A new short piece for London’s Evening Standard this past week looking at the discussion about China that the UK seems not to be having at the moment. Rather than a nuanced discussion, it has become very polarised at the moment and seems to be going further in this direction at the moment. Going to be a hot topic for a while I suspect.

This aside, spoke to AFP about the relationship of Xinjiang to the broader Belt and Road Initiative (which was picked up in a few places) and rather randomly the Italy-Russia relationship to Sputnik. Separate to this, spoke to a few in the wake of the terrible attack in Sri Lanka, including Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, Economist, Washington Post, NPR, and the Dutch Nieuwsuur and NRCFinally, for those more visually inclined, please check out this video done for my home institute of RUSI on the Sri Lanka attack.

China is both an economic opportunity and a threat

huawei2404

The hysteria around the Government’s decision on Huawei and 5G is distracting from a more mature conversation about Chinathat the UK has not yet had.

How are we to establish a manageable existence alongside a country that is becoming one of the world’s biggest economic pillars, while at the same time incarcerating Western researchers, holding vast numbers of its own population in arbitrary detention and continuing to stymie open political debate?

It is a power we want to engage with, but it threatens some of our closest allies. How we deal with this should be the discussion we are having.

There are questions around Huawei. Large Chinese companies are close to the State. Firms contain Communist Party cells, and national legislation obliges them to respond to demands from the Chinese security apparatus. 

Whether we should allow this sort of company to build parts of our telecoms infrastructure is a question best suited to those who are technically minded and understand the level of risk posed, and how (or if) it can be managed.

Yet this narrow question has overwhelmed the debate around China. You are either for Huawei or against it, in much the same way that you either want to confront China or engage with it. But this binary choice is a false one. The world is more complicated than that.

China is both an opportunity and a threat. Beijing is rising as a major power that is investing in, and developing, parts of the world we have long worried about. Having lifted millions of its own people out of poverty, it is helping countries the UK has spent billions of pounds on.

There are problems with its approaches, many of which are being aired during the current Belt and Road Forum in Beijing. But China is offering an opportunity that developing countries are also keen on. And from a UK perspective, this is a good thing. We also agree with its creation of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and its views on pollution and international peacekeeping.

Yet Beijing is also threatening some of our closest allies, arbitrarily jailing Western nationals and ruling its people harshly. Japan and India are Asian giants equally close to the UK that have tense border confrontations with China.

But Delhi and Tokyo are trying to balance these issues with the reality that Beijing’s growth is the major economic story in their back yard. They are often trying to find ways of both engaging and challenging Beijing at the same time.

We too must understand how we are going to manage the fact that we want China’s co-operation and support on important issues but need to be deeply concerned about others. We have to both remonstrate and work with it, in concert with our close allies.

China is complex, and our response requires an equal nuance. Having a more sophisticated national conversation would be a good place to start.

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

Advertisements

Belatedly posting a piece for the Financial Times excellent Beyond BRICS blog which focuses on the reality of the Chinese relationship with Iran and Russia. More complicated than is often assumed. A topic that I would like to focus on more in the future, both in terms of the reality and complexity of China’s relations with Iran and Russia, as well as broader Eurasian geopolitics. On that particular note, please check back into the China in Central Asia website which  I am hoping to awaken soon.

Separately, spoke to the Guardian about the UK’s disengagement and desistance programme, to the BBC about the extreme right wing, to the LA Times about a Uighur fighting extradition from Turkey, to De Trouw about the role of mainstream political discourse in dragging the extreme right forwards, to AFP about ISIS (which was translated into Spanish), to the Independent about a plot that was uncovered to target Europe by some Sunday Times reporters, and finally a Press Association interview was used in the MetroDaily Star, and Al Banaba. Beyond this, my recent Observer piece was picked up and translated in digest into Spanish by El Mundo.

Russia and Iran cannot always count on China

In response to US sanctions, Beijing’s own interests come first

Presidents Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping at a friendly ice hockey match between Russian and Chinese youth teams in Taijin last year © Getty

Beijing is seen by some as the financial backstop that countries can call on to bail them out when they fall foul of US displeasure and face sanctions. Yet a close examination of the cases of Russia and Iran instead shows that China is reactive to US sanctions policy, to the detriment of its supposed strategic allies.

This reflects the attractiveness of the US market, the reach of extraterritorial sanctions and the independence of some Chinese institutions from Beijing’s geopolitical interests.

It also highlights the existence of fissures between powers that are often painted as members of an anti-western alliance. They may talk with the rhetoric of allies, but their relationships are more complicated. Understanding how this will play out will be key for policymakers seeking to navigate today’s dangerous waters.

At a geostrategic level, China, Russia and Iran appear to be in lockstep. Yet notwithstanding their proximity, expressed in public shows of affection between their leaders (in particular between presidents Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin), the reality is that there are deep tensions in Beijing’s bilateral relationships with Moscow and Tehran. Nowhere are these expressed more substantially than in the economic sphere, where Russia and Iran have consistently been disappointed by the willingness of Chinese entities and institutions to invest in their countries.

Most recently, China has been hesitant in its support of Russia’s de-dollarisation policy, through a cross-border system of bilateral settlements, for fear of angering the US. The two powers failed to conclude an agreement as planned by the end of last year, with one Russian source close to the talks telling Kommersant: “From Washington’s standpoint, China’s agreement with Russia would look like it was helping Moscow evade sanctions.”

This came after reports that Moscow was ready to bet heavily on China, diversifying its foreign reserves so that 15 per cent ($67bn) were held in renminbi, leaving the Russian central bank with a quarter of the world’s renminbi holdings. This was after it had sold about $100bn of its US dollar reserves while purchasing $44bn worth of renminbi in the second quarter of 2018.

The two countries already settle 14 per cent of bilateral payments in renminbi and 7 to 8 per cent in roubles, but were seeking to increase this, and to enshrine cross-border use of the Chinese Union Pay and Russian Mir credit card systems in each other’s countries.

A similar story can be seen in Tehran, where eagerness by authorities to use Beijing to circumvent a newly hardening US sanctions policy has been met with hesitation by Chinese institutions.

This was most publicly expressed in December, when it emerged that Kunlun Bank, which is majority owned by China National Petroleum Corp, was only going to clear Iranian payments, in full compliance with US sanctions policy, until the end of April, when China’s “significant reduction exemption” for the import of Iranian oil expires. Cutting this major lifeline for the Iranian economy was believed to be the product of CNPC’s concerns about the impact of its Iranian activities on its interests in the US.

Tehran has also seen a drop in imports from China, with an analysis by Bourse & Bazaar suggesting a 70 per cent drop from October to December last year after two months of tightened US sanctions. Like Moscow, Tehran has sought to increase the volume of transactions in local currencies but its central bank does not publish the composition of its foreign reserves, so it is not clear whether this has changed.

Frustration can also be seen in the supposed benefits that Russia and Iran have sought through investments under the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing’s global infrastructure programme.

When Total, the French oil company, withdrew from Iran’s South Pars gasfield in response to President Donald Trump’s overturning of the agreement to lift sanctions on Iran, CNPC initially stepped forward. But it has not developed the field it at the pace Tehran had hoped, and reports this year suggested CNPC may have suspended its activities. The Financial Times has reported that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are ready to take its place.

Similarly, Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, expressed concern that Chinese developers were taking their time in redesigning the Arak heavy water reactor according to the terms laid out in the 2015 nuclear deal. He attributed this to fears of US sanctions.

While it is hard to draw a straight line between US sanctions and Chinese reticence, it is also clear that Moscow does not always find Beijing a useful infrastructure partner. In reported comments in December about the Moscow-Kazan High Speed Rail (HSR) train line, Anton Siluanov, deputy prime minister and finance minister, said he did not see the line’s economic benefits and questioned its viability. The project was proposed and signed in 2015 when China was on a global HSR push, and questions always hung over its practicability (and indeed of other HSR projects around the world). Its seeming jettisoning reflects the reality that not all Chinese infrastructure projects work out, even in countries that are supposedly strategic allies of Beijing.

There are a number of explanations for these trends. First; Chinese banks, companies and other institutions may sometimes act in ways that contradict Beijing’s view, driven by specific concerns of their own. The assumption that all of China works in lockstep to advance Beijing’s geopolitical world view does not always match up with facts on the ground. It may be hard to divine whether a Chinese institution is responding to sanctions pressure, fear of losing access to the US market or some central Beijing command, but their behaviour does not always match policy declarations.

Second, Chinese institutions drive hard bargains. In the context of Iran and Russia, China is the funder and their local counterparts the supplicants. This puts Chinese institutions in the driving seat — something they are aware of and will exploit. Commenting on Beijing’s reticence to sign a bilateral memorandum with Moscow, one source told Kommersant that in addition to concerns about the US, “China needs time to tweak the final document more to its benefit”.

Third, countries like Iran and Russia are fearful of becoming overly dependent on Beijing. They realise that opening too much to China risks flooding local markets and potentially curtailing their own development.

In Tehran, the government has gone further, with reports of authorities advising against buying Chinese goods because it amounted to “exporting jobs”.

It is clear that China’s alliance with Russia and Iran is more complicated than sometimes realised. It is also clear that US sanctions continue to have a deterrent effect on Chinese institutions.

Yet it is hard to project such complications into the future. While Beijing may have tensions with Moscow and Tehran, the three continue to be willing to support each other at a geopolitical level. If the aggression with which US economic sanctions are employed continues, alternative global economic structures will develop.

Their beginnings are already visible. Moscow is taking the firmest steps in this direction through its de-dollarisation policy. Tehran may find itself obliged to follow if it is unable to find a way out of its current impasse.

While it is clear that US sanctions may have an effect on their economies, it is not clear that they are generating the change in behaviour that Washington desires. In this context, Beijing will sense an opportunity.

This article has been modified since publication to correct the statement on Iran’s imports from China, previously stated as exports to China.

Raffaello Pantucci is director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute (Rusi)

Second up this evening, a new piece for the Observer, this time in the wake of the atrocity in Christchurch, New Zealand. Draws on earlier work on the extreme right wing in the UK, though admittedly my work on the XRW has tended to look more at it through the lens of lone actor terrorism. Am sure the topic will rise as one of attention, as it has been for some time.

This aside, spoke to the Financial Times after a letter bombing campaign which appears to have been linked to Irish related terrorism, to Geo TV about the Pakistan-India clash, to the Financial Times again after the Christchurch attack (reproduced in the Irish Times), and my earlier Telegraph piece on Hamza bin Laden was reproduced in the Irish Independent. Also, did a longer interview with the BBC World Service’s excellent BBC NewsHour Programme on the massacre in Christchurch.

The Extreme Right Was Once a Loose Group of Loners. Not Any More

The pattern has changed and must not be ignored

IMG_0225

Christchurch has turned everyone’s attention to the phenomenon of extreme rightwing terrorism. But it is an alarm bell that authorities in the UK have been ringing for some time, having seen an ascendant extreme-right threat. Our collective attention, when thinking about terrorism, may be dominated by Isis, but given the rich vein of references to the UK in Brenton Tarrant’s screed, there are clearly other concerns to which we should pay attention.

Around the turn of the century and during the early noughties, the extreme-right threat in the UK tended to consist of a ragbag of isolated loners. For the most part middle-aged white men, they tended to be discovered by chance – violent characters with spotty employment histories, a few of them picked up as a result of investigations into online paedophilia. Some particularly shambolic cases, such as that of Neil Lewington, were uncovered by accident. Lewington was arrested by British Transport police after urinating on a train platform in 2008. Subsequent investigations uncovered an aspirant one-man terror campaign, planning pipe-bomb attacks and gathering Nazi memorabilia.

This pattern has now changed. An early indicator was Pavlo Lapshyn’s terror campaign in the West Midlands in 2013. Arriving from Ukraine on a scholarship, he immediately launched an attack on the Muslim community, starting by killing elderly Mohammed Saleem in a murder that baffled police. He then started building bombs of escalating potency that he left outside mosques in the West Midlands.

Fortunately, while Lapshyn was an expert bomb-maker, he got his timings wrong and all three of his devices failed to kill anyone. When police caught him they discovered that he had a history of bomb-making back home in Ukraine and was deeply embedded in online extremist communities.

The case marked a worrying evolution. Here was a well-organised young man with capability and ideology. The fact that he was from another part of Europe showed the potential for extreme ideologies to spread across the continent. He also reflected broader links between extreme rightwing communities in the UK and continental allies.

The threat in the UK became even more pronounced with the emergence of National Action. Part political action group, part online community, part terrorist group, NA brought together a cluster of angry men around a xenophobic ideology focused on committing acts of terror and fighting back against a society they believed had been overrun. In contrast to earlier iterations of the extreme right in the UK, National Action’s members were mostly younger men.

There is a distinct trajectory here: from disorganised loners to semi-structured networks, and ideologies that are no longer isolated in national geographies, but speak to global communities who feel left out. A narrative is developing of an ascendant extreme right that is becoming more organised on our shores and has links abroad.

More disturbing is the degree to which we can see evidence that these ideas have originated in our country. Prominent among Tarrant’s ramblings are references to British fascist leader Oswald Mosley. We have a sad history of intolerance in our public discourse, and its mainstreaming in an increasingly febrile public forum creates a context for violent extremists to believe the time for action is now. We have already witnessed the murder of Jo Cox, and Darren Osborne’s attack on Finsbury Park mosque. It is essential to clamp down on it before it tears further at society’s fragile fabric.

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

Some catch up posting from this week, starting with a new piece for my institutional home RUSI with one of our Senior Distinguished Fellows, and former Assistant Commissioner for Specialist Operations (ACSO) for the Metropolitan Police Sir Mark Rowley.

Despite Territorial Defeat, Islamist Terrorism Will Continue to be a Threat

Mark Rowley and Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary14 March 2019
International Security StudiesNational SecurityTerrorism

Daesh, Al-Qa’ida and other terrorist organisations may appear to be in current retreat. But rather than being eradicated, they have scattered. The violent extremism they have spawned has not entirely disappeared and understanding how it might evolve is going to be a central preoccupation for security planners.

 

london_bridge_after_terrorist_attack

 

A bomb in Derry/Londonderry, warnings about a political environment that is fertile ground for the extreme right, and a letter bombing campaign linked to Irish-related terrorists all show that the terrorist threat to the UK has more dimensions now than just the menace of violent Islamism. But jihadist threats persist and have changed from the more organised and conventional Al-Qa’ida network that was the prior focus of attention. We continue to face a persistent violent Islamist threat that exists in parallel to the noisier threats dominating the media. The open-source violent Islamist cult of terrorism that scattered its ideology across the web to hook the angry and the vulnerable is now showing signs of seeding new threats around the world.

Raqqa, the Syrian stronghold of Daesh (also known as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, ISIS), may have fallen, but the ideas and people involved have not gone away. The nihilistic cult that the group promoted from its bases in Syria and Iraq was part social experiment in building a utopian state, and part mini social movement with global reach. Fostered through an easily accessible ideology with a low threshold to entry for membership, packaged around an easy explanation of how the world worked, and disseminated using social media and messages created in easily shareable fashion, it was and is an exceptionally diffuse ideology.

This was a major reason why Daesh was able to achieve its position on the world stage. Using extreme acts of performative violence while projecting the image of building a state to which all the believers were welcome, it became the dominant alternative ideology in the global discourse.

That power has waned; loss of territory and erosion of leadership have reduced the potency of the message. But Daesh has not gone away. Following defeat on the battlefield in Syria and Iraq, the remains of the organisation could still generate future conflict in the Levant. Internationally, the flames that the group was able to foster during its totemic moments have scattered still-burning embers around the world. Some of these will likely mature into the threats of tomorrow.

Consider a series of incidents and disruptions that took place across Europe last December. These started with the shooting in Strasbourg on December 11, where a radical former petty criminal who was known to authorities as a possible violent Islamist threat decided to go on a shooting rampage after he realised authorities might be about to arrest him. A week or so after his shooting, police in Italy detained Anas Khalil, a Somali national who was allegedly in contact with Daesh in Somalia and was allegedly talking of launching a bombing campaign against churches in Italy. And finally, in the UK, New Year’s celebrations were marred by a stabbing at Manchester’s main train station which led to an individual subsequently being held under the Mental Health Act while also being investigated for a terrorist offence – showing a different potential expression of the threat that we face.

In each of these three incidents a link of some sort can be found to Daesh. Yet the nature of this link is not the usual command and control connection (whereby the terrorist group uses specific direction to advance the plot) that we would ordinarily expect. Instead, it is through Daesh affiliates, individuals latching on to the ideology, or people who are part of a broader network. This is a reflection of a cult ideology that has scattered far and wide, and has now taken root in fertile ground. For the group, the level of link to the individual launching the attack is probably less important than the act itself.

Al-Qa’ida evolved in quite a different manner. After it was hammered by drone strikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan the core of the threat shifted to Yemen, where its strongest affiliate with a deep personal connection to Osama bin Laden could be found. The various Al-Qa’ida affiliates all also stepped forwards into the public eye in their own local ways – leading to attacks like the murderous rampage by Al-Shabaab at Nairobi’s Westgate Mall or Al-Mourabitoun’s hostage-taking of Western oil men in the Algerian deserts at In Amenas. Each of these attacks reflected the group’s local interests, while nodding to the banner organisation’s vision. The degree of command and control from the centre was different, with the group ultimately losing a certain degree of control over the affiliates. It became a network with independent affiliates, rather than a centrally controlled network with a rigid hierarchy and core.

We are now seeing Daesh’s different approach leading to a very different global spread. Its cultish nature has fostered a scattering of its ideology on the wind of the internet. Unlike Al-Qa’ida which demanded some level of linkage and control, Daesh seems happiest letting things blossom and flourish wherever they find fertile conditions. There are examples of them connecting to groups and conflicts in the Philippines, West Africa and the Maldives. Daesh has acknowledged some of the groups as affiliates, while others it simply praises as conducting activities in advance of their ideology. But it is not clear which of these are the priorities for a group which seems just as willing to claim responsibility for things to which it has no link, as for those which it is quite clearly directing.

This poses a new kind of longer-term menace to those tasked with our security. We may be in a stage now when the various seeds scattered to the winds are in their germination stage. Some will wither and die, while others will be spotted and pruned before they can mature into a substantial threat.

This requires new approaches from governments. Identifying those trends which are going to develop into something more substantial is going to require constant attention. Building the resilience of the fragile states where this threat can get a foothold will be important, as aid efforts and security objectives will increasingly overlap.

This model of global Islamist terrorism with a cult-like ideology scattering and fostering independent mini-caliphates to grow will need constant effort to be effectively managed. The danger is that, just as some key Western governments are retreating from internationalism, new terrorist footholds will establish themselves, strengthen themselves and shock us. The surprise leaves us prone to overreaction that only exacerbates the problem. To counter terrorist threats, we need to not only fight them on the ground, but appreciate the reason why they have developed in the first place and calibrate our response appropriately. Only then will we be able to manage them effectively and guarantee our security.

Mark Rowley is former Assistant Commissioner for Specialist Operations at the Metropolitan Police and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at RUSI.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at RUSI.

BANNER IMAGE: A road in London Bridge remains closed after the 2017 terrorist attack. Courtesy of David Holt/Wikimedia

Another piece for the Telegraph, this time a short analysis piece to go alongside their all page coverage on the announcement of the bounty on Hamza bin Laden’s head. The title does not totally reflect the rest of the text, but there we go.

Separately, spoke to the Daily Mail about Shamina Begum, to the Independent about the practice of stripping passports, to the Scottish Sunday Post about ISIS not going away, and then again to the Independent about what to do with returnees. On the other side of the coin, spoke to the Globe and Mail about what the UK was going to do about Huawei and 5G, to TRT World about China in Afghanistan, Live Mint quoted me about China in South Asia, and finally, I did a long conversation for the wonderful Majilis Podcast with an excellent panel including Muhammad Tahir, Bruce Pannier, and Nadege Rolland – the full podcast can be found here, and the Diplomat subsequently did a write up of the conversation.

Analysis: Can Hamza Bin Laden reinvigorate al-Qaeda as Islamic State falls back?

By 

IMG_0111

We have a remarkably myopic view of terrorist organisations. If they are not on our news channels, the assumption is that they have gone away.

Yet, the reality is that these are organizations that are locked into struggles that they see on millenarian timelines in advance of God’s greater glory.

This is important to remember when thinking about the announcement of a bounty on Hamza bin Laden’s head.

Al-Qaeda as an organisation has not gone away, rather it has of late seemingly chosen to re-focus on fighting what it would describe as the ‘near enemy’ of regimes in the Middle East, rather than the ‘far enemy’ in the West who they see as supporting these apostate leaders in their neighbourhood.

The decision to place a $1 million bounty on his head now is something which more a product of our decision cycle than theirs.

Why this is happening now is difficult to divine without deeper insights into the US government’s decision-making processes.

It is possible that some information has emerged of him moving into a location where such a sum of money would make a difference in someone’s thinking.

It is also possible that this is part of a specific push around him – two days ago the UN added him to its proscribed list, and the Saudi government has now stripped him of his citizenship.

As we start to move away from worrying about Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isil), it could be a good moment to remind the world of someone identified by the UN “as the most probable successor of [current al-Qaeda leader] al-Zawahiri”.

Now in his late 20s, al-Qaeda seems to have decided it is an opportune moment to elevate Hamza’s profile within the organisation.

A fresh face to counter al-Qaeda’s aging Egyptian head Ayman al Zawahiri, Hamza offers a link to the group’s golden era, and a leader whose stature is still held in veneration around the world.

While yet to prove himself as a leader, Hamza can help refresh the organization through messaging that is shorn of the in-fighting that plagued al-Qaeda during the early years of the Syrian conflict when it fell out dramatically with Isil.

The bounty on his head will no doubt to some degree confirm his elevation amongst those interested in such ideologies – though it is worth noting that $1 million is a fairly paltry sum when put up against the $25 million that is on offer for al Qeada’s leader Ayman al Zawahiri or Isil leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi.

In fact, look at the US government’s rewards for justice page, and Hamza bin Laden sits firmly at the bottom in a group all of his own.

He has in fact done little to elevate himself to his father’s stature yet, though clearly has aspiration and ambition in that direction.

 

And finally in my catch-up blast, my latest piece this time for the Telegraph this past week after the revelation of Shamina Begum’s discovery in a camp in Syria. The story sparked off a wave of media attention on the topic of jihadi’s abroad. Likely a keen desire by the UK press to get away from the dreaded Brexit story.

Aside from this blast of articles, spoke to the Independent about a child who was questioned by counter-terrorism police, the Washington Post re-used an old interview about what happens when terrorist leaders are killed, spoke to Bloomberg about what was going on in Xinjiang, and in a definite break from ordinary service spoke to AFP about tourism in the Philippines. Finally my below piece for the Telegraph got picked up in AFP’s coverage of the debate around Shamina Begum in the UK and was translated into French and Spanish.

Don’t underestimate the role of female jiahdis like Shamina Begum

British teenagers Kadiza Sultana, Amira Abase and Shamima Begum passing through security barriers at Gatwick Airport, south of London, on February 17, 2015. 

We have a dangerous habit of playing down the importance of women in extremist networks. Common prejudices about the ‘fairer sex’ often lead us to assume a passive role. Yet in reality, women are just as engaged as their male counterparts – if not more so. Our assumptions simply support a narrative that removes agency from them.

These facts should be acknowledged when we are deciding what to do with Shamima Begum, a young woman who has made a series of terrible choices but must also be dealt with in a just and transparent manner.

The conflict in Syria has thrown up innumerable questions for our society – chief among them, what to do with the cadre of young Britons initially drawn to fight alongside Isil, who now find themselves detained or lingering in refugee camps as the terrorist group dissolves. The government has so far given little indication or guidance on how to deal with such individuals. Although work is being done in some cases, overall, our strategy seem to be waiting to see how things play out, or else hoping someone else will deal with the problem.

As individual cases emerge, so do new moral conundrums. It is easy to make sweeping statements when we think of the group as an anonymous bloc of people. Yet, when we dig into individual examples, the complexity of the human experience comes to the fore. Each case merits a potentially different response.

Shamima Begum, for example, presents a contradictory narrative. A young woman who first went to Syria as a schoolgirl with two of her friends, she is now a 19-year-old who has married a fighter, buried two children, with a third on the way. Initially viewed as a naïf who was groomed or coerced into the process, she has, it seems, evolved into an unrepentant young ideologue. The truth is probably even more complex.

We have historically underestimated the role of women in extremist networks. Yet looking back on the London 7/7 bombings now, the most infamous and enduring figure remains Samantha Lewthwaite, the notorious ‘White Widow’ who was married to one of the bombers and went on to become a significant figure in East African jihadist networks. Her celebrity spiked during the 2013 attack on the Westgate Mall in Kenya, and her ultimate whereabouts have never been determined, though she remains one of the world’s most wanted terror suspects. Other women from the same network, in contrast, have returned to ordinary lives.

Throughout the history of jihad in Britain, women can be found in the background of networks and cells, supporting their men ideologically, in some cases quite clearly instigating their actions. Yet the overriding view remains that women have little agency in this process. This blind spot can partly be explained by a general failure to understand what draws people to these groups. We can broadly comprehend the male impulse to be involved in ‘exciting’ violent activity but often ignore the fact that these ideas can be as attractive to women as men. And, of course, women have made as much of a choice to be involved. Many will consider joining these groups a form of empowerment.

Samantha Louise Lewthwaite, also known as the White Widow, is one of the world's most wanted terrorism suspects

In fact, the reason so many more women were involved with Isil in Syria is a product of the more coherent and credible state-building narrative that Isil was able to project, alongside the much greater ease with which people could access this battlefield compared to previous conflicts in Afghanistan, Somalia or Yemen.

But all of this is now muddled by the example before us. The already tricky case of a young woman who joined Isil as a minor is further complicated by the presence of an unborn child. The degree to which we need to offer punishment over rehabilitation is mitigated by her age. And while she has clearly done wrong, at present it will prove near-impossible to implement a proper judicial process.

There are no obvious solutions to this emerging problem, but through it all we should remember that Shamina Begum made a conscious decision to join a group responsible for untold misery in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere in the world. While this should not necessarily condemn her to perpetual limbo, it does mean she should face punishment for her involvement in these crimes. Our priority must now be to establish what that process will look like.

More catch up posting for the South China Morning Post, this time looking again at China’s role in Afghanistan. I now realize a typo in here, specifically in when the attack that killed BLA leader Aslam Baloch took place. It was about a month after the attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi, rather than the ten days I had put here. Also, the phrase ‘Visiting Beijing earlier last year, the outrageous narrative being advanced around Afghanistan was that America was making things worse and was largely the source of problems within the country’ – was not exactly as I meant to phrase it. The word outrageous was one that I meant to be expunged, but I was late to the editorial process.

Does Beijing grasp the portent of embracing Afghanistan and the Taliban?

Raffaello Pantucci says it is not clear that Beijing fully appreciates the role it is taking on by trying to broker peace in strife-torn Afghanistan

The 2018-19 period has been noteworthy in one way: it has seen a flurry of activity between China and Afghanistan.

During that time, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his colleague, Ambassador Deng Xijun, have racked up the air miles doing shuttle diplomacy between Kabul, Islamabad and hosting people in Beijing.

The result of all this manoeuvring was a successful trilateral meeting in Kabul between the foreign ministers of Afghanistan, Pakistan and China – a parley which appears to have helped accelerate the latest round of peace negotiations in Afghanistan’s seemingly endless conflict.

Yet amid the positive mood, it is still not clear what China’s expectations and plans are for Afghanistan. Nor is it clear that Beijing has fully appreciated the central role into which it is increasingly stepping.

The first question to ask is: What has spurred this new surge of Chinese diplomacy?

The answer is simple, and sits in the White House.

Visiting Beijing earlier last year, the outrageous narrative being advanced around Afghanistan was that America was making things worse and was largely the source of problems within the country.

This view needs to be considered in context, as it was the moment at which the broader US-China relationship was going down the drain.

Everything involving the Americans was bad. But as the days have gone by, this anger has turned into an awareness that the US might actually be on the cusp of making a dramatic withdrawal from Afghanistan.

As this realisation took hold in Beijing, the next stage, therefore, was to comprehend that China needed to step up to play a more forward role in resolving the situation.

While the US stands detached from the conflict, Beijing remains hostage to geography and is obliged to maintain some engagement with Afghanistan – a commitment whose salience is only increasing through China’s long-term investments in Afghanistan’s neighbours – Pakistan and Central Asia.

This state of affairs helps explain Beijing’s new activism, and Ambassador to Pakistan Yao Jing’s willingness to increasingly champion the Taliban as a political group.

Talking to Chinese interlocutors about their country’s engagement with the Taliban used to be a taboo subject; now it has apparently become a topic of conversation.

Beijing has clearly concluded that the road to resolution in Afghanistan includes bringing the Taliban to the table – something that was likely discussed between Wang and Mohammad Umer Daudzai, secretary general of the Afghan High Peace Council, on his visit to Beijing late last week (a trip that followed Daudzai’s visit to Pakistan to meet Taliban representatives).

Beijing is seemingly using its contacts to expedite the peace discussions – a move that even the Taliban’s leaders have championed. What is not clear, however, is what incentives are being offered and whether Beijing has considered the consequences of its latest actions.

At this stage, it is likely that Beijing’s immediate security concerns around Afghanistan have been largely mitigated – not resolved, but managed.

China has invested in security forces along Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan; pumped money into similar structures in Gilgit Baltistan; provided training, funding and equipment to Afghan forces; and has hardened its own direct border with Afghanistan.

Sitting atop this activity, Beijing has created the Quadrilateral Coordination and Cooperation Mechanism, which brings together the chiefs of defence staff of Afghanistan, Pakistan, China and Tajikistan. There has even been talk this year of the four countries taking part in joint military training exercises together.

China’s is concerned about how Afghanistan’s instability might affect that country’s neighbours and Beijing’s larger investments in Pakistan and Central Asia. But even these issues seem to have some answer to them.

Just 10 days after the attack on the Chinese consulate in Karachi by a cell linked to the Baluchistan Liberation Army, the group’s leader (and admitted director of numerous attacks on Chinese targets), Aslam Baloch, was killed by a suicide bomber in Kandahar.

That ignominious end signalled that China had lethal friends in the region who were keen to show they could reach into the heart of China’s enemies and strike them.

It is still not clear what Beijing’s economic stake or interest is in Afghanistan.

Some of the routes of China’s “Belt and Road Initiative” – Xi Jinping’s massive infrastructure plan – that cross the Eurasian continent would benefit from transit through Afghanistan. Beijing’s mineral extraction firms view the country’s natural resources with interest.

While talks continue about moving forward with belt and road projects, actual activity seems to be quite low. Trade routes are opening slowly, but the spigot of economic investment has not quite opened up.

Beijing seems to have concluded that for the time being, the answer to Afghanistan is to try to get a political structure in place that involves everybody and then see how things play out.

It will continue to dangle the carrot of economic investment, while knowing that its direct security equities are covered. This strategy will position Beijing fairly securely to let the consequences of a Taliban inclusive government play out.

The danger here is what a Taliban inclusive government might mean.

First, it is not clear that this arrangement would be acceptable to all other regional players. And even if it were, it is not clear it would help bring stability to Afghanistan. Much of the progress that has been made there might be wiped out, and the country might slip back into even greater chaos and warlordism.

Beijing may feel it has this eventuality covered through its current relationships, security structures and economic incentives, but this assumption is risky. Civil conflicts are by their nature brutal and unpredictable, especially in a country so intertwined with its region, and with such a sad and rich history of conflict.

Beijing may assume that by brokering a negotiation, it buys itself immunity from these problems. But as the US withdraws from the region, regional powers will increasingly look to China to resolve their issues.

It is not clear that Beijing fully appreciates the consequences of this potential responsibility.

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