Have a lot of catching up to do. Been dealing with a lot of late, so as ever slow here. First up, a brief note from last month for Prospect which sought to show the importance of Afghanistan to the story of British jihadism. Lots more stories like this in my first book, and more to come on the lone actor side of the problem.

The Britons who fought for the Taliban

Since 9/11, British citizens have continued to travel to Afghanistan to fight western forces. Now the Taliban are back in charge, the authorities fear more terrorist plots could be hatched in the country

By Raffaello Pantucci September 28, 2021

In 2018, Khalid Ali was convicted of planning a terrorist attack in London and of making bombs for the Taliban. Credit: Met Police handout

In the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks and the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, Britons were shocked to discover that some of their own were fighting for the Taliban. Broadcasting to the world from a safehouse in Lahore, Hassan Butt, the British spokesman for radical group al-Muhajiroun, reported that a group of Britons had been executed by Northern Alliance fighters in Afghanistan for “being pro-Taliban.” Posing in front of shelves of books he had likely never read, Butt spoke with a Mancunian twang as he celebrated his fellow Britons’ deaths: “we’re very envious and we would like to be like them because to live and die and walk and talk Islam is every Muslim’s role in life.” As journalist Shiv Malik has revealed, Butt’s story later turned out to be more complicated than it first seemed. But it is true to say Butt and others like him exposed a reality that still haunts Britain.  

A number of Britons who were in Afghanistan after 9/11 ended up being sent to Guantanamo Bay, like the famous Tipton Taliban. The trio of West Midlanders claimed to have set off for a friend’s wedding in Pakistan and wandered into Afghanistan out of curiosity, only to get caught by the Northern Alliance. Their story was dramatised in a somewhat forgiving 2006 film called The Road to Guantanamo, which focused on their torture at the detention camp. The backstory they appear to have confessed to US interrogators (admittedly an account made under duress) showed, in contrast, a path peppered with extremist preachers, radical communities in northern England and a stop at al-Qaeda’s al-Faruq camp in Afghanistan. Though they were not convicted of anything on their return to the UK after being freed from Guantanamo, the group seemed to fit the profile of other Brits who did go to train and fight in Afghanistan. 

The US-led invasion did not seem to deter British nationals or residents from fighting alongside the Taliban—if anything, it encouraged some. RAF Nimrod operators regularly reported overhearing Taliban fighters in Helmand talking to each other with “broad Midlands and Yorkshire accents.” One Taliban corpse was reportedly found with an Aston Villa tattoo. In 2010, the Guardian interviewed an East London cabbie in Dhani-Ghorri, northern Afghanistan, who claimed to return to Afghanistan for a few months each year to fight western forces. In June 2011, Atiqullah Mangal died during a brazen attack on the Afghan Defence Ministry. Subsequent investigation revealed he had been radicalised in a British prison, where he was jailed for violent assault in Aston after being smuggled into the UK in 2001 from Afghanistan. Following deportation, he had joined the insurgency and recruited others.

In November 2012, a video emerged which included images of “Umar the British,” a Taliban fighter in Pakistan who was, reportedly, one of the planners of the 2009 attack on Camp Chapman in Afghanistan, which led to the deaths of seven CIA agents. In the video he spoke with a London accent. He is now believed to be a long-missing British jihadist from East London, who was reported to have been killed in a US drone strike in 2010.

While these worrying stories continued to appear over the years, the actual depth of support in the UK for the Taliban was never clear. The UK is home to a population of around 100,000 Pashtuns with ancestry in Pakistan, rather than Afghanistan. According to the ONS there were some 33,000 people in the UK from Afghanistan as of June 2020 (the number will have increased since then.) Support for the Taliban, however, tended to come from a wider pool than just the Pashtun or Afghan communities. 

Key to the connection is the Deobandi movement, a conservative religious strain that emerged in India in the late 19th century, that helped in part give birth to the Taliban. The Deobandi creed is followed by around half of the mosques in the UK. Aimen Dean, a former member of al-Qaeda who worked undercover for MI5 and MI6, told the BBC that “pre-9/11 there was no question that the Deobandis supported the Taliban of Afghanistan and the regime of Mullah Mohammed Omar to the hilt, because it was a purely Deobandi regime… even after 9/11 there were many mosques still stubborn in their support of the Taliban because of the Deobandi solidarity.” 

While it is unfair to tarnish all Deobandis with the Taliban brush, there is little doubt there are ideological crossovers. Writing in 1999, Taliban expert Ahmed Rashid described the group as having emerged from Deobandi madrassahs in Pakistan. As he put it in Foreign Affairs, “The Taliban’s anomalous interpretation of Islam emerged from an extreme and perverse interpretation of Deobandism, preached by Pakistani mullahs (clerics) in Afghan refugee camps.” Former Taliban leader Mullah Omar wrote to the sect’s leadership in Pakistan asking for guidance, though he does not seem to have gotten a direct response. 

It is hard to know in absolute terms how much Taliban support there is in the UK. And it is impossible to know with any certainty for how many people this translated into travelling to Afghanistan to fight alongside the Taliban. But there have been a few other high-profile cases. Omar Khyam, the brains behind the 2004 fertiliser bomb plot, had been home to Afghanistan in 2001 and reported finding the Taliban highly hospitable. In 2006, Parviz Khan was arrested for plotting to kidnap a Muslim British soldier in Birmingham, and then planning to video his decapitation. He had previously been running a regular supply line for Taliban militants in Pakistan, sending money and equipment. He was jailed for life.

Taliban-linked plots have continued until relatively recently. In April 2017, police made a dramatic arrest in Whitehall of a smiling young man with three large knives suspected of planning an assault on police officers. Khalid Ali was a sometime plumber who disappeared from his home in Edmonton, north London, in 2011, only to reappear in 2016 at the British Consulate in Istanbul trying to get temporary travel documents to get home. When he landed back in the UK police found 42 matches with an FBI database of prints found on explosives in Afghanistan. Under questioning, he stated he was a Taliban soldier and that he had pressed the button detonating bombs in Afghanistan “more than 300 times.” On the stand later he changed his story, but his phones were not all recovered and the prosecution speculated that he appeared to be planning to launch his attack concurrent with the Taliban’s Spring offensive. He was convicted of planning a terror attack and making bombs for the Taliban, and jailed for 40 years.

The plot was a strange one that took place in a year in which the UK saw four successful violent Islamist plots and around a dozen disrupted ones. But it distinguished itself with its links to the Taliban and Afghanistan—in contrast to the Islamic State links that had by then become the norm.

This all returned to the headlines again after the recent fall of Kabul, when military intelligence sources leaked to the Sun that they had “received some intercepts of two British men, probably below 30, talking openly on mobiles… One had a London accent, what you might call a street accent.” This kind of intelligence leak about homegrown militants appears to be one British authorities enjoy doing—so the timing of its appearance now (in a tabloid) must of course raise eyebrows. But it is not surprising that British nationals might be fighting or be present in Afghanistan. 

Yet the bigger danger for the UK is the Pakistan connection. The 7th July, 2005 cell started off interested in jihad in Kashmir, only to get re-directed to train in Afghanistan where (after some time) they were directed by al-Qaeda to murder 52 Londoners.

While the danger from terrorist networks in Pakistan striking the UK appears to have reduced, extremism originating in Pakistan has grown in different ways in the UK. In February 2016, Jalal Uddin, a 71-year-old imam, was bludgeoned to death with a hammer by an extremist who then fled to Syria to join Islamic State. (Another man was found guilty in the UK.) Uddin was accused of spreading witchcraft through taweez faith healing and had stirred the anger of fundamentalists in Rochdale. A month later, a Bradford cabbie drove up to Glasgow and murdered Asad Shah, an Ahmadiyya shopkeeper who had posted videos online which the fundamentalist cabbie found blasphemous. 

The Ahmadiyya are a widely persecuted minority Muslim sect (in Pakistan they are officially considered non-Muslims). Numerous investigations by the BBC and others found cases around the UK of anti-Ahmadiyya sentiment or openly sectarian Pakistani groups in the UK. Even from jail Asad Shah’s killer has maintained his connection with extremists, finding ways of releasing audio recordings encouraging people to attend events linked to his sect in Pakistan. He has, in fact, become something of a folk hero amongst the Sufi Barelvi community in Kashmir.

The support network for such extremist sentiment in the UK is clearly already present. A stridently sectarian political organisation called Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan (TLP) made an appearance in the streets outside the Pakistani High Commission in London in April 2021, protesting the government’s refusal to eject the French Ambassador in the wake of President Macron’s calls for new laws to control extremism after the murder of schoolteacher Samuel Paty. Notwithstanding being banned in Pakistan, the group appears an irritant that the authorities in the UK cannot dismiss.

Colonial history ties South Asia and the UK together in a way that is unique. It is a rich connection that generates a huge amount of good for both sides. Unfortunately, it also has a darker edge: for the UK a regular stream of support for the Taliban and associated extremist groups in Pakistan, as well as radicalised young men and terrorist plots. Now we have a Taliban government in power, some of the more covert aspects of this connection are likely to become more prominent. And as MI5 chief Ken McCallum put it recently, this time “we will have neither the advantages nor the risks of having our own forces on the ground.”

With this am now up to date on published work, though have various other pieces that are now working their way through the publication process which should emerge soon in various forms. This last piece was done rather last minute after an invitation to present before an online session of joint hearing by two US House of Representative Committees. Consequently my statement, published below, was not footnoted and probably needed a bit of tidying. Here is the actual recording of the session, and forgive any doziness, it was very early morning for me.

Raffaello Pantucci

Senior Associate Fellow, Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI), UK

Joint Committee Hearing of House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Energy, the Environment and Cyber & House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Middle East, North Africa, and Global Counterterrorism

Transatlantic Cooperation on Countering Global Terrorism and Violent Extremism

September 21, 2021

The terrorist threat picture faced by Europe and North America is one that has only become more complicated as time has gone on. While the overall numbers of casualties may have gone down, the variety of ideologies, places of origin and nature of plots has only become more complicated in the past two decades. At the same time, cooperation between North America and Europe in countering these threats has only become tighter. To provide a survey of the entire picture in the time available would be an exercise in futility, and as a consequence, I am going to focus on two principal threat areas that that face the Transatlantic Alliance in the short term. First is the menace of lone actor terrorism which is repeatedly spoken of as the priority menace on both sides of the Atlantic (and further afield), and second the fall-out from events in Afghanistan. These remarks will be concise given space restrictions, but will hopefully provide some broader food for thought.

Lone Actor Terrorism

Since its early expressions in the late 2000s (though some would trace it back even further), lone actor terrorism as a methodology has become the principal source of terrorist attacks in Europe and North America. Whilst there can be no doubt that sophisticated terrorist networks are still keen to launch large-scale plots, it has become increasingly difficult for them to penetrate western security barriers. This is a clear source of success for the Transatlantic Alliance that has been able to construct a set of security perimeters that regularly frustrate attempts by terrorist groups to successfully attack on a larger-scale. But it has also exposed the reality that lone actor plots are exceptionally hard to detect and prevent.

The reasons for this difficulty are multi-faceted. The most obvious aspect is the fact that such attacks involve low technology weapons that are often fashioned from tools from every day life, with short flash-to-bang periods, and are often undertaken by highly volatile individuals who are difficult to legally detain pre-attack. The growing dominance of knives and vehicles in terrorist attack planning makes it difficult for security agencies to use traditional tripwires to try to prevent such incidents, and in the United States the easy availability of high grade firearms amplifies the effect of such attacks. Europe is to some degree protected from this particular aspect of the threat, given the lower availability (though this is not always the case as exemplified by attackers in Hanau or Oslo, or even further afield, Christchurch).

At the same time, terrorist ideologies have increasingly pushed their adherents towards the lone actor attack methodology. Al Qaeda, ISIS and parts of the extreme right wing (XRW) have all advanced the lone actor methodology of attack through their publications and narratives. Likely in part realizing the complexity of successfully launching large-scale plots and recognizing the potential impact a successful lone actor attack can have, terrorist groups have sought to make it easier for individuals to launch attacks in support of their ideology. ISIS in particular fashioned a very simple narrative for people to launch incidents that could be associated with their ideology, thereby providing a frame which many different individuals could use to add meaning to acts of violence that they might otherwise have committed anyway out of their own personal rage.

But the problem with these ideas is that they have a habit of drifting beyond your intended audience. They become common currency which is widely accepted and discussed, creating an easy template that anybody (or any group) can adopt. It is noticeable for example the degree to which right wing groups have taken on similar narratives, seeking to persuade their own followers to consider similar attack methodologies to those being advanced by their putative ideological adversaries in ISIS. While it is clear that this typology is not new to the extreme right – the idea of lone wolf terrorism is something that has long been embedded in extreme right thinking – the success of it in recent years for groups like ISIS or al Qaeda has awakened the effectiveness of its use to a wider audience.

And even more problematically than this, the methodology is now entirely accessible even to an audience whose ideological frame is absent or confused. In recent years, the UK’s Home Office has started to note an increase in cases of individuals who appear to have an ideological framing which is defined as “mixed, unstable or unclear.” This group have a habit of being radicalised in the classical sense, but when investigators dig into their ideological leanings, they find a confused collection of sometimes directly contradictory ideas. These highly idiosyncratic ideologies are clearly coherent in the individual’s mind, but nowhere else. Some have identified that some school shooters are similar in their outlooks, drafting manifestos prior to their attacks. Yet the attack methodology they all lean towards is a simple one, using weapons that are easily accessible and clearly aping the approach that has been popularized by ISIS or the extreme right. They appear to be ISIS or XRW attacks and yet in reality are probably something different.

Even more complicated than the ideological aspect is the mental state of some of these individuals. Whilst one has to pay attention to not entirely remove agency from the culprit, it is clear that a growing volume of offenders are people with histories of mental health disorder or neuropsychological disorders. This means you have a growing cohort of lone actor attacks that are being conducted by individuals who appear to have a confused ideological leaning, and whose mental faculties are not entirely competent. While there is a larger discussion to be had about the degree to which we should even be considering these individuals as part of the terrorism cohort (operating on the assumption that perpetrators defined as terrorists should at least have a clear political motivation inspiring them, something entirely confused in this group), from a security agency perspective this poses a major problem. A successful lone actor in this mould will in the first instance be considered a terrorist actor, leading to all of the societal tensions and complications that generates. And for first response authorities and those being injured or murdered in the attack, there is little distinction to them in a lone actor that is linked to ISIS to one that is instead inspired by a confusing mess of ideas.

But this is where the larger transatlantic alliance might want to start to explore greater cooperation and consideration. This is a problem we have seen in Europe just as much as in North America (or even further afield in alliance countries like New Zealand or Singapore). Cooperation in this space is however highly complicated as ultimately the battle is one which is not going to be successfully fought on battlefields.

In cooperative terms, three key areas identify themselves as places to focus attention going forwards. These build on years of effective counter-terrorism cooperation across the Atlantic, and reflect the complicated nature of the lone actor threat in particular.

First is on the ideological side. There is a growing interweaving of ideas and groups across the Atlantic (and more widely) online. This spread has meant that ideologies can be spawned in the United States which resonate widely across the world. In part these ideologies are able to grow in countries where rules around free speech are interpreted with a wider latitude than in others. This is not a new problem, but when looking at the extreme right and propagators of some new ideologies like QAnon, it is a problem which is increasingly found as emanating from part of the Transatlantic Alliance. This requires greater coordination to both ensure rapid takedown (something to be done in conjunction with social media companies in particular) as well as efforts to detain and prevent ideologues advancing such ideas wherever they might be. Key to this is also recognition that while an individual may not be crossing a legal boundary in the jurisdiction where they are based, they may be pushing others to cross it in foreign lands. Greater coordination in managing this, and in closing down these online networks and communities would in part help stem the problem.

Second is on the tactical side. It is clear that the United States has an online capability that is vastly superior to most European powers. While the United Kingdom, France and Germany have grown their own capabilities, they are still very dependent on the US. Greater coordination should be undertaken amongst a wider community of security agencies across the Atlantic to try to counter lone actor plots. While it is true that most lone actors operate alone, there is a growing body of evidence showing that they do in fact communicate or tell others about their attacks or plans pre-incident. Much of this communication happens online, sometimes in very public forums. This suggests a point of interdiction that Transatlantic partners should work more closely on detecting and preventing.

Third is on the preventative side – one of the key problems with lone actor terrorism as a methodology is its easy adoption. This means the range of individuals who are perpetrating such attacks is becoming ever wider, with individuals deciding to use it as a method of expression with little sense of connection to the ideology that initially spawned it as a tactic. The key point here is the wide ranging nature of profiles of those involved, and the growing instances or neuropsychological or mental health issues amongst this cohort. This generates a new form of preventative response and post-arrest management. While the sui generis nature of each case means lessons are not always easily translatable, the cumulative effect of the volume of cases seen around the world is likely to generate some new ideas and approaches which others would benefit from learning from. Creating a more regular exchange of ideas across the Atlantic about how to manage these cases in prisons, in society or elsewhere would likely generate some successful new approaches to deal with this threat.

Afghanistan

Another major terrorist issue which has raised it head for the Transatlantic Alliance in recent months is the change in government in Afghanistan, where the collapse of the Islamic Republic has led to the rise of an Islamic Emirate controlled by the Taliban. While it remains unclear the degree to which the Taliban will be able to maintain control in the longer-term, it does seem they are going to be able to hold power for the short to medium term. Given their close connections to al Qaeda, and previous support for groups and networks which have generated terrorist plots in the west and elsewhere, this is clearly a source of concern to the Transatlantic Alliance. But what is the exact nature of this threat, and what tensions has this generated in the broader alliance framework which need to be addressed.

In terms of responding to the potential threat, the first key element to focus on is that few assessments have pointed to the change in government in Afghanistan generating an immediate or medium term threat to the west. While it is impossible to predict how things will play out in the longer-term, for the time being it seems unlikely that al Qaeda will be able to rebuild its capabilities to launch large-scale terrorist attacks against western interests for at least the next two years (and possibly even further in the future). The group is a vastly reduced form of its former self, and has for the past few years appeared to focus more on regional conflicts that striking at far enemies in the west. This likely creates problems in other parts of the globe where al Qaeda linked or inspired groups exist, but not as much in the west.

A far larger and immediate threat is likely present in Pakistan, and to a lesser degree in Central Asia. India also faces the potential for threats, as do China, Russia and Iran. The key here, however, is that when looking at how threats from Afghanistan might emerge, it is imperative that the west move away from focusing single-mindedly on how problems might directly come home. The last major plot reported publicly as having links to Afghanistan, was a group of Tajiks arrested in April 2020 in Germany. Yet the extent of their connection to Afghanistan was a remote one through mobile phone applications. Far more immediate is the danger of groups starting to use Afghanistan as a base to destabilize Pakistan or even more inspiring groups in Pakistan to rise up against the government in Islamabad. A similar (though more remote) possibility presents itself in parts of Central Asia, as well as Iran, Russia and China – though all of them have more effective police apparatus that is likely able to contain threats.

The key for the Transatlantic Alliance is to focus on managing the spread of problems from Afghanistan into its neighbourhood rather than single-mindedly focusing on the not impossible, but unlikely, outcome that groups start to immediately launch attacks against the west.

The second major issue within this context is geopolitical. The withdrawal from Afghanistan by the United States was long telegraphed, but not heard in other capitals. This led to a chaotic withdrawal which raised concerns about American security guarantees. While these are likely overstated, they have highlighted once again the reality that Europe in particular has somewhat taken for granted American security support. The answer here is clearly for Europe to increase its efforts, but these should be done in conjunction with American partners who remain key enablers in counter-terrorism operations around the globe. Finding a way of better cooperating in establishing over the horizon presence in South Asia in particular is going to be an area of key cooperation going forwards. European partners like the United Kingdom have strong relations in Pakistan in particular, while France and Germany have a deep footprint in parts of Central Asia. This provides a useful point of engagement for the Transatlantic Alliance going forwards.

Finally, both sides of the Atlantic should work to try to extricate the problem of countering terrorist groups in the region in particular (and more widely) from the larger great power conflict that is currently consuming the Transatlantic Alliance. In Afghanistan in particular, the insertion of great power conflict narratives creates a context to replicate the immensely damaging and counter-productive history of using proxy groups in Afghanistan to fight against each other. Focusing on the terrorist threats as problems that menace not only the western alliance, but also regional adversaries provides a way to actually deal with the threats rather than making them worse.

Almost caught up on myself now, this time a short piece for wonderful Indian think tank the Observer Research Foundation (ORF) looking at the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) Summit in Dushanbe. There is a whole chapter on the organization in my upcoming book whose cover has now been released. Will get around to a long delayed media update soon, though have a few other longer papers that need pushing out the door.

Afghanistan crisis lingers over the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit

Looking beyond the SCO’s inability to come to a consensus on Afghanistan to the normalising of Beijing’s influence in Eurasia

Shanghai Cooperation Organisation summit, SCO, Afghanistan, NATO, ASEAN, Eurasian heartland, China, Russia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, counterterrorism, US, SCO-Afghanistan, Taliban, Ajit Doval, Moeed Yusuf,
Wikimedia Commons (By Kremlin.ru, CC BY 4.0)

If there was ever an organisation that on paper would look like it was suited to focus on Afghanistan, the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) would be it. Yet, as Dushanbe hosts the 20th anniversary Heads of Government session this week, there is little evidence that the organisation is going to take advantage of this moment to step forward and present a unified vision for how to deal with Afghanistan, a nation that sits literally at its geographic core. This spatial reality will only be highlighted once again with the beginning of Iran’s full accession process into the Organisation, leaving aggressively neutral Turkmenistan as the only Afghan neighbour that is not a full member.

The Summit is instead likely to reflect a generally fractured regional view of how to handle the new Taliban authorities in Afghanistan and escalating regional tensions. Where outside powers need to be careful, however, is in concluding that this is a demonstration of organisational weakness and irrelevance. It may be the case the SCO is not on its way to create some sort of regional NATO or ASEAN. Rather, it helps clarify the very different views that exist regionally about what role the SCO plays in the Eurasian heartland. Primary amongst these is China, who continues to see the entity as a useful tool to help normalise Chinese preeminence in the Eurasian heartland.

Founded in 2001 in the months before the September 11 attacks, the SCO was initially born out of a structure that developed in the post-Cold War period to help China define its borders with the former Soviet Union. By the time of the formal founding, with the joining of Uzbekistan to the previous Shanghai Five made up of China, Russia, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, it was clear that all the powers had slightly different interpretations about what purpose it would serve going forward and their degree of interest in it. Yet one thing they all seemed to agree on was counterterrorism. To some degree this was normative. As authoritarian powers preoccupied with staying in power, they all saw threats to their authority as political violence (i.e., terrorism); hence it was something they could all agree on as being a major concern. But they also all realised that they sat next to Afghanistan, a country that had produced numerous regional problems in the decade between the end of the Soviet Union and SCO founding.

SCO and Afghanistan

So much was Afghanistan on people’s minds that during the June 2001 founding ceremony in Shanghai that President Nazarbayev of Kazakhstan highlighted the country as “the cradle of terrorism, separatism and extremism” in his opening remarks, tying the country to the “three evils” that sit at the heart of SCO counter-terrorism thinking. In comments to Xinhua on the fringes of the inaugural Summit, President Rahmon of Tajikistan (this year’s host) “called for a common stance and unified actions in solving the Afghanistan issue through peaceful means.” In his comments during the main session, then-President of Kyrgyzstan Akayev “expressed the hope that SCO member countries will work together to alleviate the Afghan situation which has become a serious threat to countries in the region.” All of the countries involved in founding the SCO had faced violent Islamist terrorism of one sort or another in the years leading up to the Summit with links to Afghanistan identifiable in most cases.

Yet, notwithstanding all this consternation, the Organisation has done almost nothing about Afghanistan since its founding. To some degree, this was a product of external factors. Soon after the 2001 inaugural Summit in Shanghai, the September 11 attacks against the United States precipitated an American-led invasion of the country and the toppling of the Taliban regime. This deprived the Organisation of a need to actually do anything. The US had arrived with great bellicosity and seemed determined to clean shop in Kabul, effectively dealing with a problem they had all worried about. There was a part of them that was worried about long-term US military presence in their neighbourhood, but this balanced against the direct security concerns in Afghanistan that were now being dealt with.

This tension with the US was fairly constant, and, in 2005, it came into sharp relief as the democratising flame of ‘Colour Revolutions’ reached the region. The so-called Tulip Revolution in Kyrgyzstan in Spring 2005 was followed by the May massacre in Andijian, Uzbekistan. These two events were applauded and condemned by the west to horror across the region. Yet, they did not appear to impact the SCO much, which was unhappy about the instability and stood behind its members. At the same time, people continued to go in different ways on Afghanistan. In 2008/09, the US established the Northern Distribution Network to get supplies into Afghanistan via overland routes from Europe, across Russia and Central Asia to Afghanistan. While condemnation of Andijian led to US ejection from a key airbase in Kashi Khanabad in Uzbekistan, it led to the expansion of the Manas airbase in Kyrgyzstan.

China has been quite heavily involved in pushing for the organisation to do more in Afghanistan. Beijing supported and encouraged the establishment of the SCO Contact Group in 2005, and during the 2012 Beijing Summit shepherded the country in as an official Observer member. Yet, notwithstanding Beijing’s diplomatic energy, very little has happened, and even China appears to accept its limitations, focusing its engagement with Afghanistan through bilateral and other regional multilateral structures. And none of the other members ever really seemed to really push for Afghanistan to become a key focus. In recent times, Moscow seemed to awaken to the idea of trying to revive the SCO-Afghanistan Contact group in some substantial way, but it did not result in anything new. Russia now seems to have fallen back into focusing on its direct security concerns through bolstering Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, while continuing to tentatively engage with the Taliban.

And this has largely been the reaction of most of the other powers as well. India and Pakistan each have their own particular relations with Afghanistan, which are largely predicated on conflict with each other. The Central Asians are wary, though the Uzbeks have seemed to lean in towards engaging with the new Taliban government while the Kyrgyz and Kazakhs appear to be in a wait-and-see mode. The Tajiks have taken an entirely contrary view, openly supporting the Northern Alliance resistance, and staking out a position as the most antagonistic power towards the new authority in Kabul. Potential new member Iran is unlikely to decide that the SCO is going to be best forum for its future engagement, while other Observers (like Mongolia) or Dialogue Partners (like Sri Lanka or Belarus) are likely going to be eager to step into the mess.

The SCO Summit on 17 September 2021

In fact, this Summit is going to be a tale of internal tensions and blandness. Central Asians may have resolved a lot of their disputes, but until April this year, Kyrgyz and Tajiks were killing each other across their borders. Pakistan and India are usually able to leave their bilateral problems at the door, but last September, during a virtual SCO National Security Advisers Summit, Indian National Security Adviser Ajit Doval dropped out when Pakistani National Security Adviser, Moeed Yusuf, presented a map that showed borders clashing with Delhi’s view. And while the organisation will likely seek to focus on the harmony implicit with Iran joining, the reality is that more members are only likely to create more problems.

But at the same time, it is true that the Organisation does not shrink or go away, but rather continues to grow. And in doing this, it is invariably expanding Chinese influence in subtle ways across the wider Eurasian heartland. While the rest of the world tends to focus on the optics of authoritarian gathering and the seeming lack of action on critical security questions which should logically be top of the list, we miss the vast number of sectoral dialogues, people-to-people engagements, and new institutions that China, in particular, has encouraged through the Organisation. This has helped advance Chinese interests, links and norms across the entire region. And while none of these are transformational by themselves, cumulatively they are setting in stone a reality.

It is clear there is no agreement whatsoever amongst SCO members about how to proceed on Afghanistan, and no institutional capacity within the SCO itself to do anything. Yet, in entirely focusing on this side of the Summit, the rest of the world is missing the wider normative foundations that the SCO is laying across the wider Eurasian heartland. The region is already bracketed in amongst powers that are heavily sanctioned by the US, through the SCO, Beijing is creating a structure which can increasingly normalise Chinese influence and dominance.

The last with resonances of the September 11 anniversary, this time trying to cast a wide net looking at the impact of the Taliban takeover on problems of jihadism around the world. Probably a little too short to do such a large topic justice, but such are the exigencies of the RSIS in-house journal Counter Terrorist Trends and Analyses. Another collaboration with my brilliant RSIS colleague Basit (our earlier one on China’s regional terrorism problems in South Asia got some good attention).

Post-Taliban Takeover: How the Global Jihadist Terror Threat May Evolve

Synopsis

The Taliban’s victory and restoration of their self-styled Islamic Emirate following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is a watershed moment for the global jihadist movement. Existing terrorist threats are likely to evolve in a qualitatively different manner than those witnessed before the September 11, 2001 attacks. However, the threat picture is unlikely to return to the pre-9/11 status quo. The Taliban’s victory may have reinvigorated proAl-Qaeda (AQ) jihadist groups around the world, but they face an international security response which is qualitatively different to the pre-9/11 environment, alongside a world which is confronted with other challenges, including from competing ideologies and groups. Though AQ and its associated groups will undoubtedly continue to paint this as a glorious victory, and their trust in the jihadist doctrine of strategic patience may have been resuscitated, it is not clear they have the operational capability to translate that into violent extremist attacks.

Introduction

Though the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan marks a watershed in the evolution of global jihadism, the situation is unlikely to return to the pre-9/11 status quo. The existing threat landscape is more complex, fractious, and different from what it was in 2001. Therefore, the likely implications will also be different, notwithstanding the fact that the Taliban’s victory has emboldened AQ jihadist doctrine of strategic patience. In parallel to this transformation, the world has become much more attuned to jihadist terrorism, meaning it is harder for organisations to plan and execute the sort of attacks that were visible in the early years of AQ’s struggle against the west. In short, while the extremist threat has not dissipated, it is now more subtle and diffuse.

For AQ and its associated movements, the desire and intent to launch large-scale spectacular attacks against the West persists. However, undertaking an operation on the scale of the 9/11 attacks, or even the 2005 London attacks, remains a moot prospect. The most recent large-scale sophisticated attack in Europe was conducted by the Islamic State (IS) in France in November 2015. Since then, large-scale violence in Europe or North America has been conducted by isolated lone attackers, with some tenuous links or connection to groups abroad.

Rather, the focus for both AQ and IS, and their affiliates, has been the various regional conflicts in which they are present. In these regional conflicts, they have achieved some degree of success. Indubitably, the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan will animate them further. But it remains to be seen if this will help them expand in the short or medium term, or create the conditions to launch a global campaign once again. Consolidation on the ground in parts of Africa, the Middle East or South Asia may strengthen regional terror networks, but it is not obvious that this will recreate a coherent global movement, or lead to an upsurge in attacks in faraway targets.

Global Threat

South Asia

Paradoxically, the Taliban’s, and by extension AQ’s, victory in Afghanistan has emboldened both pro-AQ jihadist groups in South Asia and their arch-foe, the Islamic State in Khorasan Province (IS-K), the IS’ franchise in the country.1 Following the US withdrawal and the Taliban’s return to power, IS-K has positioned itself as the Taliban and AQ rejectionist group.2

Since its ejection from Afghanistan in 2001, AQ has entrenched itself in South Asia’s complex jihadist landscape, offering strategic guidance and ideological mentoring to local groups. For instance, AQ played a pivotal role in reorganising, reviving and subsequently supporting the Taliban insurgency in Afghanistan against the US.3 In Pakistan, AQ was instrumental in the formation of Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in 2007 and its own South Asian franchise, AQ in the Indian Subcontinent (AQIS), in 2014. AQ commands the loyalty and respect of the South Asian jihadist groups, while in turn AQ pledges allegiance to the Taliban.4 The Taliban’s victory is their win as well and validation of the jihadist doctrine of strategic patience, i.e., that a local focus pursued with perseverance can succeed.5 This triumphant jihadist narrative, coupled with the Bagram and Pul-e-Charki jailbreaks freeing 5,000 jihadists, could potentially speed AQ’s regional revival.6

As Afghanistan’s immediate neighbour, Pakistan would be the most affected country, having already lost 80,000 civilians in the war on terror. Pakistan’s own complicated history and relationships with a plethora of jihadist groups will not only undermine its internal security, but regional security dynamics with adversary India as well.7 AQ appears eager to play on these tensions, and may seek to deploy effort in Kashmir in this regard. Admittedly, however, it can be hard to separate state supported militant activity there from those of AQ linked groups, complicating the nature of the link to events in Afghanistan. AQIS publications already appear to have responded to events in Afghanistan, with the group’s Urdu language magazine changing its name to Nawa-e-Ghazwa-e-Hind, following the US Taliban deal in Doha.8

In India, the Taliban’s victory has negatively energised right-wing Hindu extremists, who are furthering their domestic Islamophobic narratives in response to the perception of being encircled by Muslim states with growing numbers of extremists within them.9 The exacerbation of communal fault lines could benefit AQ through radicalising the radical fringes of the Indian Muslim community, which hitherto have proven relatively resilient to extremist recruitment efforts.

AQ has an elaborate network of like minded groups in South Asia like Ansarullah Bangla Team and Jamaat-ul-Mujahideen Bangladesh in Bangladesh, Ansar Ghazwat-ul-Hind in Indian Held Kashmir and TTP in Pakistan.10 There are 8,000 to 10,00011 foreign jihadists from Pakistan, Xinjiang and Central Asia in Afghanistan, while another 5,000 have come out of prisons.12 These jihadists will be a critical factor in AQ’s regional strategy in South Asia. According to AQ’s weekly newspaper, Tabhat, the group has a presence in Afghanistan’s 18 provinces, where it fought alongside the Taliban against the US.13 Presently, both groups publicly downplay their ties, so as to not jeopardise the Doha Agreement and allow the Taliban space to consolidate their grip on power.14

For its part, IS-K has positioned itself as the anti-Taliban and AQ group in the region, in the hope of attracting the disenfranchised elements of these and other groups to its fold. IS-K’s recent attack on the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, in which 12 US marines were killed, in addition to 170 Afghan civilians and 28 Afghan Taliban fighters, potentially heralds the start of a bloody phase of the jihadist civil war in Afghanistan. This was IS’ largest-ever direct strike on an American military target, and the largest loss of American life in Afghanistan in years. The attack has created waves amongst the jihadist community in Afghanistan, illustrating the potential effective power of a group that they have been trying to eject with little success for years.

The danger in South Asia is that both AQ and IS might now be able to grow in parallel to each other. AQ offers an establishment perspective on jihad, while IS propagates an uncompromising and violent alternative. Given the absence of western forces and their allies to focus on, these groups could increasingly face off against each other, potentially giving them space to grow and develop. The AQ-IS rivalry in this context will likely stay regional for the medium term, but assessing its trajectory over the long-term is harder.

Southeast Asia

While historical links between Southeast Asian militant groups and AQ and the Taliban in Afghanistan form the backdrop of a potential reinvigorating effect on the former, the actual impact is likely to be limited.15 The Taliban’s victory may tangentially inspire the pro-AQ radical Islamist and jihadist groups in Southeast Asia, who will celebrate the group’s success and use it in their regional recruitment campaigns.16

The impact, however, will be limited due to a fractious Southeast Asian militant landscape split between pro-IS and pro-AQ groups; the presence of other conflict hotspots in the Middle East in particular and Africa to a lesser degree, diluting the pre-eminence of Afghanistan as an attractive conflict theatre; and the advent of social media which has eliminated physical hurdles and lowered entry barriers for jihadist recruitment and radicalisation.17 In the near future, the prospect of Southeast Asian jihadists travelling to Afghanistan in large numbers are low, given the COVID-19-related travel restrictions, better immigration and border controls instituted between 2015 and 2018 to stem the flow of foreign fighters to Iraq and Syria.18

At any rate, the Taliban’s victory will inspire these Islamist and jihadist groups to constantly strive for the ideological goal of creating an Islamic State by imitating the Taliban’s model. For instance, an Indonesian radical Islamist group, Jamaah Muslimin Hizbullah, has debated establishing a Taliban-styled Islamic government in Indonesia, starting with the island of Sumatra.19 Malaysia’s largest Islamist political party, the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), has also congratulated the Taliban on their victory.20 Later on, facing public censure, PAS removed the message from its social media pages. The social media channels of Southeast Asian militants have also been euphoric over the Taliban’s victory. For instance, Jemaah Islamiyah, which has historical ties to both AQ and the Taliban, has distributed an Arabic language manual detailing the latter’s operational strategies and fighting tactics through WhatsApp groups.21 A proposal to invite the Taliban to establish a branch in Indonesia to help jihadists in Indonesia to create an Islamic State has also been discussed.22 It is not entirely clear, however, the degree to which any of this rhetoric and discourse will be followed by action.

Middle East and North Africa

In recent years, AQ leader Ayman al Zawahiri’s speeches and statements have focused on developments in the Middle East, while referring to Afghanistan as peripheral to AQ’s future goals.23 Since the onset of the Arab spring in 2011 and the advent of the IS in 2014, which broke off from the former as its Iraqi branch, AQ has paid closer attention to developments in the Middle East. The split of the global jihadist movement was a huge setback for AQ, while the Taliban’s victory has given a boost to AQ’s brand of jihadism.24

AQ’s franchises and affiliates in the Middle East have been energised by the Taliban takeover, calling it a magnificent victory.25 For instance, AQ in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), while felicitating the Taliban, said, “it is the beginning of a pivotal transformation worldwide.”26 Similarly, Syrian jihadist group Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham has termed the Taliban’s victory “a model to follow.”27

In its two-page statement released after the Taliban’s victory, AQ leadership has particularly mentioned devoting its attention to the “near enemy.”28 The near-enemy in AQ’s jihadist strategy refers to the so called “apostate” governments in the Muslim world, particularly the Middle Eastern dictatorships and monarchies, which have assisted the US to the detriment of the “suppressed” Muslim communities in the region.29 The Middle East is the birthplace of Islam, and where the two holiest sites of Mecca and Medina are located. It is also where much of the organization’s key leadership is originally from. Without a strong footprint in the Middle East, AQ’s plans of creating a global Muslim Caliphate sound hollow. The Taliban’s victory therefore provides an opportunity for AQ to refocus on the Middle East, using the victory narrative to draw new recruits and expand its footprint.30

More success for AQ’s affiliates can be found in North Africa and the Sahel, where the group’s presence has developed a stronger footprint. Jama’at Nusrat al Islam wal Muslimeen (JNIM) has for some time managed to develop a presence across the wider Sahelian region and project a force on the ground, which has created a challenge that western forces have sought to push back against. The French decision to scale back its presence, at around the same time the US announced its formal withdrawal from Afghanistan, was seized upon as evidence of a global victory by jihadists, although again, it is not clear how this will translate into action.

Africa

Looking more widely across Africa, a victory narrative can similarly be drawn, but it is for the most part linked to IS affiliated groups. In Nigeria, Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP) has managed to dramatically defenestrate Boko Haram’s key leader and recruit many of his former followers, taking the leadership position in the regional struggle.31 In the Central African Republic,32 Congo33 and Mozambique34, a similar narrative of success is built not off what the Taliban have achieved in Afghanistan, but their own triumphs on the battlefield as various subsidiaries of IS or as violent Islamist groups winning against their local adversaries.

The one place where an AQ affiliate remains dominant is East Africa, where Al-Shabaab continues to prove a hard enemy to eradicate. Whilst it has recently toned down its level of ambition, it has still demonstrated a desire to attack western targets regionally – including hotels hosting foreigners35, and even western military bases36, and continues to discuss its allegiance to AQ core. Of the many groups in Africa, Al-Shabaab is most likely to use the narrative of victory in Afghanistan to try to develop into a larger threat. Having said this, there is little reason that the group would not have already been doing this, but it might seek to more overtly link itself to the Taliban’s victory. A notable point here is that much of sub-Saharan African terrorism has stayed on the Continent, with Al-Shabaab the only one which appears to have links that could help it stretch further.

Central Asia

Looking north of Afghanistan to Central Asia, it is notable that it has been some time since a concerted terrorist campaign has been visible within the region. What attacks have taken place have been largely linked to IS (in Tajikistan)37, or remained unclaimed (the 2016 attack on the Chinese Embassy in Bishkek).38 Whilst networks across the region continue to be disrupted, there has been a growing level of concern about the return of Central Asian jihadists to northern Afghanistan,39 and them potentially using the area as a base to attack the region. Certainly, this model had plagued the region pre-2001. The various Central Asian focused violent Islamist groups certainly retain the interest and appetite to launch attacks, though it is not clear that their capability has materially changed. Nonetheless, a permissive milieu in Afghanistan might provide a propitious environment for them, and they appear eager to try to take advantage of this (with reports emerging of fighters returning from Syria and Iraq40).

Europe/North America

Looking further afield to the West, notwithstanding hysterical predictions about a threat escalation and return to a September 11, 2001 scenario,41 the capability of violent Islamist groups to launch attacks in the West is vastly reduced, even as there are some indications that problems could emerge. Since the late 2015 attacks in Paris and Brussels, groups have been unable to get any largescale networked plots through. Rather, the field has been littered with lone actor plots, or small cells operating seemingly without any clear direction or instruction by an organised group. While there has been some evidence of individuals being inspired by the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan, the threat picture is unlikely to change in the short term. In the medium term, as we see large numbers of migrants fleeing Afghanistan, it is possible some individual attackers may slip in through the groups – previous waves of migrants have brought some individuals who went on to commit attacks around Europe in particular (for example, in Germany in July 2016).42 However, it remains unclear if AQ will be able to take advantage of this flow in some way, and whether this will provide a vector through which an escalated threat beyond lone actors might strike Europe or North America (even less likely).

Conclusion

Undoubtedly, the global jihadist movement has been invigorated by the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan. Through their ejection of the US in Afghanistan, the Taliban have demonstrated the success of their model of conflict and dedication to their holy cause. However, it is unlikely to lead to an American collapse, like the implosion of the Soviet Union that followed their withdrawal from Afghanistan in the late 1980s.

It is uncertain that the global jihadist movement will be able to take advantage of this situation, notwithstanding their excited rhetoric. Certainly, Afghanistan’s near region has become more dangerous, but further afield, other elements are likely to contain any major expansions. Security forces have become more attuned to jihadist threats and created measures which are likely to complicate any action. Furthermore, the fragmenting of the global jihadist movement into two broad factions (pro-IS and pro-AQ), as well as the reality that most of these groups are now more focused on their own local contexts than the global struggle, means the threat picture over the longer-term will likely continue to stagnate.

It is not clear that the jihadist threat is the same as the global circumstances surrounding the September 11, 2001 attacks. The concatenation of events that led to those attacks and the wider AQ threat against the West that followed was the product of a series of events and links that would be hard to replicate today. While this cannot lead to laxity in attention, the reality is that despite the glaring failures in the American-led effort in Afghanistan, the threat picture to America is lower and no group has credibly managed to replicate the ambition and success shown in September 2001. AQ remains a shadow of its former self, with its leader rumoured to be dead or in hiding, and other senior figures equally elusive. Nevertheless, it remains an influential brand around the world. IS has peaked and is now focusing on parts of the world where its impact is most likely to be local rather than global. And the world has also moved on, with issues concerning great power conflict, the extreme right wing, and many other expressions of violent activity taking on greater salience. The Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan will undoubtedly reinvigorate jihadism in the country’s immediate neighbourhood, and prolong the ideas of a global struggle for another decade at least. However, the Taliban victory has not turned back the clock to 2001.

About the authors

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

Abdul Basit is a Research Fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR), a constituent unit of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. He can be reached at isabasit@ntu.edu.sg.

1 Rita Katz,” Future of Al Qaeda, ISIS & Jihadism,” Wilson Centre, August 27, 2021, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/future-al-qaeda-isis-jihadism.

2 Asfandyar Mir, “Biden Didn’t See the ISIS-K Threat in Afghanistan Until Too Late,” The New York Times, August 31, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/31/opinion/bidenisis-k.html.

3 Lydia Khalil, “The Taliban’s Return to Power in Afghanistan Will Be a Boon for International jihadism,” The Guardian, August 21, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/aug/21/the-talibans-return-to-power-in-afghanistanwill-be-a-boon-for-international-jihadism.

4 Farhan Zahid, “Jihadism in South Asia: A Militant Landscape in Flux,” The Middle East Institute, January 8, 2020, https://www.mei.edu/publications/jihadism-southasia-militant-landscape-flux.

5 Collin P. Clarke, “Al-Qaeda Is Thrilled That the Taliban Control Afghanistan — But Not for the Reason You Think,” Politico, September 7, 2021, https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2021/09/07/al-qaeda-taliban-complex-relationship-509519.

6 “Taliban Frees Prisoners in Bagram and Pul-eCharkhi Prisons,” Andalou, August 15, 2021, https://www.aa.com.tr/en/vg/video-gallery/talibanfrees-prisoners-in-bagram-and-pul-e-charkhiprisons/0.

7 Bruce Riedel, “Pakistan’s Problematic Victory in Afghanistan,” Brookings Institute, August 24, 2021, https://www.brookings.edu/blog/order-fromchaos/2021/08/24/pakistans-problematic-victory-in-afghanistan/.

8 Warren P. Strobel and Dustin Volz, “Taliban Takeover of Afghanistan Celebrated by Extremists on Social Media,” The Wall Street Journal, August 17, 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/extremistscelebrate-taliban-takeover-of-afghanistan-on-socialmedia-11629192600.

9 Furqan Ameen, “How Taliban Return in Afghanistan Triggered Islamophobia in India,” AlJazeera, September 1, 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2021/9/1/islamophobia-india-hindu-right-wing-taliban-afghanistan.

10 Abdul Sayed, “The Past, Present, and Future of Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” The Soufan Centre, August 20, 2021, https://thesoufancenter.org/intelbrief-2021-august20/.

11 Jason Burke, “Taliban in Power May Find Themselves Fighting Islamist Insurgents,” The Guardian, August 18, 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/usnews/2021/aug/18/bidens-over-the-horizon-counterterrorism-strategy-comes-with-new-risks.

12 Ivana Saric, “Thousands of Prisoners Freed by Taliban Could Pose Threat to U.S,” Axios, August 15, 2021, https://www.axios.com/taliban-bagramprisoners-release-87ec6885-6930-46d6-9e96-473a252dcf7d.html.

13 Asfandyar Mir, “Untying the Gordian Knot: Why the Taliban is Unlikely to Break Ties with Al-Qaeda,” Modern War Institute, August 8, 2021, https://mwi.usma.edu/untying-the-gordian-knot-whythe-taliban-is-unlikely-to-break-ties-with-al-qaeda/.

14 Driss El-Bay, “Afghanistan: The Pledged Binding Al-Qaeda to the Taliban,” BBC News, September 8, 2021, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia58473574.

15 Hariz Baharudin, “How Will the Taleban’s Comeback in Afghanistan Affect Singapore and the Region?” The Straits Times, August 16, 2021, https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/how-will-the-talebans-comeback-in-afghanistan-affect-singapore-and-the-region.

16 Ibid.

17 Ralph Jennings, “How Taliban’s Win Might Influence Radical Muslims in Southeast Asia,” Voice of America, September 3, 2021, https://www.voanews.com/extremism-watch/howtalibans-win-might-influence-radical-muslimssoutheast-asia.

18 Jolene Jerard, “Taliban’s Return in Afghanistan Cements Southeast Asia Extremist Strategy of Strategic Patience,” Channel News Asia, August 26, 2012, https://www.channelnewsasia.com/commentary/taliban-terrorism-al-qaeda-southeast-asia-2132656.

19 Amy Chew, “Afghanistan: Taliban’s Return ‘Boosts Morale’ of Militant Groups in Southeast Asia,” South China Morning Post, August 20, 2021, https://www.scmp.com/weekasia/politics/article/3145856/talibans-returnafghanistan-boosts-morale-militant-groups.

20 J.S. Lee, “PAS Leader Congratulates the Taliban for Taking Over Afghanistan,” Malay Trends, August 18, 2021, https://www.malaysiatrend.com/pasleader-congratulates-the-taliban-for-taking-overafghanistan/.

21 Amy Chew, “Afghanistan: Taliban’s Return ‘Boosts Morale’ of Militant Groups in Southeast Asia.”

22 Ibid.

23 Andrew Hanna & Garrett Nada, “Jihadism: A Generation After 9/11,” Wilson Centre, September 10, 2020, https://www.wilsoncenter.org/article/jihadismgeneration-after-911.

24 Nelly Lahoud, “Bin Laden’s Catastrophic Success,” Foreign Affairs, September-October 2021, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/afghanistan/2021-08-13/osama-bin-ladens-911-catastrophicsuccess.

25 Aron Y. Zelin, “Return of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan: The Jihadist State of Play,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, August 18, 2021, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policyanalysis/return-islamic-emirate-afghanistan-jihadist-state-play.

26 Rita Katz,” Future of Al Qaeda, ISIS & Jihadism.”

27 Ibid.

28 “Al Qaeda’s Kashmir Message to Taliban, Says US Humiliated in Afghanistan,” Hindustan Times, September 1, 2021, https://www.hindustantimes.com/videos/worldnews/al-qaeda-s-kashmir-message-to-taliban-saysus-humiliated-in-afghanistan101630504866523.html.

29 Joe Macron, “What Will the Taliban Victory Mean for the Middle East?” Al-Jazeera, August 19, 2021, https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2021/8/19/whatwill-the-taliban-victory-mean-for-the-middle-east.

30 Kathryn Wheelbarger, Aaron Y. Zelin, Patrick Clawson, “From Afghanistan to the Middle East: Implications of the U.S. Withdrawal and Taliban Victory,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, August 26, 2021, https://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policyanalysis/afghanistan-middle-east-implications-uswithdrawal-and-taliban-victory.

31 Obi Anyadike, “Quit While You Are Ahead: Why Boko Haram Fighters Are Surrendering,” The New Humanitarian, August 13, 2021, https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/analysis/2021/8/12/why-boko-haram-fighters-are-surrendering.

32 Benoit Faucon and Gordon Lubold, “U.S. Sanctions Islamic State’s Central African Franchise for First Time,” The Wall Street Journal, March 10, 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-to-sanctionislamic-states-central-african-franchise-for-first-time11615406777.

33 “The Murky Link Between DR Congo’s ADF and Islamic State,” France 24, July 07, 2021, https://www.france24.com/en/live-news/20210707-the-murky-link-between-dr-congo-s-adf-and-islamic-state.

34 Emily Estelle, “The Islamic State Resurges in Mozambique,” Foreign Policy, June 16, 2021, https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/06/16/mozambiqueislamic-state-terrorism-france-total/.

35 Matt Bryden and Premdeep Bahra, “East Africa’s Terrorist Triple Helix: The Dusit Hotel Attack and the Historical Evolution of the Jihadi Threat,” Combating Terrorism Center at West Point, July 2019, https://ctc.usma.edu/east-africas-terrorist-triple-helixdusit-hotel-attack-historical-evolution-jihadi-threat/.

36 Thomas Gibbons-Neff, Eric Schmitt, Charlie Savage, and Helene Cooper, “Chaos as Militants Overran Airfield, Killing 3 Americans in Kenya,” The New York Times, January 22, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/22/world/africa/shabab-kenya-terrorism.html.

37 “When ISIS Killed Cyclists on Their Journey Around the World,” The New York Times, June 21, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/21/theweekly/isis-bike-attack-tajikistan.html ; “Tajikistan: 17 Killed in Border Outpost Attack,” DW.COM, November 06, 2019, https://www.dw.com/en/tajikistan-17-killed-in-borderoutpost-attack/a-51129060.

38 “Kyrgyzstan Sentences Three Over Chinese Embassy Attack,” Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, June 28, 2017, https://www.rferl.org/a/kyrgyzstanchina-embassy-jailed/28583623.html.

39 Mumin Ahmadi, Mullorajab Yusufi and Nigorai Fazliddin, “Exclusive: Taliban Puts Tajik Militants Partially in Charge of Afghanistan’s Northern Border,” Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty, July 28, 2021, https://www.rferl.org/a/taliban-tajik-militantsborder/31380071.html.

40 “Twelfth Report of the Analytical Support and Sanctions Monitoring Team Submitted Pursuant to Resolution 2557 (2020) Concerning the Taliban and Other Associated Individuals and Entities Constituting a Threat to the Peace Stability and Security of Afghanistan,” United Nations Security Council (UNSC), June 1, 2021, https://www.undocs.org/pdf?symbol=en/S/2021/486

41 Alan McGuinness, “Afghanistan: Al Qaeda ‘Will Probably Come Back’ as Situation in Country Deteriorates, Says Defence Secretary,” Sky News, August 13, 2021, https://news.sky.com/story/afghanistan-al-qaeda-willprobably-come-back-as-situation-in-country-deteriorates-says-defence-secretary-12380142.

42 German Train Attack: IS Releases Video of Afghan Knifeman,” BBC News, July 19, 2016, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe36832909.

Still catching up posting material from around the September 11 anniversary. Will get around to a media round up soon, as did a lot on various topics over the past couple of months. Have a lot of work also in the pipeline which is going to be keeping me busy, but also a few bigger projects on the horizon which should be interesting. First though a piece with one of my excellent RSIS colleagues Shashi for our local paper the Straits Times, who runs a team focused on various national security threats and whom I have done some work on Singapore’s CVE strategy in the past.

Shape-shifting terrorism: The new challenge

Terrorism predated the 9/11 attacks and continues to evolve, posing new difficulties for those who seek to identify and counter its new protean form

New Zealand police officers outside a mall in Auckland where a man who stabbed six people in a supermarket was shot and killed last Friday. PHOTO: REUTERS

Two decades on from the atrocity of the Sept 11, 2001 attacks, terrorism continues to metastasise. Terrorist spectaculars like the brutal attack at Kabul’s international airport – claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria – Khorasan (ISIS-K) – continue, as do attacks like those carried out by individuals inspired by ISIS ideology, the recent Auckland stabbings being a case in point.

But to properly understand and track terrorism’s future evolutions, it is important to consider where we have come from, and where new expressions of the terror threat emerge from. Going forward, they will matter just as much as existing ones.

LESSONS FROM THE PAST

The emergence of Al-Qaeda appeared to herald an age of more brutal but in some ways clear-cut terrorism. In the immediate wake of 9/11, some other groups were forced to reconsider their use of the tactic of terrorism, not least on account of the now unacceptable nature of violence as a legitimate means to further their cause.

There now seems a sharp division between those fighting on the side of the religiously motivated terrorists, and those against them. Around the world, parties to conflicts that had a vaguely Islamist flavour would suddenly associate themselves with the jihadist notions that Al-Qaeda espoused. Often this was done less for reasons of credo than to provide an animating recruiting and fund-raising tool.

For their part, experts, practitioners and policymakers invented an entire vocabulary in the years following 9/11 – home-grown, lone wolf, self-radicalised, CVE (countering violent extremism) and – the most problematic – “deradicalisation”, as they sought to grapple with Islamist terror. An entire clubby academic circuit developed around the issue that gave the appearance of deeply pondering these constructs largely of their own making.

Curiously, this vocabulary was not in evidence when it came to earlier waves of terrorists. These ranged from those driven by ethno-separatist concerns, like the Basque separatists of ETA or the republican or nationalist groups in Ireland.

Religion sometimes featured as well – for example, the Catholic/Protestant divide that separated the two Irelands. But more often, it was driven by narcissistic individuals advancing their own grandeur and glory, like Carlos the Jackal or Shoko Asahara, leader of the Aum Shinrikyo cult that sought to poison Tokyo’s citizenry as they used their public transport system, or individuals who believed deeply in the extreme cause they had chosen and enjoyed the celebrity it gave them – German leftist Red Army Faction leaders Ulrike Meinhof and Andreas Baader come to mind.

No one talked about deradicalising these individuals. The authorities then used an aggressive counter-terrorism approach focused on traditional methods. Some of the terrorists from this earlier age were killed. A largely hidden cohort became disillusioned by the violence (sometimes when confronted by the consequences of their actions). Some became disenchanted with their leaderships, and still others had time to reflect in prison. Others simply matured and began to ponder more deeply the risks involved in what they were doing. Many remained ideologically committed and were mentors for the next generation, while staying one step removed from the violence.

MEANING-SEEKING, SHAPE-SHIFTING

ISIS heralded a new moment in the narrative of global terror. While ISIS managed to trump Al-Qaeda in many ways – including in terms of building and holding a caliphate-shaped territory for some time – perhaps its most striking innovation was to effectively harness the phenomenon of lone actor terrorism, which moved centre stage from the fringe of violent extremism. Isolated individuals, in some cases directed, but often acting entirely independently, launched attacks – and ISIS perfected the narratives to inspire the individuals and claim such incidents.

In harnessing this methodology, the group was tapping into something deeper. Some of the most compelling recent academic research into extremism has shown the importance of the individual’s quest for significance. People are no longer necessarily committing acts of terrorism solely to advance a political or religious ideology. Some of this may still be present, but what stands out is young people in this social media-inflected age drawn towards extremist ideas or acts of performative violence to give their lives meaning and significance.

What might seem like a textbook case of “radicalisation”, or steps preparatory to an attack, is interpreted by analysts and by society in a specific way, providing meaning to an act that might in fact have more complex, multidimensional drivers with little to do with the ideology the individual is purporting to be acting on behalf of.

Our age will see an increasing number of these types of individuals, as well as individuals who shape-shift with mixed ideologies, grabbing from a selection of ideas that in some cases can even directly contradict each other. In the West, there have been individuals who espouse neo-Nazi thinking and then militant Islamist ideas (or vice versa). Some groups consciously adopt each other’s paraphernalia.

Examples can be found in some of the recent pro-ISIS youth cases in Singapore. Some of these individuals faced stressors in their lives. Many appeared to be less deeply versed in their religion, at least compared with an earlier generation of Singapore extremists from the Jemaah Islamiah.

Their infatuation with ISIS was in some ways a substitute activity that created new sources of satisfaction that distracted from the original stressor. For some of these individuals, involvement with ISIS ideology formed part of a coping mechanism that helped them avoid facing problems, such as those involving personal relationships, realistically.

These are the sorts of attacks increasingly seen in Western and Westernised societies – confused individuals (some, but not all, with mental health issues) latching on to ideas and demonstrative forms of violence as a way to excise personal issues, including alienation, anomie and disenfranchisement.

And it is no longer something that is exclusive to the violent Islamist side of the coin. Rather, ideologies become blended together in a confusing mix.

Our age will see an increasing number of these types of individuals, as well as individuals who shape-shift with mixed ideologies, grabbing from a selection of ideas that in some cases can even directly contradict each other. In the West, there have been individuals who espouse neo-Nazi thinking and then militant Islamist ideas (or vice versa). Some groups consciously adopt each other’s paraphernalia.

Far-right groups call for “White Jihad”, and adopt snazzy imagery (partly as a recruiting tool) that borrows from the visuals of ISIS propaganda. This mimicry is partly because ISIS was able to capture a greater share of public attention that these groups crave. This, alongside a skill in projecting narratives in bite-sized pieces that are highly attractive to a generation brought up with limited attention spans, created a highly toxic brew.

This new generation of terrorists or would-be terrorists is almost impossible to define and categorise. Crucially, it is not clear that ideology is the overriding factor defining the individual’s actions. Rather, the individual’s personality and psychology become the key factor.

Take, for example, the 16-year-old youth who was reportedly planning to attack two mosques in Singapore. Having imbibed right-wing ideology, and imagining himself as part of this community, he planned to murder Muslims in what was clearly an imitation of Brenton Tarrant’s 2019 Christchurch attacks. He was a Protestant, and to a degree felt the need to defend his religion from what he saw as an existential threat (Islam), but what seems to have been at least as important was his being motivated by a fascination with gore and violence, and ideas of the “Great Replacement”. The belief, associated with white supremacists that non-whites are taking over their homeland, appears to have been useful in giving him an outlet, but it is far from clear whether any one of these motivational strands should be privileged above others.

THE RESPONSE

Singapore’s Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG) has done a sterling job of rehabilitating extremists who had misunderstood fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith. But there is a noticeable falling off in success when it comes to self-radicalised individuals in the age of social media.

The issue now is how the relevant agencies go about creating a coherent structure around ideologies that mix and merge, and which might have inherent contradictions within them. Related to this is how to engage and deconstruct at a logical level individual ideologies that might exist within the same person, if the Western case studies are anything to go by – elements of far-right thought, far-left thinking (less prevalent, but still a concern) and, increasingly, misogynistic views.

Our future may well be one where all sorts of people will be radicalised.

Agencies in the West grappling with these issues are beginning to go upstream – in some cases, very far upstream, with a degree of success. Some of the most promising initiatives elsewhere are not about deradicalisation, but rather early intervention work – by schools, social workers, healthcare workers and, where needed, the security apparatus – building an ecosystem of diversion and off-ramps that seeks to address potential issues even before individuals have been radicalised.

It is likely that more attention should be paid to the psychological element that, in the Singapore model, has always been present alongside the religious aspect of rehabilitation.

Mentoring and teaching life skills will likely have to come into play in a bigger way. This approach helps to impart mental resilience that helps individuals cope with life stressors. Where it has been tried elsewhere in similar contexts, it has been able to help the vulnerable individual build faculties to understand shades of nuance. It holds promise as part of a larger toolkit against exclusivist, polarised or monochromatic thinking.

Some of this work already goes on, in a way, in Singapore. When it comes to the recent case of the right-wing youth who planned to murder Muslims here, it has been made known that a mentor will be assigned, with the aim of providing a positive influence and keeping the youth focused on pro-social goals.

The Internal Security Department also works with schools to hold workshops dealing with extremism. Other organisations work cooperatively in this space. The RRG also conducts outreach activities aimed at students.

These efforts aim at tackling the issue at its very wellsprings and, in the longer term, should be seen as an important complement to disengagement or deradicalisation, which will remain necessary when the individual has already proceeded down a negative trajectory.

THE NEW CHALLENGES

The challenge will be to keep this space relatively unsecuritised. If the intention is to stop angry teenagers who are reading violent but persuasive propaganda online, or catch fringe ideologies that are hard to detect or observe online, where do we draw the limits of where the security state can intrude into our lives? No one would deny the need to protect people from violence, but how far do we go in policing teenagers who might just be exploring ideas out of curiosity with no intention to act? And how to separate the angry person who might do something, from the one who is simply venting online’

There may well be setbacks along the way. Within the multi-agency triage, there will need to be acceptance that the “pattern” may well be that there is no pattern. What works for one individual, to alter his or her trajectory, may not work for another individual who in all respects seems to follow the same template.

In this type of future, it might seem that we lack clear answers about these and other related questions to eradicate the problem, but are instead stuck in a treadmill of management.

But progress would still be made if we aim now for the construction of a resilient, cohesive society that has within itself the elements of a counter-radicalisation strategy, including within agencies that traditionally have not considered themselves players in the security space.

Terrorism has transformed during these past two decades; we should ensure our response keeps up. But rather than overheatedly preparing for the next attack and assuming it will simply be like what we saw before, we should be ensuring we have properly tracked how things have evolved in order to understand where they are going next.

The threat from Al-Qaeda, ISIS and their affiliates will remain, but it is now supplemented by a series of even more complicated issues that we are likely to spend the next decade untangling.

Raffaello Pantucci is a senior fellow at the International Centre for Political Violence and Terrorism Research, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University.

Dr Shashi Jayakumar is head of the Centre of Excellence for National Security and executive coordinator, future issues and technology at RSIS.

Another September 11 anniversary linked piece, this time a short introductory essay for a collection of RUSI Journal articles assembled from the past twenty years which sketch out some of the main issues touched upon in the journal on terrorism. The request from the editors was to write something which tries to capture how research has evolved over this period. Re-reading the pieces (confess did not quite get to all of them), I realize that the Journal has really been a major outlet for various prominent voices for some time. Lots of interesting bits to read there and I would recommend taking time to read them while they are still open access until the end of the year.

The 9/11 Attacks: Two Decades of Countering Violent Extremism

Terrorism did not start with the attacks of 9/11, but there can be no doubt that these events changed the way that we think and look at the phenomenon. Terrorist spectaculars in themselves were not new – Carlos the Jackal had perfected the art, while seasoned terrorism watcher Brian Michael Jenkins had coined the phrase ‘terrorism is theater’ as early as 1974. But the magnitude and ambition that Al-Qa’ida displayed seemed to change things. For security experts, it pushed what had been largely seen as a niche specialisation into the centre ground of security thinking.

Within the research community it also engendered a new wave of thinking and research as people struggled to comprehend, explain and analyse the apparently new phenomenon that had burst on to our screens that clear September day. Much of the early discourse was an attempt to define what had just happened, both in terms of trying to comprehend who Al-Qa’ida was, but also to appropriately frame the response. The decision by the US to immediately move to a bellicose context meant a deeply conflictual stage was set early on. The decision to follow the invasion of Afghanistan with the invasion of Iraq only further complicated this discussion, steering us away from solely confronting Al-Qa’ida to taking on all adversaries out there. This muddying continues to ripple through the problems we see today.

Yet the truth that slapped the UK brutally in the face in July 2005 was that the threat was in fact one that came from within. Already in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, the UK was shocked to discover there were young Britons fighting alongside the Taliban and Al-Qa’ida. The shoe bombers later in the year were evidence of what this could turn into. And in 2005, Londoners woke to the grim reality that these individuals were willing to come back and commit atrocities on their home soil. This exposed a key dimension that was going to be needed in the response: to find ways of better engaging with the wider communities within our societies from which these individuals came. The need for a holistic response had already been identified in 2003 in the early versions of the counterterrorism strategy CONTEST, but what this actually meant in practice and how essential this was only became apparent later.

But the converse of this holistic, all-of-society response, was to turn everyone into a security agent. Something that rankled parts of society who felt that the approach was overly intrusive and stepping all over civil liberties which a liberal-democratic society should cherish. While politics played some role in this discourse, the reality was that much of the political establishment was largely supportive of expansive powers being given to security services in their pursuit of shielding us from violent extremists.

The perennial conundrum this created, however, was that there was a conclusion that the problem came from within and we needed to work with Muslim communities in particular to deal with the problems. But at the same time, those very communities disliked the exaggerated negative attention they were receiving, feeling even more ostracised by the very policies purportedly developed to help them to better integrate.

These were unfortunately not debates that were ever really resolved, and took place against the backdrop of a threat that continued to evolve and develop. From being almost entirely directed by Al-Qa’ida using bases in Pakistan drawing on the UK’s deep human connection with that country, the terrorist threat spread to places such as Somalia and Yemen. Young Britons continued to get animated by extremist ideas and were drawn to an ever-expanding range of locations to join fundamentalist groups. This broadened the range of places the research community needed to understand. But it also highlighted the deep persistence of the problem even after senior figures and camps got hammered by the increasingly far-reaching UAV (drone) strike campaigns.

This particular tactic raised a new set of questions for the UK – around proportionality and state assassination. The US had clearly already set a path in this direction, but for the UK the discussion was a complex one which touched on a complicated history of the Irish troubles. The UAV capability provided a level of reach that was unparalleled, but it raised complicated ethical issues. Legal systems in the UK were already struggling with new legislation aiming to criminalise possession of material, ideas and conviction for acts which had not taken place.

And then the emergence of the Islamic State from the civil war in Syria appeared to suggest the entire cycle was repeating itself once again but closer to home. There were new tweaks to the Islamic State menace, whose exceptional online presence provided researchers with an extraordinary level of data and information which they could use to analyse the threats posed by the group. Individual terrorists could be spoken to from the battlefield. Group messaging became global and accessible instantaneously, something Osama bin Laden could only dream of achieving.

This also sharpened problems that were already emerging. The lone-actor threat had already started to appear in the UK in 2007. But by the time the war in Syria took off, it had become a more prominent part of the threat. In part no doubt as a result of an effective security response which made it harder for large-scale plots to get through, but also as a result of the fact that the ideas were now so diffuse that anyone could easily access them and react to them.

The research discourse also started to evolve. As we moved into a time of isolated terrorists, the question of ideology and group identity started to get overtaken by research focusing on individual stories, causes and narratives. This in turn created a wave of research trying to craft the nuanced responses that would be required to deal with a problem which was as unique as each individual who had become involved. This then opened up a focus on different sub-groups – be it on the basis of gender, age or mental health. This transformed the nature of communities that researchers were focused on.

But the grim reality is that the problem of terrorism has never really left us and is unlikely to. During this 20-year chapter defined by the opening salvo of the 9/11 attacks and closed (at least in political narrative terms) by the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the world has gone through many contortions. The research community has found itself following and echoing these. But often the most frequent finding is that these problems are not new, the drivers are as much personal as societal, and the danger is that we continue to reinvent the wheel as we seek to find an answer to what is likely an intractable societal ill. Terrorism existed pre-9/11, and it is going to follow us deep into the future.

The RUSI Journal has published extensively on these themes over the past 20 years. This collection of articles traces how our understanding has evolved since that momentous day in September 2001.

Another piece linked to the September 11 anniversary, this time another interview of the series that I have been doing for CTC Sentinel. There are a few more recent pieces to publish, and some bigger research pieces for CTC in the pipeline. The interview was done initially before the fall of Kabul and then we revisited some of the questions afterwards.

Twenty Years After 9/11: Reflections from Alex Younger, Former Chief of the United Kingdom’s Secret Intelligence Service (MI6)

Sir Alex Younger was a career intelligence officer in Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, MI6, for 30 years. He served in Europe, the Middle East, and Afghanistan. He was appointed as Director of Counter Terrorism in 2009, and as Chief from 2014 to 2020. Prior to SIS, he served in the British Army as an infantry officer.

Editor’s Note: The following is the transcript of an oral interview conducted ahead of the 20th anniversary of 9/11. It has been lightly edited by CTC Sentinel.

CTC: Take us back to 9/11. You were already working in SIS (the Secret Intelligence Service, MI6) at the time. How much of a shock was the attack to SIS and to U.K. intelligence more broadly?

Younger: Clearly, it was a shock, and it was designed to shock. Visually, it was an extraordinarily traumatic and shocking sight, and that was the point. The attack was designed to be the ultimate provocation, and that was the effect that it had. It also engendered huge uncertainty because at the time we had none of the knowledge we now have with hindsight, and it seemed eminently probable that this was the first of a number of such attacks. To this day, I am pleasantly surprised that it did not lead to a series of similar outrages. In fact, on that day, I remember thinking that the very building I was sitting in could be on the list. So it also had a very personal effect. And it was clear that it did change everything.

CTC: How did 9/11 change the work and thinking at SIS? Did change occur immediately after the attack itself, or did it take some time for it to filter through the organization?

Younger: No, it was pretty quick. I think if you looked at the situation on the day before September 11, by and large terrorism was still treated as a discrete set of regional but probably even national phenomena rather than something strategic. When you looked at our version of terrorism in the U.K., for example, it felt very different to what was being faced in France. By and large, it was our domestic colleagues [at MI5] who were in the lead on all of this in the U.K. International partnership was less important. Secondly, and this may have been a failure of imagination as much as anything else, people did not conceive of things going on in far off places, like in failed states like Afghanistan, as actively threatening their homelands. That connection wasn’t considered adequately. It was obviously there theoretically, but I do not think it was properly internalized.

Bear in mind that we, as the U.K., were somewhat ahead of the pack in many respects for the very sad reason that we had dealt with terrorism for decades generated by the IRA [Irish Republican Army]. That was a quintessential domestic, politically orientated problem—all the things that the attack of September 11 was not.

So the main changes were two-fold. One, a pretty instant ovenight understanding that what happened in Afghanistan obviously mattered to the security of our people, and that, of course, put my service properly into the fight. And then secondly, an understanding of the premium on partnership. We realized that, by and large, we all had the same problem and it was coming from similar places. The days where you could take a not-my-problem or, worse, beggar my neighbour approach to terrorism were well and truly over.

CTC: You are one of many SIS officers who served in Afghanistan. You’ve stated that after 9/11, you and your colleagues had a “profound impulse to step forward into the line of danger” and that you felt that your organization was “one of the few that could make a difference, faced with a wholly new, and open-ended, threat from international terrorism.”1 Talk us through the role SIS played in going after al-Qa`ida in Afghanistan and has played in detecting and [working to thwart] jihadi terrorist plotting around the world.

Younger: It’s an odd thing to say, but in some ways, we were the lucky ones; terrorist attacks are awful things, but we are in a position to do something about them. I think one of the most difficult experiences after something like 9/11 or 7/7 [the al-Qa`ida attack of July 2005 on London’s transport system] must have been a sense of helplessness in the face of this hidden menace, set against [the] very human wish and need to get involved and do something. In SIS, we had the privilege, if you can call it that, to be in a position to do something about attacks in however small a way. That also, of course, conferred a frightening responsibility, which I would not pretend was a light burden for anyone. Our mission intensified in this new and difficult context. But it was our traditional mission. Put simply, we discovered that groups of people in far-off lands, predominantly in failed states which constituted a permissive environment for terrorists, were organizing to kill our citizens. It was our job specifically to get inside those groups, to reveal what was going on, and to work in partnership to stop it—a task, albeit in different contexts, that is as old as SIS.

CTC: How shocking was it to discover that there were British nationals involved in these networks? The July 7 attacks of 2005 were the archetypal example of this link, but there were also many other plots, as well as Brits fighting with the Taliban when the Americans went into Afghanistan. How much did that particular community become a focus of work?

Younger: It was not a shock in the sense that we had already seen al-Qa`ida rather successfully—the ideology, that is—appear within communities that should otherwise call the United Kingdom home. People born here and who nonetheless conceive for various complex reasons to be in a state of war with their own country. So, it was not intellectually out of kilter, but speaking as a British citizen, someone who lives here and cherishes the values the U.K. espouses, it still remains a profoundly shocking fact. I am a huge beneficiary of all of the things that are good about this country, and I make it a principle of life to try to put myself in other people’s positions to try to understand their choices. But I nonetheless find it extraordinary that a country that has provided succor to people is turned upon in this way.

But what I think is not the important thing. The important thing is for us to properly understand the thought processes and conditions that lead to people making these choices. To deal with this problem in the longer term, we have to understand these underlying issues and deal with them. We in the CT [counterterrorism] community working in the Pursue strand of our strategya are not the solution here. What we are is the means for buying time and a way to suppress the problem, to provide space so that the political, psychological, social, and cultural aspects that lie at the heart of this problem can be fully addressed.

CTC: Beyond Afghanistan, were there any parts of the world SIS was particularly focused on when it was going after the threat?

Younger: I always thought we had two jobs. One was to join the community of nations in bearing down on the networked jihadi threat; be part of a networked solution to a networked threat. Additionally, I was very conscious of our need to play our part as a globally engaged power across the globe in dealing with these problems. Things that happened in far-off countries affected us and others. It was very difficult to isolate the terrorist problem to a specific geography, and it was our job to be making a contribution to counter the problem.

But I also felt that we are a medium-sized power, and it would be a huge mistake to set ourselves up as a global policeman. We are just not suited for that, and I do not think there is a particular appetite within the U.K. to play that role. It simply is not practical. So our priority needed to be to bear down on places and people that were generating a direct threat, either to the U.K. or to our citizens and allies. The most forbidding and essential aspect to a successful counterterrorism campaign is to prioritize. You naturally prioritize on the threats to the lives of our citizens and those of our allies. So that takes you to places where we have a contiguous geography in all senses of the word, not just physical but human and societal, and so in particular South Asia: India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. Our links to that whole region are profoundly enriching for our country, but sadly, there is a negative aspect. These links are exploited by extremists.


CTC: How did SIS change its practices of working with other agencies and allies in the United States and elsewhere as a result of 9/11? What were the most significant changes you observed in its wake?

Younger: To extend my recipe about effective CT, I would say it is one percent inspiration and 99 percent teamwork. Suddenly, and bear in mind intelligence services are broadly configured around the need-to-know principle, counterterrorism forced us to rapidly shift to a dare-to-share principle. It became evident that the risks of not sharing frequently in counterterrorism were far more forbidding than the risks of sharing. It was a complete inversion of our normal paradigm.

We embarked—it has to be said, led by the United States—in an aggressive pursuit of effective partnership with the countries where the threat was coming from. Which, of course, immediately generated a set of really serious ethical and legal considerations because normally you are partnering with a country that’s very different from a prototypical Western liberal democracy, and this brings a whole set of challenges with it. And that was the thing that hit us pretty quickly. There was a lot that was familiar about the task, which for SIS since 1909 has been about finding out what is going on and doing something about it. But there is something about counterterrorism and the need to share to be effective, and the need to do something with what you find while remaining consistent with your laws and values, that brought with it a set of really new and very difficult disciplines into play almost overnight. That was tough because it was matched with the impulse I described in the speech you mentioned earlier, which is to do stuff. And our absolute impulse, which I’m still proud of, was to get out there and be shoulder to shoulder with the United States, which had suffered the most grievous attack.

CTC: 9/11 happened as we were on the cusp of the current information revolution. Al-Qa`ida was quite an early adopter of the internet. Could you talk us through the complexities of adopting to this new world and how it might have impacted intelligence collection and counterterrorism in particular?

Younger: I think it was most important on the CT capability side: information sharing, data discovery, recognizing that huge holdings of data would very rarely make any sense unless they were compared with other huge holdings of data. That was the really big issue and change. It was actually on our side of the fence rather than the terrorists’ where the data and technology was most important. When it comes to our adversaries, it is worth remembering this was 2002. The internet as a means of propagating ideas was still pretty nascent. You have to fast forward to Daesh [the Islamic State] before you get to the profoundly internet-enabled terrorist phenomenon that is such a major preoccupation today. And there wasn’t any cyber component to the threat; I think there were a couple of small attempts at cyber-terrorism, but I don’t think anyone seriously attempted that with any great effort or impact.

Predominantly for me, the bigger change was the astonishing revolution that took place in the latter part of my career where we had access to abundant information, technical data, and other things, and struggled to figure out how to manage and decipher it all. The real issue was, again ensuring it was done in a manner that was lawful and consistent with our values, using that information to get the right answer before terrorists acted.

CTC: With the Arab Spring and the death of Usama bin Ladin, there was a sense 10 years ago that the global jihadi terror threat was waning. But within just a few years, the Islamic State had taken control of vast swaths of Syria and Iraq and embarked on a global terror campaign. Was SIS surprised by the speed and extent of the rise of the Islamic State? What for you are the lessons learned for the future when it comes to identifying and confronting such gathering threats as early as possible?

Younger: I don’t think the phenomenon of Daesh itself was a surprise insofar as you could see in the situation in Iraq a sort of textbook environment for radicalization. The speed of it was absolutely a surprise, and the asymmetric success that Daesh enjoyed in 2014 was pretty stunning. I am sure you will remember those images. That was a shock. However, a significant galvanizing factor was quite particular to that time and place. Essentially, hardline elements of Saddam’s former intelligence apparatus rapidly changed sides and brought a pretty hardcore level of security expertise to what I think otherwise would have been quite a disparate insurgency. It was a really evil combination of a rapidly intensifying and mutating jihadist ideology galvanized in a pretty cynical way by a lot of former Soviet-trained Iraqi operatives. And that produced what we subsequently saw, which was an incredibly intractable and difficult security problem. Allied to this was the more modern phenomenon that we have just been talking about, which is their realization and capacity to conduct a digital campaign and propagate the jihadist single narrative in a far more sophisticated way than had been possible hitherto.

It was also profoundly worrying to see the caliphate set up as a working example of the jihadist ideology on earth, operating and to the extent that it did. And that success, while it lasted, pulled people in, which was a significant source of threat to us as those people were pulled from their host communities, including here in the U.K., and retained links back home alongside the capacity to use those links. I remember thinking at the time that this was an open-ended, toxic, and extraordinarily dangerous situation. One of the things I am most proud of is the role we played in removing the caliphate from Syria. It remains in many important ways an unfinished and very open situation, but if I cast my mind back to, say, 2014 and you had told me we would ultimately prevail over the caliphate, that would have been, in my mind, a very good outcome. Not least because specific British operators within Daesh were very prominent in the group’s campaign and a source of extreme national shame and embarrassment.

CTC: Could you tell us a bit more about the indicators you saw for the rise of the Islamic State? Looking at that experience, are there any other parts of the world where you could envision something similar happening?

Younger: I remember at the time being very concerned about the way that [Syrian leader Bashar al-] Assad was behaving towards his own people and the brutality he was meting out. I think this in large part was what would feed the Daesh phenomenon. But even with hindsight, we can’t beat ourselves up for failing to see the speed and scale with which it happened, because it is quite a dramatic butterfly effect, in the sense that small changes to the inputs made a large difference to the outputs. There were several different, unrelated factors that coincided to put Daesh’s development at the worse end of anybody’s expectations of what might happen. In large part, this surprise is why they were so militarily successful, because they were just moving so much faster than anyone’s understanding of the threat.

CTC: What is interesting looking back is that in the end, the United Kingdom did not face the same sort of threat as continental Europe from the Islamic State terrorist organization in Syria and Iraq. What plots we did see were of a much smaller magnitude than, for example, the November 2015 Paris attacks. It could be that you and your colleagues were just doing a fantastic job and that’s what kept the threat away, but I wonder was there anything else to it. Was there anything about the way the United Kingdom was connected to the battlefield that seemed different to the earlier wave of al-Qa`ida-linked threats from South Asia? Can you tell us why you think the United Kingdom did not end up with the same sort of threat?

Younger: Well, I think we had a head start in terms of doing counterterrorism for decades and learning some very hard lessons in part through mistakes. We learned early the importance of being joined up within our various security services, which placed us ahead of the pack. We therefore likely did pose a more difficult environment for terrorists to operate in than the average in Europe. But I would not want to exaggerate that lead. The reality is that we were all vulnerable and we all faced this phenomenon together.

Looking back, however, the role of charismatic and prominent individuals should not be underestimated, so part of the reason that brought the particular intensity of threat to both France and Belgium was that their nationals happened to be in influential and capable positions within the caliphate. And so in that sense, for them it was really a case of bad luck. But that’s how it was. And if you take that reality alongside the fact that those countries are not islands and that firearms are therefore more accessible than they are in the U.K., then you have some part of the answer to the question. We will not ever, of course, absolutely know the answer, but I would also highlight that European counterterrorism capabilities at that time were growing much more effective and continued to [do] so.

CTC: Twenty years on from 9/11, there is again this sense that the global jihadi threat is in retreat. What is your assessment? Have you been surprised by the growth of the Islamic State in Africa in particular? Where do you think we may see jihadi threats coming from next?

Younger: It is really difficult to speculate. Broadly speaking, I would say that the threat is less than it was, and I would link that to the successes we have had in terms of suppressing the networks in Syria and Afghanistan. This is combined with a much more effective counterterrorism machine across the technical, foreign, and domestic spaces that are much better integrated than they were. Our counterterrorism capability is an order of magnitude more effective and capable than it was in the past.

Set against this reality are two issues. One, as the Manchester attack illustrated,b a spontaneous, non-directed attack is just as devastating as networked plots. Terrorism is now more spontaneous and delegated, but that does not mean it is less dangerous, something the Manchester attack sadly showed. But terrorism of this sort is a different type of problem, and in some ways, it has now reverted to being much more conditioned or sensitive to the domestic conditions in the target country, rather than being primarily something that is directed from abroad (in the U.K. at least). It is still fundamentally underpinned by a single narrative, which is very effectively propagated online by groups like Daesh and al-Qa`ida.

Yet, at the same time, it is also at the moment pleasing to see that international terrorist networks, both al-Qa`ida and Daesh, are to some extent in abeyance because we have been successful against them. There is no real cause to pause and celebrate that fact because Africa and the Sahel are looking dangerous and difficult. In addition, there is, of course, Afghanistan.

CTC: MI5 Director General Ken McCallum recently warned that terrorists will seek to take advantage from the U.S. and NATO withdrawal from Afghanistan.2 In the wake of the fall of Kabul, how concerned are you by this, and what needs to be done to ensure that Western intelligence is best placed to detect and thwart any future international attack plotting from the country?

Younger: The sudden collapse of the Afghan government was brought on by [a] set of unforgivable unforced errors. Trump’s inexplicable decision to abandon any political conditionality in his withdrawal “negotiations,” his immoral pact with the Taliban that essentially made it OK to attack Afghans, if Americans were left alone, creating a dynamic that led directly to the collapse of the Afghan Army. And the Biden administration’s tactical missteps: the abrupt removal of all enablers, and the decision to do this in the middle of the fighting season. All without any meaningful allied consultation.

The consequences are [evident]: harrowing scenes at the airport; Afghans who chose to support us left behind; and the loved ones of our fallen soldiers asking what it was all for.

And they are strategic: this sends a damaging message. It is a humiliation for the “West” and represents encouragement for despots and autocrats everywhere who know they can simply wait for Western democratic resolve to weaken with the passage of time. I was in Afghanistan in the period after the Soviets left. Najibullah’s government proved to have far more staying power [than] the one we chose to underpin at vastly higher cost. What does that say?

Even in these circumstances, though, it is important to retain some balance. The idea that this somehow represents the end of American power is grossly overdone. When it comes to counterterrorism, we would be wise to remember that U.S. agencies, particularly the CIA, have been at the forefront of developing the most powerful global CT network ever known; there are people alive in all of our countries who would not be, were it not for their efforts. Their work, capability, and partnership will become more important, not less.

Most importantly, however crass U.S. policy might appear, it does represent a welcome if belated realization that there is rarely a pure military solution to a terrorist problem. The causes are ultimately political, and so must be the end game. It became obvious a number of years ago that nation building, Western style, was either wholly impracticable or beyond the resources allied nations were prepared to commit. A way had to be found to integrate politically the powerful Pashtun nationalist faction represented by the Taliban. But the leadership to do this, including in Afghanistan, was not there. I do believe that the comparatively light Western military presence could have been maintained much longer and used much more effectively as a bargaining chip. But it was not the solution.

What does this mean for the threat? That depends on what the Taliban do next. They have sought to project a reassuring message, but history teaches us to approach this with caution. We discussed earlier what it was like in 2001/2002: how stunning it was to discover the degree of terrorist infrastructure that existed in Afghanistan, specifically in the Tora Bora complex. There had been a wholesale state capture by al-Qa`ida of Afghanistan, to a degree that none of us could have really imagined. Right there you have a worked example of what happens when Afghanistan is left unsupported and to its own devices. The Taliban took over and were wholly permissive to al-Qa`ida, who, in turn, organized at almost military-scale capability to attack our countries. You have to ask yourself why that wouldn’t happen again, because obviously it could as it has happened before. There are a few factors that make the current situation different. Clearly the Taliban are not stupid and will have noticed what happens to them when they allow people to operate out of their territory in the manner that al-Qa`ida did before 2001. So while they might be conflicted, I imagine this will weigh on their considerations. Afghanistan itself is also a very different place and the population has very different expectations than they would have had in the 1990s. So not everything is the same, making a clean comparison complicated.

My main plea is that we remain engaged across the intelligence, defense, security, diplomatic, humanitarian piece. That’s much more difficult if you do not have a security or even diplomatic presence on the ground, but history shows us what happens when you turn your back on Afghanistan.

Above all, we need an approach by regional states that rises above their narrow struggle to assert sectoral interests that it has been Afghanistan’s tragedy to host.

CTC: With the U.S. and NATO militarily withdrawal from Afghanistan and the resulting Taliban takeover of the country, how do you think regional powers like China, Russia, Iran, and of course Pakistan will react going forward? What is their long-term view of Afghanistan and the terrorist threats there, and how do you think they will try to mitigate them?

Younger: I think this is a very good example of ‘be careful what you wish for.’ All of those powers in their different guises have been campaigning for NATO to leave for some time, and we are now where we are. They will undoubtedly enjoy the reputational damage that this causes the Western coalition, but beyond that, I cannot see how this is going to improve their security situation in any way. Most obviously, China has a border with Afghanistan. We do not have any physical border there. We are a long way away, and yet we have been the ones essentially being custodians of security. Clearly, there is going to be a lot of thought going on in Beijing about how what is now an open flank is going to be dealt with. There has been a lot of speculation about how Belt and Road [Initiative] can be used to exploit what at one level is a new opportunity in Afghanistan, but the reality is that this is a highly unstable and radicalized place that borders one of China’s most sensitive regions.

With Russia and Iran, it is a pretty similar story. With Pakistan, we have just seen exactly the successful, radicalized, Pashtun Islamist takeover [in Afghanistan], that much of their security apparatus has facilitated and worked for over years, seeing, as they did, a stable Afghanistan as a source of strength to India. Wiser heads have pointed out that Pakistan’s stability depends on successful control of its own radicalized Pashtun elements, a task that will be rendered close to impossible with a radicalized Islamist takeover of their western neighbor.

CTC: In this era of great power competition, there is concern that countries might start to use (or increase their use of) terrorist groups as proxies to strike against each other, especially in a situation with an asymmetrically powerful United States. How do you see this issue? To what degree might shifting prioritization away from counterterrorism to great power competition impact counterterrorism capability?

Younger: I think states and terrorism have always been intertwined to some degree because terrorism happens in geographies. You could also argue that the al-Qa`ida phenomenon distorted all of our longer-term security priorities, but most specifically those of the United States. When the history is written, you will probably see that the U.S. response to a rising China was more muted because it was prioritizing the terrorist threat posed by al-Qa`ida. I think we’re still a bit too close to that to be able to really judge this balance. But what is certain is that great power competition introduces a potential existential threat in a way that counterterrorism does not. What terrorism does, which is almost as difficult and certainly as pernicious, is undermine the social fabric of our countries. This is why governments take it so seriously and why there is so little tolerance of it. But clearly when it comes to conventional destructive power, an international conflict is a far more significant issue.

To look at the question of use of terrorist proxies: With the advent of hybrid warfare, states, and most prominently non-democratic states, have become adept at integrating all aspects of national power into their security toolkit. Relationships with militant groups can and have become another of those tools. You cannot rule out the possibility of these things being used to attack us. Look at the way Russia has used militant groups in the Ukraine.

CTC: The recent U.K. Integrated Review stated that “It is likely that a terrorist group will launch a successful CBRN attack by 2030.”3 According to a May 2021 report by an U.N. investigative team looking at Islamic State activity in Syria and Iraq, “evidence already secured indicates that ISIL tested biological and chemical agents and conducted experiments on prisoners as part of [a biological and chemicals weapons] programme, causing death.”4 Given the intelligence you saw come out of Syria and Iraq, how concerned are you about this threat vector?

Younger: These are difficult attacks to mount, so I would say they are unlikely, but they are very high impact. So it is a classic example of low-likelihood, high-impact threat, which is the sort of problem that is very difficult to deal with. That is, however, our life in the intelligence business. Particularly the issue of how you prioritize your effort against that specifically is hard. My way of getting out of that conundrum is to observe that, broadly speaking, it is the same individuals who are involved in the broad range of all terrorist activity. So insofar as your strategy needs to, and I believe it does need to, be focusing on key individuals and networks and key geographies, I do not think that this approach is invalidated by any expectation of the CBRN threat being more or less likely. You could, if it got sufficiently serious, take the completely opposite view and start going after it as a particular category of problem and look at it in those terms, but I think my advice would still, broadly speaking, be it is the same thing and the same people coming to attack us, just in a very wide variety of different ways, which will include CBRN. Clearly, they are hankering after the most spectacular impact they possibly can achieve.

CTC: In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been renewed concern that terrorists or other bad actors could obtain or engineer and then deploy a more dangerous virus than even SARS-CoV-2. As the 2018 U.S. Strategy for Countering WMD Terrorism noted, “advances in biotechnology could theoretically allow even a single individual working in a laboratory to engineer pathogens that could have catastrophic effects.”5 What is your assessment of the biological threat landscape and what role can intelligence agencies play in preventing an engineered pandemic from materializing?

Younger: Clearly you have got a worked example in front of us. I have no idea if terrorist leaders noticed and wanted to do something similar, but I would be very surprised if that thought has not occurred to them. I would have thought, though, that the same logic applied as we were just discussing about CBRN threats more broadly. Having said that, we clearly do not want to suffer from a lack of imagination about what might happen, as arguably was the case before 9/11. We need to conceive that something like that could happen, but sadly, that is all too easy to do. I hope that as our intelligence services are collecting throughout the world, they are staying highly sensitized to this possibility, but what the signatures of that activity would be and if they would essentially be different to all the stuff that we ordinary do, I do not know.

CTC: In the wake of the events of January 6, there has been growing concern around the world about the threat posed by far-right extremism and its increasing transnational interconnectivity. According to MI5 Director General McCallum, “Of the 29 late-stage attack plots disrupted [in the United Kingdom] over the last four years, fully 10 have been Extreme Right Wing.”6 To what extent has going after violent extreme far-right networks been a priority for SIS, and do you think it will be a priority in the future?

Younger: I think it is incredibly serious. The concerns I have about terrorism writ large, but hitherto Islamist terrorism, are the effect that they have in degrading trust between citizens. It is trust that underpins our democracy and our social cohesion. So it is nothing to be taken lightly. In some ways, maybe the rising extreme right is the reaction that terrorists have sought to precipitate, but I actually think it is much broader than that and a function of a whole set of phenomena that we see in the modern age—most specifically, the internet.

The extreme right would become an issue for people like me while I was working for SIS if it was predominantly organized overseas and was done in an organized way, and unless those two facts are true, frankly there is not a lot we can bring to the party. My view is that it probably is not the situation at the moment. So in that sense, and you will have heard it from what Ken said, it remains a really significant and rising domestic preoccupation.

CTC: The lack of much external direction and links makes it less of a focus and role for SIS?

Younger: Were we to see a replica of the scenario we saw in 2001, when a group of terrorists that were organizing in a failed state, successfully radicalizing people within the U.K. to carry out attacks here, that would change things undoubtedly and bring it front and center for SIS. But that’s not how I would characterize it at the moment. There have been some individuals going to foreign battlefields like Ukraine, and we saw the same thing happen with elements of the Yugoslavia civil war. I am not ruling it out as a possibility, but I do not think at the moment we see that.     CTC

Substantive Notes
[a] Editor’s Note: The United Kingdom’s counterterrorism strategy (called Contest) has four pillars:
Prevent: to stop people becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism
Pursue: to stop terrorist attacks
Protect: to strengthen protection against a terrorist attack
Prepare: to mitigate the impact of a terrorist attack

[b] Editor’s Note: On May 22, 2017, 22 people were murdered when Salman Abedi detonated a bomb in a crowd leaving a music concert at Manchester Arena. “Manchester attack: Who were the victims?” BBC, June 17, 2021.

Citations
[1] Alex Younger, “MI6 ‘C’ speech on fourth generation espionage,” U.K. Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Secret Intelligence Service, December 3, 2018.

[2] “Director General Ken McCallum gives annual threat update 2021,” MI5, July 14, 2021.

[3] “Global Britain in a Competitive Age: the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy,” Cabinet Office, updated July 2, 2021.

[4] “Sixth report of the Special Adviser and Head of the United Nations Investigative Team to Promote Accountability for Crimes Committed by Da’esh/Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant,” United Nations Security Council, May 3, 2021, p. 9.

[5] “U.S. National Strategy for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction Terrorism,” December 2018, p. 1.

[6] “Director General Ken McCallum gives annual threat update 2021.”

A brief policy focused piece for a new outlet and institution called the UK National Committee on China (UKNCC) which they requested in the wake of the US led withdrawal from Afghanistan to try to focus on how the UK’s relationship with China needs to navigate this. It is part of a triumvirate of pieces they published including one by Alessandro and another by the Chinese Special Envoy for Afghan Affairs Yue Xiaoyong. Builds on something I wrote earlier for RUSI, and is likely to be an interesting and complicated policy question going forwards.

What are the implications of the US withdrawal from Afghanistan?

The world is increasingly defined by great power conflict. Escalating tensions between the US and China have grown to touch on almost every aspect of international relations. This reality has most recently been on display in Afghanistan. The US withdrawal from a two-decade long military commitment on China’s borders has thrown into question American security commitments and raised questions about what kind of a power China will be in its own backyard. For a power such as the United Kingdom that straddles the relationships between Beijing, Kabul and Washington, the question is how, in this complicated strategic equation, to ensure British interests. The balance is a complex one which highlights the nature of the challenges that the UK is going to face in trying to carve out its own path in the world.

The most prominent and immediate question to emerge from the US withdrawal from Afghanistan is what it means for London’s much vaunted ‘special relationship’ with Washington. Senior officials, including the Defence Secretary, have openly questioned President Biden’s decision-making on the withdrawal, while the public discourse in London has focused on how events have shown the limits of British influence in Washington. Yet the reality remains that the US is the UK’s key strategic security ally on the world stage. The narrative of divergence in UK and US interests is exaggerated, even if it is clear that Washington is focusing on its confrontation with Beijing as the driving policy focus to the detriment of everything else.

At the same time, it is clear that the UK is unable to entirely disengage from Afghanistan. Quite aside from the deep commitments generated from twenty years of conflict, there are the human and historical connections that the UK has with South Asia. Large diaspora communities from Pakistan, and to a lesser extent from Afghanistan, give the UK a particular stake in the country and region. This also means that the UK needs to explore ways in which to engage and secure its interests in Afghanistan in the longer-term, including generating creative options that reflect the changing regional geopolitics.

The harsh geopolitical reality is that the United States-led withdrawal from Afghanistan will bolster Chinese influence in the region. This is not a reflection of a push by Beijing to fill an abstract security vacuum, but rather a demonstration of geographical reality. With the departure of American forces, Beijing is set to become the most consequential power in the Eurasian heartland. For the UK, threading the needle of a uninterested Washington and influential Beijing will require strategic thinking.

Chinese influence across Eurasia has been ascendant for some time. Yet until now, China has chosen to prioritize economic engagement, with security engagement placed a discrete but focused second. The American withdrawal from Afghanistan has complicated this approach. While parts of Beijing may have chafed at the idea of military bases on their borders, others sensibly reckoned that an American security presence was likely dealing with problems that otherwise Beijing might have to address.

The US withdrawal has therefore left Beijing seeking new partners in the region. The most pragmatic and logical choice from China’s perspective is the new Taliban-led government. However, there is still no clarity about the level of power and control the Taliban may command, their long-term stability in power, or whether they are interested in dealing with the issues that most concern Beijing. Recognizing this, China has also sought greater coordination with Russia, increased its bilateral discussion on Afghanistan with Iran, and continued its engagement with Pakistan.

Yet, while these relationships are more established than those with the Taliban, each has its own complications and mistrusts. This is most clear in the lack of any action or discussion recently by the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) about doing anything concerning Afghanistan. Including as it does all of Afghanistan’s neighbours except Turkmenistan, and with a particular interest in terrorism, the SCO should theoretically be the obvious platform for greater engagement in Afghanistan.

Established with Chinese impetus, Beijing has long sought to get the SCO to do more in Afghanistan, but has struggled to get members to share its focus. For the most part, these other countries have rather sought to engage Afghanistan bilaterally or through other regional formats that they host and control.

In many ways, this is exactly the approach Beijing has itself taken. While China has done a great deal of multilateral engagement in the wider region and on Afghanistan, it has usually taken a bilateral approach to focus on its real interests, through selective security engagement, economic investment or developing political and social partnerships. In Afghanistan, the prime concern is that the country might become a base from which Uyghur militants (or other anti-Chinese elements) gather to try to attack China directly or its interests in the wider region. This has led to quite focused security and intelligence attention.

This focus on counter-terrorism is something that provides the UK with a first potential point of engagement. London is as concerned about terrorist threats emanating from Afghanistan as Beijing is, though the degree of threat and the nature of them is slightly different. The degree of actual threat that China might face from militant Uyghurs in Afghanistan remains an open question. It is after all many years since a specific threat has been seen. There does though appear to be evidence of some presence and there is no doubt that its wider regional concerns are of relevance. In recent years, terrorists have targeted both China’s embassy in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan and its consulate in Karachi, Pakistan, part of a wider trend of targeting of Chinese interests.

But engagement on counterterrorism with China is a double-edged sword for the UK. There may be some concurrence in the assessment of threats abroad: for example, the UK continues to list the Turkestan Islamic Party (also known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement) as a proscribed terrorist entity in contrast to the US.

However, there is little agreement on domestic counter-terrorism policy. The UK has correctly been at the forefront of the global push to condemn Chinese action in Xinjiang which is done under the rubric of countering extremism. Threading the needle of engaging abroad while condemning at home will be difficult. But focusing on shared concerns about groups such as al Qaeda, ISIS, and other regional salafi-jihadi groups that are likely to play a major role in destabilizing the wider region would be something China and the UK might work on.

Focusing on cooperation through the Belt and Road Initiative is equally fraught, though for more prosaic reasons. Whilst Beijing talks a great deal about BRI cooperation, it is hard to find evidence of genuine action following this rhetoric.

The UK has tried, for example, a great deal in Pakistan with limited success. Meaningful BRI cooperation has been largely limited to the level of individual contracts where UK firms take on defined sub-contract roles within larger projects.

Humanitarian aid might offer itself as the most obvious first point of pressure and engagement. The Taliban take over has precipitated a frantic run for the door in all directions. Most visibly via Kabul International Airport, but in far larger numbers across the country’s land borders into Pakistan and Iran – places already swelled by years of Afghan emigration. These problems sit in addition to the larger humanitarian crisis that is likely coming in Afghanistan, if the country remains cut off from the international community and from the aid flows that dominated the economy. Beijing should be engaged and encouraged to expend more money and effort in alleviating these humanitarian crises that sit in its backyard.

What happens in Afghanistan matters to both the UK and China. It matters also to the United States, but Washington has clearly articulated that it is prioritizing efforts elsewhere. London should not step back in a similar way, but should instead explore whether targeted cooperation is possible to advance shared concerns and interests. While at the moment it increasingly looks like there is little appetite in Beijing for genuine cooperation, the problems that Afghanistan faces are likely to be with us for some time yet. Working towards encouraging Beijing to take a greater humanitarian role while recognizing the common terrorist threats offers a way of trying to strike the difficult strategic balance that the UK will need to find in a world of great power confrontation.

Have had a few pieces emerge over the past few days and weeks looking at the anniversary of September 11, 2001. Amidst the surfeit of material that is going to emerge, I worry about saying something new, but I guess that will be for readers to decide. In any case, first up, catching up on posting an article for the Financial Times a week or so ago now which tried to sketch out the point that it does not look like the Taliban government is going to make for a safer environment or one that is hostile to jihadists. Later pieces will explore in more detail what this is actually likely to look like in practice.

Jihadis will remain a threat under the Taliban government

Neighbouring countries are the most at risk in the short term, but western states should not be complacent

A man looks at the aftermath of the Kabul airport suicide bombing. A surge in high-quality weaponry and suddenly idle militants could lead to more violence in the region © Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty

The writer is a Senior Fellow at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) in Singapore

The attack on Kabul airport by Isis Afghan affiliate Isis-K provided a grim bookend for the west’s involvement in Afghanistan. An intervention that started in response to the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks ended with a massacre of Americans and Afghans alike. It also highlighted the complexity of the terrorist threat in south Asia. From being driven principally by al-Qaeda, it now involves a range of different organisations posing threats that are likely to stay regional in the short to medium term but will undoubtedly create instability affecting the west in the longer term. 

In many ways, the threat from al-Qaeda was fairly coherent. Osama bin Laden’s organisation used its money and resources to support the Taliban. This enabled it to establish terrorist infrastructure in Afghanistan which it then used in its holy war against the west and its “apostate” supporters in the Muslim world. Other groups operating from Afghanistan’s territory focused on alternative adversaries, but operated on the same principle. 

There is concern that this could happen again. It is an open question whether the Taliban will turn on organisations such as al-Qaeda that have fought and bled alongside them in their two-decade struggle against the US. But even if we assume that they find a way of containing them, this is no longer the only threat that might emerge.

While there is a certain level of hysteria around Isis-K, it has proved to be resilient and is the local affiliate of an organisation that still commands considerable sway among the global jihadist community. Whispers can be found in online chatter that people may be leaving the Levant to go to Afghanistan now that it offers itself as a propitious environment for jihad. Taken to its extreme, this could mean Isis dedicating more resources to establishing a mini-caliphate in part of Afghanistan. Or simply using violence in the region to rebuild its tarnished global brand.

However, these threats need to be kept in perspective. Security forces in the west have become much better at detecting activity that could mature into attacks on home ground. The bigger danger is regional. Pakistan in particular is likely to find its domestic problems exacerbated as local extremists draw inspiration from what the Taliban has achieved. A surge in high-quality weaponry and suddenly idle militants could lead to more violence in the country (and possibly in India, with knock-on effects for Islamabad). 

Central Asia also has reason to worry. The 1990s and early 2000s saw a number of incidents in the region linked to groups in Afghanistan. Iran appears to be pragmatically bolstering its relations with the Taliban, but there is little love lost between Tehran and Kabul. China and Russia may be revelling in western humiliation, but recognise they are much closer to the potential threats that might spill over. Groups targeting these countries are likely to try to take advantage of the Taliban’s control (or lack thereof) and re-establish some sort of presence in Afghanistan.

The west is less at risk. This is not to dismiss the potential threat. The UK in particular has deep links to south Asia that have left it exposed to terrorist violence in the past, something that probably helps explain the MI6 chief’s recent visit to Pakistan. There are hints that terrorist groups are rebuilding their capabilities, with reports of jihadis looking to move from Syria to Afghanistan. Possible links to the UK can be found in stories of British voices being overheard on Taliban radio intercepts. But in the short to medium term the sort of atrocity New Zealand has just faced is a more likely threat: lone, undirected extremists attacking fellow citizens.

The most immediate threat from Afghanistan will be local. Be it Isis-K spreading its wings regionally, extremists using Afghanistan as a base to launch attacks in neighbouring countries, or groups being inspired by the Taliban’s victory to have a go at toppling their own local superpower. This poses a very different and less immediate set of threats to western security planners at a moment when interest and focus on terrorist threats is reducing. 

But therein lies the key lesson that needs to be learned from the 20-year engagement in Afghanistan. If governments are not paying attention, problems can fester and suddenly strike. This happened in Iraq, when the American withdrawal in the late 2000s left behind an environment which helped brew Isis. And while it is unlikely that exactly the same narrative will play out in Afghanistan, the context is there for a terrorist problem to develop. The US and its allies may have left Afghanistan, but they cannot disengage from it. 

Finally on this past few week’s blast, a piece for Foreign Policy which was actually set up before events in Afghanistan came to a head, but had to get pushed back a bit. It is also my first piece with my excellent RSIS colleague Basit, with whom I have a few projects in the pipeline. Undoubtedly more on this topic and with Basit to come. Suspect the China and regional terrorism axis of topicality is only going to grow as we go further forwards.

Why Terrorists Will Target China in Pakistan

As awareness of Uyghur persecution increases and anger about Beijing’s investment projects simmers, Chinese citizens and businesses are likely to suffer.

Pakistani rangers stand in front of the Chinese consulate after an attack in Karachi on November 23, 2018. – At least two policemen were killed when unidentified gunmen stormed the Chinese consulate in the Pakistani port city of Karachi on November 23, officials said. (Photo by ASIF HASSAN / AFP) (Photo credit should read ASIF HASSAN/AFP via Getty Images)

With great power comes great responsibility, as the old Marvel comics maxim goes. But great power also attracts envy, anger, and enemies.

This is something that China is learning belatedly—and much to its chagrin—in Pakistan, where its investment projects are facing complications and its citizens and facilities are increasingly being targeted by local terrorist organizations, from jihadi groups like Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) to ethnoseparatists in Balochistan and Sindh.

China has long been in the crosshairs of Pakistani militants. But lately the pace of attacks appears to be picking up. Last Friday saw the latest attempt, this time by the Balochistan Liberation Army (BLA) against Chinese transports in Gwadar. The group has repeatedly targeted high-profile Chinese targets in Pakistan, including the Chinese Consulate in Karachi in November 2018.

Reports diverge regarding the casualties of this latest attack, with the BLA claiming it killed six Chinese nationals and three security guards, while Chinese and Pakistani authorities claim one Chinese national was injured and two children were killed (the BLA claims the two children were killed by scattershot firing from Pakistani forces). Whatever the grim count, the attack is the fourth high-profile incident this year, and it also confirms the worrying trend of using suicide bombers, an innovation for the Balochi group.

Pakistan has become a microcosm of a larger reality that Beijing is going to have to contend with globally. As it becomes a global power on the world stage, it is going to attract the anger of terrorist organizations. Beijing’s willingness to engage with the Taliban may be an attempt to try to preempt such problems in the new Afghanistan, but history has shown this to be a risky gamble for Beijing.

China tried to strike an earlier pre-9/11 deal with the Taliban to get them to do something about Uyghur groups the Chinese had noticed gathering in Afghanistan, but it is unclear that the Taliban did anything about those groups.

The new deal Beijing and the Taliban are reported to have struck is likely not dissimilar to the previous one in its concerns, but now there is the additional question of the large number of Chinese nationals who can be found around the region, including various intrepid entrepreneurs in Kabul who may not adhere to the various sharia laws the Taliban will impose. Who will guarantee their safety? And none of this will help Beijing overcome the larger problem of the inevitable enemies you attract once you have superpower status.

The Gwadar attack last Friday followed the killing of nine Chinese engineers working on the Dasu hydroelectric power project in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province—an attack that remains formally unclaimed. Soon after that attack, two Chinese nationals were shot at and one wounded in Karachi by a different Baloch separatist group (the Baloch Liberation Front). In March, a Sindhi separatist group wounded a Chinese national in a gun assault, also in Karachi. This followed two similar incidents in December.

Most dramatically, China’s ambassador to Pakistan, Nong Rong, narrowly escaped an attack by the TTP in April at the Serena Hotel in Quetta. Responsibility for this grim roster of incidents comes from a growing range of actors, highlighting the escalating nature of the problem that China is facing in Pakistan.

The most effective of these attacks was the assault in Dasu. Chinese sources have attributed it to the East Turkestan Islamic Movement (ETIM)—a group whose existence is disputed and whose name is mostly used to refer to a group that calls itself the Turkistan Islamic Party (TIP)—acting in unison with the TTP. Both Pakistan and China also used the opportunity to cast blame on India—a perennial accusation thrown around terrorist attacks in Pakistan.

More formally, Beijing seemed to widen the circle of blame during the Afghan Taliban’s two-day visit to China, with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi demanding that the Taliban make a clean break from ETIM/TIP and take action against it in Afghanistan as ‘it was a direct threat to China’s national security.’

While not stated explicitly, the statement appeared to be a shot across the bow, suggesting a condition for Beijing’s recognition of the Taliban government as the group takes power in Afghanistan. Beijing has continued to focus on ETIM as a preeminent concern that could attempt to take root, potentially emanating from the instability that is likely to follow the Taliban’s takeover, and it is not clear how confident Beijing is in Taliban assurances about managing ETIM threats.

But the abrupt increase in terrorist attacks on Chinese nationals and projects in Pakistan underscores how anti-Chinese militancy is evolving against the backdrop of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

China may be developing its relationship with the Taliban in part to mitigate these concerns, but the problem is much bigger than something Taliban leaders can control. Previously, the jihadi community was fairly ambivalent about China. Osama bin Laden was even quoted pre-9/11 saying that Beijing could be a strategic ally for the jihadi community given their collective antagonism toward the United States. But at the time, China was still seen as a developing country. Now it is the world’s second-largest economy and is increasingly becoming the most consequential actor in Afghanistan’s neighborhood. This changes the common perception of China and brings tension with it.

This tension is most clearly visible in Pakistan. Even though Beijing and Islamabad are close friends and strategic partners, Pakistan has consistently been the location of the highest number of terrorist attacks against Chinese nationals in any country.

This situation has the potential to get worse for Beijing. For the last two decades, the U.S. presence in Afghanistan kept the terrorist threat from that country in check, meaning China did not need to preoccupy itself too much with security challenges. With the U.S. exit, that security buffer is gone, as is the distraction of the great American Satan being present on Afghan soil.

China has sought to strengthen its direct defenses with Afghanistan through building bases and providing support to Tajik and Pakistani forces on either side of the Wakhan Corridor, alongside building its own direct bases in Tajikistan and bases for the former national Afghan government forces in Badakhshan (bases whose current status is unknown but presumably now under Taliban control).

This somewhat limited effort was being carried out when the United States was still there and providing definitive assurances to keep militant groups in check and even helping target anti-Chinese groups. In February 2018, the U.S. military targeted a series of camps in Badakhshan that were reportedly being used by the Taliban and ETIM.

The problem for China could get even worse. While the United States was at the receiving end of jihadi attacks for intervening in Afghanistan and for what was perceived as a broader anti-Muslim crusade as a result of the global war on terror, China is confronted with the ire of both the jihadi and the ethno-separatist groups in the region.

Sindhi and Baloch ethno-separatist groups perceive China as a neocolonial power usurping their resources and partnering with their primary adversary, the Pakistani state, to worsen their already abysmal socioeconomic condition. This was clearly articulated in the Baloch Liberation Front’s claim of responsibility for shooting at the Chinese nationals in Karachi: ‘In the garb of development projects, China is not only colluding with the Pakistani state in plundering the Baloch resources but assisting in the Baloch community’s persecution as well.’

Jihadi groups have been less focused in their anger toward China, continuing to see the United States and the West as their primary external adversaries. But at the same time, there is a palpable uptick in propaganda narratives directed toward China. This is often linked to Beijing’s persecution of the beleaguered Uyghur Muslim community in China’s Xinjiang region.

Rising ideologues like the mufti Abu Zar al-Burmi—originally from Myanmar—tie these narratives together. Since 2015, the firebrand orator Burmi has been framing China as the next neocolonial power after the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan. Burmi, for instance, told his followers in a statement, ‘Mujahideen should know that the coming enemy of the ummah is China, which is developing its weapons day after day to fight the Muslims.’ In another video, titled ‘Let’s Disturb China,’ he argues that after the ‘Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan our next target will be China.’

His anti-Chinese rhetoric, combining narratives of Chinese colonialism (in his native Myanmar as well as Xinjiang) with accounts of Muslim persecution, has drawn jihadi attention to Beijing. Echoes of these sentiments are also found among some Indonesian jihadi groups and among ultranationalists in Central Asia.

Xinjiang has long been a discussion point for the global jihadi community, but the community has never dedicated resources toward doing anything about it. While it is still unclear that this has changed, what is noticeable is that the narrative is sharpening and the Uyghur cause is no longer the marginal issue that it used to be. Uyghur fighters are regularly praised by other jihadi factions for their bravery in battle.

For a country like Pakistan, which shares a direct border with Xinjiang, it has been a political hot potato, with Prime Minister Imran Khan regularly championing and defending China’s treatment of its Muslim minority. This has extended to not offering protections to the Uyghur community that is resident in Pakistan and has fallen into China’s suspicious crosshairs. This merely adds to the anger against the Pakistani state that is felt from within the jihadi community. Nevertheless, attacking China in Xinjiang or elsewhere in the mainland is a tall order for these groups.

By contrast, the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)—a network of highways, railways, power projects, and other projects that will enter Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan region from Xinjiang and culminate at Gwadar port—presents these groups with numerous opportunities to hurt Beijing as well as the Pakistani government. Chinese investment in Pakistan has become a sort of soft underbelly for Beijing.

In its next planned phase, CPEC will spread further across Pakistan. And beyond formal CPEC projects, there is a growing number of potential Chinese targets in the country through the thousands of individual travelers and entrepreneurs who take advantage of the smooth visa access into Pakistan to seek opportunities. This will vastly expand Pakistani terrorist groups’ potential Chinese targets and complicate Pakistani government efforts to provide protection. More Chinese and Pakistanis are likely to suffer.

The problem for Beijing is that Chinese targets in Pakistan (and Afghanistan and further afield) will become increasingly attractive. This is in part a product of China’s growing presence and alliance with an Islamabad government that has a plethora of enemies on the ground, but it’s also because of the growing prominence of China at the global level.

Terrorist groups ultimately seek to deliver a political message to draw attention their cause; spectacular acts of violence are the tool they use to accomplish this. Each attack helps with promoting their message, recruiting, fundraising, and more. By targeting China—now the world’s second-largest economy—jihadi, ethno-separatist, and other terrorist groups are all increasingly guaranteed this attention. China is discovering that becoming a great power also comes with great risks.