Another edited interview with a senior security official for the excellent CTC Sentinel. I realize that it has been quite a while since I wrote an actual researched article for them. Been working on one for a long time which I really need to get finished. Huge thanks to Paul and his excellent team for their work.

A View from the CT Foxhole: Robert Hannigan, Former Director, GCHQ

Robert Hannigan was Director of GCHQ, the United Kingdom’s largest intelligence and security agency and NSA equivalent, between 2014 and 2017. He established the United Kingdom’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) and was responsible with military colleagues for the United Kingdom’s national offensive cyber program.  

He was Prime Minister’s Security Adviser from 2007-2010, giving advice on counterterrorism and intelligence matters. Prior to that, he worked as principal adviser to Prime Minister Tony Blair on the Northern Ireland peace process. He was awarded the U.S. Intelligence Distinguished Public Service Medal in 2017 and honored by Queen Elizabeth for services to U.K. national security in 2013.

Robert is currently Warden of Wadham College, Oxford, and European Chairman of the cyber security company BlueVoyant. He is a Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center, Harvard; Fellow of the Institution of Engineering & Technology; and Distinguished Fellow of the Royal United Services Institute. 

CTC: Shortly after you were appointed the director of GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters) in 2014, the Islamic State declared a caliphate after taking control of large swaths of Iraq and Syria. When you retired as director in 2017, the group was well on the path to territorial defeat in Syria and Iraq. How would you describe the contribution GCHQ made to the global campaign against the Islamic State and protecting the United Kingdom from the group’s terrorism? How did GCHQ evolve to focus on the Islamic State threat, and what were the lessons learned?

Hannigan: There were two things in particular about ISIS that made it different. One was obviously the geographical hold: the fact that it had territory in northern Syria and northern Iraq—whether you want to call it a caliphate or not—which made it almost inaccessible from the ground in practice.

The other thing that made it different was generational. This was a group that understood the power of media, and particularly new media, in a way that previous Islamist extremist groups had not. Those were two big challenges. From GCHQ’s point of view, counterterrorism was at that stage the biggest single mission. There were, of course, lots of other missions, too, but [CT] was a huge investment of resources, for obvious reasons. To some extent, GCHQ was using the lessons it had learnt in Afghanistan, which had been a very strong counterinsurgency/counterterrorism effort where GCHQ had been embedded with the military. It was building on those lessons, but of course the SIGINT environment in Syria and Iraq was very different.

In Afghanistan, essentially the Allies owned the communications space, just as they owned the air space. That wasn’t the case in northern Syria, so it was a different kind of challenge. But a lot of the techniques and international cooperation had been well exercised in Afghanistan. To some extent, the first part was a traditional mission of ‘how do you disrupt and destroy a terrorist organization from its leadership downwards,’ but the second bit was genuinely new in the sense that ISIS was obviously trying to project attacks back, as well as recruit heavily from the West to travel into the caliphate. Both of those ISIS objectives, which were interconnected, were things which we needed to disrupt, and so a lot of the task was about understanding how ISIS media worked and trying to disrupt that. I cannot say how this was done from a U.K. perspective, but there is a great deal of media reporting and academic work on this available in the U.S.

ISIS were doing two things through their media campaigns. One was inspiring people and then actively grooming those they had inspired to either come to join the group or launch attacks. And both of the stages really needed disrupting. Disrupting global ISIS media was a much broader challenge, of course, but trying to prevent individual grooming and attack planning was traditional MI5 territory, supported by GCHQ. It would not be right to go into the details of how it was done, but I do not think there was anything conceptually different about how we went about doing that from disrupting traditional recruitment and attack planning. The big difference was that it was all at one remove.

I think there were two advantages [for ISIS] to having territory: one was the propaganda value and the fact that you can present, as you saw endlessly in Dabiq and the other glossy publications, what life in the caliphate was like. That gave them a romantic propaganda advantage to be able to say, ‘Here we have built this wonderful land for you, where you can live a religiously pure life.’ But it also gave them a safe place from which to mount operations, and all they needed apart from connectivity was the understanding of how to do that: How do you inspire, radicalize, and then manipulate people? So in a sense, it was a psychological campaign as much as a physical one.

CTC: How would you describe the counterterrorism cooperation between GCHQ and U.S. agencies such as the NSA as well as other members of the Five Eyesa and European allies?

Hannigan: It is incredibly close and always has been, in particular with the NSA. But I think what happened over the ISIS campaign was that counterterrorism really drove the cooperation between SIGINT agencies in Europe. Cooperation amongst European partners has always been good on particular cases, but I think the pressures of terrorism really drove that in a very constructive way. So now the SIGINT agencies are [working] closer together, probably more than they have ever been as a result of terrorism, and there was very active cooperation right through the attacks in Europe and beyond, as well as cooperation with other services around the world.

Fortunately, with European partners, Brexit did not make much of a difference in terms of maintaining cooperation, partly because of the threat of terrorism; these joint efforts were too important to be damaged. Different Five Eyes partners will have slightly different relationships with different European countries. But for the U.K., the French and German relationships, for example, were very important. And the U.K.’s traditional military and intelligence relationships with the Scandinavian countries have remained very strong and strengthened in the context of Russia.

CTC: What for you have been the key lessons learned in balancing democratic liberties with intelligence gathering in counterterrorism in the 21 years since 9/11?

Hannigan: It’s always been a balance. Access to data is the key for SIGINT in particular, but probably for all the agencies, and what’s changed is that there’s been an exponential rise in the amount of data being produced by the private sector on citizens. This gives undemocratic states new possibilities to do surveillance, and it’s right that in a democratic society you need to have an active and constant debate about whether you’ve got the balance right. In the U.K., the [2016] Investigatory Powers Act was an attempt to do that after the revelations by Edward Snowden, though I think the legislation was coming anyway at the time, probably accelerated a bit by Snowden. In the U.K. context, that legislation seems to strike a balance that people are comfortable with.

It’s quite interesting that very quickly after the Snowden revelations, the debate moved on, because terrorism, then the resurgence of Russian aggression, and what the tech companies were doing with data really made what governments had access to seem quite secondary. Of course, it is very important that government should be held to a higher standard, and I think that it is a debate that needs to be had all the time, particularly as data processing and data holding in the private sector changes. But it does feel like the public debate has moved on, moved on to what companies like Facebook/Meta and the other tech companies are doing.

So I think the lesson for the intelligence community is not to be afraid of the public debate. Probably one of the mistakes made towards the end of the last century, and at the beginning of this one as the internet became available widely, was not to have that debate openly enough. Because consent is crucial to intelligence operations in democratic countries, and I think there was probably an assumption that everyone understood what was happening within this context and I am not sure people did. So one of the lessons is to get better at having that debate more often, especially as it is not a static thing and you are never going to come to a conclusion on the issue, rather it has to be a dynamic debate. Ultimately, we want the minimum necessary powers for agencies. But as the technology evolves, you have to evolve in response.

CTC: If we could pull on a few threads there, what was the impact of Edward Snowden’s revelations on counterterrorism capability, and how responsible do you think the social media platforms have been in keeping terrorists and extremist content off their platforms?

Hannigan: There was a clear reaction from terrorist groups and hostile states in particular, to the revelations, and yes, there were specific counterterrorism consequences, which at the time my predecessor Iain Lobban and his counterpart at the NSA Keith Alexander talked about.b There were things going dark that probably wouldn’t have gone dark otherwise.

With the tech companies, things have changed, but when I came into the job in 2014 I had a go at the companies1 (something that was unusual at the time). I thought they were at that point being irresponsible, and we were in a slightly ridiculous position where the agencies were having to ask a company’s permission effectively to help on particular operations. The companies would decide whether this met their threshold for what constituted terrorism, and there seemed to be something completely anti-democratic about that. For all their failings, governments at least get elected. Tech companies are not, and they do not have any expertise in this, so it is quite weird to be expecting a bunch of probably well-meaning people in Silicon Valley to make decisions about what is and what is not terrorism in a far-flung part of London.

And, to be fair to the companies, I think they felt deeply uncomfortable, too. They are money-making enterprises. Most of them are effectively advertising companies, if we are honest; Meta is a massive advertising company, and so was part of Google. That is their business, and they did not really want to be drawn into CT, which is where the narrative about them being neutral conduits and just platforms with no editorial control came from. I think they actually believed that narrative, and they really did not think they were enabling terrorist activity.

I think over the years—under public pressure but also as a result of terrorism and other serious crime—they have realized that they are not neutral and they have to take some kind of position on this, and they have to find a better way of doing it. Every major country is now looking at legislating on this; in the U.K., through the Online Safety Bill.c The manipulation of democratic institutions and elections has accelerated the feeling that we have to do something and put even more pressure on the tech companies.

So it does look very different now from when I said those things about ‘big tech.’ It was unfashionable to have a go at tech companies back in 2014; now everybody piles in and, if anything, it is a little one-sided. I think they are, on the whole, trying to address the problems, with varying degrees of success. But nobody quite has the answer. We know in the West that we do not want state control of these things, but neither do we want an unregulated private sector-driven landscape.

CTC: GCHQ has long been associated with signals intelligence. But in recent decades, there has been an information revolution with deep implications for intelligence gathering and analysis. Not only is there vastly more information (and dis- and mis-information) to sift through than ever before but open-source intelligence has become much more important and “the government’s ability to collect and analyze information is nowhere near dominant compared to what it used to be.”2 How have and should agencies like GCHQ be adapting? How important is AI and machine learning (ML) in this new era? Given “secret agencies will always favor secrets,” and given the calls for an open-source agency to be set up in the United States,3 does the United Kingdom now need a dedicated open-source agency, a new sort of BBC Monitoring?

Hannigan: Well, it’s interesting you mentioned BBC Monitoring as the Americans had the Open Source Center, which was a much larger version of that. It has now changed and become the Open Source Enterprise.d It was taken very seriously by the U.S. and did a great job. As does BBC Monitoring, though it has gradually been pared down over the years, and in any case was traditionally more focused on broadcast media than on new media or social media.

[Dis/mis-information] is a huge challenge but is highlighted not so much by terrorism but by the attempts to subvert democratic processes by Russia. The U.K. and lots of countries were really caught napping here because there wasn’t any structural part of government whose responsibility was to monitor this. There were two reasons for this, I think. One is that the secret agencies have a lot of other things to do—countering terrorism, for example—and have limited resources. But secondly, it’s very uncomfortable for intelligence agencies to be doing open-source monitoring, particularly where social media is concerned. There is something instinctively difficult about secret agencies looking at mass social media use. The idea [of having] GCHQ or MI5 all over everybody’s Facebook accounts smacks too much of a surveillance state and would be unacceptable in a democratic society.

As a result, for both those reasons, lots of governments, including the U.K., have shied away from looking at this and attempted to do it in a tactical, well-meaning but arguably ineffective way in the Cabinet Officee or somewhere like that, where they are trying to get a small group of people to have a look at this information flow.

To me, the answer has to be a better use of the private sector. Most of this open-source material is being generated by the private sector. Look at Ukraine and the low-orbit satellite imagery that is being generated; it’s absolutely phenomenal, better in many cases than the military equivalent and available in theory to everybody. [The same applies to] the monitoring of social media trends. So I think the answer has to be government agencies using [private sector-generated data and analytics] better.

There are still lots of datasets that are secret, of course, and there are statutory-based accesses to data, which other people don’t have outside government. Focusing on that and what is genuinely secret and hidden is a much better use of agency time.

The real advantage comes from washing the secret and the open-source data together. In other words, you are, as a secret agency, doing your secret thing but you’re also washing that against the results of open source, and that’s where you get something particularly valuable and that’s where you ought to be able to spot some of the things we failed to spot: for example, Russian intervention in elections. But if I am honest, I do not know how much progress Western governments have made on this. The U.S. probably comes the closest because they have invested in it, but I think most governments have just danced around it, partly for resource reasons, but also because it is politically and ethically a very difficult area.

The answer is probably to use the private sector mechanisms that are there already and that are quite open; there are NGOs like Bellingcat that are already doing some extraordinary work in the public domain. They are not the only ones; there are plenty of academic NGOs and journalistic organizations who are doing really interesting work here and it is every bit as good as what governments do. So I do not think we need some huge new bureaucracy in government to look at open-source material; rather, we should synthesize what is already out there and use it intelligently with the secret insights that agencies generate to deliver some more effective results.

CTC: Another key part of this, which brings in the private sector, is encryption, and you regularly hear from politicians and serving security officials that end-to-end encryption is a danger that protects, among others, terrorists. What is your sense of the counterterrorism concerns around this?

Hannigan: The GCHQ view on this has always been slightly unusual because GCHQ is an agency that delivers strong encryption and, indeed, in the 1970s was involved in inventing some of the strongest encryption that is currently in use. So we think encryption is a good thing. It protects everybody—protects governments and protects business. I have always resisted the temptation to say encryption is bad somehow, and law enforcement and government should be given the key to everything, partly because I do not think that would be healthy and partly because it’s not practical. You cannot uninvent end-to-end encryption. It is a mathematical invention; it’s not something you can suddenly say is not going to be there.

What you have to do is keep it in proportion. Yes, it is misused by criminals and terrorists, but it is predominantly used by honest citizens and businesses who are protecting themselves, so we shouldn’t let the security tail wag the dog. As always, criminals and terrorists will use good technology for bad purposes. There are some ways around this. One is to work with the companies, as they themselves have offered to different degrees to do things that are short of decryption because, of course, they cannot decrypt it themselves if it’s genuinely end-to-end, but there are things they can do to help with the data around it. It is probably not helpful to go into the details here, but they themselves have said it is not all about the content.

Better relations between the companies and governments help. And there are some macro proposals that have been put out there but so far they have not found favor with the privacy lobby in the United States. And whatever you do, you will always have criminals who will use something else, move away from the big platforms and use something different, so you might just end up pushing the problem elsewhere. You already see a bit of that now, with, for example, a lot now coalescing around Telegram and away from some of the traditional Western platforms.

The short answer is that there is not an easy answer. And efforts should be focused on particular targets rather than trying to do anything at scale. I know some law enforcement people still hanker after large-scale solutions, but there is, frankly, no way that companies are going to give any kind of blanket access to law enforcement or governments in the future. And I cannot see any legislation that would actually compel them to do it. Of course, there are some countries that ban end-to-end services, for this reason. But I cannot see democracies agreeing to that, and I think it would be disproportionate. The task for the agencies in cooperation with the companies is to go after specific targets and help each other do that, where there’s general agreement that these are legitimate targets.

CTC: In July, FBI Director Chris Wray and MI5 Director Ken McCallum did a series of events in London in which, among other things, they identified the lone-actor threat as the heart of the terrorist threat both faced.4 Would you agree with this assessment, and how do you characterize the journey of how we got here?

Hannigan: They are much more current than I am on this, but it has been a trend for a while. In fact, it was ISIS and [Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi himself that promoted the lone-wolf idea and propagandized it through their various channels, so it’s not unexpected. It was a perfectly logical response to better intelligence and law enforcement disruption because it’s extremely difficult to spot, disrupt, and prevent genuine lone actors. The thinking of the al-Baghdadi model was ‘we don’t need to control this. We do not even need necessarily to know who you are; if you go out and do something for ISIS, then you are part of the struggle.’ That’s quite a new departure for terrorist groups. They have always tended to be control freaks: The study of terrorist bureaucracy and leadership is instructive. By contrast, ISIS was crowdsourcing in quite an innovative way. The demise of the ‘caliphate’ made the lone wolf approach even more compelling for ISIS.

I would not write off organized terrorism in the future; I think there’s plenty of evidence that it has not gone away, but lone-actor terrorism does seem to be the trend at the moment and the thing that is hardest for agencies to spot. All I would say is, if you look at the lone wolves who have been successful or mounted successful attacks in a number of countries, they are very rarely completely ‘lone’ or completely unknown to their government agencies. And so it comes back to the age-old problem of prioritization. Most of them appear amongst the ranks of the many thousands of people of interest to police and law enforcement and intelligence agencies, and probably the task is to use data better to prioritize better.

Some of the criticisms around, for example, the London Bridge attacksf were about failures to do that and failures to use data better to understand where the priorities are and where the tipping points are. But all of this is very easy to say and very difficult to do, and it is never going to be [got] completely right. It is a constant struggle for MI5 in particular, but for all agencies to prioritize out of the thousands of people who might be a worry, who are the ones that you need to focus on now, and deploy your very, very limited surveillance resources on, because we all know how much it costs and how difficult it is to do.

But the reality is that even lone wolves usually display behavior and patterns of life [notwithstanding encrypted communications and the end-to-end problem] that says something about them; they are in touch with other people, even if they’re not involved in joint attack planning. The challenge has to be to use data to try to work out when they have reached a tipping point. You will never be successful 100 percent of the time, but it’s about trying to raise the percentage of success.

CTC: Not only does the West currently face the challenge of Russian aggression in Ukraine, but Directors Wray and McCallum identified China as the biggest long-term national security threat.5 Given the shift in resources on both sides of the Atlantic to great power competition, is there a danger of counterterrorism being underfunded? Where do you see the intersections between great power competition and counterterrorism?

Hannigan: It is a perennial problem of governments that you veer from one crisis to another, and [then] something has to be deprioritized. We have seen what happened after we deprioritized Russia after the Cold War. The ambition should be to try to reduce investment in particular areas without giving up your core capability and eroding the skills and knowledge that you have had on that subject. This applies to counterterrorism, too, because the threat hasn’t gone away.

It is clearly right to focus on China and Russia. When I started at GCHQ, I said I thought the two big challenges for the next 50 years in the West were managing a declining Russia and a rising China. We are seeing the declining Russia problem in the lashing out, and the nationalism, and the economic failure to reform, and the kleptocracy that has emerged as a result. We are experiencing that in Ukraine, and it’s a big challenge to confront and contain it, but I think it is a much easier challenge than a rising China, which is a complex mixture of opportunity and challenge. But there is a lot of threat there as well, as Wray and McCallum rightly said. So we should be focusing on that, and it is the right top priority, but that doesn’t mean we can neglect CT. There will have to be a difficult discussion about to balance resources. Quite a lot of the great power strategy is outside the remit of agencies. A lot of it is about industrial policy, investment decisions, and regulation. Regulating Chinese tech and Chinese tech ambition is not core intelligence work, so it doesn’t all fall on the agencies.

On the question of crossover, that is a potential worry because states obviously have used all sorts of proxies in the past. In the cyber world, they use criminal groups. And they have also used terrorist groups as proxies. It is not hard to imagine that in the future, they will do the same again to put pressure on Western countries either by using terrorist groups in whichever part of the world the conflict might be taking place, or even to target us at home. I do not know that we’re seeing a sudden upsurge in that yet, but it is certainly a concern for the future, and the more desperate a country like Russia gets, the more likely it is to be happy to foment that.

CTC: You led the creation of the United Kingdom’s National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC), oversaw the country’s pioneering Active Cyber Defense Program, and helped create the United Kingdom’s first cyber security strategy.6 When it comes to cyber, much of the concern has focused on state actors such as China as well as criminal groups and the threat to critical infrastructure. How would you characterize the cyber threat posed by terror groups, including jihadi terror groups? Have we yet seen a cyber terror attack?

Hannigan: There have always been great scare stories about this, partly because the media loves the idea of cyber terrorism and terrorists being able to take down an entire infrastructure or electricity grid or something. Whether we have seen it or not depends on how you define it. You could say Hezbollah [cyber] attacks against Israel are cyber terrorist attacks.g You could say that Iranian attacks on water treatment plants in Israelh are a potential attack by a nation-state designed to instill terror.

So, it is certainly not unimaginable, but cyber is not necessarily the best weapon for terrorists to use. Firstly, it does require quite a degree of long-term commitment and knowledge. And terrorists in the past have been rather traditional in wanting spectaculars of one sort or another, so their mindset may not be geared towards it. This may change with the new generation. We certainly saw that with [their ability to exploit] social media, so there is a logic to saying, ‘Well, they might get good at this in the future.’ It has also got much cheaper and easier to do because [the technology] is something you can now buy as a service or commodity and use it. So, the trajectory suggests that it ought to be easier to do cyber terrorism in the future.

The other point, though, is that while you can disrupt things and you can make people’s lives difficult [through cyber-attacks], it is quite difficult to do destructive activity that is really long lasting. Having said that, I did notice that one of the American consultancies on tech that issues reports every so often, and is usually quite a cautious organization, projected that by 2025 operational technology would be weaponized to cause death.7 They were certainly thinking of nation-states rather than terrorists, but the fact that they were saying this is interesting.

These kinds of destructive cyber effects will be accidental for the most part. The first cyber homicide that I can think of is the case in Germany two years ago where a woman was being transferred to a hospital that had been paralyzed by ransomware and so she was diverted to another hospital and died on the way. German police decided to treat this as cyber homicide.8 Those sorts of things—ransomware out of control—might well cause people’s deaths, either through interfering with operational technology that is running power, water, or healthcare, or just by accident. But all of that is more likely than a planned cyber-terrorist event. But it is not unimaginable, and it is not unimaginable for the nation-state to find it convenient to false flag something [it has perpetrated against an adversary], to mask a cyber attack as a terrorist attack. We have, of course, seen the Russians doing that in their [2015] attack on [the French television station] TV5,i which they flagged as a terrorist attack.9 So cyber terrorism is not unimaginable but probably not top of the list of worries at the moment.

CTC: In the September 2021 issue of CTC Sentinel, former acting CIA Director Michael Morell assessed that following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan, “the reconstruction of al-Qa`ida’s homeland attack capability will happen quickly, in less than a year, if the U.S. does not collect the intelligence and take the military action to prevent it.”10 It’s been a year since the Taliban assumed power. How do you assess the international terror threat from jihadi groups operating on its soil?

Hannigan: My biggest concerns are, do we know what the threat is and how would we know if it is growing? We have lost most of our insight into what’s going on in Afghanistan, for all the obvious reasons, and the biggest worry is we simply won’t see a problem—from ISIS in particular but also al-Qa`ida—until it’s well formed and mature. Now, I may be wrong; maybe we have great insight. But I have not seen it, and I doubt it is actually there. The successful U.S. attack on al-Zawahiri this summer seems to me to be about a determined long-term manhunt: It does not imply great understanding of Afghanistan in general. In addition, there are so many other things going on in the world that even if we had some insight, I doubt it’s top of the list for most governments. So I think it is a real concern from an intelligence point of view as to who actually knows what the CT threat emerging or growing in Afghanistan is, and how much of it might be projected outwards. Most of it is currently focused internally, but these things have a tendency to get externally directed over time.

CTC: According to the 2021 U.K. government integrated review, “It is likely that a terrorist group will launch a successful CBRN attack by 2030.”11 In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, what is your assessment of the CBRN terror threat?

Hannigan: It is a bigger worry to me than cyber terrorism by a long way. Partly because organizations have seen the chaos you can cause through CBRN, and whether it’s pandemics, chemical weapons in Syria, or the near disasters in Ukraine through radiological mismanagement during the war, there must be people thinking, ‘Well, if I want to cause an enormous amount of suffering and disable a country, this is a better route to go.’ A key problem is that the global instability tends to make the control of the substances more difficult. We have been pretty effective [in past decades] in having organizations like the OPCW [Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons] that could control and monitor the materials you need to conduct such an attack. However, in a world of chaotic great power relationships, that gets much harder, and so the opportunity to get hold of this material, or to manufacture it, becomes easier. Afghanistan is one of those places where we have seen in the past, and could certainly see in the future, terrorist programs to this end. It is certainly a bigger worry to me than cyber terrorism.

CTC: Given the strong nexus to far-right extremism of Russian paramilitary groups involved in the fighting in Ukraine and given the history of such ties also on the Ukrainian side,12 do you see any terrorist or foreign fighter threat emanating from the war in Ukraine?

Hannigan: One of the lessons we should learn from ISIS is relevant to this discussion. One of the reasons the lone wolves or more often the small groups who were effective in launching attacks—for example, in [Paris in November] 2015—were so effective was that they were battle-hardened and they knew what to do. They knew how to withstand firefights. They were not just ideologically hardened; they actually had battlefield experience. You have to assume that the same could be true of other kinds of extremists returning from any conflict. We have seen similar things emerging from Chechnya in the past as well. It seems plausible that the many current theaters of conflict may produce battle-hardened and radicalized individuals.

CTC: What is your assessment of the current security outlook in Northern Ireland?

Hannigan: We obviously underestimated, in around 2007, the resilience of dissident Republicanism, and I think that was partly because nobody foresaw the economic downturn. People assumed that there would be a great tidal wave of economic benefits and a peace dividend for lots of communities that did not materialize. But you cannot just pin it all on economics. There is a cyclical side to Republican violence in Irish history that is unlikely to ever go completely away, but the problem now is that the politics can get destabilized relatively quickly. I do not foresee a sudden return to violence, but I think the more the politics frays, the more instability there is, and the more you tinker with what was a political settlement that everybody could just about buy into, the more you run the risk of the fringes becoming violent again. And all of this might start successfully radicalizing young people. It was never a particular concern that the older generation of dissidents were still there—diehards who never signed up to the peace process and were never going to change their minds—but what was concerning was young people being recruited in their teens and 20s into dissident activity. That’s much more worrying. It is the key thing you have to guard against for the future. And clearly, the best way to do that is through political stability and political progress.

CTC: What were you most proud of in your work in counterterrorism? From a CT perspective, what worries you most today?

Hannigan: I am very proud of what GCHQ did in preventing attacks in the U.K., with MI5 and others. Most of those are not seen because they are prevented, but that was great work that I do not take any personal credit for, but was done exceptionally well. Personally, the thing I found most rewarding in counterterrorism was in Northern Ireland because this was a domestic threat where pretty much all the levers were in the U.K.’s hands—security and intelligence, economic and political. It was probably the last time that the U.K.’s top national security threat, as it was then, was a domestic one. It taught me a lot about terrorism, not least through talking to members of the Provisional IRA and other organizations, which gave me a greater understanding of how terrorist organizations think and work, and how individuals are motivated. In the end, it was, over a 30- to 40-year period, a successful process. There were, of course, mistakes, but it was a good marriage of security policy and political process, that addressed the underlying causes of the Troubles and, partly through good CT work, created space for politics to work.

I do not think Islamist extremism has gone away and the rise of the extreme-right is clearly a concern, but terrorism will continue to bubble up in all sorts of areas that may not yet have been predicted: where people feel either disenfranchised or disadvantaged, or feel that their identity is threatened. In a chaotic international environment, where outrage can be generated and manipulated on a larger scale than ever before, not least through technology, there will be more of this, and it will be more unpredictable. Right-wing extremism is just the latest [threat to gain prominence], but in reality, it has been around a long time. I suspect there may be all sorts of new causes, and people may resort to violence more quickly than they did in the past.     CTC

Substantive Notes
[a] The Five Eyes (FVEY) is an intelligence alliance of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

[b] Editor’s Note: In a November 2013 hearing before the UK Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee (that provides oversight of the UK’s intelligence agencies), Sir Iain Lobban revealed “we have actually seen chat around specific terrorist groups, including close to home, discussing how to avoid what they now perceive to be vulnerable communications methods or how to select communications which they now perceive not to be exploitable.” “Uncorrected Transcript of Evidence Given By, Sir Iain Lobban, Mr Andrew Parker, Sir John Sawers,” November 7, 2013.

[c] Editor’s Note: The Online Safety Bill is a wide-ranging piece of legislation currently under consideration by the UK Parliament that will provide government with powers to regulate online content, as well as impose large fines on companies for failing to fulfill their responsibilities. The draft bill under consideration was submitted in May 2021 and can be found at https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/985033/Draft_Online_Safety_Bill_Bookmarked.pdf

[d] Editor’s Note: In October 2015, the Open Source Center (OSC) was “redesignated the Open Source Enterprise and incorporated in CIA’s new Directorate of Digital Innovation. The Open Source Center, established in 2005, was tasked to collect and analyze open source information of intelligence value across all media – – print, broadcast and online. The OSC was the successor to the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS), which gathered and translated world news coverage and other open source information for half a century.” Steven Aftergood, “Open Source Center (OSC) Becomes Open Source Enterprise (OSE),” Federation of American Scientists Blog, October 28, 2015.

[e] Editor’s Note: The Cabinet Office is a central U.K. government function that supports the Prime Minister and his Cabinet, drawing on input from across government to help deliver on policy goals.

[f] Editor’s Note: On June 3, 2017, three terrorists launched a knife and van ramming attack on London Bridge and in the nearby area of Borough Market, murdering eight before dying themselves. On November 29, 2019, Usman Khan, a formerly incarcerated terrorist attacked and murdered two people at an event at Fishmonger’s Hall, before being shot by police on the nearby London Bridge. In both attacks, subsequent investigations revealed that authorities were aware of the individuals and may have failed to prioritize the level of threat that they posed. For more on the 2017 attack, see the inquest page at https://londonbridgeinquests.independent.gov.uk/ and the 2019 attacks, its own inquest page at https://fishmongershallinquests.independent.gov.uk/

[g] Editor’s Note: For instance, “over the past decade, companies in the US, UK, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and the Palestinian Authority have been targeted by a hacker group called ‘Lebanese Cedar’, also known as ‘Volatile Cedar,’ which seems to be linked to Hezbollah, ClearSky Cyber Security announced” in January 2021. Tzvi Joffre, “Israel targeted by Hezbollah hacker group, remained unnoticed for 5 years,” Jerusalem Post, January 28, 2021.

[h] Editor’s Note: Iran reportedly attempted to trick computers to increase chlorine levels in the treated water for residential areas during an April 2020 cyberattack against Israel’s water systems. Mehul Srivastava, Najmeh Bozorgmehr, and Katrina Manson, “Israel-Iran attacks: ‘Cyber winter is coming,’” Financial Times, May 31, 2020.

[i] Editor’s Note: In April 2015, TV5 Monde was taken off air in an attack carried out by a group of Russian hackers. It was reported that they “used highly targeted malicious software to destroy the TV network’s systems.” An Islamic State-linked group going by the name the Cyber Caliphate had first claimed responsibility. Gordon Corera, “How France’s TV5 was almost destroyed by ‘Russian hackers,’” BBC, October 10, 2016.

Citations
[1] Editor’s Note: Robert Hannigan, “The web is a terrorist’s command-and-control network of choice,” Financial Times, November 4, 2014.

[2] Don Rassler and Brian Fishman, “A View from the CT Foxhole: Amy Zegart, Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Stanford University,” CTC Sentinel 15:1 (2022).

[3] Ibid.

[4] Gordon Corera, “Terrorism: Lone actors make stopping attacks harder, say FBI and MI5 chiefs,” BBC, July 8, 2022.

[5] Gordon Corera, “China: MI5 and FBI heads warn of ‘immense’ threat,” BBC, July 7, 2022.

[6] National Cyber Security Strategy 2016 to 2021, HM Government, November 1, 2016.

[7] Editor’s Note: “Gartner Predicts By 2025 Cyber Attackers Will Have Weaponized Operational Technology Environments to Successfully Harm or Kill Humans,” Gartner press release, July 21, 2021.

[8] Editor’s Note: See Joe Tidy, “Police launch homicide inquiry after German hospital hack,” BBC, September 18, 2020.

[9] Editor’s Note: “Hacking of French TV channel was ‘terror act,’” Local (France), April 9, 2015.

[10] Paul Cruickshank, Don Rassler, and Kristina Hummel, “Twenty Years After 9/11: Reflections from Michael Morell, Former Acting Director of the CIA,” CTC Sentinel 14:7 (2021).

[11] Global Britain in a competitive age: The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, HM Government, March 2021.

[12] Don Rassler, “External Impacts and the Extremism Question in the War in Ukraine: Considerations for Practitioners,” CTC Sentinel 15:6 (2022).

Almost caught up on re-publishing my writing here after a long period of delay, this time a piece for Nikkei Asian Review on the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Summit pointing to the optics of the session as one of the key attractions to some of the members.

China and Russia to showcase alternative world order at SCO Summit

Samarkand gathering demonstrates sanctioned states still have allies of substance

Xi Jinping is set to attend as he makes his first international trip since the beginning of the COVID pandemic.   © AP

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and author of “Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire.” (Oxford University Press)

As the West advances a world order constructed around institutional structures developed after World War II, those leading the charge against the West are embracing their own institutions to demonstrate their options.

This week, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization will hold its annual heads of state summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, bringing together Russia, China, Iran and a host of other nations. The narrative these countries want to advance is that there is another order out there beyond the Western-imposed one, as thin as it often seems on closer inspection.

This year’s summit is attracting more interest than previously as Chinese President Xi Jinping is set to attend as he makes his first international trip since the beginning of the COVID pandemic. The fact that he has chosen Central Asia and an SCO heads of state summit to do this, even before confirmation of his third term as Communist Party leader at the party’s congress next month, is a reflection of the importance of the SCO to Beijing.

The exact agenda of the summit is still being set, but it is likely that Afghanistan, new members and connectivity will be key items.

Afghanistan has been a perennial issue on which the SCO has failed to deliver. With the full accession of Iran to the group next year, Afghanistan will be almost entirely engulfed geographically by full SCO members, save for uncompromisingly neutral Turkmenistan, but Iran has been joining SCO summits for a while and Turkmenistan will be there this year too.

Taliban fighters in Kabul celebrate the first anniversary of the withdrawal of U.S.-led troops on Aug. 31: Afghanistan has been a perennial issue on which the SCO has failed to deliver.   © AP

Notwithstanding the bloc’s clear interest in resolving Afghanistan’s long-standing issues, the organization has done nothing to help it, nor has it come together effectively to deal with the problems emanating from the country.

It is unlikely we will see much material progress this time either amid continuing uncertainty about the longer-term viability of the Taliban authorities, as well as concerns about their mixed attempts to rein in militant groups.

The answer from Uzbekistan’s perspective has been to seek ways of trying to engage with the new Taliban authorities. It has been keen for some time to push a narrative of greater connectivity across Eurasia.

Rather than simply piggyback on China’s Belt and Road Initiative vision, Tashkent has sought to instead cultivate a vision of connectivity between Central and South Asia, to both tap markets and seek escape from the region’s landlocked nature.

But these practical issues are side stories to the main narrative that will emerge from the Samarkand summit.

Attendees are expected to include the leaders of Turkey, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Mongolia, Iran and Belarus, which are each seeking to highlight their inclusion and links to the SCO. Rumors suggest Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may appear too.

In joining with the leaders of existing members Russia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, India, Pakistan and China, they will be part of a constellation of powers that for various reasons, and to different degrees, have tensions with the West.

For all of these powers, there is a pleasing visual utility to being present at a colloquium of such stature, representing at least a third of the world’s population and with no Westerners present. They can all show that notwithstanding the sanctions or sanctimony thrown at them by the West, they have allies of substance who welcome them with open arms.

There is no doubt that the SCO is nowhere near capable of competing with entities like the Group of Seven, NATO or the EU, but this is not the point. The organization is one that marches to its own beat, has only grown in its 20-plus years and continues to enlarge the volume of topics that it engages on.

It has helped normalize China’s role as a major player on the Eurasian continent while also providing an opportunity for Chinese diplomats, officials and business executives to engage regularly at multiple levels with their neighbors and a growing range of countries. Even supposed Western allies like India and Turkey see value in showing up for the meetings to soak in a non-Western-led order that they can appreciate being involved in.

There is no doubt that the members have little trust in one another, and the international order they are building is flawed. But at the same time, the interesting question is whether this matters to them.

The optics are good enough as the summitry gets positive play in other parts of the world. The event presents the impression, with some apparent foundation, that the democratic order advanced by the West is not the only achievable structure out there.

A short piece for the Financial Times looking forwards on how terrorism might evolve and melt into the wider greater great power conflict that currently consumes international affairs.

Terrorism fused with great power conflict may be the west’s next challenge

Some countries such as Iran persist in using armed proxies to advance their goals

Veteran al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was killed by a drone strike on a safe house in Kabul

The writer is senior fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies

Terrorism is the past and the future is great power conflict. In a moment of nearly perfect public narrative, the death of al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was almost entirely overshadowed by the visit of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan. Yet the risk is that we miss how the two problems can become entangled and make each one worse.

As national security agencies turn their focus to states, they will inevitably deprioritise terrorist threats. Yet the shift is unlikely to be as tidy as this suggests. Even more worrying than the risk of paying less attention to terrorist groups is the potential for the two threats to interact with each other. In a worst-case scenario, great power conflict might make global terrorism worse.

The use by states of terrorist groups as proxies is not new. Iran has a long history in this regard. Hizbollah in Lebanon is the largest of numerous proxies that Iran has used to attack its adversaries. In recent years, Tehran has become more overt about using terrorist tactics directly itself.

In July 2018, an Iranian diplomat was arrested in Germany alongside a pair of Iranians in Belgium for planning to bomb a high-profile dissident rally in Paris. Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump’s former lawyer, and several British MPs were due to attend the event. This month, the US Department of Justice charged a member of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards with directing agents in the US to murder John Bolton, Trump’s national security adviser.

Tehran may be the most blatant about it, but it is not the only power to use such groups or engage in such plots. Moscow’s hand can be seen behind some extreme-right terrorist networks in

Europe. India detects Chinese intelligence playing in the shadows of some of its domestic conflicts. India and Pakistan have honed the art of manipulating such groups against each other, and sufunderlying fered the blowback as a result. Furthermore, all these powers see supposedly all-powerful western intelligence agencies lurking behind various networks and plots that they perceive as threats.

The second risk comes from how the war on terrorism has been pursued around the world. As the west grows frustrated with longstanding counterterrorism campaigns in distant places, resources have been pulled back or withheld. Clearly, some capability is retained, but in certain places a vacuum has emerged and Russia has frequently filled it. Private security group Wagner has stepped in to bolster local authorities and launch offensives in the name of counter-terrorism. It is questionable how much this helps. It often appears as though these campaigns exacerbate the anger that creates the terrorist groups in the first place.

Mali is the most obvious example, with the situation escalating to the point that the country’s government is now accusing France – a previous leader in providing counter-terrorism support – of working with jihadis. At the same time, Wagner is celebrated in the streets of Bamako, the capital. But Wagner forces have also been deployed in the Central African Republic, Libya and Mozambique, all places suffering from terrorism that the west has failed to address or is not focusing on.

According to one view, it is a relief to have someone else deal with such problems. But the risk is that they are only making the situation worse, or that they may try to manipulate groups on the ground to their own ends, with little regard for any backlash that might strike the west. Or, this could be their intention.

The other side to this shift in attention is that taking pressure off terrorist groups may end up with no one focusing on them. We do not really know whether the reason we are now seeing a lowered terrorist threat is because the threat has gone down or because of the pressure that was on it.

The exact nature of how threat and response play off against each other is poorly understood. But just because we have stopped worrying about a problem does not mean it no longer exists. It is hard to say with confidence that any of the underlying issues that spawned the international terrorist threat have been resolved. Some analysts think they have grown worse.

Twenty years of conflict have changed the international terrorist threat that we face. But it has not gone away, and in a nightmarish twist it may start to fuse with the great power conflict we find ourselves locked into. The world has a habit of throwing multiple problems at us. In a growing world of threat, disinformation, proxies and opacity, terrorist groups offer a perfect tool. The west may one day rue the fact that it no longer has the relative clarity of the early years of the war on terror.

As the anniversary of the Taliban takeover of Kabul took place, did a bunch of work around what China has been doing and achieved during this first year. This first piece is for Nikkei, with a few more coming.

Afghanistan shows the limits of China’s Belt and Road

Despite its engagement with the Taliban, Beijing is unable to reach its goals

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, right, stands next to Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, acting deputy prime minister of the Afghan Taliban’s caretaker government, in Kabul on Mar. 24: There is little trust in China on the Taliban side.   © Xinhua/AP

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore and author of “Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire.” (Oxford University Press)

A decade ago, Peking University international studies professor Wang Jisi set the conceptual foundation for what would become the Belt and Road Initiative with an essay called “Marching Westwards.”

In it, Wang decried the excessive focus of Chinese foreign policy on Washington and the Asia-Pacific region, highlighting instead the opportunities and threats along China’s western land borders.

Billions of dollars of BRI plans and projects later, though, China remains as obsessed with Washington and the Asia-Pacific as ever. At the same time, the limits of its foreign policy capabilities are coming into stark relief in Afghanistan.

Among Afghanistan’s neighbors, none have engaged more visibly with the Taliban regime that took power a year ago than China.

Its Kabul embassy has led Beijing’s diplomatic push, which has helped get Taliban officials included in various regional forums. Chinese institutions have extended millions of dollars in aid while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing has been a leading voice in calling for Washington to release $7 billion in frozen Afghan central bank funds. In general, Beijing rarely wastes an opportunity to condemn the abrupt withdrawal of U.S. forces last year and contrast it with China’s own contributions.

Yet all of this positive engagement has not advanced the goals Beijing actually wants to achieve.

Beijing hoped that the Taliban would form a broad-based government whose inclusiveness would support regime stability, but instead a single faction dominates the new administration.

The Taliban has failed to hand over Uyghur fighters as Beijing wanted or apparently even to curtail their activity within the country. Efforts to rein in militant groups seeking to undermine the Pakistani government, such as Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan, have been limited. Indeed, the TTP appears to have offered training to Balochi separatists and other militants who are targeting Chinese interests in Pakistan. On top of that, the Taliban has confounded expectations by actively courting New Delhi.

The one lever Beijing has to play in Afghanistan is economic investment, but so far, it is not clear that it quite knows how to use that to advance its goals. There has been a surge of Chinese businessmen and traders going into Afghanistan, but this is most likely simply the result of entrepreneurs sensing an opportunity amid the decline in violence since the Taliban ousted the previous U.S.-backed government.

Growth in direct trade has been limited so far, and China’s big state-owned enterprises are treading carefully. The complete lack of infrastructure or managerial capability on the Afghan side limits their ambition, alongside concerns about what they might be getting themselves into.

In fact, economic activity may prove to be a millstone for Beijing. China could end up finding that the perceived economic engagement that it could offer Afghanistan will be seen as a silver-bullet solution to the country’s problems, raising expectations of what China can offer the country beyond what is actually possible.

The Belt and Road Initiative was always an ill-fit for Afghanistan. Most BRI maps showed routes running westward from China going around the country.

What BRI activity in Afghanistan could look like now is even harder to imagine at a moment when the wider narrative around the program is turning to ensuring returns on investment and focusing on viable opportunities. The most obvious link would be to build connections between the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor and Afghanistan, but this would require better relations between Kabul and Islamabad.

It is also clear that there is little trust in China on the Taliban side. Some Taliban factions are resisting any moves to curtail Uyghur militants who have given the movement support. Some are concerned about Beijing’s closeness to Islamabad. Incoming Chinese traders are often seen in a suspicious light too.

There may be a lot of noise around the potential opportunities China offers, but this is likely increasingly matched by skepticism about how much might actually materialize.

All of this is quite a turnaround for Beijing. Prior to the Taliban takeover, China enjoyed a far more propitious environment and government in Kabul.

While it was clear that trust levels were low and declining in the months before the government’s fall, there was at least a counterparty Beijing could deal with which would target militants it did not like.

Afghanistan used to be a place where China could run joint projects with India, the U.S. and others. Now instead, Afghanistan is increasingly seen through the light of great power competition as merely another place where Washington and its proxies might undermine Chinese interests.

The poor hand China has to play was most vividly articulated recently by the U.S. drone strike that killed al-Qaida leader Ayman al-Zawahri. To some degree, China had previously been able to count on Washington acting as a backstop for problems in Afghanistan, with U.S. forces even launching airstrikes on the Taliban’s Uyghur allies as a common enemy.

The U.S. still has enemies in Afghanistan and, as was seen with the death of al-Zawahri, the capability to do something about them, even in Beijing’s backyard, while China lacks these same kinetic tools and capabilities to go after its adversaries.

A decade on from the birth of the BRI concept, Afghanistan highlights Beijing’s difficulty in using its development model as a foreign policy concept to be replicated around the world. It also illustrates the limits of Chinese power projection and its ability to generate change on the ground abroad.

This report was a long time in the making and in fact completed initially prior to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but needed a lot of tidying up afterwards. Thanks to RUSI for publishing it, and to my excellent co-author Eleonora for bearing with the lengthy process to get it over the finish line. Am not going to republish it all here, as you can see it in its splendid PDF form for free online here.

Russian and Chinese influence in Italy

By examining political, security, economic and cultural ties, this paper explores Russian and Chinese influence in Italy.

Italy has been one of the leading advocates in the EU of dialogue and cooperation with both Russia and China, and its longstanding political tradition of ‘trying to sit in the middle’ sometimes faces other EU states’ criticism. This paper seeks to explore the dynamics between Italy and Russia, and Italy and China, through an examination of political, security, economic and cultural ties. It also attempts to understand the degree to which Rome’s policy positions are shaped by external influences or internal choices.

While it is inherently difficult to demonstrate influence, this paper stresses Italy’s agency in driving the relationships forwards, though it is clear that interference attempts and the economic connections that exist between the three powers play a role in influencing Italian planning. Even if Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 is heavily impacting the relationship between Rome and Moscow, how this will play out in the longer term is hard to predict.

Another interview with La Repubblica, this time focused on my most recent book Sinostan and looking at Chinese foreign policy more broadly. Again in Italian so you will have to learn the beautiful language (or use Google Translate…).

Raffaello Pantucci: “La Cina? Un impero in espansione, ma senza una chiara strategia. E questo è un problema”

di Enrico Franceschini

Parla l’esperto di sicurezza internazionale per il Royal United Services Institute di Londra (Rusi): “Pechino sta diventando un impero accidentale che minaccia di estendersi in tutta l’Eurasia, ma senza una visione su cosa fare e come affrontarne i problemi. Una prospettiva che, a partire dalla tensione di questi giorni intorno a Taiwan, è molto pericolosa per gli equilibri internazionali”

“La Cina sta diventando un impero accidentale che minaccia di estendersi in tutta l’Eurasia, ma senza una chiara strategia su cosa fare e come affrontarne i problemi. Una prospettiva che, a partire dalla tensione di questi giorni intorno a Taiwan, è molto pericolosa per gli equilibri internazionali”. È il monito che Raffaello Pantucci, esperto di sicurezza internazionale per il Royal United Services Institute di Londra (Rusi), lancia dalle pagine di Sinostan, il libro che ha da poco pubblicato in Inghilterra con la Oxford University Press, frutto di tre anni di studi sul campo in Estremo Oriente.

La tesi del suo saggio è che sta per nascere un impero cinese, Pantucci?
“La Cina sta diventando la potenza più influente in Asia centrale e in gran parte dell’Eurasia: una vasta zona del mondo, piena di problemi, su cui tuttavia Pechino non sembra avere una chiara strategia. È la potenza che cresce di più in quell’area, ma non si capisce che intenzioni abbia”.

Per questo lo definisce un impero “accidentale”?
“Sì, perché la Cina è diventata una potenza economica regionale e anzi continentale, ma senza una vera strategia, bensì con tanti piccoli progetti. Naturalmente in quella zona si muove anche la Russia, ma Mosca ha bisogno di Pechino per contrastare l’Occidente e dunque la chiave della situazione ce l’hanno in mano i cinesi”.

Le esercitazioni militari cinesi davanti a Taiwan sono la prova generale di un’espansione militare in tutto il continente?
“La situazione è diversa rispetto all’Asia centrale, perché Pechino considera Taiwan parte del proprio territorio. Ma paradossalmente su Taiwan esiste un equilibrio strategico, mantenuto finora dal confronto fra Cina e Stati Uniti, mentre in Asia centrale e in Eurasia questo equilibrio non c’è: la Cina è praticamente sola o comunque in grado di condizionare l’altra potenza regionale, la Russia, che ha bisogno del sostegno di Pechino. Dunque in un certo senso è una zona ancora più pericolosa”.

Secondo lei la leader del Congresso americano Nancy Pelosi ha fatto bene o male a visitare Taiwan?
“Non ho una risposta sicura a questa domanda. Da un lato non capisco le tempistiche di una visita simile, in un momento così delicato. Dall’altro però credo anch’io che l’autonomia e la democrazia di Taiwan vadano protette con fermezza”.

Il ventunesimo secolo sarà il secolo cinese, come il ventesimo è stato il secolo americano e il diciannovesimo quello britannico?
“Nonostante le apparenze, non credo che sarà il secolo cinese in modo analogo a come il secolo scorso è stato dominato dall’America e quello precedente dall’Impero britannico. Penso che sarà un secolo di potenze multilaterali in competizione tra loro: la Cina e la Russia da una parte, l’America e l’Europa dall’altra. E mi auguro che questa competizione produca stabilità anziché conflitti”.

Come dovrebbe reagire l’Occidente democratico all’espansionismo cinese?
“Secondo me l’Occidente dovrebbe aiutare i Paesi presi nel mezzo a non sentirsi costretti a scegliere con chi schierarsi. Dovrebbe aiutarli a crescere economicamente, a consolidarsi, mantenendo una propria libertà di scelta sul cammino da fare. O noi o loro può diventare un aut aut controproducente dal punto di vista occidentale”.

Quanto è serio il rischio di un conflitto militare tra Pechino e Washington, o addirittura di una Terza guerra mondiale che cominci proprio dalle tensioni su Taiwan?
“Per ora non sembra che nessuno dei due voglia veramente la guerra. Ma il punto preoccupante è che il presidente cinese Xi ha detto di volere risolvere la questione di Taiwan nell’arco del proprio periodo al potere, quindi nei prossimi cinque anni o entro i cinque successivi se verrà riconfermato nell’incarico. Abbiamo dunque una sorta di conto alla rovescia”.

Perché Taiwan è così importante per la Cina?
“Perché i cinesi considerano l’isola parte della Cina, ma anche per un’altra ragione: riprendere Taiwan è una dimostrazione di forza per Pechino. Se Taiwan diventasse più indipendente, altre regioni della Cina potrebbero spingere per fare altrettanto e l’intero paese rischierebbe di andare in pezzi, senza contare che la popolazione potrebbe concludere che il partito comunista ha mancato i suoi obiettivi”.

Una teoria di alcuni anni or sono era che la Cina, con la crescita del benessere economico e di una classe media, avrebbe imboccato gradualmente la via della democrazia: crede possibile che questo prima o poi avverrà?
“Penso che non si possa escludere una evoluzione positiva, una Cina più aperta nei rapporti con il resto del mondo e più tollerante sul fronte domestico, ma credo che sarebbe comunque una forma di democrazia diversa dalla nostra almeno per ancora molto tempo”.

Still working through the backlog, this time a piece for the excellent Italian think tank ISPI on the anniversary of the Taliban’s takeover of Kabul looking at the China-Afghanistan relationship. Lots more on this topic to come.

China in Afghanistan: The Year of Moving Gradually

Washington’s withdrawal from Afghanistan in August 2021 created a problem for China on the border of one of its most volatile regions in Xinjiang. While Beijing was not always entirely enthusiastic about a US military presence on its border, it could see the benefits of having someone else take on the security burden. It even went so far as to cooperate with the United States in Afghanistan – something which stood in stark contrast to the rest of its relationship with the US. The Taliban takeover forced some re-calculations, and while Beijing has visibly leaned into its relationship with the new rulers in Kabul, the thrust of the engagement has remained not dissimilar to how Beijing was engaging with the Republic.

China’s primary preoccupation with Afghanistan has always been security. Beijing’s enduring fear is that the country becomes a base from which its enemies can plot against them. This has tended to focus on fears of Uyghur militants using the country to create instability in Xinjiang, a concern that persists, but has now been joined by a growing fear that other adversaries might seek to use Afghanistan as a base to target China or its interests in the wider region.

Under the Republic government, Beijing was relatively content with the security relationship it had in this regard. From the Republic government’s perspective, the Uyghur militants fighting alongside the Taliban were no allies of theirs and they were happy to hunt them down. Even the United States targeted them alongside the Taliban.

The Taliban takeover in Kabul has complicated this picture for Beijing. In the early days, the Taliban seem to have failed to keep control of a group of some 30 Uyghur militants the Republic was holding in prison who were freed when the Taliban emptied the prisons they found. While the Taliban have continued to say they will not let their country be used as a base for militant activities against others, it is clear that Uyghur militants under the banner of the Turkestan Islamic Party (TIP) continue to gather there. In the most recent display, leader Abdul Haq showed himself celebrating Eid in the country alongside a few dozen allies and their family members. A report from the UN Monitoring Group in February highlighted member state reporting that there were some 200-700 fighters associated with TIP in Afghanistan. The report suggested that they had been moved from Badakhshan to Baghlan, a decision that was in other reporting meant to have been stimulated by Chinese sensitivities.

The most recent Monitoring report from July, however, suggested elements close the group had already disregarded this Taliban request and re-established a footprint in Badakhshan, including strengthening relationships with Tajikistan focused group Jamaat Ansarullah as well as the Pakistani focused Tehrek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP). This last element is particularly worrying for China as it illustrates a larger problem for China that has sharpened in the past year – the growing targeting of China by an ever-widening range of militant groups in the region.

Pakistan is the biggest locus of this threat, with the threat picture towards China widening from mostly separatist groups (Balochi and Sindhi’s) to now TTP and the Islamic State of Khorasan Province (ISKP) seeming to target China. In October 2021, ISKP deployed a Uyghur bomber to target a Shia Mosque in Kunduz, making specific reference to the Taliban’s cooperation with China in their claim of responsibility. ISKP’s propaganda has continued to highlight China as an enemy. July’s UN Monitoring report highlighted one member state reporting that some 50 Uyghurs had reportedly defected from TIP to join ISKP.

All of this serves to highlight the very different security support that China gets from the new leadership in Kabul. While there have been persistent rumours of China seeking to develop security relations with the Taliban – including being involved in meetings between Chinese, Pakistani and Taliban intelligence – very little public evidence has emerged of security contacts. It is also notable that while China is seemingly of greater interest to apparently much freer militant groups in Afghanistan, we have not seen reports of Chinese interests or nationals being directly targeted in the country.

This comes at the same time as China’s visible presence in Afghanistan has increased. Since the Taliban takeover, China has sent vaccine aid, earthquake relief, food aid (around the country, from the central government in Beijing, regional governments and companies). Chinese companies have returned to discuss possible projects, as well as explore new ones. This has come in the form of large state-owned enterprises that have long engaged in the country, as well as new ones exploring opportunities. Very little of this has so far actually moved forwards, though there has been a notable surge in low level Chinese entrepreneurs and businessmen exploring opportunities in the country.

At a more tactical level, the government has supported the re-establishment of a pine nut air corridor to enable Afghan farmers to sell their products directly to the Chinese consumer market. They have also talked about finding ways of encouraging greater volume of sales of Afghan gemstones, saffron, almonds, fruits and other products. They have said they would drop tariffs on goods to zero, and re-started visas for Afghans eager to travel to China. They have spoken of linking Afghanistan up to the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), and of finding ways of integrating the country into the wider regional connectivity boom.

But while all of this is very positive, very little of it is entirely new. And it is unclear how quickly the big-ticket state-owned enterprise led projects will take to get going. All of these other pieces of the economic pie are positive, but ultimately quite limited: the long-term answer to stability in the Afghan economic situation comes from large-scale investment. And so far, it is not clear that China is pushing this that rapidly ahead. Whilst the Tunxi Initiative that Beijing pushed out (as part of a much wider set of regional engagements which built on the web of minilateral institutions that China has fostered across Eurasia) was high on positive sentiment towards engagement and encouraging regional connectivity with Afghanistan, it is not clear what metrics were established to move things forwards.

China’s increased activity in many ways is a reflection of the fact that China is one of the few big players still visibly present in Afghanistan. The western withdrawal left a gap which has highlighted more clearly China’s activity (in the absence of everything else). But it is not clear how much it has materially changed or increased to the level the Taliban government want. They continue to court multiple actors, and are eager to get projects going, but with the Chinese ones at least, still finding many of the same problems that the Republic government encountered. It is not impossible that the problems will eventually become unblocked, but it is clear that at the moment, there is still a sense of hesitation and uncertainty about what is actually going to happen on the ground and how much the Taliban are really in control of the entire country.

Where China has been far happier is in terms of using Afghanistan as a stick with which to rhetorically beat the Americans on the world stage. Highlighting the fact that their planes are bringing aid to Afghanistan, while the US is bringing more weapons to Ukraine. They continue to advocate for the US to unblock the Afghan government money which is tied up abroad, and call for the US to step back to fix the situation on the ground, blaming them for everything that has happened. While this is not an entirely surprising narrative given the global context, it is in fact a true shame for Afghanistan, which used to shine as a beacon of cooperation between the US and China. Great power conflict has quite clearly been brought back to the country.

More catch up on previous events, this time an interview with La Repubblica in the wake of the death of al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri.

Al Zawahiri, Pantucci: “La leadership di al Qaeda è stata completamente decimata”

di Enrico Franceschini

“Un successo dell’intelligence Usa. La minaccia del terrorismo non scompare ma il gruppo dirigente responsabile dell’attentato dell’11 settembre è stato eliminato”, dice l’esperto di terorrismo del Royal United Services Institute

Al Zawahiri, Pantucci: "La leadership di al Qaeda è stata completamente decimata"

Eliminare al Zawahiri chiude un capitolo nella storia di al Qaeda, anche se il libro del terrorismo rimane aperto”. È il giudizio di Raffaello Pantucci, esperto del Royal United Services Institute, il più antico think tank per i problemi della sicurezza, autore del saggio We love death as you love life (Noi amiamo la morte come voi amate la vita), un’inchiesta sui terroristi della porta accanto in Gran Bretagna, e uno dei massimi specialisti in materia. “Ora la leadership di al Qaeda è stata completamente decimata”, dice in questa intervista a Repubblica.

Come giudica l’operazione annunciata dalla Casa Bianca, Pantucci?
“È chiaramente un successo dal punto di vista americano. Dimostra la capacità di eliminare un capo terrorista in un luogo ostile in un momento scelto da Washington con la garanzia di poter ricorrere ai droni, quindi con la certezza di colpire la persona giusta. Per Osama bin Laden, l’America dovette mandare i commandos delle forze speciali, perché non era sicura della propria intelligence. Stavolta invece sì, significa che l’intelligence è migliorata”. 

Che conseguenze avrà nella lotta al terrorismo?
“A mio parere chiude un capitolo su al Qaeda. La minaccia del terrorismo non scompare e può sempre riemergere in qualche modo, la rabbia contro l’Occidente rimane, però il gruppo dirigente responsabile dell’attentato dell’11 settembre e di tanti altri ha perso il suo centro, è stato decimato. Il libro del terrore è ancora aperto, ma un capitolo sembra chiuso”.

Recentemente Al Qaeda aveva rialzato la testa?
“Non in termini di attentati specifici, ma negli ultimi tempi era cresciuta la retorica, Zawahiri lanciava minacce all’India e ad altri paesi, incitava a continuare la lotta, sostenendo che il ritorno al potere dei talebani in Afghanistan dimostrava che si poteva sconfiggere l’Occidente”.

Zawahiri aveva appunto ottenuto rifugio a Kabul, proprio come bin Laden: in Afghanistan allora dal 2001 a oggi non è cambiato niente?
“Sembrerebbe proprio così, purtroppo, ma la presenza di Zawahiri era già stata segnalata in luglio da un rapporto dell’Onu, il che vuol dire due cose: o la sua presenza non era un segreto ben tenuto o tra i talebani c’era chi aveva interessa a rivelarla. L’impressione è che i talebani di oggi siano più divisi, e con più problemi al proprio interno, rispetto a quelli andati al potere vent’anni fa: questo è cambiato”. 

Le uccisioni mirate, da parte americana e non solo, suscitano critiche: sono un’opzione valida nella lotta al terrorismo?
“Io sono del parere che in assoluto sarebbe meglio catturare i terroristi e processarli. Ma stiamo parlando di gente che vive in nazioni ostili, aiutati o protetti dal governo locale e talvolta sarebbe impossibile catturarli. Nel caso di Zawahiri, inoltre, non sembrano esserci stati danni collaterali. Nell’agosto di un anno fa, l’America rispose al grande attentato all’aeroporto di Kabul con un attacco che doveva eliminarne gli autori ma, come si è poi saputo, colpì e uccise per errore una famiglia innocente. Stavolta gli Usa erano sicuri di non sbagliare”. 

Si dice che morto un capo se ne fa un altro, ma eliminarli ha anche un valore deterrente?
“Sospetto di no, come deterrenza non funziona se ci sono militanti altrettanto fanatici. Ma funziona nel danneggiare un gruppo terroristico: un leader ha conoscenza e carisma. Una volta eliminato il capo, non è facile trovarne un altro con le stesse capacità”. 

Azioni del genere fanno alzare i consensi verso il leader che le ordina, almeno per un po’: il presidente Biden avrà agito anche con un occhio al voto di mid-term?
“Non credo. Certo, esiste sempre l’idea che, se un leader ha problemi interni, un’azione in politica estera può distrarre l’opinione pubblica e rilanciare un politico facendolo apparire forte e determinato. Ma a parte che le elezioni di mid-term sono ancora lontane, operazioni di questo tipo richiedono una lunga preparazione e coinvolgono forze speciali e intelligence. Sono questi ultimi a dire al presidente quando è arrivato il momento di agire, non il contrario”.

In generale a che punto è la minaccia del terrorismo islamico ?
“Dipende dove sei. In Africa la minaccia è piuttosto acuta. In Medio Oriente e in Asia esiste ancora, particolarmente in Siria, in minor misura in Iraq, in Pakistan. In Europa è per lo più rappresentata dal fenomeno dei lupi solitari, alcuni ispirati dalle idee di organizzazioni come l’Isis e al Qaeda ma spinti ad agire anche per altri problemi che hanno nella vita, per attirare attenzione su sé stessi. E negli Usa la più grande minaccia ora è il terrorismo domestico, le stragi e le sparatorie compiute da fanatici di estrema destra”.
 

Visto che Zawahiri era il capo di al Qaeda, quanto è serio il rischio di un attacco di grandi proporzioni come quello dell’11 settembre 2001?
“Non è del tutto impossibile, però oggi è molto più difficile che in passato. Al Qaeda è seguita e scrutinata intensamente dai servizi di intelligence e antiterrorismo. Altri gruppi puntano i loro attacchi su obiettivi più regionali, in Africa o in Medio Oriente. Organizzare un attentato contro l’Occidente sulla scala dell’11 settembre richiede un livello di preparazione che adesso sarebbe molto difficile da nascondere. Ciò non esclude che qualcuno ci provi o speri di provarci, per cui la guardia va tenuta sempre alta”.

Another book edited extract published a little while ago, this time in Foreign Policy drawing on the chapter on Afghanistan.

China Is Doomed to Play a Significant Role in Afghanistan

Beijing is desperate to avoid being trapped in Kabul’s politics.

For decades, Beijing has worried about security in Afghanistan. During the Taliban’s first stint in power in the 1990s, Beijing worried about the possibility of Uyghur militants using camps in Afghanistan as a base to launch attacks against China. Then, in the early 2000s, Chinese workers were killed and kidnapped in the country. China also shares a remote but direct border with Afghanistan, and even before the Taliban takeover, increasing violence in the wider region gave China good reason to worry.

Despite this, China’s approach to its neighbor for a long time was, as prominent Central Asia analyst Zhao Huasheng1 aptly characterized it, essentially to act as an observer, leaving security questions to the United States and its allies. That changed in 2012, after then-U.S. President Barack Obama signaled he wanted to get Washington out of the conflict he had inherited. As the potential security vacuum left by Western withdrawal came into sharper relief, Beijing realized that it would have to play a role in encouraging a more stable and developed future for Afghanistan. Even then—and even after security concerns rose once again after the U.S. withdrawal in 2021—China never fully came to assume that role.

The Taliban takeover in 2021 came after we had concluded writing our book Sinostan: China’s Inadvertent Empire. But many of the trends and patterns we observed continued to hold. Although China has undeniably stepped into a far more prominent role than ever before, it has continued to hedge its bets and refused to take on a leadership role in the country. China’s unwillingness to take on that role, even though it is increasingly being thrust into it, serves as a perfect example of the central concept our book: China is doomed to play a significant role in the country, but is studiously avoiding it.

China’s clear, yet gradual, shift from cultivated disinterest to growing engagement in Afghanistan took place over the past decade.

The most visible and significant element of China’s newfound attention on Afghanistan was Politburo member and security supremo Zhou Yongkang’s visit2 to Kabul in September 2012—the first visit by a Politburo-level Chinese official to Afghanistan since 1966.

But even earlier that year, when we visited Afghanistan, China was seeking to advance diplomacy with Afghanistan and Pakistan. In February 2012, Beijing hosted3 the first Afghanistan-China-Pakistan trilateral dialogue. Then, in May 2012, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the U.S. State Department initiated a joint training program for Afghan diplomats. The group of a dozen young diplomats would get a 15-day experience in Beijing, followed by another 15 days in Washington.

That June, as China was hosting the regional Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) summit in Beijing, then-Chinese President Hu Jintao signed a bilateral ‘strategic and cooperative partnership’ agreement with then-Afghan President Hamid Karzai and welcomed the country as an official SCO observer state. Just over a month later, then-Chinese Central Military Commission Vice Chairman Gen. Guo Boxiong met with then-Afghan Defense Minister Gen. Abdul Rahim Wardak to ‘enhance strategic communication and strengthen pragmatic cooperation in order to contribute to bilateral strategic cooperation.’

The signaling was clear. As Washington approached a drawdown, China was going to have to step in more, though the extent of it was unclear. Yet there were clearly dissenters in Beijing, and many of the security-focused Chinese officials and experts we met were quite clear that this was a problem of Washington’s making that China wanted little to do with.

All of this change in Chinese activity was, however, undermined by the fact that Washington did not leave. In the end, Obama did not withdraw U.S. forces from Afghanistan. Although its presence shrunk considerably, the United States retained a capability to launch attacks and kept bases in the country.

Meanwhile, within China, security concerns increased. In April 2014, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Xinjiang. This came after a tumultuous period where incidents linked to Xinjiang spread across the country—including a car and incendiary device attack on Tiananmen Square, a mass stabbing incident in Kunming, and escalating violence in Xinjiang itself. Just as Xi was leaving Xinjiang, attackers launched a knife and bomb attack4 on the train station in Urumqi, Xinjiang’s capital.

In his speeches about the threat in 2014, Xi made a clear link between what was going on in Afghanistan and Xinjiang. Beijing’s answer to this concern appears to have been to push a two-pronged strategy. On the one hand, Beijing escalated its engagement with the Afghan authorities, building on what was already being done to create a wave of bilateral and multilateral formats with other partners in Afghanistan. On the other hand, it strengthened its contacts with the Taliban, making sure it was covering its bases for all eventualities. It seemed as though China was going to take on a more active role in the country, aware of the fact that no matter whether the United States stayed or left, it was likely to be an erratic partner Beijing could not rely on.

In July 2014, China appointed Sun Yuxi,5 a popular former ambassador to Kabul, as its first special envoy for Afghanistan. His role was to serve as a point of contact and a coordinator for China’s engagement with the Taliban, and after his arrival, there was a noticeable uptick in public engagement among China, the Taliban, and the Afghan government.

When Ashraf Ghani became Afghanistan’s president that September, he immediately signaled the importance he placed on the relationship with China by making Beijing the first capital he visited in his first formal trip abroad. During this visit, he laid the groundwork for formal peace talk negotiations with the Taliban at a meeting hosted by the Chinese government.

By early 2015, stories emerged that China was playing a more forward role in brokering peace talks and in conversations; officials we spoke to in Beijing said they were willing to act as hosts for any future peace talks.By May 2015, senior Taliban figures were meeting6 with representatives from the Afghan High Peace Council in Urumqi. In July, another round of talks was held in Pakistan, at which Chinese participants also played a role.This was followed by more multilateral engagements.

The Chinese-supported peace track seemed to be bearing fruit, until abruptly, in late July 2015, news leaked that Taliban leader Mullah Omar7 had died back in 2013. This declaration scuttled the discussions and set the Taliban in disarray as an internal leadership struggle surfaced over his successor. It also complicated China’s role, since it was not clear whom Beijing would engage with on the Taliban side.

Accusations of blame were passed between Islamabad and Kabul, but the net result was an uptick in violence that made it harder for the Afghan government to negotiate with full confidence or for Beijing to feel like it could do much. Chinese officials we spoke to at the time almost immediately fell back into stating that it was up to the United States to step up and support the Afghan government and its national security forces. They further noted that until there was greater clarity about who the main Taliban negotiator was, talks were unlikely to bear much fruit.

But it seemed that China maintained its contacts with the Taliban. In fact, Beijing has had a long history of contacts with the Taliban, dating to when the group was in power in Kabul before September 2001. At the time, China was one of the few countries that engaged with them, though this was largely through China’s contacts in Islamabad.

 Chinese soldiers march past the Id Kah Mosque. Chinese soldiers march past the Id Kah Mosque in Kashgar, Xinjiang, on July 31, 2014, as China increased security in many parts of the province.Getty Images 

In the early days, Beijing seemed to focus its discussions on ensuring that any trouble in Afghanistan did not spill into China and that the Taliban maintained control over Uyghur groups. Some Chinese experts who visited Taliban-ruled Afghanistan in the late 1990s told us they were surprised during their visit to learn of large numbers of Uyghur militants in the country. Taliban authorities reportedly sought to reassure Beijing that they would stop these individuals from launching attacks against China, though it was never clear whether the Uyghur groups adhered to this and did not launch attacks or use the territory to plot against China. We later met individuals who had been to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan and al Qaeda-managed camps who told us stories—corroborated by others—of Uyghurs in the camps in large numbers.

In 2015, it seemed as though China decided to use its contacts with the Taliban to help protect its longer-term interests in the country. Aside from seeking to broker greater discussions among the Taliban, Pakistan, and the government in Kabul, China also sought to bring the United States into the discussions. Around this time, Beijing was engaged in numerous bilateral, multilateral, and minilateral engagements concerning Afghanistan.

One senior Afghan diplomat told us during a session in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, that he was exhausted from running between these different events, though it was not clear to him how useful they were. Other Afghans we spoke to were far more scathing about Beijing’s engagement behind closed doors. One former senior defense official told us that they had been forced to dispose of most of the equipment that China had handed over, claiming ‘it was full of bugs.’ Others said they had evidence that Beijing was paying off and providing military equipment to the Taliban to develop contacts and maintain influence, something that was partially confirmed to us by a Chinese contact who mentioned in passing being involved in handing over bags of money to Taliban contacts. We were never able to independently confirm this, but it did speak to a greater sense of confidence in Beijing about what China was doing in Afghanistan.

In March 2016, then-Chinese People’s Liberation Army Chief of Joint Staff Gen. Fang Fenghui visited Kabul, seemingly to help start a new minilateral regional organization. That organization, the Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism (QCCM), brought together the chiefs of army staff of Afghanistan, China, Pakistan, and Tajikistan ‘to coordinate with and support each other in a range of areas, including study and judgment of counter terrorism situation, confirmation of clues, intelligence sharing, anti-terrorist capability building, joint anti-terrorist training and personnel training,’ according to a statement8 by the Chinese defense ministry.

By bringing together senior security officials with all the countries that had a presence around the Wakhan Corridor, China was helping secure its own border and creating a format through which it could monitor it. The structure also formalized the People’s Liberation Army’s responsibilities in Afghanistan.

Alongside the creation of the QCCM, China started to make its security contributions to the other members of the group more public. In Afghanistan, Beijing revealed it had helped build a base and was providing funding for a mountain security force in Afghanistan’s Badakhshan province. Locals reported seeing Chinese soldiers patrolling the region. Other reports highlighted how Afghan forces were being trained in China. In Tajikistan, China built around a dozen border posts for Tajik border guards as well as a base for its own forces in the country’s Gorno-Badakhshan Autonomous Oblast. China was, in essence, creating a security buffer to seal itself off from direct threats from its border regions with Afghanistan.

Although the China-Afghanistan relationship continued to stay relatively strong over the next few years, in the dying days of Afghanistan’s government under Ghani, there was growing turmoil between the two countries. The first loud signal of trouble was the U.S. decision in November 2020 to de-list the Eastern Turkestan Islamic Movement9 from its list of terrorist organizations. It was a decision Kabul reportedly did not agree with and one that caused friction with China.

Then, in December 2020, a spy scandal erupted with the Afghan National Directorate of Security detaining a network of 10 Chinese nationals who, it claimed, were spies undertaking covert activities against the government in Kabul. The Afghan and Chinese governments worked to keep the story out of the media and rushed to get the spies out on a private jet back to China, denying everything, though the story was leaked in considerable detail to the Indian media.

But the Afghan government was very careful about how it handled the scandal. Unlike the United States that was now heading for the door, Kabul recognized that it needed to maintain a working relationship with Beijing.

It was later revealed that their counterterrorism relationship had also come under strain, with Kabul apparently stopping its regular repatriation of Uyghur militants it caught on the battlefield. This was made public when in the wake of Kabul’s fall, news emerged that some 30 or so Uyghurs who had been in custody were released when the Taliban emptied the country’s prisons.

But this revelation cut both ways: On the one hand, it showed how the relationship between Kabul and Beijing had broken down, but it was also an early indication of the Taliban’s lack of capability or interest in managing the problem of militant Uyghurs in Afghanistan to Beijing’s desires (highlighted by the fact that they freed them).

In current Taliban-ruled Afghanistan, there is no denying that China is more prominent. The Chinese Embassy was one of the few that stayed during the Taliban takeover. A number of Chinese businessmen are reportedly showing up to try their fortune. China has engaged with, participated in, and hosted numerous regional formats on Afghanistan. It has also sponsored some limited bilateral trade efforts and provided aid of some substance across the country, and Chinese state-owned enterprises have started to talk about restarting their projects with Taliban authorities. China has done everything except formally acknowledge the Taliban as the rulers of Afghanistan—a step it is unlikely to take until it sees others in the international community do so first.

But talk to Chinese experts, and the picture is more circumspect. They hold little hope for the Taliban to create an inclusive government, see instability on the horizon, and worry about the worsening security situation in the broader region.

Although China has spoken of Afghanistan as part of its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and some recent trade has started, in reality, the tangible economic links between China and Afghanistan amount to the export of Afghan pine nuts to China and the construction of a fiberoptic cable down the Wakhan Corridor to help Afghanistan get on the internet. Talk about the BRI in Kabul, and people will say good things and hope for greater engagement, but they are still waiting for it to materialize. Afghan businessmen still find it difficult to get visas into China, flights are irregular, and COVID-19 continues to make travel to China difficult.

China is still concerned about its security interests in Afghanistan, but, as in the past, its answer has been to largely seal itself off, hardening its own and nearby borders. Through a web of multilateral engagements, China has offered itself as a host and discussant but never a moderator—in other words, China is willing to be involved but does not want to take the key role of confronting actors and forcing them to resolve their issues. Beijing is certainly doing more than it did before, but it is clear that it is not going to step into a leadership role. China has all the trappings and potential to be a dominant player but has made a strategic decision to continue to watch from the sidelines.  

[1]: https://www.csis.org/analysis/china-and-afghanistan

[2]: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-afghanistan-china/top-china-official-visits-afghanistan-signs-security-deal-idUSBRE88M02C20120923

[3]: https://www.mfa.gov.cn/ce/ceus/eng/zgyw/t910391.htm#:~:text=From%20February%2028%20to%2029,Foreign%20Affairs%20chaired%20the%20dialogue.

[4]: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-27225308

[5]: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-afghanistan/china-appoints-special-envoy-for-afghanistan-idUSKBN0FN11Z20140718

[6]: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/26/world/asia/taliban-and-afghan-peace-officials-have-secret-talks-in-china.html

[7]: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-33703097

[8]: https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/07/31/sinostan-china-afghanistan-relations-taliban-history/including%20study%20and%20judgment%20of%20the%20counter%20terrorism%20situation

[9]: https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2020/11/05/2020-24620/in-the-matter-of-the-designation-of-the-eastern-turkistan-islamic-movement-also-known-as-etim-as-a

A longer report I have been working on for some time which builds on work about the terrorist threat in the UK as part of a series run by the German foundation the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung looking at the state of the terrorist threat in Europe in general. Have another big piece on this have been working on forever, just need to find time to finish. The entire report is available free online as a good looking PDF, so am not going to re-post in its entirety here, but will put the executive summary to give you a taste.

Jihadism in the United Kingdom

The UK’s jihadist terror threat picture has evolved compared to the 2000s, when the UK was a key target of al-Qaeda, and even more since the collapse of ISIS’s caliphate in 2017. That year, in fact, marked something of a recent apex which has heralded a period of regular lone actor plots – some of which demonstrate an inspiration from ISIS, but others where it is unclear. This paper seeks to better understand this transformation and the evolution of the threat in the UK, as part of the “Jihadist Terrorism in Europe” series published by the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung in which renowned experts analyse the current state of the jihadist threat in various countries, as well as the related counter-terrorism strategies and political debates.

In the present study, Raffaello Pantucci looks at the UK, which most recently in January 2022 saw a radicalised British national launch an attack against a synagogue in Texas in advance of the attempted liberation of Dr Aafia Siddiqui, the long-jailed female al-Qaeda member serving a lengthy sentence in a nearby jail.

› Although the UK jihadist threat has not produced any large-scale attacks recently, it has consistently produced lone actor plots.

› The paper outlines how the current threat links back to the past, and in particular the dangers posed to the UK by the reemergence of a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan.

› The UK also still has a lingering problem of foreign fighters who went to Syria and Iraq. Passport deprivation – a preferred Home Office method of dealing with such cases – has not eliminated the problem but simply displaced it. Some individuals are still trying to return home, while others remain in Turkish or insecure Levantine jails.

› Authorities in the UK have consistently focused on trying to manage the threat through greater internal coordination.

› Larger problems around extremism continue to fester, though the degree to which they are linked to the jihadist threat remains unclear.

› The biggest problem for the UK is managing a problem which never seems to be entirely resolved, but only seems to grow in unpredictable and confusing ways, creating new cohorts of problems for authorities to manage. This, along with the growing problem of the extreme right wing, as well as sectarianism amongst South Asian communities points to a set of issues which will continue to trouble the UK.