Somewhat belatedly, posting a book chapter that emerged in Jihadist terror: New Threats, New Responses, edited by Dr Anthony Richards, Devorah Margolin and Nicolo Scremin, a book that came out of a big project and conference in London last year. A very big event with lots of interesting people, resulting in a very interesting looking edited volume. Given it is a book, the entire text is not published below, but I have pasted the abstract and feel free to get in touch if you would like to read more.

In media, my recent Wall Street Journal piece on how terrorism might evolve post-Baghdadi’s death generated an amusing epistolary response in the paper , and was also translated into Spanish. Also spoke to the National about the new allegiance pledges to the ISIS, to NBC about foreign fighters, AFP about the attack claimed by ISIS in Tajikistan, and earlier comments about the threat picture in the UK were used by Press Association and the Independent after JTAC lowered the terror threat level in the UK. Finally, Dr Philip Lewis quoted my book in a very interesting review essay in Church Times. On the other side of the coin, the IPI Global Observatory republished another recent piece for the East Asia Forum on China and Central Asia.

Personal and Organisational Patterns of Known Terrorists and Related Groups in the UK Since 1998

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As the UK’s domestic jihadist threat enters its fourth decade, the threat picture is one that is radically transformed from its early days. Drawing on information from just under 70 separate plots in the UK since 1998, this chapter sketches out the changing nature of the external threat picture, the nature of the individuals involved in the plots and the sorts of attacks that they were planning. Given the relatively limited space and discursive nature of the set thesis, the following is necessarily superficial in some ways, but sketches out a trajectory in the threat picture in the UK. The chapter breaks the time period down into four separate phases (1998-2004; 2004-2009; 2009-2013; 2013-2018), which capture four distinct moments in the nature of the violent Islamist terrorist threat to the UK. In concluding, it observes that the arc of threat has shifted from the UK being a launchpad for threats abroad, to a threat picture which is characterized by lone-actor style plots with greater inspiration, rather than clear direction, from foreign groups.

And now back up to date with writing as far as can tell, my most recent late last week on Baghdadi’s death trying to look further to the future about what is happening with terrorism more broadly for the Wall Street Journal. Some bigger ideas in here that need greater exploration in the future, but here is a short start.

Beyond this, spoke to various news outlets over the past month since last providing an update. Starting most recently with the Baghdadi death with the Financial Times, the Christian Science Monitor, the Guardian about its impact on the UK threat picture (which was also picked up by an outlet called Go Tech, the Mirror and Sputnik) and this Norwegian site Klasse Kampen seems to have picked up my comments about the defunct terrorist leader from somewhere. Subsequent to his death, spoke to the Independent about his successor. Earlier, spoke to the Financial Times about Trump’s decision to withdraw from Syria and its impact on ISIS, to the Sun about Syria returnees in the UK, and to the Independent about the shooting in Halle, Germany and the broader threat from XRW. On the other side of the coin, spoke to Foreign Policy/Newsweek about China-Russia, to Asia Times about China-Iran, and to Bloomberg about Russian pipeline politics.

After Baghdadi, Terrorism Without Ideology

ISIS provided a template for attacks. Now isolated people reproduce them as meaningless spectacle.

Raffaello Pantucci
Oct. 30, 2019 6:44 pm ET

 

French soldiers stand guard after a knife attack in Paris, Oct. 3. PHOTO: GEOFFROY VAN DER HASSELT/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is dead, a few weeks after Europe was racked by four separate incidents classified as terrorism: a truck-ramming in Limburg, Germany; a series of stabbings at a police station in Paris; a shooting at a synagogue in Halle, Germany; and another set of stabbings at a shopping mall in Manchester, England. While the investigations are still under way, at this stage it doesn’t appear that any of these attacks had any structured link to a terrorist group like Baghdadi’s Islamic State. Most of the perpetrators displayed some awareness of an extremist ideology, but we don’t know that any of them were directed to do what they did.

What relevance does the death of Baghdadi have to any of these attackers, or to the terror threat at large? There is little historical evidence that decapitating terrorist groups destroys them. Leaders have networks around them built on personal contacts, and their deaths change those dynamics. Some particularly charismatic leaders drive groups forward by force of personality or personal narrative. Their removal can weaken the aura around their organizations, but it can’t promise eradication.

When leaders are abruptly lopped off, terror groups tend to fragment and become more radical. Pretenders to the throne or anointed successors want to establish their own brands and often use a spectacular attack to do it. One can look to Afghanistan, where repeated strikes against the Taliban’s leadership have only made the group more violent, or to the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi, Kenya, attacked in 2013 by a rising al-Shabaab terrorist leader stamping his imprint on the world. Earlier that year, an attack on the In Amenas gas plant in Algeria followed a similar pattern. Different factions often will forge their own paths away from the core organization, seizing the opportunity to change directions and employ new tactics.

But this tells us only about the classical terror threat—the large-scale plot, often directed from abroad. Such conspiracies still exist, and authorities are fighting them with success. Where they have found more difficulty, however, is in stopping the smaller incidents, in which attacks appear in sync with terrorist ideologies while lacking clear links to the groups propagating them. ISIS honed the art of directing lost individual acolytes around the globe to launch attacks in their immediate environments with whatever tools were at their disposal. This group was supplemented by a further cadre who launched attacks drawing on the ISIS methodology and interpreting its ideology without ever establishing contact with the organization.

Then there is the terrorist without an ideology, such as Salih Khater. On Aug. 14, 2018, he drove his car into pedestrians outside the Houses of Parliament. Coming more than a year after Khalid Masood launched a similar attack near the same location, the attack set London on edge again.

In sentencing Mr. Khater, Justice Maura McGowan concluded that he had committed a terrorist act, but she couldn’t identify a clear ideology he was advancing: “You replicated the acts of others who undoubtedly have acted with terrorist motives. You deliberately copied those others. . . . You have never explained your actions and have not given any account, before or today, that is capable of dissuading me from drawing the conclusion that this offending had a terrorist connection.”

In a growing number of terrorism cases, ideology is at best an appendage to an act of planned, performative violence. These terrorists are people driven by personal demons or interactions on chat forums or online communities, people with social disorders or mental-health issues, or people with a desire to make statements in a world on which they have failed to make an impression.

Where was Baghdadi in Mr. Khater’s attempted car-ramming attack and others like it? In this new age of terror, ISIS provided only the background idea by popularizing the method of driving cars into pedestrians. The group generated the meme, or at least helped it become viral, making it easy for others to replicate.

It is too early to dismiss the structured terror of groups such as al Qaeda and ISIS. Undoubtedly other groups, leaders and followers will emerge. But the West is moving into an age of isolated and even meaningless terrorism, an age when leaders contribute more conceptually than tactically. Before long, we may look back through rose-tinted glasses to the time when terrorism was made up of easily comprehensible networks and leaders.

Mr. Pantucci is senior associate fellow at the London-based Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies.

 

 

More delayed catch up posting, this time a short piece for an excellent website called East Asia Forum, which is a platform for a very interesting discussion about Asian affairs drawing on a wide variety of authors and topics. Some very interesting stuff covered, well worth checking. Mine draws on a well-worn topic for me which is only going to build up further as time goes on.

China’s complicated relationship with Central Asia

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Author: Raffaello Pantucci, RUSI

The closure of a mine in Kyrgyzstan, protests on the streets in Kazakhstan. The grand guignol of menacing Chinese investment into Central Asia appears to be rearing its head in public discourse. Both fearful and grateful, the region is a paradox for China at the beginning of its Belt and Road. Hardly a week goes by without a senior Chinese visitor appearing somewhere in Central Asia, revealing a long-term influence game that Beijing is winning.

But the situation in Central Asia goes beyond foreign investment. People want to connect with China. In Ashgabat, queues of eager young Turkmen wait outside the Chinese Embassy seeking visas. For the young in Dushanbe, learning Mandarin is in vogue. In Uzbekistan, Chinese investment is the talk of the town, as the city celebrates the Chinese autumn festival and the China Expo showcases Uzbekistan as key to China’s Central Asia vision. And while Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan may have protests, Kazakh leader Kassym-Jomart Tokayev has just visited Beijing talking of strategic partnerships and Kyrgyzstan awarded Chinese President Xi Jinping their highest national award when he visited earlier in the year.

We have seen anti-Chinese protests in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan before. Back in 2009 and 2016 there were large-scale protests focused on reports that the government was going to allow China to rent land for agricultural purposes. In 2011, fighting broke out between oil workers and the Kazakh state in Zhanaozen leading to a number of deaths — Chinese company CITIC was among the investors and received some blame for the bad pay which appeared to underpin the protests. Smaller scale brawls between Kazakh and Chinese workers are frequent. As seen currently in Kazakhstan, protests are usually linked to bad working conditions, clashes between workers or environmental damage. There is also usually a strong undertone of local politics.

Central Asians have watched as Chinese money, workers and influence have shaped the regional economic geography with the open support of local authorities. This is a lever that political opponents can sometimes use. Building on an elemental sort of racism towards Han Chinese that can often be found in the region, the protests can actually often be complaints aimed at local authorities. People are often protesting against their own government, with China becoming a target by proxy. This confluence was most clearly on display recently in Kazakhstan where protestors’ public anger was targeted at the Chinese, but the protests were clearly instigated by governmental political opponents.

In Kyrgyzstan, paranoia towards foreign mining investors has repeatedly led to locals scaring away foreign investment. The massive Kumtor mine in Kyrgyzstan has faced environmental issues and other problems for its Canadian owner. Chinese projects are smaller, but beset with similar problems. Stories of pollution, bad pay and local corruption blend with a general fear of Chinese investment which is sometimes stirred up by local potentates seeking to extract more money or score points against political rivals.

And there have been some dramatic failures by Chinese firms in the region. In January 2018, Bishkek lost powerfrom its main power station after refurbishment by Chinese firm TBEA failed at exactly the wrong moment. There are questions surrounding corrupt and pollutive practices of Chinese companies working in the region. Chinese firms tend to lower their standards in the region, ignoring requirements they usually adhere to back home.

What is less visible are the expressions of sympathy and concern about the plight of Uighurs in Xinjiang. US State Secretary Pompeo may have heard polite noises during his comments to Central Asian foreign ministers in New York but there is little public sympathy for their plight. Concerns tend to focus on co-ethnics and family members caught up in China’s camps system and fears that their governments might seek to purchase similar technology to use against them. When people do express fear about how events in Xinjiang might impact them, it is at a very personal level focussed on their own personal safety, rather than the broader cause of abuse of Muslims in China.

But very little of this matters to Beijing. Central Asian leaders remain eager for Chinese investment. The once closed Uzbekistan is the most obvious example of this, where the surge of Chinese investment is openly welcomed. Beijing is increasingly holding large portions of debt and becoming the main trading partner across the region.

China, in the meantime, is increasingly focusing on its security equities in Central Asia. Stories of Chinese private security emerging in the region sit alongside more overt displays of strength through the building of bases, the conduct of joint training exercises and the provision of equipment for Tajik forces along the Chinese border with Afghanistan. Already this year, there have been reports of joint training exercises with Tajik, Kyrgyz and Uzbekforces.

It would also be unfair to not point out the positive side of China’s presence in the region. In Badakhshan, Tajikistan locals may have conspiracy theories about China’s long-term intentions in the back of their minds, but they will admit that the Chinese-built roads have changed their communities for the better. Chinese companies and projects are often seen as more credible than locals — who often show up, make a lot of noise and fail to deliver. And while Confucius Institutes are regularly talked about in the public debate as centres focussed on brainwashing the young to be Xi acolytes, visit them on the ground and they are full of eager young Central Asians chasing the opportunities that China offers.

The story of China in Central Asia is a complicated and nuanced one of an emergent region which is being swallowed up by a neighbour who cares little about it, focussed instead on its geopolitical clash with Washington. Locals at an individual level do not care about these broader issues and are instead trying to navigate their way to prosperity among the economic boom they see in China. As the world watches the US–China confrontation play out on the international stage, few are paying attention to the heart of Eurasia where a sea change is happening. China’s natural borders mean it will always have a strategic interest in Central Asia, but helping the region develop other options should be the focus of western policymakers.

Raffaello Pantucci is Director of International Security Studies at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI), London.

More catching up, this one a bit more recently after Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s death over the weekend for the Telegraph.

The death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi could make a fragmented Isil more dangerous

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Notwithstanding President Trump’s declarations, Islamic State (Isil) has not been destroyed by the death of its leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Like most terrorist groups, the organisation is more than its leader.

There are three key questions to consider when considering his death and what it means for Isil and terrorist threats more broadly.

The most immediate concern will be the army of fanboys that exist around the group and its ideology across the world. For some of these isolated individuals, his death might read as the moment at which they should leap into action to conduct a terrorist atrocity.

The group will undoubtedly claim these attacks as planned revenge, when in reality they are at best opportunistic. But given the growing preponderance of copycat incidents after major terrorist events, it is going to be a major preoccupation of security forces around the world.

For Isil, the question will be whether the group can continue to maintain its coherence in the absence of its iconic leader who led them at their most totemic moment. He may not have had the same personal charisma and back story as Osama bin Laden, but he was the significant figure when the group was at its apex.

This kept the group coherent under him. In his absence there will be a question about whether his successor can maintain this narrative.

The danger will be fragmentation among the regional affiliates who may decide to now re-prioritise their local concerns over the group’s globalist agenda.

But a greater question might exist between the group’s Syrian and Iraqi followers.  Isil is a group made up of Iraqis who took advantage of the conflict in Syria to grow and expand. As they grew in Syria, more locals flocked to their cause.

Over time this will have created two groups who were driven together by the joint cause of building a Levantine (and global) caliphate led by Baghdadi, their longstanding leader. His removal might precipitate a clash between the two groups which might lead it to fragment as the Syrian or Iraqi factions disagree over where they should focus their attention.

This fragmentation might make it more dangerous. Historically, the removal of terrorist leaders gives rise to eager pretenders who use dramatic violence to announce their arrival and eclipse their predecessor. It can also lead to in-fighting which can have a knock on effect on their environment.

At the same time, his removal might raise some interesting questions about Isil more broadly and its historical conflicts with al-Qaeda and other groups in Syria.

Some early commentary by jihadist groups who were against Isil on the ground in Syria suggests they are dancing on his grave and mocking his group. But cooler heads might prevail at a strategic level and try to use this as an opportunity to forge a rapprochement between the two groups in some way.

Lots of death and bad blood between Isil and al-Qaeda stands between this potential outcome, but the death of a significant leader like this does potentially change the dynamic in such a way that might create an opportunity for a renewed alliance or agreement between the two groups.

Whatever the case, Baghdadi’s death is undoubtedly a victory for the West. It may be cliché to say that it does not mean the end of Isil, but it is certainly a successful strike and further evidence of the importance of maintaining a strong war of attrition against such groups.

For much the same reasons as last time, been a bit delinquent in posting. Going to try to catch up a bit now, starting with a piece for my host institution RUSI looking at the China-Russia relationship. There is a possibility that some may see a whiff of contradiction in here, given the volume of writing I have done about how the China-Russia relationship is changing, but at the same time the point here is to say that it increasingly feels like in some places we are letting this get a bit too far. All of which reflects a weakened understanding of the topic. More on this as you can imagine to come, and as ever, comments, corrections and contradictions welcome.

The Over-Hyphenation of ‘China-Russia’

Raffaello Pantucci
Commentary, 3 October 2019
China, International Security Studies, Russia, Global Security Issues, Land Forces, Military Personnel, Technology

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A growing Western habit of linking China and Russia as joint adversaries in various contexts is missing the actual strengths of the relationship, and their varied interests in third locations.

Geopolitics have returned with a vengeance. Public discourse is increasingly conducted in adversarial terms, with ‘our side’ versus ‘their side’ dominating the strategic narrative. And while the ‘enemy of the day’ from a UK perspective is Iran, there is a growing discussion about China and Russia as though they are one and the same, a new ‘axis of evil’ working to stymie ‘our’ ability to operate in the world.

Reading between the lines of the narratives of most international confrontations, ‘they’ – for the most part the Russians and Chinese – inevitably appear to be supporting almost all of those who the UK (or ‘West’ more broadly) is against in the world: blocking votes at the UN; working together on military exercises; building up bases in the Arctic; and supporting Venezuela, Iran or the Syrian regime. This new entente appears to be behind many adversaries.

Yet there is a real danger of creating a Frankenstein’s monster in this interpretation of the Sino–Russian vector. There is no denying that the two have moved closer together in recent years – just watch the optics from Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Moscow where he was feted as a great potential saviour of the Russian economy, or the latest security exercises involving Russian and Chinese forces, Tsentr 2019 – but the truth is that there are tensions between the two countries bubbling below the surface.

Start with Central Asia where there is a perennial tussle between the two over who is the dominant force. Russia has watched as China has become a major holder of regional debt, as its companies have moved in en masse to dominate local economies, and it is increasingly clear how China is moving into Russia’s traditional role of security provision. Chinese border guards are showing up along Tajikistan’s border with Afghanistan, doing training exercises and furnishing equipment. Security ministries across the region have growing numbers of officials who speak Mandarin or have experience in China. Russia’s power no longer looks as strong as it once was. It takes little effort to find voices in Moscow who worry about this erosion of Russia’s sphere of influence.

Or look at the growing Chinese technological penetration into Russia. Like much of the world, Russia is in the midst of a debate to determine who is going to build its 5G networks. But unlike the US, the UK or the rest of Europe, there is little evidence that Russians are going to resist China’s entry into this sector. Moscow’s spooks may worry about what this means for their dependencies on China but, as they will candidly say, what alternatives do they have? They point to who is sanctioning them at the moment. China may be scary, but the West is actually punishing Russia.

And, to look at a loftier normative level: China is fundamentally a status quo power, while Russia is the ultimate disruptor. Beijing quite liked the world structure as it was before US President Donald Trump took his sledgehammer to everything; the old world order fostered China’s stratospheric economic growth. It was a good path to which Beijing would like to return. By contrast, Russia has made itself increasingly relevant around the world through disruption, by creating chaos or by helping spur it along, as a prelude to Moscow inserting itself as an important player to help bring resolution.

These are fundamentally contradictory positions: Beijing likes the status quo, while Moscow derives relevance in chaos. And there are moments where these two perspectives have clashed. Beijing disapproved of Moscow’s redrawing of Ukraine’s borders (and Georgia’s beforehand). China has its own provinces with ethnic minorities seeking independence and recognition. It certainly does not like the precedents that Moscow set in recognising the South Ossetians and Abkhazians in Georgia or the breakaway parts of Ukraine. What if people were to start doing this to Tibet or Xinjiang?

Yet notwithstanding these tensions, the West is increasingly looking for a China–Russia axis around the world. The US has articulated this axis most clearly in the Pentagon’s National Defence Strategy, and similar concerns are echoed in Brussels and London. More glib commentary tries to separate them out – Russia is described as being a storm, while China is climate change. The argument here is that both are problematic, only that the former is an irritant, while the other is seismic. Yet increasingly such perspectives consider the two countries as parts of a linked problem.

Russia and China are not blind to this narrative and the broader global confrontations. For them it can be useful to show a strong alliance in the face of the growing Western bloc. At most major international conferences, senior figures stand up and champion their close relationship. They are undertaking ever more ambitious and important military exercises together. Beijing’s strategic bombers have participated in Russia alongside 1,600 troops as part of the massive Tsentr 2019 military exercise, the third or fourth such drill this year they have done together. They are talking about an ‘Ice Silk Road’ over the Arctic and have obviously developed a modus vivendi of sorts over what is going on in Central Asia. Li Keqiang’s latest visit has highlighted more investments into Russia (and Russian sales to China), at a time when Beijing’s economy continues to suffer under US trade tariff impositions.

Beijing and Moscow also share a worry about the ongoing pattern of popular uprising endangering regimes around the world. For Beijing this is most visible in Hong Kong, while Moscow has watched protestors rumbling on its streets for some time. For both of them, the fear is that this is part of the bigger wave of ‘colour revolutions’ that swept through Georgia, Ukraine and Kyrgyzstan in the 2000s, and more recently through the Middle East in the Arab uprising. Seeing these as Western-orchestrated plots to bring down governments the West found inconvenient, Moscow and Beijing worry that they might be next on the list.

There is no doubt that China and Russia increasingly see their futures as linked and are binding themselves closer together. But the West’s current habit of only seeing them this way is exacerbating this tendency and creating a unified adversary.

Adopting such an approach also means the UK is blind to the potential opportunities that exist on the ground in some contested areas of the world. Simply seeing a China–Russia axis means that observers miss their different equities in different places, and the fact that the local dynamics in each context and region vary. The UK must be careful not to will itself into a confrontation against an adversary that does not always exist.

BANNER IMAGE: Ceremony for exchanging the documents signed during the President of the People’s Republic of China Xi Jinping’s working visit to the Russian Federation, 2018. Courtesy of President of Russia/Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

And finally in this catch-up blast, a longer op-ed for the South China Morning Post looking at some of the recent machinations between China and Iran. Had a few comments back that this was an obvious point to make, but it feels like it needs to be all considered against the broader backdrop of China’s growing influence and power in its own backyard. More on this topic to come.

All of these posts aside, spoke to the Sunday Times about Chinese investment and influence in Ireland, spoke to CNBC about China-Russia (which was translated into Hungarian), The National about the far right in Germany, to Samaa TV about ISIS in Khorasan, to The National again about bounties being put on ISIS leaders heads, an old interview was used again in this fantastic Portuguese piece in Sabato by Nuno Tiago Pinto about important Portuguese foreign fighter Nero Saraiva who lived for a while in the UK, an earlier comment to the Telegraph about Hamza bin Laden’s death was picked up again, and another earlier piece in the Sunday Times was picked up by VoA.

Why Iran has got China wrong: Beijing will follow its own playbook in countering the US-led West

  • While regional players like Iran seek to bring China into the conversation as an ally, Beijing continues to rely on the rhetoric of non-interference
  • China is focused single-mindedly on its own interests and set to get stronger as a result

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The first-ever Chinese goods train to Iran arrives in Tehran on February 15, 2016, after a 14-day journey hailed as a revival of the Silk Raod under China’s Belt and Road Initiative. China is emerging as the central power in its immediate and expanding neighbourhood, while the West tears at itself and old alliances. Photo: EPA

Buried among last week’s news of confrontation with Iran was a story that China was on the cusp of investing US$400 billion into the country’s hydrocarbon industry. This was followed late in the week by the news that Iran was going to be joining China and Russia in new naval exercises, an announcement that came a week after the Iranian Armed Forces Chief of Staff, Major General Mohammad Baqeri, visited a naval base in Shanghai.

The clear suggestion was that Iran was showing it had a strong ally in Beijing. The axis of convenience against the West was bringing Tehran firmly into its bosom.

Yet, in the face of all of this noise from Iran, Beijing was largely silent. A foreign ministry spokesman denied any knowledge when confronted with a question about the investment during a regular press briefing. The Chinese commentariat seemed mostly focused on downplaying Iran’s role in the strike on the Abqaiq and Khurais facilities in Saudi Arabia, and President Xi Jinping had a phone call with King Salman.

Reported in similar terms by both the Saudi and Chinese state media (the Belt and Road was only mentioned in Xinhua’s read-out and the Saudi statement was far more aggressive), the phone call was a decorative effort highlighting the importance of the bilateral relationship and China’s desire for events not to escalate.

And, while Beijing seemed eager to not engage, Iranian sources appeared to deny the existence of the supersized investment. On Friday, an interview emerged with the head of money and capital markets at the Tehran Chamber of Commerce stating that he had not heard anything about it.

Furthermore, Iran’s oil minister Bijan Namdar Zanganeh denied the rumours, bluntly saying, “I have not heard such a thing.” In fact, the discussion in Tehran at the moment around China is about how long the Bank of Kunlun will be able to continue to be a lifeline of sorts for the country.

Owned mostly by the China National Petroleum Corporation, the bank is a Xinjiang institution that has long served as a conduit for financial relations between China and Iran. As the rest of the world severed its links to Tehran, Kunlun has kept a connection going. The bank has faced some pressure, falling into the US Treasury Department’s sights, leading the bank to try to downplay its relations for fear of damaging repercussions for parent institution CNPC.

The result has been a paring back of financial relations between the bank and Iran, with the maintenance of only a few lines of credit focused specifically on non-sanctioned goods.

Rather, the Iranian announcements have the ring of similarity to previous announcements to have emerged from Moscow, as its relations with the West went downhill.

Back in 2014, as the West’s condemnation of Russia’s redrawing of Ukraine’s borders reached fever pitch, President Vladimir Putin headed to Shanghai where he oversaw the signing alongside President Xi of a US$400 billion energy deal between China and Russia. The deal was one which had been announced and signed a few times before, but it landed in Shanghai at a convenient moment for the Russian leader.

Again, this was not a moment without some irritation for Beijing. While China never condemned Russia’s actions in Ukraine, it was not best pleased, keeping its comments sparse. China is not keen on major disruptions to international affairs, like the attack in Saudi Arabia, especially ones which might have repercussions for Beijing.

The precedent that Russia set in redrawing borders in Ukraine was not one that China wanted widely adopted –
fearing the loss of its own restive regions. And disruptions to international energy supplies result in higher prices, something China could do without.

The question, then, is whether China is hostage to disruptive powers like Iran and Russia, or whether Beijing is, in fact, gaining the upper hand.

To better understand this, it is important to note another event over the weekend that ties the three countries together – the Taliban negotiating team’s visit to Beijing after stops in Moscow and Tehran.

Organised after the dramatic failure of the American-led talks, the whistle-stop regional tour appears to be an effort by the Taliban to understand better where things now stand. With Afghan elections around the corner and the conflict showing little evidence of concluding, all three surrounding powers have begun to worry about how they will manage the long-term instability with which Afghanistan seems cursed.

From China’s perspective, however, this is all reflective of the fact that everyone appears to want to show that Beijing is on their side. In each of these situations, the regional players have all sought to bring China into the conversation and show that Beijing is backing them.

China is judicious in avoiding apportioning blame, and at best uses the opportunity to make digs at the United States. The net result is that China emerges as the central power in its immediate and expanding neighbourhood, while the West tears at itself and old alliances.

For Beijing, there is some danger in assuming this position. First, it reinforces the image of China as the central power in a new axis of convenience against the US-led West. And second, it places China in a position of potential responsibility between some of the world’s most intractable conflicts.

Yet, it is equally possible that Beijing has factored both of these realities in and is actually happy to bolster alliances against the US.

In terms of China’s unavoidable responsibilities, this is something that has been on the cards for some time, and yet Beijing has yet to really demonstrate a requirement to have to step in.

Instead, China continues to call on the rhetoric of non-interference to simply let things play themselves out, focused single-mindedly on its own interests. Rather than taking on the activist West at its own game, China appears to be crafting its own playbook.

And while Tehran may think that it is hustling Beijing into showing its hand in its favour, the reality is that it is China that is most likely to emerge strengthened from this geopolitical dance.

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

A slight diversion from usual work here, this time in the form of an interview for my agent Artellus blog, talking to one of their excellent authors Michael Gillard who is a expert journalist looking at the world of organized crime in the UK. The interview is in honour of his new book Legacy which looks at corruption around the London Olympics, politics, organised crime and police corruption – a very interesting and readable book which I have almost finished. Would recommend!

Power, Corruption & Lies: The World of Michael Gillard

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Michael Gillard is an award-winning investigative journalist with decades of experience uncovering corruption, organised crime, and illegal activity at the heart of London’s establishment and beyond. 

His latest book LEGACY (Bloomsbury, 2019) traces the sinister underbelly of London’s acclaimed 2012 Olympics, where organised crime and corruption were more involved than most people imagined.

Director of International Security Studies at RUSI and Artellus Associate Raffaello Pantucci spoke to Gillard about his work….

R: This is not your first book on organised crime and corruption in London, but tell us a bit about how this particular book came about?

M: It came about when I was in a pub, strangely, in 1999 and a load of detectives were there some of whom I was going to meet and amongst them there were two who looked particularly mournful and I asked one of them what was up and he explained to me that they had just come off this operation, this secret operation in East London targeting an organised crime figure called David Hunt who I had never heard of and that this character had walked away from the operation without any conviction. He had been held on remand in prison for slashing the throat of an associate which had happened at a car show room that the police were bugging, but for reasons that they weren’t aware of, they suspected corruption, he had got off because the witness had withdrawn his evidence. And then we got talking about the level of criminality that Mr Hunt was supposed to be involved and it just intrigued me enormously and from that point on I made it my business to find who he was and what he was about.

This is the first time David Hunt was one of the subjects of your books? Did he come up in earlier ones?

He was covered briefly in my first book Untouchables, which came out in 2004, but that was based on work about police corruption that I had started in 1999.

Were you worried writing about such dark and secretive topics as police and political corruption and organised criminals? 

Not particularly, I am cautious. But if you look at the statistics British journalists by and large don’t face the types of threats that journalists in other countries, largely outside Europe, do face for reporting on this area. There have been two examples, interestingly enough in Northern Ireland and Ireland, of journalists being killed, not as a result of crossfire, but as a result of targeted assassination. One being Veronica Guerin in 1996 and the other being Martin O’Hagan in 2001. Veronica, who wrote about organised crime, and Marty, who wrote about the dirty war in Northern Ireland and the involvement of paramilitaries on either side in organised crime. But in general the idea of journalists being in danger for covering this area doesn’t really compute here, so there is not that kind of reason to be afraid. The bigger fear I feel about journalism in the UK is lawyers and the assault on freedom of expression through the rise of privacy law for the big rich, crooks and politicians.

Gillard’s 2004 book The Untouchables (Bloomsbury) covered corruption in London’s Metropolitan Police

So it was lawyers who scared you the most rather than any of the criminals or corrupt people you were looking at?

Rather than scare me, annoy me.

Could you tell us a bit more about Davey Hunt in particular?

David Hunt’s rise to the top of the gangster tree is typical of his generation – so he’s in his late fifties now – in terms of coming from a very hard, marginalised area in London, East London. And from a large family of brothers and sisters, I think he was the youngest who by the age of twenty-one had established himself as the top dog in his family which is no mean achievement.

I think there’s a misconception about gangster-ism in this country in particular. Very few gangsters are Robin Hood characters. Most of them are both moral conservatives and arch capitalists, and through heavy organised crime they want to legitimise themselves, and he was a classic example of that, and to do well for their family. And I think that at the time I started to look at him, he was on his way to becoming what they say in organised crime parlance, a legitimate businessman.

And he had done this through a number of means, through street cunning, a propensity for violence, psychological intimidation, and he is, you know, a street smart top gangster.

Some sociologists and writers try to look for environmental conditioning rather than the free will of some working class men to be career criminals. I think the very smart criminal Stephen Raymond said it best when he told me in an interview for Untouchables – “I’m a criminal by design not default.”

Raymond went on to tell me that he was “95% legitimate.” I asked about the other 5%, which he said he only did to piss off the police and show them how clever he was. Narcissism was his undoing and he eventually got a hefty sentence for a massive cocaine importation.

So by the time you were looking at Hunt he was a legit businessman rather than criminal anymore?

He was on his way to becoming a legitimate businessman. There had been quite incredible investments in a scrap metal yard on the Thames in Dagenham. He had bought himself a twenty-acre mansion in Essex. He had other business interests in entertainment – the infamous Epping Forest Country Club – and at the same time he was effectively a tax ghost. And when he did file any returns or make any mortgage applications, he lied about the size of his income; on paper he was a freelance scaffolder.

One of the fascinating things about reading the book is that you uncover all sorts of nefarious wrong doing and malfeasance, have you ever seen any prosecutions result from your work?

Unfortunately, I think I can say that I am a classic example of journalism having no effect whatsoever in terms of prosecutions. You can put it into the public domain, but at that point it’s down to the authorities. I think this country has a pretty poor record of prosecuting organised crime, its not because they don’t have the statutory tools, there are other problems with it. And also one of the things in this particular area is that after the events of 9/11 and the events in London of 7th of July, there was a wholesale disposition of policing away from organised crime work into counter-terrorism work. This combined with an anti-corruption campaign that took shape between 1994 and 2000 had a joint effect of stopping detectives having the necessary experience to tackle organised crime as the agenda moved elsewhere to tackling home-grown Jihadis and other issues around counter-terrorism.

Tell us a bit about your sources of information – how do you get people to tell you the ins and outs of these secretive worlds? And how do you assess/evaluate their reliability?

On the first part of that question, I think journalism is about getting out on the street, you can’t do it on the phone, you can’t do it on a computer alone. So I spend a lot of my time in pubs – obviously because I like drinking – but because it is a great leveller of getting police officers, criminals and people on the fringes of crime to talk to you. And they will talk to you in relaxed circumstances. That, however, has changed dramatically since the Leveson Inquiry into media standards and the effective criminalisation of relationships between journalists and police officers outside of a controlled press office environment. Therefore, the type of people I used to speak to for stories are terrified one of losing their pension if caught and two of possibly even going to prison. So it’s a lot more difficult now than it was before – but before, during the 90s and 2000s, because, as I mentioned earlier Scotland Yard was at war with itself over corruption issues, that created a lot of hurting detectives in that organisation. Any journalist worth their salt is able to exploit their pain for public gain, to get information about what’s going on and that’s certainly what I did.

And when it came to evaluating sources and their information?

In terms of evaluating, that’s a very interesting area – we’re currently in a sort of journalist policing space where believing fully in an alleged victim of crime has reaped some horrific results. For example, the recent imprisonment of Carl Beech for making up allegations about a VIP paedophile ring. That was the product of a swing in the pendulum towards police offers believing at the first instance anyone who comes in with an allegation of sex crime. Journalists have also suffered from that problem and I think that what we should do is neither believe or disbelieve but treat fairly and firmly. At the end of the day it is in our interests to establish whether we’re being lied to so that we don’t look like fools. When I’m dealing with criminals, who are notoriously slippery, or people on the edges of crime, I generally don’t believe anything they say until and unless they implicate themselves in the same crime they’re trying to implicate others in. That seems to me to be a good test; that criminals can gas on about any criminal activity that other people have done, but until they implicate themselves in crime to you they’re almost worthless. So I take that as a starting point. It’s interesting; when the police think about recruiting informants, who are largely and most effectively from the criminal world, they look at their motivations and they divide it into three main things: one is revenge, two is money – because police have an informant fund (I don’t and won’t) – three is to get rid of the opposition.

That’s how they gauge their effectiveness. Criminals aren’t going to speak to cops and implicate themselves in crime freely, whereas strangely the relationship between the journalist and the criminal is one where they can discuss their own criminality, sometimes boastfully, because they know that you’re not going to immediately arrest them or use that as leverage to make them become an informant. Basically, the first thing I look to is whether they implicate themselves in their own criminality, and then I look for corroboration, sometimes from police intelligence files and police officers and other criminals about that criminality.

For Queen And Currency (Bloomsbury, 2015) was Gillard’s exposé of Royal Protection Officers serving at Buckingham Palace

At various times the book reads like a film – are there plans to shoot the stories you have written?

The simple answer is that, quite interestingly, there is a mania in television and film land at the moment for true crime stories that can be turned into returnable multiple-episodic dramas. The problem in this country is we do it very badly compared to America, and there are other reasons for that, but the most obvious one for me is that crime is treated a lot more seriously and with respect in the US because they understand its implications for wider society from the lowest level to the highest level of government. In this country, we reduce it to a broken-nosed slap-dash Guy Ritchie-type approach. Within that, journalists trivialise their own patch by inventing stuff that they don’t need to and trying to apply the American mafia model to the UK. I’ve always said that we have a very unique organised crime climate here that lends itself brilliantly to drama. When I devised the idea of doing this book I wrote a synopsis and almost immediately it got optioned by a film and TV company in the UK looking for this multiple-episodic state of the nation drama who could see that something like ‘Legacy’ was effectively ‘The Long Good Friday’ 40 years on and in real life.

Talking of The Long Good Friday, it was written by Barry Keeffe who I had the pleasure of meeting and we discussed the poor state of affairs in how crime and cops and corruption are represented on the UK screen. He said it was because the writers write ‘from the outside in’ whereas Barry, a former crime reporter in East London, wrote ‘from the inside out.’ Broadcasters here commission from the same incestuous pool of writers who believe they can turn their hand to any genre with credibility when they can’t. On the other hand younger writers who’ve grown up with The Wire think they can write that here forgetting it was conceived and written by a former Baltimore crime reporter and a retired Baltimore detective – from the inside out – and that Britain has its own unique crime scene.

Talking of which, I was recently the victim of crime – a smash and grab raid on my copyrighted journalism to make a very clichéd British crime film with some high profile actors. It’s about to get ugly unless they make amends.

Do you prefer writing in book form or long-form journalism for daily outlets?

I think books are more enjoyable when you’ve got something to say, because the ability to combine your investigative skills with a writing space is quite attractive but difficult and I think that the carbonisation of news journalism makes it difficult sometimes to express the richness of the material you’ve already got, whereas books allow you to be a lot more expansive and draw the reader in. And I think that a narrative non-fiction style of telling true crime stories is great, which is why, if you have access to transcripts of covert conversations or surveillance logs they lend themselves greatly towards helping that narrative non-fiction storytelling which is essential in getting people to move across what are often very complex and dark criminal landscapes.

On a lighter note – who is the most interesting character you’ve written about or come across?

I don’t believe in glorifying criminals or cops. This binary narrative that you get in drama and true crime books of cop vs. robber is quite dull; I’m more interested in the professional journeys of flawed people who try to do good but do good for doing bad or vice-versa. Many have a very odd redemptive arc, are never perfect, fatally flawed and when I see that in individuals, if you can then interview them thoroughly to get into the elements of their life, how they think, you can try and do justice to them as individuals. Of those characters, the two I’ve most enjoyed writing about are Paul Page, a royal protection officer at Buckingham Palace who was the subject of my 2nd book, and Jimmy Holmes who was a criminal associate of David Hunt who then decided after they fell out to become a guerrilla gangster and do a lot of hit and run activity against Hunt to try and get back at him for what he felt was his self-emasculation under Hunt. Those two characters plus a third I would add, a black armed robber from West London called Hector Harvey, who was so smooth and clever he was able to have over his criminal associates, the Flying Squad and the anti-corruption squad in a masterful piece of duplicity.

Those 3 characters probably are the ones I’d say are ready-made films. In fact, I have written a pilot drama with my two colleagues Michael Holden and David Whitehouse about Paul Page, who ran a Ponzi scheme at Buckingham Palace during the great housing bubble, so the story is bookended between the death of Princess Diana in 1997 and the global financial crisis of 2008.

Finally – what’s the next story you’re going to tackle?

I’m interested in how after the Leveson Inquiry into the so-called hacking scandal the media is being put back in its cage and on the back foot while big business and politicians are unfettered in their greed and corruption – I spoke earlier about the criminalisation of sources in the police – while this all happened, print journalists are becoming risk averse and controlled largely by lawyers worried about data protection and privacy issues. Meanwhile in the private sector, corporate intelligence companies are breaking the law willy-nilly and sucking up all your personal data instructed by pukka law firms on behalf of very ugly and dodgy clients here and abroad, be they corporations, oligarchs or captains of industry and I find that a very interesting area to look at for a book – the decline of journalism and the rise of corporate intelligence firms stealing your privacy and the revolving door with state intelligence and policing agencies.

Separately, and again with Michael and David, we are developing a drama around this idea of a newspaper investigations unit in an upmarket right-wing broadsheet operating in a post Leveson world. It’s called Monster.⬛️

Many thanks to Michael Gillard for this deep-dive into his world, and for the honour of being his literary agents. This interview has been edited for clarity.