 and these are likely to be exaggerated further in COVID’s wake as we see them assume an even more dominant place within our society.

It is not only a modern form of luddism that may emerge in reaction. Many of the ideas rejecting society or large industrial take over is reminiscent of ideas emanating from the left – where capitalism’s imposing structures crush individuals in advance of profit. These fundamental ideas which are often appropriated by groups on both sides. Consequently, the massive expansion of some companies, of an internet which is controlled by large firms and which is ultimately disempowering people and eliminating employment has the potential to be attractive as an adversary to those on the far left as well. Anti-globalization groups that used to have prominence in the pre-September 11 world,255 have in the past two decades been dominated by a terrorist narrative which focuses on the threat from violent Islamist groups and latterly those on the extreme right wing. The left has receded as a dominant threat, notwithstanding President Trump’s declarations otherwise.256 Yet, within the chaos wrought by COVID-19, it is possible to see a re-emergence of elements of a far-left threat, angry at the rampant far-right and seeing inequality deepening.

Atop this, issues around environmentalism may have been pushed to one side due to COVID-19 concerns, but the problems remain. From a governmental perspective, there is still a need to resolve them, though the pace of change is one that is not happening fast enough for a number of activists. Whilst violence associated with the environmental movement is rare, the fall-out from COVID and the likely de-prioritization of environmental issues in favor of healthcare and repairing stricken economies, may stir more violence. An interesting phenomenon of the past few years has in fact been the mainstreaming of environmental anger into other ideologies. In some cases, like al Shabaab’s banning of plastic bags, it appears banal and almost comical,257 but in others, like the attackers in El Paso and Christchurch declaring they are eco-fascists,258 it shows how environmental ideas can be absorbed into more mainstream violent ideologies in a way that enhances the narrative. Suggesting that for environmental issues to become a terrorist problem, they do not necessarily have to emerge solely from the environmental movement’s mainstream or fringe. Played against the broader backdrop of instability and likely environmental degradation which will continue in the post-COVID-19 world, it is possible such narratives will gain greater salience.

China

A final threat which is likely to rise further, accelerated by COVID-19, is the growth of China as a target for violence and terrorism. Already a trend that was visible pre-COVID-19, it was something which was likely in part a product of China’s rise to a preeminent place on the international stage, as well as a reaction to China’s domestic and foreign policy. At home, the treatment of its Uighur minority has long-spurred anger rhetoric against China, but it has generated surprisingly little terrorism. Domestic violence within China associated with Uighur extremism is often rather expressions of anger at the state, with only some incidents justifiably considered terrorism.259 China’s heavy-handed crackdown has largely suppressed these instances of violence at home, but there have been a few abroad associated with Uighur networks.260 More dominant has been the growing targeting of Chinese nationals and interests by groups elsewhere – more often than not local networks rather than international ones.

For example, in Pakistan, China has increasingly become the target of Baluchi and Sindhi separatists. While there is a consistent level of concern around violent Islamist groups within the country, they have for the most part not targeted Chinese specifically.261 When they have hit Chinese targets, it has tended to be incidental and as part of a larger assault against foreigners or the state. In contrast, Sindhi and Baluchi groups have specifically targeted Chinese institutions and repeatedly put out messaging saying that China was their target. Similarly, in Indonesia, there may be a long history of anti-Chinese sentiment, but recently there has been a growth in specific thinking about targeting Chinese nationals within the country by violent Islamist groups. In part they consider this retribution for the treatment of Uighurs, but it also reflects an anger towards China as an invading colonial force.262

This particular anger is something that is only likely to grow going forwards. Beijing will find that as China rises to become an ever more central pillar in international affairs, it will attract as many detractors as it will supporters. And some of these detractors will be infuriated at Chinese behavior enough to want to commit acts of violence against Chinese interests. This trend is likely to be accelerated by the COVID-19 moment the world is going through. Beijing’s unapologetic response to its links to the origin of the virus, subsequent aggressive public relations diplomacy captured under the moniker ‘wolf warrior’263 and forceful posture on the world stage has done little to endear China to the international community.264 All of this is likely to attract different levels of public anger, some of which is likely to articulate itself as terrorism.

In some parts of the world this has already taken something of an ugly twist with the growing targeting of East Asian nationals in racist attacks.265 Taken alongside the growing levels of tension towards China, this is the sort of violence that has in other contexts ended up expressing itself through violence. China and ethnic East Asians are likely to find themselves increasingly potential targets of violence going forwards.

Conclusions

Much of this is of course speculative at this point. The world is still battling COVID with no clear timeline for when we will be able to talk about being in a post-COVID-19 world. And the longer the world suffers from COVID, the deeper the consequences touched upon in this paper are likely to be. The societal divisions, the economic damage, the transformed economies, and societies are all issues where impact is already visible, and this will only become more acute as more time passes. Society will change and this will have some sort of knock-on effect on the world of terrorism and political violence.

It will likely take some time, even years, before a clear causal link will be possible between the current events and the longer-term changes that might take place in terms of politically motivated violence and terrorism. Some of these effects might in fact be mere accelerations of what was already happening. This is something that is visible already in the growing prominence of the extreme right. Its rise was already visible pre-COVID, with the pattern tracing back years. But in the shadow of the disease and the societal, political and economic impact it has wrought we are seeing its rise sped up and worsened. Of course, this has to be played against the polarized political environment in Washington, DC in particular, which has amplified the noise around the far-right, something which has also likely been made worse by COVID-19. The point being that separating out effects and causal links will be something which is going to be hard to measure and quantify.

One issue which is likely to change in the west in particular in the wake of COVID-19 is the role of state in society. The massive bailouts, new healthcare and security infrastructure which will be needed to ensure future pandemics are better managed, and large public debt that will follow will require management. They will generate unhappiness in unexpected quarters, and in some cases, outright rejection. Given terrorism is at its root a form of anti-establishmentarianism, the massive growth of the state that is likely to result in post-COVID world could be a key underlying issue to look at when trying to explore how terrorism might evolve in the future. This is already most prominently visible in the United States, where it builds on a long history of libertarian and anti-federal government activity, but it is possible that similar strains may start to emerge elsewhere. In some ways, the anti-Chinese anger which may become exacerbated is another expression of this, with China becoming such a dominant figure globally that it is consequently attracting ire.

All of this needs to be kept into perspective of course. While COVID may have some effect on terrorism and political violence, its principal impact will most immediately and dramatically be felt in other aspects of human behavior. However, understanding how these ripples will echo in terrorism remains an important aspect to observe.

Sources

[216] https://d2071andvip0wj.cloudfront.net/B004-covid-19-seven-trends.pdf

[217] https://northafricapost.com/40082-terrorists-plotting-covid-19-contamination-attack-on-tunisian-security-forces-arrested.html

[218] https://apcss.org/assessing-the-impact-of-the-covid-19-pandemic-on-terrorism-and-counter-terrorism-practitioner-insights/

[219] https://abcnews.go.com/US/wireStory/us-charges-terror-crimes-threats-spread-virus-70052376

[220] https://gnet-research.org/2020/04/27/comparing-jihadist-and-far-right-extremist-narratives-on-covid-19/

[221] https://acleddata.com/#/dashboard

[222] There has been considerable work, however, looking at the potential risks. For example, IPAC in Indonesia has written a number of useful papers looking at threats there: http://www.understandingconflict.org/en.html and the UN has summarized what has been happening in CT and CVE terms: https://www.un.org/sc/ctc/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/CTED-Paper%E2%80%93-The-impact-of-the-COVID-19-pandemic-on-counter-terrorism-and-countering-violent-extremism.pdf, and finally, Abdul Basit has provided a useful summary of a number of trends across the terrorism space and the threat and opportunity it provides for terrorist organizations: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/18335330.2020.1828603

[223] https://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2020/09/zawahiri-asserts-al-qaedas-independence-in-new-message.php

[224] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-54102404

[225] https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/gulf-and-arabian-peninsula/iraq/when-measuring-isiss-resurgence-use-right-standard

[226] ISIS Somalia has had a very bad year so far: https://public.tableau.com/profile/fddmaps#!/vizhome/SomaliaClaims/Dashboard1 while its affiliate group in Mozambique has been increasingly effective: http://www.open.ac.uk/technology/mozambique/sites/www.open.ac.uk.technology.mozambique/files/files/CEEI_Security_Brief_3.pdf 

[227] The US intelligence community is one prominent example: https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/Newsroom/Testimonies/20200917_HCHS_Miller_SFR_Final.pdf, though it is not clear that this applies internationally and domestically to the same degree. A recent DHS assessment pointed to an expanded White Supremacist Threat in particular at home: https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/2020_10_06_homeland-threat-assessment.pdf

[228] Australia has recorded a particular rise: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/sep/22/asio-reveals-up-to-40-of-its-counter-terrorism-cases-involve-far-right-violent-extremism as well as the United States: https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/2020_10_06_homeland-threat-assessment.pdf

[229] https://edition.cnn.com/2020/09/30/politics/proud-boys-trump-debate-trnd/index.html

[230] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-42166663

[231] The case of Eduardo Moreno is instructive in this regard: https://www.justice.gov/usao-cdca/pr/train-operator-port-los-angeles-charged-derailing-locomotive-near-us-navy-s-hospital

[232] https://public-assets.graphika.com/reports/Graphika_Report_Covid19_Infodemic.pdf

[233] file:///Users/raffaellopantucci/Downloads/european_union_terrorism_situation_and_trend_report_te-sat_2020_0.pdf

[234] https://www.lemonde.fr/les-decodeurs/article/2019/03/15/la-theorie-du-grand-remplacement-de-l-ecrivain-renaud-camus-aux-attentats-en-nouvelle-zelande_5436843_4355770.html

[235] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-14259989

[236] https://slate.com/technology/2020/09/qanon-europe-germany-lockdown-protests.html

[237] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/the-filter/rise-women-haters-inside-dark-world-british-incels/

[238] https://raffaellopantucci.files.wordpress.com/2021/03/f1810-source_d3.7_assr4.pdf

[239] Australia is a case in point where far right violence was the dominant threat pre-9/11. Similarly, within Europe, while various separatist groups were the dominant terrorist threat, the far right was a problem that sometimes spilled into violence.

[240] https://ctc.usma.edu/british-hacker-became-islamic-states-chief-terror-cybercoach-profile-junaid-hussain/

[241] https://www.wsj.com/articles/how-islamic-state-weaponized-the-chat-app-to-direct-attacks-on-the-west-1476955802

[242] https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/confronting-the-challenge-of-post-organisational-extremism/

[243] https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/763254/individuals-referred-supported-prevent-programme-apr2017-mar2018-hosb3118.pdf

[244] https://www.dhs.gov/tvtp

[245] https://www.canada.ca/content/dam/csis-scrs/documents/publications/PubRep-2019-E.pdf

[246] https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-from-chaos/2020/09/22/who-is-a-terrorist-actually/ ; https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/running-amok-in-an-age-of-meaningless-terror

[247] https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-hampshire-54450013

[248] https://www.catalannews.com/society-science/item/man-arrested-in-barcelona-for-allegedly-plotting-terrorist-attack

[249] https://www.leeds-live.co.uk/news/leeds-news/dominic-noble-huddersfield-dies-prison-18812989

[250] https://apnews.com/article/7067c03e1af0b157be7c15888cbe8c27

[251] https://www.birminghammail.co.uk/news/uk-news/fantasist-obsessed-incels-jailed-over-17998017

[252] https://www.fbi.gov/history/famous-cases/unabomber

[253] https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/longterm/unabomber/manifesto.text.htm

[254] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/mar/11/hired-six-months-undercover-in-low-wage-britain-zero-hours-review-james-bloodworth

[255] https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2014/01/the-dark-side-of-globalization-why-seattles-1999-protesters-were-right/282831/

[256] https://www.ft.com/content/fdf5e423-4a4e-482c-8ca8-e0bf71fcfbcd, it is also worth noting that some left-wing terrorism still exists in parts of southern Europe – for example, Italy and Greece.

[257] https://www.businessinsider.com/al-shabab-bans-plastic-bags-as-a-serious-threat-to-people-2018-7

[258] https://www.gq.com/story/what-is-eco-fascism

[259] https://raffaellopantucci.com/2014/07/24/chinas-domestic-insurgency/

[260] https://www.rferl.org/a/kyrgyzstan-china-embassy-jailed/28583623.html and https://www.reuters.com/article/us-thailand-blast-idUSKBN13A0FR

[261] https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy-defence/article/2160918/lesson-pakistan-suicide-attack-china-will-have-pay-high

[262] https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3099151/indonesian-terrorists-planned-attack-shop-owners-areas-chinese

[263] https://www.straitstimes.com/opinion/beware-the-spirit-of-the-wolf-warrior

[264] https://www.pewresearch.org/global/2020/10/06/unfavorable-views-of-china-reach-historic-highs-in-many-countries/

[265] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-52714804

Another piece on China in Central Asia, this time for the Straits Times looking at the question of competitive vaccine diplomacy in competition with Russia. All of this is teeing up the book, and a few more bigger pieces due out at some point during the year. Am also maybe hoping to revive the website, though that is going to take some work.

Wooing Central Asia, over Covid

Russia deployed vaccine diplomacy. China brought in not just vaccines, but equipment and medical aid. Who won?

ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

Trapped between China and Russia, Central Asia has always found itself stuck between empires. In earlier times, it was conquerors from the region such as Tamerlane who built Eurasian empires, but increasingly the countries find themselves trying to thread a diplomatic needle between competing external powers.

Currently, it is medicine that is defining the struggle in the region, as both China and Russia compete for influence through their medical diplomacy.

While Beijing appears to have the upper hand in terms of volume, it is Moscow that appears to be winning over the hearts and minds.

As Kazakhstan embarks on a vaccination drive using Sputnik V, China could ask itself why its medical diplomacy in Central Asia has not worked as it hoped it might. Rather than turn the region towards Beijing, it appears to have simply exacerbated existing tensions and suspicions towards China. The region has benefited from China’s support and largess, but Central Asians still tend primarily towards Moscow.

First, a bit of history: Russian strategists tend to see the world through spheres of influence. From their view, Central Asia is seen as “theirs”. From before the Soviet Union, the nations of Central Asia were part of the wider Russian Empire. During the 1800s, Imperial Russia expanded up to Afghanistan, and the original Great Game was born between the competing English and Russian empires as they sought to keep each other at bay in distant Asia.

At the time, China was an inward-looking power. The Qing Dynasty was fighting wars against encroaching European empires, and Chinese Imperial expansion into Central Asia had stopped far earlier, after the Battle of Talas in 751AD. Xinjiang under the Qing was a far-flung corner of China which was far from the Emperor’s attentions.

BALANCING ACT CONTINUES

Today, the countries of Central Asia – Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan – are independent states with their own governments and agency. This year, they celebrate their 30th independence anniversaries from under the Soviet yoke. But they remain landlocked and bound to their neighbours, stuck in an awkward balancing act between China and Russia.

Moscow is keen to stay influential. There is an economic and security interest. Human connections persist with millions of Central Asians working as low-wage labourers or workers in Russia. The remittances generated provide huge inflows of currency to Central Asian economies, while Russia gets the benefits of a cheap workforce. The region is also attractive to Russian companies that see opportunity in a region where they share a language and many cultural practices.

At the same time, Moscow also sees the region as a buffer from the violence and drugs that emanate from Afghanistan, investing considerable amounts in supporting security institutions across the region.

And Russia has sought to strengthen this connection through a constellation of post-Soviet multilateral institutions such as the Eurasian Economic Union (EAEU), which former US secretary of state Hillary Clinton called part of an attempt to re-Sovietise the region, the Collective Security Treaty Organisation and the Commonwealth of Independent States. (The former grew out of the framework of the latter.)

Not all Central Asians are willing participants, though in the case of the EAEU, it was an idea which was proposed by Kazakh leader Nursultan Nazarbayev.

CHINA’S FOCUS: STABILITY

Modern China wants to expand into the region to protect itself from any threats that might emerge, as well as profit from the potential it offers.

Since then Premier Li Peng’s foundation-laying tour of the region in 1994 – which established the contours of the area’s contemporary relationship with China – the focus has been on economic links and trade corridors articulated under the phrasing of silk roads. This has sat alongside a persistent fear that Uighur groups might use the region to foment trouble within Xinjiang.

The answer, from China’s perspective, is a growing security footprint focused on its own interests and concerns, alongside a surge in economic links and investment which ultimately seek to improve stability and security in the region and Xinjiang. China is not really interested in conquering the region or creating a sphere of influence like Moscow, but rather it wants guarantees and stability to ultimately help foster stability and security at home.

And so far, China is playing a winning game. It is now the main trading partner with all the Central Asian powers, and has been increasing its investment.

Traditionally perceived as being focused on natural resources such as metals, oil and gas, Chinese companies are, in fact, increasingly present across Central Asian economies – from online traders like Alibaba or Taobao, to agriculture and food products, and infrastructure construction of every sort – from roads, rail, telecoms and more.

This flow of investment and trade is followed by a soft-power push in education and training, which is increasingly normalising China’s presence in and links with the region.

RUSSIA’S FOCUS: INFLUENCE

Russia continues to keep its hand active, though. China may be rewiring the region, literally as well as metaphorically, so all paths lead back to Beijing, but Moscow continues to be the first capital politicians will visit. And Russia remains the pre-eminent security partner in training, military sales and security ventures.

Technology is the one space where it is hard to see Russia competing with China, but Moscow has sought to find other ways of maintaining a significant role, including through influencing legislation.

But there is a tension between the two powers. Russia can see it is losing ground, but feels it is unable to do too much because it lacks China’s resources. It also prioritises a geostrategic relationship with Beijing over whatever happens in Central Asia.

There is little appetite in Russia for Central Asia to become an impediment or complicating factor to its relationship with China. Ultimately, Moscow is more interested in ensuring Beijing is onside in its greater confrontation with the West than the concerns Russia might have with Chinese encroachment into Central Asia. But there is a growing concern in Moscow that they might find Central Asia becoming the soft underbelly through which China can undermine Russia.

MEDICAL DIPLOMACY

This leads to pushback, the most recent expression of which can be seen in the vaccine diplomacy being deployed across the region.

Central Asia’s response to Covid-19 was spasmodic at best. Turkmenistan, for instance, has yet to admit it has suffered any cases, though foreign diplomats have perished from Covid-like diseases and the country has ordered vaccines. Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan have all suffered cases, but the numbers have been relatively low. At this point, the region does seem to have turned a corner in dealing with the coronavirus, in part due to the interventions from its two giant neighbours.

In the Russian case, it has been through the Sputnik V vaccine, while China has provided protective equipment, medical training courses and webinars as well as planeloads of aid from Chinese companies, regions and institutions. Additionally, Chinese vaccine producers have used Uzbekistan as a site for phase three testing, while deliveries of their vaccines have started to arrive in the region.

But this Chinese dominance has not translated into popularity. According to data from the Central Asian Barometer, when asked which country would be most likely to help them manage Covid-19, 52 per cent of Kazakhs, 58 per cent of Uzbeks and 76 per cent of Kyrgyz surveyed said Russia was most likely to be able to help. Only 20 per cent of Kazakhs, 14 per cent of Uzbeks and 8 per cent of Kyrgyz believed the same of China.

These numbers echo surveys done pre-Covid-19 which showed that across the region Russia was most popular, with China and the United States competing for second place.

For all its efforts, China’s medical diplomacy and growing investments do not appear to have delivered popular success in the heartland of Eurasia.

Bound still by linguistic, cultural and economic links, and a media which has great penetration throughout the region, Russia remains the more dominant actor within Central Asia. The region’s population still looks primarily towards Russia for its external support, something left over in part from history, but also out of a growing sense of concern about the meteoric rise of China around the world and in their immediate neighbourhood.

This will ultimately be reassuring to Moscow, as it realises it has a few cards that it can play against Beijing. For now, medical diplomacy is one of those cards as clearly Central Asians look more favourably on medical care from a bear than a dragon.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and has a forthcoming book looking at China’s relations with Central Asia.

The first in a pair of articles for Asian papers looking at China’s relations with Central Asia through the current COVID-19 disaster. This first one for the South China Morning Post, exploring the reality of how trade is being impacted during this time. In many ways what has been happening is not that surprising, but at the same time it seemed quite dissonant from Wang Yi’s comments during the 两会.

Belt and Road Initiative: China’s rosy picture is at odds with realities on the ground during Covid-19

  • Foreign Minister Wang Yi and others have sung the praises of the initiative and promoted its goal of improving cross-border flows of people and goods
  • The reality during the pandemic has been different, though, with China’s neighbours and partners frustrated by border closures, and goods facing lengthy delays
Foreign Minister Wang Yi (second right) attends a virtual ceremony with Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi to formally commence the celebrations of the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries in Beijing on March 2. Photo: Xinhua

Foreign Minister Wang Yi (second right) attends a virtual ceremony with Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi to formally commence the celebrations of the 70th anniversary of diplomatic relations between the two countries in Beijing on March 2. Photo: Xinhua

There is no pause button for the Belt and Road Initiative, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said during his expansive news conference on Chinese diplomacy during the annual Two Sessions summit in Beijing. Yet, look around China’s neighbours in Central and South Asia and the story looks very different. Closed or only partially opened borders, alongside stories of Chinese frustration at local partners, suggest at the very least a slow-motion button has been hit in several areas.

While the initiative as articulated by Wang is focused on infrastructure development, China has repeatedly highlighted how infrastructure is only the first pillar of the broader vision. Longer-term, the strategy is intended to be a vision for trade and economic flows around the world.

During a “high-level video conference on belt and road cooperation”, held last June, Wang spoke of a desire to “discuss the establishment of fast-track lanes for cross-border flows of people and goods with belt and road partners”.

Talk to haulers or traders in Central Asia, though, and the picture during the past year has been very different. Last December, the bottlenecks at Kazakh-Chinese rail borders became so bad that a reported 7,000 containers were stuck waiting to cross, with delays stretching to more than a month because of restrictions on the Chinese side.In Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan, the border posts have remained closed at China’s request, with only very limited traffic being reported as passing through.

In his meeting last week with Chinese Ambassador to Bishkek Du Dewen, Kyrgyzstan Prime Minister Ulukbek Maripov made the latest official plea for China to open its border. Du has held numerous meetings with various Kyrgyz officials since the new government came in, and the question of reopening and speeding up border crossings has been repeatedly brought up, to no avail.

Traders using the Kulma Pass between China and Tajikistan have faced a closed border since October, and reportedly the Chinese side is using the opportunity to increase their own market share and squeeze out Tajik traders. One spoken to by the local press reported how winter clothes he had ordered from Kashgar last year were still stuck on the Chinese side and were now useless to him as winter had largely passed.

A Tajik official said in February that only 25 Tajik trucks had been allowed through the pass since the beginning of the year, and there was a 260-truck backlog. Meanwhile, the queue at Erkeshtam on the China-Kyrgyzstan border is four days, and only seven to eight trucks are able to cross daily as opposed to 50 to 60 that used to do so.

This has had a knock-on effect on transport costs. Uzbek markets report that the costs of taking a truckload of tangerines from China in 2019 was US$4,000 to US$5,000 per truck. In 2020, because of the coronavirus pandemic, the cost per truck increased to US$25,000 to US$26,000.Trucking goods from China to Europe used to take 16 to 18 days, but the border restrictions by China mean a vehicle can find itself waiting 15 to 20 days just to cross the China-Kazakh border.

The blame for many of these blockages is on the Chinese side, where restrictions blamed on Covid-19 are stopping transit trade. In fact, according to Chinese trade data, flows between China and all Central Asian countries with the exception of Kazakhstan have slumped in the past year. They range from an almost 50 per cent drop year on year with Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan to a 30 per cent fall with Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.

Kazakhstan has seen a 5 per cent year-on-year increase, though this is down on 9 per cent the year before and 34 per cent the year before that. So much for trade and connectivity flows being boosted during Covid-19. 

At the same time, China’s perennially complicated relationship with Pakistan continues to stumble on. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is inching forwards, although Chinese irritation is increasingly visible.

The 10th meeting of the Joint Cooperation Committee for CPEC, the central organising body which includes senior figures from China’s National Development and Reform Commission and Pakistan’s Ministry of Planning Development and Special Initiatives, has yet to take place. The ninth session was held in November 2019.Repeated delays blamed on Covid-19 and other complications have held things up, leading to suspicions something else might be at play. Covid-19 was, for example, not enough to stop Defence Minister Wei Fenghe visiting Pakistan in December 2020 to sign a new Memorandum of Understanding to bolster the already strong China-Pakistan military relationship.

The problems around CPEC have been obvious for some time. The increasing Pakistani military presence and involvement with CPEC decision-making highlights Beijing’s frustration, given that it has always favoured decisive military men over Pakistan’s politicians, and Chinese and Pakistani officials see military relations as the backbone of bilateral relations.This comes alongside the appointment of Nong Rong, a trade specialist from Guangxi, as ambassador to Pakistan in contrast to the usual foreign ministry cadre and South Asia hand who would usually be appointed, showing a desire by the Communist Party to further strengthen its hand.

None of these problems are that new or surprising, and China is perfectly entitled to strengthen its border controls to control the spread of Covid-19. However, it seems somewhat dissonant with the rosy picture painted by Wang.

Officials all over the world are prone to positive interpretations of events, but to offer something so discordant with what is happening on the ground suggests a larger problem. China has placed downward pressure on the Belt and Road Initiative, notwithstanding a clear desire by neighbours for things to get going again.

Raffaello Pantucci is senior associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London